The Turin Horse
The Rhetoric of Pessimism
The Turin Horse may well predicate itself on the anecdote about Nietzsche hugging a horse, but as with other Bla Tarr films his latest is hardly about the triumph of the individual will but its inevitable failure: the film seems a celluloid equivalent of Schopenhauer's claim that "as a reliable compass for orienting yourself in life nothing is more useful than to accustom yourself to regarding this world as a place of atonement, a sort of penal colony". This isn't Nietzsche's Gay Science, where Schopenhauerian pessimism is acknowledged but from which man is also liberated. Nietzsche may say, "hence the duller the eye, the more extensive the good. Hence the eternal cheerfulness of the common people and of children. Hence the gloominess and grief - akin to a bad conscience - of the great thinkers", before adding a couple of pages later that people often escape their own distress by painting it onto others. But he also wants to acknowledge his own misery and transform it into happiness: "I have ventured to paint my happiness on the wall."
There is very little happiness painted on the wall of the cinema screen in The Turin Horse, as the film doesn't so much explore its subject as consistently stall it, with Tarr dissolving the drive of the story into the intrigue of the form. If many films find correlatives to capture narrative feeling and the visual containment of that feeling, with the former shaping the latter, as the visual gives appropriate form to the story, Tarr consistently seems to wonder how one can generate mystery and purpose in the style without endangering the pessimism of narrative event, so embedded is the despair in the form. How can the story be sublimated into the style, and how can the style be arduously revealing of the despair, not merely the story told? It isn't only that the characters are living out a miserable life, the slow movements of the camera, the bareness of the mise-en-scene, the dwelling upon objects and situations conveying little dramatic impact, all give the impression that it is the style that refuses the story; not the style serving it. For example, in the scene where it looks like the father and daughter will leave the house and go into town, Tarr films it not with the significance of it as a narrative event, but as part of the despairing form. The long take, long shot approach means that we would be very surprised if they were to arrive at theirdestination. The success of the journey would somehow violate the singularity of the form, so it makes absolute stylistic sense that they end up shortly afterwards back at the house, the journey a failure. There is much formal mystery here as we feel that man and animal are both beasts of burden, with Tarr setting up the shots in such a manner that we don't anticipate the trip to town, but muse over the weight of the image, the burdensomeness of being the film captures.
Tarr's is a cinema of formal fluidity and narrative stasis, and he takes off from a certain tradition in European cinema where the moment of epiphanic possibility needn't come through the story but almost despite it. If one thinks of the capsized boat in the wintry harbour in Uzak, the boat being dragged over the mountain in Fitzcarraldo, or the Lenin statue on the barge in Ulysses' Gaze, these are all epiphanic moments; set piece scenes without the adrenaline buzz of the set piece as it is replaced by the visual elegance of scale and the meditative possibilities in the image.
It is to the nature of scale and/or the meditative possibilities in the image that Tarr's work turns as he creates the need for hope in the image and not in the story. To go further, we need only think of the first few minutes of The Turin Horse. Here the director constantly creates images of the horse through the amount of time and the different angles within the long take that gives the horse its due. Now this approach resides in a certain cinematic defamiliarisation as the horse is recontextualised and given a purpose beyond its function. Central to the ephiphanic moment is the manner in which something (a boat, a barge, a horse) isn't functionally useful but often dysfunctionally useless. The image often contains a dimension of the obsolete, or the absurd. This is true of numerous images from art cinema that one can bring to mind beyond the ones mentioned: the Christ statue hanging from the helicopter in La Dolce vita, the huge stone hand in Landscape in the Mist, even perhaps the view of the planet at the end of Solaris. Not all such images, as we're choosing to define them, contain this obsoleteness or absurdity, just as not all images fail to serve a function, but the filmmaker usually films them without concentrating on their functional purpose and instead on their imagistic possibilities. Whether in Tarr's work it is the farm at the beginning of Satantango, the buckets creaking by the window at the start of Damnation, or the whale in Werckmeister Harmonies, the director wants to create the image, as if most films merely create pictures. If one can say of film that it has so often been about moving pictures, there is a tradition that we can call moving images, with moving no longer meaning exclusively, or even especially, motion, but closer to emotion. It was precisely what Wim Wenders was getting at when he called one of his books Emotion Pictures, and insisted in the introduction that "Images are fragile...Writing has to be careful with (E) motion pictures."
