PAINTING WITH FILM: BÉLA TARR'S SATANTANGO
(This essay was written for a college assignment on the parallels between cinema and painting.)
The film I have chosen is Satan’s Tango (1994), by Hungarian director Béla Tarr. It is without a doubt the greatest film of the ‘90s, and quite possibly the greatest achievement of cinema so far—but unfortunately it’s epic running time (it clocks in at seven hours) has kept it largely unknown and unseen. The film is set around a dysfunctional farming community on the Hungarian plains, and consists of twelve separate episodes. I’ve chosen what I consider the central one of these episodes as the subject of this essay, an hour-long sequence about halfway through the film entitled “Comes Unstitched”. The sequence follows the activities of the small daughter of one of the village’s inhabitants who, neglected and marginalised by her elders, and conned out of her savings by her brother, resorts to torturing and subsequently poisoning her pet cat—the only creature she has any power over.
It is the style in which this material is treated, however, that makes it an interesting choice for this question. Director Béla Tarr has a penchant, and a talent, for long, slow, unedited shots that rivals—I would even say surpasses—the achievements of masters such as Andrei Tarkovsky, and this style reached its summation in Satan’s Tango. Consequently, any description of the film’s plot tends to relate only tentatively to the experience of watching the film—which in parts, features nothing but people walking or rain falling for minutes at a time. These moments in the film don’t provide any narrative information as such, and no doubt most viewers would complain of them that “nothing is happening”—but the genius of Tarr’s cinema is that these moments of “nothing” are not indulgent or perverse divergences from a steady plot, but as necessary and integral to the experience of the film as anything else. As opposed to the endurance-testing conceptual art films of Andy Warhol (Empire or Blow Job , for example), Satan’s Tango doesn’t try to provoke or infuriate with a minimalist, modern-art style depiction of “nothing happening”—rather it challenges and redefines our very assumptions of what qualifies as “something happening”.
In fact, the consequences of Tarr’s approach are so radical in comparison to mainstream thinking on film that it problematicises the very question I’m writing this essay in order to answer. After all, how can one say whether a film’s lighting and composition adds to or detracts from its story, without first establishing what exactly a story is? The conventional wisdom is that it’s a causally linked series of events, usually revolving around a protagonist with goals, obstacles, etc—and the purpose of a film is generally considered to be to get the points of this story across to the audience. As a result, lighting, composition and the rest of mise-en-scene are treated merely as ways to reinforce these story points. In this kind of cinema, one could then easily judge a film’s lighting and composition. Does it add to the film’s story—reinforce it, make it clearer or more effective—or does it detract from it—distracting attention through gratuitous virtuosic effects? It’s hard to apply this to Satan’s Tango, however, because it doesn’t subscribe to this notion of story. Tarr eschews the sort of filmmaking where everything is centred on getting the “point” across—as he revealingly commented about most films nowadays, “They are like comics.” (1) In other words, they are purely indicative; they give you the “idea”. So one could argue that while mainstream films “are like comics”, Satan’s Tango is more like a painting—because who ever expects a painting to “make a point” in this illustrative, comic-book sort of way? Tarr has talked about himself and his collaborators “distancing ourselves from the story because we thought that the wall, the rain, the dogs, have their own stories.” (2) Translation: rather than a traditional narrative distillation of events, Tarr is more interested in a direct relationship with and perception of reality—in the moments of experience that tend to get left out of a tightly plotted tale. In pursuit of this, he expands the notion of what a story is, and what a film can be.
So, within this redefined conception of story, what contribution can the lighting and composition of Satan’s Tango be said to make? In the context of a masterpiece such as this, it’s a bit like asking did colour add to the art of Van Gogh—it’s so integral it’s hard to separate out from the work as a whole. Certainly the lighting and composition in the film is restrained and, though masterful, it’s hardly picturesque. Shot in grainy black and white, and largely with naturalistic and (probably natural) lighting, one could scarcely find a frame to which one could apply the classic phrase, “you could hang it on the wall”. But this points to an important difference between film and painting that’s worth noting.
Tarkovsky once complained of “the facile convention that equates the frames of a shot and of a canvas” (3), and he’s correct to the extent that visual comparisons between the two mediums are generally inadequate. When paintings or painters are specifically imitated or referenced in film, it tends to be a lazy, superficial thing—ie, borrowing the surface gloss of a Caravaggio. Which is why it’s of course done in advertisements as much as anything—Lucozade’s recent grotesque appropriation of Michaelangelo’s The Creation of Adam being one of the more despicable examples. Rather than visually specific homages, it seems to me that comparisons on a deeper, stylistic level are more important and rewarding—especially when it comes to Satan’s Tango.
