Sunday 8 November 2009

Damnation, Bela Tarr

Bela Tarr - Damnation opening shot

Damnation opens with a two-minute shot of mining buckets clanking from pylon to pylon across a grey sky.

As with the empty spaces of Chantal Akerman's eponymous Hotel Monterey this largely unchanging landscape morphs with each passing moment as an inkblot of moods and thoughts spread in your mind - awe, curiosity, entrancement, tedium...

As it is, out of any narrative context, the image is magnificent. *

Having taken our fill the camera recedes into a darkened room and pans across until the buckets pass obscured behind a man's head.

Now the image is flattened. That drudging monotony and that mechanical breath become a symbol of this man's stagnation and emptiness. It no longer breathes. It is now part of his image.

Throughout the film I found myself wanting the often stunning compositions to stand for themselves rather than be hackneyed representations (constant rain, packs of stray dogs) of decay or of entrapment.

I think Tarr's allusions are too on-the-nose. For example, two extended musical sequences are dramatically redundant because they reflect too conveniently on the thoughts and hopes of the protagonists.

Damnation's long slow-gliding shots become a drag because they invite us into contemplation where there is nothing of worth to contemplate. The shots become pretentious and self-conscious because they are incongruous to the story, a story that is shallow second-tier pulp. Grimness and stolid griminess are dropped over the film like a veil. They are not within it. They do not infect it as they should.

I yearned for less plot. Maybe for no plot at all. I yearned for a mood piece, an exploration of a place that would give the images flight and the meticulous choreography heft. Every now and then I got a sense of what could have been - glimpses of a cold, dark world out of time, of being sucked into a deep hole out of which one could barely lift oneself. Alas, this did not last.

Bela Tarr - Damnation

Bela Tarr is an artist apart, but when he is tethered to conventional and humdrum tales, his unconventional style and unique voice can be a pose, an obsession revisited for diminishing returns.

*It reminds me of the opening of the Romanian film Nunta de Piatra (Stone Wedding) in which people quarry like ants on a giant cliff-face to the metallic rhythm of their pickaxes.

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