D’est (1993, Chantal Akerman)

A slideshow of filmed images from Russia and Eastern Europe, decontextualized, no voice-over or dialogue (though people notice the camera and speak to it). Generally quite long shots cut together, though the sound is mixed and faded nicely, not always simply cut with the picture. Camera is often moving, slowly gliding through a scene, and the photography is top-notch.

It’s probably my favorite Akerman film so far, at least the most lively and eventful (from what I remember of From The Other Side). Much of the joy comes from watching people stare back at the camera and crew. Chris Marker would approve. Mostly shot in public places, she also films some women at home, posing for a motion portrait or going about their day. Mostly it gave me a happy sense of peace, with vague anthropological and historical interest – not an intensely moving film, but much more enjoyable than any description of it could sound.

The montage has no discernable purpose, and I saw some complaints about how she almost ends with a long cello performance followed by the musician collecting roses from audience members, but then cuts to one more street scene, perversely denying the movie its obvious finale.

E. Henderson in Slant:

[Russia] was at a précis between history and future, and many of the individual frames in Akerman’s motion picture slideshow rumble with the juxtaposition of the Old World and the New. What Akerman does not do is offer exposition, commentary, or argument. Essentially, she eschews the tenets of documentary in order to avoid clouding her presentation up with, as she suggests in her explicatory notes, agenda.

As observed by Jonathan Rosenbaum, From the East is one of Akerman’s—and maybe cinema’—most fully realized attempts at existing as place, not setting. Rosenbaum notes that almost each and every human being caught by Akerman’s camera (some candidly, others in deliberately staged tableaux) appears to be waiting interminably for God knows what, standing and looking and breathing as Akerman pans to the right, pans to the left.

Rosenbaum also says (and I, too, was reminded of the Straub-Huillet):

The only other film I know that imparts such a vivid sense of being somewhere is the Egyptian section of Straub-Huillet’s Too Early, Too Late. Everyone goes to movies in search of events, but the extraordinary events in Akerman’s sorrowful, intractable film are the shots themselves–the everyday recorded by a powerful artist with an acute eye and ear.

Grunes calls it “a film populated by ghosts whose substantial reality provides an index of the depth of humanity that, metaphorically, has been lost,” and finds tons of deeper meaning in the shots.

Jon Jost liked it somewhat less (though it’s impossible to like it more than Grunes did):

Again and again the camera passes grim townscapes, and their equally grim occupants… Akerman in a sense gives very little, though what she gives provides enough suggestive power for the viewer’s mind to swarm with thoughts. . . Critics naturally scurry in to fill in the blanks with innumerable speculations, most of which show more about themselves than what is on screen. For those for whom guidance is a requirement a film such as this is doubtless quickly boring and pointless.

Mirror (1975, Andrei Tarkovsky)

An unseen narrator is flashing-back to his childhood in 1935. Since Tarkovsky made his first feature in the early sixties and this one is called Mirror, I’m going to assume it’s partly autobiographical. It’s also his Tree of Life – deeply-felt fragments with no easily-readable storyline. I might have missed some and misinterpreted the rest, but here are the episodes as I saw them:

1. A stutterer is cured under hypnosis. Sepia-toned film, shadows of camera crew visible, and neither character appearing in the rest of the story, because this episode is watched by the young protagonist on television.

2. color, a lost doctor talks to a woman at her house while two shaved-headed boys watch drowsily from a hammock. He leaves, turns back as a great gust of wind blows through the grass. I could watch this segment all day.

3. color, the barn burns down. Long takes bring The Sacrifice to mind.

4. b/w, woman wet hair vamping like The Ring monster, the house crumbles around her like a Low video, older woman appears in mirror reflection.

5. color, Alexei talks to his mom over phone, an Andrei Rublev poster on his wall. “Remember the hay-loft that burned down at the farm?”

6. b/w, woman proofreader thinks she’s made an error, runs through a printing press to check and it turns out okay but then everyone insults her. I think she is called Marousia, or Masha.

7. color, unseen man talking to ex-wife who reminds of his mother (same actress). “When I recall my childhood and my mother, somehow she always has your face.” Their son is Ignat. Wife might be Natalya. b/w news footage interlude.

8. color, Ignat has deja vu, then sees people who might not exist when left alone, talks to dad on phone.

9. color, a boy, maybe Ignat or his dad when young, in army training, notices girls, throws a fake grenade. War footage in b/w.

10. color, bird lands on freckly boy’s head

11. color, the mother/wife works in a ruined room.

