Jacques Rancière’s latest work, Béla Tarr, The Time After, is that awkward thing: an essay-book. It appears primarily to serve as a manifesto of Rancière’s theory of cinema, via a ponderous and dogmatic guide to the Hungarian filmmaker, Béla Tarr. Rancière, like Adorno and Žižek, has come to be feted as a philosopher of the arts, and this fluid translation by Erik Beranek is essentially a book of academic film criticism, in the tradition of Roland Barthes or Susan Sontag. It is a worthy tradition and undoubtedly important that academics engage with contemporary culture. But the distance between the abstractions of philosophy and the immediately physical nature of the art discussed can be problematic where either that distance is not successfully bridged or, worse, it accommodates a distortive reading that attempts to fit individual works of art into the broader intellectual arguments that philosophy might privilege.
Both problems apply here. For, though powerfully written and often illuminating, Rancière’s analysis is at times overbearing and frequently skewed by his own dogma. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that the book reads best where he strays from his theorizing, distracted in a study of the films for their own sakes. Which is not to say the book’s successes are all incidental. Far from it, the text is thoroughly researched and affords many intended insights into Béla Tarr’s films and cinema in general. Nor could one call this a simple gloss of Tarr’s filmography, though I personally found this aspect of the book more compelling. But Rancière’s ambition seems to be more grandiose than particular, and in this way it can feel as though Tarr is just a means for the philosopher to reach his bold conclusions. There are, however, moments in the text where the particular and the general jump together, where Rancière identifies in Béla Tarr’s films those ideological and artistic principles that he himself holds dear. These rare mind-meetings are profoundly affirmative, and to an extent justify a book in which criticism runs the risk of shackling to its own agenda the very artistic freedoms it celebrates.
For Béla Tarr’s films are both ecstatically liberating and emphatically binding: an essentially visceral form of spiritual quest, which I have elsewhere called a kind of Prosaic Sublime. What is rare and exciting about films like Damnation, Sátántangó, The Werckmeister Harmonies, and his last film, The Turin Horse, is that they do not locate their meanings in any mythical elsewhere, but find significance in the physical conditions and human relationships that circumscribe the arduous lives of the characters he follows. There is the driving rain and grinding poverty of the films Damnation and Sátántangó, creating villages of mud and petty politics. This is the fabric of lives which must be endured and the grace with which they are endured offers the most down-to-earth form of heroism I have come across in film. It is magnified and reflected in the way he films grim and oppressive places with such beauty that they also contain possibilities one might not otherwise ascribe them. There are no fake myths or glib consolations here. His films are inspiring for their honesty and skill; they don’t offer pleasure or meaning through virtuoso chicanery (though he flirts with the possibility through the most compelling character in the history of his casting, Sátántangó’s Irimias).
So how does Rancière's text relate to this? First we have the title chapter, “The Time After,” which opens with a warning that this is no potted history just as Tarr’s films are not conventional sequences, as Rancière writes: “It is always the same film that he makes . . . From the first film to the last, it is always the story of a broken promise, of a voyage that returns to its point of departure.” Appropriate to Tarr’s peripatetic films and a refreshing break from the linear march of many retrospective appraisals, Rancière prefaces his argument with the counsel echoed in the final line of the book: “the last film is still just another film. The closed circle is always open.”
But after a brief introduction to Tarr’s first work, The Prefab People, Rancière is into the less open-ended language of fact and statement:
Cinema is the art of the time of images and sounds, an art developing the movements that set bodies in relation to one another in space. It is not an art without words. But it is not the art of the word that recounts and describes. It is an art that shows bodies, bodies expressing themselves among other bodies through the act of speaking, and through the way in which the word has an effect upon them.
The distinction he draws here between the languages of film and literature is neat but the way in which he says it is with a suspiciously broad brush: “Cinema is . . . it is not . . . it is.” Rereading the passage, I wondered whether he wasn’t just stating the obvious but with biblical grandeur. Yes, cinema is about bodies on film and, yes, they move through space, and yes, they speak to each other, and no they aren’t brought to life through words alone because they aren’t in a book but a visual medium! His assertions, masquerading as explanations, epitomize a style that risks being pointlessly blunt. Moreover, his sweeping statements on the general nature of cinema strike me as perverse since, surely, what motivated him to write the book in the first place was his interest in the films of this particular director, rather than a desire to legislate the absolutes of Art.
