Hungarians (hint: not fancy dresses) bring America back to the movie theater

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Feeling guilty about being suckered in by the Oscars? Ease your guilt! Read about how once upon a time, film screenings meant something. From the March issue of the B&W.

I Can’t Believe it’s not Goulash

Roger Ebert likes to wax nostalgic about the old days. In a favorite story of his, he stood with a crowd of eager moviegoers outside Chicago’s Three Penny Cinema for hours in the pouring rain, anxiously awaiting the next sold-out screening of Jean-Luc Godard’s post-apocalyptic Marxist treatise Weekend. There is a certain false nostalgia here. But Ebert and company does get something right: at that point in world history, going to see a movie in a theater meant something. Film screenings were an event.

It’s strange to complain about a time when a Columbia student can acquire elusive and difficult movies by Theo Angelopolous or Hou Hsiao-Hsien by walking to Kim’s basement or to the Lerner mailroom and watch them on his laptop. Steven Soderbergh has let his Bubble burst, and its much-discussed distribution strategy—simultaneous release in theaters, on video, and on cable—points to a general trend in the culture: accessibility.

But before the advent of home-video technology, theaters weren’t just the best way to see a movie, they were the only way. And so, in the last three decades, film screenings have lost the unique power of concerts or museum exhibitions, one-time-only events that can never be replicated.

The only movies that retain this special quality of spectacle seem to be the most extreme ones. Case in point: Béla Tarr’s Sátántangó, a Hungarian film about swindlers, collective farming, and peasants. A leisurely paced, non-linear masterwork shot primarily in long takes, it has a running time of seven-and-a-half—yes, 7.5—hours. Given that it’s subtitled, black-and-white, and four times the length of most other films, with few cuts and a confusing structure, Tarr’s epic frustrates every commercial expectation. Indeed, it does so with deliberate defiance: it opens with a shot of a herd of cows slowly walking across a farm. For ten minutes.

But it’s these qualities that ensure a reputation as big as the film itself and guarantee Sátántangó’s status as a curio and a classic. Screenings are exceedingly rare, so when the film played an unprecedented six-day run at the Museum of Modern Art in January, New York’s most discerning critics, from the Voice’s J. Hoberman to the Times’ Manohla Dargis, touted the event as a must-see. On a rainy Saturday afternoon—the kind invented for gray and dour films—MoMA managed to pack its theater full of viewers eager to take this legendary test of cinematic stamina. Hitchcock’s dictum that the length of a movie should be correlated to the endurance of man’s bladder went out the window. During the two fifteen-minute breaks, everyone rushed to the bathroom or outside to eat bag dinners, and camaraderie developed between the filmgoers. Everybody knew this was not just a movie, but a shared experience.

Apparently, a DVD release of Sátántangó is in the works—a sad thought for any fan of the film. Yes, cinéastes across the world will finally have the chance to see and debate the merits of this stunning work of art. The formalist magic of Tarr’s film, how ever, will not easily transfer to a television or computer. It develops its spellbinding potency precisely from exhaustive duration and repetition, from the viewer being forced to sit in a single space in real time. (This is why the films of Gus Van Sant, whose Elephant is a loose remake of Sátántangó, fail to attain the heft they so obviously aspire to: they usually run under two hours.)

But perhaps more importantly, a DVD release will end the film’s force as a cultural event, as an unusual way to bring movie buffs together for a moment—or seven hours—of celebration.

—C. Mason Wells

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