Cinema of the USSR


Nachrichten Aus Der Ideologischen Antike – Marx/Eisenstein/Das Kapital (2010) (News From Ideological Antiquity – Marx/Eisenstein/Capital) – THE THEATRICAL VERSION
Alexander Kluge
German

 

News From Ideological AntiquityThe theatrical cut of Alexander Kluge’s epic length video work News from Ideological Antiquity – Marx/Eisenstein/Capital (2008) could be considered as notes from notes from notes on Das Kapital. This inheritance of texts, across media and languages, is what informs the central discourse of Kluge’s 83-minute collage work. After the completion of October (1928), which he mostly edited partially-blind and under the influence, Eisenstein set out to adapt Karl Marx’s Das Kapital as filtered through James Joyce’s Ulysses. The project was, of course, not realized and this is precisely the fact from which Kluge’s launches his investigation as to whether the book can be adapted at all. Using archival footage, (seemingly endless amount of) on-screen text, reading sessions accompanied by piano scores, interviews with historians, agit-poetry by Bert Brecht based on The Communist Manifesto and even an overstaying, outsourced short film directed by Tom Tykwer, Kluge examines the possible ways in which the gargantuan socioeconomic text can be realized in popular art forms. Such an effort, as Kluge illustrates, becomes especially challenging in film since it would mean attempting to capture the abstract nature of capital in the concrete events and things around us. Kluge, it appears, likes to see this as an ever evolving process, driven by the development of technology (At least, unlike Eisenstein, Kluge doesn’t have to worry about film stock), in which he is but only a connecting link. (His film is, after all, far removed from the source: Marx-Engels-Eisenstein-Kluge). But there is a more fundamental question if one is to believe in such long-ranged projects: How much of Marx is still relevant today? Was Marx, like Kluge, a part of a longer chain, the beginning or the end of it?  Kluge, like Godard, sums up the predicament in a poignant image: the debris of Karl Marx’s real tombstone in London being overshadowed by a lionizing token monument nearby.

Triumph of the Will

Triumph of the Will (1935)

The Fall of Berlin

The Fall of Berlin (1949)

The Ghost Writer

The Ghost Writer (2010)

Mest Kinematograficheskogo Operatora (1912) (aka The Cameraman’s Revenge)
Wladyslaw Starewicz
USSR
13 Min.

 

If a list of forgotten pioneers of cinema is to be made, it is highly likely that Wladyslaw Starewicz tops that list. Few filmmakers seem to have come close to him as far as understanding the animation medium is concerned (Cohl and Disney are the only ones that come to mind). Starewicz began his career stuffing dead insects and animating them by traditional puppetry or stop motion photography and then moved on to make (more humane, but less magical) movies employing puppets and toys. His short film, The Cameraman’s Revenge (1912), arguably his masterpiece, presents us Mr. And Mrs. Beetle, the former of whom goes away on a trip only to involve himself in an affair with a pretty dragonfly. Mr. Grasshopper, the jilted boyfriend of the dragonfly and a movie maker by profession, plans revenge. When Mr. Beetle returns home to discover his wife having an affair, he is infuriated and erupts. To patch up things, he takes his wife to the local cinema hall where a big surprise awaits him. Hilarious, groundbreaking and profound all at once, The Cameraman’s Revenge, like Brakhage’s Mothlight (1963), stands as a testimony to the power of cinema (animation cinema, in particular) to resurrect and immortalize the dead. No one can deny that there is some sinister charm is witnessing these bugs, which have bit the dust ages ago, come to life once more to perform for generations to come. Starewicz’s sense of slapstick is pitch perfect here (as always, even when he was merely illustrating moral tales later in his career) and the film can well be placed alongside the best of Chaplin. But more than anything, The Cameraman’s Revenge is a bewitching (and the first ever?) acknowledgment of our tendency to believe that photography is indeed truth and cinema, truth 24 times per second.

Katok I Skripka (1960) (aka The Steamroller And The Violin)
Andrei Tarkovsky
Russian

“He’s a musician.”

 

The Steamroller and the ViolinThere is no other way of seeing Andrei Tarkovsky’s diploma film Katok I Skripka (The Steamroller and the Violin, 1960) at VGIK other than as a scratchpad for a would-be master of cinema. As a result, one is only preoccupied with filtering out the Tarkovskian elements of the film from the rest and somehow hammering it to conform to his/her understanding of the director’s oeuvre. However, it must also be acknowledged that the movie is more rewarding if you are indeed familiar with the director’s work. Shot in no less than the prestigious Mosfilm studio, The Steamroller and the Violin is a little gem that is at times prophetic, at times contradictory and at times surprising, when one considers the films of Tarkovsky that were to follow. But one just cannot fail to note the unmistakable signature of the hand that made works such as Ivan’s Childhood (1962) and Andrei Rublev (1966) in this film.

