Blog

The Cosmos

Some film scenes hang around in the front of my brain with a frequency that approaches constant. I'm not talking about the occasional memory inspired by some everyday occurrence, like the way cutting garlic reminds me of Goodfellas when Pauly cuts the garlic with a razor. It's much more frequent than something like that, as if these scenes are an embedded reference, a memorized visual poem that enlivens my thoughts and enriches my life all the time. Do you have this... um...  what should I call it... cinemania?   

One such scene for me is the opening of Bela Tarr's incredible Werkmeister Harmoniak, one of my favorite films. I would estimate that I think about that scene at least twice a week intently and that it's almost always there passively below (or above?) other thoughts, like where I'm going to get my morning coffee or how much longer will I have to wait before it's my turn to have a delicious ice cream cone.

The scene opens with a tight shot of a metal grate on the door of a small furnace. You can see the flames through the slits in the metal and you can see the word Memphis in the center, which I always found interesting and wondered about in the way I wonder about manhole covers here in New York, the ones that say Made in India on them. The effect of this brief reference is an instant searching, a dream of the lives lived to forge those pieces of steel. I know I'm doing this when I watch the film, but it's a passive effort. And, yet, even though it is passive, or perhaps because of it, I believe thoughts like these are one of the reasons the film cements itself inside me, as if these miniature brain adventures secure the film's longevity in me.

The metal grate is opened and old beer is splashed on the flames to put them out. A bartender starts asking people to leave. There are a dozen or so men slouching around the place in various states of inebriation when Valuska arrives to, as one man puts it, "Show us." (I like this translation and I wonder and hope that it is accurate.) Another man tips over on the floor and can't seem to right himself. Then Valuska comes into the scene and begins to describe our existence through a story about the cosmos. He compellingly conjures an image of life on earth by guiding these drunken men to play the roles of planets in our solar system. You're the sun. You're the earth. You're the moon. As the men begin to slowly dance around in their orbits, doing something like a waltz, Valuska describes a solar eclipse and the fear and darkness it brings to all living things on earth. To them, the world seems to be ending. But Valuska brings us back from the brink as the solar eclipse comes to an end and life returns to normal. At that point the bartender, a Mr. Hagelmayer, kicks everyone out. Valuska leaves and walks down the middle of a dark road in the cold on his way to help his uncle.

The entire scene is achingly beautiful hopeful true sad. And I watch it in my mind's eye all the time.