There’s a scene in David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. in which two mysterious figures known as the Castigliani brothers impose upon a casting decision in young, hotshot director Adam Kesher’s newest film. “This is the girl,” they tell him with deadpan finality, pointing to an unknown actress’ photo-resume. The focus of the scene is not, however, on the message being relayed, but on a cup of coffee. One of the brothers, who drinks espresso, is notoriously difficult to please, requiring a production assistant to heavily research the finest espressos in the world and choose a blend that is certain to satisfy the man. Nervously, the waiter brings him the espresso upon his request, goes back to fetch a napkin, takes a step back, and everyone in the room holds their collective breath as the Castigliani brother raises the cup, extends his pinky, sips, tastes, and then – inevitably – squints terribly and proceeds to let the contents drain out of his mouth onto the napkin, letting out only a single word: “Sh*t.”
This scene gushed back into my mind on Friday night as critic Howard Feinstein nervously conversed with Bela Tarr about his work at Minneapolis’ Walker Art Center. Much like the production assistant whose task of pleasing the Castigliani brother’s request for espresso is relatively impossible, Feinstein’s dubious honor of attempting to talk about Tarr’s work and get the acclaimed filmmaker to agree with even a single point he made was destined to fail, through no fault of his own. Just as the scene in Mulholland Dr. is ostensibly about a casting decision which gets turned into a surreal moment as the focus shifts to the tension revolving around pleasing a disagreeable man, the entire evening became less about Tarr’s work than it was filled with a palpable tension which itself became the focus, as Feinstein squirmed, stuttered, and struggled to find any common ground with Tarr, who seemed determined to grandly disagree on every single detail, no matter how petty.
The evening began on the right note, with a screening of Tarr’s magnificent 5-minute short film Prologue, an aptly titled single-shot extraordinaire that I’ve long felt is the perfect introduction to his work, ever since it premiered as part of the omnibus film Visions of Europe a few years back. Both socially engaged and aesthetically distinguished, it effectively summarizes his personal vision of the world: his concern for truth and the reality of the people around him, the human dignity he sees inside everyone, and a precise aesthetic – composed of long tracking shots, hypnotic music, and unadorned black-and-white footage – that uniquely identifies his work.
When Feinstein attempted to point out as much, after this clip or after several others, Tarr would, at best, turn to us and say, “There is just one thing I have to say,” and proceed to tell us something vague about his care for human dignity or the continuity of psychology (his term); at worst, he would flat out shake his head and tell Feinstein he needs to watch the movie again. At times Tarr would single out a word Feinstein had used – that the people he chooses to focus on are “marginalized,” that the father in Family Nest is an “autocrat,” that the hospital raid in Werckmeister Harmonies leads to a moment that is “metaphysical” – and tell us how much he did not like these words, placing them on an imaginary taboo list. Curiously, Tarr himself bandied about the word “ontological” in discussing Werckmeister, and more than once referred to other films of his as being like “film noir;” the kinds of words or allusions that I suspect Tarr would have vehemently rejected had Feinstein suggested them.
At his most obtuse, Tarr tried to argue that the hospital raid in Werckmeister that comes to a halt upon the image of the frail, naked man, a scene in which Feinstein suggested contains an element of the metaphysical, stops not because of anything metaphysical but because there is a physical wall behind the man and so they have to turn back. Feinstein, who politely suggested he should play devil’s advocate to this notion, asked Tarr if the swelling music starts up at this point also because they have run into a wall. Finally, Tarr admitted that yes, they stop because anyone who has any ounce of humanity in them could not go forward and destroy something that is already essentially destroyed, although he also qualified this by adding that this is how he wishes to see the world.
Feinstein, looking humiliated and trying to retain his own dignity in an unenviable position, got to the point where, even while introducing clips from Tarr’s work with the most basic, conservative comments, would quickly glance over at Tarr after each piece of information that could conceivably be disagreed with, finding a temporary reprieve if he could even get an approval on factual information – which most of the time he didn’t. Mentioning that Satantango was seven hours or seven and one half hours, he looked to Tarr who solemnly stated, “It is 7 hours and 15 minutes.” Or while introducing Damnation, which Feinstein claimed was from 1988, Tarr humorlessly corrected him that it was from 1987, a discrepancy which led to the biggest laugh of the night:
Feinstein: “Well it was made in 1987, but wasn’t it relea–”
Tarr: (cutting him off) “No, it is from 1987.”
Feinstein: “So much for using IMDb.com for my information.”
Tarr: (boisterous) “IMDb.com is sh*t!”
Tarr proceeded to tell us about something he had read about The Man from London that was listed by IMDb that was incorrect, which I didn’t quite get, but his remark was one of the few light moments of the evening that managed to puncture through the mounting tension. Later, when Feinstein opened the floor up to the audience, several questions were qualified by audience members with a “I swear I didn’t read this on IMDb, but I’ve heard…,” or a “Anyway, say whatever you’re going to say.” One question, which I was considering asking him myself, was asked virtually the same exact way I had considered putting it: “I’ve heard that you consider the constraints of 35mm reels to be a form of censorship, and I’m curious what your thoughts are on new technologies like high-definition digital video and whether you would ever considering using them.” The answer to that being a decided ‘no,’ that digital video is fine for those who want to use it, but it is not film, and should not be called or considered the same thing. A digital video-maker is not a filmmaker as he does not work on celluloid, which has a very different quality than digital video, according to Tarr. But he was humble enough to qualify his own opinion with a, “But perhaps I am just too old to embrace something new.”
All in all, this evening was more frustrating than enlightening. On the one hand, one might conclude from this that Tarr – who perhaps unconsciously channeled some of the things Tarkovsky had argued in Sculpting in Time (such as the importance of honestly transmitting one’s personal worldview rather than concerning oneself with how an audience will interpret it) – rejects much of the critical establishment’s mode of interpreting his work. But personally, I can’t shake the feeling that he was just being deliberately contradictory, which makes me feel unsure about taking what he did say at face value.