Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Allegories of the Eschaton: The Eye of the Whale

While searching for allegories of the eschaton, I came across an image that just nailed me to the beam, something from an intensely personal dream, a necessary nightmare, a presagement of awakening (entrance via Stalker):

the eye of the whaleA man looking into the eye of a whale.
Fugues of resonance in this.
Ishmael the Outcast,
Dreaming on his coffin.
Ahab crucified in the depths,
Jonah 1:17 and Ezekiel 8.

It is an image from the film Werckmeister Harmonies, directed by Béla Tarr. I had never heard of either the film or the director. Here are a few comments from a BBC critic:

Based on the novel "The Melancholy of Resistance" by Tarr's frequent collaborator László Krasznahorkai, "Werckmeister Harmonies" unfolds in an unnamed provincial Hungarian town, gripped by a sense of crisis.

Despite the freezing conditions, disgruntled crowds of men have gathered in the central square to witness a travelling circus, whose attractions include a giant stuffed whale and a promised public appearance from the mysterious "Prince".

Named after 17th century musical theorist-composer Andreas Harmóniák, it's a work whose meanings are almost impossible to pin down.
And this from MovieMartyr.com:

When János returns to the Square, he finds a veritable cult has gathered around the attraction. After sneaking into the truck where the whale is stored, he overhears a disturbing tirade from The Prince. “What they build and what they will build is illusion and lies. What they think and what they will think is ridiculous,” he says in his mechanical voice. He continues, saying that he likes things that fall apart, seeing “construction in the ruins.”
And from the Guardian Observer:

The Hungarian director Bela Tarr goes beyond surreal, beyond miserablist, beyond anything I have ever seen with this quite bizarre, dream-like film in monochrome: an apocalyptic vision of - well, what?

A young man in a desolate Hungarian town is devoted to his elderly uncle, a musicologist working on a revisionist theory of the music of the spheres. Some kind of circus arrives, the kind of circus at which no one is expected to have a good time. It consists of a single corrugated-iron pantechnicon containing a dead whale. The presence of this, and someone called the Prince, incites the populace to a strange, somnambulist uprising.

If genius is close to madness, then Tarr's genius - because genius has to be what it is - is closer to autism, a kind of untrained savant touch for compelling imagery. Famously unschooled in European cinema, he has developed his own vernacular language of movie-making.

He is a master of the long, long take: mostly compelling but sometimes just outrageously weird. He has a close-up of the young man and his uncle wordlessly walking down a street which goes on for minute after minute. God only knows why.

Who to compare him to? David Lynch? Tod Browning? You've got me. This will be a tough watch for many: an uncompromisingly difficult and severe experience. But I found it unique, mesmeric and sublime.

Absolutely fascinated, I now wonder: should I see the film at all? In the last couple of hours of reading about it and looking at the few stills I could find online, the film in my mind has attained its own sort of poetry and mysticism. There is no fear of disappointment here. It is more in the sense of Chimage: I do not want to forget the film that I imagine Tarr's Werckmeister Harmonies to be.

How many books and films have you heard about all your life and never experienced, but know - in a deep sense of the phrase - by heart? I wander constantly through the Library of Unread Books and sit with patient meditation in the Theater of Unseen Films.

In the end, I know that I will not be able to esccape the Eye of the Whale, that there will be no choice: under the pressure of certain sign and portent, so much of the future is already irrevocable. But here, just for a moment, it is all so beautiful with possibility....

eye of moby-dickFrom the John Huston film, Moby Dick.

Addendum: From Waiting for the Prince: An Interview with Bela Tarr on the Senses of Cinema site:

BT: You know how it happens, when we started we had a big social responsibility which I think still exists now. And back then I thought "Okay, we have some social problems in this political system - maybe we'll just deal with the social question." And afterwards when we made a second movie and a third we knew better that there are not only social problems. We have some ontological problems and now I think a whole pile of shit is coming from the cosmos. And there's the reason. You know how we open out step by step, film by film. It's very difficult to speak about the metaphysical and that. No. It's just always listening to life. And we are thinking about what is happening around us.

FD & MLC: What do you think this shit is that's coming from the cosmos?

BT: I just think about the quality of human life and when I say 'shit' I think I'm very close to it.

FD & MLC: But in terms of the cosmos, how does that fit in? If man is responsible for the shit, how does the cosmos come into it?

BT: Everything is much bigger than us. I think the human is just a little part of the cosmos.

FD & MLC: If there's evil going on, do you think it comes from elsewhere? From outside the human sphere?

BT: No. I think human responsibility is great, enormous. Maybe the biggest factor. You know, I don't believe in God. This is my problem. If I think about God, okay, he has a responsibility for the whole thing, but I don't know. You know, if you listen to any Mass, it looks like two dogs when they are starting to fight. And always, I just try to think about what is happening now.

FD & MLC: So the main character in the film who's saying "God created a beautiful thing in this whale", whose view is that?

BT: No, he believes.

FD & MLC: Believes in God?

BT: No. He believes this is a big thing, bigger than humanity. And in this case he says "Maybe." Maybe God still exists, that's all. He just says everything is wonderful. God creates this big whale.

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