Friday, June 11, 2010

Film #28: Werckmeister Harmonies (2000)

Dear readers:
Sometimes life is... boring.
Drawn out, bleak, uneventful, random, and painfully, painfully boring...

Such is life in the small Hungarian town where Werckmeister Harmonies's main character, János, lives. Apparently life in post-communist Hungary isn't all the western commercials that were beamed through the Iron Curtain made it out to be! But János, a twenty-something who lives with his crazy old uncle, is doing the best he can filling his days with activities like:
  • Walking
  • Entertaining drunks at the local bar with his cockamamie theories about "solar eclipses" as he spins them in circles
  • Walking
  • Putting his work-obsessed uncle György to bed
  • Cleaning the house
  • Walking
  • Listening to women at work gossip before he starts his shift
  • Walking (while working delivering newspapers)
  • Walking with uncle György
  • Eating gruel
  • Walking
  • Did I mention walking?
With such a rigorous social schedule it's not difficult to imagine how a mysterious circus that claims to have the world's largest whale would instill such curiosity in young János. I mean, there's not a whole lot else going on in this town.
Forget the fact that rumors are flying about how mayhem, destruction and death have descended upon every other towns the circus has visited - they have a whale! In land-locked Hungary that's the equivalent to a unicorn!

With the coming of the whale circus all sorts of whacky events are set in motion, such as the arrival of uncle György's estranged wife (Tünde) who delivers an ultimatum to János that she will move back in with György if he doesn't coerce prominent townspeople into getting behind the "clean our town up" movement.
To prove her resolve to György she sends János to deliver the news with her packed suitcase.

Well, this threat of co-habitation proves to be horrendous enough to pry György away from spouting his crazed ramblings about music theory for an afternoon of schmoozing townsfolk (apparently he is rather persuasive).
All the while more and more people are gathering in the town square, waiting to hear from the charismatic Prince who arrived with the circus...

That evening, János is tasked by his aunt and the police chief (her lover) to investigate what is going on in town and report his findings back to them. János, however, can't get that darn whale off his mind! So he sneaks back into the trailer where it is housed only to overhear the Prince arguing with the circus owner about bringing his patented madness to János's little town!

What will the masses outside do once they hear from the Prince? Will János be able to warn his aunt before a riot breaks out? Why would anyone pay to see something that smells as bad at a rotting whale carcass?!?! These questions and more don't get answered in the rambling year 2000 mess that is the Werckmeister Harmonies.

RDHP Rating and Reviews

C-Rating: 0.9
Chris Dimick
"I get it. This was supposed to be art. But you know, just calling a “piece” art doesn’t make it alright for said “piece” to be awful.

I can take a crap on a pedestal, name it “Man’s Morning Struggle” and put it in the middle of the Art Institute of Chicago. “Oh, it’s a masterpiece; it is so ironic and touching! You can really smell the emotion!” Actually, Pretentious Asshole, it is not art. It’s a piece of shit… on a stand.

Such is Werckmeister Harmonies – a pretentious, lazy, drawn out, mind-numbingly boring piece of crap wrapped up in a convenient “art” label.
Future directors, heed this warning: If you are going to make an art movie, don’t make it two and a half hours long. No one’s patience is strong enough to sit through that much nonsensical, black and white, self-indulgent garbage.
And don’t even start with the whole “Oh, it’s a Hungarian film; it is just those crazy Europeans.” We’ve seen some great foreign films in the RDHP… and this ain’t one of ‘em.

I understand what the creator was going for – and in a way I have to admit they accomplished their task brilliantly.
The 10 minute sequences of people walking down a cold, empty, dark road. The scene where annoying children bang on pots and pans, screaming the same horrific line over and over through a fan. The shot of Janos returning home from his crappy job and eating a hot-gruel dinner. The near-silent quality of the movie, where even groups of people stood stoically.
This movie was meant to drag on one’s soul, to push them into the feelings of desperation and loneliness possessed by the characters. To get wrapped up in the madness of a warped mob when it began to tear apart a patient-filled hospital. To feel the wonder and horror as Janos visited the rotting circus whale corpse.
It was experimental, daring, and unlike any other movie I had ever seen before. In a way, it was amazing.

