Sátántangó (the film)

IMG_0015

I had been looking forward to this for weeks: Sátántangó, Béla Tarr’s 1994 film based on László Krasznahorkai’s novel. Over seven hours long, with two breaks, this event lasted from 2 until 10 p.m. (I took the picture at the end of the second break; this shot stayed still for a minute or two before the film resumed.) There were ten to twelve of us in Auditorium “E” at the Tisza Mozi. I expected that I would know or at least recognize someone there, because the people who show up for this film probably have something in common, and because I have been living in Szolnok for over two years now. And indeed: a parent of one of my former students was there, and someone else looked vaguely familiar.

When I entered the movie theatre, it seemed like a Krasznahorkai setting itself: the place was being torn down, nothing recognizable was in sight, and the workers didn’t know where the movies were. I soon found out that I had to enter through the side (the front entrance was being renovated).

The film unrolls and reveals human depravity–cheating, affairs, swindling, idolatry, gullibility, all-out alcoholism, and greed. There’s nothing redeeming in the characters (except perhaps the doctor and the girl Estike), no sentimentality at all, nothing romanticized, no one to feel sorry for (except Estike, maybe, and the cat), and nothing in the scenery except for mud, rain, more rain, trees, dilapidated buildings, more mud, more rain. But somehow this becomes gorgeous–through the long, slow scenes, Krasznahorkai’s sentences and phrases, the long gazes, the bells ringing and ringing, the animals mulling around, the dance that goes on and on, the accordion haplessly playing, and the scoundrels’ indomitable belief that they will be led to a better life by the arch-schemers Petrina and Irimiás. The latter has a gift for soft-spoken oratory and–in a brilliant performance by Mihály Víg–leads people to want to believe him and his partner, against all evidence. I loved the ending, which I won’t give away here, except to say that everything goes dark and the story begins.

The Not-So-Brief Soul of Wit

chasing the last laughI have not yet read the book pictured to the left (Chasing the Last Laugh: Mark Twain’s Raucous and Redemptive Round-the-World Comedy Tour by Richard Zacks). I learned about it yesterday, early in the morning, when looking lackadaisically into humor and wit. Although I had resolved to buy no more books before leaving for Hungary–no more!–I broke down and ordered this one, because it looks too good to pass up. I didn’t know that Twain was a stand-up comedian or that he went on a world tour–or maybe once upon a time I knew this, “But, being over-full of self-affairs, / My mind did lose it.” (I did know that he was friends with Tesla, but that’s a separate matter.)

Yesterday I was thinking not about comedy in particular but about what makes some people uproariously and endearingly funny. Comedy and funniness are not identical; comedy is not always funny, nor do funny things necessarily constitute comedy. Funniness has many sources: it can come from setting up and breaking logical, semantic, and conversational expectations; taking an idea to an absurd conclusion; bringing a particular rhythm, tone, and timing into your speech; performing an exquisite imitation; and more. Today I will look at one ever-gurgling spring of funniness: the ability to exult in your foibles.

We all have foibles of one kind or another; many of us struggle with them daily. A comedian takes them and makes the most of them. Human fallibility attains splendor while retaining its clumsiness and silliness.

For example, some of us can be a pest at times. I am generally patient and unfazed by things–but when I really want to get something done, and it depends on other people, I will bug them until the thing is accomplished, whatever it may be. Sometimes I feel guilty about this; I type and untype an email, hover over the “send” button, delete the whole mess, start over, and repeat the process several times until I end up just sending the thing. It’s always polite–I don’t “flame” people–but still I may feel like a pest.

So when I listen to James Veitch give one of his talks about replying to spammers, I see that he’s taking this quality–being a pest, or feeling like one–and lifting it to its pinnacle. If you are going to be a pest, whom better to pester than those who are aggressively pestering the world: spammers with spurious business proposals? Veitch managed to get one of them so annoyed that he or she (the spammer) finally replied, “PLEASE STOP EMAILING US.” Now, in daily life, with people I know or even with strangers, I wouldn’t want this to happen–I’d be sad and remorseful if it did–but with a spammer, it seems beautifully fitting.

