Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Northern Lights (Film Essay)




 

 
The Nonpartisan League

North Dakota was granted statehood in 1889. At that time, the State was a patchwork of immigrant communities from the Balkans, Scandinavia, Germany, and, even, Iceland. A community of Syrians had build a town with mosques. In central North Dakota today, the tiny hilltop cemeteries are, often, studded with ornate metal crosses, grave markers for Eastern Orthodox Christians. At the time of World War One, the State had the highest percentage of foreign-born citizens of any place in the country.

Economic conditions in North Dakota before World War One were bad. The land was too dry for reliable subsistence farming and so the people depended upon cash crops for their livelihood, mostly wheat and flax. Commodity grain had to be shipped to terminals and milling operations in Minneapolis. In effect, North Dakota’s agriculture was subordinate to grain milling in Minneapolis and, by the time, that rail transportation and mill fees were paid, the farmers in North Dakota made no profit on their labor. Indeed, the system was so corrupt that many North Dakota politicians lived in the State only seasonally – during the winter and spring, they managed their affairs from mansions in Minneapolis.

These abuses led to the formation of the Socialist-leaning Equity Cooperative Exchange. The Equity Cooperative Exchange advocated the development of State-owned banking and milling infrastructure in North Dakota and, by 1910, had developed some banking services in the State although in a vestigial form. Members of the Equity Cooperative Exchange founded the Nonpartisan League (NPL). The NPL’s agenda was simple – it was a grass-roots organization that selected local candidates for local offices running them under the auspices of both the Democratic and Republican parties. In other words, the NPL used the existing structure of the two partisan parties to run candidates on its platforms. It was the NPL’s position that the two existing parties were equally corrupt and controlled by monied interests. Therefore progressive NPL candidates bearing both party affiliations were promoted for public office.

In 1916, NPL candidates won a majority of the seats in the North Dakota House of Representatives and elected a NPL governor as well as Attorney-General. The sometimes fractious and ethnically divided communities in North Dakota had come together under a Socialist banner. By 1918, the NPL had established not only a state-operated bank, but also state operated grain storage and milling operations intended to compete with similar services in Minneapolis. Women auxiliaries were formed and, after suffrage in 1920 became an important part of the NPL. In 1918, like a prairie fire (this is the standard metaphor), the NPL expanded dramatically, fielding many candidates in 12 other states, most notably Minnesota, and establishing inroads into Manitoba and Alberta.

In Minnesota, still reeling from violent Teamster’s strike in 1916, the NPL ran Charles Lindburgh (the father of the famous aviator) in the Republican gubernatorial primary in 1918. The race was a violent one, with many fistfights and NPL organizers tarred and feathered in some towns. When it appeared that Lindburgh might win the primary, the Republicans implored Democrats to vote in the Republican primary to defeat the insurgent candidate. Lindburgh lost the primary but it was a very close things.

With power comes corruption. In North Dakota, NPL politicians were over-confident and scandals followed. The NPL governor Lynne Frazier was recalled in 1921 in the first election of that kind in the country. Frazier was undeterred, however, and he ran for State Senate in 1922, a job that he held for many years. In effect, the NPL in North Dakota had commenced a trade war with Minneapolis and when the State Bank and Mills needed loans, Minneapolis bankers turned them down. Thus, the NPL was weakened. Severe drought and economic hardship debilitated the influence of the NPL in the twenties and thirties – the Depression started around 1923 in North Dakota. Poverty is apolitical and many farmers drifted away from the NPL in the years before World War Two. Nonetheless, the NPL continued as a viable political force in North Dakota through the fifties and, even, early sixties – by this point, the NPL had become partisan: it represented a progressive wing of the Republican party through 1956 when it shifted allegiances to become a part of the Democratic party. To this day, Democratic candidates in North Dakota are identified as "Dem. - NPL." North Dakota’s state-owned cooperatively run milling operations and grain elevators remain in existence today.

 

 


Northern Lights

Northern Lights was released in 1978. It is an independent film shot on location in North Dakota and produced by John Hansen and Rob Nilsson. The film was favorably reviewed and won a prestigious award in Cannes, the Camera d’Or.

I recall seeing the film on PBS in the early eighties. The images of the old man doing calisthenics and other exercises have remained with me all my life.

John Hansen was born in St. Paul but raised in North Dakota. He attended Carleton College and, later, Harvard, where he obtained a post-graduate degree in architecture. Hansen lived in San Francisco for a time and with Nilsson founded Cine Manifest, a Leftist film production company. He and Nilsson are credited as producers of Northern Lights and they also wrote, directed, and edited the film. Hansen worked on four or five other feature films between 1978 and 1990. He is also a landscape photographer of some note. A recent book showing landscapes in the great plains region of the Dakotas and southern Alberta and Manitoba was published with an introduction by Patricia Hampl.

Rob Nilsson was born in Rhinelander, Wisconsin in 1938. He’s had an adventurous life, working in the American Civil Rights movement in the early 60's, and, then, making films in many different countries. Nilsson is the only person known to me to have lived on the tiny island of Fernando Po off the coast of the Cameroons – he apparently went there to write and paint. He has made a number of dramatic feature films, all of them unknown to me – one of them Heat and Light produced in 1988 won the Grand Jury Award at the Sundance Film Festival. From his Wikipedia entry, he seems to have worked in all possible genres including "Made for TV" post-apocalyptic dramas (A Town has turned to Dust – based on a Rod Serling script and featuring an extended homage to High Noon). Working with a group of filmmakers called the Tenderloin Group, Nilsson produced 9 feature films (14 and ½ hours) all set in the Tenderloin District of San Francisco where he apparently lives. (Seven of the movies were premiered at the Mill Valley Film Festival in 2008 – the massive cycle of films, an epic in all respects that was shot between 1992 and 2007. These films initially motivated by Nilsson’s search for his brother who had vanished in the Tenderloin district a few years before production began.) Nilsson has filmed ballet performances for the San Francisco Ballet Company, documentaries about musicians including a film about a concert tour involving Brian Eno and John Cale, one of Nilsson’s close friends. (The gist of the film is that Eno hadn’t approved the proceedings and disliked being fimed.) His resume involves films with many well-known movie stars (Ron Perlman, Bruce Dern, etc.) and he has shot episodes for Network TV (a cop drama) as well.

Nilsson seems indefatigable and one of his most recent movies It Happened Here (2012) is a combination road movie and film essay about Leon Trotsky. (Nilsson’s self-aggrandizing Wikipedia entry notes that an Israeli ambassador said that this film was every bit as good as Shoah.) Nilsson reprised his role as a photo-journalist in the movie Heat and Light in 2015's Permission to Touch – an experimental film about a photo-journalist engaged to take erotic pictures of a beautiful young woman. (This seems like a good gig for the film-maker who was, then, 77.) He has made experimental pictures in London, Nigeria, and Israel. In 2016, he made no fewer than three feature films, two of them shot in San Francisco and one in Bologna, Italy. In 2017, he made The Fourth Movement, a fiction film about a group of jazz musicians watching election returns on the night Donald Trump was elected president.

Nilsson also writes poetry and paints. His master is John Cassavetes, although he has made innumerably more pictures than his hero. As they say in the Brothers Grimm, if he is not yet dead, then, he is still alive (and, presumably, shooting more movies).