What we want to explore here chiefly through The Turin Horse, but referencing other Bla Tarr films also, is how he creates moving images equal to a Schopenhauerian pessimism that denies the will its sense of movement,but nevertheless allows it the capacity for feeling. In the first scene of the film Mihaly Vig's insistent music combines with the lengthy single take to create a moving horse more than a horse in motion. In Westerns and period epics the horse is often a beast of burden in the former instance and a figure of pomp and circumstance in the latter, but it is still finally a functional figure, where in The Turin Horse the entire narrative predicates itself on the inactivity of a horse that is too exhausted, it would seem, to go on. The various attempts by the characters during the film's running time to get it to move are met less with obstinacy than fatigue. It has reached its moment of obsoleteness, and moves from an image of movement to a moving image. Even in the opening scene where it still proves capable of taking its owner from one place to another, Tarr's camera and Vig's music encapsulates the despair of an exhausted will, yet out of this exhaustion comes on the one hand narrative inertia, but on the other aesthetic purpose: a sense of meaning greater than diegetic immediacy. As Schopenhauer says, "The more clearly you become conscious of the frailty, vanity and dream-like quality of all things, the more clearly will you also become conscious of the eternity of your own inner being." Tarr wants to stall narrative so that he can find in form what he refuses to accept in narrative, and to give even a horse the possibility of this inner being.
Yet is this not the same thing as empathising with a beast and subsequently arriving at anthrophormism? Surely not, since the The Turin Horse, if anything, de-humanises, so that the feeling of a horse's inner being comes through not from creating feelings for the horse, but absenting conventional feelings from the characters, so that horse, man and nature are all caught in a struggle of will. To achieve this affect beyond conventional feeling, Tarr and his regular scriptwriter, novelist Laszlo Krasznahorkai, forego the psychological: we know almost nothing of the lives of the father and daughter who live on the farm, and equally by sandwiching the story into several days, the director gives his characters little room to exist in social time. Obviously ,many a play deals with the sort of temporal compression The Turin Horse practises, but it also often creates space for personal back story, evident for example in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf or any number of Tennessee Williams plays. However, by combining temporal compression without back story revelation, Tarr forgoes the anthropocentric and thus also escapes the anthropomorphic. Why give animals human characteristics when you can remove many of the human characteristics from man? In the process you can create a certain affect within feeling that cares little for human agency but can nevertheless create a certain ontological sorrow: an acknowledgement of existence as constantly confronted by the void, and man and beast equally involved in such a struggle.
Both Nietzsche and Schopenhauer were philosophers not entirely ignorant of the animal, and would often use them to augment their arguments. "A quick test of the assertion" Schopenhauer says in the essay 'On The Suffering of the World', "that enjoyment outweighs pain in this world, or that they are at any rate balanced, would be to compare the feelings of an animal engaged in eating another with those of the animal being eaten." Surely the pain here is far greater than the pleasure. In The World as Will and Idea he says, "Consciousness is, in any event, known to us only as a property of animal nature; therefore we may not, and cannot, think of it as anything but animal consciousness." Nietzsche, meanwhile, says in Daybreak, "Now if we consider that even the highest human being has only become more elevated and subtle in the nature of his food and his conception of what is inimical to him, it is not improper to describe the entire phenomenon of morality as animal." In The Gay Science he says, "I fear that the animals consider man as a being like themselves that has lost in a most dangerous way its sound animal common sense; they consider him the insane animal, the laughing animal, the weeping animal, the miserable animal." However, these were not philosophers of the animal from a scientific angle, but from an ontological one. Rather than trying to see our evolution; they seemed more interested in our relationship with the non-human animal, a certain empathic relationship that made sense of Nietzsche's final gesture before his mental decline. The animal is invoked not as scientific data, but as nervous system: and that man's nervous system may be more evolved but no more content for that. As Schopenhauer says in 'On the Vanity of Existence', "that human life must be some kind of mistake is sufficiently proved by the simple observation that man is a compound of needs which are hard to satisfy; that their satisfaction achieves nothing but a painless condition in which he is only given over to boredom..." From this perspective man doesn't achieve a higher status but a more frustrated one.