There is, of course, a value in relating the effects of a particular work to bigger thought structures and here lies the essential merit of Rancière’s intentions. Take the end of the first chapter:
The time after is not the morose, uniform time of those who no longer believe in anything. It is the time of pure, material events, against which belief will be measured for as long as life will sustain it.
Here he is equally assertive, but more specific. The sense of time in Tarr’s films is essentially physical, the stuff of bodily existence. Like a poker lounge, there are no clocks in Tarr’s universe, and we feel the passage of time (or perhaps its labyrinth) through the dripping of rain, the tolling of bells, the repetitions of habit. The units that measure it are “material events” and Rancière’s point looks right into this. But, again, he resorts to the language of thesis, antithesis, synthesis—expressed through that tired old dichotomy of body and spirit, conjoined in a moral judgement to which we are subject: “material events, against which belief will be measured.” Father, son and holy ghost, Amen.
Over the next two chapters, Rancière deals with the role of the physical world in Tarr’s films and elaborates the way in which material conditions not only circumscribe the lives of characters but become the subject of cinema itself. Discussing Family Nest, he describes how the drama is the domestic claustrophobia in which the characters exist. The more basically physical the level on which the camera operates, the more centrally it plays a part in a film about the impact of shared space and proximity upon the individual, as well as the group. He then goes on to elaborate how, if cinema is essentially physical and sensible, then the medium of film is the durational time in which this sensory matter is experienced and recorded. Which is so far an excellent analysis of the particular way in which Tarr configures time.
More’s the pity, then, that in the next chapter Rancière evolves this into a false distinction between durational experience and narrative, claiming:
The filmmaker is interested in bodies, in the way they hold still or move in space. He is interested in situations and movements, rather than the stories and the ends they use to explain the movements, at risk of distorting their force.
Here, the antithetical language—suspected from the start—blurs the basic truth of what he is saying, where he creates a false opposition. Representing bodies in space or creating a sense of durational time does not preclude narrative and the way in which Rancière attempts to write stories out of Tarr’s directing is plain wrong. There are good stories and bad stories, and though Tarr hates Hollywood, he loves directors like Rainer Werner Fassbinder and other narrative filmmakers of the radical left. You can have both, just as you can have true stories. Form is not inherently distortive. Moreover, Tarr is interested in imagination, the fictive universe and the drama of emotions as much as he is in the reality of physical existence and the way in which film can relate to it. The balance between the two is an equation at the heart of his practice, and he has explicitly avowed as much in an interview with Howard Feinstein: “All our movies is [sic] talking about the human dignity . . . Jean-Luc Godard said that the beauty and truth has two poles: the document and the fiction, or imagination. And that’s surely true.” Here is an example, I think of where Rancière’s anti-narrative crusade itself “distorts the force” of Tarr’s films.
For all this, the two chapters in which Rancière advances this denial are the most stimulating two in the book. And though I disagree with the idea, I admire the more subtle observations he builds it from. Chapter IV, “Crooks, Idiots and Madmen,” comes to life with a discussion of various character types in Sátántangó, their roots in folk and fairy tale and the way in which they are empowered by Tarr’s recasting of them in more minimal roles that communicate through a visual language of film, rather than verbal myth. Rancière also quotes Tarr’s insistence that characters are “personalities” which his actors have to “be” rather than “play,” informing the reader about the ideology behind the directing. The actors Tarr uses and reuses in the films are also named and interrelated as Rancière systematically goes through the films and here it is interesting to learn how close and apparently integrated a group they are, practically a collective who subscribe to the same approach and continue to work together over decades. Such behind-the-scenes research is welcome, even entertaining, revealing more about a kind of cinema that the viewer might have recognized in the films but perhaps not consciously considered or understood as different.
