Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Turin Horse

“The madman sprang into their midst and pierced them with his glances. ‘Where has God gone?’ he cried. ‘I shall tell you. We have killed him - you and I. We are his murderers. But how have we done this? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What did we do when we unchained the earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving now? Away from all suns? Are we not perpetually falling? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there any up or down left? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is it not more and more night coming on all the time? Must not lanterns be lit in the morning? Do we not hear anything yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we not smell anything yet of God's decomposition? Gods too decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.’”

This oft misunderstood quote by Friedrich Nietzsche, know to herald “the death of God,” actually presages one of the great crises of modernity and its subsequent epochs. Unlike so many incorrectly imagine, the madman’s cries do not define God as dead in any corporeal sense, but dead as a standard for values, morality, and authority. For Nietzsche, the death of God meant that the increasingly anthropocentric advancements in science and philosophy (moving away from “the Great Chain” of the Middle Ages) had made “God the Father” obsolete to modern man. Nietzsche sensed that this idea of God dethroned and de-authorized would open up the crisis of nihilism–a point in which man, without an ultimate authority on values, would become value-less. For Nietzsche, this was a crisis for the ages.

Understanding the importance of this nihilistic turn is key to understanding Nietzsche’s philosophy. Nietzsche’s ideas begin right at the point when we have turned away from God and the abyss of nihilism stares us directly in the face. Of course, Nietzsche considered himself a “a life-affirming” philosopher–someone who would help lead man away from the nihilistic abyss that threatened to swallow him whole. His philosophy is an attempt to re-evaluate all values, giving man a self-appointed value system to live by without God’s authority and without giving into nothingness.

But what of this nothingness? Surely, it cannot be cast off so easily when it is so readily manifest to us? As the madman asks, “Are we not straying through an infinite nothingness? Do we not feel the breath of empty space?” What if we are, and what if we do?

It’s difficult not to imagine Nietzsche and the crisis of nihilism hanging like a grim specter over the proceedings of Béla Tarr’s THE TURIN HORSE. The film opens with a famous anecdote of the great philosopher flinging himself in tears upon an abused horse, vanquishing the last vestige of his already tenuous sanity in the process. We then cut to, in what has to be the most audacious and beautiful opening shot of the last several years, this said abused horse driving its master forward through a violent gale of wind and leaves. We never actually see Nietzsche, but we are lead to believe that the film begins directly after his portentous encounter with the abused horse. What follows is an unfiltered glimpse into the fate of that horse, its master, and its master’s daughter.

As I said, Nietzsche does not appear in the film, but his ideas weigh cumbersomely over the events of the film, and his presence is even made manifest in the bald man who visits the the farmer and his daughter (he very much speaks like a Nietzschean “madman”). THE TURIN HORSE, to me, is one of the most potent and vivid depictions of the nihilistic crisis Nietzsche warned of ever committed to celluloid. It is a 2 and 1/2 hour long descent into the abyss itself.
The madman asks us if we feel the “breath of empty space,” but in Tarr’s film we not only feel its breath whispering in our ear but its violent force thrashing us about, threatening to decimate all it touches. It is no coincidence that the wind in this film is incessant, that it has wiped everything away, and that it storms around the farmer’s small abode in a fitful, unrelenting rage. This is the wind of the abyss; the thrash of nihilism that confronts us like a parapet, both when we have lost God and when the world is ending. THE TURIN HORSE could very well be at the brink of both.

Filmed in about 30 takes, with some of the most gorgeous black-and-white cinematography since the Golden Age, and told almost in silence, with only a few repeating actions, Tarr has crafted one of the most artistically sublime and understatedly profound masterpieces of the modern era. Tarr’s film is the work of a stubborn genius, one who refuses to compromise his vision in the face of changing cultural and artistic whims. In a current film climate where so many directors are striving for bigger, bolder, and brash, Tarr might has well be from another planet. Like Bresson, he completely eschews theatricality. Everything in the film has been striped down to its most basic, atavistic elements. Like Beckett, he refutes traditional narrative structure in favor of repetition and inexorable realism (I was strongly reminded of Beckett’s ENDGAME while watching the film, both for its cyclical nature and pervading sense of doom). Like Herzog, he captures the most haunting issues of life and death in the most deceptively simple manner. But as much as THE TURIN HORSE recalls these other masters, Tarr’s aesthetic is undeniably his own. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, the film could have been disastrous, but in Tarr’s hands, it is beyond masterful. The way he films time and space is as assured as any artist to ever direct a camera.

And what is he filming exactly? “The story” of the film is basically non-existent. It is just six days in the monotonous lives of a horse and its two owners. The daughter dresses her father every morning; the daughter walks through the trashing wind to fetch water from the well; the father and daughter eat their steaming potatoes every night–their only visible sustenance; the pair tries to get the horse to eat and work–both of which it refuses as it slowly wastes away towards death. These images repeat themselves in the least interesting manner imaginable, but they are filmed differently each time. The takes are long and seemingly tedious, but they do build towards something. Tarr isn’t trying to lull you to sleep, but to create a sense of life. He isn’t belaboring a point; he is weaving a tapestry. That tapestry may be bleak and dark, but we are forced to confront it. I honestly believe that it is perfectly natural to feel bored and let your mind wander while watching the film. That is the point. But this wandering is indispensable both for reflection and immersion. We are made to reflect on the abyss, on mortality, and the spectre of nihilism. As the film slowly unfolds, we become increasingly engulfed within its rhythms, setting us up perfectly to receive the final blow. And what a final blow! The last half hour of the film is one of the most unbelievable crawls towards death, destruction, and the void ever conceived. It is utterly maddening.

To say that this film is one of the most vivid depictions of nihilism isn’t to say that it argues for nihilism. This isn’t the case at all. The film is merely haunted by nihilism. It is haunted by Nietzsche’s fear of the world entering a new epoch of moribundity. It is a film that takes this fear to its limit and never looks back. In a way, the film itself is a ghost of a crisis; an death-laden battle within the very soul of man.

I would say that one is free to complain about the film’s length all one wants, but all we see is 2 and 1/2 hours out of the 144 that compose the THE TURIN HORSE’s six-day journey into the heart of nothingness. This is, in reality, just a snippet, albeit a very evocative one. If one is dulled by the film, that is fine, but its length is necessary to create its very powerful sense of life and death. In an interview about why his films are so long, Tarr discussed an earlier film of his to stress a point about the necessity of such length. He said, “With DAMNATION, for example, if you're a Hollywood studio professional, you could tell this story in 20 minutes. It's simple. Why did I take so long? Because I didn't want to show you the story. I wanted to show this man's life.” The same could be said for THE TURIN HORSE.

***** (Five Stars)

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