Of course, we are nevertheless reading Schopenhauer's comments a hundred and fifty years after his death; as if whatever pessimism the statement possesses is countered by an optimism of longevity, a point Tarr makes in a Kino Eyeinterview when he insists his own work isn't pessimistic. "No, because I think we are full of hope. If you make a film you can believe it will still exist in the next fifty years and somebody can watch this film later, which is the biggest kind of optimism." It is the process of trying to make something that will last: a paradoxical optimism where one shows the world may be a hopeless place, but the relative timelessness of the aesthetic redeems the work beyond its diegetic despair. Now, the easiest and most obvious way of escaping the narrowness of the diegetic within the roomier possibilities of the non-diegetic is probably through music, as if sharing Schopenhauer's belief in 'On Aesthetics' that "music speaks not of things but of pure weal and woe, which are the only realities for the will..." Tarr says "without the composer [Mihaly Vig] the films wouldn't be what they are. He goes into the studio a month before the actual shooting takes place, composes the music, gives it to us and then we use the music during the shoot." This is clearly not the sort of non-diegetic music David (All the President's Men, The Conversation) Shire dismisses when saying in an interview in Knowing the Score: "the most simple-minded scoring is what you get in most B-movies and bad television, where they want happy scenes made as happy as possible, love scenes made as loving as possible." As Stephen Deutsch says in a piece in Soundscape, "in most films, the appearance of any music at all is a signifier of emotional content." This is over-scoring rather than under-scoring; as often the composer comes in after the film has been made and makes sure any emotionally or narratively unassertive moments are categorically clear. As Mike Figgis anecdotally says in Soundscape, most soundtracks are a "rape of the earhole". As he details the score forced upon him by producer Ridley Scott after making The Browning Version, he says "yeah, yeah, muted trumpets and snare drums...and sure enough, that's what you get, you know, 'smoke of time'".
However, often the 'under-score' is the sort of music one puts not over the top of a film but underneath it, so its rhythmic purpose isn't especially diegetically focused, or over-emphasised, but formally integral. It makes sense that Tarr would say that the score accompanies the shooting of the film; it brings out the film's aesthetic movement, not its narrative progression. Hence the scores in Bla Tarr films are often repetitive rather than varied, as if trying to find the correlative feeling over the expected emotion. In Werckmeister Harmonies, say, and The Turin Horse, though the scores are very different ,their repetitive nature is similar. In the former film, the music plays up the wistful melancholia reflective of the central character who is something of a holy fool: an innocent postman in a society fomenting rebellion. In The Turin Horse, the music is much more insistent, a threnody reflecting the harsh life of the two leading characters and the horse, but scored so that we don't feel a local emotion but a cosmic one; and it might be useful to unpack what we mean here. When Figgis attacks the smoke of time soundtrack Scott and the composer Mark Isham offer in The Browning Version, this is the local masquerading as the transcendent. We're cued to an immediate feeling narratively, but the film wants to sell it as a two for one offer: the local and the transcendent simultaneously. However, the local imposes itself so assertively on the moment as the moment that the transcendence seems utterly unearned and arrives at cosmic clich. It is more than simply a play on words to say this over-scoring is underhand: it wants to manipulate the audience without cosmic evidence, without justifying why we should respond to the scene beyond the scene itself. It is the laziest way to suggest a meaning bigger than the diegesis.
Tarr's work since Damnation seems consistently to be searching out the scoring of emotions where the local feeling proves less relevant than the broader one and this is of course consistent with some of the claims we have already made in relation to the epiphanic moment. Perhaps the epiphanic moment in The Turin Horse comes when Tarr at a certain point offers a reverse angle on a shot we have seen on numerous occasions earlier in the film. At various stages either the daughter or the father sit and look out the window, but in this instance the camera watches not from behind the character as they look out, but from outside the window looking in at the daughter's face. There is no music here, but it captures well the futile exhaustion of the will, and also perhaps allows for the futility to take on a more cosmic manifestation. It is as though music needn't be present at such a moment because it isn't a local score that cues the scene, but a cosmic one that cues the problematic the film more generally works within. The music announces the threnodic but it doesn't have to emphasize it: it needs to be in the film but not so obviously in a specific scene. Schopenhauer says In 'The Indestructability of the Will', "how can one believe that when a human being dies a thing in itself has come to nothing? Mankind knows, directly and intuitively, that when this happens it is only a phenomenon coming to an end in time, the form of all phenomena, without the thing in-itself being affected thereby". We might note that Mig's music manages to register the thing-in-itself and needn't be in the scene to reflect the situation.