Rancière also has a talent for identifying those specific moments in the film where meaning condenses or an underlying idea finds its symbol. As well as a skill for noting instances where something slightly enigmatic happens or appears—instances that might be overlooked—but Rancière sees in them those elements of myth that invest the film with a deeper significance. For instance, one of Tarr’s finest films, The Werckmeister Harmonies, culminates in a savage assault on a hospital and its patients by local rioters with their own wildly lost type of “motiveless malignancy.” Throughout the whole violent sequence during which they vandalize the hospital and beat up its patients we do not see their expressions; they are filmed from behind. The moment where we do finally see their faces occurs at the same times as they encounter a character who defines the limit of the abuses they have just inflicted elsewhere:
The moment when two of the rioters’ faces will finally appear to us, will be the moment when the movement comes to a halt, which here, again, is tied to a contrast of light: a shower curtain pulled away to reveal a ceramic wall, before which stands, in a blinding white light, an emaciated, naked old man whose protruding ribs resemble the bandages of a mummy. This old man is a victim at once too vulnerable and too inaccessible: a figure from the beyond, evoking the pictorial figures of the inhabitants of Limbo or of Lazarus in his tomb, a being to whom it is no longer possible to do evil, or not possible to do further evil.
Beautifully written, this reading of a powerful image drives at myths and meanings central to the film, that might otherwise go misunderstood. Here, without imposing upon the film, Rancière adds to it something that might not have been there before in the eye of the beholder.
Perhaps the clearest tribute Rancière pays to Tarr is the case he makes for hope in his films, distinguishing between “the normal disorder of the ‘disillusioned’ order of things and the extreme of destruction and madness.” These extremes set up a risk that haunts the lives of Tarr’s characters, risks around which much of the drama takes place, and from which they derive their value. The risk is giving up all together and dignity lies in resistance or survival. This is important to understand as it is Tarr’s only form of faith, without which the films become a sea of despair in which the viewer can’t see the point of any of it. Tarr’s god is dignity, human dignity and he has explicitly stated its centrality to his filmmaking in numerous interviews. In bringing it to light, Rancière establishes that Tarr is not the pessimist that the stark nature of his films might suggest but, conversely, a director with a waywardly uplifting aspect.
In the last pages of his book Rancière delves deeper into both his own philosophy and that of the films, The Turin Horse in particular, closing with a tirade that hits upon the obscured political angle of Tarr’s direction and simultaneously reveals Ranicere’s own ideological bête noire:
In the night that descends upon the final silence of the characters, the filmmaker’s rage remains intact against those who debase the lives of men and horses, those “victors,” who, like the Nietzschean prophet of the second day says, have degraded all they have touched by making it into an object of possession, those who have make all change impossible because it has always already happened, and because they have appropriated everything, including dreams and immortality.
This is vindicating and powerful, both as an expression of Rancière’s own feelings and as an explanation for much of the evident anger and darkness in Tarr’s work. Yet it also suggests to me a reason for Rancière’s objection to narrative forms, which he seems to identify with the process of commodification so bitterly described here. Stories remain of structural, psychological and cinematic interest to Tarr and are not incompatible with the feelings above, but Rancière’s closing indictment of false stories—those that denature reality or attempt to compensate for it—does finally ring true.
It is the time after all stories, the time when one takes direct interest in the sensible stuff in which these stories cleaved their shortcuts between projected and accomplished ends. It is not the time in which we craft beautiful phrases or shots to make up for the emptiness of all waiting.
I don’t see these demons—“shortcuts” and deceptive, dishonest language—as the evils of narrative, but the hollow shortcomings of all bad art. Either way, the title of his book looks beyond these, hoping for a future of cinema that transcends false stories, a post-disillusioned utopia and identifying it in the “sensible stuff” of Tarr’s films. But, of course, the sensible is only the half of it. With his head in the clouds, did Rancière forget to mention that Tarr is also a metaphysical man?
Rose McLaren is a writer living in London. She has written for a variety of arts and literature publications and is now writing fiction and working in publishing.