Andrei Rublev – Andrei Tarkovsky (1966)

It’s been weird lately. First, I struggled to find the time to watch films. I was immersed in books, really good ones, and I didn’t want to stop reading. Then, once I had a film I thought would be a really good fit, it turned out that it wasn’t really Slow Cinema. This was particularly disappointing for Sudoeste by Eduardo Nunes from Brazil. The film starts in a superb fashion. It stunned me, and drew me in. I felt like floating in those beautiful long-take shots, magic, ghostly, simply very affective (and effective). Unfortunately, the film’s aesthetic changed somewhat after the powerful beginning, so that I decided not to write about it. A new subject was needed, and I remembered that I still hadn’t seen Andrei Tarkovsky’s early piece Andrei Rublev (1966), which is his second film, after the really good Ivan’s Childhood which was a great portrait of war trauma and young adolescents. Rublev is perhaps not an iconic work of Slow Cinema, but the film shows Tarkovsky’s later trademarks, beginning, of course, with the director’s use of long takes and a camera that sometimes moves independent of the characters it is showing.

While watching Rublev, I couldn’t help think about Béla Tarr and his first social-realist films. The films by Tarr that are now so well-known because of their particular style, didn’t come out of nowhere. Tarr developed it over time, and so Rublev was a stage in Tarkovsky’s development towards perfecting his almost magical cinematic philosophy that we admire today. It’s quite a change to films such as Mirror and Nostalghia, and yet you can see Tarkovsky’s soul in the film, which begins to shine. Rublev is not a philosophical experiential piece the way the director’s other films are. While it does contain important discussions that demand an engagement with the film text, Rublev is almost a straightforward historical epic, which surprised me at first. It was not what I had expected. What I didn’t expect either was that the film would be a strange back-to-the-future piece with scenes that strongly reminded me of MirrorStalker and Nostalghia. Everyone would argue that it’s always best to watch a director’s entire filmography chronologically (with the exception of Semih Kaplanoglou’s trilogy, which includes Bal), I found that my watching Tarkovsky’s oeuvre almost the other way around added a magnificent ghostly atmosphere to Rublev.

The film starts with an episode of an unfortunate balloon flight. There is a scene, almost right at the beginning, which shows the fascinating camera work that would later become so vital for Tarkovsky’s experiential pieces. In a long take, one man enters a house, drops what he has in his arms inside the house, then exists the house again. The camera moves freely. It’s floating almost, has its own mind and even though it does follow the character to an extent, it is also taking its own steps. All of a sudden, I was reminded of Alexandr Sokurov’s The Russian Ark, in which the camera followed its characters in much the same way. This type of camera has a dreamy, almost unreal nature to it. Something else caught my eye: once the balloon, which several people tried to keep on the ground before others arrived and attacked them, is in the air, Tarkovsky uses a remarkable POV shot that, once more, reminded me of Sokurov’s mirror lenses in Mother and Son. Now, the copy I have has not been restored, and I wonder whether those particular shots look slightly deformed and mirror-y (here’s a new term for you, which I have just coined….you’re welcome!) because of the age of the film, or the quality of the camera. I’d like to jump to the conclusion that it’s supposed to be like this, because it genuinely brings something disorienting with it, something bizarre, something uncomfortable.

We find a similar “look” later on, when Kirill, Daniil and Rublev arrive at a house, where they seek refuge from torrential rain. There is a jester singing and dancing, before he is being escorted away by the Duke’s men. Here again, the camera lens seems to be slightly deformed, alluding to a rather round picture. It doesn’t feel flat at all, but it’s almost as though the camera alludes to a third dimension. Of course, I could (and I probably do!) read too much into it, because this particular look is not one of the main aesthetics of the film. Moreover, I know that Tarkovsky tended to work with whatever he had and he might as well had problems with the camera. Nevertheless, I like the idea that this deformed view on the world from above and on those people who enjoy the sexually charged songs from the jester is not as accidental as one might believe.

Contrary to later films, Rublev is progressing in chapters, that means chronologically. Although there are dream sequences, which upset the temporal order established by the chapters, the film runs more or less in a linear fashion. The first chapter, which contains the scene with the balloon I have just described, begins in 1400. Fifteenth century Russia was a tumultuous country, never really at peace, and Tarkovsky shows this in particular in the latter half of the film. For financial reasons, he had to cut a lot of battle scenes, which he had in the script, but which he couldn’t realise for lack of funding. Those cuts sometimes lead to disorienting jumps in the narrative that are more startling than sophisticated philosophical omissions. There is, for instance, a scene in which Rublev’s assistant finds a dead swan in the woods. In films such as Mirror, which are deeply rooted in themes like memory and dreams, I wouldn’t have been startled. I would have considered this to be a memory that violently appears (appears violent?) and which has a connection to the stories of remembering and forgetting Tarkovsky tells so often. Rublev, however, doesn’t fell like such a movie at all. Because of its linear, straightforward progression and its non-mysterious images, the dead swan appeared out of place and made me wonder if there wasn’t something missing. Have I missed something? Is the explanation for this still to come? I wouldn’t try to find explanations for anything in dreamy films, but here, I have to say that I was almost annoyed about this scene, which could have been cut easily. (And I cannot believe I’m actually saying this about a film by Tarkovsky…)