But come on! 2.5 hours of that! It was just wayyyyyyyyy tooooooooo drawwwwwwwwwwn outttttttttt. This would have worked much better as a short film, or at MOST a 90 minute feature.
Many of the scenes felt like the bit in Austin Powers when the camera lingers just a little too long on the group of evil-doers laughing at their evil plot. The laugh trickles down to a chuckle, and then awkward silence, and the camera still stays. This technique may work in a comedy, but employing it in a horror movie just created boredom.

I kid you not, at least 30 to 40 minutes of this movie were scenes of people walking to or from some sort of uneventful “action.” You find yourself thinking… “Okay, I get it, we are supposed to drink in this scene… feel it, experience it… stew in the emotion.”
But after this feeling is accomplished within two minutes, the viewer spends the remaining 10 minutes of the walking scene getting pissed at how boring it is, thinking about what’s for dinner, and planning that vacation to Hawaii. Luckily Nick and I had each other to keep sane/awake.

The movie didn’t make sense, but that is not why I didn’t like it. I actually enjoyed the tone of the film, and the effective way it sucked my emotions into its world. I felt alone, bored, depressed… it was horrible. A true horror movie, perhaps.

My problem with this is the length and the lack of plot. You can’t base an entire movie on the want to elicit strange feels from the audience. And you DAMN WELL better not base a 2.5 hour “horror” movie on the premise of art through emotion. First of all, no one can bear to withstand these feeling for 2.5 hours. I don't watch movies to feel horrible, I watch to partake in a range of emotions, hear a great story, and experience new worlds. The place I was taken to by WH was truly horrible, but I was kept there too long for it to be enjoyable.

Watching Werckmeister Harmonies was like paying someone to bash you in the face with a cold hammer for 2.5 hours. Sure, it was an experience. And hell yes, I sure FELT something. But was it enjoyable? Did I really get anything out of it other than bashed in face?

Pretentious people would probably say this is a masterpiece. The abstract art-lover inside me wants to agree with them. If I were judging this as pure art, I’d have to give it a 4 rating.
But you know what, this isn’t just art. It is presented as a movie. A horror movie at that. This just didn’t have enough substance to qualify as an “art movie.”

A “wise” man once once said: “You can’t polish a turd.”
The “plot” of this movie is a turd. And no matter how much spit and shine and art the director put on this crappy idea, it still resulted in a “Man’s Morning Struggle.”
I can still smell it on me."

N-Rating: 1.5
Nick Rich wanders:
"Normally I tend to pull my punches when it comes to reviewing and rating movies, but in this case I have to say that Werckmeister Harmonies was in no way, shape or form my cup of tea. I'd go so far as to say it's films like this that turn off the average American (and I dare say European) from European cinema! Which to me is a real travesty considering the amazing European films we've seen so far with the RDHP...

There's is so much I didn't like about this film I think I'll start with what I did like: it gave Chris and I time to talk. Seriously, that was my favorite part!
Sure, as I was forced to watch the banal activities of the characters, I tried to tell myself that I should attempt to appreciate the mundane activities I was witnessing - they are after all a snapshot of another culture I'm not well versed in - but the movie was just plain boring.

On to what I didn't like in earnest: it tried to hard to be "arty". We get it, life in eastern Europe is hard. You have to walk everywhere in depressing silence, live off of lackluster food, deal with loony-tunes relatives and have no hope in general - we get it! That's no excuse to submit your audience to painfully dull and lengthy scenes of walking and lingering silence.

If you're going to attempt to make such a film, you had best have some amazingly innovative shots or editing up your sleeve - not just extremely long takes of mediocre shots. Sure some shots were interesting, but not to the degree where we needed to see them for a full minute!
I get that dragging the scenes out is supposed to make me feel the desolation of the characters, but in the end it just ends up looking like it's trying too hard to be meaningful and makes me say "who cares"? This movie could have easily lost 40 minutes with the "plot" intact.

