Sunday, November 14, 2010

Three Big, Big Movies

This year, I’ve spent over a day of my life (some 29 hours in all) watching just three films – Bela Tarr’s Satantango (450 minutes), Masao Kobayashi’s The Human Condition (579 minutes, in three parts) and Jacques Rivette’s Out One (729 minutes, in eight parts). All three were long-standing ambitions of mine, especially Out One, which I’ve coveted for over twenty years not least because it’s been entirely inaccessible for most of that time (unlike the other two works, it remains unavailable on DVD). They were all terrific experiences, collectively making this one of the most glorious movie-watching years of my life.

The Human Condition

The Human Condition is the most accessible of the three from a narrative standpoint. Released between 1959 and 1962, and set during World War Two, it follows Koji, a promising young executive who takes a job as labour supervisor at a remote mining location, partly as a testing ground for his moderately radical theories of management and partly to gain an exemption from military service. The treatment of the Chinese interns tests both his theories and his humanitarianism, and when he crosses the line in aligning himself with them, he loses his exemption and gets drafted. He turns out to be a committed and skillful soldier, but often challenging authority through his insistence on human rights, for which he pays a price. He survives on the battlefield when almost all around him perish, and briefly exults in the idea that he may have become a monster, and that his ultimate survival is inevitable. The final three hours, when the fight is already lost and he merely fights to keep going, put this belief to an extreme test.

As the title implies, The Human Condition is a film of big ideas and ambitions, and on the face of it, it posits that the “condition” is one where any higher ideals will merely be crushed and betrayed. The film contains some epic confrontations as memorable as anything in cinema, always arising directly from the petty, hopeless interactions between human beings unable to grasp their common purpose. It’s very specifically a story of a certain time and place though; Koji’s misfortune is to be more modern than his surroundings, but his tenacity prefigures Japan’s postwar ascendancy.

Out One

Out One was filmed in and around Paris in 1970, not too far removed from the 1968 student protests, and (one now feels) at a time when intellectual disillusionment didn’t preclude an inherent sense of possibility and self-invention. The film spends much of its time simply observing actors at work, two different groups both rehearsing classical dramas. Intertwined with this, two unconnected grifters of sorts become aware of a mysterious group of thirteen that may exercise some kind of power, or may merely be a form of self-indulgent talking shop.

Of the three films, this is the one I felt the most urgent impulse to immediately watch again (not so easy to do in the circumstances, unfortunately); it’s far more oblique than The Human Condition. But that’s inherent to its purpose I think. The urge to generate meaning, to rearrange life as we find it, is strong in the film, but systemic heaviness is starting to descend: the two art projects have become self-contained, incapable of real communication. The length leaves no doubt about the sincerity of the attempt, but also illuminates the personal weaknesses and complexities that intervene, preventing any easy revelations or transformations. But while most of the characters fall short, Rivette never comes close to mere defeatism or cynicism. He’s still making films today, in his 80’s now, often allowing himself a playfulness that might have seemed gauche to many of the characters in Out One. His most moving character, played by Juliet Berto, constantly lies to and manipulates men, but has a lightness about her that transforms the film; however, she also pays its heaviest price. I’d like to think Rivette might have allowed her a different ending now (especially since Berto herself, a wonderful actress, died of cancer in her early 40’s).


Bela Tarr is known for working in very long takes, often in black and white; his camera moves slowly and the world before it often functions more deliberately than our own – it’s as if his work were traveling toward a gravitational core where the conventional pace of things, both technical and behavioral, demands too high a price, and you’re forced to rediscover yourself through greater deliberation and incrementalism. I admire Tarr’s work, but he’s not one of my very favourites – I don’t always find his approach reveals anything fundamental about cinema nor about the world. At his least interesting, as perhaps in his most recent The Man From London, he can seem merely morose and evasive. But he’s also created many remarkable scenes and structures, and his work has a fierce, uncompromising quality.

Satantango, set around a poor rural community, turns around an initiative to establish a collective farming project; it may be a confidence trick, which however doesn’t preclude some associated possibility for spiritual cleansing. The film leaves an impression of multi-faceted devastation intermingled with the sense of grasping for something transcendent. At its most gripping, it takes us on virtually self-contained narrative trajectories - the most startling, to me, involving a young girl’s prolonged mistreatment of her cat, yielding a virtually Biblical arrival point – and the film is full of remarkable visual creations, set at unprecedented intersections of beauty and ugliness. In the end, it’s unquestionably grand, but in no way merely bombastic.

People are often rather taken aback when I tell them I just watched a movie of such length, but I admit I cheat more than a bit by breaking them into numerous installments, making the experience more analogous to watching a multi-episode TV drama (the aggregate length of which doesn’t seem to perturb anyone). Long films obviously aren’t self-evidently virtuous, but it’s equally as obvious that a vision’s validity shouldn’t be measured by its ability to fit into a two-hour window. The three films here represent drastically different justifications for over spilling that length. The Human Condition simply tells too big a story; Out One needs us to feel the exertion and exhaustion inherent in extracting meaning from confusing times; Satantango might be demanding, as proof of our essential validity in this world, that we just once test ourselves on a more exerting plane. I don’t want to diminish the commitment involved here. One can do a lot, for one’s own benefit and that of others, with the time spent on any of the three, let alone all of them. But more often, I expect we invest it instead into easy repetitions on what we did last week, and will soon be doing again.

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