January 8, 2013

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Aleksandr Sokurov’s Soviet Elegy (1989) begins with a tour of tombstones, the camera floating down rows of Communist phantoms. In the next sequence, Boris Yeltsin is shown stalking down a hallway, another kind of ghost, one aware of his coming obsolescence. Sokurov’s work is a series of elegies, in which ghosts of history mourn for themselves. Cinema Guild has illustrated this development in their three-disc box set of Sokurov: Early Masterworks. It contains the three features Save and Protect (1990, DVD), Stone (1992, DVD) and Whispering Pages (1994, Blu-Ray), plus three of his shorts, including Soviet Elegy. Each displays his increasingly idiosyncratic visual sense, in which he uses distorting lenses to produce stretched figures akin to El Greco saints, yearning for a God who doesn’t respond. Sokurov is often compared to Andrei Tarkovsky, the previous Russian spiritual guide/director. But while Tarkovsky often offers the possibility of transcendence, there is no such hope in Sokurov, just figures circling a void.


These are demanding, deeply eccentric works, and none are more so than his Madame Bovary adaptation, Save and Protect. Sokurov focuses on Emma Bovary’s illict affairs, and cuts out her husband Charles almost entirely. He casts the skeletal Cecile Zervudacki as Emma, her recessed eyes and slender frame giving her the aura of an underfed zombie. Instead of brains its sex she’s after, feeding on the libidos of a series of romance-novel handsome beaus. Never satisfied, she wanders the Siberian steppe for 133 minutes in an aimless pursuit of a lasting human connection. Sokurov introduces anachronisms into the 19th century scene, as when the strains of “When the Saints Go Marching In” starts playing over an unseen radio, suggesting that Emma’s Sisyphean task will take multiple lifetimes.

Named by Susan Sontag as one of the greatest films of the 1990s, Stone takes Sokurov’s interest in the undead and applies his increasingly distorted visual scheme to it. It presents the claustrophobic scenario of a museum attendant at the Chekhov Musuem who spends all his time with a mysterious bearded stranger – the unsettled ghost of Chekhov himself. Almost entirely restricted to the interiors of the musuem, and shot in grainy B&W with image-stretching lenses that round the frame edge, the film has the constrained feel of a nightmare taking place in a snow globe, or that one is walking inside Sokurov’s own head. Of the realist writers of the late 19th century (Flaubert, Chekhov, Dickens, Tolstoy), he told Cineaste that, “This is the kind of literary world within which I could exist eternally.” With Save and Protect and Stone he attempts to. With even less narrative thread than Save and ProtectStone presents the attendant and his ghostly pal in scenes of uncanny silence, the soundtrack a melange of breathing, ambient noise and Mahler. When the two wander outside they are rendered as two silhouettes separated from the landscape, as if they were just shadows against a wall.

Whispering Pages is another elegy for and escape into realist literature, this time of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment stripped of narrative. Sokurov’s Raskolnikov is not named, nor does he act. He simply skulks around the whitish-gray black and white, which occasionally dissolves into lifeless color, of the decaying city. It is a wet city, as damp as the village in Stalker, except there is no Room which promises escape. Sokurov’s elongated figures, often shot at low angles, seem to reach toward the sky, but fail to ever touch it, or reach it. Instead they trundle through film grain and dust motes and rain, an endless array of obstacles placed in front of them. All of these elements work on erasing people from the landscape, like the way the apartments are falling apart at the seams. In one disorienting shot, the camera peers up from the ground, towards Raskolnikov at right, and a tower straight ahead. People are jumping off, down past the camera and presumably towards their death. Nothing is shown or explained, just nature reclaiming some of its own. He exchanges some glances with a neighborhood girl, but entropy takes them all. In the sodden resignation of the final shot, Raskolnikov sits at the foot of a lion statue, the giant paw obscuring his head. Eventually the human figure disappears. All that’s left is a manmade object, with no one left to admire it.

The Soviet Elegy also contains a long reading of names of Russian leaders, a cinematic memorial to the builders of the Soviet state that was now ending. This micro-portrait of Yeltsin foretells not only his Tetralogy of Power, wherein he made films on the Hitler, Lenin, Hirohito and Faust, but also these early features, in which the undead hold more sway than the living. Sokurov’s films are dreams of memories, or memories of dreams, in which the writers, characters and leaders that formed his consciousness awake and wander, and find us wanting.

Technical notes: Save and Protect and Stone were transferred from what looks like old release prints, and contain persistent flecks and scratches, as well as end of reel markings. The original negative for Whispering Pages was “completely unusable”, according to the disc, so the pleasing HD transfer was made from a negative found in Germany. No apparent digital restoration was done, so there are still plentiful flecks and scratches, but it looks the best out of the bunch. Considering the rarity of these titles, we should be grateful we can see these in any form.


February 21, 2012

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Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979) is the latest beneficiary of Geoff Dyer’s cultural immersion method. Zona, which comes out today from Pantheon Books, is a pellucid scene-by-scene ramble through Tarkovsky’s sci-fi head trip, alive to the film’s textures as much as its ideas.  In his non-fiction works, Dyer is a dilettante angling for expertise, his books (whether on jazz, photography, or WWI) documents of an enlightenment-in-progress. Like a student prone to daydreaming, Dyer often strays off-topic, doodling in the corners of his notebook, not Van Halen logos, but on his susceptibility to boredom, how his wife looks like Natasha McElhone in the Solaris remake, or simply on his love of knapsacks. These detours are maddening and lovely, bracing returns to everyday neuroses in the midst of high-minded esthetic ruminations. It’s this whiplash between objective and subjective modes, from high to low (he’ll go from quoting William James to thoughts on three-ways), that makes his work so addictive.   The pleasure of Zona lies in Dyer’s method, in its constant sense of discovery, as if he had just stumbled out of a screening and was sharing his thoughts with you after a beer or three.