The Steamroller and the Violin follows a day in the life of young Sasha (Igor Fomchenko) who learns violin at the local music school. Everyday, he has to sneak past the gang of local bullies that tries to rip him apart. On this fortunate day, he is, however, saved even after being caught by them, by a young worker named Sergei (Vladmir Zamansky), who is working at a construction site nearby. Sasha, then, proceeds towards the music school, stopping once at the window of a curio shop where he witnesses the city through images gathered on the mirrors placed there for sale. After getting berated during a music test for playing the violin according to his imagination and not sticking to the notes provided, Sasha returns to the streets to meet Sergei once more. Following this, Sasha embarks on a little adventure of sorts where he operates the steamroller, roams around the city with Sergei, witnesses an old building being razed down, plays violin for Sergei and even gets into a small fist with a boy bigger than him. Sergei, meanwhile, keeps ignoring a girl who tries to flirt with him. Sergei and Sasha also make plans to go to the movies that evening, but, alas, Sasha’s mother won’t let him go.

Despite the romantic nature of its script, The Steamroller and the Violin remains a neo-realist film. But its neo-realism is not of the confrontational kind driven forth dogmatically by the Italian theorists and filmmakers, but of the stylistic one championed by Bazin in his essays. The film’s realism lies in not committing itself to the study of the society (which it never does), but, rather, in the respect it has for the integrity of time and space of its world. Tarkovsky extensively employs deeply focused shots so that large chunks of action can unfold in a single, undivided unit of film. For Tarkovsky, this meant a step away from montage and hence, automatically, from the founding stones laid by film pioneers of his country. Although, later, he would master the art of non-division of a shot even if it called for Herculean perfection and risk, deep focus proves to be a very viable option for Tarkovsky, here, to let the audience choose key actions of a sequence without having to direct their attention artificially. Furthermore, with this freedom that he gives to his audience, a la Orson Welles, Tarkovsky is able to bathe the film with ambiguity, thus turning upside down both the technique and the intention of the dominant Soviet cinema of yesteryear.

The Steamroller and the ViolinI might be giving the impression that the film is far more revolutionary than it actually is, but it is difficult not to applaud Tarkovsky’s ideology of taking art away from political exploitation. His vision couldn’t possibly have crystallized if Stalin, who insisted that art be used only for activist purposes, with no margin for ambiguity in its message, was still ruling the USSR. For Stalin, the artist existed for the worker and never as an independent entity in the society. Everyone had to stick to the positions in the society they were given irrespective of what their choice was. In Tarkovsky’s film, Sasha is conditioned by his teacher to play his violin in the way she wants. His mother prevents him from going to the movie. Instead, he has to stay home to meet some guests (and probably play some classical piece for them). Sasha wants to drive the steamroller, he wants to play the violin like he wants it and he wants to go to the movie whenever he wants. But, unfortunately, he has to assume the role of an artist that he never wants to be.  Also, conversely, Sasha will never be able to replace the worker (and vise-versa). Nor will he be able to parry off his bullies like Sergei wants him to. All he can do, and with much satisfaction, is to play the violin for Sergei to make him happy for a few minutes.

Although Tarkovsky’s stance, here, regarding the role of the artist in a worker-oriented society remains open to interpretation, it is clear that he is appealing for an environment where art can stand on its own legs and eventually finds an independent voice. In other words, Tarkovsky seems to be wanting the evolution of an art form of whose universe the artist is the centre and in which his “inner demands” propel the work of art rather than socio-political policies – art to exist for its own sake. He succinctly puts it in his book Sculpting in Time:

“How wonderfully apposite is Tolstoy’s remark in his diary on March 21, 1858: ‘The political is not compatible with the artistic, because the former, in order to prove, has to be one-sided.’ Indeed! The artistic image cannot be one-sided: in order justly to be called truthful, it has to unite within itself dialectically contradictory phenomena.”

“It is obvious that art cannot teach anyone anything, since in four thousand years humanity has learnt nothing at all. We should long ago have become angels had we been capable of paying attention to the experience of art, and allowing ourselves to be changed in accordance with the ideals it expresses. It’s ridiculous to imagine that people can be taught to be good; any more than they can learn how to be faithful wives by following the ‘positive’ example of Pushkin’s Tatiana Larina. Art can only give food—a jolt—the occasion—for psychical experience.”

More so than the neo-realist films of Italy, Tarkovsky’s film is reluctant to succumb to the needs of a drama. For most part, The Steamroller and the Violin is a plotless film. There is no dramatic epicenter to the events that unfold in it. Causality vanishes and we merely witness episodic encounters between Sergei and Sasha taking place at various geographic locations. Events happen in the film not to progress a preformatted story line but because they, well, “happen”. Furthermore, unlike the neo-realist movies, there isn’t even an objective for our protagonists. All that Sasha and Sergei want are to spend the day together. There are no hurdles, no conflicts and no turning points or threats to this wish. And the camera (handled by director of photography Vadim Yusov, who would go on to film the next three Tarkovsky features) obliges them by simply documenting them along with their surroundings. What is nowadays cornered into terms like “dead time” is the very thing that Tarkovsky calls “life”. Again, he elucidates his staunch position against artificial standards of theatrical drama (even if backed by naturalism) in his book:

“I wanted to demonstrate how cinema is able to observe life, without interfering, crudely or obviously, with its continuity. For that is where I see the true poetic essence of cinema.”

“I find poetic links, the logic of poetry in cinema, extraordinarily pleasing. They seem to me perfectly appropriate to the potential of cinema as the most truthful and poetic of art forms. Certainly I am more at home with them than with traditional theatrical writing which links images through the linear, rigidly logical development of the plot.

