1889. German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche witnessed the whipping of a horse while traveling in Turin, Italy. He tossed his arms around the horse's neck to protect it then collapsed to the ground. In less than one month, Nietzsche would be diagnosed with a serious mental illness that would make him bed-ridden and speechless for the next eleven years until his death. But whatever did happen to the horse? This film, which is Tarr's last, follows up this question in a fictionalized story of what occurred. The man who whipped the horse is a rural farmer who makes his living taking on carting jobs into the city with his horse-drawn cart. The horse is old and in very poor health, but does its best to obey its master's commands. The farmer and his daughter must come to the understanding that it will be unable to go on sustaining their livelihoods. The dying of the horse is the foundation of this tragic tale.Written by
Tarr's self-proclaimed last film is as open to interpretation as any movie ever was. The film follows a man, his daughter, and their horse as they struggle to survive during hard times in the late nineteenth century. It's a simple, practically minimalist movie with all the repetition that aesthetic implies, gradually coming to a crescendo that's somewhat reminiscent on a small scale of the disharmony the develops in a previous film, Werckmeister Harmonies.
The idea for the movie came from an apocryphal story (Tarr doesn't label it as such) about Nietzsche's time in Turin, which relates how the philosopher broke down upon witnessing a carriage driver whip his horse. The filmmakers were interested to look at what happened next for the horse. They also see the incident as representing a sincere recantation of all his works by the philosopher (or heavily imply so). One can apprehend from listening to Tarr that he believes Nietzsche was little more than a psychotic, responsible for promulgating a decline in values. The film depicts such a decline, though any actual link to Nietzsche other than by free association and any substantive intellectual link to the Turin episode are tenuous at best.
Tarr announced in the Q&A following the UK Premiere of Turin Horse at the Edinburgh International Film Festvial, that he felt "something's wrong", in a grand sense. The Turin Horse reflects this concern. What exactly is wrong is left almost entirely up to you as the viewer to determine. There's one clear allusion to watching television, but other than that the symptomatology and etiology of modern malaise is open to question. You could say that was a weakness of the movie, someone who believes that free migration and rights for gays are the cause for societal decay, would be equally at home watching this movie as someone who points towards revolutions in social media and the society of spectacle.
Patricularly given that no root cause is identified, Tarr and co leave themselves open to charges of the familiar canard of archaism - supposing that the past was a safer more moral and ingenious place. The artist Jeff Koons has perhaps the best counterarguments to Tarr's perspective on modern life. His stated mission is to "remove bourgeois guilt and shame in responding to banality" (highlighting the snobbery of those who cling to traditional values), whereas Tarr's is perhaps to stoke it. I suppose what side you take depends on whether you see someone fragging on a PlayStation and think "good for them", or whether you bemoan their lack of appetite for self-improvement or meaningful interaction with others. In the Q&A at the Edinburgh Film Festival Tarr said that he thinks that people spend too much time stuck in front of screens waiting forlornly for something to happen, part of a sort of technological cargo cult if you will.
On a gut level I felt the film went quickly; although empirically it's well over two hours long, it's definitely mesmerising. I've felt for a time that the best way to appreciate Werckmeister Harmonies is as narrative music, as a kind of prelude and fugue, similarly The Turin Horse works well simply in terms of rhythm and visual tone, as a meaningless sketch of the interaction of three hardy entities.
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