Having now seen three Bela Tarr films - Damnation, Satantango and Werckmeister Harmonies (even saw them in chronological order, now that I think of it) - what do I think? I think I'm looking forward to getting back to Rivette... but that aside - it's an impressive body of work. I'm bloody tired and I did most fo the theoretical heavy lifting last week, so I will keep this fairly sketchy - but some thoughts....
1) Satantango is every bit as good as advertised. Watching it all in a go was undeniably a physical ordeal - but not, in any sense, a mental ordeal. It's rather striking - 8 hours in a chair and my mind did not wander from the screen - the film held my attention, my fascination, for the whole length. Even when things on screen started to drag, I noticed that it just refocused my attention at a different level - at the formal properties of repetition and abstraction and so on. Just as all those blank walls invite the viewer to notice and care about the texture of the surfaces, the slow, repetitive passages invite the viewer to think about the principals of repetition. But even so - most of the time, what was on screen was, in fact, completely engaging. It is a gorgeous film - the Boston Phoenix's review said that every shot could be framed as art - and the style, the long slow grinding tracks and dollies and cranes accumulates dread and sometimes pathos as it goes. It teaches you how to watch it. It is also very funny, in a slow, nasty way - I read someone somewhere calling it the most sarcastic film ever made, though I can't find the quote anywhere - it's great stuff.
2. The other two are very good, but not up to those standards. Damnation is, in fact, a pretty straightforward noir, in the story at least - slowed down with the tension drained off, but still, the story is classic: wife, husband, lover, criminal boss - lover contrives to get hubby out of town, takes advantage, hubby comes back, wife drops both for gangster. The style is there, though it seems Tarr is working it out, and only really gets it fully working in Satantango. Meanwhile, after Satantango, Werckmeister Harmonies, looks like a Spielberg film. Yeah it's long, got hose long takes, sure sure - it's also got real actors, who really act; it's got shots and sequences that bring out the inner self of its characters - hell: it even has music cues! That said, it is also gorgeous, powerful, fascinating - and contains 2-3 sequences of extraordinary power. The riot is justly famous - but the scene with the two brats raising hell might be just as outstanding. Still - it is odd that even this slight move back toward conventional film techniques seems to diminish the film. Gives it an odd sentimentality that seems out of place.
3. A lot of the commentary on these films focuses on their lack of plot - mine included (though I did try to insist on their backgrounding plot - it's not about whether there's a plot of not, it's how its presented.) It is striking, then, how conventional the stories and plots really are. Structurally, especially. The actual telling of the stories is definitely very strange - the moment to moment flow of images and story information - no doubt. But stepping back, to the structure of the plot - there's plenty of story there, and it's told in a fairly straightforward way. Even Satantango - the structure is not uncommon at all: it is split in three: part 1 loops among a number of characters, setting the scene, sketching in the world of the film, suggesting plot elements and so on. It is relatively loose, moving among characters and places and so on without making connections quite. Then - the second part brings characters and the various story threads together, in the pub scenes - itself split in half, with the middle section (the girl) providing the turning point of the film, the event that, indeed, sets the plot proper going. Part three, indeed, is much more linear and closely tied to the storyline - Iremias' scheme; the abandonment of the yard, etc. That's a very common structure - loose, multithreaded opening, a turning point in the middle, and a gathering of the threads at the end - played out here. Slowed down almost past recognition, yes; looping back to retrace the same day several times, rather than cross-cutting (which seesm to be the more common practice), yes; and indeed, telling a story of dissolution (thus scattering everyone in the end), yes. But still.
And Werckmeister Harmonies too follows a reasonably common storyline: apocalypse, experienced by an innocent. Echoes of Herzog are loudest in this film - his Bruno S. films especially (the circus, the whale, the prince, in particular feels like a nod at Herzog - the fact that the word for prince is Herzog (or something very close to it) might be part of that.) Innocence destroyed.
4. Finally - on a similar note - the stories of these films also remain quite readable. Seeing them alongside Rivette emphasizes this point: they stick to an internally consistent world. Rivette's films split their story worlds - into performance and "reality", at the basic level; and often, into multiple notions of reality. What's real and what isn't, the relationship between knowledge of things and the things themselves, is a problem in Rivette. His films are not ontologically stable - they are post-modernist. Tarr is quite modernist. That's a topic more appropriate for the Rivette discussion (which I hope I get to in a couple days) - though it probably has some relation to the whole contemplative cinema discussion. There's a dose of post-modernism there, in films like Tropical Malady, say, with its two halves and two levels of reality (in a sense) - that sort of thing runs back to people like Rivette (and parallels the ontological instability in many of David Lynch's films) - it's absent in Tarr. Which probably doesn't matter that much, but it's interesting - likely to become more important when I do get to talking about Rivette.