Seven Hours in Cinematic Quarantine
For reasons I need not mention, I’ve found myself with far too much time on my hands. Under normal circumstances I’d spend it going to parks, visiting museums, and perusing the Criterion Collection Blu-Rays at the nearest Barnes & Noble (it’s a real problem). In the absence of those activities, I was clamoring for a challenge. A task I could complete without leaving the house. Something that would earn me an IRL “achievement unlocked.” That’s when I remembered Sátántangó.
I found out about Bela Tarr’s 432-minute black-and-white magnum opus in my high school film studies class. The 3-disc DVD on my teacher’s shelf was completely gray, except for a picture of three people beneath a blank sky trudging down a mud-ridden road that seemingly stretched to infinity. Not an enticing image. The runtime: even less so. But it’s been stuck in my mind ever since. Like a movie-Mount Everest, Sátántangó seemed like some cinematic summit to conquer.
All I knew about the film beforehand was the basic plot; it focuses on the residents of a farming community in Hungary after the fall of Communism, and how they deal with the economic downturn they face. I felt it was best not to find out anything else. So I obtained a copy and dedicated a day to watching it. From beginning to end, I charted my experience, with timestamps, in the hope that you might find some humor in my suffering and take heed to never make the same mistake that I did…
8:46 am — About to start. It was really hard to get out of bed for this. Luckily I have a blanket, a huge couch, cereal, tea and orange juice. That should keep me satisfied for a while, even if the movie sucks.
0:02 — Two minutes in and no sign of traditional entertainment. Credits play in silence. Now the slowest pan I’ve ever seen past some cows in a muddy field. Oh, it’s also worth noting it’s in black and white, so the things in the movie are just the things, no visual excitement.
0:05 — Not gonna lie, there’s something strangely beautiful about this movie so far. I might actually get something out of this.
0:09 — There’s a guy reading. Please don’t say this is part audio-book.
0:17 — “We’ll go mad in the end.” You and me both. I can already tell I’m going to be forced to watch things I don’t want to see, for much longer than I want to see them. On the plus side, I’ll never be bored by another movie again.
0:23 — Music! And really cool music too. Can’t tell what instrument.
0:25 — God this farm is bleak. The black and white make it look devoid of soul.
0:30 — This might not be that bad. There’s a plot, at least, and a few interesting characters (right now several farmworkers are conspiring to steal their fellow villagers’ money). It’s slow, but not painfully slow; more dreamlike, although that could be a side effect of my drowsiness (it’s still only 9:20 am).
0:54 — Starting to wish I’d stayed in bed. My eyelids are heavy and this film isn’t giving me much of a reason to keep them open.
1:07 — Here’s the music again, same piece, but for no apparent reason. Is Tarr just putting it at various intervals to stop us from getting bored? In any case, it worked. I put my phone down in shame after browsing Reddit for a couple of minutes. Time to pay full attention again. I guarantee I didn’t miss anything.
1:10 — My tea’s gone cold but I don’t want to pause unless I have to 🙁
1:11 — The voiceover is describing the color of the setting sun and I feel unfairly teased right now.
1:21 — This guy drawing with a blunt pencil has been the most excruciating thing to watch so far.
1:26 — Dude, sharpen your pencil!
1:31 — Now he’s fallen asleep. I wish I had that luxury (it’s worth noting that there’s nothing actually keeping me from switching this off other than my own self-restraint and the illusion that because I started this I have to finish it).
1:34 — Thankfully I’ll never have to watch it again.
1:41 — Necessary bathroom break gives me a chance to stretch and reheat my tea. It’s sunny outside. I almost forgot the world had color.
10:35 am — Took a short break, and now we’re back. With coffee instead of tea. Half an hour left before this section of the film is over. Let’s power through!
1:42 — Settings says I’ve picked up my phone ten times so far. That’s about once every ten minutes. If this were in a theater I’d have been kicked out by now.
1:50 — There’s never been a tracking shot following behind a character that hasn’t looked cool. Unfortunately, it’s the guy I’ve been watching for the past half an hour.
2:02 — Looks like he’s heading for somewhere. The pub? Oh, now he’s turned away. Guess we won’t go there after all.
2:03 — Starting to think the cut points are being dictated by whenever Tarr ran out of film in the camera.
2:11 — It’s 11:07 am and the first part is officially over. We’ll see how quickly I can convince myself to start part two.
11:24 am — Here we go again.
2:12 — The ticking clock in this scene feels like mockery.