That sort of fussily correct way of linking events usually involves arbitrarily forcing them into sequence in obedience to some abstract notion of order. And even when this is not so, even when the plot is governed by the characters, one finds that the links which hold it together rest on a facile interpretation of life’s complexities. But film material can be joined together in another way, which works above all to lay open the logic of a person’s thought. This is the rationale that will dictate the sequence of events, and the editing which forms them into a whole. The birth and development of thought are subject to laws of their own, and sometimes demand forms of expression which are quite different from the patterns of logical speculation. In my view poetic reasoning is closer to the laws by which thought develops, and thus to life itself, than is the logic of traditional drama. And yet it is the methods of classical drama which have been regarded as the only models, and which for years have defined the form in which dramatic conflict is expressed.”

Apart from the cinematography, what stands out technically in Tarkovsky’s film is the production design (by Savet Agoyan) which helps Tarkovsky, though being unusual for him, to use a slightly expressionistic mise en scène which should perhaps be deemed academically remarkable. The conservatory and Sasha’s house – the centers of restriction in the film – are allotted dark colours and are populated by rigid, oppressive furniture that seem to choke the frame, Even the cat at the conservatory is black and ominous. The only sign of life at that place seems to be the little girl.  On the other hand, the exteriors – where Sasha seems really happy to be – are unusually bright, with vibrant coloured vehicles (The red tractor seems to have become the Soviet symbol of sorts), clear skies and people with cheerfully coloured clothes. The interiors at Sasha’s and at the music school, again, are lit by small isolated beams of sunlight whereas the sun is up and shining whenever Sasha is out with Sergei. Even though Tarkovsky would never again make such cerebral use of his mise en scène (and also a few flashy techniques like the ones utilized during the building-demolition and the final dream scenes), it still remains praiseworthy for a student film – the kind of cinema that almost always retains its jittery and attention-gathering qualities.

The Steamroller and the ViolinPerhaps the most striking Tarkovsky trait apparent in The Steamroller and the Violin is the director’s use of water throughout the film. For a very large part, water seems to be present in every frame of the film. Tarkovsky floods the movie with images of water found in one form or the other in everyday life. For him, water wasn’t just a symbol or a token of life, it was life. For Tarkovsky, water’s reflective, meditative, serene, cleansing, cathartic and mystic qualities were nothing short of the magic of life itself. In this movie, however, his use of water, unusually, takes up the job of indicating free life, rather than being present for just what it is. Although one can argue that this strategy is close to becoming symbolism that Tarkovsky would later oppose, it is to be accepted that he has used it very efficiently. Throughout the film, we see water being employed to make a commentary on life in that particular environment. Water is seen flowing smoothly on the streets when Sasha and Sergei bond. The same water is forced and confined into water jugs in the conservatory and at Sasha’s home. Water appears in the purgative form of a rain during the quintessentially Soviet sequence in the film, where a building is brought down with a soundtrack marked by expressionist music. And water is seen in its softest form in a puddle gently continuing to reflect its surroundings, like it would in the director’s later movies, as Sasha and Sergei descend into a free-flowing small talk.

Additionally, there are many images and facets in The Steamroller and the Violin that one would also see in Tarkovsky’s films that were to follow. The basket of apples that the woman in the city drops takes us directly to the cart of apples in Ivan’s Childhood. The contemplative interior where Sergei and Sasha sit for lunch shows up in almost every subsequent Tarkovsky film.  The autobiographical aspect of the absence of the father figure and the presence of a strong and demanding mother in the movie is unmistakably Tarkovskian. The question about the role of the artist is a clear precursor to his masterwork Andrei Rublev. Although not blown to full scale, Tarkovsky’s elliptical editing, which would be stretched to the limits later, makes sure that superfluous actions are weeded out and the audience is left with the bare minimum to hold on to and develop into a whole. We see the bullies approach the violin with awe. But it would become our responsibility shortly to understand that these kids never actually wanted to harm the violin, but just to taunt the artist. We see Sasha give an apple to the little girl at the conservatory and that she eats it by the time Sasha leaves, but it is up to us to decide why she was reluctant in the first place.

“The method whereby the artist obliges the audience to build the separate parts into a whole, and to think on, further than has been stated, is the only one that puts the audience on a par with the artist in their perception of the film. And indeed from the point of view of mutual respect only that kind of reciprocity is worthy of artistic practice.”

Talk about shooting a picture. Is this what they mean when they say  Cinema can be used as a weapon? Who knows, this may just make its way into the next Tarantino movie!

“This may be the only working example of Medvedkin’s camera which he invented while working at the front. He’d had this extraordinary idea. He needed soldiers who’d agree to serve as cameramen. He chose volunteers from the disciplinary battalions. Choosing these battalions was a shrewd move since, like Stalin’s camps, they recruited mostly educated people: Civil engineers, teachers, lecturers… people who already had the basics of technical knowledge. Teaming up in twos or threes, they would sneak up the rear of the German lines and achieve some incredible feats: Two men would capture a German as the third would film the operation.”

- Nikolai Izvolov explaining Medvedkin’s wartime invention in The Last Bolshevik (1992).

Schastye (1934) (aka Happiness)
Aleksandr Medvedkin
Russian/French

“Go and find happiness.

