Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 5 No. 10, March 2001



Daniel Frampton

The Way that Movements Speak




London Film Report, 31 March 2001

This text is simply a report on some new film releases in London, England. Considering all the film reviews littering the world, and considering the title of our salon-journal, I thought it would be interesting to approach 'reviewing' in a less conventional way. Thus this report is a personal impression of the 'thinking' of the films' formal actions (movement, framing, colours, shifts, etc.), rather than a full-on interpretation of the films' more obvious subjects. The idea, the 'filmosophy', is to ask what the images and sounds are 'saying'. The larger argument is that film writing around the world can easily stand a little promoting of the worth of form, and that these notes can simply be added to available synopses, and other, more plot-driven interpretations. The fact that these partial and impressionistic notes are fairly contingent on a viewing of the films under consideration is one reason to go and see them (if you can).


This text looks at a couple of films by the Hungarian director Béla Tarr, and an award winning film about a Russian woman and her son in a small English seaside town.


_Damnation_ features a love triangle, and is set in a small Hungarian town where the people seem stuck, and drenched under incessant rain. The film feels the repetitive world of its characters from the start, drifting slowly back from the drone of endless mine carts swinging their way up a hill. The film backs through a window to reveal its central character, Karrer, watching the scene, providing the impetus for the film's attention and concentration on the carts. The film settles behind his head (not for the first time). It is his experience that seems to fuel the image-thinking of the film.


The industrial town where this story takes place is shown in empty frosted greys. Some films think in colour, some films believe that their characters lead lives without colour; not so much black and white as lightgrey and darkgrey. The fog becomes the sadness of the town, all-pervading, and not even sex can seem to relieve the gloom (even the privacy of the home cannot escape the setting, the repetition).


The film returns to spaces like a film-loop, glued by ambient tones (and the sniffles of scavenging dogs). And it is quite beautiful: pulling back from the mine carts in a later moment, the film slides through the window slats to find Karrer, this time not staring, but making love to the woman he has pursued. And there is a nice Madonna and child and football image; and the lilting music, and seemingly never-ending dancing in the latter part of the film, offer a melancholic escape that uplifts as it soothes.


At London's National Film Theatre, in an on-stage interview with Jonathan Romney, Béla Tarr talked of his aim to get away from 'story', to reveal the way that locations 'have their own faces' -- there being a 'logic' in a 'certain kind of space'. This is in line with his belief that film should reveal 'presence' (rather than pat meanings through allegories or symbols, which are 'so far from the genre of film'). For Tarr film is a simple, concrete, primitive, limited, definite language (this 'definiteness' recalling Godard's words that we should replace vague ideas with clear images), and the filmgoer is a 'more mature partner' of the film, who Tarr hopes will leave the cinema a 'different person'.


Tarr's most recent film, _Werckmeister Harmonies_, might be said to attempt 'political images' (political thinking in images) via the moving, gliding, linking image.


The film virtually consists of these long gliding thoughts ('long takes', or 'sequence-shots' in traditional, technicist film language) that travel the length of streets, or caress interiors like a supernatural cat (we may even imagine the edit shifts ourselves: remembering a scene we feel sure there must have been some sort of shift cut -- but there wasn't, we're just so used to having them). Time, its direct image, is given again and again.


First of all these lengthy thoughts seem to want to reveal and think a phenomenology, or a truer humanism. These are no longer 'long takes', but thinkings of the human 'gaplessness' of experience -- we don't edit experience and the film wants to show this: following the lead character Janos as he surveys the whale, or keeping endless pace with Mr Eszter and Janos as they walk side by side (their faces bobbing in front of us for a relative eternity).


But most interestingly, this kind of thinking physicalises relationships between characters (the film wants us to *feel* this physicality). The most beautiful example in _Werckmeister Harmonies_ occurs in the main square of the town, where visiting showmen have brought an enormous stuffed whale. The townsmen (seemingly *all* the men of the town) stand around in loose groups, perhaps waiting for work, or simply there to keep warm by fires. At this point the film begins to tour the faces of the men, tenaciously, almost impertinently, gliding from one cold furrowed brow to another: here the film seems to be asking the men something, demanding a response, forcing a realisation perhaps. Each time the film settles on another face, the pause seems to reveal a 'questioning' nature to the film's thinking. Thus the film not only connects each man to the other, but politicises this linkage -- the film is joining the men together and asking something of them (to wake up, to revolt, to *move*).


And so later the film is able to lead (floating at the front) the silent and powerful sight of hundreds of townsmen marching on the hospital to vent their anger (released by the catalyst of the whale?). The innocent are driven mad ('nothing matters, nothing counts' we hear), and so, wordlessly (leaving their actions to images), they trash each hospital room, only to reach a melancholic recognition of futility.


