Slow Retirements

It came as a shock to cinephiles in 2011 when Hungarian director Béla Tarr announced that The Turin Horse would be his last film. I was fortunate to be at the Q&A session the Edinburgh Film Festival conducted with him. He said, he wouldn’t want to repeat himself. He said everything there was to say. It was important to him not to copy himself. Tarr, as we know, has not been a filmmaker who made films just for the sake of the audience. His statements, then, made perfect sense to me at the time. Having seen all of his films, I could tell that there was nothing left saying after The Turin Horse. I remember him saying that he wasn’t a filmmaker anymore. A career that span pretty much three decades came to an end.

When I left the cinema that day, after the screening of his last film, I found this to be a brave choice. I haven’t heard of filmmakers actually “retiring”. They either say they would but never do, because they can’t live without it. Or they make movies until they die on the set. I have always found filmmaking to be a grey area of retirement.

Until I read with sadness a few weeks ago that another slow-film director, Tsai Ming-liang, is retiring from filmmaking. To be fair, he said that he hoped Stray Dogs was his last. Tsai gave some interesting insights into filmmaking outside Hollywood. I’m sure I’m not alone when I say that viewers of those filmmakers who only ever show up here and there at festivals are aware of their struggles. Tsai said that he was “tired”. Moreover, he said that “his films require more manual labor to make than the usual Hollywood production.”

This is obviously not a phenomenon exclusive to slow films. But I find it telling that, if you look up those two filmmakers and their retirement, you find parallels. It is, for example, interesting to read the comments about Tsai’s new film. The general opinion is that there was nothing left to say really. He put it all in; a bit like Tarr. I hope I can see this film sooner rather than later to see whether this is really true.

It is understandable that those directors get tired, despite their ambitions. First of all, it is difficult to receive funding for their projects. They are not deemed to be commercially viable and profitable. Tarr was lucky in a way because he became a famous strong auteur in Europe. He did have struggles. That is beyond doubt. But I guess it was easier for a Béla Tarr to attract funding than, say, for a Lav Diaz (and this is not only because of the length of their films; Diaz makes “shorts” as well). In an interview with JP Carpio in 2010, Diaz said that he lived of very small grants from museums and other small institutions he receives here and there. It’s only enough to live (which he doesn’t mind, really, but it’s telling).

Another important factor is the way those filmmakers work. With that, I do not only mean the small size of film crews. A question of money or of personal preferences, many of them work in very small groups, with little division of labour. That puts a lot of weight on your shoulders as a director. Besides, these directors never make sequels. As Tarr said, he didn’t want to copy himself. Sequels based on earlier success is a bit like a copy&paste job. Not that I want to say that there is no work at all in it. But there is less thinking involved in that you basically follow the rules from your last film and tick all the boxes. This in itself is a pursuit of profit, rather than, what Diaz would call, “aesthetic truth”. In order to find the truth, you need to dig. Dig deep. Do a lot of work. It is (allow me the pun) a slow job, with requires a lot of mental and physical effort. I’m not surprised that Tsai Ming-liang intends to retire. There will be more (slow?) filmmakers to follow, and I guess they will all have pretty much the same reason.

A curious development, I find.

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