 

HappinessIt is now generally accepted that if not for the efforts of another less talked about filmmaker Chris Marker, the world may not have come to know about his mentor Alexandr Medvedkin and his work. Standing somewhere between the films of Dovzhenko and those of Pudovkin, Medvedkin’s most famous movie Happiness (1934) offers a radically different perspective to the political and cinematic developments in Stalinist Russia. The discussions about Soviet cinema have been dominated by the films and theories of major figures like Eisenstein and Vertov, and perhaps rightly so, obscuring inevitably other stalwarts who may have been. Much less a theoretician than his contemporaries, Medvedkin produces a film that may never make it into classrooms. But one thing can’t be denied and that is the fact that Happiness is a film with a heart. Happiness does work very well as a stand alone piece, but the fact that it is a culmination of a larger and a nobler mission makes it all the more special.

Happiness follows the life of a poor Soviet farmer Khmyr (Piotr Zinoviev) and his “horse-wife” Anna (Elena Egorova) before and after the October Revolution. During the Tsar’s rule, we see Khmyr struggling for existence and envying his wealthy neighbour Foka, who also happens to be the loan shark of the village. So he goes in search of happiness and gets it in the form of a sum of money. He buys a horse for farming but the animal goes on a strike. He manages to harvest by substituting Anna for his horse and gathers a rich output. His celebrations don’t last long as Foka and the Church figures are quick to grab it back from him. He contemplates suicide, but the Church prevents him from doing this “sin”. Now, it decides to punish him by whipping him but not allowing him to die. Years pass by and the country is now in the hands of the communists. The collective farming system has been implemented. Anna seems to have adapted to the system and seems to be doing exceptionally well, becoming the breadwinner of the family. Khmyr, on the other hand, lazes around, making one blunder after the other, desperately tries to become an honest farmer. But the disinvested Foka plans revenge.

Happiness would seem like a very directionless film, if one does not take a look at Medvedkin’s modus operandi outside of the film. Medvedkin was one of the founders of the famous Cine Train of Bolshevik Russia that aimed to travel into the hinterlands of Russia, document the lives of peasants and workers and show it back to them in order to make them understand their strengths and weaknesses. The country had just entered the Bolshevik regime and the common folk, it seems, found it difficult to adapt to most of the improvement measures. Medvedkin and group understood this problem and used the cinema as a medium of introspection to illustrate the situation clearly to the people. Be it public service messages like the importance of hygiene (as in the film Watch Your Health), critical documents about absenteeism, inefficiency and negligence (as in Journal Number 4 and The Conveyor Belt) or queries for betterment of living and working conditions (How Do You Live Comrade Miner?), the Cine Train seems to have never hesitated in putting everything that is right and everything that is questionable about a system on the same plane. And that is very true about Happiness too.

HappinessJoseph Stalin banned the movie apparently because he thought that Happiness was mocking his collective farming system – the Kolkhoz – but spared Medvedkin knowing his service for the state. But surely, what Medvedkin was doing was neither a satire on the state of affairs nor a propaganda movie that the Soviet cinema was famous for. What he was presenting was merely an honest view of the newly born farming system, without any form of prejudice or support. For this, Medvedkin pays equal attention to both the positive and the negative ramifications of the collective farming. Through a largely objective eye – a common eye called cinema – Medvedkin makes a transparent reading of the Kolkhoz, its strong points and its limitations. If Stalin is pleased by Medvedkin’s attack on the exploitative and irrational nature of the church in the Tsar’s regime, he would be turned off by the vignettes of the Kolkhoz, where there are a bunch of goons waiting to ruin it all for themselves. If he would be laughing at the director’s depiction of the Tsarist army as a bunch of men wearing the same grumpy plastic masks, he would be annoyed by the possibly individualistic upshot of the film. But by no means is Medvedkin taking a centrist stance, for his stance is that of the people. As confirmed by Happiness, his interest is not the upholding of a political ideology, but a desire for people to have better lives.

“Every man is seeking happiness. Some see it in wealth, but the Russian peasant who struggled in poverty dreamt of it in his own way. Anton Pavlovich Chekhov noted in his diary: “What is a Russian peasant’s dream? If I were tsar, I’d steal 100 roubles and run away!” A Russian proverb says that the peasant’s reply is: “If I were tsar I’d eat the fat of the bacon and I’d go to sleep.” What an idea of happiness! Just having a piece of bread, not being hungry, having a horse, a barn, having a few possessions, a sack of wheat… Such an idea of happiness, so little, but linked to the age-old harshness of a Russian peasant’s life, that’s the basis of my comedy Happiness. I tried to show the tragedy of such a man, and the effort he makes to find his ideal life. His dreams couldn’t be very elaborate, of course, they were on his own scale, but in his own way he was looking for happiness. And in this film I tried to tell a story that’s funny, sad and tragic, the story of a peasant like him, Khmyr, for whom nothing goes right. His life is a struggle, just as his grandfather’s and great-grandfather’s had been, just as his father’s had been. And, totally unexpected to him, at the end of the film he finds that there are others who care about him, friends, neighbours, the government too. And in a collective farm he comes close to happiness. That’s the story of the film. Throughout my life the film train has been a wealth of ideas and themes. It made me love themes linked to the people, it made me love the life of the people, their dreams, hopes, joys and pain.”