Most interestingly, _Damnation_ might be seen as a thinking of stasis and movement (or growth), a film that thinks through these 'ideas' with images. This can be the political stasis of the town (and especially its men) and the movement that the film brings to it (surveys it with). It can be the head that stares and the film which investigates. It can be the seated Karrer and Sebestyen and the dancing townsfolk -- where the cloakroom woman talks of dance, and 'the way that movements speak'.


That melancholy breads boredom breads non-movement is actualised by the movement-thinking of the film. While characters sit and drink the film is almost always restless. Even small changes in angles force the filmgoer to actively keep a character in the centre of their sight. The film simply, subtlely, makes us see the stasis all the more *because* of this movement. The still is revealed by the 'our' forced movement. (The film does hold still sometimes, especially on the woman at the centre of the love triangle -- holds still like the attentions of her lovers.)


Importantly, the film thinks a pure relationship between the town and the characters. Karrer's scenes are almost always begun without him: the film will slide in from an industrial setting, or even from close to a building, to 'introduce' him. The link is not made graphically, but *affectively*, through the movement of film and the movement of our memory (seeing him after some setting, we 'remember' the setting while now following him -- the setting and the man become mixed).


In fact the film holds itself very close to the buildings of the town, often caressing their rough concrete like a forced love affair -- the film tries to find beauty *within* the town. The image of rain washing over this concrete at the film's close comes near to 'becoming' this industrial beauty.


At the end all may be summed-up in dog-eared and earth-bound metaphors of damnation, but the questions and ideas of the film are not reduced to or closed-off by these ends. By turns boring and mesmeric, _Damnation_ may frighten some with its drifting narrative -- you may either lose yourself in its 'time' or become simply impatient -- but it is, at least, thoughtful.


Finally, _Last Resort_ was recently released to rave reviews in the UK. The film concerns a Russian woman and her son who arrive in the UK and are 'held' a small English seaside town while their application for asylum is processed. Their life is (thought) rough, through an image that is alive with grain. The film also knows when to shake and worry -- and is most unsettled when she, our heroine, is unsettled. The film physically, thoughtfully, reacts to its characters' emotions (which resembles the empathic, close thinking of _Rosetta_), and only seems to move when the woman does.


The film concentrates on faces and immediate locale, and at only one or two important points shifts scale: when the woman is driven from the airport to the seaside town to be 'held', and when she and her son and her new friend 'escape'. Each time the imposing vista is introduced by the film, is allowed by the film to reduce the characters. The film also feels an openness for sound, allowing voices and interruptions to mount and fill (like the image). Sometimes the film image searches close to eyes, as if it were trying to catch an 'inside' to the characters. (The fine recent London film _The Low Down_ had a similar humane thinking, scanning bodies and touches, edges and glimpses, reactive to human movement -- the film searching for knowledge about its two lovers.)


The most beautiful thinking arrives with naturally filled images, fractured and busy without obscuring emotion or character: faces doubled in half reflections through glass, eyes framed with fire or sea, bodies masked by fruit machines or bright lights. This loads the image with 'information' and makes us work to direct our attention (and feeds possible second viewings). _The Double Life of Venonique_ thought similarly.


The ending becomes a celluloid-Turner, with sea and blur and bodies and image-grain gliding and melting into a melancholic grey-blue. _Last Resort_ (a film that opens and closes with its main characters facing us, but moving backwards) is open thinking, tender feeling, human-political image-thought -- here surfaces are as important as depths, and (when the woman is seated on a bench under a street light on a harsh cold night) the tales of immigrants are perhaps given a single, beautiful thought-image: a small warm face that glows in the corner of a cold blue frame.


Birkbeck College

University of London, England




_Damnation_ (_Karhozat_), directed by Béla Tarr, 1987. Hungary, black and white, 116mins, 1.85ratio. UK release date: 30 March 2001 (Artificial Eye).

_Double Life of Veronique_, directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1991.

_Last Resort_, directed by Pawel Pawlikowski, 2000. Great Britain, colour, 75mins. UK release date: 16 March, 2001 (Artificial Eye).

_The Low Down_, directed by Jamie Thraves, 1999.

_Rosetta_, directed by Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, 1999.

_Werckmeister Harmonies_ (_Werckmeister harmoniak_), directed by Béla Tarr, 2000. Hungary, Black and White, 145mins. Shown at the National Film Theatre, London, 26 March 2001.



Copyright © Daniel Frampton 2001


Daniel Frampton, 'The Way that Movements Speak: London Film Report, 31 March 2001', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 5 no. 10, March 2001 <>.





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