 


Henry Martinson
The frame story in Northern Lights shows Henry Martinson resolving to write down the story of the Nonpartisan League. Martinson plays himself in the movie – he was 94 when the picture was made, a living and vibrant link to the era depicted in the film. Martinson was born 1883 in Minneapolis but moved to Minot to homestead a farm in 1906. The farm failed and Martinson became a painter. He read radical treatises with the predictable result that he became a Socialist and, then, prominent writer and editor of the Leftist journal, The Iconoclast. He was Secretary of the Socialist Party in North Dakota and a founder of the Nonpartisan League. He remained intensely active in North Dakota politics. In 1937, he was appointed Commissioner of Labor and held that job until 1965. He, then, ran for various political offices as a Socialist, always losing. He wrote poetry throughout his life and was named the Poet Laureate of North Dakota in 1975. He died in Fargo in 1982.

 


A note on regionalism in American Films
Hollywood wasn’t always the center of film production in the United States. Edison produced innumerable films in New Jersey, beginning with pictures made in his so-called "Black Maria" in West Orange. (A facsimile of this first film studio is still on the site.) Edison’s first films were made in 1892 and 1893. His production company reached its height around 1910 when it issued an elaborate adaptation of Frankenstein, one of the first horror films. Edison was famously venal and competitive and these characteristics led to the demise of his production company. He tried to bundle production with distribution and theater ownership. The result was a trust that was involved in litigation from 1908 to 1918 when the company ceased operations.

Edison’s chief competitor was Biograph, a production company located in New York City and that filmed many of its movies on Long Island. Biograph’s star director was D. W. Griffith. He went west in 1910 to make a film called In Old California. Griffith reported that the conditions for moviemaking were just about ideal in Los Angeles. (In those day, natural light in great quantities was necessary to make movies and this resource was something that Los Angeles had in spades.) The rest, as they say, is history.

But, periodically, efforts have been made to establish regional centers for film making apart from New York and Hollywood. The seventies were particularly fertile in this respect. Eagle Pennell launched the film movement in Austin, Texas with The Whole Shootin’ Match (19 77-1978). George Romero began making pictures in Pittsburgh, mostly low-budget but effectively produced horror films – The Night of the Living Dead (1968), The Crazies (1973), Martin (1978), Knightriders (1981), and The Dawn of the Dead (1978) were all made in West Pennsylvania. In fact, all of Romero’s pictures preceding Bruiser (2000) where shot in Pittsburgh or western Pennsylvania. These films are successful, in part, because they exploit the topography and villages of that region and are largely staffed with Pittsburgh actors. (Even when he didn’t make his films in Pennsylvania any more, Romero still set them in that area – for instance, his Land of Dead includes glittering overhead shots of Pittsburgh although the movie was made in Toronto. The films world premiere in 2005 to a packed house in downtown Pittsburgh.)

Horror films are cheap and can turn an enormous profit. And they can be made just about anywhere. In fact, the Austin, Texas film-scene was originally jump-started with Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). The picture showed other local aspirants to film making that a quality film could be made in Austin. Richard Linklater is an alumni of the Austin regionalist school and his best films are all set (and made) in Texas – Slacker (1991), Dazed and Confused (1993), Bernie (2011) and Boyhood (2002 - 2014).

There were hopes, at one time, that Minnesota would develop as a center for regionalist films. Jerome Hill, the scion of the wealthy St. Paul family of "Empire-Builder" James Hill, was interested in film-making, had the resources to make movies, and, in fact, directed a number of pictures, financing them through the locally-based Jerome Hill Foundation. Hill was a world-traveler and most of his films are set in Europe. None of his pictures really explore the local scene. Northern Lights is an example of regionalist film-making centered in the upper Midwest, but nothing really came of that movie – it didn’t lead to other productions in Minnesota or the Dakotas. For many years, it was thought that Al Milgrom, the longtime operator of the University Film Society, would be the nucleus around which local film productions would gather. Milgrom was friends with everyone in the film industry – he brought Jean-Luc Godard to Minneapolis as well as Wim Wenders and Werner Herzog. He was arrested in 1978 for showing Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salo or the 120 Days of Sodom. I was in the theater that night and saw the cops come to seize the film from the projection booth. Milgrom was buddies with the documentary film maker Les Blank and worked with him to produce a film about Czechs in New Prague and Lonsdale. And Milgrom had other projects on-tap. But he was famously irascible and an unpleasant man – I shouldn’t use the past tense: he’s still around and will celebrate his 95th birthday this June. No one could really collaborate with Milgrom because of his prickly personality and so, despite a wealth of local talent, no film production group ever crystallized around him.

With advances in technology, just about anyone can make a movie today. Steven Soderburgh shot the entirety of his horror film, Unsane (2018) on a cell-phone (an I-Phone 7 plus with digital editing app.) and people who have seen the movie say that it looks great. Therefore, it is reasonable to believe that regional films will be produced in the future in vast numbers. In the late forties, the famous French critic, Andre Bazin, argued that films were the product of the director in uniquely personal ways – the film’s mise-en-scene and camerawork reflected what Bazin called the camera-stylo (that is camera pencil) of the movie-maker. This notion seemed quixotic 60 years ago when moviemaking required large crews, heavy cameras, and complex lighting and sound recording. The fact that a feature film with Hollywood production values can now be made, more or less, on a cell-phone has finally brought to fruition the notion of the camera-stylo. Today everyone is a movie-maker.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

The King of Texas

Eagle Pennell was an American film maker who made two very successful low-budget independent films -- The Whole Shootin' Match (1977) and Last Night at the Alamo (1984).  Pennell, who was born Glen Irwin Pinnell, was a middle-class kid raised in a college town in Texas; his father taught engineering at Texas A & M in College Station.  Pennell had a happy childhood and led a charmed existence through the completion and first showings of The Whole Shootin' Match.  He was tall and handsome and a basketball star in High School.  He was talented and industrious, raising money for the micro-budget indie, The Whole Shootin' Match, from local businessmen in Austin, Texas.  He made the right local contacts, knew gifted actors and actresses who would work for nothing, and put together his first film on  a shoe-string, shooting with borrowed equipment on weekends so that his cast and crew could work their day jobs during the week.  The resulting film was seen by the right people -- Roger Ebert gave it an enthusiastic review and it played at colleges and festivals, making no money at all, but assuring that Pennell would get another chance to make a bigger movie with real Hollywood stars and a real budget.  The Whole  Shootin' Match is not a masterpiece and has some baffling defects, but on the whole it is a very entertaining, although ultimately melancholy film -- it's not as lyrical as Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep which it closely resembles but it is funnier and has a better story.  The film is the closely observed tale of two small-time businessmen, would-be wheeler-dealers, living on the margins of society -- the people that the elites call "white trash", alcoholic good ole boys with ambitions far beyond their humble stations in life.  Sure enough, Hollywood beckoned to Pennell and he went there but did nothing, apparently, but drink and snort cocaine -- the projects that he pitched were half-baked and he burned his bridges with a series of misguided and drunken sexual assaults on female executives who might otherwise have been persuaded to help him.  Pennell dried himself out, went back to Austin, Texas and started over again -- he gathered financing and made another micro-budget picture Last Night at the Alamo and, then, relapsed into hopeless alcoholism.  He alienated all of his lovers and friends and ended-up homeless, living under a freeway overpass in Houston.  He died a few days short of his 50th birthday.  I've simplified his story but the outline is accurate -- Pennell made three other features when he emerged long enough from his alcoholic stupor to direct, but everyone agrees these pictures are scattered, rambling and only marginally coherent and not even very interesting.  The titular King of Texas was a script that Pennell peddled in Hollywood -- the only part of the script completed was an opening scene in which a lost cowboy in a thicket encounters a huge feral longhorn.  It was a great opening for a Western but there wasn't any movie behind the anecdotal first few shots. 

