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NYFF 2011. Béla Tarr's "The Turin Horse"

A highlight of this roundup on Tarr's last film: Robert Koehler's interview with cinematographer Fred Kelemen.

"Béla Tarr is the cinema's greatest crafter of total environments and in The Turin Horse, working in his most restricted physical setting since 1984's Almanac of Fall, he dials up one of his most vividly immersive milieus," begins Andrew Schenker in Slant. "Excluding one of the director's now-famous virtuoso, film-opening tracking shots, the film is entirely confined to the dilapidated rural spread where a farmer lives with his daughter and the horse he depends on for his livelihood, but in Tarr's hands, the unpromising setting teems with textures and, if not exactly vitality, then an almost tangible sense of presence…. In this most Beckettian of films, the characters endlessly enact the same quotidian tasks over the course of six days, unable to leave their property both because of a windstorm that rages the entire time and because of the horse's stubborn Bartleby-like refusal to not only pull the man's wagon, but even to eat or drink…. If the great Irish writer gave us 'I can't go on, I'll go on,' the Hungarian filmmaker can be said to reverse the emphasis: 'I'll go on, I can't go on.'"

The Turin Horse "begins with a black screen and a narrator's voice recalling a famous anecdote about Friedrich Nietzsche's nervous breakdown," notes Tom Hall. "On January 3, 1889, the philosopher witnessed a coachman beating a carriage horse. The beating was violent and drew a crowd and Nietzsche, overcome by the scene, ran to the aid of the horse, throwing his arms around the animal's neck and breaking into wild sobs. It was a tipping point for the philosopher, who never recovered his sanity or the lucidity of his writing. But, as Tarr notes, no one knows what became of the horse. The Turin Horse proposes an answer of sorts, but it is also and perhaps instead a statement on the suffering of others that is at once as profoundly moving as it is formally rigorous."

In Reverse Shot, Jeff Reichert dwells a bit on the opening shot that follows the tale of Nietzsche and the horse: "The camera is traveling, as it is so often in Tarr's films, but instead of its typical creeping, meditative approach toward some revelation, here it moves at a breakneck pace… The horse weaves to the left and to the right, its neck muscles straining, veins bulging, spittle gathering at its lips, and the camera tracks its motions, pivoting back and forth, ensuring the massive animal fills the frame. From the low angle, it looks as though it might run us over; for the shot's duration you can imagine the terror of those apocryphal early French viewers of L'arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat…. Viewed cynically, Tarr's aesthetic is a pile of the baldest of art-film stereotypes; that he's been so elevated is less a function of kool-aid drunk by thirsty cognoscenti (at least one hopes) than a product of the clear commitment he's shown towards exploring his singular conception of cinema and the artistry he and his team have demonstrated along the way. The first shot of The Turn Horse is classic Tarr, unmistakably his from the first frame, but features a full-frontal muscularity and velocity that's new to his cinema, suggesting that, though the more mystical films he's made following his grungy early social realist efforts may seem cut whole from the same cloth, he's continued to evolve."

As a sort of followup to his outstanding review at filmjourney.org, Robert Koehler introduces an interview with cinematographer Fred Kelemen for Cinema Scope: "If this is Tarr's final film — which he currently insists that it is, stressing that he intended it to be his final work while preparing filming — then it appears to be a return to essentials. With Tarr, Kelemen — whose own films as director, including Fallen (2005), Nightfall (1999), and Frost (1997), revel in the moving shot — devised a remarkably intricate chain of moving images, never intending the baroque high points of Werckmeister Harmonies (2000), Satantango (1994), or The Man from London, but fully in line with those films' fascination with the visually dramatic possibilities that the moving camera can produce on screen and then directly to the viewer's consciousness. This phenomenon is heightened by the deliberately slow tempo of most of the shots, producing a rigorously designed result that Kelemen refers to as 'the thinking image.' Moreover, the individual shots always comprise multiple shots — shots within the shot — that actually don't tie the film to the silent era, when only a handful of filmmakers deployed the moving camera, and the ones who did (such as Dziga Vertov and Abel Gance) bear no real connection with Tarr's much more gradualist cinema. Rather, the shots-within-shot style is a look back toward Max Ophüls, whose balletic tracks and dollies declare that cinema can be choreographic. ('Choreography' proves to be one of Kelemen's favorite words.)"

