When Gus Met Béla

As much as we love our Netflix accounts here at Cinephile City, there’s a certain experience you can have only when you see a film live and in person. Theatrical Experiences is an occasional series in which we tell our best/worst/creepiest/funniest stories of going to the movies.

bela and gus
Tarr portrait courtesy Tumblr user A-Bittersweet-Life; Van Sant portrait courtesy Gorup de Besanez via Wikimedia Commons

I wish I could say that Gus Van Sant will be writing for Cinephile City; in lieu of this, I want to look at an essay Van Sant wrote, “The Camera is a Machine,” from a book the Museum of Modern Art distributed during their Bela Tarr retrospective in 2001. Van Sant was in the theater at the screening of Tarr’s 1994 film Sátántangó that I attended during that retrospective (though he didn’t stay until the end, most of the audience did).

Given that my opinion of his work at the time ranged from “good” (Drugstore Cowboy) to “one of the worst films in the English language” (Even Cowgirls Get The Blues), upon seeing Van Sant at that screening, I smugly thought, “Ah, he’s here to see a real film artist.” Then I read his essay, covering Tarr’s influence on his own work (reproduced here in full by the Walker Art Center’s blog), and sheepishly realized that he was well ahead of me–in both appreciating and taking insight from Tarr’s innovative works. Van Sant writes,

Béla’s works are organic and contemplative in their intentions rather than shortened and contemporary.  They find themselves contemplating life in a way that is almost impossible watching an ordinary modern film. They get so much closer to the real rhythms of life that it is like seeing the birth of a new cinema. He is one of the few genuinely visionary filmmakers.

Van Sant also explains that Tarr’s films didn’t simply offer fresh ideas for filmmaking, but also helped redefine the very language and tools we use to tell stories on-screen:

[A]fter review [of] the last three works Damnation, Sátántangó and Werckmeister Harmonies, I find myself attempting to rethink film grammar and the effect industry has had on it.  This is the way I see it. Cinema started as simple single-shot full-length proscenium compositions resembling theater, the only thing that it could find to reference to commercialize itself.  By the next twenty years there was a new vocabulary. The closeup, montage, and parallel storytelling fragmented the continuity of the previous proscenium-encased static-frame full-figure images. Separate fragments were now placed together to form meaning, the director could play with time and cinematic space. It was exciting. Was this an absolute inevitable direction or just one road cinema chose to take?

Still from “Gerry,” 2002, Epsilon Motion Pictures

Whether this was a new path for cinema or one of many, Van Sant notes that its “cinematic innovations complimented industry and created an Industrial Vocabulary”–an industry-wide narrative shorthand that changed the nature of making modern cinema into “an invention that could think for you, you didn’t have to do it anymore, like in the theater,” and a climate in which the vocabulary “of a 2001 television show like Ally McBeal is virtually the same as Birth of a Nation’s.” And suddenly, with much of the work taken out of filmmaking but plenty of money still pouring in, “the Cinema of Industry [had] progressed into mega-industry and mega-cinema.”

Given the fact that Van Sant started in advertising — he worked for a New York ad agency for two years, saving up the $20,000 that he needed to finance his debut film Mala Noche — it’s not surprising that he would be so aware of the economic nature of film. He sees film as an industry, film as control, the greatest respect afforded to a film about a man who loses his soul in various markets. Many of Van Sant’s films deal with concepts of dependence and control as well; for the protagonists of Elephant, mass murder becomes the invention that could think for them. And meanwhile, as Van Sant points out:     

Béla’s stuff seems to be a successful and authentic departure, a wholly other cinema beginning over again. A cinema that needed to come from outside our Western Culture, a lost Rosebud, one of the many directions cinema might have taken before we sold ourselves down the river […]

Still from “Satantango,” 1994, Mozgókép Innovációs Társulás és Alapítvány

Somehow Béla has gotten himself back there psychically and learned things all over again as if modern cinema had never happened. An angry crowd marches down a street to burn down the hospital in Werckmeister Hamonies, a shot that last about five minutes. When asked after a screening why the shot of the crowd lasted for so long, Béla answered, “because it was a long way.” [… The] answer, although funny, is also an honest one […] Not shorthanded, not as clipped as in Industrial Vocabulary, but played out lyrically and poetically.

Overall, the essay is of particular interest for Van Sant fans because it explains the dramatic shift in the director’s aesthetic before it happened. His next three films would be Gerry, Elephant and Last Days, all of which radically departed from the studio work he had indulged in starting with Good Will Hunting. He’s one of the few directors who has changed directions so dramatically in mid-career, and this essay explains why: Béla Tarr completely changed his mind about cinema.                     

John Hanlon is a writer for Cinephile City.

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