12. b/w, Ignat’s unseen father wants Ignat to live with him, but ex-wife and Ignat disagree, dad says Ignat is stupid and recommends the army. Flashbacks and dreams: a bird flies through a windowpane.

13. color, mom comes to visit relative of the doctor – same one from first scene? Tells doc’s wife “a ladies little secret” while boy is alone looking in mirror. Red-haired girl might be Alyosha. They both feel sick. A chicken is killed.

14. b/w, a woman levitates

15. color, shaved-head kid talking to mom at farm, but mom is the old woman from reflections in #4.

16. color, doctor looking at sick guy, we see his hand holding a little bird

17. color, young woman lays on some guy in field, while two kids walk with older woman.

RW Knight for Reverse Shot:

Each event-that is, each cut, each encounter, each memory flashed back or forward-in the film’s networked composite is skewed by the film’s narrator. This narrator is the camera, and the film. His face is never seen. We are denied an identifying reverse shot. We are simply presented with his point of view: the identification is our instantaneous assimilation. His disembodied voice, weathered and granular, presides over the whole body of the work. His body is the work: the film and the guiding frame of the film. Occasionally when reading poetry the voice-over registers differently than when heard talking to other characters from outside the frame, but it still sounds like the same man. In fact, there are two voices: the poet-narrator is voiced by Arseni Tarkovsky, the director’s father, while the strictly first-person-narrator/character is voiced by Innokenti Smoktunovsky, the “first international Russian film star” (according to imdb.com), one of many point of view refractions. As identities merge in the film (father becomes son while mother becomes (ex-) wife and the son becomes his father in youth) they overlap in reality as well: the real father becomes the film star, and vice versa, incorporating their identities in the film, and its maker.

TCM summarizes:

The Mirror forgoes a conventional narrative structure, instead weaving together loosely autobiographical reminiscences, dreams and newsreel footage to suggest how the past is reflected in the present, both on a personal and on a larger historical level. … As a further personal touch, his real-life mother Maria appears as the mother in old age, his wife Larissa appears as the doctor’s wife to whom the mother sells an earring, and his stepdaughter appears as the red-headed girl with whom the narrator falls in love as a young boy.

Some good wind, and fire. Slow motion. Objects move by themselves, sometimes mysteriously just before an edit. This is the closest Tarkovsky came to making The Shining.

Begun in 1968 then interrupted to make Solaris. Appears in the Sight & Sound directors poll top-ten (and critics poll top-twenty). Probably not my favorite Tarkovsky movie, but neither would I mind watching it again right this minute.

Target (2011, Alexander Zeldovich)

“There’s nothing in the world that can’t be quantified.”

Hyped as a mindblowing modern Russian sci-fi story, but I found it overall disappointing – sleek and mildly weird, but not terribly interesting.

Boring mega-rich Viktor and youth-obsessed wife Zoya (Justine Waddell, lead nurse in The Fall) team up with her brother, totally awful TV announcer Mitya (or Dmitri?), and a jockey for some reason, flying to a tiny town around an abandoned science experiment in the middle of nowhere, where Dmitri falls for fellow tourist Anna. The five spend the night inside a giant cosmic-ray accumulator, and supposedly now they will never age.

“In nature there are no ethically neutral substances.” Viktor is obsessed with these blue-glowy glasses that can detect the amount of good and evil in anything. His wife Zoya runs off and has an affair with the jockey, who has killed some guys at work and needs to escape. Dmitri/Mitya starts making an on-air mockery of his job. A girl named Taya has come back with them from the Target, is going to meet her boyfriend in front of the ballet. Their affair had become too intense so they agreed to separate for 30 years. Same thing is happening to Dmitri and Anna, so they make the same agreement.

Dmitri and Anna:

Zoya and youth-mask:

At the end, Viktor is killed, then Zoya commits suicide as the jockey leaves town in hiding. It’s a pretty tightly paced movie for being three hours long, but the eternal youth aspect, the good/evil thing and the relationship weirdness never come together, so I didn’t see its point. I don’t mean to be obvious and compare every Russian movie to Tarkovsky, but you’ve got a movie about a few travelers who visit a mysterious, underpopulated area and are exposed to radiation that changes their physiology and behavior, which sounds like Stalker meets Solaris – just much less subtle and mysterious.

If I Had Four Dromedaries (1966, Chris Marker)

Part 1: The Castle

“The photo is the hunt. It’s the instinct of hunting without the desire to kill. It’s the hunt of angels… you track, you aim, you fire and–clic! Instead of a dead man, you make him eternal.”

