The Best of the Decade: #3 02/26/2010
The first decade of our young century has come to a close. During that time the world around us has changed rapidly, and cinema has changed with it. Mainstream filmmaking continues to go down a dark path, moving ever closer to an event-style industry with no perception of "art". Meanwhile the cinema is ennobled all over the world by artists who reject or beat the studio system. As strong as ever, if you look in the right places, the art form thrives. For the next 10 days, I'll be counting down the 10 greatest films of the decade...
Directed by Bela Tarr
Bela Tarr is one of the world's greatest living filmmakers. In every shot of the enigmatic Werckmeister Harmonies he creates an atmosphere so intoxicating that we almost enter the images, existing inside the space of his genius. Tarr is perhaps most known for his 7 hour-plus masterpiece, Satantango, but Werckmeister is every bit as good. Composed of only 39 shots in over two hours, Tarr spends more time then any other filmmaker exploring the space of his environments, with the camera often traveling with characters for long distances. Entire scenes unfold without editing, with emphasis placed on the hypnotic mise en scène. To watch a Tarr film is to have a transcendental experience.
Werckmeister Harmonies begins with what may be the greatest opening scene of the decade. The protagonist enters a bar, and prompts the patrons to visually demonstrate how the sun, earth and moon revolve. Indeed, the film is about man's understanding of his role in the universe, and the process of coming, or not coming, to terms with that role. The drunken patrons act this demonstration out, without fully comprehending; merely spinning thoughtlessly for no reason other than that is what they are being told to do. By the end of the film, the protagonist will reach madness for not being able to cope with the infinite higher workings beyond humanity. Although the film is not focused on plot, the premise is as follows: a traveling show featuring a giant whale comes to a poor village.
The presence of the whale, and a man known as The Prince cause an uproar. In the ensuing confusion, the townspeople irrationally begin to destroy things, until a reminder of our feeble humanity causes an immediate halt in one of the most moving images in recent cinema. The giant whale is a force unknown to these people, seemingly powerful, wondrous and certainly of larger significance than a single man. People have trouble accepting forces beyond their own and resort to chaos as a foolish rebellion. The trouble of life, as Bela Tarr sees it, is realizing we are but components in a vast and mysterious harmony.