Certain Higher Signatures

…so that a long moribund symmetry among this vastness might appear in the lost glance of some higher being, at the center of which, naturally, there would be a miniscule blind spot…

—László Krasznahorkai, War and War.

It rained in Budapest yesterday, which gave me an excuse to re-watch a favorite movie of mine, the Hungarian director Béla Tarr’s turn-of-the-millennium masterpiece Werckmeister Harmonies. Loosely centered around the arrival of a mysterious and destructive circus in an isolated town in Hungary, Tarr’s black-and-white film moves at a deliberately slow pace, often holding its shots for over five minutes. This forces the viewer to focus on every detail of Tarr’s meticulously composed frames, which often center on acts of repetitive motion: a solitary man walking at night, a helicopter hovering a few feet above the ground, a mob marching lockstep down an avenue in search of something to destroy.

There’s an almost excruciatingly human quality to time in Werckmeister Harmonies, a quality that feels ironic in its foreignness. Maybe it shouldn’t feel strange or unsettling to watch a person walk or eat in an entirely normal fashion for a few minutes uninterrupted, but as Andy Warhol showed decades ago, it does. As viewers, we’re used to the imposition of some sort of narrative order atop everyday actions with their own, smaller-scale orders (lift foot up, set foot down, repeat).

We all fall into routines when in familiar settings, but tourism has its own routines: moving from place to place in a new city, in search of—often—a view or taste of what’s unique and authentic about a place. It’s sometimes difficult to appreciate these acts of motion because they’re accompanied by fears of getting lost, or even taking a more time-consuming route than necessary. We have places to go; goals vulnerable to failure.

The screenplay of Werckmeister Harmonies was adapted by the Hungarian author László Krasznahorkai from his 1989 novel The Melancholy of Resistance. While in Budapest, I’ve been reading Krasznahorkai’s later book War and War, which focuses on Korin, an archivist who journeys from a town outside of Budapest to New York—the “center of the world,” in his mind—in order to publish a long-lost manuscript. The all-consuming importance of Korin’s self-described “great journey” to America provides him with both motivation and despair. I won’t reveal the ending of War and War, but by investing so much meaning and importance to his task, Korin transforms the way he actually experiences New York. Any traveler can empathize with Krasznahorkai’s labyrinthine and manic description of Korin’s navigation of JFK airport:

Just head for the Exit signs, Korin said to himself aloud, it’s Exit you want, there where it says Exit, head for there and don’t be diverted, because he was likely to get lost, and there it was, yes, Exit, here, this way, straight on, and he took care not to disturb anyone, though who the hell cared whether he spoke to himself or not, after all there were thousands of people here who were doing exactly the same, hurrying confusedly this way or that, keeping their eyes on boards and signs indicating directions, turning now left, stopping, waiting, turning back, then heading right, stopping, then back again, eventually going straight on, onward and onward to ever more and ever new confusion; just like Korin, in fact, who had to keep his eye on the word Exit and nothing else, everything being postulated on the position of the Exit sign which must not be lost sight of, a task that required all his concentration, for nothing must disturb that concentration, because a moment’s inattention in this crazy traffic and all would be lost, gone forever, and he would never find the right way again…

It’s impossible to escape goals—and as a travel writer, I’m contractually bound to have them—but I try to stop myself from slipping into the feeling of moving to places rather than through them. As Béla Tarr has shown, it’s sometimes beautiful to watch another person walk. When that other person becomes yourself, really, what’s the difference?