The documentary is directed by Rene Pinnell, Eagle's nephew and the son of Charles Pinnell, Eagle's brother who recorded the plaintive mandolin and guitar soundtracks for The Whole Shootin' Match and Last Night at the Alamo.  Rene Pinnell says that he didn't even know his uncle was a film maker until he was about twenty years old -- to him, he was just the old, offensive drunk guy who came around on holidays and ended up insulting everyone.  There are aspects of the documentary that I don't like:  too much is made of Eagle's grandpa who was a Midlands, Texas rancher  -- his hagiography of the old West is misplaced:  in the fifties, when Eagle was born, just about every family was one generation off the farm and so there isn't anything particularly special in this aspect of the film maker's biography except for the fact that Pennell had a particularly soft spot in his heart for the elegiac Westerns of John Ford.  Two songs punctuate the film and seem out-of-place:  the songs are good enough but they don't add anything to the picture.  The movie luxuriates in a particularly dusty, broken-down Texas squalor that is unique, I think, to the Lone Star State.  Eagle's collaborators from his glory days are now fat old alcoholics themselves although they still have a certain rusted-out charisma.   (Richard Linklater sits on a couch under a spectacular poster for a movie, but he doesn't have anything memorable to say; Willie Nelson appears for a minute and tells one dirty joke -- but it's not clear why he's in the picture; Charles Pinnell runs a well-known recording studio in Austin and probably induced the musician to stop by for a few minutes.)  The woman who worked on the screenplay for The Whole Shootin' Match, Linn Sutherland is a busty, good-looking Texas matron, tough as barbed wire who also is a hoarder -- she's got a spectacularly messy semi-trailer, it seems, where lots of artifacts are hidden in ruined filing cabinets or buried in plastic buckets.  The film doesn't sugar-coat Eagle's nastiness -- he was the kind of man who reveled in bar fights and propositioned the sister of his bride at their wedding.  And the ending of the film is suitably harrowing.  But the picture ends on a note of very modest triumph -- a reasonably complete version of The Whole Shootin' Match was discovered in Berlin and it was restored for a revival during SXSW festival in Austin in 2007.  Everyone was amazed at how good the film was.  The movie ends with a sad shot of Charles Pinnell, Eagle's brother walking away from the brightly lit theater in a rainstorm.  Eagle's other films are hard to see -- his most highly regarded picture, Last Night at the Alamo (as you might imagine the Alamo was a Houston bar scheduled for demolition) is inaccessible and, I suppose, awaits rediscovery.  The movie makes a surprising admission -- Eagle Pennell needed collaborators, when he had great collaborators, he was a kind of home-grown genius; without collaborators, he was just a mean drunk.  (The King of Texas is a companion disc to The Whole Shootin' Match as re-released on DVD by Watchmaker Films.)

Friday, June 15, 2018

Punishment or the Bad Liaisons

Punishment (or the Bad Liaisons) is an hour-long film contained within the group of 8 movies by the famous ethnographer Jean Rouch, all ostensibly pictures about African (or Africans) and recently issued by Icarus on DVD.  Punishment doesn't have much to do with Africa but it's a little lapidary gem, an account of a curious experiment performed in the laboratory of Parisian streets and gardens.  A pretty 17-year old girl (she sometimes says she is 18 or, even, 19) gets kicked out of her High School philosophy class.  We see her hurrying across the Seine to the Left Bank entering the school and, then, when the teacher asks her a question (it has something to do with self-awareness and morality), the girl admits that she hasn't be listening and can't answer.  The teacher expels her from school for the day and warns that if she behaves similarly in the future, she'll be thrown out of the lyceum for good.  At loose ends, the girl wanders around Paris, looking for an "adventure".  She encounters three men:  a handsome and engaging student who tries to seduce her, a homesick African who may be gay, and an older man who says that he is a research scientist in physics and who ultimately entices her to his apartment.  The student and the scientist are well-mannered, polite, and articulate, but it's obvious that they are interested in talking her into a sexual encounter.  The young African is friendly but not otherwise aggressive.  In each case, the girl says that she is looking for an adventure and that she wants these men to abandon everything to flee Paris with her.  This demand discomfits all three men and they retreat from her in confused dismay.  The movie documents the events of the day using a handheld camera that tracks the characters as if, indeed, they were protagonists in an ethnographic film.  Paris as revealed in this film is the Paris of Jacques Rivette -- that is, the enchanted city.  The Luxembourg gardens are ghostly with statues and big basins full of water and weird swimming creatures; with the African, the couple stroll through a natural history museum with hundreds of stuffed animals haphazardly assembled in the middle of a structure that looks like a train station.  In one sequence, we see a large black seal laboriously pull itself out of the water.  At night, mannequins in store windows beckon mysteriously.  The girl has made an assignation with the student -- he is to meet her the next evening at a certain place.  Although the ending is hard to interpret, I believe the last few minutes, shot at night-time, represent the next evening -- the events of the preceding day are crudely recapitulated:  men approach her and try to make small talk but their intentions are clear and she rudely orders them away.  We see her walk into the darkness where twenty feet from the camera she is suddenly illumined, rim-lit as a lonely wanderer in the darkness, and, then, a final shot seems to show the student at the place where she told him to meet, his profile illumined only the flare of his cigarette -- none of this is clear, however, and the ending is subject to debate.

The girl's demand on the men is eerily similar to Jesus' dictate to the rich young ruler (see Mark 10 for instance, although the story is also told in Luke and Matthew).  If you want to follow me, Jesus demands, you must sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor and, then, you may come with me.  The rich young ruler, like the three men in the movie, goes away from the encounter disheartened:  he is not willing to make the leap of faith that Christ demands.  Rouch's film has a fairy tale texture -- there are three encounters with three different men but they all seem to end in the same way.  No one is willing to take the radical measures that the girl demands.  It is unclear whether her demand is meant seriously, or is merely a way to keep the wolves at bay.  But the men in the film are dismayed by what she requests and, at least, the shy and friendly African (she knows him from earlier) and the scientist libertine seem to take her demand as real and retreat from her.  The libertine in particular is an interesting figure -- he is much older than the girl, meets her at the book-stalls along the Seine where she is searching for a volume of Chateaubriand. and actually gets her to his apartment where a print of one of Piranesi prisons or Carcieri decorates the wall of the room.  We hear citations from the Marquis de Sade's Justine during this part of the film, highlighting the danger in which the girl has put herself.  Although the man seems dangerous, he is discomfited by her radical request and, apparently, lets her go unscathed. 

Rouch's little movie is cool, distanced, and mysterious.  Some writers suggest that the movie was critically reviled.  If so, the film should be re-evaluated.   

Thursday, June 14, 2018

First Reformed

Any serious film about Christianity skirts the absurd.  Tertullian identified the absurdity fundamental to Christianity in the second and third centuries A.D.  The New Testament makes no secret about the fact that the central doctrines believed by Christians are a "scandal" (skandalon or "stumbling block") to the Jews and folly to the Gentiles.  The greatest movie ever made about faith and Christianity is Carl Dreyer's Ordet (1955), a film that is deeply and comically foolish (one character is said to have lost his mind because of Kierkegaard) until it's last two reels, imagery showing the resurrection of the dead that is either utterly ridiculous or transcendentally beautiful depending upon your point of view  It's a measure of Paul Schrader's grave and often, stunningly, moving film, First Reformed (2018), that viewers are either transported into another ineffable realm or simply, and derisively, indifferent to the agony that the picture portrays.  I admire the movie and suggest that it is a great film.  And, yet, I also must admit that exactly where the film strains hardest for the sublime, it falls flat -- and, in fact, can't evade the criticism that elements of the picture are deeply silly.

