I have been doing a great and fine thing this week. I have been watching Satantango, Bela Tarr’s seven hour film. I do my editing, I read the newspapers like Don Quixotte read his romances, fulmination and prophecies race through my brain and come out of my fingertips, perched on the keyboard, and I know that I am behind, utterly behind on everything in my life, that what I do is plunge into what avails not and what I don’t do is what does avail and must avail and this is my mortal sin, and then the night is here, quicker than I expect it to be, always, and then I go to bed and watch Satantango. Beautifully, the rains have finally come to Austin, so there is a correspondence, a balance, between this most rainy of movies and the chance that I will hear thunder outside, or the sound of water echoing in the ductwork of the HVAC system in this perennially shabby apartment in this perennially shabby apartment complex where I pretend I am alive.
There are many ways into Satantango, but there are surprisingly few articles about it. I’ve looked for criticism. I’ve looked because I am essentially a textual maroon, I need the written. This was the most helpful of the links I found. The cinefeuille writer is especially attentive to the spider web structure of the film, which reproduces, from what I have read, the the intention of the Krasznahorkai novel upon which it is based. Every episode is a thread that passes through a node in that small peasant village lost entirely in the mud.
There is no central node, but certain nodes get thicker as the threads pass over it – especially the drunken dance at the village pub. Erkele – the daughter of an alcoholic mother, the sister of the town’s two prostitutes who work out of the evidently unused mill, and of a thief brother, makes her way to the pub with the blindness of a Faulkner character being led by what Faulkner would call “fate”, that peculiar surrender of thought to its own sheer narrative impulse. We watch, behind her, in one episode, as she looks through the window, and we see her face, in another episode that is set within the pub, watching the drunken dance, framed in the window.
The peasants that night are the peasants in the Inn in Don Quixote, the drunks in L'assommoir, the stragglers living on the banks of the Mississippi, easily gulled, easily prodded into violence, in The Adventures of Huck Finn, the bands that were raised by Thomas Muenzer, the villagers that were slaughtered in the Sixty Years War, the people whose mythology the Grimm brothers thought they were recovering, the people who hung priests and burnt castles in the French Revolution, in the Spanish Civil war, the petitioners in 1905 who turned against the Czar and then hunted down the Jews. Myself, one of Isaac Babel’s intellectuals with autumn in my heart and spectacles on my nose, I can marvel at them, I can try to catch them in the grand gestures and schemas of the Great Tradition, but in the end they will always fail as Universal subjects, as they have a tendency to shred the universal like so much tawdry wrapping paper and go for your throat, or, alternatively, become your best friend in some drunken moment of joint babel.
But this is a film, a mysteriously attractive, often sleep inducing, often entranced film. The word that is often used about Tarr is “slow”. He lets the time of the filmed object pour into the filming – as though some mysterious fourth wall had collapsed. Other film makers, cutting between what they film, present days and years in a minute – Tarr’s minutes, on the other hand, often feel like days and years. If that child, with her dead cat, walks down the muddy track into the village, the camera is ahead of her and stays there, it seems, for the entire trip – time being measured her by the child’s stride. Just as, in another episode, time is measured by the stride of a sick, enormous old man, the village doctor.
All of which reminds me not so much of another filmmaker, but of J.A. Baker. Baker, of whom I was perfectly unaware until I read Jeremy Mynott’s marvelous Birdscapes (which I reviewed this month for the New Yorker – in their Noted section), who used Baker in his book as his case of the extreme bird watcher. Baker was a school teacher, apparently in Essex, who wrote two books, one of which, the Peregrine, has been republished by NYRB. I have only read the excerpts in Mynott, but this book seems to be one of the fiercer books about watching and the watcher’s metamorphosis. One reviewer called the Peregrine one of the few examples of shamanism in English – because Baker is not simply watching a Peregrine in his local patch, sixty miles from London. He is watching with the intent to become like the peregrine. It is a dangerous transaction, this of exchanging what one is for what one is watching, walled about on all sides by warnings: in myth, the punishment of the Gods (from Lot’s wife to Acteon), and in science by similar protocols of objectivity. To allow tranformation to come in by the eye is to open oneself to trauma. And trauma – with its bloody beak, its Gorgon face - has always accepted those invitations.
This is from Baker:
Hawk-hunting sharpens vision. Pouring away behind the moving bird, the land flows out from the eye in deltas of piercing colour. The angled eye strikes through the surface dross as the obliqued axe cuts to the heart of a tree. A vivid sense of place grows like another limb. Direction has colour and meaning. South is a bright, blocked place, opaque and stifling; West is a thickening of the earth into trees, a drawing together, the great beef side of England, the heavenly haunch; North is open, bleak, a way to nothing; East is a quickening in the sky, a beckoning of light, a storming suddenness of sea. Time is measured by a clock of blood. When one is active, close to the hawk, pursuing, the pulse races, time goes faster; when one is still, waiting, the pulse quietens, time is slow. Always as one hunts for the hawk, one has an oppressive sense of time contracting inwards like a tightening spring. One hates the movement of the sun, the steady alteration of the light, the increase of hunger, the maddening metronome of the heart-beat. When one says ‘ten o’clock’ or ‘three o’clock’, this is not the grey and shrunken time of towns; it is the memory of a certain fulmination or declension of light that was unique to that time and that place on that day, a memory as vivid to the hunter as burning magnesium.”
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