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The International Writers Magazine: Film Space - DVD Review

Almanac Of Fall
• Dan Schneider
Having already seen Bela Tarr’s later film canon, it was an interesting excursion back in time, to see his 1984 color (yes, a color film from Tarr!) film, Almanac Of Fall (Öszi Almanach).

It’s not a great film, and is claimed to be the link between his earliest ‘realist’ films and his later black and white psycho-films, but it is an interesting film, and well worth a watch; even if one will not be pounded by the depths of films like Satantango or Werckmeister Harmonies.


The film is, in many ways, rather simple- even pedestrian, plot-wise, but it’s clearly modeled after the ‘chamber play’ mode put forth by playwrights like Chekhov, Strindberg, and Ibsen. The film it most reminded me of was Woody Allen’s September, and it’s about on the same level, artistically- a good, solid film, with a number of flaws.

The film takes place in a rather run down apartment or house (the film never makes this clear, although many reviews claim one or the other) owned by a rich old woman named Hedi (Hedi Temessy). She suffers from an unspecified illness that requires a live in nurse, Anna (Erika Bodner). Also living with her is her son Janos (Janos Derzsi), and two male boarders- an older teacher, Tibor (Pal Hetenyi), who loves Hedi, and a younger man, Miklos (Miklos Szekely, a Tarr regular), who is initially involved with the nurse, and the best schemer of the bunch. The film follows the emotionally and physically violent relationships between the five characters who seem to never want to search for an exit. In this way, the film also resembles Sartre’s No Exit.

Mother and son loathe each other, and both vow to kill each other early in the film. Everyone also wants Hedi’s money. The nurse bedhops between Janosz and Miklos, and fights with Hedi, emotionally and physically. And, in one scene she even performs fellatio on Tibor; a man with a drinking problem, for reasons not made clear; save, perhaps, to make the other two men jealous. He has made his feelings for Hedi clear, but she rejects him. Yet, she also threatens to toss him out of the home because of Anna’s blowjob. The mixed signals she gives are part and parcel of how all the characters operate. Anna, for instance, belittles Janos vis-à-vis his mother, yet is in love with Miklos, who belittles her. When he rejects her claims of love she hops into bed with Janos, and plots with him to end Hedi’s reign. Yet, not much earlier in the film, we see a scene where she is forced into sex over a small refrigerator by Janos, and professes to loathe him as a disgusting ‘worm.’ She also turns on Miklos and tells him she now has the power because she has Hedi’s son under her thumb. Tibor, likewise, is two-faced. He professes to love Hedi, yet steals a valuable bracelet from her, and pawns it to pay off a debt, presumably incurred while drunk.

It is this act which brings about the two hour long film’s final resolution, after about 100 minutes of all of the characters conspiring with and eavesdropping upon each other. Tibor is arrested, by three policemen who are the only other characters in the film (which lacks any exterior shots), besides the five principals, and this leads to the film’s finale, with the four remaining members preparing for the wedding of Anna and Janos. As a Hungarian version of the song Que Sera Sera plays in the background, we get another Tarrian patented shot of dancing, but, interestingly, the dancers are not Anna and Janosz, but Anna and Miklos. The ending seems to suggest that the marriage may have been part of the scheme of Anna and Miklos all along. They have gotten rid of Tibor, and control the family members who own their residence - Anna via the marital pussywhip, and Miklos via Hedi’s feelings for him. It is a cynical end, and blackly comic, not sad, especially in the way Tarr films the scene, with mother and son sitting at a table before the dancers, and blankly staring into the camera, as if they have accepted their doom as dupes of the dancers.

The sad reality is that this is how the overwhelming majority of human relationships work; as power struggles rather than bonds of parity. Yet, artistically, even if one accepts that this is the film’s ‘truth.’ It’s not a particularly powerful one, and the characters are little more developed than your typical soap opera characters. Thus, there is no empathy nor care felt for them by the viewer. The film therefore becomes an exercise in formalism; well done, but an exercise, not an exploration of humanity. Thus, the major flaw of the film lies not in its conceits (the color palette, the camera angles, the compressed cosmos of the dwelling, etc.), but in its screenplay (surprise, surprise, since this is where most films fail). The dialogue is not deep, the motives are too clearly delineated, although the backgrounds of the characters are not, and the film’s end is, in its own way, once Tibor is ousted, rather predictable. Knowing his doom, I knew the scheming would continue, albeit in a newer power structure. Some critics have claimed a John Cassavetes influence in this film, but that’s a stretch. It may apply to his earlier films, which are supposed to be more ‘realistic,’ but it does not apply here. Cassavetes’ films feel ‘free,’ whereas this film is a ‘fug.’

The musical scoring, by Mihaly Vig, however, is spare, and well applied, while the cinematography has its moments, although in the DVD presentation the colors seem muddied, and there are definite splotches in the film transfer. The DVD, put out by Facets Video, shows the film in a 1.66:1 aspect ratio, and it lacks any extra features, save for an insert booklet that features a generic essay on Tarr, called The Melancholy Of Resistance: The Films Of Bela Tarr, by film historian Peter Hames. The other essay is by online reviewer Jeremy Heilman, and it’s filled with many of the typical critical cribbings that ruin so many pieces of film criticism. Why, of all the online critics out there, Heilman was chosen by Facets, as a contributor, is a mystery.
He writes:
'Tarr’s insistently pessimistic films each present a serious of politically tinged disappointments, only to cruelly reveal them as phases in an unstoppable, continuously repeating cycle'.

