Book Review: Damnation by Janice Lee

As I have mentioned in the past, the only time I will stray from writing directly about film on this site is only in such a way that it still ties back to film. Therefore, when I was informed about Janice Lee’s book Damnation, I had to jump at the chance. Damnation is a book telling a fragmented narrative through prose poetry influenced by the works of filmmaker Bela Tarr. Tarr being the renowned Hungarian filmmaker (He also recently won BAM Awards for Best Director and the Lifetime Achievement Award).

Usually, I approach Prefaces/Forewords and Afterwords/Appendices as optional, however, they come most highly recommended in this book. They are quite informative with regards to the process and have great insights into the work, and Tarr as well.

That’s not to say that the narrative cannot stand alone. In fact, if you are familiar with Tarr this is a tale you’ll definitely enjoy a great deal. However, something that is referenced in the afterword, written by collaborator Jared Woodland, is of note: he refers to this work being one in “the genre of Bela Tarr.” That is a most astute encapsulation, not only of the book but of Tarr’s work; for the true greats seem to work in an arena all their own.

As I read it, I found that although the book is called Damnation it culls influence from many of his works to form this story, and sure enough in the back it lists the references as four films (Damnation, Satantango, The Werckmeister Harmonies and The Turin Horse). It also struck me that since this is a pastiche, my long-burning question about what the best introduction to Tarr would be has found an answer, and it is Damnation by Janice Lee.

However this book is not inundated in its influence. For in any work that’s considered an homage there has to be some personality or spin from the author herself to make it work, and this book absolutely has a personal touch. It paints with Tarr to tell the author’s tale.

Any cinephile, whether familiar with his work or not, should enjoy the book as well for the poetical styling of the prose; the images wrought play out like a film. Scenes begin and are cut, and one can see the cuts within scenes. It’s a living embodiment of Eisenstein’s theory of poetry as a verbal montage.

The tale-such-as-it-is is interesting. It’s phrased as such because the narrative doesn’t follow a conventional form. There are incremental repetitions of locales and characters, who all have designated labels rather than names. However, it’s also because Tarr created stories-such-as-they-are. The works referenced especially are multi-character tableaux wherein the personages ruminate on the various existential and metaphysical questions at play.

The book offers neither setting nor location to lend it a timeless quality, as it follows the universal theme of decay. Yet, even with this tonal portrait of the commonality of disintegration, it’s still a page-turner, and not just for the cinematic elements within for there are many equivalencies in the writing technique that make it a cinematic as well as a literary document.

One way in which the flow is manipulated is that towards the end the vignettes become smaller and intensify. This portrait of a dying town on the verge of apocalypse, painted in labels, inviting involvement/creation, is quotable and filled with descriptives of sound again making it audiovisual, but passages about stench and texture bring you into a literary realm anew. Its staying in the present tense and insisting that you proceed, without stopping; also makes it cinematic.

Tarr may have just recently retired, but aside from the work he is doing to teach young filmmakers at his school, his legacy can be felt here, and in the countless other artists he will continue to inspire. The obsession for Lee and Woodland isn’t over either, for they are currently writing a book on Tarr’s long takes in Satantango. So aside from a work of fiction he inspired there will now be a scholarly, cinematic work on one of his masterpieces.

It’s a joy, and not a wonder, that sketches of frames (re-created storyboards) from Tarr’s films are found in the appendices of the book as well. For the book is not only drawing from said images but expounding on them, creating new ones; a new tapestry. The power of Lee’s work is as undeniable as the films that inspired her and are truly a gift to us all. Do yourself a favor and seek this book out, you’ll be glad you did.

For more information on Janice Lee you can visit her website. Damnation is available for (pre-)order at Amazon here.

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