The sequence I have chosen from the film is a clear illustration of this. “Comes Unstitched” features none of the grand, dynamic compositions or delicate, stylised lighting of the greats of painting—but to criticise it for that would only be to resort to the “facile convention” mentioned above. Film exists in space and time, and is not required to communicate through static compositions—hence “you could hang it on the wall” is really more of an insult than a compliment when it comes to a motion picture. Yet despite this significant difference in means, much of what Tarr’s style achieves stylistically could compare to the achievements of some paintings—in some cases more than it could compare to the achievements of other films.
An example. In a pivotal scene in the film, the little girl watches the adults of the town through the window of the local pub. As they dance around drunkenly, she stands outside in the dark, the cold and the rain, looking in. The camera stands over her shoulder looking through the window. The “point”, as it were, seems pretty clear—the girl is shamefully neglected by and alienated from adults too busy drinking and dancing their worries away to care. Indeed, the lighting and composition help this reading—the girl is relegated to the side of the frame, in the dark with her back to us, almost a non-person, while the villagers are illuminated, centre-stage. The window between them further emphasises the division. If the shot had been shown for, say, 15 seconds, and intercut with a close-up of the sad girl looking through the window, we would have been in no doubt of this meaning, and would have moved on to the next “point” secure in our knowledge. But instead, we have to watch this image for two and a half minutes, and never see anything of the girl but the back of her head.
This sort of thing tends to be bewildering at first. At around the 15 second mark, we ’ve reached our conclusion: the girl is isolated, the villagers are distracted—poor her, shame on them. Move on. At 30 seconds, we start to get a bit impatient—we’ve gotten the message, could we have the next one, please? But if one overcomes this initial resistance and frustration, the experience of a shot like this is remarkable. After about a minute, most viewers may be twiddling their thumbs—but the shot isn’t going on so long to piss you off; it’s asking you to look closer. If you continue to engage with the image, you’re forced to reconsider your initial conclusions. Are the villagers’ drunken antics pathetic or charming? Is the girl amused or disgusted? What does she think of it all? Should they really be blamed for having a bit of fun? In these two and a half minutes, everything comes under question. As well as reconsidering the meaning of the image, we also become intimately familiar with the physical details of the scene—the cracks on the wall, the sound of the rain. We become part of an experience that far surpasses the trivial reception of points or meanings—something beyond verbal, intellectual definition.
This approach facilitates a level of spectator involvement and mental and perceptual effort that most films consistently deny—but a level that’s par for the course in the world of painting. The competitive, commercial and populist tendencies of film mean most films try to grab and hold your attention as steadfastly as possible. It’s what Hollywood screenwriters Terry Rossio and Ted Elliot call “kidnapping”. In their words:
A great artist has absolute control over [audience] responses. [If] the audience is allowed to think for themselves . . . they might even think, “Hey, this is no good.” And then they’ve escaped. (4)
This is of course the philosophy of propagandists and advertisers, not artists. Such a dictatorial concept as “absolute control” would never be contemplated in other art forms. Art is about changing people—and how can that happen if we’re only passively involved? If the goal is to encourage consumption and non-thinking of course, then such passivity is ideal—as Ray Carney put it, “Movies that tell you what to think and feel are part of the culture of salesmanship.” (5) But painting, by its very nature, is in the control of the spectator—we choose when to look, what to look at and how to interpret it, and the greatest paintings encourage this involvement. We never look at paintings expecting to grasp an instant, definitive understanding, because that’s the language of advertising—you get the meaning in a glance as you’re flicking channels or driving by.
So it’s in this sense that Satan’s Tango has a kinship with the art of painting—it encourages the sort of engaged participation that is taken for granted in museums but is far too frequently thought alien to the movie-house. But it does so with the materials of filmmaking—where space and time override lighting and composition as defining factors. Which brings us back to the question: How do lighting and composition add to the film? One could say they add by not trying to add too much—their contribution is their modesty. Most films now define themselves by such factors, freely borrowing from the classics of painting, and becoming more and more like picturebooks or animated storyboards than real cinema. But to do so is to participate in the language of advertising—using classic artistic styles and images for purposes of convenience, familiarity and shorthand understanding quite opposed to the artists’ original intent. What was originally an artists’ unique style becomes a “look” to be appropriated. What was originally a contemplation on humanity and divinity becomes a gag to sell Lucozade. Satan’s Tango creates a challenging, unsettling experience similar to that created by Caravaggio’s use of lighting or Degas’ use of off-centre compositions—but it does so through its treatment of time, a resource unique to the art of cinema.
So whether taking fine art out of the museum, or putting cinema into it—however you want to look at it—Bela Tarr’s Satan’s Tango is a shining example of the true link between film and painting that should continue to be drawn upon.
- Fergus Daly and Maximilian le Cain, “Waiting for the Prince: An Interview with Bela Tarr”
- Interview with Bela Tarr by Jonathan Romney, featured on Werckmeister Harmonies (2000)/Damnation (1987) DVD release.
- Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time, (University of Texas Press, 1986)
- Terry Rossio and Ted Elliot, “Plot Devices: Screenwriting Column 32”
- Ray Carney, “The Path of the Artist, Part 2”