The word ‘serious’ has to be a typo, because this simply makes no sense. ‘Series’ is the likely word, but obviously no one at Facets proofread Heilman’s text. This is not really so. The films are certainly pessimistic, but each film paints singular cruelties and ends, there is no cycle in any of them, and even taken together, there is no cycle. Tarr surely seems to posit a cosmos beyond indifferent, and certainly cruel, if not outright hostile, but there is no cycle evident, in any film, or in them as a series.

By the end of Almanac of Fall, the characters’ contradictions have crisscrossed so many times upon themselves that the rationale behind any justification of one’s ill deeds seems an exercise in pointlessness. Each individual becomes their own moral center in this context, and as such their validations of their actions seem academic. Everyone seems entirely content to ignore anyone else’s point of view in order to further their own interests. Even though a comparatively innocent fall guy is found by the end of the movie, the punning title of the film seems to describe the decline of the group (and metaphorically society) as a whole, because they so willingly embrace the idea that the problem with their group lies within only one of their ranks instead of realizing that each of them contains the seed of corruption.

Herein are several errors. First, there is no punning of the title, unless the English translation has lost an article like ‘a’ or ‘the.’ Otherwise, the fall refers to the season, for we get many shots of a rust colored light that peers into the home, and while this is clearly an affectation designed to differentiate character moods (sincerity, along with a steel blue color for brusqueness), and the lack of an article has to mean the noun of the season, not the noun of a loss nor declivity. Second, Tibor is hardly an innocent. He is a thief and a manipulator, every bit as much as the others. Third, none of the characters sees the problem as having been all Tibor’s fault. They al clearly still distrust each other at the end (although why they cling together in the first place is never answered), but now have simplified matters with one less schemer in the abode. There is still rampant corruption, and they all know it.

With its expressionistic use of color and its rapt attention to compositional space, Almanac of Fall is Tarr’s first feature that could be described as the work of a formalist. The choice to use non-naturalistic lighting schemes makes the film look like at times like a version of Von Trier’s The Element of Crime with the whole palette of colors unleashed. Every scene changes the colors that the characters are lit with, and in each new look at them Tarr opts to use a different, increasingly unconventional camera angle. At first, the camera subjectively peers through doors and windows at its subjects, giving a voyeuristic, furtive feel to even the most mundane of actions. As it continues it tries looking at them from above, from a distance, and most audaciously, from underneath the floorboards. The cumulative effect of this approach is the impression that Tarr can’t quite understand them, even though he’s growing ever more desperate in his attempts to do so, and that all his style is an attempt to find a way to compartmentalize their behavior in a way that allows him to discern their intent.

To his credit, Heilman correctly terms the techniques Tarr uses as expressionistic, where most critics are clueless as to its proper usage, but the technique is simply not that well used, as the colors tend to bleed over onto other characters, thus reducing the claims that they reflect or express anything other than willful experimentation. But, then Heilman imbues wildly when he supposes that Tarr’s use of odd camera angles is not a continuation of the likely expressionism embodied by the color palette. Tarr clearly understands the characters because every viewer rather easily ‘gets’ them, and that’s the point. The film tries and succeeds, unfortunately, in making its characters rather see-through. There is no depth, and they then veer into archetypes, if not out and out stereotypes- the shrewish mother, the pathetic drunk, the scheming vixen, the lazy son, the manipulative younger would-be Lothario, etc.
The essay ends:
'The final sequence of Almanac of Fall, which shows the remaining members of the household reveling amid the decay after they’ve expelled one of the traitors among them is bathed in a glorious white light, giving the ironic impression that somehow the situation has improved. It’s only once one considers that white light is also the combination of each of the other colors in the prism that it becomes apparent that Tarr seems to be suggesting that he’s showing the audience in the white light the start of everything they’ve seen before, and that there will almost definitely be a repeat of the despicable cycle just witnessed'.

Give Heilman credit for attempting to see more deeply than most film critics, but the claim that the white light at film’s end, because white is a combination of all other colors, therefore we are at some restart of the film, whether really or emotionally, simply has no justification. First, it is clearly after Tibor has been arrested and removed from their lives, and the marriage, impending or done (it’s not clear which) has irrevocably altered the power structure of the shrunken little society, and therefore it cannot be a repeat of what came before. Yes, there will likely be more scheming and betrayals, but of a different order, just like the Nazi genocide of the Second World War was mass killing, but of a different type than the genocide of Native Americans in the New World. Death, yes, but never quite the same. A total misread by Heilman, and one that really lessens what Tarr does achieve in this film. And that’s a shame, because this film, while a good one, is definitely of a lesser order than Tarr’s later films, and does not need Heilman’s critical screwjob to bollocks things up. Almanac Of Fall is not the kind a film one recommends simply on its own merits alone, but as a vital component in the growth of an artist who achieved greater things later. Having said that, it is worth a gander, for whatever reasons. Just do not expect too much. Tibor found out the hard way.

© Dan Schneider 3/30/13
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