2:38 — You know, sometimes the slowness just works. Because I know what Tarr is going for, I’m more inclined to just accept it and observe the characters. I’m not clamoring for action. What I wish there were more of is stakes, some reason for me to be invested. I know little more about these people than I did at the beginning.
12:01 pm — Time for some food.
12:07 pm — Found some Cool Ranch Doritos. Found it funny how this cold farm in the film could also be described as a cool ranch. God, I’m tired.
3:11 — They’re watching Making the Cut upstairs and I’m so tempted to join them.
3:23 — A young girl has started torturing her cat — it looks uncomfortably real, and I really hope it’s fake.
3:39 — Looked it up and apparently the cat wasn’t harmed. Still painful to watch, and not sure it was entirely necessary. But then again, is any of this necessary?
12:55 pm — Took a break on account of being unsettled and celebrating the fact that I’m pretty much halfway!
3:52 — I think I’m becoming desensitized to long takes. They’re impressive because of their rarity. Too much of a good thing and they become mind-numbing.
3:59 — Child suicide is usually where I’d draw the line, but I’m too far in to give up now. Upsetting, but one of the few scenes so far that’s had a genuine emotional impact.
4:06 — This is the third time we’ve almost gotten back to the plot.
4:08 — “Plodding and plodding and plodding.” Tarr’s getting meta.
4:19 — Remember the pub that one guy was trying to get to earlier? (I barely do). Well, we’re finally there and it looks like I’ll be watching this group of people I don’t know dance to a terrible GarageBand loop for the next ten minutes.
4:28 — Update: I was right.
4:31 — They started dancing again…
4:34 — I changed location to the office upstairs so that I can stare longingly outside at the trees when nothing’s happening in the film. Which has been the case for the last fifteen minutes.
4:41 — More voiceover from the book that’s probably more interesting than the movie.
1:56 pm — Now I have a choice to make: do I watch the last part now or this evening? I’m told to get lunch, bang out the next part then treat myself to a nice (socially-distanced) walk outside. I agree. Let’s eat and get this over with.
2:31 pm — Tuna sandwich made. Part three begins.
5:03 — Actively wanting it to end. The 2h 20m remaining is baffling. What more could possibly be worth watching?
5:05 — Taking bets on whether this shot will be over by the time I’ve gone downstairs, picked up a Mountain Dew, and come back up.
5:07 — Yup, he’s still packing. This Code Red tastes real good.
5:15 — Thinking about how much Tarr would eviscerate me for ridiculing his movie. In all honesty, a chat over coffee would be great. I wonder if he’s seen Sharknado?
5:30 — Unusual music here, but no complaints. Like something off a 70’s Eno record (Another Green World and Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy, if anyone wants recommendations).
5:55 — Holy shit we’re in a city. Fresh change of locale and the first time I’ve perked up from the very deep slump I was in. This armchair is amazing for that.
6:10 — I’ve officially hit the point at which I just don’t care anymore. I’ll finish it, but more out of spite than for any meaningful reason. If anything, I’m glad I started early, since I still have a sizable chunk of my Sunday that I’ll make sure doesn’t go to waste.
6:33 — The experience has pretty much boiled down to technical guesswork by now. Assuming they must have used a steadicam for these spectacular dolly shots.
6:55 — Watching this dude eat a pickle while I eat my corn chips. Feels like we’re having lunch together.
7:05 — Plenty of bodily functions on display. Tarr really doesn’t cut anything out.
7:16 — A bog has never looked so good.
7:22 — He’s boarding up his house to stay inside. Self-isolating king.
7:25 — Now he’s reading the narration from the beginning, a move that almost scared me into believing the film is starting all over again.
4:59 pm — It’s over!!! I need me one of those “I survived Sátántangó t-shirts.”
I’m now two weeks removed from my initial reaction, and although I can’t say I enjoyed the experience of watching Sátántangó, I definitely gained something from it. It could just be a sense of pride from completing such a mammoth task, but, regardless, there are moments from the film that have stuck in my memory. Certain shots, scenes and actions have lingered, and the most important plot points have endured. More than anything, I think this is a testament to what Hitchcock said about drama: it’s “life with the dull bits cut out.” Sátántangó may not be drama, but it could be, well, just life. Unobstructed. Unimpeded by editing. There’s something to be said for that kind of art, and something rather beautiful about it, too. That being said, I don’t think I’ll be hitting play on Abel Gance’s 330-minute Napoléon anytime soon.
Tom Lawson is a second year Cinema & Photo major who VOLUNTEERED to watch a seven hour film. They can be reached at [email protected].
Art by Carolyn Langer.