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The booklet that accompanies Damnation has sparked an inside joke at our house. The booklet is called “Bela Tarr: A Cinema of Patience.” The first words out of my wife’s mouth were “is that a euphemism for ‘boring’?” My own thought was that it’s a euphemism for both “pretentious” and “boring.”

We’ll get a good chuckle out of that for years to come, but in my defense, I have to say that I like minimalism, in music, in art, and in film. Minimalism can be funny, hypnotic, and thought-provoking. In the case of film and music, it can even require virtuosity and technical prowess. I’ve liked the Qatsi movies, Gerry, and even Tarr’s own Werckmeister Harmonies.

Unfortunately, Damnation didn’t do anything for me, and I’ll probably be using our newly discovered euphemism to say that it’s just plain boring.

Disintegration

Occasion flashes of brilliant cinematography aren't enough
Occasion flashes of brilliant cinematography aren’t enough

I reserve the right to change my mind later, but I didn’t see in Damnation the drama that was in Gerry or the multi-layered meaning that was in Werckmesiter Harmonies. All I saw was a fairly traditional story of a love triangle, too scripted, and slowed down to a snail’s pace.

I credit Tarr for finding a fascinating setting. The movie was filmed in a small town where buckets of ore ride across the landscape in a constantly moving tramway to some never-revealed destination. It’s the kind of hypnotic, surreal element that complements Tarr’s minimalist style. It’s reminiscent of Truffaut’s people mover in Fahrenheit 451, a sort of futuristic-yet-banal detail that makes you admire human ingenuity while simultaneously disappointing your hopes for something exciting to come. It’s the perfect tone-setter for Tarr’s somber and depressed movie.

The music and acting help to set the tone immensely. Tarr finds minimalist music, repeated arpeggios, and clicking metronomes. And the actors and extras are practically dead from depression. You can feel the weight of the world. The people are defeated by mere gravity in this gray Eastern European setting. One of the characters observes that “all stories end in disintegration.”

Trying One’s Patience

Had I disliked Damnation because its mood was dark and oppressive, I probably still would have “liked” it for succeeding at what it set out to do. Instead, I found myself drifting away from the movie and into my own cares and thoughts. The occasional flash of brilliant cinematography would make me sit up and take notice, but it wasn’t enough to excite or engage. I wanted to like Damnation, but from seeing it once on DVD, I didn’t.

It’s too easy for Americans to dismiss slow-paced art films as “boring.” Given the time, I’d love to help audiences appreciate this form of art. But Damnation is not the place to start. Tarr does a lot of things well in Damnation, but even for this fan of minimalism, it’s cinema that tries one’s patience.

Picture and Sound

The picture quality seems a little muddy on Damnation. Compare this to Werckmesiter Harmonies, which in spite of the black and white film stock, has a spark and a sharpness that makes the film seem more immediate and present. Damnation suffers from a lack of detail — for example, in one shot I couldn’t tell if there was a child by the window. I felt like I would have needed to see the movie projected on film to know for sure. (It may have something to do with the fact that Damnation is a 1987 film, while Werckmeister is from 2000.)

Sound quality is very good though, and the music does a lot to mitigate the muddy picture.

DVD Extras

As with all of these Facets releases, Damnation comes without any DVD extras. It does, however, come with a booklet that goes a long way toward helping viewers to appreciate minimalism, and specifically Tarr’s films. An essay by Peter Hames sums up Tarr’s career in 7 pages. Also included is a 2000 interview with Tarr conducted by a pair of critics at the Cork Film Festival (where Werckmeister had just shown).

  • Patrick: Man...I liked it MUCH more than Werckmeister...BUT not everyone agrees on
    everything... Oh...I do have to differ with you on the film being "muddy"....I saw the
    check on this and it was beautiful.... May 10, 2006 reply
  • Marty Mapes: Regarding "muddy," I hope that doesn't send the wrong impression. I'm not saying the DVD is at fault, only that the style is different (or maybe it's the age of the film). I just keep thinking of images from Werckmeister where you can really feel like you're in the same room as the people; you can see the gleam in their eyes. Where in Damnation there's always sort of a smoky distance between you and the subject. May 10, 2006 reply
  • GoblinGirl: This movie is beautiful. This, along with Satantango and Werckmeister Harmonies, are Tarr's 3 greatest films. It's slow, but I was never bored. October 14, 2006 reply
  • someone: First of all I have not made it through a sitting of this film yet but that is b/c it is SO beautiful that I cannot watch the whole thing at once. There are way to many movies which are pushed along by plot alone and this is what people pay to see. I lOVE that he is able to make films which create a whole different felling. This is what art is. movies have moved from art to more fast mass produced entertainment. Bela Tarr is a poet and I thank god someone is giving him funding to make such long poetic pieces in this time. I Hate this American trend that anything that is not mainstream is boring and pretentious. If you don't get it then fine you most likely don't need it. you are probably an ignorant and happy American, which is fine its probably better than filling your head with worries and intellectual madness but its also sad that this anti -art movement
    of people who 'don't get it' has become so trendy. I bet when your 85 years old and you stare into the eye of death and look at the world slowly with every inch of its misery and beauty then you will need Bela Tarr. I suggest then giving Damnation a good hearty viewing.
    love. February 22, 2007 reply