The phrase “bored to tears” is not used nearly enough. Thankfully, I am now in the position to resurrect it. The cause: Béla Tarr‘s The Turin Horse, which will be screening at this year’s New York Film Festival.
It’s a very rare thing (well nigh impossible) to produce a film that tells a story only slightly more interesting than what’s going on in the audience. The Turin Horse, however, does just that—except for a few minutes when it was overshadowed by a argument that broke out in the audience between a young man and a portly Russian woman, who, at one point, referred to the man as a “chauvinist pig.” When it was over, the rest of us had no choice but to return, disconsolately, to the drama onscreen.
The film details a week in the dwindling life of a horse and its owners. The point of interest here is that it happens to be Friedrich Nietzsche’s “breakdown” horse, the one whose spectacle of torture made the aging philosopher cry uncle. In Tarr’s film, the action picks up where Nietzsche left off–and boy, what action! Endless scenes, shot through a lens somewhere between nitrate gray and sepia, document the owner of the horse and his daughter as they go through the ritual of their days, which consists of getting out of bed, putting on clothes, stoking the fire, fetching water from the well—all of which is culminated in the climactic eating of a boiled potato.
And okay, we get it. It’s representative, it’s deep, it’s all about life’s drudgery. But for 146 minutes? Come on. Though in its way, Horse accomplishes exactly what it sets out to accomplish, which is to make you realize not only the leaden monotony of everyday life, but also the crippling unfairness of it. I would have considered sawing my own arm off for an extra hour of bliss to be tacked onto Melancholia or The Skin I Live In, whereas yesterday I would have performed the same task, and gladly, for the film’s length to be shortened by half.
This isn’t to say that all films should be lushly plotted and mindlessly entertaining–and one can’t deny that The Turin Horse is a film of surpassing beauty–for twenty-six minutes. As a student of human nature in all its colorless variation, Tarr might have have realized that the human attention span is one thing that remains quite unvaried–and been more careful to consider it where his “final” film was concerned. (Although it’s unclear if he subscribes to the traditional, or the Jay-Z ,definition of the word.)
The New York Film Festival begins September 30 and runs until October 16. Stay tuned for continued coverage.