Andrei Rublev, as we know, was a painter, whose The Trinity is supposedly his most famous work. Tarkovsky shows very little of his life as a painter. In ways similar to the struggling filmmaker in Lav Diaz’s Century of Birthing (2011), we witness several discussions on art and the role of the artist. The actual act of painting is positioned in the background. Instead, we hear Rublev struggling with the task of painting The Last Judgment: “I can’t paint this, it’s disgusting.” Rublev doesn’t want to frighten people and would rather paint something of a lighter nature. I would agree with the fact that Tarkovsky makes a statement here about the struggle of the artists with his conscience. But the layer underneath that surface is the use of artists to promote certain images. At the time, painters worked on behalf of a duke, or other high ranking state officials. They had to paint what was expected of them, even though, as Theophanes, the Greek points out, their works and even they themselves are attacked for the images and messages they portray in their works. They do so on behalf of someone, and often suffer for it – either at the hands of others, or at the hands of their own conscience.

The theme of conscience is present throughout the film. The tartars attack the city of Vladimir. Andrei, who is in the city to paint the church, witnesses the atrocities. When one of the attackers kidnaps a woman (supposedly to rape and kill her), Andrei kills him with an axe. What has he done? Once the attack is over, and silence returns to the church – the camera shows us dozens of dead, among them children – Andrei is visibly shaken by what he had witnessed, by the sheer violence, by the fact that men are that cruel, that men simply kill other men (“We’re both Russians”, we hear a young man pleading while trying to escape), that Man is no better than a beast. This event leaves Andrei traumatised. He hallucinates and re-encounters Theophanes. Almost furious, Andrei tells him that he has worked for people all his life, but that people are not people, suggesting that they’re mere beasts. Consequently, Andrei takes a vow before God: he would never paint or speak again, the latter of which reappears in another context in Lav Diaz’s Heremias – Book One (2005). This vow is not only the result of what he has seen. I firmly belief that Tarkovsky makes a point on the painter’s conscience here. In fact, Andrei has sinned. Even though he rescued a woman from certain torture and death, he himself has killed a man. He himself has turned into a beast. He himself is no different than all the others.

Tarkovsky plays here with sound and silence, almost deafening silence, which he would later reuse in Stalker and Mirror. There is something ghostly about it, something traumatic, as though the explosion of violence has deafened not only Andrei, but also us. In minimising the sound, slowing down sound effects, the director disorientates us temporally. Andrei’s trauma and that of the village becomes palpable. What follows is a shift in narrative towards Boris, a young man, who pretends he knows the secret of bell making and is hired by the Duke to make a bell. Andrei moves into the film’s background. As a silent monk he is no more than an onlooker, a bystander, visibly angry at first, then quieter in later years. He becomes a silent observer of Boris, whom he seems to use as a mirror of himself; a talented artist, who struggles with himself, with his work, with the burden of having to create. The film comes full circle, picking up the same themes and applying it to another character, whose emotional torment pierces through Andrei’s shield, which he had kept up for 15 years.

It is quite remarkable to me that my first impression of the film was not a good one. I wouldn’t say that I didn’t like the film. It was just too ordinary, compared to what I know of Tarkovsky. And yet, this is, except for one single essay (and conference papers which I have just copied and pasted), the longest post on this blog. Andrei Rublev seems to build a nest in my head after all…

Mourning Cinema

For parts of my work on Lav Diaz’s Melancholia, I read Richard Armstrong’s Mourning Films (2012). It wasn’t quite as helpful as I thought for the actual content of my chapter, but there was something else that popped up while reading the conclusion of the book, namely the question whether Slow Cinema is Mourning Cinema. At least in part. I’m aware that not all slow films are rather depressing. Albert Serra, for instance, is the comedian amongst slow-film directors, so he wouldn’t fit into this “new” category I have in mind.

What initially put me onto a track of Mourning Cinema was Armstrong’s suggestion that “the mourning film is defined by the obscure play of the seen, the withheld and the opaque” (184). Nowhere is this clearer than in Lav Diaz’s films. This is exactly what I’m interested in and it comes up in pretty much all my chapters; absence. The use of absence and emptiness is a means in Diaz’s films to convey meanings of loss, grief and melancholy. The unseen is as important as the seen in his films. You cannot read his films by looking only at the visible. It is the invisible that brings to the fore the characters’ inner turmoils. Interestingly enough, in mourning films, according to Armstrong, geography plays a role. Mourning as an interior feeling happens against the exterior of the environment. This is perhaps most visible and most accomplished in Diaz’s Death in the Land of Encantos.