A slideshow of photographs with a voiceover discussion about the nature of photographs, flipping rapidly all over the globe. Familiar sights: streets of Cuba, “commuter trains full of sleeping Japanese,” an owl in a flight museum, that shot I love of the Russian woman holding a turtle. Many references to things I don’t follow, but because of the great photos and the 50-minute length, this would make a great Intro to Marker – especially if there was better-quality video available.

They fawn over Russia for a while, moving to to lonely monasteries in Greece, then the first day of Algerian independence (below).

“One instant of happiness paid for with seven years of war and one million deaths. And the following day, the Castle was still there. And the poor are still there, day after day. And day after day, we continue to betray them.”

Part 2: The Garden

A montage of animal shots, then a tour of a Korea, and on to Scandinavia.

Different kinds of music, including bits of the electronic effects and percussion that would become more prominent in his later films.

“One needs to look closely at this Scandinavian man. He has everything, truly everything that nine tenths of humanity doesn’t dare to imagine in their wildest dreams. It’s for his standard of living that the Black, the Arab, the Greek, the Siberian and even the Cuban militiamen are striving. He has everything the revolutions promised. And when one shows him some Brecht – free moreover – in the Stockholm gardens, he doesn’t really get the message.”

How do you say elephant in Russian? Slon.

Then a tour of tombs and discussion of death. “I met a man who lived his own death” sounds like an alternate intro to La Jetee.

A yugoslavian hog considers the day to come:

After a wordless musical section, all fades out, but returns for a strange coda, a montage of torn posters with the sound of a screaming monkey, then final voiceover, which seems lovely when it accompanies the images, but didn’t make sense when I tried to transcribe here.

Deserter (1933, Vsevolod Pudovkin)

Another Russian movie full of visual and sound innovation that wears out its welcome after an hour and forty-five minutes of tedious state propaganda. I’m lost from the beginning – when the workers strike, are we on their side? We must be – in a Russian movie we are always on the workers’ side. But then wise Zelle with his hitler mustache tells us that a strike is unwise. A newsgirl is scolded by a policeman. Police vs. striker battle. Months pass. A boat is named “the five-year plan”. Someone is killed by a car chauffeuring a bored rich gentleman. Another guy jumps into the river (in gorgeous slow-mo) after reading a headline about mechanizations that can replace ten workers with a single machine operator. Negotiations continue. Finally the strikers are machine-gunned down, then strike-breakers march in while the soundtrack still plays the moans of the dying. Meanwhile, striker Karl Renn stays home because he’s tired of the whole thing. The survivors, I suppose, hold a meeting and decide to send four reps to the Soviet Union aboard “their” ship. I wasn’t aware that shipyard workers owned the ships they built, nor did I realize until halfway through the movie that it’s set in Germany! Whoops.

They send the four least useful workers, including shirker Karl Renn, to Russia for inspiration or something. After a massive welcoming parade, Karl joins a factory for some months, and sees it pull together with shock workers to complete an important project. Much, much, much typical proletariat talk precedes and follows, culminating in an endless speech by Renn made more endless by a german-russian translator. I did learn that the enemy of the German workers is the “social democrats” – should’ve realized that. Back in Germany, Zelle is dead and Renn joins the struggle. Movie ends with a wordless montage of cops beating the shit out of protestors.

It’s a part-talkie with total silence during some scenes. There are cool sound moments in others. The newsgirl’s voice keeps cutting off the music, which immediately restarts after, cut into shreds. Extremely rapid-fire cutting at times, too fast for my computer to keep from fragmenting the DVD image, with almost subliminal shots of explosions during the machine-guns-vs.-strikers scene. More explosions are superimposed over quick-cut exciting scenes – Pudovkin was a proto-Michael Bay.

Renn: “Long live communist party!”

From one of the writers of Potemkin. The newsgirl was Tamara Makarova, a film actress through the 80′s, and Karl Renn was in October. In Germany we see a movie theater playing Madchen In Uniform.

The NY Times’ 1934 review begins: “While the crushing of the labor movement in Germany during the two years devoted by V.I. Pudovkin to the production of his first dialogue motion picture has robbed it of much of its timeliness, the main theme of Deserter remains unaffected by the triumph of Hitlerism.”

Buy from Amazon:
The End of Saint Petersburg & Deserter

The Asthenic Syndrome (1989, Kira Muratova)

After a funeral, Natasha is angry with everyone alive, quits her job and pisses off people in the street. After forty minutes of this, the movie-in-a-movie ends and Olga, its lead actress, comes on stage to complete audience indifference. “I’m already sad and tired from work. I’d like to have fun, listen to some music instead of watching such movies.”

