Years ago, one of the other movie ticket sales sites ran a promotional trailer in theaters parodying European art films. The fake movie in the ad was called Look At My Potato. In it, an elderly peasant sat for hours at a table looking at a potato. And while the indie/art-film world has, in recent years, successfully learned how to sell itself as a culture brand for cool people, there exists a general feeling among lots of the population that most of the films they'll see in their local specialty theater are Look At My Potato. To quote Britney Spears when she went to the Sundance Film Festival a few years back: "[It's] weird. The movies are weird. You actually have to think about them when you watch them."
Which brings us to Bela Tarr, the 56-year-old Hungarian filmmaker whose films have, until recently, been the kind you had to hunt down at a film festival or museum. A man whose movies have a reputation for pain, pessimism and pitch-black narratives that almost surpasses his reputation as a man who'll point a camera at an open field full of cows for 10 solid minutes and make you stare at them as they do a lot of walking around. If there's a current practitioner of old-fashioned Look At My Potato-ism, it's this guy.
His latest begins with a black screen and voiceover recounting the story of Friedrich Nietzsche succumbing to dementia after throwing his arms around the neck of a beaten horse. From there the story shifts to a desolate valley where the (the same?) animal and her owners, an elderly peasant and his nearly silent adult daughter, endure a harsh rural existence. It's freezing, there's a week-long windstorm that's getting worse instead of better, the horse stops eating and moving, a drunk neighbor arrives at the hovel to terrify them with stories of humanity's continued debasement, and then the father and daughter sit at a table and, yes, look at their respective (and dwindling) potatoes. Does life suck because the old man whipped the horse? Did Nietzsche -- the man who once said "God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers?" -- transfer some kind of sins-of-man doomsday curse onto everybody?
Or maybe the curse happens when a band of partying gypsies rolls through and they demand water from the well. When the daughter runs them off the property they yell back, "The water is ours! The earth is ours! Drop dead!" And if the curse isn't human-borne, it's still wreaking havoc because that's when the well runs dry and the lamps stop working even though they're full of oil. And you realize that as the film counts down six brutal, repetitive, soul-draining days in this beautifully ruined black-and-white punishment zone, that the Genesis creation story is happening backwards and, well, the words "formless" and "void" come to mind. If it were music, it'd be something long, bleak, blackened and crushingly heavy, something by a doom-metal band like SUNN 0))).
Tarr says this is his last movie. And it feels like it. After you've ended the entire world, not with a giant planet collision like Lars Von Trier did in Melancholia but by simply shooting out the lights, what else is there?