Someone famous once said that talking about music is like dancing about architecture, meaning that, describing one art form by means of another is ultimately futile. Yet, over and over again, writers attempt to do just that very thing. There are many reasons why one might want to write about someone else’s creative work: it may be a way of explaining it to oneself; a way to explain it to others; a way to advance or buttress one’s own ideas on the back of theirs; or countless other reasons. We all want to understand what we’ve experienced, and writers feel the added burden of putting it into words.
This is the task Jacques Rancière has set himself with his Bela Tarr, The Time After. Rancière is a philosopher concerned with the plight of the proletariat, so it makes some sense that he’d take on Tarr’s films since they concern themselves with the era just before and just after the fall of Communism in the Eastern Bloc. Tarr’s films include The Turin Horse (2011), The Man from London (2007), and The Outsider (1981).
Because he’s a philospher, Rancière floats some theories about the inner meanings of Tarr’s scenes and even certain shots or camera movements. Some of these are more convincing than others, but Tarr’s films have so much space and silence in them, they practically invite interpretation and misinterpretation.
Tarr populates his work with people who often don’t know themselves, and he leaves us in rooms and landscapes with them for minutes and sometimes for hours at a time. Rancière tries mightily to explain these inchoate beings and even succeeds at times: “He does not want to look at the rain, he says, like dogs who await the puddles in order to drink from them.” Other times he gets stuck on concepts like huit clos (commonly translated as no exit, referencing Sartre’s work), and he uses them over and over to the extent that they lose much of their meaning. Tarr’s films are quiet, hulking things that mostly evade grasp.
At times one is left to wonder whether some awkward phrasing in the book is the author’s or his translator’s. The phrase “mediocre web,” which is used to discuss how a certain swindler unsuccessfully attempts to entrap his fellow villagers in one of his schemes, might make sense as a concept but stretches one’s patience as a description. In the end, though, we have to admire Rancière ‘s efforts to capture the uncapturable. There are moments when Tarr’s images spur him to share his own wisdom: “This is why it is pointless to believe that the world will become reasonable if we keep harping on the crimes of the last liars, but also grotesque to insist that from now on we are living in a world without illusion.”
This slim yet dense little book will make no sense to those who haven’t seen any of Tarr’s films, but for those who have and are reaching for some way to make sense of what they’ve seen, Rancière certainly offers a few useful clues.
July 2013, Univocal Publishing (distributed by University of Minnesota Press)
$19.95, paperback, 81 pages
—Reviewed by Dmitry Samarov