By Armond White
Bela Tarr’s The Turin Horse isn’t funny at all but it sure is laughable. A Hungarian farmer with a bum arm Ohlsdorfer (Janos Derzi) lives in a drab, yet limitless cabin with his morose spinster daughter (Erika Bok) who boils potatoes which go half-eaten. This goes on for two and half hours. What is laughable is festival-circuit panegyrics that praise The Turin Horse as “total” cinema (I guess because it isn’t recognizable as anything except “cinema” at its least revealing). Not knowing these reviews make the viewing experience drudgery; knowing them leaves one derisive.
I’ve admired previous Tarr films–especially the magisterial Werckmeister Harmonies and even Satantango which I kinda hated but found compelling. Tarr’s camera movements and long takes show that he “savors film” as Pauline Kael said of Michael Cimino directing Heaven’s Gate. In The Turin Horse, Tarr (co-directing with Agnes Hranitzky whatever that means) is like the titular beast pulling that tired old dray; he’s treading water. Yet fest-circuit-whores pull out their quota of references–Beckett repeatedly. But why must Tarr be Beckett? I liked him for being Tarr–circling and panning and traveling with his camera in ways that critics forgot Raoul Walsh, Michael Curtiz, Andrei Tarkovsky and Max Ophuls had already done. Van Gogh’s The Potato Eaters open my adolescent eyes to the world; Tarr’s potatoes simply make me hungry for French fries.
It’s providential that The Turin Horse opens in the U.S. after Spielberg’s War Horse. Pseuds will prefer the European opus because it’s baffling. The sophomoric insistence that mystery and negativity are deeper than clarity and feeling satisfies moviegoers who forgot the basic–essential–glories of cinema. They reject Spielberg’s mammal-witness to mankind’s inhumanity for nihilistic European pretense.
What makes this pompous attitude unacceptable is that in sheer visual terms, Spielberg and Janusz Kaminski’s imagery is superior: evocative and stirring while Tarr (employing Sontag pet Fred Kelemen) uses drab b&w without the textual depth and frisculating light of his previous cinematographers Gabor Medvigy and Rob Tregenza. Spielberg uses an Everyman horse while Tarr’s horse comes from postmodern speciousness (based on an apocryphal Nietzche story). Once again, Spielberg’s ecumenical view is held against him in favor of atheist nihilism. How sensible is this? When desiccated young Erika is confronted by a band of gypsies, laughing, drinking, dreaming of America and cheering “The earth is ours!,” Tarr keeps her (and us) in that solitary cabin with Ohlsdorfer who scowls like both John Brown and Moses. No Fun which pseuds regard as High Art.
The Turin Horse plays at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater as part of a Tarr retrospective, “The Last Modernist: The Complete Works of Bela Tarr” Feb. 3 through 8. (Apparently no one at Lincoln Center considers Godard or Spielberg our last modernists.) Tarr has said this is his last film. Hopefully. He’s obviously lost his drive. But Ingmar Bergman broke a similar promise and Soderbergh is playing the same game. He and Tarr both lack horse sense.
By Armond White