Saturday, August 6, 2011

a horse is a horse.

One week after the end of the festival, THE TURIN HORSE keeps chasing me. Twice today: first in Steve Garden's excellent appraisal for the Lumiere Reader, and now, I have, via a friend, a block-mounted print-out still from the film, of a woman walking to a well to get water.

For those who have no idea what I'm talking about: THE TURIN HORSE is a film by Hungarian director Bela Tarr, known for his use of black and white, long flowing takes, and dour sensibility. It's loosely inspired by the true story of Friedrich Nietzsche, who had a breakdown after seeing a horse beaten on the streets of Turin, and starts by asking a seemingly simple question: what happened to the horse? The horse's fate recedes more and more as the movie continues, however, into the grinding desperation of two characters, waiting on a farm for a windstorm to stop ravaging the land.

I feel that I am spoiling nothing to tell you that the ending, along with the film itself, could not be characterized as "happy". I am also spoiling nothing by telling you that, of the 30-some films I saw at the NZFF, it was by far the most masterful film I saw: one of the most masterful films I've seen in my life.

And yet, when I went to make my top 5 list for the festival, I didn't include it.

(It was a strong contender for the fifth spot, which was taken by THE INNKEEPERS [choices are in alphabetical order on the site], but so, too, was HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN.)

Why? I suppose because the list was less about the objective quality of the films than the overall experience. As a critical writer, I can find no fault in THE TURIN HORSE. Yes, it is grindingly slow - the key plot elements of the film, such as they are, could be covered in a half hour. (Danny Boyle could probably do it in five minutes.) But a film like this is not about the plot: it is about the experience, and the feeling, as communicated by cinematic tools.

And that experience, that feeling, was grueling, enervating, and felt like being dragged down by a lead vest. I use the phrase "transcendental" freely and often, even in relation to camera moves I've seen in other Tarr films (and I've only seen DAMNATION and part of WERCKMEISTER HARMONIES, so I'm no expert here). I use it to describe that sensation where my skin tingles, my heart races, where I feel I'm part of something larger I can only dimly connect to but have, in that moment, gotten closer. It's the feeling I had at the lip of the Grand Canyon for the first time, or on my most satisfying scuba dives. It's a feeling that some would equate to a religious experience, or to knowing God.

I say this to try to explain what I mean by THE TURIN HORSE being resolutely, arduously anti-transcendental. If you feel it at all, you may feel it in the staggering opening shot, a tracking shot of the titular horse travelling to the farm, but even then, the sick knowledge of this horse's recent past weighs down, and the extended nature of the take produces a split effect; an acknowledgement of awe on a technical level, and a gut sense of horror in re: the horse's continued efforts in the face of abuse.

If I were to chart "happiness" in this film, this scene would probably be the peak. Not that I believe Tarr gives a shit about happiness. Not that there's anything wrong with that. There's plenty of other things to talk about, and if you can gel with the slow pulse of the film, you'll find plenty of it. To quote Garden's review:

… what of the film itself? What about the stunning choreography of those hypnotic long takes, the alternating viewpoints, perspectives, implications and perceptions, of painting with light, the breathtaking chiaroscuro, richly detailed, textural, evocative, lovely combinations of grey and black, perfectly suited to the depiction of the protagonist’s lives and Tarr’s starkly philosophic themes, the crucial use of repetition, the incessant score, empathetic but detached, expressing pity and regret but also consequence, coarse violins, violas, cellos and organ, the musical structure of the film (movements, thematic variations, a bridge and a coda), the music of the wind, the punishment of the wind, the heaviness of existence, the sense of impending apocalypse, the paintings of Rembrandt and Van Gogh, particularly the latter’s The Potato Eaters, the near-feral aspects of human nature, the paired down aesthetic, the conviction to eschew mainstream demands for easy to digest, easy to dismiss, comforting, pacifying, diverting, fundamentally dishonest crowd-pleasers, and what about compassion and empathy, the near-confessional admission of shared culpability, the responsibility of creating politically and philosophically vital works of art, the neighbour’s rant about centuries of unabated plunder, the perpetual subjugation of the disenfranchised by the powerful, the gypsies and the well, the rich who never pay, the poor who bear the burden, the anti-bible, the withdrawal of God, of packing up and leaving only to realise that despair is everywhere, of preferring to die at home, the well running dry, the global economic collapse, the failure of the lamp, the failure of systems and technology, peak oil, losing the motivation to eat and to speak and to look each other in the eye, a silent scream of immutable despair, an urgent plea, the dimming of the light, and fading to black? What of the film indeed.

Well, when you put it like that, I feel like a real dick for thinking of putting HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN in its place in a top five list, and actually putting THE INNKEEPERS there.

Except I kind of don't.


Here's the thing. There's critics, and then there's cinephiles. They can overlap, but for me, the crucial distinction is this: the critic has an abiding set of principles for cinema that dictate how they evaluate it, where as the cinephile is unstrung, bound only by love and feeling. A critic, faced with a hole in their logic, should be able to discern, with pinpoint accuracy, what distinguishes a praiseworthy moment in a film they like from a similar moment in a film they don't. It's an analysis that I've seen done, many a time amongst critics that I follow.

