Saturday, September 3, 2011

Telluride 2011, Day 1: The Turin Horse; Pina

Though many (including myself) arrived a day early to the 38th Telluride Film Festival, it didn't really get started until today. The first films were projected, the middle of the town was converted into an enclosed dining area, and the jovial atmosphere of the day before was infused with a shot of festival adrenaline. Today is the only day where breathing room is alloted; Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, it'll be full speed ahead.

It appeared when I was first looking over the details of the festival that programming would begin after the celebrated Opening Night Feed, which would mean further possible scheduling conflicts when it came to planning what I would see. Luckily, this was not the case, and I was able to catch Bela Tarr's "The Turin Horse", one of the films to which I was most looking forward, before events really got under way. I'd never seen one of Tarr's films all the way through, but what I caught from "Satantango" and "Werckmeister Harmonies," plus Tarr's great reputation, plus the fact that Tarr is supposedly never going to make another film, was more than enough to convince me that this was going to be something.

Seeing any black and white picture on the big screen is a captivating experience, but especially when the film is one that takes an emotional toll on the viewer. I remember vividly viewing Michael Haneke's punishing "The White Ribbon" and feeling as though all color had been drained from the world. Yet, however exhausting and affecting that movie was, its overall impact ultimately doesn't hold a flickering lantern to Tarr's suffocatingly evocative work.

Over the course of 146 minutes, Tarr brings us palpably into the world of Ohlsdorfer (Janos Derzsi, a Tarr regular) and his daughter (Erika Bok). They own the titular horse, who, as the subject of abuse at one point, deeply affected Fredrich Nietzsche (enough to spur him to never speak again). We watch as the two struggle with sustenance during an extremely harsh gale. Life for them has no pleasures anymore; it's now just a series of chores, each one shown by Tarr many times. Even eating potatoes and drinking alcohol are things done simply to keep going.

The film, from one of the earliest shots (of which there are apparently 30), establishes a parallel between the humans and their animal counterpart, from their windblown appearances to their fruitless labors. It also pits many different philosophies against each other about the storm at the center of the story, from the literalism preached by the narrator and Ohlsdorfer, to the Christianity evident in the daughter's reading of a bible, to the atheistic, eternal-cycle belief of a third character named Bernhard (Mihaly Kormos). Tarr gives his views the most screen time, and I'm pretty sure I know from outside knowledge that this is the philosophy with which Tarr seems to sympathize most. However, Ohlsdorfer's waving off of this talk makes me think that Tarr might be trying to voice his contempt of theorizing about and trying to find a point in what's happening in his film. Still, I think the film does purvey a stark message (although many will think otherwise), and I feel like this is the movie that I wanted out of Bresson's "Au Hasard Balthazar." Also, unlike "Balthazar," the film displays a very admirable dedication to its tone, and I find that an attribute essential to its success.

Also big is Tarr's use of nuance in sound design. According to the producers, much of the short script was devoted to how the wind in the background would sound. One can see why. It plays on the soundtrack throughout the film, alongside a orchestral snippet that Tarr employs in a way that reminds me of William Basinski's "Disintegration Loops." Since these sounds are such a given, they act as a sort of canvas, giving the noises of the characters and their actions a far more striking impact than usual. We learn a lot about the characters from how they manifest themselves in these moments.

One always knows the cinematography in a Tarr film will be special. The opening shots are quite attractive (especially the first one, where Fred Kelemen's camera pulls back and makes the scene look as if it is animated), but later on Tarr has us empathize with the characters by almost totally de-romanticizing and dulling the photography. This makes the film borderline unendurable (some people left early, some checked out audibly from their seats, and everyone exited as soon as the film ended), and I almost wanted to turn away from the screen as it drew towards its close. However, there is so, so much here. "The Turin Horse" is probably going to be one of the most thoughtful and empathetic movies to be shown in the next couple of years. I felt my patience tested, but it was worth it. If you couldn't deal with "The Tree of Life," though, this one's definitely not for you. A-

I came out of "The Turin Horse" spilling my theories out to all who would listen, assuming (as one of the festival directors said might happen) that the next film I would see would be meaningless in comparison. Not so. I found Wim Wenders' "Pina" as riveting as he said he found Pina Bausch's performances. It uses 3D in lovely ways, fully absorbing you in the startling set pieces that Bausch put together (before she died). It's hard to believe that someone could come up with dances so outlandish yet so resonant and enjoyable.

The film draws from four main performances and sprinkles in asides of individual or duo dances. Some of them are viewed as if you are watching over the heads of an audience; others are set in places where only a camera could take you. The aforementioned artifice of the play-within-movie often creates a few annoying anachronisms: for example, how can actors just change into other actors? This, along with including pointless interviews with dancers talking about what it was like to being around Pina, is the film's biggest mistake. I wish Wenders had elected to just show the dancing and allowed us (through them) to draw our own conclusions about the person behind them. Alas, the film is prevented from the heights it's perfectly capable of reaching, though it's definitely worth seeing for the mind-blowing and satisfying acts on display (don't let them get spoiled for you). B+

I will be seeing more in the next couple days. Stay tuned.

1 comment:

Matt said...

Great review. Glad to know there are people at the festival who open to Tarr films. Not mainstream but all the better.