Through most of this film I found myself waiting for that moment where something worthwhile would happen... and then came the grand finale where the mob riots and destroys the town! You'd think that would be interesting right? Wrong! It was basically just a shot of the calm, yet purposeful mob walking towards an unknown destination and then you (the audience) walking around a hospital as the mob beats the patients (who are apparently mute).
No rhyme, no reason, no satisfaction as a viewer... which I suppose should be scary (in fact the only scary thing about this film was dreading the next "walking" scene), but again, it just made me say "who cares"?
Not this guy.

The Skinny: Watch this flick if you are an avid (and I mean avid) walker or if you ever have the desire to visit eastern Europe - it will save you a trip!

Quote of the Viewing:
[As the movie has been so boring, Nick has sporadically been reading facts about Hungary from Wikipedia to Chris.]
Nick: "Other notable Hungarian inventions include holography, the ballpoint pen, thermonuclear fusion and the theory of the hydrogen bomb, the BASIC programing language, low level laser or "light therapy", artificial blood and the Rubik's cube!"
Chris: "With all that intelligence it's a wonder that they're still Hungary!"
Nick: "...Boo. Boo."

Things We Learned from Werkmeister Harmonies:
-Old women despise the circus.
-Walking is a main Hungarian pastime.
-Hungarian bars always close with an astronomy lesson.
-The Sun wiggles its fingers to provide light.
-Hungarian men wear nightgowns to bed.
-Artificially tuned instruments are works of the devil.
-Hungary is stuck in 1857.
-Living with your spouse is a punishment in Hungary.
-Old, naked men are not attractive.
-The sight of an old man’s junk will stop an angry mob from their destruction.
-Watching ugly, fat people swap-spit is not just nasty, but disgusting.
-Best place to store swords and guns – the kid’s play room.
-A Hungarian invented the Rubik Cube (below):

RDHP Salutes: Walking
In honor of the copious amount of walking found in Werkmeister Harmonies (and subsequently how lonely it made us feel) we will now recite a classic poem:

It's A Long Road

It's a long road,
When you're on your own
And it hurts when
They tear your dreams apart
And every new town
Just seems to bring you down
Trying to find peace of mind
Can break your heart
It's a real war
Right outside your front door I tell ya
Out where they'll kill ya
You could use a friend
Where the road is
That's the place for me
Where I'm me in my own space
Where I'm free that's the place
I wanna be
'Cause the road is long yeah
Each step is only the beginning
No breaks just heartaches
Oh man is anybody winning?
It's a long road
And it's hard as hell
Tell me what do you do
To survive?
When they draw first blood
That's just the start of it
Day and night you gotta fight
To keep alive

It's a long road...

Things We Did While Watching
Werkmeister Harmonies:
As there were an obscene amount of scenes that showed characters walking and doing other boring tasks (literally at least a full half hour) we were free to discuss and do many things during the viewing of this movie, such as:

Discuss The Lost Finale
The alternate reality was what?!? Hrmm... we're not too sure if this is kosher, but admittedly, it was nice to see something good happen to our favorite castaways for a change!

Write The Blog
Yes, there was so much time on our hands for this movie we accomplished a first in the RDHP history: we started writing the blog before we finished watching the film!

Learn About Hungary History
Did you know that kissing on the lips is a traditional Communist greeting?
Boris Yuck-sin!!

Try To Remember Where We Sat During A Movie In 2001
As is turns out Nick and Chris both attended a screening of Russian Ark at Western Michigan University's Little Theatre. Nick thinks he sat in the second row from the front on the left, Chris thinks Nick is insane for remembering where he sat.

Werckmesiter Harmonies:
By the Numbers

Miles walked onscreen – 108.3

Length of movie: 145 minutes in “real” time; 52,000,000 minutes in “feel” time

RDHP glances at the clock during movie – 56

Attempted suicides from boredom - 8

Times we shouted in shock – 3 (two for overly harsh, oddly placed, swear-filled lines; the last at the sight of a full-frontal, 90-year-old naked man)

Rotting whales displayed – 1

Rotting penises displayed -- 1

Reasons to watch Werckmeister Harmonies -- 0

Official Sponsor of Werckmeister Harmonies:

Johnnie Walker
Yep, you guessed it.

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