In Georg Szalai's interview for the Hollywood Reporter, Tarr confirms that this will indeed be his last film ("I'm not a guy who is joking") and that he does indeed have other plans for the future (a production office in Hungary, a film school in Croatia). Also: "The last movie, which amazed me, and which I admired, was Aki [Kaurismäki]'s Le Havre. I loved this movie."

More on The Turin Horse from Christopher Bell (Playlist, A-), Glenn Kenny, Farran Nehme, Joshua Rothkopf (Time Out New York) and R Emmet Sweeney (Movie Morlocks). Earlier: Daniel Kasman from the Berlinale, plus that first roundup; Danny's subsequent observations on a "telling, accidental detail"; and David Phelps sets The Turin Horse alongside "three successive shots from another film of lavish absurdity, tracking shots, and gypsies, Erik Charell's Caravan (1934)" for comparison and elaboration.

Update: "Tarr, who has never been as metafilmic, parallels the anti-Creation narrative with a similar trajectory on the cinematic plane," writes Srikanth Srinivasan. "A number of sub-shots are presented with the set and character in full view, arranged against a flat background and shot head-on with the décor in parallel to the image plane, just like a silent movie. Many of the shots are parenthesized by vertical or horizontal bars of film grain that wipe across the screen. Father and daughter, themselves, resemble the monstrously mismatched prospectors of The Gold Rush (1925), eating a non-meal every day and the smaller one always drawing the shorter straw. This is compounded by the fact that the film is set in 1889, just about the time cinema came into being. Moreover, the two interruptions that disturb the routine of the silent family are marked by excessive talk and cacophony. The film begins with pure movement of cinema and ends in absolute stasis of photography. (It is telling, in this respect, that the only completely still shot of the film is the last one.) It is as though cinema, like the film’s world, has regressed into non-existence, from broad daylight to total darkness."

Updates, 10/11: "It should — it must — be noted that the opening shot following the credits of The Turin Horse is not the now-famous tracking shot, it's a simple black screen: for out of darkness was this world born, and into darkness will it return." Phil Coldiron for Fandor.

Eugene Hernandez has notes from the press conference.

Update, 10/12:


Updates, 10/15: "The average shot length is around five minutes," notes Ben Sachs at Cine-File. "Tarr studies the minimal action and decor with exceeding fascination. The black-and-white cinematography is by Fred Kelemen, though the key player seems to be the Steadicam man, Tilman Büttner, the Herculean operator behind Run Lola Run and Aleksander Sokurov's single-take feature, Russian Ark. Büttner makes the camera skulk ghostily through the scene or else holds it in place before some elemental detail, such as the wrinkles of an old bed sheet hanging to dry. Some viewers will be hypnotized by the aesthetic; for them, it might feel as though Tarr has stopped time itself. (People who hate the movie will probably feel this way too.)"

"Each of the film's 30 meticulously planned shots seeks to unearth any possible comfort or profoundness hidden within life's daily toils, but with every extraordinarily executed take, Tarr seems more convinced of the hopelessness of his search," writes Jonathan Pacheco at the House Next Door. "Watching The Turin Horse, you sense the director imploring you to examine the evidence yourself, defying you to come to a different conclusion."

"Tarr's final film may not be his finest work," writes the L's Mark Asch, "but it's fitting, as was his final answer at Sunday afternoon's Q&A: 'You do everyday the same [sic], but every day is different. Then you just disappear. There is no apocalypse… this is all I wanted to say with this film. The work is done, so there is no reason to repeat.'"

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Wow, thanks a million for the plug, David (and the roundup, of course).
Here’s a photo I snapped from the front row of the pre-screening Q&A from NYFF on Saturday. Paradoxically, the room was lined with posters for classic Hollywood films (like An American in Paris). Couldn’t have been more diametrically opposed to The Turin Horse, or Tarr in general. Link to Image

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