Bela Tarr, Damnation (1988)
A film about loneliness and helplessness, Bela Tarr’s Damnation (1988) is carefully crafted to allow an audience to feel an emptiness; to notice a simple beauty, but a beauty that is combined with physical breakdown. The plot is not central. The length of takes, slow panning of the camera, music used, and careful crafting of sound in general seem to contribute most strongly to the dreamlike feel of the film as a whole, during which we embark on a metaphysical journey – a journey into “the hopelessness of things.”
The main protagonists of the loose plot are a lonely man and a married female singer who struggle with an affair that is hopeless from the beginning of the film. We get this sense particularly after one scene/take where the two have gone away together under the excuse of delivering a mysterious package, made love, and proceed to talk about their situation. Their conversation is highly stylized, but their movements and emotions seem to be completely natural. This is one of the subtle beauties of Tarr’s work – poetic, artificial language that becomes completely natural in contributing to the overall mood of the film. As the two talk philosophically about their condition and lives, we are reminded what the singer has already said about the affair – “my husband comes home tomorrow evening” – as the two talk, amidst the crisp interjection of sound produced by the woman eating a pickle, significant to the feel of the take as it seems to add an aura of frankness and harsh reality during this particular philosophical moment.
In an interview with Phil Ballard of Kinoeye, Tarr talks about his reasons for presenting his films so differently than more conventional, plot based/ action films saying, “The main thing is always how you can touch the people? How can you go closer to real life?” and “We just follow the real psychological process, not the story, not the verbal information.” We see the accuracy of these statements throughout Damnation, and, if attempting to focus too much on the details of the verbal communication or plot line, we become easily bored, focused on what action will happen next rather than what is happening “now” – in the real time long take.
What is perhaps most interesting to me, after reading the interview with Tarr, is that he denies being a philosopher within an artistic medium and that he does not accept the notions that the human condition is absurd or that his films are particularly bleak. He counters questions on these topics saying that he is not trying to draw any conclusions for viewers, but simply present a piece of the human condition for them to see, not to judge anyone or make any assumptions, and, that he feels an optimism in his work because the creative process is an optimistic one. These statements seem both accurate and odd to me at the same time as I think back on my experience viewing Damnation. While I agree that there are no conclusions really drawn, other than that life is full of conflict – of emotion, of circumstance – and that loneliness and existential thought on one’s experience of life is a part of it, I do not see the optimism that Tarr describes, except perhaps through an abstract understanding that others will come to recognize something of what it means to be human through his films.
The final scenes, of the after math of the previous night’s strange, dreamlike celebration and the man breaking down and barking at a stray dog after witnessing his lover having an affair with someone else are about destruction, physical breakdown. Concepts that I associate with a feeling of hopelessness and dark fate, but that Tarr seems to equate with a return to nature, stemming from man’s loneliness. There is no transcendence, just the experience of loneliness and the return to nature that becomes a possibility and a reality when the man is able to leave his society (which is itself broken down and searching for something).