A gaunt and ascetic-looking Ethan Hawke plays an alcoholic pastor, marooned and preaching to a tiny congregation gathered in the pews of 250-year old Church.   At one point, a character calls the place a "souvenir church" -- this is because the congregation barely survives, in part, by selling tee-shirts and hats featuring First Reform as a historic place catering to tourists.  The organ doesn't work -- indeed, both organs:  the pastor is pissing blood and, apparently, dying from a variety of ailments.  He starts a diary recording this dark night of the soul and, then, encounters a young woman, Marie, who asks him to counsel her troubled husband.  Marie's husband is deeply disturbed, a man who considers humanity's transgressions against nature and our climate as unforgiveable sins.  The young man, who has served time for some kind of eco-terrorism, wants Marie to have an abortion so that their child will not be born into the doomed, sinful, and polluted world that global climate change signifies.  The young man argues about hope and the future with the pastor and, then, kills himself.  In a harrowing scene, the Hawk's Pastor Toler, finds the corpse, head blown apart by shotgun blast.  The young man's widow has discovered that her husband was on his way to transitioning from a eco-terrorist to a real terrorist -- there is vest equipped with powerful fused explosives hidden the man's garage.  Toler is badly damaged -- his son died in Iraq and his wife divorced him over the pastor's decision to encourage the young man's military service.  And, as the film progresses, he becomes increasingly deranged, although there is a core of sanity to his rebellion against the ruined world and its people.   

This plot is skillfully positioned as a foil to the upcoming 250th anniversary celebration at First Reformed.  The small andl ancient church, formerly a stop on the Underground Railway, has become a satellite to huge Mega-Church (it's sanctuary seats 5000) run by an avuncular and successful Black clergyman -- this figure is played very effectively by Cedric Kyle (the comedian otherwise known as Cedric the Entertainer).  The 250th centennial is planned as a gathering of the wealthy and politically well-connected, including the CEO of a petrochemical energy company who doesn't believe in climate change and who is making money, Pastor Toler believes, from the rape of the environment.  The CEO berates Toler for failing to effectively minister to the young man who committed suicide and, gradually, the pastor's illness and heavy drinking unhinge him.  He decides that he will don the suicide bomber's vest and blow up First Reformed when the sanctuary is filled with powerful clergymen, politicians, and the noxious CEO. 

Clearly Schrader is making a film that is a book-end to his great early success, the screenplay for Scorsese's Taxi Driver.  Many scenes in the movie intentionally mirror images in Taxi Driver  -- like Travis Bickel, Pastor Toler keeps a diary, here an open book of neatly handwritten notes lit luminously like the Holy Writ.  (Throughout the film, Schrader highlights the Logos or the Word -- we see the Gospel printed on the fa├žade of the Abundant Life Mega-church and projected as a mural on the cafeteria wall in that church; the dead man's Last Testament, another text, is also crucial to the film.)  Toler drives around town to menacing music and sees the depravity of the Fallen World that he now seeks to punish by destroying those that he defines as wicked and depraved.  These images cite the famous scenes of the taxi crawling the muck and slime of New York City.  In several scenes, Toler looks at himself in his mirror and squares his shoulders as if to ask the reflection:  "Are you talking to me?  Are you talking to me?"  These images reference Taxi Driver effectively and express the fact that we are seeing Schrader's meditation on many of the same issues, most particularly the proper response to evil and depravity in the world, now 45 years after the first movie -- in effect, the film is a sort of diary as to how Schrader's views on this subject have evolved.  Most of the movie involves still shots of grey and gloomy landscapes, images of a spectacularly polluted inlet, and long dialogues about hope and grace, the possibility of salvation and the duties of a Christian in the world.  After the first of these debates, the pastor in a voice-over tells us that his conversation with the young, despairing man was like Jacob wrestling with the angel, a mortal combat with the highest of all stakes, and "it was exhilarating" Toler tells us.  Most of First Reformed is exhilarating -- the debates are perfectly pitched, the dialogue wonderfully astute and witty and, even, realistic.  The pastor of the Mega-Church is a role that seems ripe for snarky parody, but, in fact, Schrader writes the part generously -- the businessman-pastor is doing real good in the world and he tells Toler that he needs to "lighten up":  "you're not always praying in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night before the Passion."  And he gently, even kindly, derides Toler for his unworldliness.  Toler has a had a sexual relationship with a very compassionate and loving woman, a choir director at the Mega-Church, but he pushes her away as he descends into madness and the scene in the movie that is hardest to watch is not Toler wrapping his naked torso in barbed wire until he is covered in blood but his vicious verbal attack on a woman who's only crime is that she wishes him well. 

Spoilers follow: 

First Reformed is exquisitely shot.  The camera moves in only a couple scenes, but, then, ecstatically.  Further, the film is intentionally humble -- it is shot in the old pillar-boxed format of German pictures from the early 30's.  The image is intentionally smaller than any modern screen on which the movie will be shown.  The acting is superb and the dialogue exceptionally intelligent and gripping.  So what is wrong with the film?  The two scenes that Schrader highlights as evidence of the presence of some kind of divinity in the world don't really work -- these sequences are striking but they raise the wrong kind of questions in the viewer's mind.  In the first of these transcendental scenes, the suicide's widow lies atop the pastor, stretched out like Christ crucified, and they agree to breathe in harmony with one another, face to face.  But Toler has been drinking heavily and the question that afflicts the viewer is a simple and ugly one: what does his breath smell like?  (The minister has been slugging down a bottle of whisky a night mixed with pink peptobismol -- this shown in a horrifying close-up.)  After the manner of Tarkovsky's films, the two levitate.  Tarkovsky was wise enough to content himself with mere levitation -- Schrader has the couple floating like a blimp over the milky way and, then, various landscapes, including those ruined by pollution.  The scene would be much better and more moving without the magical mystery tour of the cosmos and the girl (played wonderfully by Amanda Seyfried) should have been shown averting her face for a moment and scrunching up her nose at the horrible bad breath of our sorrowful pastor.  Similar cavils undercut the ecstatic climax.  Just as he is about to commit suicide, Marie enters the Pastor's parsonage and embraces him.  But we have just seen the poor bastard wrapping his shoulders and chest and belly in razor wire -- his torso is oozing blood from a hundred wounds.  So when Marie wraps her arms around him and begins kissing his face and, then, hugging him to her, she is, of course, driving the barbed wire further into his mortified flesh.  You can't have the scene with barbed wire and the big bear hugs at the end without considering that the girl's embrace may well be lethal and, if nothing, else would be agonizingly painful.  I suppose I am interpreting the film too literally but these were the thoughts afflicting me at the climax -- thoughts that wholly subverted what Schrader was trying to accomplish.  In an interview, Schrader has said that he intended that his hero drink Drano and die -- this is more in keeping with the exceptionally somber ending after the ending.  The rejected choir director sings a terrifying, zombie-like version of "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms" while we see the hero pouring his Drano cocktail and, then, embracing Marie.  Right in the middle of the song, the soundtrack goes dead, shockingly, totally dead and there is a long black frame -- probably ten seconds of silence and darkness before the film's credits roll, all under  starkly and uncompromisingly mournful-sounding closing music, really more of an ominous drone than any kind of tune.   I think Schrader would have been better off with the suicide ending, but I respect him for trying to salvage some tiny trace of grace, some fugitive moment of redemption from these painful circumstances.  Tragedy is facile.  Schrader tries for something more profound than tragedy -- he doesn't get it right, but I salute him for the effort.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

