Multiple Vision: Deciphering the isolated gazes in the films of Béla Tarr
by Aaron Cutler
Moving Image Source
This scene arrives about 40 minutes into Béla Tarr's new and (as he has claimed) final film, The Turin Horse. The horse's refusal to move comes on the second day of the film's six, and is one of the most startling interruptions of the daily routines of its owners, a father and daughter, who spend their storm-swept days dressing themselves and cooking and eating potatoes. What's unnerving about this moment isn't just the cruelty that the man inflicts on the animal, which has been established from the opening, as the man drives his beast of burden forward. It's also the sensation, at several points throughout the scene, of the horse looking directly at us, and of its expression signaling nothing. As we stare at the stable door, long after the people leave, we might wonder: Is it possible to think nothing?
The question of whether people can actually live without thought, and the possible ramifications of such life, have arisen throughout his career, which began with straightforward social dramas in the late '70s and early '80s and then, as the Eastern bloc dissolved, pushed toward the abstract. The horror in his films changed from government agencies controlling characters' thoughts to characters suppressing their own. The horse is the extreme of emptiness. Its gaze disturbs because, in most movies, we expect to find motivation in characters' actions, and motives usually lie in the face. Whatever is in the horse's face, though, will stay a mystery.
"Men and animals regard each other across a gulf of mutual incomprehension," W.G. Sebald wrote. But Tarr's movies don't settle for just this moral—the horse's enormous, inscrutable expression is part of a large network of isolated gazes, including ours. Consider the ending of Tarr's previous film, The Man From London (2007), when a murderer comes face-to-face with his victim's wife. Mrs. Brown has seen things we haven't—her husband's body lies inside a shed we never enter, our eyes lingering on a wooden wall whenever characters go inside. When confronted with the killer, she doesn't seem sad, or angry. She's blank.
Both these gazes—the horse's, and the woman's—suggest violence internalized. Mrs. Brown's life has been obliterated as her husband's has been, but her fate is worse, because she has to keep living.
Nothing is either good or bad unless thinking makes it so. A terrible sight in a Tarr movie traumatizes because of how it wounds not the eyes, but the mind. The pre-London film, Werckmeister Harmonies (2000), shows a mob trashing a hospital until its members are shamed into leaving—an old man, trembling, looks at them, and by doing so makes them see themselves. We think we've watched everything. But then the camera shifts to a young witness, János, wide-eyed and trembling. He's seen something we haven't. What?
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