As he says above, Medvedkin fascination lies with the people of his country. Instead of making his film into a moral tale about the truth about happiness, he is content is depicting the struggles, aspirations and triumphs of a common man – a simple man whom he has seen throughout his life in the Cine Train. That is why, I believe, it is not fair to call Happiness as a politically charged film even though it provides a good indication of the politics of Russia at that time. His Khmyr is not an icon of satire or propaganda, but of the Russian peasant himself. Khmyr is like Chaplin’s Tramp, not fitting easily into preformatted social structures, only that Khmyr is not the happy-go-lucky type like his American twin. Medvedkin seems to be of the opinion that, however strong and simple a system is, there will always be anomalies who will take time to settle down. This idea is reinforced by his other films The Story of Tit (1933) and Stop Thief! (1931), where too we have lazy or incompetent peasants trying to malinger and wriggle their way out of duties at the Kolkhoz.

HappinessIn Chris Marker’s brilliant film The Train Rolls On (1971), he recounts the rise and fall of the Cine Train, employing meditative voiceovers, stock photographs and interviews of Medvedkin himself. The Train Rolls On starts (and ends) with the image of a moving train, denoting at once the beginning of this film, the beginning of cinema and the beginning of revolutionary cinema heralded by the Cine Train. Marker, not without a tinge of sadness, documents the activities of the Train, from its inception to its death, and attempts to bring to light how revolutionary the vision of the group was. In the interviews, Medvedkin recalls the experience of traveling in the train, stopping at villages, carrying out the mission’s objective and working against all odds to give to people what he had taken from them. Marker’s work is a documentation of a (lost) documentation of history, of revolution and of change. Marker tells us that although most of the Cine Train’s work has gone into oblivion, the spirit of the undertaking has lived on. As he puts it: “The biggest mistake one could make would be to believe that [the Train] had come to a halt”.

What is perhaps most unique about the Cine Train is its conviction that cinema is a medium that is of the people, for the people and by the people. That it can indeed bring a change in the lives of common people. That it is the only art which can create a revolution for good. This view is remarkably similar to Medvedkin’s contemporary and fellow Russian Dziga Vertov’s Kino Pravda theory. Nikolaï Izvolov, who headed the restoration of Happiness, narrates the strange phenomenon that Medvedkin and Vertov shared. Even though both lived in Moscow and were even next door neighbours for some time, they seem to have never met each other officially. And just before they had an opportunity to work together in the 50s, Vertov passed away. One only wonders what course cinema would have taken if they had joined hands. Herzog’s belief that cinema is the art form of the illiterates seems so true when watching the films of these pioneers. Somehow, it feels like cinema has moved backwards from where it started. One should at least be glad that their followers – the Dziga Vertov Group (Godard et al) and the Alexandr Medvedkin Group (Marker et al) – have tried to sustain the vision of their mentors, if not achieving the desired results.

HappinessIn Happiness, Medvedkin sets up a hilarious contrast between Khmyr and his wife Anna by reversing the conventional notions of masculine and feminine. As Khmyr goes out in search of “happiness”, Anna grabs him by the collar and kisses him goodbye.  She defends him against Foka’s exploitation. She steals a horse from thieves and rescues Khmyr from execution. She drives a tractor and runs the house. Heck, she even carries the horse down from the top of their hut! Medvedkin almost always frames her above the feeble Khmyr producing an amusing effect. Sergei Eisenstein called Medvedkin a “Bolshevik Chaplin”. Although I’m sure many will be surprised by that statement since the slapstick in Happiness seems to have aged a bit (but only as much as many of its American counterparts), there is much dark humour in Happiness to make up for that. I haven’t seen any Russian comedy of this period, except Pudovkin’s magnificent Chess Fever (1925), so I am not sure how this film stands out as a comedy among its contemporaries. But where the success of Happiness (and Medvedkin’s work in general) really lies, in hindsight, is in the fact that it offers us an alternate prism to view a country’s cinema, which has been reduced by text books to mere political messages and then a few cutting techniques.

Artavazd Peleshian

Artavazd Peleshian (Image Courtesy: Hetq Online)

Watching Artavazd Peleshian’s movies, I had this constant feeling of having seen such films elsewhere. A little deliberation reveals that the extraordinary Jean-Luc Godard compilation History of Cinema (1988-98) is, in fact, closer to the works of this Armenian auteur than anyone else’s. Furthermore, it becomes clear that almost all of Godard’s films made in the past couple of decades, especially the many short films, have a notable influence of Peleshian’s style, although they evidently bear Godard’s signature. With a total runtime of hardly three hours, Peleshian’s filmography may not be as prolific as the French director’s, but it shows such degree of consistency of style and unity of content that it almost feels as if Peleshian had decided beforehand what his résumé would read. I guess Peleshian’s films are what could be truly called film poetry. This is because they completely wallow in ambiguity that is so essential to poetry. By ambiguity, I do not mean that they elude meaning or try to deliberately confuse the viewer, but that their meanings are with the audience. That is to say that each viewer would draw out a different meaning or exhibit varied emotional responses that would solely depend on his/her accumulated experiences and thought processes. One might say that this is true of any film. But with Peleshian’s films, all of these responses hold good to some degree. As Peleshian himself says in his interview with Scott MacDonald (found in the book A Critical Cinema: Part 3): “It’s everything”.

