Following on St. Pat's we offer a counter, and/or contretemps, set in Hungarian badlands and universal end-of-times – for better or worse. "For better or worse:" join us for Palinka & potatoes tomorrow, Tuesday night, as we screen selections from The Turin Horse (2011, Bela Tarr) – annotated with scenes from Werckmeister Harmonies and A Londoni Ferfi. "The Turin Horse:" a tale of scorched Earth, gypsy/gypsum, or unofficial and endlessly reiterating sequel to The Hangover parts 1, 2 & 3 (or a hangover of the enlightenment...as scripted by S.-J. Perse?)
"Scenting out the purple, the haircloth, scenting out the ivory and the potsherd, scenting out the entire world of things,
And hurrying to their duties upon our greatest verses, verses of athletes and poets,
These were very great winds questing over all the trails of this world,
Over all things perishable, over all things graspable, throughout the entire world of things..." ~ Saint-John Perse, Vents
Come at 830. Screen lights up at 9.
We sat in the near-dark, a single bulb dimly glinting light off the aluminum backboards, ate potatoes and drank palinka (or the closest we could find, a peach brandy from Tivoli), but what is a Turin Horse? A man and his daughter living out the end of days in a dust bowl? A turning horse? A turning point? Billed as Bela Tarr's last film – but is it meant to be also our last film? As in, the end of cinema? In shot after shot Tarr lets the camera shoot until it runs out of film. In the end there is more film left to shoot. The light dies. The light of the sun. No more light equals no more film. But the film continues in the darkness. Earlier on, covering the lens with a wrinkled tablecloth in one scene predicts the end in negative – a white tablecloth can still be captured on film, unlike darkness, but is far less interesting to look at. Tarr is burning the last celluloid he'll ever burn, slowly, one frame at a time. It is Tarr's ninth feature and he had planned for it to be his last. Nine. Circles of hell? The planets? The cosmology of the opening scene of Werkmeister Harmonies boils the universe down to an absurdity – a group of drunken Hungarian men stumbling (dancing?) around a bar, led by a village idiot who, fittingly, speaks German. Or, I am told, is played by a German and is dubbed into Hungarian? Even more fitting. And is this Holst playing in the background or Arvo Part or is it the Iron Horse of Philip Glass? Turin Horse – overwrought, overserious, but comical in its seriousness – begins with a voiceover retelling of the mental breakdown of Nietzsche in Turin – brought on, in the apocryphal account, by N. witnessing the beating of a horse in the street and suffering a psychotic collapse as a result of this vision. We watch it without subtitles. Hearing the hard consonants of Hungarian and guessing of their meaning. The epigraph portends a later scene in which our friend, the rugged horse, maybe the last on earth, refuses to move in the wind. Either because he knows something, or because it's simply too hard to move. The horse has a breakdown. Becomes aware of the futility of a life of servitude, perhaps. Becomes aware that all this time he thought he was alive he was, in fact, dying. Tarr echoes this in his own account of the film: "We just wanted to see how difficult and terrible it is when every day you have to go to the well and bring the water, in summer, in winter... All the time. The daily repetition of the same routine makes it possible to show that something is wrong with their world. It's very simple and pure."
But what is this world? A terror of pre-industrial life, or of the fantasy of returning to the land? The drudgery of the repetitive and quotidian in the face of a world that is dying with or without us? (And these days, it is mostly with and probably because of us.) With Tarr, too: "The key point is that the humanity, all of us, including me, are responsible for destruction of the world. But there is also a force above human at work – the gale blowing throughout the film – that is also destroying the world. So both humanity and a higher force are destroying the world." Clearly this higher force is not the god that is dead. The vision is one wherein nature, once harnessed and passive like the Turin Horse, is now being brought to bear upon its own destruction. The echoes in our own experience of 'human-caused climate change' are clear: if first we sought an alibi or a cover – or wished to pretend we had nothing to do with it – we have found cover in the storms now producing themselves across the Earth in record intensity, seemingly of their own accord. If our hand set the trap in motion, we didn't build the trap to begin with, and frankly could never have understood its complexity – we were rarely interested in understanding complexity when there was money to be made. The neighbor comes in and says the same. The old man becomes the filmmaker. His task: to give his neighbors palinka in exchange for some coin. The gypsies come through on a cart, bound for America. The well dries up, or maybe they take the rest of the water with them. All that's left then is palinka, and the potatoes the man and his daughter can no longer bring themselves to eat.
The work of watching Turin Horse seems to have to do with realizing what is around you as it comes into focus. The characters slowly become aware of their plight, as the well dries up, and eventually the sun burns out. Maybe it is a solar eclipse, like the one recreated by the drunken peasants in the bar room of Werkmeister. The old man and his daughter are of course powerless to do anything about it. The fact that they, unlike Nietzsche, don't go mad (remember, it is the horse here who loses it) is a foreboding warning of the price of sanity. What is wrong with you, humanity, that you guard your sanity even now when anyone with any sense would have lost it? Even the horse has enough sense to do so. To lose one's sanity in the face of the destruction of the world seems more noble than to continue on as if nothing is happening. The beast of burden is wise enough to know better. The dumb brutes turn out to be the farmer and his daughter.