You Should Watch the Seven-Hour Hungarian Film 'Sátántangó' Right Now
Bala Tarr's black-and-white opus is looooong, but it's also a masterpiece that unfolds like a series of perfectly composed paintings.
Sátántangó, the 1994 film by Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr, is fucking long. It's 435 minutes long, to be exact—that's over seven hours. And it's not an easy seven hours, like watching seven episodes of Breaking Bad back-to-back. It's black-and-white, subtitled, and consists of extraordinarily long shots where the characters are doing nothing but sitting, or drinking, or staring, or walking—everyone's always walking! The whole film, in fact, is only 150 or so different shots. That averages out to a shot every three minutes.
The synopsis of the plot, as much as one exists, is as follows: A collective farm is on its last legs. Folks are waiting to get paid so they can hit the road, until a charismatic prodigal son returns with a plan.
Doesn't sound too laborious, right? Well, here's the first scene:
You can see why some might not want to blow a full day watching it. (If, on the other hand, you utterly loved what you saw—and that's completely acceptable!—go find yourself a copy immediately.) But for those who aren't immediately sold, let me break down why you should spend next weekend watching this old masterpiece.
It's Fucking Gorgeous
"One of the great pleasures of Béla Tarr's film is the black and white photography," said Hadrian Belove, executive director of LA's best independent theater, Cinefamily, which programmed a marathon screening of the film in 2012. "Thirty-five millimeter with a rich sound design in a dark theater is a really rich experience."
The YouTube clip above is not the best indicator of the film's image quality. And while watching it in a dark theater with kick-ass sound is ideal, it's also rare. "When Sátántangó comes to town, it's a Haley's Comet type of thing," said Belove. The theater was going to "take a bath" by screening it due to costs related to shipping, projection, and not being able to show anything else that day—so they simply went all-out and made it free. "[Playing the film costs more] than you could make by selling out the show," said Belove.
But while home viewing has its detractors ("It's akin to looking at a photograph of the Sistine Chapel as opposed to looking at the Sistine Chapel," said Belove), it's not what it used to be. While you won't get the same communal feeling you would by seeing it in a theater—which is not only important thematically (the story's about community and meant to be experienced by a community), but also logistically (having someone around to smack you awake helps)—flicking on the 54-inch HD set, cranking the surround sound, and lowering the black-out curtains more than gets the job done. Just turn off that phone. This is not one of those multitasking viewing experiences.
The Long Takes Are Great
When you go to a museum and see an expertly-crafted portrait, do you glance for a few seconds and move onto something else? No. You stare, you take it in, you immerse yourself, because it's worth the extra attention. That's every shot in Sátántangó.
"Tarr is a master at very minor fluctuations," said Belove. "Some of the best shots in his career are slowly-gradating shifts within shots. There's a certain suspense of where this is going and how this light is changing, and that requires a certain pleasure in staring at it."
The eight-minute opening shot above? Reading "the action" of the shot is one experience. ("Cows emerge from a farm, walk across the yard, do normal cow things, leave to graze.") But watching that beautiful photography, seeing those cryptic markings on the dilapidated buildings, experiencing those unrelenting gray skies and sloshy mud in a subtly-shifting environment—that's an entirely different experience. This isn't a movie, as much as it is a series of perfectly-composed paintings. Being given the time to experience them as such is vital.
That Said, the Plot's Thick
This isn't one of those overly-long "meditations on life" with wrinkly Sean Penns taking off their glasses and staring pensively into the deep, yawning sea. Sure, there's hifalutin shit happening, but the film's actual plot is pretty hard-boiled. As the write-up to Cinefamily's screening put it, Sátántangó has the "plot of a taut 72-minute noir... told in an ever-unfolding Rashomon mode of Rubik's Cube-like visual and narrative surprises."
"It's not like he's trying to punish the audience," film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum told me. Rosenbaum's an unabashed Tarr fan, his favorites being Damnation, The Turin Horse, and the seven-hour-long epic which he's seen "five or six" times. He also taught at Tarr's film.factory school in Sarajevo. "I actually find it easier to watch than a lot of shorter films."
Get past the aesthetic, and the plot and story structure has more in common with Tarantino than Malick.
It's the Best Novel Adaptation You'll Ever See
Think about the last time a book you loved was adapted into a movie. Did you like it better? No, of course not. And that's because the inherent differences between the two mediums. In order to fully experience every perfectly-honed sentence of a book, a movie would have to be the exact same length it took for the reader to read it. If 50 Shades of Grey took ten hours to read, the adaptation should take the same ten hours to capture the full experience. (And, no, The Godfather's not an exception to this rule. That's a great film made from a book that is pure garbage.)
Sátántangó is an adaptation from a 1985 novel by László Krasznahorkai. "It's not a long novel at all, about 200 pages," said Rosenbaum. "It's a very close adaptation. There's a connection between the long takes and the long sentences in the novel." Here, for instance, is an excerpt from the second chapter.
They know what the neon light with its piercing buzz is doing on that ceiling with its hairline cracks and what the timeless echo of those slamming doors is all about; they know why those heavy boots with their half-moon metaled heels are clattering down those strangely high, tiled corridors, just as they suspect why the lights at the back have not been lit and why everything looks so tired and dim; and they would bow their heads in humble acknowledgment and with a degree of complicit satisfaction before this magnificently constructed system if only it were not the two of them sitting on these benches polished to a dull glow by the rumps of the hundreds upon hundreds who have occupied them before, obliged to keep their eyes on the aluminum handle of door Number Twenty-Four, so that, having gained admittance, they should be able to make use of the two or three minutes ("It's nothing, just...") to dispel "the shadow of suspicion that has fallen..."
How the fuck you gonna film that, wise-ass? Show two dudes in a waiting room reading the Hungarian equivalent of People magazine for about ten seconds and move on? Fade in and out of time a few times with the duo in different poses to show the passage of time? Repurpose the "take a number" gag from the end of Beetlejuice? No! You show two silent dudes in the same damn position for ten straight minutes as they wait, and wait, and wait. You hear the clattering of those "half-moon metaled heels." You see the "benches polished to a dull glow." You live in the same boredom of bureaucratic doldrums as the characters.
This is the experience of Sátántangó. You're composing the novel in your head while the action—ever so slowly—unfolds. Krasznahorkai's whirling sentences, with their heavy doses of commas and semicolons, are all there onscreen. It's not surprising Susan Sontag said she'd be "glad to see [Sátántangó] every year for the rest of [her] life."
It's Something to Brag About
All that's well and good, but how about something legit you can take from a Sátántangó viewing? Like, say: Bragging rights.
"For me, there's a certain amount of mountain climbing to the whole tradition," said Belove. "Just climb it because it's there, you know?" There is something to that feeling of accomplishment after getting through Sátántangó. It's not tough like reading War and Peace, or any book really. You are just sitting down and staring at something for a long time. But it's not the easiest way to spend a day. Coming out of the other end will feel like you achieved something. Which, in turn, can only make you feel, at the very least, a tad superior to folks who haven't. There's value in that.
So, yes, go watch Sátántangó. And afterwards, tweet about getting through it, or buy yourself a T-shirt and wear it proudly. Because getting through those seven-plus hours makes you an official, bona fide cinephile. That's definitely worth your time.
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