(And, I should make it clear, I value the work of said critics. I do not bring this up as a cudgel.)

But it doesn't really work for me. At the end of it, I can analyze cinema, but much of it is trying to justify a gut reaction. I've said many times recently variations of a phrase that boils down to "loving a movie is faith over reason": this is why. And the more I think about it, the more I value those gut reactions as the true signifiers of value to me (which should NOT be confused with value as a piece of cinema). The only true transcendent moment of the festival for me happened during AITA, and that's something I value, so I merit its inclusion. (Would it have been transcendent if I knew it was coming? Maybe not.) But I would be very, very hard pressed to argue critically that AITA is actually a better film than THE TURIN HORSE on any level.

I can only argue that I fell in love with it.

Those feelings of love, at a time when I've made my own film and feel increasingly familiar with the tricks of cinema, are rarer and rarer things, and so I cherish them dearly, out of proportion, even. I love leaving my own head, its logical strictures and analytical meanderings, and I find it harder and harder to do, the more I watch. Not that I would know, but it is like what I understand some drugs to be: it's harder and harder to replicate that first hit, but you keep chasing it, even as it becomes more and more of a shadow.

THE LAST CIRCUS consistently delighted me, surprised me, shocked me, and finally, broke my heart. THE INNKEEPERS let me know I could still be genuinely scared by a movie. TABLOID combined my love of philosophical inquiries about the nature of identity with one of the most riotously funny stories ever told on film. AITA, as mentioned before, provided my only moment of complete transcendence. And SLEEPING BEAUTY hit me hard, very deep inside, with its lacerating portrait of contemporary loneliness.

And then, there's THE TURIN HORSE. I didn't love it. Not like that.

It's only a goddamn masterpiece, that's all.

Why isn't that enough?


Recently, there has been a great deal of debate about films that are critically acclaimed but difficult to like, for which Dan Kois coined the term cultural vegetables. The original piece is worth reading, kind of, I guess, as a sign of the times, even though it makes me nauseous, as it uses two films I genuinely love, SOLARIS and MEEK'S CUTOFF, as starting points for implicitly bashing anybody who likes such films as a poseur of sorts.

As far as the debate goes: I find myself torn in my usual ways. To say "I love what I love" is not particularly far removed from Kois's "my taste stubbornly remains my taste" bon mot, which makes me feel that deep-seated need to question my beliefs that can only be triggered by sharing them with somebody whose ideology you find repellent. And I find myself cringing a bit when I hear people say "well, what you like is what you like, and you don't have to defend it". To me, it's a slippery slope from that to "critics are elitist because they don't like TRANSFORMERS 3/ZOOKEEPER/etc". And that statement causes me great personal pain, because I don't believe having standards is a bad thing, and I do believe there are such things as objectively bad movies. (And some of them are movies I love dearly, like TROLL 2 and DEATH BED: THE BED THAT EATS. Thankfully, unlike ZOOKEEPER fans, it would never occur to me to berate a critic for accurately identifying them as terrible.)

I don't just love bad movies, though: I also love great ones. And while (unlike Kois) I have no professional duty to engage with the most challenging and important works cinema has to offer, I feel the calling to, regardless. And it's not a matter of eating my cultural vegetables (though it took a great deal of self-restraint to avoid calling this entry "Eat Your Potatoes"). There's cinephilic joy, and beauty, and that sense of reward that comes with grappling with something difficult. It's interesting to note how many movie-goers will get excited about this kind of grappling in the form of an INCEPTION or MEMENTO, but very little of that enthusiasm extends to CERTIFIED COPY or THE TURIN HORSE.

But how can I judge said movie-goer? In my own personal information diet, I find myself, increasingly, veering away from the challenging and towards comfort food. I spoke to a friend tonight who's been reading Shakespeare and Schopenhauer; my reading has tended towards George Saunders and Jim Thompson. I listen to less classical, jazz, and avant-garde than I used to, and more straight-up comfort music. I don't know the Rembrandt and Van Gogh references that Garden makes in his article. I barely scan news sites, but have ten different film sites in my RSS reader. I don't feel good about these things, but I no longer have the energy to feel bad about these things, either.

Perhaps if I was engaged more with these things on a day-to-day basis, on a level of cultural sophistication above that I currently partake in, different senses would be more responsive, and other things might seem shallow in comparison to THE TURIN HORSE.

All of which is a long way of saying that I can't really judge anyone who doesn't want to sit through something as resolutely devoid of typical entertainment value as THE TURIN HORSE, just as I hope I am neither judged in a Kois-esque manner as a poseur for liking it at all, nor looked down upon for disrespecting it by not including it in a top five list. But people judge: it's what they do, rightly or wrongly, and I should stop pretending otherwise. And, at the end of the day, I suppose it's what I did in the first place, by making a goddamn list.

But here we are. And we must continue. While we can.

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