What happens in such a scene as the one with the daughter at the window is that the local emotion gives way to the broader feeling as the humanly futile opens up to the cosmically acceptable. As we initially see the father standing against the elements before entering the house, so we see the daughter looking out of the window before the camera slowly tracks in on her face. Through aesthetic means, Tarr manages to reflect the devastation in her face without quite showing devastation on it. The means to offer the latter would surely have been a close-up, where not even the performance but the physiognomy would carry the weight of realization. But Tarr is a filmmaker given to searching out the form of a feeling, and this is a variation on the notion of scale we mentioned earlier. The epiphanic moments in Uzak, Ullyses' Gaze etc. come from a formal acknowledgement of perspective as, say, the set piece, does not - even though, like the epiphanic moment, the set piece situates itself as a moment of cinematic awe. Whether we think of the Mt Rushmore Sequence in North by Northwest, or the early chase sequence involving the crane in Casino Royale, the films absorb the impressiveness of scale within the demands of tension. We might be well aware of the actors as small against the location in which they find themselves, but we could call this adrenalized scaling, where what Uzak etc. offer is meditativescaling. In the former awe is contained diegetically and physiologically within the form; in the latter awe is generated out of a meditative state and allows for the Wenders notion of "emotion pictures', and what we've been calling moving images.
Tarr is nothing if not a great director of this meditative scaling, yet he doesn't only or even especially utilize it to create awe, but chiefly to generate the sort of pessimistic mystery Schopenhauer observed when saying somewhere in Essays and Aphorisms, "when we perceive and consider the existence, life and activity of any natural creature, eg. an animal, it stands before us...as an unfathomable mystery." A typical close-up of the woman's face would have registered her frustration, exhaustion and feelings of futility, but it is the context of the face here, the specific way Tarr films it, that manages to capture the Schopenhauerian sense of a mysteriousness of will greater than the human's. As the camera slowly dollies into position, it feels like an external force at work on man and woman. Whether it is the opening scene with the horse, or this scene with the daughter, each functions as mysterious examinations of wills at work: the will of beast and nature and human and nature. But it as though it is the will as will that Tarr is examining predominantly.
Some may of course see in Tarr's study nothing more than a misanthropic vision and that is exactly what is offered by the neighbor who comes round and buys some alcohol off the father. As he insists that nothing he says will make any difference because the rich have debased everything, this is not quite the film's message. Not because the film is more pessimistic than this figure's arch pessimism; more that it is only one form of pessimism that the film works with, as if it would be far too anthropocentrically specific for Tarr, far too embodied in the one character. Tarr gives the character the close ups he denies the daughter in the scene we've mentioned, but he also allows the characters such an uninterrupted monologue that it takes on a rhythmic quality greater than its semantic content. As the figure rails against hope in a world already completely taken over, "like a rat attacks from ambush", much of the film seems to offer a despair so much greater than the 'mere' greed of man. Who would then be responsible for the howling wind, or the light that is snuffed out before the end of the film, foreshadowed by the daughter's reading of the Lord's words where she hesitantly reads that the "morning will turn night", while at the same time the voice over narrator interrupts with equally despairing comments - and as Vihaly Mig's music adds a further non-diegetic despair to the onscreen misery?
