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…

Death in the Land of Encantos – Lav Diaz (2007)

I believe that I keep mentioning this film, but I have never really made a proper (blog) case out of it. So let’s go into a bit more detail about Lav Diaz’s painful trip through the Land of Encantos.

Encantos is a docu-fiction hybrid, akin to the works of Nicolás Pereda, a Mexican slow-film director, who plays with our expectations of fact and fiction. Diaz’s film was, in fact, originally a documentary. It is set in the aftermath of typhoon Reming, which hit the country in autumn 2006, only a month or two after volcano Mayon erupted. The strong winds and heavy rain caused havoc in the cities surrounding the volcano, such as Legazpi City. The rain water mixed with the volcano ashes that have remained after the eruption, and produced a deadly lahar that swept through villages and cities. Over a thousand people died, many of them were buried alive.

Diaz ventured out to record footage of the aftermath. He also conducted interviews with survivors, which you see in the final film. You even hear him in the background asking questions. When he saw the footage on his computer, he decided to construct a fictional narrative around the disaster that befell the region. The final product is a film that uses the devastated landscape in order to mirror a devastated character; Benjamin, or Hamin, “the great poet” as he is called by his friends Teo and Catalina. He returned to the Philippines, supposedly to look for the body of his former lover Amalia. This is only a small piece of Hamin’s complex struggle against losing his sanity, though.

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Hamin lived in Russia for seven years. In Kaluga, to be exact. He received a grant and residency for teaching. I’m not entirely sure whether I believe this or not. There are things that let me doubt his version of leaving the Philippines. Perhaps the most subtle pointer towards it is the fact that Kaluga used to be a place for exiled politicians during the period of the Russian Empire. It also used to be a place for prisoners. Put this into the context of Hamin being a persecuted artists for inciting a revolution, and you start to re-think his story of grants, residencies, and teaching.

Hamin is a broken man. Just as “broken” and devastated as the landscape that surrounds him. The framing and the camera angles support his mental decline. The frames are generally empty. It’s like what the mayor of Legazpi City said after the disaster: “We now call this a black desert”. Desert means death, and this is what you see in every frame. Houses are buried in lahar up to the rooftop. They have become coffins for their owners. The trees are bare. New rivers have formed as the water from the sea has swallowed substantial amounts of landmass. The camera is hardly set straight. It’s more tilted than anything else; an element that emphasises the idea of an upset equilibrium, both in nature and in Hamin’s mind.

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The poet was deemed too dangerous for Philippine society. He was arrested, and tortured so as to break his spirit. His hand was crushed, his penis electrocuted, he was sexually abused, and – intriguingly – he had what he called acid injected into his brain (as I found out a fairly common strategy used by the CIA in the past). On top of this, guilt is crushing him. He never visited his mother, who was in a mental institution because of uncontrollable schizophrenia-paranoia. His sister committed suicide by jumping of a building. His father died of loneliness. It is a demonstration of what Catalina says later in the film: artists are selfish. They only care about their art but they care little about the people around them.

The film is, in fact, full of discourses around art and artists. It’s a discourse on colonialism and the influences of Western culture on Philippine society. It’s a discourse on political activism and the still very present threats of kidnapping, torture, and killing. Compared to Florentina Hubaldo, there are several different layers of discourse. I mean actual dialogue, rather than mere images. Encantos is rich, and it tackles so many issues of what Diaz calls the “Philippine struggle” that the nine-hour run time is more than justified. It could even be a tick longer.

The images are strong. Every single frame has its particular strength. The expression of Hamin’s struggle is visible in every frame, and if we only see an empty bit of devastated landscape. This landscape is Hamin. But on top of the visuals, the dialogues are heavy. Very philosophical. Very thought-provoking. This combination creates a piece which weighs heavy on the viewer. An intellectual piece which requires thinking and commitment. Only with thinking and commitment you get to the bottom of it (and you may actually want to watch the film more than once – ha, commitment!).

