Rain, Men, and Dogs: An Exercise in Slow Cinema
We don’t get slow movies out of Hollywood. How can we? More importantly, why should we? Hollywood productions, at their best, are supposed to engage the viewer by way of entertainment, invoke a sense of wonder, and most importantly, put people’s butts in seats. ‘Top Gun: Maverick’ is a great film in the context of what it tries to do, which is to make us believe in action stars again, and of course, to make us believe in Tom Cruise. The thing is that ‘Top Gun: Maverick’ belongs to a specific type of movie, and if we were to compare it to something that has completely different goals, it’d be a useless comparison. Hollywood doesn’t produce movies that hypnotize the viewer with long, lingering shots, replacing plot structure with a kind of visual poetry.
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Casual moviegoers might have never seen a truly “slow” movie before, and partly this is because such a type of Cinema was simply not made available to them; to see this type of movie in the wild, you’d have to venture outside of Hollywood. I have a bone to pick with the distribution of international films in the US, but on the bright side, this sort of thing has been getting better with time, as streaming has become a more diverse and accessible market. Movies that were once relegated to small arthouse theaters and college screenings are now commercially accessible to the average moviegoer.
Take Béla Tarr’s 1988 film ‘Damnation’, for instance. Up until pretty recently, if you got to see this film, you’re probably a college student; it’s the kind of movie your professor would put on and make you write a paper about it, which is kind of what I’m doing right now. A 4K restoration, done by the Hungarian National Film Institute, was announced in 2020, and while this new print of the film has been screened since at least last year, it only came to streaming in August 2022.
The Criterion Channel is admittedly kind of a niche service, but it’s perfect for those with even a smidgen of curiosity about Cinema from around the globe — the kind of Cinema which probably wouldn’t be shown at your local Regal or AMC. Viewer beware: This is not a movie you can just sit down and put on while you read your emails or do your taxes; indeed, it’s a movie that will suffer if you watch it on your laptop. If you have a device that lets you stream on your TV, go for it; for one, the single-mindedness of the TV will make it harder for you to get distracted, but also, this is a visually arresting movie that demands the proper screen space. Shot in gorgeous black-and-white by Gábor Medvigy, ‘Damnation’ is a movie that lives and dies on its visuals, not only unlike the finest summer blockbuster, but slowed down to an aching crawl.
‘Damnation’: A Melancholy Collection of Scenes
‘Damnation’ was Tarr’s first “mature” film, being his first collaboration with Hungarian author László Krasznahorkai, a partnership that would eventually spawn the monolithic seven-hour-long ‘Sátántangó’ in 1994. Clocking in at about two hours, ‘Damnation’ has a plot that could be quite feasibly executed in a twenty-minute short film. A lonely middle-aged man, played by Miklós Székely B., lives in a dumpy Hungarian town in the last years of the Soviet Union, and this may be one of the dreariest settings ever depicted in film. The man gets roped into a smuggling job, but more importantly, he can’t get his mind off of a local bar singer (Vali Kerekes) — who, unfortunately for both of them, is married. This movie has all the essential pieces of a film noir-shaped jigsaw puzzle, but to say it’s subversive with these pieces would be underselling it.
Normally, with movie reviews, I would go deeper into the plot (without giving away big spoilers, of course), but ‘Damnation’ has naught but the bare bones of a plot; it has whole scenes which could be cut out until the runtime is chipped down to a mere fraction, and nothing plot-wise would be lost. The real magic of ‘Damnation’ lies in its dialogue and, perhaps more strongly, in Tarr’s idiosyncratic directing style. Most of the film happens in or around the Titanik, a run-down bar in a town where it always seems to rain, and while the locale is objectively horrendous, there’s a disgusting and quiet beauty to these shot compositions. The way Tarr’s camera glides, ever so slowly, through windows and door frames alone would capture the attention of anyone with functioning eyeballs, but if you let yourself be taken in by all of it, sitting in a dark room, you may find yourself entranced.
Despite its dreariness, ‘Damnation’ strikes me more as a fable than a realistic depiction of Hungarian life in the ‘80s. Maybe it’s the fact that aside from our lead, named Karrer, only a couple of other characters are given names — even the female lead apparently remaining unnamed, although there’s a small chance I could be wrong on that front. Karrer occasionally meets up with a noticeably older woman who works near the bar (also unnamed) who pops in and out of his life like a dream, or a chance happening; she honestly might be a figment of his imagination. True to its title, watching ‘Damnation’ is like taking a trip through purgatory — certainly not Hell, but pretty far from Heaven, showing us a world where people are little better than dogs, and without giving away the final scene exactly, Tarr makes a striking comparison between the two, both of them engulfed in rain. Watching it, I was thinking of another European arthouse director, someone who would have been contemporaries with Tarr, had he lived: Andrei Tarkovsky. Arguably the biggest filmmaker to ever come out of Russia, Tarkovsky’s films also tended to be slow, plotless, deeply philosophical, and deeply tortured; the key difference is that Tarkovsky seemed desperately in search of a force that may push mankind beyond its known boundaries, a kind of transcendence perhaps, while Tarr comes off as far more nihilistic. This is not a movie for the faint of heart or the short of attention span is what I’m saying.
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How does this movie look, over thirty years later? Excellent. I’ve been up the opinion for a long time now that, while it may be considered an anachronism by some, B&W cinematography has its place in the art form, and this is proved no stronger than by the fact that of the last five movies to win the Oscar for Best cinematography, two are in B&W (although David Fincher’s ‘Mank’ cheats by being shot in color, then converted in post-production). My point is that shooting a film in B&W is an aesthetic choice that has its own virtues, and I can easily imagine why Tarr and Medvigy shot ‘Damnation’ in B&W; it’s one of the dreariest movies I’ve ever seen. Is it depressing? I suppose yes, although nothing particularly terrible happens in the events of the film, and it’s a downer in the sense that the circumstances of these people’s lives condemn them to perpetual dissatisfaction; it feels like the final pains of knowing the Cold War was about to end — and that the ending was not going to be an entirely happy one. Personally, I found the whole experience to be too dour for my taste, but I also have to admit it’s a singular aesthetic achievement that would lead Tarr down the road to becoming one of his country’s most important filmmakers.
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More importantly than ‘Damnation’ itself getting a restoration and a convenient digital release, this is a fate that many other films deserve to have. Sure, it’s nice that Hollywood classics like Martin Scorcese’s ‘Raging Bull’ are getting 4K releases, but Hollywood history takes up only a small fraction of the entirety of film history, most of it still waiting to be rediscovered. When I was a good deal younger, many moons ago, the best bet I had at finding movies from other countries was at my campus library, and that’s not what we’d call optimal; these are movies that generally deserve to be watched with clean prints, in the highest definition possible, and able to be watched just about anywhere we want. The age of streaming has been a turbulent one, but one undeniable positive is that it’s never been easier to get your hands on something as strange and moody as ‘Damnation’, or any of Béla Tarr’s other movies.
‘Damnation’ is currently available to stream on the Criterion Channel.
CAST: Miklós Székely B., Vali Kerekes, György Cserhalmi
CREW: Director: Béla Tarr, Writers: Béla Tarr, László Krasznahorkai, Producer: József Marx, Editor: Ágnes Hranitzky, Cinematographer: Gábor Medvigy
By Brian Collins
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