Dyer originally intended to give the book 142 chapters, one for each shot in the film, but found, “I kept losing track of where one shot ended and another began.” Instead, he splits the book into two parts, corresponding to the rather arbitrary split in the film itself. It is not a rigorous textual analysis, although it has some striking instances of that, but “an account of watchings, rememberings, and forgettings”, of how the film has implanted itself in his memories and his working life, not as a static object. It is a similar approach to what Jonathan Rosenbaum attempted in Moving Places, his cinematic autobiography, on how films affected, and were affected by, the time and place he watched them. Zona is less personal and more attuned to the active viewing experience, a kind of diary of his eye as it wanders around the screen.

He first gazed upon Stalker on February 8th, 1981, which is also the day I was born. A transformative day for us both, although perhaps more life-changing for Dyer, who says that if he had not seen the film in his twenties, “my responsiveness to the world would have been radically diminished.” For the uninitiated, the film follows a stalker (a kind of mystical tour guide) as he leads a Writer and a Professor through the cordoned off area of the Zone, said to contain a Room that grants one’s innermost wish (it was adapted from the Russian sci-fi novel Roadside Picnic, which is receiving a new English translation that comes out May 1st). In the more conventional analytical sections of the book, Dyer does a fine job of breaking down the film’s use of time, space and language, all of which expand and contract in the amorphous landscapes of the Zone.

The Zone is surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards, but when the Stalker’s wife protests his latest jaunt, he proclaims that everywhere is a prison. As Dyer demonstrates, the language of the Gulag permeates the world of Stalker. He quotes Anne Appelbaum’s Gulag: “the world outside the barbed wire was not referred to as ‘freedom’, but as the bolshoya zona, the ‘big prison zone’ larger and less deadly than the ‘small zone’ of the camp, but no more human – and certainly no more humane.” Then there is the most dangerous section of the Zone, the “meat grinder”, which is how prisoners often referred to the Gulag. But in the Zone, these definitions are not fixed, as each new sector provides both new freedoms (of solitude and silence) and new forms of imprisonment (forcing you to reside inside your own head).

Dyer’s sense of Tarkovsky Time is generated through the history of Russia and of cinema. He first brings it up in the context of war strategy, one that “had done for Napoleon and would do for Hitler too: ‘Trade space for time’, a message Tarkovsky took to heart.” Russian army strategists gave up chunks of land for more time to defend it, and Tarkovsky traverses a delimited amount of space (there are only a few sets in Stalker) but explores every inch of it in his heavingly slow zoom-ins and tracking shots. Then Dyer describes his first viewing of Antonioni’s L’Avventura (“the nearest I have ever come to pure cinematic agony”), in which “every second lasted a minute, every minute lasted an hour, and an hour a year, and so on. Trade time for a bigger unit of time.” Tarkovsky pushes Antonioni-time even further, where in a minute an eternity could have passed, what Tarkovsky said, required “a special intensity of attention”. Dyer has this intensity in spades, although not for another slow-footed European modernist, the recently deceased Theo Angelopolous, of whose Ulysses’ Gaze he describes as “another nail in the coffin of European art cinema.”

Dyer has plenty of tossed off, heretical bon mots like this, designed to raise the hackles of any passionate cinephile. He says that Luis Bunuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and Belle du Jour “sucked”, Godard’s Breathless was “unwatchable”, Kieslowski’s The Double Life of Veronique “made straight-ahead porn seem tasteful”, Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control was “vacuous” and that Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist was “a highly crafted diminution of the possibilities of cinema”. These are all stashed away in the footnotes, and in the adrenaline provided by my indignant rage, serve as potent energy boosters to binge-read through the rest of the book.

In any case, let’s remain thankful he wrote about Stalker, and not Bunuel. His obsessive viewings of the film have given him an innate sense of the atmosphere and landscapes of the film. The book is a marvel of tactility, no more so when Dyer describes the trio’s first landing in the Zone:

It is every bit as lovely as Stalker Claims – and, at the same time, quite ordinary. The air is full of the sound of birds, of wind in the trees, running water. Mist, muted greens. Weeds and plants swaying in the breeze. The tangled wires of a tiled telegraph pole. The rusting remains of a car. We are in another world that is no more than this world perceived with unprecedented attentiveness. Landscapes like this had been seen before Tarkovsky but – I don’t know how else to put it – their beingness had not been seen in this way.

Then, after noting rhyming images with Walker Evans’s “sagging shacks” and Bresson’s dictum to “Make visible what, without you, might perhaps never have been seen’, Dyer embarks one of his more majestic digressions, of his own childhood adventures in a decaying industrial landscape, an old train station at Leckhampton. “Faded, rain-buckled, the timetable was still displayed – a memorial to its own passing.” This memory fits what Dyer would later define to be “quintessentially Tarkovskyian…: the magic of the discarded ordinary, the filmic archaeology of the everyday.” This is the elegiac highlight of the book, in which Dyer alchemically lifts his childhood memory into the realm of art, and brings Stalker, as mysterious an object as cinema has given us, deep down into the swampy earth.