Tuesday 8 March 2016

Arsenal with Bronnt Industries Kapital / Tarkovsky season / The Forbidden Room


It is usual to divide Russian cinema into three periods: the Russian Empire years, which concluded in 1917; the Cinema of the Soviet Union; and, after 1989, Russian movies. Soviet Cinema sub-divides into a pre-Stalin ‘Golden Age’, 1925 to 1929. Under Stalin the movie industry was ordered to follow the rules of Socialist Realism, 1933 to 1941; the avant-gardists - Kouleshov, Vertov, Eisenstein - were denounced as ‘elitist’. Eisenstein’s Bezhin Meadow (1937) was destroyed and only some photographs remain. Eisenstein’s response was Alexander Nevsky (1938), Ivan the Terrible Part 1 (1944) and Ivan the Terrible Part II (1945) where, no longer allowed to use montage, he develops a slow paced, long take style. It is employed to great effect in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Gertrud (1964): no-one makes eye contact. Tarkovsky uses it to encourage the viewer to contemplate and appreciate the world we are part of. Kelly Reichardt and former Borderlines guest Patrick Keiller also use this approach, for their own reasons.

Eisenstein’s co-director on October, Grigory Aleksandrov, adapted best to Stalin’s demands: he made Merry Fellows (1934) the first Soviet musical comedy and Stalin’s favourite movie, Volga-Volga (1938). The opening credits tell you what will happen and a sing-song follows. Socialist Realism decreed that film-makers were only allowed to show people doing their jobs. This did not allow much in the way of escapist fun. Movies about pilots and explorers were popular: Yuli Raizman's Flyers (1935) and Sergei Gerasimov's The Courageous Seven (1936).

The war years generated many interesting, eye-popping, anti-Nazi movies. Moscow Strikes Back (Dir. Leonid Varlamov and Ilya Kopalin, 1942), with added Edward G Robinson narration, was well-received in the USA. Documentaries – like Ukraine in Flames (Dir. Alexander Dovzhenko and Yuliya Solntseva, 1943) – shared images British film-makers would not have shot in the first place. Dramas, such as Zoya (Dir. Lev Arnshtam, 1944), went further than Western war films of the period: the German soldiers were crueller, the female characters stronger. The harrowing and ground-breaking Come and See (Dir. Elem Klimov, 1985) was based on Klimov’s direct experience of the bombing of Stalingrad – “As a young boy I had been in hell. […] Had I included everything I knew and shown the whole truth, even I could not have watched it.” A young boy, a soldier, witnesses World War II. It influenced Steven Spielberg’s handling of Schindler’s List (1993) and Saving Private Ryan (1998).

Post-war, Soviet cinema is described simply as a nadir. After Stalin’s death in 1953 censorship became less fatal. The films became more accessible to the West. The Cranes Are Flying (Dir. Mikhail Kalatozov, 1957) won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. War and Peace (Dir. Sergei Bondarchuk, 1967) – an eight hour adaptation with a cast of thousands; Dersu Uzala (Dir. Akira Kurosawa, 1974); Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears (Dir. Vladimir Men'shov, 1979); and, Burned by the Sun (Dir. Nikita Mikhalkov, 1994) all won Oscars.

The Lumière Brothers visited Russia in 1895 but Russia was a slow starter in this field. Its first pictures – folk songs and stories – appeared in 1906; animations followed in 1911. 1812 (Dir. Vasil Goncharov, 1912, 32 minutes) was the first ever film of Napoleon’s war with Russia. It’s like a pre-Renaissance painting’s attempt at perspective: the film-makers and actors have worked out how to portray some things but not others. The public enjoyed High Society dramas. Vera Kholodnaya was Russia’s first movie star; The Mirages (1916) is available on YouTube. Kholodnaya was poisoned by the French ambassador, her lover, who believed she was a Bolshevik spy. Other sources suggest she died of Spanish flu in 1919.

The Russian Revolution began in 1917 and the civil war continued for five years. The leading film-makers – Ermolieff, Mozzhukhin, Protazanov – emigrated. On 27 August 1919 Vladimir Lenin signed a decree incorporating cinema into the Soviet state. "Of all the arts," he said, "for us, the cinema is the most important."