Anyway, this was only the beginning of my thought process. The eureka effect came with the following: “These are slow contemplative works that are dedicated to a narrative progression tied not to active agendas but to a passive process of psychological healing” (186). Now, the psychological healing is relative. Not all slow films that involve some kind of loss depict the following healing process. But the main thing is the deliberate pace of the films and the focus on characters’ psychological development. This is, to me, the main characteristic of Slow Cinema, combined with the aesthetic of the environment mirroring the characters’ state of mind.

Again, not all slow films can be, but a great many films should be seen in this context. In addition to the films of Lav Diaz, there’s, for instance, Yulene Olaizola’s Fogo, an impressive study of loss and the coping mechanisms of people who do not want to give up their livelihood on a small island that decays more and more. There’s Semih Kaplanoglu’s Bal, in which a young boy tries to cope with the loss of his father, the only person that actually made him speak, a person he looked up to. There is, of course, Alexandr Sokurov’s Mother and Son, which I don’t have to describe in detail here as it is such a well-known film. All of Tsai Ming-liang’s films are based on some kind of loss, some kind of grieving for something that is not there. Even Béla Tarr’s films feel eerily empty about loss.

Loss – no matter what kind – is naturally leading to mourning. It does not always entail the death of a person. Death is rather metaphorical and concerns any kind of loss, or sudden absence of something. I would go as far as suggesting that it even concerns the threat of an absence, the threat of loss. This alone can put someone into a state of mourning.

So can Slow Cinema also be termed Mourning Cinema? In some ways, yes. There are more and more types of film that have the exact kind of characteristics as Slow Cinema, without being termed like it. Again, Slow Cinema is just a – sorry to say this – stupid novel description of something that we have seen all the way through film history. So I reckon that all of these slow films fit into other, way more known types of film, which have already received wide attention.

Day 13 – Mother and Son (Sokurov)

Another one of my favourites. And a classic, I suppose. Russian director Sokurov is more than just a slow-film director, though. In fact, I don’t find all of his films very slow. When I watched Faust (2011), I wasn’t drawn to the film because it was slow. It felt slightly faster than his other films, but it didn’t make a huge difference. It was actually a “normal” film speed, appropriate for the subject.

The one piece everyone can perhaps name when the name Sokurov comes up is The Russian Ark (2002), an entire film shot in one single long-take. It was a hugely interesting experiment, and fed in well later on with my engagement with Slow Art Day.

Let’s come to Mother and Son (1997)Apparently, it was supposed to be the first part of a trilogy, which was complemented with Sokurov’s later work Father and Son (2003). I’m not sure whether the trilogy will ever be completed. I truly hope so. Mother tells the story of a dying mother and her absolutely devoted son. The film is for me an exploration of love between a parent and his/her child. It also, perhaps, speaks of sacrifice and grief. But the main thing remains the dedication of the son towards the care of his mother.

Mother and Son (1997), Sokurov

I seem to like the number “two”, so yes, there are (once again) two things that strike me in this film. Both of them are linked to visual aesthetics, and are kind of interconnected.

I’m not sure whether I have mentioned it in earlier blog entires about the theme of painting in slow films. Sokurov’s Mother and Son is, for me, the most evident example of this. I cannot say with certainty that Sokurov intended the film frames to look like paintings, but they do. This was one of the slow films that triggered the idea. There are several issues to this.

First, the dominance of landscape and therefore the use of long, or extreme long shots. In some scenes, characters are only minuscule. This makes perfect sense if one considers where the film is set: in a remote area, somewhere in the middle of nowhere, in and around a cabin. This makes also sense if one considers the underlying theme of the film: evanescence, death. Man is only a small part in the universe. He’s mortal, he’s not permanent. Even though the landscape is impermanent, too, it will remain once man dies. Putting the landscape at the forefront of the film is thus plausible.

The second feature I would like to mention feeds directly into this; the way the film frames look. They do not only look painterly (I should say that for me the whole film looks like an oil painting to me). They also look pretty obscured. I found this to be the most stunning aesthetic achievement of Sokurov. If I remember right, he used those aesthetics in Father and Son as well, though not quite to the same extent.

Mother and Son (1997), Sokurov

Sokurov distorted the film image by filming through mirrors or very specific lenses. Apparently, he also filmed through painted glass panes (maybe this is where my feeling of “this is a painting!” comes from!?). The result is a film which, among other features, defies every logic of visual perception. Everything seems wobbly somehow. I sometimes wondered how to position my head to make sense of what I’m meant to see. Images are not always clear. Instead, the viewer is confronted with blurriness (dyssebeia has written a nice article on this). I don’t think that there is a fully “normal” film frame in the entire film. But then, I could be wrong. I got used to this distorted viewing that I’m not so sure anymore what a “normal” film frame looks like.

The startling aesthetics bring up one problem: they have the potential to divert the viewer’s attention from the actual content. I did focus on the content, but what did I write my blog post about? The aesthetics. Actually, the content of the film is just as interesting, Maybe I will write about this some other time.