After the most tumultuous production this side of Welles' fated Don Quixote fiasco and lasting six some years from improbable start to damnable finish and surviving multiple setbacks not least of which was the suicide of producer Humbert Balsan and the reactive shut down of filming for a year, Béla Tarr's long anticipated follow-up to his somberly melodic masterpiece Werckmeister Harmonies, which is still one of the best and most important works of this still young 21st century, finally arrived upon the festival scene last year only to be met with an almost unanimous accord of not praise nor haze, but with simple and ultimately damning indifference. This indifference continues this week as The Man From London finally opens (sixteen months after its Cannes debut) not at a theatre so much as a museum. MoMa will be playing Tarr's indifferently-received film for one week as dust already collects on less a cinematic event, less a vibrant exercise in Tarrian philosophology, than a prematurely greying museum piece.
Sure, when inevitably, and probably somewhat unfairly, compared with Tarr's last four films (the resonantly brash Almanac of Fall, the oddly humourous machinations of Damnation, the aforementioned lyrical Harmonies and especially the monumentally mammoth masterpiece Sátántangó) his latest, The Man From London, adapted from Georges Simenon's novel and the directors first attempt at noir, is well doomed to failure. Just look at reaction to Welles' films, no matter how spectacular, when compared to his first or the recently released Wong Kar-wai road movie My Blueberry Nights when put up against In the Mood For Love. Just as there is lesser Welles and lesser Wong, there too is lesser Tarr and no matter, the fact still remains that just like Welles' The Stranger or F For Fake are still undeniably Orson Welles, The Man From London is still, lesser or not, Béla Tarr. Comparative criticism may be inevitable - T.S. Eliot said "No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead". - and being the auteurist I am, I play at it myself all the time, but that still doesn't mean it's fair.
The film opens with (of course) a lengthy tracking shot, weaving its way from stem to stern, port to starboard across a dilapidated old ship, done in (of course, again) stark black & white and reminding one of Tarr's kino-eye as it wrapped itself around the great sad whale in Harmonies, and, with the one odd exception of a seemingly misplaced Tilda Swinton being dubbed into Hungarian almost as if this were some old Italian film (save for the choice of language), it goes on from there like a black icy heartbeat pounding, pounding, pounding until, even at the rather un-Tarrian sprightly running time of a mere 132 minutes, its last dying breath. This is pure Eastern European, lesser or not. This is pure Tarkovskyian poetics, lesser or not. This is pure cinema. Pure Tarr.
Once one gets past all the hoopla and reaches beyond the fact that not much can compare with a film as monumentally historic as Sátántangó, and finally taken on its own merits, Tarr's film, a sort of nontraditional, transcendental film noir, is, just like his previous output, a beautifully photographed, deceptively alluring, pin-pointedly nuanced dance of old world style meets viscously modernist cinematic poetics. Béla Tarr, the Ezra Pound of cinema, with his thick thoughts and brooding questions of faith and a world gone to shit (to paraphrase the auteur himself), may have made a film that cannot compare to his own best work - his own dead poetry as it were - but he has still handed us a film of bitter and constant dark beauty. A film that, despite an inevitable inferiority to past works, screams in a ghostly soulful moan so apt to the cinema of the auteur, that this is most certainly Béla Tarr. [09/23/08]