In a massive, but largely illiterate, nation cinema offered a means of communication, education and propaganda. In 1919 the film industry was nationalised (for three years) and the world’s first film school, the VGIK, created. It is simpler to judge the finished product than monitor every take: Goskino, the state body controlling cinema production, was established in 1922. Cinema was planned, financed and censored by the state, to varying degrees, until the late 1980s. In return, film-makers enjoyed status, relative security and investment.

What followed was an explosion of creativity that’s still inspiring film-makers nine decades later. Glomuv’s Diary (Dir. Sergei Eisenstein, 1923) looks like an art student film, even now. In 1925 Eisenstein made Strike and The Battleship Potemkin – these were far more exciting than any action movies coming out of Hollywood at the time. There is no doubting the bravery and dynamism of Hollywood’s stunt-men and stars during the silent era but the Soviet directors had an understanding of editing no viewer had experienced before.

The films were popular: Lev Kuleshov’s comedy The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr West in the Land of the Bolsheviks (1924) and thriller The Death Ray (1925). Silly: Vsevolod Pudovkin's short Chess Fever (1925), starring the World Chess Champion, José Raúl Capablanca, acting strangely. Bold: Bed and Sofa (Dir. Abram Room, 1927) concerns a working class woman living with two men – the title tells you what she thinks they contribute – and features a visit to an abortion clinic. Experimental: Borderlines screened Man with a Movie Camera (Dir. Dziga Vertov, 1929) – no dialogue, actors or storyline – a few years ago. Vertov was a pioneer in the cinéma vérité style of documentary moviemaking, an attempt to capture the ‘real’ world without standard cinematic staging. Modern: The New Babylon (Dir. Grigori Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg, 1929) covers the events leading up to the 1871 Paris Commune. Dmitri Shostakovich wrote the score which, during the dance scene, juxtaposes the French anthem, La Marseillaise contrapuntally with the ‘Can-can’ from Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld.

The Big Three - Eisenstein, Pudovkin, Dovzhenko – led the way. Pudovkin – actor, screenwriter, whose directing was analysed and written about by Stanley Kubrick – graduated to studies of revolutionary figures: he directed Mother, from Mikhail Gorky’s novel, in 1926, The End of St.-Petersburg (1927) and Storm over Asia (1928). Eisenstein, whose theories have been studied by everyone, directed October: Ten Days that Shook the World in 1927.

Alexander Dovzhenko directed his Ukraine Trilogy, an account of the impact of the Civil War upon his homeland less than a decade earlier: Zvenigora (1928), Arsenal (1928), Earth (1930). I am going to say that Timosh’s act of defiance at the climax of Arsenal prefigures the Superman character (1938).

Borderlines screens Arsenal at The Courtyard on Tuesday 8 March 2016. Bronnt Industries Kapital will perform Guy Bartell’s new score. You may recall their performance – Turksib (1929), converted barn – for Borderlines in 2012.

Arsenal - Bronnt Industries Kapital (excerpt I) from Bronnt Industries on Vimeo.

Turksib, like many films of the period, celebrated Soviet advances in agriculture. There’s a long sequence about irrigation. In Earth (1930) farmer Vasyl is so overjoyed to have access to the collective tractor, after generations of back-breaking farm-work, that he dances a hopak all the way home. It had been cheaper to hire a peasant than own a donkey: barges were pulled by a dozen men, not a couple of horses. The labourers in Turksib were no different to seventeenth century English landowners: they were proud of their prize cattle.  

Animals have a huge symbolic significance in Soviet/Russian cinema – a visual medium embraced by the state to communicate with a huge, scattered population who spoke (but couldn’t read) many different languages. Each animal represented its own strictly defined human characteristic in children’s literature. These were perfectly realised, in cinema, by Yuri Norstein’s many animated short films, such as the totally charming Hedgehog in the Fog (1975) and the none-more-highly regarded Tale of Tales (1978).  

Horses turn up all the time in Russian movies. In Slavic mythology, the war and fertility deity Svantovit rode a white horse. A horse narrates Tolstoy’s short story Yardstick. For centuries the troika was the fastest vehicle on earth. Horses symbolise hard work. Tarkovsky deploys horses as the supreme symbols of the natural world.

There are two types of Tarkovsky film: those you have seen and those you are yet to see.
Borderlines is screening all seven of his feature films: Ivan's Childhood (1962); Andrei Rublev (1966); Solaris (1972); Mirror (1975); Stalker (1979); Nostalgia (1983); and The Sacrifice (1986).
The intervals between them can be explained by the fact that Tarkovsky also wrote, or co-wrote, the screenplay. It takes that long. He believed that realising someone else's screenplay leads to dead and monotonous films.

