Monday, December 13, 2010

Motion Studies: Left Foot, Right Foot

(Lars Rudolph and Peter Fitz in Werckmeister Harmonies/ 13 Productions)

      Werckmeister Harmonies (2000) stands out, among other reasons, for its monolithic sense of human activity. People eat, drink, wash dishes, chop wood, sleep and sit, staring at nothing; all unusual sights in film. Bela Tarr takes his strange sense of natural existence to its most astonishing length in a scene involving two men, Janos (Lars Rudolph) and Gyuri (Peter Fitz). The scene is in Black and White, like the rest of the film.
The two men leave the house of Gyuri, a self appointed town official, and start walking down an empty dirt road in the frosty and flat village that is the film’s setting. The sky should be gray, but instead it is white. Both men wear coats and walk side by side as they trade words about a petition Gyuri means to convince certain villagers to sign. Though both are in focus, Janos is in the foreground. He looks up and down, over and under with his bug-eyes that seek fascination in all sights. Gyuri is in the background, his face in a constant frown, his hand on his black bowler hat. Janos mentions the circus that has come to town, and the whale that is the centerpiece of the circus. He tells Gyuri that he must see it to see the wonders of God’s creation. Gyuri replies in a brusque manner first they have to deal with the list. They fall silent and walk. We have seen Janos walk along roads repeatedly in this film; but never have we seen a walk like this. Janos falls slightly behind Gyuri, who walks with a mechanical limp and an unchanging posture. Janos’ unkempt hair blows in the wind and flakes of snow, or debris, that dance around the frame. Janos stares ahead, his teeth clenched, then down at the ground. They pass by what looks like the same stone building over and over. We finally fall behind them and circle around to their backs. They stop when they meet two more wandering villagers, ranting to Gyuri about the violence in town, the circus and the uncertainty of the world. Janos offers to get Gyuri lunch and leaves. Gyuri impatiently informs the men that he has a list to show them. He removes it from his coat.
This shot was emulated by Gus Van Sant for his film Gerry, with slight variations, two years after Werckmeister Harmonies. Van Sant may have thought he was doing Tarr one better by making his actors walk even longer. But Tarr’s walk refuses to suffer in comparison. He is the ideal experiential filmmaker, and shots like this one are ideally experienced rather than comprehended. His walk follows the same rule as any in that it has a start point and an end point. But Tarr manages to make the viewer feel as if they are accompanying the two men on some out-of-body level, something that we can’t possibly experience in an actual walk. He never flinches from the labor, the deliberateness of people moving. As for us, he has us simply glide. The monotony of other’s becomes our trance.