Norte – Lav Diaz (2013)

A couple of months ago, I have posted initial thoughts on Diaz’s new film Norte The End of History. I received a link for an online screener, which I happily accepted as I wasn’t sure if Norte would make it to the UK. Well, it did. In fact, it has become so popular that you find the film at almost all film festivals running at the moment. Not exactly the situation for the Lav Diaz who is known for his black-and-white epic films of eight hours or more. Rather, it’s a situation for a Lav Diaz, who is not in his usual element. 

In my earlier post, I have argued that it’s obvious why critics suddenly got hooked on the film. It is not a mainstream film, but it conforms more to classical filmmaking than all of his other films. Norte is easy food for the audience. It attracts the entertainment-seeker, not necessarily the intellectual cinephile who expects a typical Lav Diaz discourse on the struggles of the world and his people. It pains me to write this, because it may look that I strongly dislike Norte. This isn’t the case. What I dislike instead is the very obvious influence of money on alternative, small-budget filmmaking, which goes – by nature – down to the very basics, the essence of film, the truth; exactly what Diaz is always looking for. Money, on the other hand, seeks something else. If invested, the product needs to be turned into a profitable business. If you make it too hard for the audience to understand the film, you won’t make the film profitable. The director is forced to change his approach and his aesthetics. This is what happened with Norte, as far as I can see. 

Michael Guarneri conducted an insightful interview with Diaz. In it, Diaz speaks about the waste of money and how it has changed the approach to filmmaking. He explained: 

There was so much money wasted, and this is a thing I didn’t like about the shooting. We rented the camera package: very expensive… If we had bought it, the camera could have been used by me and by other fellow-filmmakers, or it could have been rented out by the producers to generate funds. Creating a flow of money and a circulation of ideas to develop film-projects and make more films in our country: to me this is a very important “political” aspect in filmmaking. It is part of the struggle.

So you see technology is an economic issue that has consequences on many levels. Clearly, it affects how the film looks: for example,Norte is a color film and there is much more camera movement than in my other movies. It is not the camera movement you find in commercial cinema, though. It is not flossy camera movement. It’s more about quietly following the characters. It’s still about duration and space as before, but at the same time it is something new for me.

The rented equipment led to tight schedules. Everything had to be rushed. Time is money, and that’s why money isn’t Slow Cinema. You can read the full interview with Diaz here

Returning to the film, though, I find that Norte is less a distinctly Philippine film. I may, in fact, go as far as calling it a “Russian” film. The thought popped into my head after I re-watched Diaz’s Encantos, in which one of the main characters returns to the Philippines after having spent seven years in Russia. He mentions Russian society, literature, cinema. He also says that the Russian and the Filipino struggles are similar. I think that with Norte, Diaz is pursuing his affection for Russian culture (especially literature and cinema) to a new level. 

The film is based on the remarkable Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky (if you haven’t read it, read it!). The story is obviously taken from the book, but so are the characters. Even if Russian and Filipino struggles are similar, I had troubles to see the Filipino character in the film; the character I got to know by spending hours watching Diaz’s films up and down, repeatedly, and by reading interviews with him. I think that in making the work more accessible by using a famous book as a background, the film neglects the actual Filipino. It is perhaps the case because no one would want to know about it, or no one would be willing to understand it. We’re all very aware of Russian literature, and while it’s not at all as mainstream as some English-speaking literature, it is at least more known and willing to be taken up by an audience than an entirely Filipino story. This is our indifference to little known cultures. We apply this to our taste for cinema, too. 

With that strong Russian background, we then also have a levitating character. A special effect that rubs into our face what Diaz would have normally said without special effects, without making it plain obvious what he wants to say. He would have normally been the literati, and suggested something without making it clear. But again, this film had to be profitable, so appealing to the audience’s intellectual thinking wasn’t an option. The film had to offer quick fixes. And before I lose myself in this discussion, I should mention that the levitating character is an homage to Tarkovsky, a director Diaz admires and was influenced by. So we’re not speaking about any special effect here. We are, in fact, again, speaking about Russia. 

The question that should be asked is not whether or not the film is good. Rather, how Filipino is it? How much does it betray its own culture in order to be profitable in the selling of distribution rights? And how is this going to change the filmmaking of Lav Diaz?