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Observations on the long take

Janice Lee interviewed by Maxi Kim.

The last time 3:AM Magazine spoke with Janice Lee, she had just published her second novel Daughter. Shortly before her first interview appeared in early 2011, Janice’s mother died suddenly. Her follow up work to Kerotakis was intent on exploring the lack of an archetype for the daughter figure. “We seem to have many archetypes in mythology and psychology for fathers, mothers, sons, but not really for daughters.” She went on to say that she didn’t count Freud’s, because it was a “carbon-copy of the son’s dilemma, in reverse.” Since then, her breadths as both a thinker and writer have only grown with each project.

Janice Lee’s newest title Damnation is a renunciation of her prior literary ventures and a book-length meditation on the long takes of the Hungarian film director Béla Tarr. Slated to come out as the eighth title of Penny-Ante Editions’ Success and Failures series, Stewart Home’s novel Mandy, Charlie, & Mary-Jane was the sixth in the series. Our conversation took place over brunch in a local diner near Janice’s home in Los Angeles.

Waitress: Are you guys ready for me or do you need a few minutes?

Janice Lee: I’m going to have the All American.

Waitress: How do you want the eggs?

JL: Over medium. And can I have the French toast instead of the pancakes?

Waitress: Sure. Sausage or bacon?

JL: Sausage. And add a side of home fries?

Waitress: Of course. And did you want any fruit with the French toast or just the plate?

JL: Just the slice.

Waitress: And for you?

Maxi Kim: I’ll have the same.

JL: [laughter]

Waitress: Two All Americans over medium eggs with sausage and French toast. And home fries as well? Great, thank you guys.

JL: All of that needs to be in the interview.

3:AM: [laughter] Let’s talk about your work . . .

JL: Well, lately I’ve been watching Béla Tarr films on repeat: Werckmeister Harmonies (2000), Damnation (1988), Sátántango (1994), and I just watched The Turin Horse (2011). It’s partially been a strange compulsion, watching these films over and over again (which I talk a bit more about in this post {http://jadedibisproductions.com/on-writing-and-obsession/}). But also I’ve been thinking about Béla Tarr’s long takes versus other long takes. Damnation, Sátántango and Werckmeister Harmonies are all based on either books, or screenplays by the Hungarian writer László Krasznahorkai, I’ve been reading his writing too and the work is really phenomenal; he uses these long sentences that sort of cycle through. You start off in one place, and somehow, through the succession of his dense language and phrases, seem to pass through eternity and end up in another place altogether. There’s a similar feeling to a long take, but they’re not the same. The sentences will sometimes describe very simple things, like people in a waiting room and how they’re feeling. But the sentence manages to encompass the whole history of these people and their future and their fates and the feeling of waiting and of eternity; and then, you the reader now feel like you’re confessing your own being to some vague ghost of God while you’re reading the sentence. It’s hard to explain. But I’ve been interested in why Krasznahorkai’s sentences are so powerful for me, and why Béla Tarr’s long takes are so effective, at least for me . . .

3:AM: Are they anything like Tarkovsky’s?

JL: Yeah, people compare him to Tarkovsky all the time. The film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum called him a ”despiritualized Tarkovsky,” and Tarr’s response was “The main difference is Tarkovsky’s religious and we are not. But he always had hope; he believed in God. He’s much more innocent than us—than me. No, we have seen too many things to make his kind of film. I think his style is also different because several times I have had a feeling he is much softer, much nicer.” And too, though I can’t remember where, I remember him saying too: “Rain in his films purifies people. In mine, it just makes mud.” There are similarities, yes, in that they both utilize the long take to “sculpt time,” but there are different worldviews at place.

I felt like I was in a confessional booth, actually giving confession when I was watching Béla Tarr’s films; I’ve never given confession before, but that’s how I imagine it’d feel like – the simultaneous intimacy with distancing and guilt, and all of these emotions all at once. Though Tarr isn’t “religious” in the same sense, the distant and vague ghost of religion is almost more powerful for me than the overbearing presence of it. I’ve been attempting to write long takes of my own, and the writing is completely different from what I’ve done in the past. I’m not intentionally relying on concepts and ideas, I’m writing these long scenes and really focusing in on small motions and objects. It might be more allegorical, I don’t know . . .

3:AM: How difficult was it to write about Béla Tarr given how defensive he is about how people read his movies? As you were writing the Béla Tarr book did you ask yourself if he would approve of it?

