First time with German.
Scientists travel to a distant world for which the Renaissance never happened; mankind has been subject to 800 years of anti-intellectual stagnation, decay and purges. One of the scientists, having assumed almost-mythical though controversial status in the town of Arkanar, takes upon himself the task of incrementally improving the lot of the population, but can only toil against the forces of political and intellectual reaction, as well as the profoundly squalid conditions. It’s perhaps telling that what you’ll already know about HtbaG (if you’ve read anything about it or know anyone who’s seen it) is the same information revealed, within the first few minutes, in the sporadically appearing narration.
Firstly: the world is amazing and immersive. At no point does it feel artificial – this is certainly a telegraph from a parallel middle ages in which most seem glad of their filthy existence. (The town made me think somewhat of McCabe’s, with drunkards dancing on the lake and staggering around the bordello [though obviously Altman’s woodwork is visible].) Our perspective is not frontal but central: the world happens around and even behind us; characters frequently break the fourth wall; German’s mode is extreme proximity, such that swinging objects often hit the camera itself. The textures are so varied and loom so bizarrely at us that the effect is quite narcotic, which gives even the most vile matter a kind of beauty, sucking us in (perhaps explaining our hero’s reluctance to leave the planet). It must be said that, while disgusting probably beyond compare, the world is certainly of a piece with much of classic war cinema, and especially with Terry Gilliam – much of it is more-or-less Gilliam splashing around on the filthy tavern floor in The Seventh Seal. Think the haphazard anarchy of Fear and Loathing on the set of Robin William’s hovel in The Fisher King, or a medieval Twelve Monkeys. An emblematic image occurs early on – a man removes the grimy seat from a latrine, lifts the board up looking through the central hole and grins at the camera saying “a painting”. But, to be sure: there is enough in the visuals to keep your interest throughout.
Beyond that, it’s a long 170 minutes.
Don Rumata is introduced to us playing a clarinet (beautifully) before he rides out of town very much in the mould of Durer’s Knight. He is the titular idol; cleanliness may indeed be next to godliness, for although he’s resigned to the muck he seems unfailingly able to bestow pristine handkerchiefs on his followers. (“a nobleman should be clean and fragrant.”) Over the 170 minutes he basically shifts from ‘optimistic acceptance’ to ‘weary frustration’ to ‘rage’ to ‘resignation’, but he begins by chucking something (could be anything) at some singing monks who fume “no jokes in the face of holiness.” God is dead (this is covered explicitly later of course). He also seems to be the only person with a relatively working body – he has both his eyes, he is not obviously ill, etc. Quite christlike in presentation.
We have our world and our guide. (I don’t get the revulsion. Its engrossing watching these people flail around in the mud and the entrails and the shit with gusto; the famous fade-out-then-cut-to-a-huge-donkey’s-cock joke from German seems amusing but unnecessary.) For most of the 170 minutes the scenes feature one or (usually) more sequences in this format:
- Someone (usually DR) addresses a snivelling/sneering supplicant/skeptic with a question or statement that lacks discernible relevance (“fish like milk!”) and in a scathing tone.
- Supplicant/skeptic snivels/sneers in reply.
- Person C swings in front of the camera in the foreground, shooting us a perplexed look; he is followed by some animal matter (chicken legs, pig’s head, cow’s head, dead dog, hanging meat) or chains.
- Persons D through H grub around in the background, usually laughing and sniffing.
- Initiator (DR) grabs supplicant/skeptic by the nose, twists (while the latter squeals) and shoves him into the gutter.
While a lot of the 170 minutes is literally this, there are other visual formula that are repeated and rehashed until the rotten stasis of the world and the protagonist’s futility becomes a rotten stasis of interest. The donkey’s-cock joke seems irrelevant because the film’s main problem is not that its shocking but that its pretty boring. I’ve just finished watching HtbaG and I don’t remember much of its 170 minutes. (Moments of distinction are usually the most violent: the attack on Kusis, for example, or the death of the “student”, intestines spilling out over the floor as we gaze on his beating heart.) Occasionally (five or six times) the narrator will chip in with some exposition that brings us up to speed with the progress of our hero. In the end, no real energy to pick apart the philosophy beyond what is made obvious in the opening scenes (through the exposition, mostly).
Some nice peripheral characters: DR’s wife is somebody out of the mental construction of Gummo that I will probably settle for forever in place of the real thing; the Baron is a good laugh. A lot of the rarely visible architecture recalls Nostalghia in being quite striking through the fog (which envelops all scenes shot outside, washing out the monochrome tones which work a lot better in the dripping chiaroscuro interiors). I don’t have anything else written down.
Would probably watch again (I tend to feel this way about all films I find disappointing after expecting to enjoy) but I’d sooner check out Falstaff: Chimes At Midnight which I’ve heard this compares to. I’d also sooner return to the Strugatskys directly (31 May: I did), Brazil, McCabe and Mrs Miller, Damnation, Andrei Rublev and The Seventh Seal.
Interesting to read that German died in the year HtbaG was released and that the film was assembled by his family. It is certainly a grand physical achievement for a director on his last legs (makes a mockery of The Revenant). It’s absolutely a milestone in set design too. I just wonder about the editing.
I can relate this to my experience of much science fiction literature: talented authors create fascinating worlds for you to stroll (or flail) around in, but the detail becomes suffocating and we end up longing for a better story whether or not that’s the point.