My one objection to his talk is that, in keeping with the TED worldview, he tells his audience, “do do this at home.” He qualifies this by saying they should use fake email addresses, but still, that’s bad advice. He can do this because he has a flair for it. Others could get themselves into trouble. It wouldn’t be the same. The TED illusion–that everyone can do this, whatever “this”  may be–detracts a little from his act. The best way to share in humor and wit is to laugh along, to recognize oneself in it, while also letting it belong to someone else.  Most of us know the feeling of trying to retell someone else’s joke: sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but either way, it’s not the same. Funniness is like a soap bubble. Its air is internal.

Another foible (if one can call it that) is awkwardness. Many of us know the feeling of being a little out of sorts and out of place in a setting–not quite saying the right thing, or saying too much, or not saying enough. Some comedians–such as Ismo Leikola–take their own awkwardness and turn it into a glowing orb. Many performers transcend their awkwardness, but certain comedians actually preserve and exalt it. You see Leikola stuttering and puttering around, flapping his arms, and having a grand old time.

On a different level, and in a different way, this foible-lifting is part of what I love in László Krasznahorkai’s prose. He takes you dancing in the characters’ vanities and exaggerations. When reading The Melancholy of Resistance, I burst out laughing many times; when reading Mrs. Eszter’s funeral oration at the end, I laughed myself to tears. The laughter came from the recognition of mind–not the brooding reminiscence of Philip Roth’s characters, but something inflated, clumsy, profound, absurd, and wondrous.

To make the most of foibles, comedians, humorists, and writers perceive kairos (in the ancient Greek sense of the word, not the Christian sense): the opportune moment, which comes again and again in life. Foibles are not always fun or funny, but each one has its spectacular hour or series of hours. That takes us into comedy itself. If comedy turns a potentially threatening, destructive, or even catastrophic situation into something life-affirming (or, at worst, darkly persistent), then, by playing out a foible at just the right moment, by being both flawed and exquisite at once, one can launch a round-the-world comedy tour, not like Mark Twain, but in and along an unrepeatable way.

 

I made a few edits to this piece after posting it.

 

Krasznahorkai’s Ken

woodchuck

Yesterday I did two things for the first time: saw a woodchuck on these particular steps of Fort Tryon Park (I have seen many woodchucks in the park, but not there–a stranger pointed him out excitedly), and read László Krasznahorkai’s story The Last Wolf (which I followed up with Herman this morning). The two events are related in that this woodchuck reminds me of the “noxious beasts” of his stories, the beasts that arouse human cruelty and remorse.

Just a few lines into The Last Wolf, I knew that I was faced with great literature–great, that is, in the reading itself. But what makes it great? It is the way of unraveling and revealing thoughts that I recognize as my own but that catch me off guard with their undertones and contradictions. The stories’ threads combine, diverge, combine: the narrator’s story to the bartender, the many stories he gathers, despite himself, of the last wolf, and then the story of his own mind, revealed only to the reader–all of this in a single sweeping sentence.

… and he remembered that the strange thing about the article was not only the way the oddly poetic sentence stood out in the text but that anyone would know when “the last wolf” had died, for how would anyone know, and beyond that, the verb itself, “perished” for did any scientist speak like that? no, there was something not quite right about the article, about the sentence …

This is introspection filled with the world. You start reading, and from then on, with all the twists and turns, you’re balancing on thin logs; nothing sags, nothing lets you quit, and with just a slip of the foot, you’re trapped.

It wakes up my mind; as I read, I become the game warden, the enthusiastic interpreter, the sleepy bartender, the repeated phrases, the changes of the conscience. Herman is fantastic too; the story’s two parts contradict each other in places, leaving me to suspect that people are lying, that stories are not fully told, that people rumored to have disappeared are dead or vice versa, that something magnificent has happened against our knowledge, and that the public imagination can’t hold a single solitude.

It’s possible to read these stories as allegories, but is it necessary? I would say no; the meaning lies in the things themselves, not in what they might represent. An allegorical reading would evade some of the meaning (and give the reader an escape).

Some readers find Krasznahorkai’s prose too dense and slow. I have a different reaction; his prose holds me much more than some lighter styles do, not because it’s dense, but because the density is so involving. The language sings, but with the pain of someone confronting himself like a stranger. Krasznahorkai has been compared to Gogol, and with good reason; he also reminds me a little of Borges. But these comparisons are slant; he has a ken of his own. I can’t wait to read The Melancholy of Resistance.

 

I made a few minor changes to this piece after posting it.