For me the abiding mystery isn’t what the film means but how and why we watch it. “Try not to be too sophisticated” was Tarr’s suggestion the first time he introduced it at the New Horizons International Film Festival in Wrocław, Poland. A sound piece of advice, but not easy for all cinephiles to follow, especially if the “sophistication” resembles Dan Kois’ pseudo-populism masquerading as common sense (“Eating Your Cultural Vegetables”) in the New York Times. Going beyond the usual middlebrow philistinism, this position suggests that audiences supporting art movies by Akerman, Costa, Kiarostami, Reichardt, Tarkovsky, or Tarr (strange bedfellows, these — back in the 60s they would have been Antonioni, Bergman, Bresson, Dreyer, Godard, or Resnais) must be masochists wanting to impose their self-inflicted punishments on others.
Factored out of such reckonings are those who regard Star Wars, Amélie, Slumdog Millionaire, Avatar, Inglourious Basterds or even The Tree of Life as obligatory cultural vegetables. And meanwhile denying that sensible individuals can find pleasure in Tarr films ultimately means attempting to outlaw the possibility that any might do so. Clearly part of America’s eccentric mistrust of art and poetry is bound up with a bizarre association of both with class; the usual pseudo-populist position is to find such activity excusable only when it’s interlarded with religion and/or “entertainment” (which in most cases entails colonial conquest, revenge, violence and/or some form of mush). To fail in this sacred duty apparently means to make films that are lethally boring, so that Rivette’s 13-hour Out 1, even as a serial, allegedly can’t be fun and games like Twin Peaks.
Why, then, did I wind up at all three screenings of The Turin Horse in Wrocław, three afternoons in a row? Largely because of my fascination with how a film in which practically nothing happens can remain so gripping and powerful, so pleasurable and beautiful. I’m usually reluctant to compare an anti-cinephile like Tarr to any other filmmaker, but even though his diverse technical materials are completely different from those of Erich von Stroheim, there’s something about the sheer intensity of both filmmakers as they navigate from one moment to the next that makes the usual rules and logic of film narrative and even the usual practice of following a plot seem almost beside the point — a kind of distraction. The world of The Turin Horse isn’t unveiled or imparted or recounted or examined or told; it’s simply there, at every instant, as much as possible and more than we can think to cope with, daring us simply to take note of it.