JL: When I was writing Damnation it had almost nothing to do with Béla Tarr as a person. I was writing it during the fall and I was already a fan of his films, I’d seen Béla Tarr’s Sátántango and Werckmeister Harmonies. At the time, I was going through a period of depression and simultaneous writer’s block, and as I watched his films I began contemplating what was happening in his world and in mine. And I was writing these little vignettes, these fictional vignettes that were taking place in the world of his films. There’s a narrative, but everything is inspired by and written while I was watching the films. The films ultimately set the pace for my writing, the films transformed my writing.

3:AM: Did you ever think about Béla Tarr, the person?

JL: I began thinking about Béla Tarr, the person, only after I was done. I don’t know what he would think about these vignettes, I’m also collaborating with Jared Woodland on this critical project that started out as a review of Sátántango, the book by Hungarian novelist László Krasznahorkai. Then, we decided it was a book length project, and started moving into a more in-depth investigation of Krasznahorkai’s writing alongside the film Sátántango. For that project we’ve read interviews of both Béla Tarr and László Krasnahorkai. And some of the time we found ourselves disagreeing with what they had to say about their own work. But also a lot of time thinking, “Yes, absolutely.” And often you have to excuse Béla Tarr. I think that he doesn’t want to explain his work to the public – I think that’s fine and I totally understand that. The work stands on its own. I don’t think there’s anything that he could say that would change the way that people feel about his work.

3:AM: The one interview that I listened to recently of his was the one where he talked about what cinema is for today. He’s actively against Hollywood movies, he asserts that cinema should reveal reality, time, etc. He kept on using the world reality, to explore reality. Do you agree with Béla Tarr on this point?

JL: I think cinema has many different functions. As you know, I love action movies; I recently saw the newest Fast & Furious. I think the function of a movie like Fast & Furious 6 is very different from the function of a Béla Tarr movie. I don’t know if there is just one function of cinema.

3:AM: The function of Fast & Furious is just to entertain, right?

JL: To entertain and to enact certain types of experiences. (There’s this term, chaos cinema, which I was introduced to via a video essay by film scholar Matthias Stork) And I think Béla Tarr enacts other kinds of experiences. It’s interesting that he uses the word “reality” so much, because one of the things that my collaborator Jared and I are talking about is that his films are a sort of mock reality. Yes, they’re a series of long takes, the film time and the actual time are often identical (things happen in “real” time), but events in his movies are not “realistic,” persay, which I think stems from his early documentary-fiction style. Viewers are always aware of the fact that scenes are partially staged, so there is a strange overbearing attention to detail that makes things present and real, like the locations or textures on a wall, but also a strange, philosophical tone in the dialogue or actors’ movements that indicates the fictionality of the world, and this is a strange balance to live in.

3:AM: Yes, there is a theatrical quality. Béla Tarr isn’t making pure documentaries.

Waiter: [interrupts] Can I get some more iced tea for you?

JL: Sure.

3:AM: I’d like some more coffee please.

Waiter: Absolutely.

3:AM: Are Béla Tarr’s long takes associated with capturing the sacred?

JL: Yeah, in a way. I think capturing the sacred while simultaneously capturing the ugly reality as being flat; and that flatness can still hold things that are sacred – if that makes sense. I feel like in other films, long takes often are about bringing out the beauty in subjects, they romanticize the subject maybe. In Béla Tarr, we might say that the subjects of a lot of these long takes are not worthy of long takes. Sometimes it’s watching someone fall asleep. Or watching it rain. There’s this scene in Sátántango where this doctor, he’s really big and he has trouble getting around; and there’s this 15 minute long take of him stumbling through the forest, he’s grunting, and sometimes you can’t see him, he’s between trees, it’s very dark. It’s actually quite painful and uncomfortable to watch. You the viewer aren’t sure why it’s going on for so long; it’s past the threshold of enjoyment or aesthetic pleasure. It’s just about being in the moment with him. It’s a very strange repetitive intimacy. . . I think of Beckett’s, “I can’t go on, I must go on.” Or Peggy Lee’s, “Is that all there is?”

3:AM: It sounds excruciating.

