Day 9 – Journey on the Plain (Tarr)

It was new to me that Béla Tarr directed a short film called Journey on the Plain in 1995, a year after the release of his seven-hour epic (and masterpiece) Sátántángo. I was only familiar with the usual canon of his films, and I’ve never come across this short in any writings I have.

Anyway, Journey – I think the film is for me a pretty good demonstration of how habitual film viewing can become, and how much we identify a director by his or her dominant techniques. I’m sure I’m not the only one who thinks of stark black-and-white films if hearing the name Béla Tarr. Little dialogue, a lot of walking, deserted landscapes –  all that together used to create an astounding atmosphere of doom in all of his films (with the exception of Almanac of Fall).

Journey on the Plain (1995), Béla Tarr
Journey on the Plain (1995), Béla Tarr

If you go into Journey like this, you will be utterly disappointed. Initially, I had troubles to identify this as a Tarr film. I would be inclined to say that this was mainly because his short was in colour. This evoked a completely different atmosphere. On the other hand, I have to be fair and say that Hungary is for me black-and-white after having been an avid follower of Béla Tarr (and Miklós Jancsó in parts). I was in Hungary once, so I’m well aware that the country is not monochrome at all. But I associate the depiction of the country in Tarr’s films with monochrome aesthetics. The same goes for Lav Diaz’s films and his use of black-and-white. I find it immensely difficult sometimes to imagine the Philippines in colour.

Journey has, however, more or less the same themes as his other films. First of all (what a surprise!) it’s slow. It’s very close to Sátántángo and indeed, it was shot on pretty much the same locations. At the beginning when the protagonist, who is, by the way, Tarr’s usual composer Mihály Vig, walks away from the camera into the horizon for two minutes or so, you could imagine this scene in black-and-white and were transported to the set of Sátántángo.

Journey on the Plain (1995), Béla Tarr
Journey on the Plain (1995), Béla Tarr

In addition, Journey is rather a non-narrative film, which is an interesting experiment. In general, I would go as far as saying that the film functioned as an experiment for all of his future films. There is a scene in which the camera circles around, focusing on the sky shot through a roofless building. The camera keeps circling around, slowly tilting down until Mihály appears in the frame. A very similar shot had been used in Werckmeister Harmonies (2000).

Maybe I should mention that throughout the film, Mihály is reciting poems by Hungarian poet Sándor Petöfi. It’s deeply sad and kind of fits to the general Tarr-esque feel to his films. I guess most telling for me is the following line: “I don’t have a sweetheart, I don’t have money. I only have grief.” For me, this goes right to the heart of Damnation. It is a film of only thirty minutes, and yet, there is a lot of Béla Tarr in there. Minus the black-and-white aesthetics. But then, you can easily use your imagination and make it black-and-white.

A Gap Between Generations

I went to the PG Study Day at St. Andrews University yesterday and gave a paper, which aimed to reason why slow films cannot evoke justified responses in a movie theatre audience. Instead they should be screened at alternative venues, such as galleries. I have discussed this issue elsewhere on this blog.

In the Q&A session afterwards, a point was raised, which is so simple that it is often overlooked. It is, in fact, another straight-forward reason why the term ‘Slow Cinema’ is incorrect. Ask the generation of people who grew up with films by Tarkovsky, Janscó, and similar directors. They would tell you that the term SC is ridiculous. No one has ever termed these films as slow in the past.

I very much agree to this. There are generations as well as areas in the world where the term SC is a dead end. It is a Western concept and yet another framework we use in order to make sense of what we see. Strangely enough, we forget what the directors say, and no one has ever spoken of Tarkovsky’s slowness at the time. It had never been highlighted as being exceptional. If you search now for writings on Tarkovsky, you can suddenly find it everywhere. We have a new framework called SC, so we can go back and analyse all films through this lens – that is what film scholars do (and they shouldn’t!).

Technically, there are no differences between the late Angelopoulos and today’s slow films. Nor are there, pace-wise, major differences between Béla Tarr and Miklós Janscó. It is not the films that have changed. It is us.

In his fabulous book Art and Time, Philip Rawson argued (correctly, I find) that an artist’s perception of time influences his artwork. We can take this a little further. I argue that one’s perception of time influences one’s reception of an artwork. And here we are again, with the old discussion of digital media increasing the pace of our life. I don’t mention this to blame the new media. Not at all. Rather, I try to illustrate what exactly we need to consider when talking about slow films, and it might not be the films at all that should be in the centre of attraction. Perhaps, we should put a close-up on the viewer and his pace in life, not that of the film.