Yet we might recall our early comments about Tarr dissolving the drive of the story into the intrigue of the form and get to the crux of our article. Diegetically, the film has nowhere to go, as if the images of despair demand we cannot remain within the story and must salvage meaning from the image-making itself. This turns the film into a genuinely metaphysical experience, an adventure in form as readily as content; yet not to escape feeling but to reconfigure it, just as we talked of how Tarr's apparent dehumanizing of the characters creates a space for feelings towards the horse. Reconfiguration in this context is the opposite of identification as it is usually couched. As Gilberto Perez says in an essay 'Towards a Rhetoric of Film' in relation to Carl Dreyer's Day of Wrath, "No, the camera cannot create a religious system; but it can express the tenets of such a system in a rhetoric of images, which here takes the form of an identification of the pattern of leaves with the old witch, then of the same pattern with Anne, so that Anne becomes identified with the old witch, and witchcraft becomes identified with nature." Here nature serves as rhetorically spiritual with Dreyer using nature to reflect the characters' sexual desires, and yet this is not the same as identification as we usually couch it. Equally, Tarr escapes such ready identification also: as he is interested in a certain distancing that creates nevertheless a realm of feeling through the mise-en-scene rather than through the psychology, pushing much further perhaps the sort of abstract psychology of a Dreyer and consequently further into the metaphysical problem.
If one holds too readily to the potential issues of the film, and the behavior of the characters, where would the filmmaker create the space for the spiritual problem Tarr wants to address? As Tarr says in Enthusiasm magazine, "We believe that apart from the main protagonists in the film there are other protagonists: scenery, the weather, time and locations have their own faces and they are important, they play an important role in the story." Here his thoughts seem to chime precisely with Perez's. Rather than talking of identification, Perez talks of rhetoric: "Those of you familiar with the work of Kenneth Burke will have recognized my debt to him. Identification is a key term in his Rhetoric of Motives, and I have been using the term in the way he uses it. Rhetoric is the art of persuasion, and Burke argues that persuasion rests on identification: a speaker persuades an audience by identifying his cause with their interests, by identifying himself with something that appeals to them, that has their approval." Perez adds, "It is the task of a rhetoric of film to examine, as Burke does in his Rhetoric of Motives, the different degrees and different kinds of identification, its different ways of joining and dividing, the different effects that it can have."
The question we might ask in conclusion is what type of identification does Tarr seek, and what sort of rhetoric does he deploy? When we mentioned the need to dissolve the story into the form this would be an example of Tarr's rhetoric, where he cannot create a "religious system through the camera", but he can create a persuasive and pervasive sense of spiritual absence through the form. Tarr offers a type of aesthetic realigning, taking into account Susan Sontag's comment on Tarr's work that it offers, "some of the very few heroic violations of cinematic norms of our times." But we can also think of a remark that concludes her essay on Bresson and spiritual cinema in Against Interpretation, where she says, "Bresson's attempt is to insist on the irrefutability of what he is presenting. Nothing happens by chance; there are no alternatives, no fantasy; everything is inexorable." Hence back story information on the characters, political specifics and geographical exactness are all irrelevant to Tarr's concerns not especially because they are uninteresting, but more because they are irrelevant, irrelevant to the rhetorical pessimism the director practices. Indeed, it is the very eschewal of norms, the realignment of character and story that proves necessary for Tarr's conclusion. A more realistically-oriented film would have needed to create the plausible within the metaphysical and the metaphorical: it wouldn't have been enough for the snuffing out of the light at the film's conclusion to be prefigured by the biblical allusion, but would also have required a greater degree of narrative grounding: an eclipse perhaps, or the strong winds that would not allow a candle to burn in a wind that whips its way through the house's drafty interiors.
Instead Tarr expects a suspension of cinematic disbelief greater than the law of physics, a bold demand, yet surely in keeping with a metaphysical cinema, one that refuses the ready expectations of identification,for a rhetorical despair entirely in keeping with Schopenhauer's claim, a pessimism which contains within it a strange, mysterious optimism. "What dies goes to where all life originates, its own included. From this point of view our life is to be regarded as a loan received from death, with sleep as the daily interest on this loan. Death announces itself frankly as the end of the individual, but in this individual there lies the germ of a new being." (On The Suffering of the World) As Tarr says on the evolution of his oeuvre in Enthusiasm: "And as time went by we started to realize what problems there were, not only of a social nature, but ontological and cosmic problems as well. And then we found out that even the weather, everything was bad and from then on there is nothing else to do but make it total. And to create complete desperation. And the more desperate we are the more hope there is and that is quite simple." The film is a provocative challenge, a work that asks us to ignore the narrative event for the formal distinctiveness, and to make the leap from personal misery to metaphysical hope within its rhetorical despair. "If you get touched by the beauty of destitution," Tarr says, "then we've reached something, we've achieved something."
© Tony McKibbin