I would probably go on talking about Godard’s later works when talking about Peleshian because the similarity here is remarkable. Much like what Godard does with the images from Ivan the Terrible: Part 2 (1958), Angels of Sin (1943) and many of his own films, Peleshian reuses and recycles a number of familiar images and sounds throughout his filmography. And likewise, each of these instances elicits a different meaning every time they occur. Peleshian seems to believe that photography is indeed truth, but alters its frame rate to underscore, enhance and provide meaning. It is as if the director is holding a photograph of stellar importance in his hand, commenting on it, animating and then stopping it, whenever required, to emphasize what he has said, going back to tell us more using the same photograph and, in essence, writing an essay using prefabricated sentences. Only that there is no text or speech as in Godard’s films. In fact, there is not a single word spoken in any of Peleshian’s films, highlighting the deliberately universal nature of his cinema. That is because people, beings to be precise, have always been at the center of Peleshian’s films. Peleshian seems to see humans as a monolithic entity whose ambitions, idiosyncrasies, struggles and emotions, although particularized by history, (to kill a cliché) transcend geographical and ethnological barriers.

But then, this history which Peleshian takes as reference for his examination always seems to be something that is close to Peleshian’s heart, which could perhaps be called truly “Armenian”. A mere look at the country’s history reveals large scale tragedies that have mercilessly plagued it throughout its life. A constant target of imperialism, oppression and, later, nature’s wrath, Armenia has certainly put up with some nasty things. With this knowledge, it is but natural for one to view Peleshian’s films as being also about the resilience of the nation’s residents. This reading seems quite valid at first since Peleshian’s films always seem to be about “movement“ – movement of time, movement of people and movement of life. In almost all of his films, we see various images that denote movement, change and constant transmutation – man made modes of transport, exodus of humans and animals, cycling of seasons, revolutions and of course, birth and death. And Armenia itself has been characterized by such movements and instability as its history tells us – the country’s constant transfer from the hands of one ruler to the other, people made refugees in their own country, forced evacuations and exiles and deformation by natural calamities. It is just too tempting to place these facts alongside and tie Peleshian’s films to a specific nation before generalizing them. But the director seems hesitant to attach any geographical importance to his films:

“The Armenians are simply an opportunity that allows me to talk about the whole world, about human characteristics, human nature. One may with also to see Armenia and the Armenian in that film. But I have never allowed myself to do it then, and would not now.”

Peleshian calls his technique “Distance Montage”, of which, I must admit, I could not make head or tail of, despite the director’s numerous attempts to clarify himself in the interview. But one thing that is clear from his films about his style is that it provides totality to them. That is, what the viewer takes away from the film is the whole and not any fragment or any individual aspect of it. Although certain images and sounds repeat themselves throughout the film, their order and composition are designed to evoke different responses depending on the context. As a matter of fact, without any impact on the individual films, all of Peleshian’s movies could be combined seamlessly into an indexed anthology that produces the same effect as its constituents, for the director’s style is too consistent to make any film seem out of place. Peleshian places the audience always at a distance, giving them an omniscient eye that concerns itself the whole of humanity instead of making them care about individual subjects and their petty objectives and aspirations. Perhaps this is why there are no “characters” in any of Peleshian’s films. It is quite impossible to distinguish between the archival footage and fabricated shots that Peleshian uses since none of these images show any trace of a motive to create a fictional world. The characters, for Peleshian, are already written and exist all around us, merely waiting to be read.

Earth Of People (1966)

Earth Of People (1966)

Earth of People (Mardkants Yerkire, 1966) is the second student film that Peleshian made while studying at the prestigious VGIK institute and already, it shows the author’s stamp. Early on we are shown images of massive man made structures – bridges, railroads and skyscrapers. As the twisted title starts to make meaning, Peleshian starts showing us human hands, humans at work and the world being constructed by humans. We see people from every profession – doctors, engineers, workers and scientists – carrying on with their routine robotically as the soundtrack suddenly stops giving us conventional score and starts gathering the most bizarre of mechanical sounds. But soon, the optimistic tone of the film gives way to distrust and we realize that we aren’t exactly masters of this world. We see these people are, in fact, trapped within their own creations (which strangely reminds us of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)), which gradually takes us back to the title: Whose world is this? No wonder the film opens and closes with the image of a thinker’s statue. Peleshian’s film is symmetrical, as would be his later works, with both the soundtrack and imagery getting reflected along the centre of the film.

Beginning (1967)

Beginning (1967)

Although Peleshian’s style already shows maturity in Earth of People, his official filmography begins with, well, Beginning (Skizbe, 1967). Chronicling the historical events that changed the course of the century following the monumental October Revolution of 1917, Beginning is a powerhouse trip that would definitely rank among the best political films ever made.  Running for a mere 10 minute span, Beginning exemplifies Peleshian’s preoccupation with mass movement like no other film. Employing an eclectic mixture of photographs, studio shots and documentary footage, manipulating their speed, repeating them regularly and eventually attaining a musical rhythm like the Soviet pioneers’, Peleshian emphatically registers our recent history that has been marked by an extraordinary number of uprisings and bloodsheds. Peleshian’s soundtrack is remarkable here. Using a combination of highway chase music, gunshots, screams and silence, Beginning shifts gears from a documentary, to an agitprop, to an essay and to an epic in no time. But the true revelation is the ending of Beginning where, after a brief visual and aural pause, Peleshian delivers a moment of epiphany, once again reminiscent of 2001 – an extended close up of a young child staring determinedly into the camera as the soundtrack plays a majestic, Thus Spake Zarathustra like score. Forget the Star Child, what is the human child going to see in the future?

