Prior to Satantango, I think the longest film I had seen in a theater was, unfortunately, Gone With the Wind. (If only Kurosawa could have come up with fifteen more minutes for Seven Samurai, I could have had a much better alibi.) At almost half the running time, I think it is fair to say that Gone With the Wind is about as far from Satantango as you can get, and would be little help in preparing me for the experience that Bela had planned for me. We modern movie-goers are trained to expect a two hour narrative, give or take 30 minutes for the proper resolution of conflict du jour. Once films push much beyond that two hour threshold, distributors seem to get twitchy, either demanding cuts or, in the most obscene circumstances, releasing one film in two parts. The industry seems convinced that audiences don’t have the tenacity for films over three hours. Fortunately, I don’t think Bela Tarr had the film industry or the film audience in mind when he crafted Satantango, a film that debunks all standards, and I was more than up to the challenge.
For the record, the Walker’s Saturday screening of Satantango was the third chance to see the film theatrically in the Twin Cities. The Oak Street Cinema hosted two screenings of Satantango earlier this year over a weekend that, coincidentally, I had family in town. (My family might have a base understanding of my obsession with movies, but asking them to accept that I would be busy for nine hours watching a movie would be crossing the line.) As the Facets DVD release of Satantango seemed to be on perpetual hold, I was convinced that I would never get to see this film. But it’s funny how things work out. It wasn’t long before I heard that Bela Tarr was coming to the Walker along with all of his feature films, including his new film than premiered at Cannes, The Man From London, and, of course, Satantango.
The biggest adversary to the screening Saturday was the “not-too-many-more-days-like-this” October weather. In my case, the leaf raking and garden cleaning would just have to wait. Nearly a hundred of us traded sunny and 61 degrees for a dark, rainy dance with the Devil, and, as the lights went down at 1:05pm, you could feel the collective energy of anticipation in the air. Nine hours later that collective energy had evolved into something else entirely (those of you there will have to help me out with this one), as we followed Bela Tarr down a path that was both visually mesmerizing and thematically devastating. Told in twelve sections (a tango, as mentioned in the program notes, six steps forward and six back, although I’m not sure where the going ‘forward’ part is) that weave together a communal story through multiple perspectives, each overlaying the other with cumulative significance. The long takes and extended scenes that Satantango is known for seem to break down that barrier that exists in traditional films between audience and character, and two hours into the film, I felt myself start to get restless in the unnerving physical presence of the doctor…and his writing…and breathing…and drinking. I wouldn’t call the result more intimate, but more tactile and sympathetic. The sustained tone of the film is nothing short of brutal, not unlike Kelemen’s “plodding along and plodding and plodding along” into oblivion.
The last three hours of the film were the hardest, both physically and mentally. I had grown tired of the two positions I could stretch my legs without putting them on the shoulders of the person in front of me, and the narrative thread of the film had taken a turn to something more divisive. With the fate of the villagers looming like an oppressive dark cloud, I struggled to assimilate the facts either into a straight narrative or an allegorical satire. As the credits began to role and the lights came up with most of the audience still intact, we all sat in stunned silence. There was no victorious feeling of crossing the finish line, but only what I can describe as a 435 minute heartache. Almost forty-eight hours later my head is still spinning with the overwhelming scope of the film and the irrepressible images.
The experience itself was emotionally overwhelming, to say the least. As I rode my bike home past the Saturday night revelers on Nicolette Avenue, I felt totally empty, almost outside of my skin. At the time, I had no idea how to answer, “How was the movie?” except to just nod, and say, “Yeah. Good.” (Of course the look I got was, ‘Come on, you just saw an eight hour movie and that is all you’re going to say?’) Collecting my thoughts about the film beyond a gut reaction seemed impossible, let alone trying to come up with a rudimentary analysis. Even comprehending the visual elegance and narrative balance that never seem to wavered in those seven hours is beyond me. I find myself revisiting scenes in my head and mapping exactly how they play out, but then getting confused about how the chapters stacked up and in what order. Was it raining the whole time? Or did it stop raining twice? And by the way, what happened to Kelemen after he picked up the doctor? Was he just a diabolical messenger sent to push us over the edge with his intoxicated rambling? And what exactly were the two officers typing up near the end? Was it simply Irimias proclamations? And what was with all the antagonism towards the bar owner? I really don’t know. In the end, Satantango has left me with one of the most amazing film experiences I’ve ever had and, of course, the inordinate compulsion to revisit the film…second screening anyone?