I attended a public lecture about war photography last week. The lecturer removed every graphic image from his talk and retitled it ‘Aftermath’. It became a sequence of deserted battlegrounds, from Roger Fenton’s iconic image of the Valley of Death, Crimea, 1854, to Srebrenica, site of the latest genocide in Europe, 20 years ago. I was reminded of Ivan’s Childhood. War is not far, in time or distance, from these landscapes. A 12-year-old boy should not be there. Of course, if he was 17 it would be a different film entirely: Paths of Glory (1957) perhaps. In some ways orphan Ivan is the perfect warrior: whatever person he was becoming has disappeared. No parents, no childhood, no friends, no stopping him – he’s a product of war. 

This festival has addressed identity in a number of films. Charlotte Rampling’s character, in 45 Years (2015), asks herself if her well-ordered marriage was all it seemed. The landscape outside her kitchen window, woodland and fields tended for 2000 years, almost mock her. In The Pearl Button (2015) hunter-gatherer Jemmy Button takes a Gap Year in nineteenth century London. In Room (2015) Ma constructs one reality, to maximise their chances of survival, then has to adjust to normalcy. Her son has to cope better with a brand new world than Jemmy Button did.

In The Routledge Companion to Philosophy and Film Andras Balint Kovacs presents Tarkovsky’s seven feature films as his continued exploration of a particular philosophy, Russian Christian Personalism: “It splits man into two antagonistic entities. […] The individual is determined by biological and social factors and is a product of those, while the person is independent of these factors and communicates only with God. […] The person is not born automatically with a human being; it is not a given. It is rather a human being’s task; it is a mission.” One task is to eradicate the evil within. This notion informs Solaris, Tarkovsky’s most accessible work.

George Clooney starred in Steven Soderbergh’s 2002 remake. Philosophy is far easier to digest in a sumptuous space station setting, Fine Art in the study, especially when expressed in the form of an attractive young woman. Here’s an article about Natalya Bondarchuk’s dress designer - 

Donatas Banionis (Kelvin) was cast, not because he resembles an astronaut but, because he was the best actor in Russia at the time. The space station is in orbit around the planet Solaris. The planet is ‘reading’ the scientists’ subconscious and forcing them to live with the ghosts of their pasts.
I think Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011) tried to capture the texture of Mirror. Tarkovsky quotes the symbolist poetry of his father, Arseny Tarkovsky. [Poets also feature in The Pearl Button (2015) and David (1951) this festival.] Mirror presents the narrator’s memories, fantasies and insights. For example, two scenes recreate Johannes Vermeer’s art. If the camera moved quicker we might catch him painting Girl with a Pearl Earring. The narrator is a sensitive, cultural, thoughtful man – but is this enough for his state of mind? 
Many films would like to be Stalker, the last film Tarkovsky made in the Soviet Union. Lars von Trier’s Nymphomania (2013) pays respect, by showing a bracelet of nuts (sans bolts), in an early scene. Three men – Writer, Scientist and their guide, Stalker – visit the Zone, a place just about recognisable as somewhere on Earth. This excursion is forbidden by the authorities because the Zone is beyond their control. In the Zone is the Room. Whoever enters the Room will see their deepest desires, conscious and unconscious, fulfilled. It is a journey to one’s true self. Stalker has already made this journey; his purpose is to convert others. Are the representatives of art and science interested in his spiritual guidance? Stalker is as single-minded as Ivan but his mission is different. This is little consolation to his wife. One consequence of eradicating the evil within is loneliness: there aren’t many other people who have made the effort.

Stalker turns up in lots of Best Ever Movie lists and other places. In the much-honoured Uzak (2002, aka Distant) Mahmut puts on the DVD in the hope that his cousin Yusuf will leave – but he’s gripped. The author Geoff Dyer became so obsessed by Stalker that he wrote a good read, Zona, just about watching the film.

The Forbidden Room
Finally, Guy Maddin, director of The Forbidden Room (2015), screening at this festival, made an exhilarating six-minute short The Heart of the World (2000) in the style of early-1920s East-West cinema: Eisenstein meets the German expressionists in eight hundred and fifty edits. The internet has it. The pounding piano score by Georgi Sviridov Time, Forward! is wonderful. I wish it was available as an alarm clock.

Robin Clarke

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