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.

Bela Tarr Retrospective: Introduction

In my recent Short Film Saturday post I talked of a perfect introduction to Bela Tarr. As I will discuss in these and other pieces that form the retrospective on his works, in light of my bestowing upon him the 2012 Lifetime Achievement Award, such assimilation can prove to be rather difficult. My baptism in his works was one by fire. Therefore, it’s always hard to try and think outside of your frame of reference to try and ease someone else in.

I at first toyed with the notion of going through his works, which are not as numerous as last year’s winner (Spielberg), chronologically. However, if I were to start at the very beginning, and I likely will head there at some point, we would discuss films that pre-date the metamorphosis of his aesthetic.

Bela Tarr is fascinating for myriad reasons, but one of the most apparent is that rarely has a filmography featured so strong a departure in style. Tarr’s early works in the 1970s were in the zeitgeist, which was stark documentarianism. Cinéma vérité was the vogue amidst a wave of talented Hungarian filmmakers. Starting in 1982 he became increasingly more stylized.

Satantango (1994, Facets)

Tarr was my doorway into the world of Hungarian cinema. It’s a culture I do like to explore periodically and have learned more about since being introduced to it through his eyes. What the chronological approach would seemingly negate is the veritable reason he won this award. It’s not that his earlier works aren’t good, there is in the scripting his essence. In fact, a title like Family Nest translated his insistence that all his films are comedy better than any others. However, his early films featured his voice speaking a seemingly foreign tongue. His real cinematic voice was not truly heard, did not differentiate itself, or make itself unique until his style broke off from its initial sensibility.

Some have referred to his hour-and-change rendition of MacBeth for Hungarian television, that was shot in two takes, and Almanac of the Fall as more transitional titles than ones that show the true power of his later style. However, if one watches The Prefab People and then MacBeth back-to-back it’s fairly staggering. You may not even realize it’s the same director. Whereas if you sample the Prologue from Visions of Europe you very soon know Tarr and if you see a famous tracking shot from Satantango, The Turin Horse or Werckmeister Harmonies you know it’s the same person.

So next week when I do return and write about a specific film, I will begin after the break and then if I feel so compelled I will backtrack to the beginning and deal with his earlier works before he revolutionized his own style.

The Turin Horse (2011, Cinema Guild))

While in each post I will focus on the specific film at hand when you have a writer/director who insists on challenging an audience, on letting us “use our eyes,” a man who also is disinterested in stories in the traditional sense, you will have running themes. Throughout his career, especially after he broke the mold, his films were creating thematic dialogues. The culmination of which was his masterful dissertation in The Turin Horse. When you have running themes there will be parallels between films to be drawn. I will try to keep those to a minimum and focus on the title at hand.

While Tarr got me into chasing down Hungarian cinema, I knew pretty quickly he had a unique voice. However, I soon also found out that his voice could have only been developed in the Hungary’s film culture, on the arthouse end of the spectrum, of course.

Like any filmmaker, Tarr’s work as auteurist as it is, is a collaboration. As he worked towards his reportedly last film the pieces started to come into place to solidify his style. The editing of Agnes Hranitzky since The Outsider in 1981; Fred Kelemen as DP for some of his later projects starting with Journey on the Plain; novelist Laszlo Krasznahorkai had writing or co-writing credit on all of Tarr’s features starting with Damnation in 1988; composer Mihaly Vig has been on board since Almanac of the Fall in 1984. Together these people shared a commonality that helped to accentuate Tarr’s vision and bring it to the world such that it could not only be admired, but challenge the way it was intended to.

Werckmeister Harmonies (2000, Facets)

In the end, I got in my first revisit just in time to start this series on time. However, so as not to under-serve the challenge I’ve set for myself I decided on a true introduction piece to be followed by film-specific pieces. Tarr’s cinema is not one that is suited for “hit-me entertainment,” it insists you prod back and in deference to that fact, and out of respect, I will ruminate on Werckmeister Harmonies‘ mesmerizing and brilliant brutality a bit more.

To get a bit more of a glimpse into this creative mind, to see where he’s coming from. Here’s an excerpt from a piece he wrote called Why I Make Films, which he wrote during preproduction of Damnation:

Because I despise stories, as they mislead people into believing that something has happened. In fact, nothing really happens as we flee from one condition to another. Because today there are only states of being – all stories have become obsolete and clichéd, and have resolved themselves. All that remains is time. This is probably the only thing that is still genuine – time itself: the years, days, hours, minutes and seconds. And film time has also ceased to exist, since the film itself has ceased to exist. Luckily there is no authentic form or current fashion. Some kind of massive introversion, a searching of our own souls can help ease the situation.

Or kill us.

We could die of not being able to make films, or we could die from making films.

But there’s no escape.

Because films are our only means of authenticating our lives. Eventually nothing remains of us except our films – strips of celluloid on which our shadows wander in search of truth and humanity until the end of time.
I really don’t know why I make films.

Perhaps to survive, because I’d still like to live, at least just a little longer…

2012 Ingmar Bergman Lifetime Achievement Award

In my 2005 BAM Awards wrap-up, I wrote how I was considering creating a Lifetime Achievement Award and giving it to Ingmar Bergman. The idea was to award him upon completion of his swan song that proved unnecessary when I saw Saraband and it was one of my favorite films of that year and he won Best Director.

It seems this prize has now come full circle as another great director has made what he claims (and right now I believe him) is his last film and it is a great one. This year’s recipient is Bela Tarr.

Tarr is a director I’ve come to know well. However, when I first learned of him and what many consider to be his masterpiece (Satantango) I knew nothing save for the plot of the movie, that it was very long and I had to see it. I went in fairly cold and there was a sort of kinship there. I connected and I got it. That connection extended through much of Hungarian cinema, but it started with Tarr and it started instinctually.

I’ve since come to learn about him, read writings on his work – perhaps what is most fascinating about him is he went from stark cinéma vérité to an aesthetic all his own of long takes, moving cameras, black-and-white minimalist existentialism that is unique in all the world.

I’ve tackled Satantango a number of times, I agree it’s a film that could be viewed annually but I haven’t in a few years and its time to change that. I’ve, of course, seen as many of his films as possible.

It’s one I want to watch all over again. For one thing that is certain is that he proves that auteurism is indeed a live and well. He’s a rare breed, and is also giving back to the cinema fostering artists and striving for aesthetic excellence first and foremost.

The one thing that in my experience I’ve found Tarr has in common with Bergman is this brilliant final bow, his being The Turin Horse.

Tarr’s cinema is one that has evolved and is as exacting as Bergman’s, though not as prolific.

A great filmography is one where many films stand out and apart; Tarr has that:

Hotel Magnezit
Family Nest
The Outsider
Prefab People
Macbeth
Almanac of Fall
Damnation
Satantango
Journey on the Plain
Werckmeister Harmonies
The Man From London
The Turin Horse

I’ve come to know Hungarian cinema in part because of Bela Tarr and admire it. I admire this man, his work and his vision. This admiration grows leaps and bounds when you add the fact that he’s trying to help ensure the future of the artform in his home country, and around the world.

A great filmmaker’s films will last forever, even greater is the man whose trying to ensure cinema itself lasts forever.