Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Two Genii and a Ninny

When an Imaginary Idol Meets Reality

To Raphæl

...When the idol meets reality, when you first face him in person, or through his trace, it's not that you are disappointed, but it is that he simply nullifies himself. And sinks without a trace. This has happened in the case of an iconic (so they say) filmmaker, Aleksandr Sokurov. (But there's one big thing here: he made me write a bit about Bresson and Tarkovsky; though I'm writing entirely from recollection, it is probably accurate at least in the references and true in its drift.)

(And you, of course, know who is the ninny and who are the genii.)

[Aleksandr Sokurov]
The director of films like Russian Ark (that acclaimed 100-minute single take of the Tretyakov Gallery, spiralling back in time in an elaborate costume drama) and Father and Son (with its not totally undeserved disrepute as a homoerotic movie) surely has some beans in him, surely? At least that's what I thought, what I hoped, and indeed, what I prayed. Impostor! Surely, he is a cut above the likes of Spielberg...but we aren't talking about Spielberg-stuff and feel-good realism. (Spielberg won't ever make it into one of my pages other than when I run out of idiots and assorted Uncle Sams, but that's another thing.) But we are talking about a man—the fact that he has made important films does not matter much here—is trying, and trying hard, to pass himself off as Tarkovsky's natural disciple, or descendant, or whatever. What a vain idiot!

[S, B, T]
I am not comparing Tarkovsky and Sokurov; but I take this opportunity to recollect a few things about Tarkovsky. Tarkovsky was a multi-faceted genius who felt compelled to take up cinema as his medium. In his work, the medium is of secondary importance, though it's another matter he made the best use of it as possible. Indeed, some of the insights he presents through film is impossible by any other means. (And, believe me, when he extols the virtues of Bresson, I've often felt why? Why do it? Why extol the virtue of a man who was, though he was a master craftsman, heavily restricted by his choice of screenplay, and decidedly "wrought" by his screenwriter? Professional solidarity, probably; but a more likely possibility is that Andrei probably felt a bit like what I feel when I watch a Bresson film. Follows:)

[Robert Bresson]
Bresson's fame is legendary, yet his persona seems to radiate far outside cinema—indeed, the place where he becomes legendary is definitely outside cinema. He struggled to make each of his films, perhaps more so than Tarkovsky did. With all respect to Bresson, I've always found his films rigid, they never move you (which is an intended end-result, otherwise he would have employed professional actors). Instead, it leaves you with an insipid feeling, and, most of the time, after much thought, you come around to the view that what happened (as Bresson shows in the movie) 'wasn't so bad after all.' In some cases at least, we immediately realise that there's no room for remorse, or feeling, or pity, and that life is not about feelings or sentiments, even when it's all happening close to us, to people close to us. He brings us to face things: situations that terrify you with their nothingness.

It's always the case that Bresson is presenting us with a foretold drama, something that's been written out, something which would unravel at the last moment with divine (serendipitous?) intervention, or a godlike revelation. This is probably the 'religiosity' Bresson is accused of. (Spiritual? Yes. Religious? No. I've found him amoral, and he's perhaps one of the most impartial storytellers I've come across.) Yet, his choice of actors was whimsical (consider his Jeanne, who, even in her ill-fitting rags made out of sack-cloth, drops you dead with her looks, and doesn't even remotely seem a fervent devotee of God. (Indeed, she was most probably an atheist hippie. Florence Delay went on to become a famous author and collector of folk-stories in her own right.) This could hardly be a 'religious' choice. Bresson brings us face to face with the truth, the ringing truth, of an instant: the fact of the moment. At that instance, when it made clear to us, the moment, the act, unfolds in its terrifying isolation: and we feel what the subject feels at the moment of truth. Often, that fact is a terrifying silence which we fill out with our interior monologue (the constant mumblings and commentary of the protagonist of A Man Escaped). Bresson doesn't waste his energies further; the following shots merely dissipate into nothing, he's presented the truth of a moment and done his job. (Recall the burning of Jeanne at the stake—at best described as 'shoddy.')

