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Talking of Bela Tarr's Sátántangó

Béla Tarr's Sátántangó (1994) is long - it runs 7 hours and 15 minutes with a couple of short intermissions - but it is no longer than any box set series. It is as long as it needs to be, and takes as much time as it should.

Film-goers in four cities in Britain in September have something wonderful to look forward to. Glasgow, Newcastle, Leeds and London will see screenings of a legendary Hungarian film, of legendary duration, of extraordinary beauty. The A Nos Amours web site carries detail. The film raises for me all sorts of questions about the end of film as a photochemical medium, about the fate of cinema as a consumer experience, and about the future of our beloved cinema.

Béla Tarr's Sátántangó (1994) is long - it runs 7 hours and 15 minutes with a couple of short intermissions - but it is no longer than any box set series. It is as long as it needs to be, and takes as much time as it should.

Sátántangó looks long and hard at a community in decline, a collectivised farm community on the brink of being washed away by merciless rain and history, a community whose manners and mores have worn perilously thin. It is shot on grainy black and white film, as it should be, for photochemical film is a technology on the brink of extinction. The screenings that will take place all over the country will be on film, to make a space for the contemplation of a society's moment, and of technology's moment. No apologies then for sticking to film!

Béla Tarr himself has retired from making films. He has said his perpetual theme has been human loneliness.

For me the most memorable scene in the film (one of many unforgettable scenes!) is when a herd of cows wander in to inhabit the deserted farm yard. A chiming drone on the sound track lends an ethereal quality to what is a scene of nature reclaiming an abandoned place. What has happened to the human race? What of these buildings they put up and once made use of? What of the hopes and dreams of those who dwelt here? For abandoned ruins are always poignant. They suggest finality, vanity, the rule of entropy. I can think of nothing more forlorn in a century or more of cinema.

Film or cinema is a common heritage, or ought to be: something held collectively, like a Soviet era farm, on land owned and worked by a society of equals, producing what we need and want, a topography that becomes, as we work it, the very stuff of our dreaming.

And yet we find ourselves living among the ruins of cinema, dwarfed by half-buried truncated titans, some faceless, their names forgotten, others so buried in the accumulating sands that we cannot say who or what they were. Amid these ruins, we enact repeatedly worn out pageants whose meanings have become obscure. There are gleaners here and there stooped to pick at shards and remnants, but they are lonely figures; the Bacchanal roars around them, drunk on sensation.

We await, as does the community in Sátántangó, the arrival of one who might save us, a prophet to provide us with an authentic and meaningful sense of ourselves, gift us a new pageant that doesn't feel like the same old same old.

All that we have dreamed in cinemas for over a century is here in Sátántangó: this is emphatically not a drama about the failed Communist experiment, it is about the failed experiment that is cinema. We may tidy up an outbuilding or two and so create a scene of domestic order in which to enact an evocative sense of the domestic contentment we long for, but the rain and wind ripping across the plains towards this huddled, crumbling place is inescapable. The distances are too great, the burden of expectation too crushing, the thought of having had forbears that had it so good and were at their ease too much.

This all but ruined farm in Hungary whose crumbling walls and bedraggled rooms we come to know so well serves to remind us of the notion of 'better times', of what was a sophisticated organisation, a society with common purpose, of shared labour, of civility, of hope and life lived outdoors toiling together under the sun.

As the camera moves and frames these buildings, these broken down lives, in dusty monochrome, in a real time that challenges impatience and any demand for instant gratification, generating endless sombre de Chirico scenes that seem to be significant, but which given time we realise cannot be, we realise that entropy rules, and human spite and loneliness always win out. As Béla Tarr has said: "the shit is cosmological."

Not the kitsch ruins of Ancient Greece, as dreamed by Keats ("Thou foster-child of Silence and slow Time"!), these are the ruins of cinema, the ruins that are all we have left after the trans-national bankers and image hoarders conquered and laid waste to all. Are we gleaners at best? - or the precursors of the next big leap?

Adam Roberts / A Nos Amours

June 2014

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