La Victoria at the Paramount Theater

La Victoria is a three-piece ensemble from Los Angelos that plays Mexican popular tunes.  The group consists of three young women, all of them attractive, who sing in close harmony while playing their instruments:  the songs are performed in arrangements for violin, rhythm guitar, and a big bass guitar that provides a sort oom-pah-pah underpinning to the music.  (Mariachi music, often, sounds like a demented polka.)  The group was advertised as a mariachi band but, of course, this was untrue.  In fact, one of the girls indicated apologetically at the outset that a true mariachi band would include "about twenty trumpets and thirty violins."  I have heard mariachi bands in Mexico City and they exude an aura of suave menace.  Further, the musicians play at ear-splitting volume -- the trumpets, in particular, can be deafening.  These young women, of course, were not menacing at all and their songs were very tastefully, and, one might say, even respectfully presented -- with a few exceptions, the musicians treated the music with kid gloves.  Much of the singing was very beautiful.  The woman playing the rhythm guitar, in particular, had the ability to insert a kind of choked sob in her rendition of songs that were, apparently, very well-known to the Hispanic people in the audience.  All of the harmonies were exceptionally well-managed and the woman playing the fiddle maintained perfect pitch as she nimbly performed the little dance-like melodies that ornament these songs.  Her singing was also highly expressive.  The larger woman playing the bass guitar sang in lower register, belting out her tunes with great enthusiasm.  Some of the Mexican-Americans in the audience sang along with the trio, shouted encouragement to them, and danced in the aisles.  The show was about one hour long, including gallop-like dance tune as an encore (at the request of the Latinos in the audience), and, also, featured a tango, some soulful ballads, and two songs performed in English, one by Carol King and the other Willie Nelson's "Crazy."

A curious aspect of this concert was my strong sense of deja vu.  From the moment, the young women appeared on stage in their matching black dresses and black high-heels, I knew that I had seen them perform before.  But I was (and am) completely unable to recall where and when I had earlier heard them play.  As they performed, I looked up and saw the disco ball above the proscenium arch of the Paramount stage.  The mirror-ball hangs just above the strange little oval cartouche of a seal balancing a tiny globe on his nose.  The Paramount Theater's interior is a Moorish fantasy with fairy-tale balconies and strange funereal urns perched around the perimeter of the hall.  The arched ceiling is blue and sprinkled with little flickering lights to simulate stars and fluffy clouds sometimes are projected overhead, rolling across the night sky.  The women on stage stood between two tall red velvet curtains, against a black flat, and the seats from which the audience was watching them were also scarlet.  As I watched the concert, I experienced the feeling that I was in a David Lynch film -- the people around me were mostly grotesque with old age and the Latinos in the corner shouted out as if they were watching a bull-fight and it was odd to see these young, statuesque women performing for a group of elderly white people enlivened only slightly by a couple dozen immigrants with their squalling children.  Before the concert, a man and a woman spoke.  The woman said a few words and, then, the man, an old fellow in baggy pants, talked about how he had once lived in El Paso and this music that we were about to hear was so much from the heart, "Corazon" he said.  His pants fell about his loins in such a way that his genitals were clearly visible under the loose black fabric.  Then, the music began and, with it, the conviction that I had always been here, that this music was everlasting, that I would remain in this hall with its Moorish turrets and red velvet curtains and ivory balconies forever more.  

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (film group essay)

Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors


 

 

 
1.


Throughout history, many nations have had empires.

Russia is the only empire to have had a nation.

This truism about Russia is often expressed. What does it mean?

England was a small country that, once, claimed colonial possession of much of the world. When the empire was stripped away, the United Kingdom remained. The same might be said of Spain, Belgium, or France. In each case, a smaller European nation claimed colonies in other parts of the world. As those colonies achieved independence, the home country became less prosperous but remained fundamentally the same.

By contrast, Russia has always been a federation. The Rus are a Slavic-Scandinavian people living around Novgorad in the 10th century. After raiding and wars, the Rus established their capital at Kiev. Thus, at the outset of Russian history, the Rus rule not from "Russia" but from the Ukraine. After the Russians were decimated by the Golden Horde (the Mongols) in the 13th century, the homeland shrunk to the Kingdom of Muscovy. Successive Russian kings established inroads into Siberian (Tatar) Khanates, re-asserted hegemony over the Ukraine, and, then, waged war on their borders ultimately clashing with the Ottomans in Crimea and the South and the Poles in the East. By the 17th century, Russia claimed parts of Poland, all of Siberia and, indeed, beyond to Alaska and had expanded in the south to the Black Sea. With each expansion, Russia absorbed existing people and polities. The empire of Russia was defined by the use of the Russian language and the territorial extent of the practice of the Russian Orthodox religion.

The point is that Russian, originally ruled from its colony in Ukrainian Kiev, has always defined itself as an empire. If the empire fails, or is stripped away, Mother Russia also fails, hence, Russia’s historical anxiety about the loss of its imperial territories.

The great filmmaker Sergei Paradjanov fell victim to this system of belief. Born in Tbilisi, Georgia, Paradjanov was regarded with suspicion by the authorities in Moscow and Leningrad. He was an outsider or to use the term du jour – an "Other". And his films are not about Russia, but about people living in the parts of the Soviet Union who don’t speak Russian and, in fact, may be Muslim. The enthusiasm with which Paradjanov depicted these non-Russians led inescapably to the conviction that the director himself might not be wholly sympathetic to the Communist project of assimilating ethnic minorities. This had grave consequences for Paradjanov.

 

2.

There is another way to imagine Sergei Paradjanov’s tragic persecution by Soviet authorities. Authoritarian regimes instinctively fear great art and seek to suppress those artists capable of achieving greatness. The three greatest Soviet filmmakers in the post-Stalinist era, Andrei Tarkovsky, Alexei German, and Sergei Paradjanov, all experienced severe censorship of their works. Even Eisenstein, the darling of the Bolshevik revolution, endured intimidation and, even, threats during the last decade of his life – Eisenstein’s final film, his two-part Ivan the Terrible, was considered as an oblique commentary on Stalin and the director feared that he might be purged on that basis. German’s films often were released five to ten years after their production on the basis of official censorship. Tarkovsky fled the Soviet Union, made his last two pictures in Italy and Sweden respectively, dying in exile. Paradjanov’s pictures were all suppressed – indeed, after Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors was briefly shown in the Russia, none of his later films were released in the Soviet Union.

Great art subverts conventional narratives and perspectives. Authoritarian regimes find this disturbing and work to confound this sort of artistry.

 

3.

And there is another way to think about Paradjanov’s life. Russian artists often consider suffering to be prerequisite to the highest order of creativity. The artist must suffer for his art – the paradigm example in Russia is Dostoevsky, an epileptic and the survivor of Siberian labor camps. Paradjanov’s biography fits within this frame of reference.

 

4.

Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors was released in 1964. The film was initially highly praised by Soviet authorities and the film critics beholding to them. Later, suspicions arose that the film was, perhaps, politically incorrect.

Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors is based on a novel by the Ukrainian writer Mykhailovych Kotsiubynsky. This writer was born in 1864 and died in 1913. He was a progressive and his novels are considered examples of ethnographic realism. (Shadows documents the folkways of the Hutsuls, a tribe of Slavic mountain people residing the Carpathian Mountains on the border between Slovakia and the Ukraine.) The Soviets regarded Kotsiubynsky with some suspicion – in the early 1890's, he had been a member of the secret Society of Taras, a political organization that advocated for the independence of the Ukraine.