JL: It does, but it’s not. There’s Béla Tarr’s last film, The Turin Horse (2011), the name of the film comes from the famous incident when Nietzsche witnesses a man beating a horse in the street. The film starts with a man and a horse, and his daughter. There are all these long takes of them doing very mundane things. For instance, her helping him put on his clothes, a really long take of taking off his pajamas and putting on his socks, and then scenes of them eating potatoes (the film completely changed my conception of eating potatoes by the way). This goes on for six days. As a viewer I start to realize that I have to see these long takes of them going through their daily rituals, because then as small things start to change in their routines those changes begin to have huge repercussions. For example, one day they’re eating and it’s the same scene we’ve already seen four times, but this particular time these gypsies come out of nowhere to try to drink from their well. And they’re interrupted, as a viewer it’s so jarring . . .

3:AM: I’m reminded of Žižek speaking about how, for him, his favorite part in the movie Psycho is when Norman Bates is cleaning up that shower after killing the woman. And it’s just a ten minute scene of him doing manual labor, and for Žižek, as you said, the long take gives you a sense of intimacy. But there’s also something fascinating about watching someone just do manual labor.

JL: I think the long take, in those kinds of instances, sort of allows you to withhold your judgment. If we look at the way Pasolini talks about the long take, when you have a cut it means there’s a sense of momentary closure. So, the long take is perpetually in the present and it’s when you have a cut that that take is now in the past. In a long take you can’t make a judgment, you can’t actually project what you have inside of you on to what’s going on, until you see the end. You might be thinking about it, but really everything that you’re thinking about is based on the pure observation of the present moment or what is inside of yourself. You’re not allowed to relate the two – until that long take ends.

3:AM: How long have you been thinking about this?

JL: It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a long time, but especially lately because I’ve suddenly had my writing undergo this transition.

3:AM: There is something very honest about the long take, right? But it’s also interesting when it feels clichéd?

JL: Sure, it’s a filmic technique like any other. Anyone is free to use or misuse it.

3:AM: I was speaking about this with an Indian director I had just met at my friend’s movie club, he was telling me about how his favorite director was Eric Rohmer. But even his movies, as authentic as they are, they feel a bit clichéd. Because you know by the end of any Rohmer movie that the protagonist is going to do the right thing; after a series of obstacles, the protagonist won’t cheat on his wife, or he’s not going to take advantage of the minor . . . .

JL: Not all long takes are created equal. For me, successful long takes are series of different moments, they’re not necessarily a continuation of linear time, even if it’s happening linearly. In Hollywood films the long take is usually just a part of a longer sequence of events, it’s just one of many, and usually they function to help further plot or action. Orson Welles, for example, uses impressive long takes, but they don’t function the same way that Wong Kar Wai’s long takes do, or Béla Tarr’s. Have you seen Sátántango by the way?

3:AM: No.

JL: That’s a seven hour film. People fall asleep during that movie; consequently, you watch people fall asleep and wake up. The beginning shot of Sátántango is amazing; it’s a ten minute long shot of cows. The camera sort of moves with the cows, and at one point a cow stops to mount another cow. You can hear them mooing, and it’s raining . . .

Waiter: [brings coffee and iced tea to table]

3:AM: Thank you.

JL: I was reading a review that was breaking down this particular shot describing how in some ways you’re watching the cows and it seems like the filmmakers didn’t know what the cows were going to do; the cows were just “improv-ing.” Nobody is directing the cows. But at the same time, they probably took the shot a million times to get the right sequence of cow movements. So, it is sort of a documentary scene, because the cows are just moving without direction, but also the camera is panning steadily, and we’re very conscious of the camera’s presence. There’s that strange combination of fiction and nonfiction here.

3:AM: Are you working with [CalArts faculty member] Jon Wagner on this?

JL: I’ve been talking with Jon Wagner a little bit about long takes. We’ve been talking about Pasolini a lot. He feels like Tarkovsky used to be his favorite, and now he feels like Béla Tarr is better . . .

Waitress: Two All Americans with home fries?

3:AM: Thank you.

JL: Thank you.

Waitress: Enjoy.

3:AM: It looks really good.

JL: I feel like I was a real Tarkovsky fan too until I came across Béla Tarr. And now, for me, nothing else can compare in terms of the effect it has on me. We talked about how at the end of Béla Tarr’s long takes you feel like you have clarity. It’s a feeling of clarity without any understanding, if that makes sense. Clarity and understanding are two different things. You can have a feeling of clarity without understanding anything about the world of these characters. So, when you have a layering of all these long takes, it’s both calming and anxiety inducing.

