Kovács’ book is not the first book on Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr. Jacques Rancière has equally published a book, though rather slim, about Tarr, titled Le temps d’après (2011). It’s been available in English since last summer, I believe. Rancière’s book felt a bit like a quick shot attempt at writing about Tarr after he had announced his retirement from filmmaking. The good thing about this book was that it came close to catching the atmosphere of his films. At least it felt this way in the French language version. I haven’t had the chance to flick through the English version.
András Bálint Kovács has published on Tarr before, mainly journal articles, which I was actually fond of, when I started my slow obsession. Kovács is a good friend of Tarr’s, and has, according to himself, shared the manuscript with the filmmaker before publication. When I read this, I thought that it must be a good piece of work, given that Tarr himself had a look over it. I was proven wrong.
Kovács’s book encompasses Tarr’s entire oeuvre, from his early social realist films such as Family Nest (1977) and The Prefab People (1982) to his last two films The Man from London (2007) and The Turin Horse (2011). The book starts off well. It begins with a chapter on Tarr himself, which I found to be very interesting in parts. I’ve read extensively on him in the last couple of years, but there were still a few bits and pieces here and there that slipped through or that never came up in the stuff that I had read. Kovács then kind of chronologically moves from Style in the Early Years to style in his later works with a seemingly comprehensive study of characters, camera movement and everything you can think of.
And this is the problem – everything you can think of. Kovács has tried to put literally everything into a 175 page book on the director. His analysis becomes more and more crammed toward the end, which made it extremely difficult to finish the book. He’s analysing eleven (slow!) films in roughly 150 pages, in all their details, of course. It feels as if Kovács didn’t want leave anything left for other people to write about. It feels as if he wrote this book in panic, which completely ruined the impression of Tarr’s films, which are the complete opposite of what I think Kovács has created in his book.
I was always wary of writing about Tarr (and now, Lav Diaz), because I was worried that writing about him would take away the essence of his works. I wasn’t entirely wrong. Kovács’ book is a good example of how not to tackle Tarr’s oeuvre. If you read the book before having seen any of this films, it would probably put you off. This is mainly because of the extensive quantitative analysis Kovács has undertaken. In detail, he describes how often the girl in The Turin Horse takes up sewing, and how often her father takes a drink before seeing the dying horse. In detail, he describes how the shot length has steadily increased within Sátántángo (1994), making it a tedious read full of numbers and information that make Tarr’s films sound more boring than anything else.
The problem is that Kovács has quantified Tarr’s style. He hasn’t managed to bring his films as such on paper. Kovács has put crude numbers and readings on paper that lack insight, which is astonishing giving their friendship. The reader is confronted with diagrams illustrating the “Rate of Moving Camera” or the ASL. Somewhere in this mix of numbers and diagrams, Kovács forgot to make the films look human in a way. There’s very little on the atmosphere in the films and the actual contents. Or even just the photographic beauty of the cinematography. I would have loved to see more insights, less detachment, less scientific analysis. Film is art, and while scientific analysis can be helpful, it is not the best way to conquer an entire oeuvre by one of the most prolific directors in arthouse cinema.
If you tell someone that Lav Diaz’s films are six hours long or more, they laugh at you. Only if you tell them what the films are about, they become curious. If you read Kovács’ book on Béla Tarr, they would be just as uninterested. If I hadn’t been familiar with Tarr’s work, this book would have put me off on page 50 already.
[The Cinema of Béla Tarr – The Circle Closes, by András Bálint Kovács, Columbia University Press, available on Amazon]