Even more problematic was the fate of Kotsiubynsky’s eldest son, Yuriy. Yuriy Kotsiubynsky was a swashbucking figure and the founder of the Red Cossacks of the Army of the Ukrainian Republic. The Red Cossacks battled the Whites and were Communists but there was some skepticism as to whether they were fighting for the Soviet Union or the independence of the Ukraine. Yuriy was a courageous cavalryman and rose to high level in the Soviet Federation, but he was denounced as a secret Trotskyite in 1937 and shot by one of Stalin’s firing squads. During the thaw in 1955, he was posthumously rehabilitated as a hero of the Soviet Union.

 

5.

There was another way in which Paradjanov was "other" or an outsider – he seems to have been either bisexual or homosexual. Homosexual acts were criminal in the Soviet Union. So the authorities had a basis for exerting intense pressure on him.

Paradjanov was born in Tbilisi, Georgia to Armenian parents in 1924. His parents are described as artistically inclined. In 1945, as the War was ending, Paradjanov traveled to Moscow where he enrolled Gerasimov School of Cinematography (VGIK). VGIK was one of the world’s greatest film schools – Paradjanov was taught by Dovzhenko (whose influence in apparent in Shadows) and Lev Kuleshov among others. Something went wrong in 1948. Under circumstances that remain unclear, Paradjanov was arrested and charged with committing a homosexual act – the other person involved in what seems to have been entrapment was MGB officer, that is, a member of the secret police. Paradjanov was sentenced to five years in prison, but, then, after three months, this term was commuted and he was released. (Presumably, he made some kind of agreement with the Secret Police.)

Perhaps to demonstrate that he was heterosexual, Paradjanov married a young woman who was of Muslim Tartar ethnicity. She converted from Islam to the Eastern Orthodox religion that was an important element of Paradjanov’s Armenian identity. ("Everyone knows that I have three homelands: I was born in Georgia, I have lived in the Ukraine, and I will die in Armenia.") This led to tragedy: her brothers murdered her in a so-called "honor slaying" in Moscow in 1950. Paradjanov re-married a Ukrainian woman by whom he had one son. That marriage occurred in 1956.

Returning to the film industry, Paradjanov made four or five documentaries and, then, directed a half-dozen feature films for Dovzhenko Film Studios (a State studio in Kiev helmed by the famous Alexander Dovzhenko). Paradjanov has termed these films "garbage" but some of them might be interesting. (Great directors tend to leave their fingerprints on the movies that they make: Scorsese’s juvenalia directed for Roger Corman, for instance, Boxcar Bertha, are largely meretricious trash but they still have glimmers of the brilliance that Scorsese would display a few years later in films over which he had more control.) One of these films adapts a Moldavian fairy tale and was made for children. Another is a so-called Kolkhaz musical – an all-singing and dancing musical replete with love stories and comic interludes set on a merry collective farm. Ukrainian Rhapsody is a melodrama about war-time lovers – it also features songs. Another film was rescued by Paradjanov when the leading lady was killed in an accident on-location – Flower on the Stone (1962) is about a love-affair between male and female comrades working in a mine. The leading lady apparently fell into the mine-shaft and died. The director up to the date of the accident was removed from the film (and, presumably, sent to Siberia). Paradjanov seems to have re-cut the movie into an anti-Christian propaganda film – the story was altered to involve a hero thwarting efforts by a Christian cult to infiltrate the mine-workers union. Paradjanov disdained the film calling it the "turd on the stone."

Paradjanov’s first fully developed and independently controlled film was Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors. The picture arose out of Paradjanov’s friendship with Andrei Tarkovsky. Paradjanov admired Tarkovsky’s poetic Ivan’s Childhood (1961) and was inspired by his friend’s example to attempt something more poetic and personal in character. Shadows was a world-wide sensation and won many prizes. Soviet critics were profuse in their praise of the film and, in fact, authorized the picture, made in a dialect of Ukrainian so obscure that most Ukrainians couldn’t understand it, to be shown without revision. (The censors initially demanded that Paradjanov dub the picture into Russian. But he refused and the censors withdrew their demand.) Within a few years, however, the film was re-evaluated and came to be regarded as implicitly subversive and self-indulgent.

Traveling to Armenia, Paradjanov made the picture often regarded as his most successful and personal achievement, Sayat-Nova released in the West as The Color of Pomegranates (1969). The film is non-narrative, comprising incidents in the life of the great medieval Armenian poet, Arutian, the "King of Song." Tarkovsky’s influence is evident in the film – clearly, Paradjanov has carefully studied the Russian filmmaker’s Andrei Rublev, a long and episodic film about a medieval painter of icons. Paradjanov’s approach is different and his budget was minuscule – in some ways, the picture, an unearthly combination of kitsch and surreal beauty, is more akin to one of Kenneth Anger’s underground films than a Hollywood bio-pic. Beyond any doubt, the The Color of Pomegranates contests Soviet norms as to socialist realism and implies a strongly nationalistic element in Paradjanov’s imagination. Soviet authorities repressed the film and, although it was shown internationally at film festivals, the picture was not premiered in the Soviet Union until 1979.

In 1973, Paradjanov gave a speech in Minsk decrying the lack of imagination in the Soviet film industry. The speech was apparently very funny. Three months later, Paradjanov was indicted for "art trafficking, pornography, homosexual rape, currency manipulation, and incitement to suicide." (At the time, he was working on a screenplay for a film based on some of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales.) He was duly convicted, notwithstanding the protest of many members of the Soviet intelligentsia, and sentenced to five years labor in prison. (Paradjanov, who was skilled in sewing and embroidery, was put in a prison shop sewing burlap bags. He excelled at this work and began to create small fabric dolls from loose ends of material in the factory. During periods when he was unable to make films, he made dolls, ceramics, sculpture as well as paintings and made collages.) Paradjanov served four years of his five year term – he was released in 1978 after the intervention of Francis Coppola, Bernardo Bertolucci, Martin Scorsese, many Russian intellectuals, writers, and filmmakers (most notably Tarkovsky) and John Updike.

After his imprisonment, Paradjanov was impoverished. He lived homeless on the streets of Yerevan in Armenia for a while. Tarkovsky, distressed at his friend’s plight, gave him a ring to pawn – Paradjanov preferred to retain the ring as a symbol of his friendship with Tarkovsky. In 1982, he was in prison again, this time in Tbilisi where he served a nine month sentence again on obscure and, probably, politically motivated charges. By 1983, he was back in Kiev working at the Dovhenko Studios where he made The Legend of the Suram Fortress, another overtly nationalistic film – the movie concerns a fortress defending Georgia against Muslim Tartar invaders: the fortress can not stand unless a young warrior is buried alive in its huge walls. This movie is very remarkable, non-narrative, and disturbing – the motif of being buried alive probably refers, at least, obliquely to Paradjanov’s imprisonment. Of course, the film was suppressed by the authorities.

Paradjanov’s last feature was 1989, Ashik Karib. The movie is an adaptation of story by Mikhail Lermontov about a hero who must wander 1001 days, performing various labors, in order to win the right to marry his beloved. The film was shot in Azerbaijan, also was clearly nationalistic, and, therefore, suppressed – the picture was not shown in Russia until the collapse of the Soviet Union. The film is non-narrative, dedicated to the spirit of Andrei Tarkovsky, who had died, and ends with a dove descending – an image, Paradjanov explained, of Tarkovsky.