Destructive tendencies in the film-in-a-film:

Narcoleptic Nikolai is in the audience. He’s a schoolteacher along with round, blonde Irina. To be truthful, that’s about all I can be sure of. Plenty else happens in the movie, but I’m not sure to whom, and for what reason. It’s kind of a comedy, but seems to be serious underneath. The title seems appropriate (asthenia: abnormal physical weakness or lack of energy). You could also have called it Everybody Is Unbearable. Very talky, with wall-to-wall chatter in half the scenes, languid in others.

Nikolai:

Irina attempts “strangers in the night”:

Won a prize at Berlin. The distributor calls it an “impressionistic portrait of the USSR reaching the end of its tether.” Senses calls it a “demented masterpiece,” and goes on to note: “it is interesting to note that while the rest of the world celebrated the fall of communism, the reaction of the people actually living under Soviet rule wasn’t as simple; people felt very confused, and their overall behaviour was – and still is – reminiscent of the asthenic syndrome of the film, alternatively violent and repressed. Even though Asthenic Syndrome was made during the period of glasnost, Muratova once again managed to alienate the authorities. It had the dubious honour of being the only film banned during that period.”

J. Rosenbaum:

It’s a film that alternately assaults you and nods off — usually without warning and often when you’re least expecting it. Mean-spirited and assertive one moment, narcoleptic and in complete denial the next, it bears an astonishing resemblance to the disconcerting rhythm of contemporary public life.

D. Auerbach:

If you don’t know that perestroika is seen as the source of millions of deaths stemming from deregulation, corruption, and crime, the melancholy and despair that fill The Asthentic Syndrome seem disconnected from a particular cause: what is Muratova critiquing, exactly? . . . Knowing the context reveals the emotion behind the puzzling surface.

Enthusiasm (1931, Dziga Vertov)

A “symphony of the Donbass” (region of eastern Ukraine known for coal mining) which aims to celebrate sound recording in film, but still has almost no noticeably-synched sound. I assumed this would be a part-talkie follow-up to Man with the Movie Camera, and it has moments of MwtMC-style montage, but mostly it’s dreary and impersonal (compared to Earth, which I just watched, anyway) propaganda for “shock workers,” which are workers who aim to overachieve their quotas in exchange for glory and prizes.

Before it gets bogged with with shock workers, the first half of the film, cutting between a woman listening to headphones and the reorganization of Russia (churches are torn down, replaced by angular Stalin statues) during the “five-year plan”, is exciting.

Grunes:

Amidst a cacophony of toot-tooting, static, chug-chugging and ding-a-linging, we are told this: “The country needs coal.” Vertov, in a highly fragmented fashion, aims at an integrative view of the interdependency of elements of Soviet productivity. Coal-mining provides energy; factories, combining machine- and human labor, provide steel and manufactured farm equipment; the latter, fueled by coal and operated by farmers, thresh a harvest of wheat. The railroad is shown as connective tissue, transporting mined coal to the factories and, from the factories, whatever is needed in rural areas. Railroad tracks are the new order’s bloodstream. Captions and narration assist in portraying workers at whatever point in this joint process as aggressive warriors and heroic figures.

A tidbit from J. Jacques: “Vertov himself placed massive emphasis upon Enthusiasm’s sound. Western screenings were notorious for Vertov’s insistence on raising the soundtrack to intolerable levels, having blocked the exits to prevent escape.”

from Senses:

After returning from glory abroad with his Man with a Movie Camera, Vertov undertook a suicidal double challenge – to make a political film that would both show (with image and montage) and song (with sound taken from nature and machine) the heroic, dramatic struggles of the state to industrialize at any cost – while pioneering the use of untested sound recording in the field. The finished film, Enthusiasm, was received with derision and incomprehension.

CJ Chamberlin, author of the above, has an outstandingly long, detailed and thoughtful article which would take as long to read as the movie did to watch, so I skimmed and grabbed a few parts.

Vertov was both a genius and a willing creature and subject of a totalitarian ideology. Whatever he was, Vertov never was that ambivalent about the price to be paid in blood and skulls for world socialism. And the Ukraine bore more than its fair share of the price: factory slave labour, brutal collectivisation and the terror famine. By any rational standard, his Donbass Symphony (the alternate title of Enthusiasm) should be an infamous film. If I were Ukrainian, I would burn the negative and sprinkle the ashes with holy water.

Earth (1930, Alexander Dovzhenko)

“Are you dying, Semion?”
“Yes, I’m dying, Petro.”
“Well, die then.”