We (1969)

We (1969)

Sheep and mountains have almost become Armenian identities of sorts, thanks to the films of Sergei Paradjanov. We (Menq, 1969), which begins and ends with the image of a gargantuan mountain, is perhaps the most “Armenian” of all Peleshian movies. We are shown images of mountains falling apart before being cut to a large funeral procession. This is followed by visuals of common people carrying on with their everyday work, – some utterly mundane, some shockingly risky – as if proving the adage “Life must go on”. For the first time, religion, which was a major reason for the Armenian Genocide, makes its presence felt in a Peleshian film. It isn’t just personal disappointments that these people seem to putting behind them, but shattering national tragedies, despite (and perhaps because of) which their faith stands affirmed – in religion, in life. The last third of the film acts as a meeting point and the resolution for these two types of calamities as we are presented visuals of reunions of families (and of people who seem to be returning from an exile). More than anything We feels like an ode to the resilience of, in particular, the Armenian people (although Peleshian himself denies this!), who have had to put up with a lot through the centuries and, in general, the spirit of everyday heroes. If at all anything can be made of Peleshian’s attitude here, it must be his unassailable faith on the ability of humanity to survive no matter how difficult it makes it for itself.

Inhabitants (1970)

Inhabitants (1970)

In contrast to the unusually large number of people in the Beginning and We, Inhabitants (Obitateli, 1970) is almost completely devoid of humans. Peleshian attributes this peculiar absence, quite strangely, to his audience being critical of him for We. Filled with shots of large-scale migrations and stampedes (with, surprisingly, even helicopter shots being present in the film), Inhabitants merely alludes to the presence of the human beings, in the form of a few silhouettes, who seem to be the central cause of panic. Shot in widescreen, Inhabitants, for most part, depicts wildlife, in panic. At first glance, with the anti-mankind tone of the movie, Inhabitants seems to take Peleshian back to the arguably cynical mode of Beginning. But once you begin to see that the humans in the film aren’t exactly humans but far from it, Peleshian’s faith in humanity comes to surface. Surely, the animals are just a normalized form of the people of We, of Beginning and of Earth of People. But the relevant question is whether Inhabitants is connected to the Armenian history directly or not. With the visuals showing us exoduses and captive animals and the soundtrack including gunshots and screams, it is not unfair for one to be reminded once more of the nation’s plight. Whatever the case, the film resonates with quintessentially Peleshian themes – of change, of resilience and of survival.

The Seasons (1975)

The Seasons (1975)

The Seasons (Vremana Goda, 1975) is perhaps the most famous of all Peleshian films and just its opening shot would show why – A man, clutching a sheep in his hand, trapped in a raging stream, trying to get to the shore along with the animal. Setting the tone of film and, to an extent, to the director’s whole filmography, The Seasons’ first shot effectively underlines the irony that forms the basis of the relationship between humans and nature. The Seasons, as the title suggests, deals with the change of seasons. In the first section Peleshian presents us images from sunny day in an idyllic pastoral life, where a family of herdsmen lead their sheep through a dark tunnel and then to light.  We then see a group of young men dragging huge stacks of hay down a hill slope and then trying to stop it. This scene, once more, illustrates our can’t-live-with-can’t-without relationship with nature, but never once becoming a contrived symbol or a metaphor. It is merely a glimpse of life which reveals a fact rather than expressing it. The same would be true of the sequence that is to follow, where the herdsmen risk their own lives in order to salvage their herd that is caught in the rapids. The film then shifts to an ethno-documentary mode as we witness a marriage ceremony in which a cow forms as much an integral part as the bride and the groom. In a rather prolonged scene that follows, in what looks like an amusing sport, we are shown a few men, each holding a sheep in his hand, sliding down a snowy hill, refusing to let go of the animal – A practice that is as strange as man’s kinship with nature – living with it, living against it, living despite it, living for it and living because of it.

Our Century (1983)

Our Century (1983)

What followed remains Peleshian’s longest film to date, the 50-minute feature Our Century (Mer Dare, 1983). Our Century concerns itself with some cosmonauts (and astronauts) preparing themselves for a space flight. Peleshian constructs the film around this event, quite predictably, exploring his themes through a complex editing system coupled with an equally complex soundtrack. Initially, Peleshian crosscuts between the footage of the activities at a space station, minutes before the launch of a shuttle, and a celebratory procession where the space-heroes are cheered and applauded by the mass. Peleshian frequently presents clips that show the immense stress that the cosmonauts are put under, during the test phase and in space, It is a period of sheer loneliness, physical and mental fatigue and, yet, of excitement and ambitiousness. He then goes on to depict man’s obsession with flight and, in general, his desire to conquer the various elements of nature, where he shows a number of bizarre experiments in aviation, most of which end unsuccessfully. As ever, individual turmoil gives way to and unifies with national tragedies to the point beyond which there is no difference between a nuclear explosion, a rocket launch and the human heartbeat. Our Century arguably presents Peleshian at the top of his game, converting both the form and content of the film into a highly personal mode of expression. In no other Peleshian film has the ecstasy over human achievement mingled with the agony of existence in such an intricate fashion. The point is not the establishment of a simple irony, but of an exploration of what makes humanity go on, against all odds.

