Monday, June 11, 2012

"Werckmeister Harmonies" by Béla Tarr

I'm reading the Guardian's "Deep Waters: Why Werckmeister Harmonies is a Masterpiece." and it fills me with the same dismay I have reading critical theory on Moby Dick.
Tarr has resisted all attempts to persuade him to say what his films mean, and everything in Werckmeister Harmonies can be read as a metaphor for something or other. The whale, for instance, can be interpreted as a bitter symbol of capitalism, a bloated, rotting and blank-eyed carcass that engenders a superficial hysteria in those previously denied the sight of such a wonder. Or perhaps the whale and the unseen Prince represent the kind of totalitarianism that encourages its converts to start by sweeping away their old world.
I'm not well-versed enough in critical theory to claim that this is a Marxist or post-Marxist reading of the film, but it certainly feels overly-political. We tend to forget, especially in critical theory, that the frames and lenses we use to interpret films and literature are just that--frames and lenses of our own (or someone else's) opinion. Marxism, like capitalism, socialism, etc., is just a buzzword to describe a concept of political theory. It is disingenuous to claim that a work of art can be diminished to a series of political symbols. Anyone who has seen the whale scene, for example, ought to be able to know on a fundamental level--that is, to feel, that this is not some bland political statement. Please:

According to the Guardian this is capitalism in motion.

Watching this scene, especially in the context of the film, you do not sit idly by twiddling your Clever thumbs and trying to tie everything to a critical ideology. No, you experience the same ecstacy of dreams as János:

At the moment I took that screencap Mihaly Vig's gorgeous piano piece begins. If this were a cheesy American drama it might be called "János's theme" because it frequently coincides with his enormous emotional shifts. But this music (which you will find in the video, above) is a cue to the ecstasy of knowledge, of life, the ecstacy of art. The Guardian piece calls János an archetypical "wise fool." This feels like a UK/USA reading, painfully out of touch with the possibilty that anyone could experience thought and emotion in a manner different than one's own. We imagine ourselves to be the rule, and every other culture to be the exception. Even in the UK the morality play is at work despite (or perhaps in the wake of) multiculturalism. The Guardian finds it impossible to recognize the quiet intellectual passion of János. But for me, I saw in János a lot of Robert Walser's Joseph Marti (The Assistant), minus the inherent rage and anger. János is not so much a fool as a dreamer, an ecstatic optimist whose religion is the joy and beauty of the natural world.

Regarding the whale he says, "This mysterious creature from the sea has come from the far-off oceans. … Just see what a gigantic animal the Lord can create! How mysterious is the Lord that he amuses Himself with such strange creatures," and he is happy that whatever force is at work in the world would be as eccentric as to create this leviathan. There is an analogy between himself and a God who would hold art and beauty in such high regard.

Later, to a by-stander he remarks (on the smell), "It stinks." I don't think Tarr adapted János (from Laszlo Krasznahorkai's The Melancholy of Resistance) to portray him as an idiot savant. Instead I believe he is supposed to mirror the watcher's reaction to the film. He observes the whale exactly as I observed him observing the whale: without pre-conceived ideology, content to see what God (or Tarr) has created, and to try to find meaning independent of ideology and "The System." This is a film of self-discovery and of society-discovery. Only the second part of that applies to any critical reading one might impose on the film.
Not much help there, typically enough. At a film festival a while ago, someone who had taken against the barely relieved grimness of Tarr's work asked him: "Where is the hope?" "The hope," he replied, "is that you see this movie." And draw your own conclusions, if any. It would be better, perhaps, to adopt the director's own apparent reluctance to seek meanings and to treat the film simply as a fable - a story concealing a generally applicable moral, although in this case with no happy ending or easy interpretation. So maybe not even a fable. Just a story, perhaps, with glimpses of humanity.
Tarr's answer is in line with my own interpretation. János might be beyond help but as the watcher you have earned something in watching this film. Hopefully it is something a little deeper than the Guardian's "fable... with glimpses of humanity." I'm carrying this film around like a cyst at the moment. I think my reaction can be crystallized into this image: János is the dreamer; he is the child. Child in a symbolic sense, child meaning: everything that is optimisitic, everything that appreciates art without pretension, everything that experiences art on an emotional, resonant level and finds a way to tie that art into reality without having to parse it into ideologies. Child is not the projection of the self onto art; it is the the infusion of the art into the self. Child is every instant spent not worrying about finance, war, politics, personal safety. Child is a deep connection to the majesty of art and nature. It is joyous to watch János orchestrate these drunken men into a solar system and it recalls us to our first foray into scientific learning when we were children ourselves. Again with the whale: János marvels at this feat of creation. He stares into its eye, trying to connect with a creature who life rolled far beneath the waves. Finally, he hides in the hospital watching the pandemonium unfold and his face displays every hurt, every rejection, every discovery that the world can deal brutality without warning, without meaning:

Unfortunately the child is not resilient. He draws everything into himself and it becomes him. So János becomes part of this violence and the contradiction destroys him. But I don't think we should shy from this character or use words like "fool" which denigrate him. It is a rare person who receives everything in the world as evidence of goodness and beauty. We destroy them constantly.