From the very beginning – alternate shots of farmland, each time taking up more of the camera’s field of vision, the horizon getting higher until the earth covers the whole frame – which follows to this exchange by two old men, I was captured by the movie. But, reading the below description, I realize I wasn’t following its story closely enough. As usual with these revolutionary Russian silent films, knowledge of the history is important, and I come bearing none at all.

M. Sicinski:

This final scene takes place just as the funeral of Vasyl, the slain Bolshevik, evolves into a fervent demonstration extolling the Communism for which young Vasyl died. Even Vasyl’s father, who had up to this point been skeptical about Communism’s plan to collectivize the farmlands, joins the struggle. But the kulaks, the landowning peasant class from whom the farms are being expropriated, are going down swinging. Khoma Bilokon (Pyotr Masokha), the eldest son of the area’s dominant kulak family, has already committed murder, having shot Vasyl in the back. Khoma confesses, but Earth is not a crime procedural, and Dovzhenko’s final scene is both politically sharp and poetically evocative.
Using an odd form of cross-cutting that makes Khoma’s spatial relationship to the funeral extremely ambiguous, Dovzhenko moves us between the guilty individual and the burgeoning collective, the past and the future. Khoma shouts out to the mourners that he shot Vasyl, in the back, under cover of night. The crowd completely ignores him. Hysterical, Khoma exclaims that the land belongs to him, and he even goes so far as to plant his head in the dirt and run in circles. However, both within the diegetic world of the film and within Dovzhenko’s cinematic syntax, Khoma and the kulak class are marginal, almost nonexistent. Although this image is compromised by the truth that Dovzhenko cannot depict – that of Stalin’s mass extermination of the kulaks – its representation of what it feels like when history passes you by remains unequalled.

Introducing the kulaks with my favorite edit in the film:

So it didnt bother me while watching that I don’t know what a kulak is. I got that Vasyl (Vasili in the subtitles) is excited about technology, that he plows an entire field (which did not belong to him) with the town’s brand-new tractor and is killed for it. The black-bearded man from that early scene in which Semion was dying is apparently Vasyl’s father Opanas, goes asking the townspeople who killed his son and comes across a priest.

Uncle Opanas gets intense:

“There is no god. And there are no priests either.” (the priest lowers his head) “Just like Vasili died for the new life, I’m asking you to bury him according to the new ways, neither priests nor church servants beyond the grave.” It’s an intense thing to say before a priest, and in a movie that opens with discussion of the afterlife between the elders. Vasyl’s sister or wife or somebody goes naked and crazy as he’s buried near the sunflowers, and one of V’s comrades gives a comforting speech to Uncle Opanas and everybody, as the kulak Khoma dances in the graveyard trying in vain to attract attention to himself.

Buy from Amazon:
Three Soviet Classics

The Scarlet Empress (1934, Josef von Sternberg)

Based on the diaries of Catherine The Great of Russia, the story felt like it spanned maybe a year or two, but wikipedia says it was sixteen years between her marriage and the coup she arranged to replace her husband on the throne.

Marlene Dietrich plays Sophia (Catherine is her Russian title), at first a naive girl from the country married to a not-handsome prince (Sam Jaffe of The Day the Earth Stood Still), instead entranced by a count (John Lodge of Murders in the Zoo, future governor of Connecticut).

Marlene and the count:

Catherine is under great scrutiny until she bears her “husband” a son (he’s only momentarily bothered by the fact that they never slept together), then she’s free to run around having affairs and plotting. Nothing is done while queen Elizabeth is in charge, but once Catherine’s husband becomes emperor he doesn’t last a year before his wife has taken over. Catherine has caught the Count fooling around with the former queen, realizes he’s just sleeping around with whoever’s in power, and throws him over.

The Queen:

Katy and I would’ve liked to see more than a minute of screen time with Dietrich as the actual empress – didn’t know that would be where the movie dead-ends. Sternberg is, of course, much more concerned with his camera angles and lighting, and most importantly, shooting Dietrich through a series of filters and gauzes and screens. The wedding scene is an incredible cinematography show-reel, each shot outdoing the last.

Robin Wood:

The connecting theme of all the von Sternberg/Dietrich films might be expressed as a question: How does a woman, and at what cost, assert herself within an overwhelmingly male-dominated world? Each film offers a somewhat different answer (but none very encouraging), steadily evolving into the extreme pessimism and bitterness of The Scarlet Empress and achieving its apotheosis in their final collaboration The Devil Is a Woman.

R. Keser calls it the last great pre-code film, says it “mocks Hollywood’s conventional groveling toward royalty.”

Buy from Amazon:
The Scarlet Empress (Criterion DVD)