Damnation (1988)

I’ve wondered, on occasion, what it might look like if a contemporary filmmaker were to use Sculpting in Time as a style guide of sorts, deliberately mimicking Tarkovsky’s technique but toward very different ends. Would Tarkovsky’s style, siphoned through another imagination, produce a similar effect? Would any of that strange poetic logic survive the translation?

Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr’s Damnation (1988) makes for an interesting case study. Many of the Tarkovsky trademarks are on display: stark black-and-white photography, elliptical editing, textured (for lack of a better word) mise-en-scene, wet floors, wandering dogs, and lots and lots of rain; Tarr’s camera creeps slowly through most of the film, typically from side-to-side, and shots last for minutes at a time. Damnation captures something of Stalker‘s dystopia and Nostalghia‘s sorrow, but Mirror casts the longest shadow. Vali Kerekes’s resemblance to Margarita Terekhova is, at times, uncanny; her make-up seems even to have been designed to remind us of the circles under Terekhova’s eyes.

And so, as I watched Damnation, I thought often of Tarkovsky; and yes, at times, Damnation felt like a Tarkovsky film. I would agree with Jonathon Rosenbaum that it is “compulsively watchable” for that very reason. But Tarr’s and co-writer László Krashnahorkai’s imaginations are no match for Tarkovsky’s, and so the content of the film, ultimately, borders on the banal. Alienation and isolation and desperation are, of course, perfectly acceptable subjects for artistic meditation — Damnation joins an impressive body of work in that respect — but I was struck repeatedly by a clash of content and form that reduces the film, finally, to a string of platitudes and (even worse) symbols. Tarkovsky writes:

in film, every time, the first essential in any plastic composition, its necessary and final criterion, is whether it is true to life, specific and factual; that is what makes it unique. By contrast, symbols are born, and readily pass into general use to become clichés, when an author hits upon a particular plastic composition, ties it in with some mysterious turn of thought of his own, loads it with extraneous meaning.

The opening image in Damnation is a remarkable, three-minute shot of coal buckets soaring like cable cars into the horizon. It’s the high point of the film, I think, because it lacks context. We are forced to sit patiently (or not so patiently), listening to the mechanical hum, watching as the buckets come and go, suspended in a moment of Gertrude Stein-like presence: “A bucket is a bucket is a bucket.” The image is alive and contradictory and frustrating and beautiful. By the end of the film, though — after watching our hero repeatedly fail in his attempts to capture love, and, finally, giving up in his efforts entirely — those buckets have become just another symbol of meaningless motion. Acquarello draws an interesting parallel with one of the film’s final scenes:

Using a near static camera, . . . Tarr reflects the desolation and spiritual lethargy of the directionless and morally bankrupt protagonists: the cloakroom attendant’s hollow recitation of religious scripture to Karrer; the dispassionate act of intimacy between Karrer and his lover; the somnambulistic group line dance that recalls the opening image of the sluggish, automated motion of cable cars.

Likewise, the dogs that roam silently through much of the film (shades of Nostalghia) are transformed by Damnation‘s closing image into a trite symbol of man’s savage nature (or some such oversimplification). I haven’t decided yet if it is fair to call Damnation a failure because it doesn’t meet Tarkovsky’s standards, but I feel justified in my reservations. The film’s style implies a kind of intellectual and spiritual freedom (for the viewer, for man, in general) that is simply absent in the film itself.