Seriously ill, Paradjanov’s began work on another film, The Confession. He shot three days of footage and, then, collapsed. His imprisonments under harsh conditions had damaged his health. He died in July 1990, age 66. His home in Yerevan, Armenia is now a museum and shrine displaying many of the dolls and other artworks he made while in prison.

 

 

6.

Some critics regard narrative, because sequential, as horizontal – one thing follows another. Vertical interpolations into the narrative may be either abysmal or supernatural – a demon can arise from the earth and an angel may visit from heaven. The horizontal or narrative plane insists upon causality. The vertical dimension interrupts causality.

Very early in Paradjanov’s Shadows, the camera appears high above the protagonists who are working as foresters. The camera dives toward the ground, swooping downward. This camera movement simulates the irruption into the narrative of forces that are arbitrary, unpredictable, and, possibly, supernatural. The camera’s motion signifies that the world of the forgotten ancestors is not imagined according to the dictates of realism. Here, anything can happen.

 

7.

There is a sequence in Andrei Rublev that is particularly haunting. It is Spring and peasants have lit bonfires in the woods and everyone seems to be drunk. The young women have all stripped off their clothes and they wander through the twilight offering themselves sexually to the men that they meet. With its leaping flames and shadowy forests filled with the gliding nude women, the landscape seems enchanted. The pagan gods have returned to earth and, for one night, from dawn to dusk, they walk among their people.

Paradjanov’s film acknowledges the fact that profoundly pagan currents of emotion and belief are very close to the surface in Russia and the Ukraine. In some respects, Paradjanov’s film falls within a mainstream of Russian art – the celebration of the pagan roots of the Russian soul. Stravinsky works this vein majestically in his 1913 The Rite of Spring, the score written for Serge Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe. As in Petrushka and The Firebird ballets, Stravinsky uses old fairy tales and legends for his inspiration. In The Rite of Spring, girls and boys dance ecstatically and, then, a young woman, the Chosen One, is selected to dance herself to death in the center of a circle of Elders. This kind of material, bloody, ecstatic, and pagan, is central to Shadows. There is a veneer of Christianity – people kiss icons and there are Eastern Orthodox churches, but what seems to go on in those churches is not much like a Christian worhip service. Ultimately, the "blood" of the people is not Christian nor is it even really European – this is shown to us when a man strikes another down with his small-headed axe. The gush of snow from the dying man is shown as a scarlet horses galloping wildly away. The blood is unregulated and fierce; it can not be restrained by Christian sacraments. Sorcerers conjure the dead or bewitch with love potions. The world is full of wild, perilous, untrammeled forces.

 

8.

In the film’s final shot, we see a kind of mosaic – in this case a window with many mullions and panes of glass, each one containing a small blonde boy’s face. The little boys are looking out to where a man is building a casket for the hero, Ivanko. The procession of faces, each occupying a separate frame, is some kind of metaphor for film – a movie is made up of many frames, each containing a picture. Presumably, the little boys will be told the story of Ivanko’s life and it will become a legend to them and they will tell the legend and, in the end, Paradjanov will make it into a film. So the final shot embodies both the creation of a legend, the oblique way in which folklore forms, that is, by implication and indirection – we don’t actually see what the little boys are watching – and, finally, provides us with a form that is equivalent to the vessel that will later contain the legend, the frames of Paradjanov’s film.

 

9.

In some ways, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors is so rich and self-indulgent that, it seems, the movie of movies, that is, a template of many other kinds of films. The wild camera movements and the lush colors and some elements of the editing seem to have influenced director’s like Baz Luhrman (Romeo and Juliet directed by Luhrman, of course, is a story kin to the one that Paradjanov shows in his film). Some of the luminous archaic images have the quality of frames from movies by Guy Madden – there is a wild, delirious silent film sensibility at work in the movie. Underground films like those made by Kenneth Anger and Maya Deren seem to be referenced in some sequences – the ornate and lurid colors as well as the bizarre and, even, campy costumes cause some scenes to be redolent of Anger’s homosexually-inflected films like Kustom Kar Kommandos and Scorpio Rising. This is in line with J. Hoberman’s argument that the movie the film most resembles of Stan Brakhage’s experimental picture Dog Star Man made in the same year that Shadows was produced. I think that many of the film’s more abstract sequences look very much like the film diaries of the Jonas and Adolphus Mekas, particularly their diary of visit to their native Lithuania. It is equally true that many compositions in the movie echo images in Eisenstein, particularly, the technicolor feast sequence in Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible (Part Two). And, of course, some shots, particularly those with figures standing amidst black and jagged spear-like ruins of huts, directly cite Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood. The influence of Dovhenko also lies heavily over parts of the film – in this regard, one might cite lyrical sequences in the great Ukrainian director’s film Earth (1930), including the scene where the young widow runs naked through her house upon hearing of her husband’s death or the concluding image of apples in the rain. But with all of these references and citations, the Shadows has its own bizarre identity – it is both all movies at once and the specific creation of specific artist.

 

10.

An influential book in political philosophy, Leo Strauss’ Persecution and Writing (1952), proposes that most ancient and early modern philosophers composed their works under regimes that were despotic. As a consequence, the writings made by these philosophers conceal their heterodox opinions under a veneer of surface piety. Many of these writings pay obeisance to the tyrant, but, in fact, contain concealed subtexts that undercut the tyrant’s authority.

A similar situation is manifest in films made in countries ruled by authoritarian regimes. The most successful and effective films made in East Germany were a series of highly imaginative and brilliantly designed fairy tale films – this cycle of films began with Wolfgang Staudt’s The Story of Little Mook and continued through the seventies with pictures such as Heart of Stone, Snow White, Turli’s Adventure (a version of Pinocchio), and the ineffably weird The Singing, Ringing Tree. These movies evaded political questions that would inevitably have been raised by so-called realistic films documenting daily life in the DDR. In the Soviet Union, serious filmmakers like Tarkovsky and Paradjanov made movies ostensibly remote from naturalistic concerns – Tarkovsky sought refuge in the remote past (Andrei Rublev) or outer space (Solaris) or science fiction (Stalker). Paradjanov made films about ancient legends and poems. His problem, however, was that the settings of these tales, Armenia, Carpathia, Azerbaijin and the Transcaucasus could be interpreted as subversive of the Soviet Union’s "great" or "noble lie" – namely, that Communism had created a seamless union of like-minded nations all striving for the same utopian future.

Paradjanov seems apolitical to me. But to be apolitical was also a betrayal of the regime. Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors shows a world driven by ancient feuds, superstition, and various forms of demonism and the supernatural. The world that he imagines is certainly not one driven by economic or other factors susceptible to Marxist interpretation. This is Paradjanov’s double-bind, his dilemma – the more remote his films from daily life (and his later films are highly experimental and abstract), the more personal those films became. And he had the misfortune to be laboring under a regime of collectives, a regime that denied the authenticity of purely subjective and purely personal.

 

11.

Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors was hailed as inaugurating a Soviet New Wave cinema. Critics have called it "the most plastic fantastic" of all Soviet era films and "not so much lyric as lysergic." There is no widely held consensus as to whatwhat the film exactly means. Indeed, there isn’t even any agreement as to whether the end of film is happy or sad.

Some critics argue that the film celebrates the indomitable vitality and life force in the Hutsul people. These critics argue that the movie shows us that life "will find a way" – that life goes on, although individuals are slaughtered. I don’t buy this analysis. Certainly, the official Soviet justification for the film would adopt this sort of sentimental interpretation. But I think it’s wrong.

