Film: Bela Tarr: The Man From London (2007)

Some five months after seeing The Man From London, it seems appropriate to finally getting around to writing about it now.  Béla Tarr’s films spin carefully paced stories that let your mind wander while you’re watching; there is little to be missed from reflecting on the beauty, or the tension, or any of the myriad sensations his films encompass.  As in an Angelopoulos film, or a Kiarostami film, you’re free to look away, and feel away.  You’re always welcome back in.  There is a warmth and generosity to this sort of filmmaking, a trust that an audience has come willingly, with a complex lifetime of thoughts and emotions that are worth embracing in the context of another person’s spacious worldview.  Like music, these films can come to occupy a terribly vulnerable place in your soul, along the coastline where your ghosts live, and where your carefully picked personal sentries have no authority.

Sometimes I just resent these filmmakers.  They kill the illusion that these intemperate goddamn emotions serve a purpose, showing instead that, for better or worse, right or wrong, good or bad, all purposes serve them.  Is there any cause we fight against for lack of moral disgust?  Is there anyone we love for lack of feeling goodness and self-worth?  Because they seem to follow things that happen to us, we are used to thinking of emotions with a sort of Old World nonchalance, as though they are leftovers or reactions, not instigators, not critters to be fed.  But it’s feelings bred by lovely and painful years of indifferent experience that fuels our once and future behavior, and memory preserves those feelings, insects in absolutely gorgeous amber.

Leaving so much room in his films for memory, Tarr invites such digressions; Sátántangó (1994), at 7 1/2 hours, would be interminably dull if narrative alone had to sustain brain activity.  But it’s also a film of enormous grace and rhythm, mired in the mood and mud of its time and place, a rural farm town in early ’90s Hungary, and the first shot – nine minutes long, in which a herd of cattle spreads across the muddy yard outside their pen, then makes its collective way down the deserted streets of town, so early in the morning that the town itself is barely awake – sets you free of the expectation that storytelling will carry you.  You must be willing to stroll.  Ideally, you’re already hard-wired to stroll, as a baby to milk.  Whether it’s this pristine observation of pastural beauty, or the cosmic dance, with drunken villagers acting out the rotating roles of the sun, planets, and moons at the whim of the village’s young mailman in Werckmeister Harmonies (2000), Tarr enlists the peaks and troughs of your spirit in perhaps equal measure, demanding nothing less than your willingness to value and engage with them while his film swirls around you, warmly.

As a story, The Man From London offers unusually little from Tarr.  It’s a noir film, surrounding a murder on a pier, the suitcase of money, the impoverished conniving locals, and the inspector investigating the case.  Tarr seems uncharacteristically committed to a plot and characters with specific motivations, and in some ways it’s a regression from his previous two films, a disappointing concession to conventional drama.  But even in the silliest of films noirs, a plot is nothing more than a clothesline for ideas, and this is where Tarr invests the genre with the kind of openness it seems to resist.  Gone is the tension and nervous energy of traditional noir.  Style aside, the genre was always about personal demons.  It’s no different here, but Tarr constructs The Man From London with such aching care and cavernous breathing room as to bely the pessimism inherent in its content.

There are visual rhythms here as ecstatic as anything he’s ever done: the roving-camera exploration of dueling need between the inspector and the dead man’s widow; the conflation of time, space, and mood as the harbormaster makes his way in a single shot from his watchtower, along the wharf, and into his own home; and later, following the harbormaster up the path and around the bend to the shed, and lingering on the shed door handle as he disappears inside to – do what?  Murder?  Make a passive discovery?  Strike a bargain?  To not know, and be invited to guess, and then, when sufficient time has passed for the narrative questions to have been explored, to remain on that door handle – your thoughts turn inward, the illusion of narrative self-sufficiency dissolves, and your emotions rise up again on their own free trajectory, responding to the amalgam of visual beauty, clarity of expression, subtleties of onscreen behavior and attention to minutiae, all expressed with a patience that is itself haunting and rapturous.

And to be aware of all these things while the film continues, as the frames flicker past with the subtlest of changes from one second to the next, from one minute to the next, approaches the ecstasy of the long-distance runner, no longer in control of thought and feeling but rather mercilessly subject to their depth and vigor.  Insecurities bear down.  Ghosts return.  And excrutiating grace, it rises up so far from the cityscape of quotidien emotions that it can set your soul aflight, afire.

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