3:AM: Is he capturing boredom at all? Godard does that often.

JL: Not to me. I think a viewer could potentially find the long takes boring, yes. But I think that has to do with pacing and patience. If you’re a person who doesn’t enjoy long takes, or doesn’t enjoy these types of films . . .

3:AM: I really dislike Warhol’s movies . . .

JL: I completely agree. Béla Tarr’s Sátántango is a seven hour movie, and I thought it’d be really excruciating to watch – but it wasn’t. I watched it with a group of people and it actually felt much shorter than seven hours. And we all agreed that it was so worthwhile, but we all had trouble articulating exactly what it was, why – the why? I feel okay about not being able to perfectly articulate it, but I definitely feel very different having gone through the experience. My boyfriend has a funny anecdote actually. He was taking this film class with Jean-Pierre Gorin at UCSD and I guess everyone failed the midterm essay. He was really upset. And as a sort of punishment, he made them watch Sátántango over the course of three classes, which I think is so great. Have you watched any Béla Tarr?

3:AM: Not many, but you’ve certainly piqued my interest.

JL: I’d love to hear your thoughts, especially compared to Tarkovsky.

3:AM: Has anyone articulated what you’re feeling with Béla Tarr?

JL: The essay that’s always resonated with me, and the one I’m constantly returning to is Pasolini’s short essay on the long take. There used to be almost nothing out there, just mostly film reviews or reactions, but not much in-depth investigation. Very recently though there’s two books: András Bálint Kovács has this wonderful book called The Cinema of Béla Tarr: The Circle Closes which offers a super comprehensive analysis of Tarr’s career. And also, recently translated into English, Jacques Ranciére’s Béla Tarr, The Time After, which I’ve got on my desk but haven’t finished yet.

3:AM: I was surprised to learn how much preproduction work went into his movies. When Béla Tarr made Macbeth (1982), according to one source, for every one hour of camera work there was three hours of preproduction in the form of rehearsals. Every time an actor screwed up during a long take, Béla Tarr insisted in starting all over again from the beginning.

JL: Yes, it’s like a strange choreography.

3:AM: A very professional choreography. I think a lot of directors make the choice to cut, not out of necessity, but because the alternative, the long take, demands knowing how to choreograph and getting all the participants to be on simultaneously.

JL: Yes, there are a lot of different types of long takes. There’s the famous Orson Welles long take in Touch of Evil (1958) that’s more about the impressive spectacle of the long take. And then there’s the other type of long take in the film Good Bye, Dragon Inn (2003) where the long takes of that film are sometimes excruciating to watch, it’s an endurance type of experience, but absolutely beautiful in that kind of way. During the last shot of that film you’re inside of an old theater, the camera is pretty far away from the action, and there’s this old lady who is hobbling very slowly and she’s cleaning the theater seats. And if you read the interview with the filmmaker [Ming-liang Tsai], he has said that that shot was sort of like an homage to the theater, because the actual theater closed down after they shot the film. That’s why he wanted to hold the shot for as long as possible, which is a completely different cinematic than Orson Welles’ long takes. With Béla Tarr things are happening in “real time” but it’s almost like people are moving even slower than that.

3:AM: In the long take?

JL: For example, in Sátántango there’s this character, the doctor, who I mentioned before. It’s clear that he’s not in the best of health. He’s always breathing really hard, the camera is often right next to him and its uncomfortable for the viewer to be in his personal space. The doctor character documents everything and he keeps everything in these notebooks. Everything that he does, like pouring himself a drink, takes so long. I feel like if I was watching a real person do these things it wouldn’t take nearly as long. It’s so excruciating, you just want to pour the drink for him because he’s doing it too slowly and he’s spilling. What’s going on here is a different kind of staged-ness where even what they’re doing inside the long shot isn’t realistic but also hyperrealistic.

3:AM: After you’ve experienced Béla Tarr for how many months, is it more difficult to see Hollywood movies?

JL: Actually it’s easier. They’re both nice reliefs from the other. I don’t think I could watch a Sátántango forever, but I equally couldn’t watch a Fast & Furious forever probably. For me, I need both. I think they’re in conversation with one another – whether they’re doing it intentionally or not.

Maxi Kim is the author of One Break, A Thousand Blows.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, September 1st, 2013.