Other critics believe that the film is fundamentally experimental and non-narrative – in this interpretation, the slender, obliquely presented narrative is just an excuse for a series of hallucinatory camera motions and surreal montage. Some critics have gone so far as to say that the camera is a character in the film and that it actually causes the events that it renders as pictures. I like this argument because it is as crazed as the film, but don’t think it holds water in the long run. Critics who assert this argument are, in effect, simply restating a variant of the argument that movie’s plot is merely a framework on which to hang various surreal sequences. These critics define the film as a "second person narrative" – "you", here the camera are doing various things and these things that "you" record form the film.

In my view, the film suggests that love is a powerful force that may defeat the grave. But this is the pure love of the children of the feuding families, love that exists before sexuality imposes its meaning on that emotion. Paradjanov seems to think love between adult men and women induces a sort of bondage – it requires a willingness to bear a yoke as well as self-imposed blindness. (Thus, the bizarre wedding sequence, a scene that has no ethnological basis at all.)

It’s hard to interpret a film that is so obscure in some ways that no one has yet developed a plausible theory as to the meaning of the title itself.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

The Other Side of Hope

Finnish film-maker, Aki Kaurismaki, makes movies on a human scale.  In his 2017 picture, The Other Side of Hope, there is a scene in which a Finnish wheeler-dealer and his minions seek a hiding place for a Syrian refugee.  Someone uses a yardstick to measure the refugee who is on the lam from the authorities, and announces that he will not fit in to a cooler recess in the entrepreneur's restaurant.  A scene later, the man is ensconced in a storage room where the Finn warehoused dress shirts -- he was formerly a traveling shirt salesman.  The room isn't particularly comfortable but it's exactly the right size.  The dimensions of this room, which forms an explicit theme in the film, correlates to Kaurismaki's style of directing:  there is nothing too large and nothing too small.  The restaurant in the film is about the size of a living room in one of today's tasteless McMansions.  The movie features small groups of people.  When the businessman converts his restaurant into a dance-hall, about seven couples dance -- not twenty or thirty.  During musical interludes, we see combos performing to crowds that are about thirty or forty people.  Everything is modestly scaled -- that is, built to human dimensions.  And this correlates to the movie's modesty, it's sobriety and fundamental human decency.

In The Other Side of Hope, Khalid, a Syrian refugee, literally claws his way out of a heap of coal on a freight ship and, then, hikes from the Helsinki harbor downtown to take a shower and turn himself into the police.  He announces that he is seeking asylum. Kaurismaki's Helsinki is a greyish-blue matter-of-fact place with street buskers on its corner and lots of unpretentious bars.  At the outset, Kaurismaki uses the time-honored technique of cross-cutting parallel action to establish a cinematic relationship between Khalid and his other hero, Waldemar, the traveling shirt salesman who has apparently dumped his middle-aged girlfriend and, equipped with a huge American car, gone to find his fortune in the restaurant business.  Waldemar is on the brink of old age, a big man who looks like a mob boss from an American thirties or forties gangster movie.  He is immaculately dressed and exudes an aura of competence and, perhaps, menace.  Like Khalid, Waldemar finds himself a displaced person.  He parlays his inventory of shirts into cash and, then, invests in a high-stakes poker game with other elderly, and sinister-looking, gentlemen.  Kaurismaki is making a kind of fairy-tale, and, so, of course, Waldemar wins a small fortune at the poker table (although he also comes within a hair's breadth of being murdered, it seems, by the proprietors of the place -- a suggestion that is matter of almost imperceptible looks and nods).  Waldemar invests the money in a small restaurant in a low-rent part of town.  Of course, ultimately, Khalid makes his way to the restaurant where he does odd-jobs.  Waldemar, although he acts tough and is exceptionally laconic, is a kind man and, with his rather roguish staff, acts instinctively to protect and conceal the Syrian.  (Khalid's bid for asylum has been inexplicably denied because Aleppo, his hometown, is "no longer dangerous" according to a three-judge panel  -- an idiotic ruling announced in the midst of Assad's campaign to slaughter the inhabitants of that city as shown in alarming TV broadcast footage.  The remainder of the film chronicles Waldemar's comical attempts to increase profits at the restaurant -- this aspect of the film presented with the driest of dry humor, reminded me a bit of the restaurnat subplot in Mike Leigh's great Life is Sweet -- and Khalid's attempts to find his sister who was separated from him in the Balkans,

The Other Side of Hope is the second of Kaurismaki's planned trilogy about harbors, now re-dubbed by the director as his "refugee trilogy."  Kaurismaki previously made films about underdogs, the losers in the economic race, and he is superbly equipped to document the hardships and indignities suffered by refugees -- in modern Europe, they are, after all, the ultimate underdogs.  The first of these films is the completely charming Le Havre, a movie about an African boy who hides among the demi-monde living in a French town.  The Other Side of Hope is more realistic in some ways, but still a kind of parable in which good outwits evil -- in the case of the latter picture, the authorities who are searching for the "illegal" immigrants.  The essence of  these films is summarized by a sequence in The Other Side of Hope involving a Finnish right-wing skinhead organization called "The Finnish Liberation Army", this inscribed in English in sequins on their jackets.  The Army seemingly consists of only three lads, but they are mean-looking and big.  When Khalid leaves a concert, the bad guys pursue him, rough him up, and, then, prepare to set him on fire with lighter fluid.  Just as he is about to be ignited, a group of six or so Finnish bums, all of them apparently drunk and some on crutches, stagger up, knock down the skinheads with their half-empty bottles of booze and give them a beating.  The cavalry has come to the rescue but they are an odd sort of heroes -- disabled alcoholics, superannuated bikers, and the elderly greasers, rock-a-billy types with mullets or long braided blonde hair, that Kaurismaki prefers as protagonists in his films.  These people know what it's like to be marginalized and they protect their own. 

Although The Other Side of Hope is a sort of fairy-tale, exquisitely shot and edited (Kaurismaki is one of the great directors with respect to the technical aspects of his films), it doesn't sugar-coat the situation.  Khalid's entire family has been slaughtered in a bomb attack and the skinheads carry knives and are, potentially, lethal.  The officials managing the immigration program are well-meaning morons.  In an interview Khalid says that he has "buried the Prophet with all the angels," when he dug the graves for his family in Syria.  "So should I put down for religion 'Atheist'?" the nice-looking blonde lady interviewing him asks.   "No," he says.  "I will write 'not religious'," she replies.  Nonetheless, in a world full of films about criminal conspiracies, Kaurismaki depicts a "conspiracy of the good," plots hatched by kind people to help the hapless strangers in their midst.  The two refugee films show that it is hard to do good as an individual -- you need a group of like-minded people to implement your plot to make the world a better place,  Kaurismaki's benign conspirators are washed-up criminals, small-timers, old men and women, dilapidated alcoholics and old-time musicians who never quite made it.  The film is punctuated with musical interludes, beautifully if very objectively shot:  making music together as a group is Kaurismaki's metaphor for the pursuit of goodness in the world. 

In an interview in Berlin, the dour Kaurismaki (sucking an vape-cigarette) said a number of indelible things about his movie and the refugee crisis.  "How has Europe forgotten that sixty years ago, there were 60 million refugees in Europe?"  and "Today, the refugees are Syrians and Africans,  But tomorrow they could be you and me."  Kaurismaki said:  "I made the film not only to change Finland, but to change the world, and so I hope the three people who paid to see the picture will do that..."  It goes without saying that the movie deserves to be seen by everyone.