The NWFF recently screened a trio of Tarr, Damnation, S/*t/*ntang/>= and Werckmeister Harmonies, which seems to be making the art house circuit. In a piece written for the screenings at the Harvard Film Archive Michael Atkinson wrote:
"To label Tarr... as a downer is merely a philistine's impatient way of saying he's an existentialist, a modern-film Dostoyevsky-Beckett with a distinctly Hungarian taste for suicidal depression, morose self-amusement, and bile."
The last portion caught my eye. Is this true, the distinctly Hungarian taste for suicidal depression, morose self-amusement, and bile?
Well, my grandfather Lajos did commit suicide or, to be more precise, died of a morphine overdose which some thought to be intentional. His wasn't the only family death during that period. A few years later, a great number of my relatives expired. For the most part, however, they were snuffed out by the Nazis. Most of them would have preferred the morphine.
My cousin Laci managed to survive the war as a hardcore Communist. While out cheering the occupying Soviet troops, he was swept away to a Siberian gulag. When they discovered he was an electrical engineer who had done pioneering work on the transistor, they made him a proposal; help us and we won't torture you. It was an offer he couldn't resist and remarkably, several years later, they let him go. He settled in Sweden where he lived to a ripe old age and became an avid Reagan supporter.
My grandmother Roszi and my mother, M/*rta, both escaped the war. My grandmother was as witty as Margaret Dumont, but was an excellent baker and could make exquisitely flaky pastries that no one else in the family can seem to replicate. My mother is the funny one (no doubt due to the fact that she learned English from Carl Reiner). She told me this story recently. A couple of Germans were in Budapest, a decade or two after the war, and went to a Cabaret. They remarked to a man nearby that the entertainers in Hungary used to be much funnier, much sharper and more satirical than even the comics in Berlin. What had happened to all those comedians? The man looked at them and replied, "You killed them all."
So, suicidal depression, morose self-amusement, and bile. There might be something to that, but I prefer to think of the other qualities of my relatives.
My cousin Endre, for instance, who raised horses for the Hungarian army. A more dashing man you couldn't meet.
Or my cousin Gabrielle, who was more gorgeous than Pola Negri.
Or the gallantry of my cousin Andre, better known as Robert, who was not only one of the greatest war photographers, but enjoyed an affair with Marlene Dietrich.
But enough about my family. I enjoyed the Tarr films I caught at the NWFF and while watching one of those very extended shots of people walking, in what feels like real time, my mind drifted to a scene from The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies!!? I know. I should be brained with a film can for even daring to think of Ray Dennis Steckler while watching Bela Tarr. Regardless, I dimly recalled a shot of Steckler walking the entire length of Bunker Hill alongside the Angel's Flight funicular. I then recalled a similar scene in Rat Pfink a Boo Boo, where Steckler [or maybe it was Titus Moody] walks to the grocery store to buy a quart of milk; the most notable part of that sequence being the moment where the camera actually waits outside the store for the actual period of time it takes for Steckler [or Moody] to purchase the milk.
The same techniques, but such dissimilar results. What is it that makes one filmmaker a brilliant genius and another a brilliant moron? Perhaps the sum is greater than the parts or, as David Lynch might say, "When you make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich you take some bread and some peanut butter and some jelly. And you put the peanut butter on one side and you put the jelly on the other. And then you put the two pieces of bread together and make the sandwich. Now, the bread and the peanut butter and the jelly are all pretty good, each in their own way, but when you put them together, they're really tasty."