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Perspective: Bela Tarr and Laszlo Krasznahorkai's artful pairing

'The Turin Horse' is the fifth and probably final feature for the director and the novelist.

March 04, 2012|By John Penner, Los Angeles Times
  • Erika Bk in the movie "The Turin Horse."
Erika Bk in the movie "The Turin Horse." (Cinema Guild )

"A moving picture," said William Faulkner, "is by its nature a collaboration, and any collaboration is compromise, because that is what the word means — to give and take." True enough for Faulkner, whose moonlight job in Hollywood, though he worked on some Howard Hawks classics, required his craftsmanship but not his genius. And there is truth enough in the observation to apply it more generally to novelists in the movies.

In that tumultuous history, the long and faithful collaboration between director Bela Tarr and novelist Laszlo Krasznahorkai stands apart. Spanning five features over a quarter of a century, two of them indebted to the writer's novels, their alliance is among the most triumphant of enduring novelist-director pairings, alongside Graham Greene and Carol Reed ("The Fallen Idol," "The Third Man," "Our Man in Havana"). And the shared vision pursued in their works — of human longing, struggle and folly in a disintegrating, predatory world, where all paths only circle back unto themselves — has been, above all, uncompromising.

With the fifth feature in this starkly original cycle, "The Turin Horse," which has just opened locally, this union of Hungarian masters appears to be drawing to a close. Tarr, though only 56, has said it will be the last movie he directs because he plans to devote his time to a new film school and other endeavors. Krasznahorkai, meanwhile, now has three of his novels and an assortment of short works published in English, and his reputation on this continent continues to grow. His latest novel available in English (like the others, translated by the poet George Szirtes) is newly arrived from New Directions — his 1985 debut, "Satantango," where it all began for him and Tarr.

Though the director and novelist are credited as co-screenwriters on all their collaborations, they don't write conventional scripts. Rather, Krasznahorkai serves as a kind of literary consultant as the film takes shape. "When we make films from his stories," Tarr once explained to critic Jonathan Romney, "we usually take the novel and we somehow in a terrible manner ruin it, and often what remains is just dialogues and situations." Then, he says, "we have to rediscover everything in reality that has already been discovered when he wrote the novel."

Though Tarr has referred to himself in interviews as "very autocratic" and makes clear that "filmmaking is not a democratic process," collaboration has been a crucial element of his work from the outset. In his earliest features, starting with "Family Nest" in 1977, he relied on a semi-improvisational approach with his actors, in the vein of John Cassavetes and Henry Jaglom. Like those directors, for nearly all his movies he has worked with the same core group of actors and filmmakers, including his wife and editor, Agnes Hranitzky, and the musician-composer Mihaly Vig.

The novelist was a relative latecomer to the ensemble, joining shortly after Tarr read "Satantango" in 1985. Tarr immediately set out to make it his next film, and Krasznahorkai signed on as co-screenwriter. This was already a time of transition for the director. After three early works of social realism that had established his reputation, Tarr appeared to be restlessly searching for a new filmic language. In 1982, he had embarked on a TV adaptation of "Macbeth," filmed in two shots, the second one lasting more than an hour — a sign of things to come. Two years later came "Almanac of Fall," which introduced an expressionistic palette of lighting and color to the kind of claustrophobic apartment setting seen in his earlier work.

With Krasznahorkai's arrival, Tarr broke through. A series of obstacles sidetracked "Satantango," so the pair wrote "Damnation," based on Tarr's nugget of a story about a downtrodden loner helplessly in love with a married cabaret singer. In the film, released in 1987, Tarr leaves the urban settings of his previous work for a crumbling mining town, and he stakes out many of the hallmarks of his pictures since: striking black-and-white images of textured close-ups and bleak but beautiful Hungarian landscapes, and patient, protracted takes with slow camera movements, which can seem excruciating to viewers weaned on the flash-cut pace of TV and popular movies.

The tragicomedy "Satantango," finally realized in 1994, develops the discoveries made in "Damnation" with exquisite elaboration, depicting a hopeless town slowly vacillating with the monotony of a metronome, whose population of petty cheats, liars and drunks finds our sympathy when nefarious opportunists arrive. Spanning more than seven hours, the film is a herculean achievement and one of the decade's masterworks. Here, Tarr explores the extended take to the point of obsession, warping one's sense of linear time, like Morton Feldman's hours-long chamber compositions, while inviting us to not just watch the image, but look.

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