Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Werckmeister Harmonies

(Bela Tarr, Hungary, 2000) Two features in and I still don't know what to make of Tarr. Damnation had moments of startling beauty, but its cinematic gracefulness buckled under the atmosphere of gloom. Here, the gloom isn't quite as thick, although the apocalyptic theme remains. Tarr has developed a lighter touch, but at the same time seems to have lost some of his former precision. The camerawork in Werckmeister Harmonies is often labored and meandering, and the various set pieces seem strung together and ponderous. A lot of the imagery and dialogue is just oblique enough to avoid being obvious, but that only makes it feel like a dodge, and all the more pretentious for that. Are we dealing with a rehashing of the Moby Dick allegory? Is the sinister Prince meant to be emblematic of all charismatic leaders? The central conflicts are familiar - choas vs. order, peace vs. violence, innocence vs. evil. Tarr's worldview seems to be oddly similar to Werner Herzog's - a universe that is predominantly depraved and chaotic, with the hapless humans going about their futile business of finding meaning.

Color me underwhelmed. This film has been popping up on Best of the Decade lists everywhere, and while I suppose I can understand some of the furor (it has several hallmarks of The Important Art Film) I can't bring myself to join in. The visuals didn't sweep over me and I wasn't moved by the fleeting moments of humanity. I don't think Tarr is a poseur - I'm willing to grant some credibility to his seriousness and his commitment to his project. But he's an artist without much to say, or one who's too bottled up and bound by his preoccupations to say anything of lasting relevance.

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