Life (1993)

Life (1993)

There is some confusion regarding the order of release of the last two Peleshian films. The official Paradjanov site, however, suggests that it is, in fact, Life (Kyanq, 1993) that is the director’s penultimate film thus far. Peleshian uses colour film for the first time, perhaps to enhance the already optimistic tone of the film, and makes his shortest film till date. Running for a mere seven minute time span, Peleshian, for most part of the film, presents us extreme close-ups of a woman delivering a baby. Probably the most moving Peleshian film, Life is also the most overt manifestation of the ever-present Peleshian-ian conversation between human pain and ecstasy in his films. The soundtrack is comparatively simpler here, with only two audible layers – an evocative opera piece and an amplified track of the human heartbeat. Naturally reminiscent of that staggering Stan Brakhage work, Window Water Baby Moving (1962), Life is an equally personal (although far easier to watch), emotionally exhausting and visually stunning piece of film that has the power to dispel any trace of pessimism that anyone may have about humanity. The film ends on a freeze frame showing a mother and her young child looking towards the camera and, possibly, a bright future.

End (1994)

End (1994)

Although Life would have made an astounding end to a solid filmography, it is End (Verj, 1994) that provides a more rounded closure to it. End is a series of shots inside a speeding train, the passengers of which are of diverse age groups, ethnicities and emotional statuses. The train itself feels like a microcosm of the whole world, each of whose inhabitants is moving towards an individual destination but the totality of them going in the same direction.  End is perhaps the kind of vision that Damiel (Bruno Ganz) saw in the train in Berlin in Wings of Desire (1987), considering the voyeuristic nature of the camerawork in this film. There are also a few outdoor shots, of mountains (again) and of the sun, that punctuate End. If Life’s ending shot seemed to seal Peleshian’s faith in humanity, the closing shot of End brings back the lifelong dialectic between cynicism and optimism that has so consistently characterized Peleshian’s work. We see the train, after a very long passage through the darkness of the tunnels, suddenly plunging into blinding light. Before it is revealed to us what lies beyond, the end credits roll. Is it a man-made apocalypse foreseen by Earth of People? Is it the Great Armenian Earthquake? Or is it the ultimate redemption for humanity that Life suggests? Looking back at Peleshian’s body of work, it is probably the latter.

Also published at Unspoken Cinema

Four Faces of King Lear

Four Faces of King Lear

Shakespeare’s plays have become an endless pool of resource for the filmmakers of the world. Their universality of themes and emotions has intrigued a range of directors and has prompted so many adaptations and retellings. One of them, King Lear, distinctly stands out. Romeo and Juliet may have become one for the classrooms and Macbeth may still be classified as a terrifying legend, but King Lear seems to grow with age and feels immensely relevant and profound now more than ever. To see how various filmmakers have been obsessed with the representation of power over virtue and vice versa, death and survival of good and vagaries of the human mind is as enlightening as it entertaining.

 

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Sayat Nova (1968) (aka The Colour of Pomegranate)
Sergei Paradjanov
Armenian

“I am the man whose life and soul are torture”

 

Sayat Nova

If a list of biggest innovations in cinema is made, the Russian directors would arguably occupy the top few slots. Their gift to cinema has been the prime mover for so many other breakthroughs across the world of cinema. And Sergei Paradjanov was one such filmmaker who had the special ability to have a different perspective of cinema, much different from the others. And the most fantastic of all his films, The Colour of Pomegranate (1968) clearly tells why.

Unquestionably arthouse film consists of a series of tableaux-like compositions presented in a deliberately impassive manner by the leading lady who seems to take up various roles, both male and female, as the lifetime progresses. Though seemingly “of-the-moment” and radical, The Colour of Pomegranate does present a narrative if one could resort to the conventional terminology. Strung with the poems of Armenian poet Sayat Nova, the film presents his childhood, coming of age, adulthood, his unsuccessful love life, priesthood and eventual death using the most striking images and symbols one has ever assembled on screen. Decidedly not for all tastes, the images that Paradjanov conjures up are so riveting that it is impossible for one not to make a visceral connection with them that lasts a lifetime. Paradjanov’s use of reddish brown tinge throughout the film, as striking as his tragic classic The Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors (1964), provides it the painting-like quality that visibly enhances the “two-dimensionality” of the visuals.

There is virtually no camera movement and the stage-like setting provides the apt platform for the deliberate execution to explore the medium and take it to places it has never been before. The images of Sayat Nova’s death, his life at the monastery, the still life and his view of the world of the child are so strikingly assembled that it transcends the film’s bizarre nature and eliminates any alienation that the viewer may feel. How much one would appreciate and relate to the film remains a big question of subjectivity. But what is sure is that no matter what you feel about the film, you know that this is art, Must see it if one wants to explore the boundaries of filmmaking.


WordPress has introduced this new Poll feature. Thought I will try it out…

Mirror

Though Andrei Tarkovsky’s canon consisted of only seven features, three student films, one documentary and a couple of stage plays and there were more unrealized projects than filmed ones, each of the ideas that were completed were gems and remain unparalleled to date. Looking back, each one seems hand picked and “sculpted” second by second and without doubt, the experience just improves with multiple viewings. Of course, Tarkovsky means different things to different people and the section just attempts to give a universal outline of the projects.

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