It is neither art nor realism that wins the tussle in Bresson; something definitely French, something akin to chance, something akin to fate, something immobile, something unmoving, something heavy, something predestined yet not thought of by anyone in the audience. Yet, it is natural yes, it was one among the possibilities—the one possibility we all overlooked. (Recall the climax of Un condamné à mort s'est échappé - 'A Man Escaped'. We all seem to forget, for the entire length of the movie, until he presents it to us, that it is the only logical conclusion of such a heroic escape attempt (let's again forget the symbolic significance of the event, let's forget France and Nazi Germany). When we see the two men clasping each other silently for joy, and walk away briskly in silence into the night, we are suddenly pushed, face on, to the stark reality. And, just like the men who walk away as a matter of course, hardened by the realisation that the job is but half-done, we feel what they're thinking at that moment. He achieves this with about five or six seconds of insight which is neither cinematic nor artistic. Since I am not a believer, may I call it providential (with the secular connotation, of course).

[Andrei Tarkovsky]
Tarkovsky is probably unique in that his films have a drift all their own; there are intensely personal moments that can only come from Tarkovsky where the director is conspicuous by his absence, when the story is led neither by the actor nor any of the crew nor the props. not even by the story. An example of this would be the floating weeds sequence in Solyaris, or the blinding of the men in Andrei Rublyov (indeed, there are countless such occasions in Andrei). At these moments the viewer is probably propelling himself, there are no suggestions from the film(i).

Tarkovsky is a master of the suspense-shot. This is an improvised shot, which cannot otherwise be captured simply with a camera (which is not a journalistic tool, but more an instrument of poetic vision and apocalyptic proscription). His films mostly end with enigmatic shots which however deliver the vision of the director (poet) conclusively:
  • Kris Kelvin's home surrounded by the Solyaris ocean;
  • The poet in his backyard, cradled by the arching immensity of the Italian cathedral (Nostalghia);
  • Stalker's daughter propelling objects by mere sight, even as the train rattles into our auditory field with a decidedly tactile potency;
  • Little Man noticing the first blossom on the Japanese tree (a much-acclaimed shot by Sven Nyqvist);
  • The legendary 'grazing horses' of Andrei Rublyov, signifying rebirth with the adoption of faith in the Trinity(ii).
  • [And, and...? You seem to be wondering about the two missing films. To be quite frank with you, I don't recall the final shot of Mirror, which I have not viewed seriously, nor made any sense of, yet. Ivan is an altogether different film, which doesn't somehow belong in this discussion.]
In contrast to the single-minded synthetic philosopher Bresson, who always tries to locate his subject and pays no attention to what is external to it, Tarkovsky makes use of different techniques, and metaphors, to add resonances of the main theme to the stream. In Solyaris, the car-ride through the highways of Tokyo—starting out in the early-evening light, and ending up in the completely electric-light night traffic, with the cars resembling glowing worms or fireflies, is a strong metaphor of the increasingly telescopic vision of the space-traveller. The car speeds through the fast lanes, with reverberating sounds underlining the claustrophobia of lonely pilots and space travellers far away from home and family. When it ends, the transformation is complete: the earthy, rustic visions of idyllic life changes completely to the dehumanized world of mindless conquest of other worlds, and the mad rush after scientific truth and excellence, even at the ultimate price. Seldom have I seen such a gradual, but breathtaking, change of scene. It is almost like a long take that leaves you dangling over a precipice staring into certain death.

Claustrophobia, loneliness, and existential despair are the lasting themes in Tarkovsky's later work (starting with Solyaris).

A more complete, if ecstatic, treatment of Tarkovsky's Stalker may be found in my Stalker blog of 2006.

[Unfinished. 1670. 90 min.]

(i) At such a moment, we feel like, "Well, it's not the actor leading it, it's not the director, nor anything else, it's just life taking its course..."
(ii) The inclusion, or non-inclusion, of this shot is often used to quickly identify between the Ruscico and Criterion editions.

I had this coming a long time now. Never suspected that viewing (part of) a documentary by Sokurov (Moloch was another keen disappointment) would so set me off. It made me positively sick. Sokurov is 1% inspiration and 99% respiration (degassing).

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