Friday, March 10, 2006

werckmeister harmonies

a rural hungarian town is paid a visit by a circus that boasts of a whale and a prince. janos holds great promise in this event, even attempting to reunite his aunt (played by hanna schygulla, famous from fassbinder's company) and uncle, who seem to hold some place of prominence among the townspeople, in response to it. the townsfolk, however, feel differently. thus the premise, as i could glean it, of bela tarr's werckmeister harmonies (2000, just out on DVD a coupla weeks ago), easily the most captivating film i've seen since me and you and everyone we know. it's not so much a film as a composition in image, sound and text.

i've seen a few of tarr's earlier films from the 1980s, whose DVD reissues from this past summer boast blurbs by jarmusch and namedrop cassavetes (which alone is enough to pique my interest). the outsider (1981), for example, is an intriguing social realist character study of the bohemian poor. (it features one scene in which a couple fight while the guy is at a DJ-ing job, and listening to them fight over the bad loud eurodisco ranks up there with the traffic scene is godard's weekend as one of the most difficult to endure aurally.) i don't know anything about his films between then and now, except that damnation (1988) and satan's tango (1994) seem to be pretty highly acclaimed.

werckmeister harmonies feels to me like jarmusch meets herzog -- long b&w takes a la stranger than paradise that create a dreamy irrational storyscape a la heart of glass. it strikes me that the whale and the prince ("hercog" in hungarian) here have a symbolic function similar to that of herzog's "ruby glass." it also has the feel of a morality play, and so maybe it's not really jarmusch (since there's nothing immediately funny about werckmeister harmonies) but bergman's the seventh seal that makes the better parallel. certainly the stunning b&w camerawork is reminscent of gunnar fischer's work.

i wish i could say more of what the film's "about" but on some level -- and perhaps after a few guinesses pub drafts plus the occasionally illegible white subtitles (why don't they use yellow?) were contributing factors -- this was very secondary in my enjoyment of the film. read plot summaries from amazon and IMDB if you want, and there are good reviews here and here by fred camper, who's done excellent work on brakhage. (a meta-review page can be found here. and i may read up some more on tarr's films -- american critic jonathan rosenbaum's refers to tarr's work as "despiritualized Tarkovsky." but my advice: rent it, kick back with a bit of your preferred intoxicant and enjoy all 145 minutes!

[NB: andreas werckmeister (1645-1706) coined the term well-tempered in reference to the system of tuning that regularizes 12 half-steps to each octave at the expense of mathematically pure intervals, the system that has dominated western music since at least bach. the uncle character in the film laments this domination but ultimately capitulates to it and the political repression by the film's end -- a curious parallel to say the least.]

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