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REVIEW – Dark Habits (1983)

September 25, 2016
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A few weeks ago, I was offered a chance to take a look at a newly-released box set of remastered films by Pedro Almodovar and despite having nothing much else to write about at the moment, I hesitated.

I think that my hesitation was born of a historic inability to parse Almodovar’s sense of humour. Indeed, despite enjoying many films whose themes and images are reminiscent of Almodovar’s work, I have always struggled with his tendency to make light of his own subject matter. In hindsight, I wonder whether this blockage might not have been due to the fact that when straight guys make light of melodramatic women and camp gay men, the mockery comes from a very different place to when the laughs are created by members of those groups. As a result, I would see the transgressive jokes about sex and death, be reminded of the 1990s and feel that the entire scene was rather tired and unpleasant. The thrills of transgressive imagery can only last so long. For an example of this jaded world-weariness that is actually a form of emotional constriction, look no further than this review I wrote all the way back in 2007. I’d like to say that I outgrew this lack of sensitivity but this review from 2013 suggests a similar (albeit less blinkered) frustration with Almodovar’s sense of humour.

Despite my hesitation, I agreed to review The Almodovar Collection and I am so glad I did as I now realise that Almodovar is so much more than transgressive images and a succession of dick jokes. My Road to Damascus moment came about half-way through watching Almodovar’s third film Dark Habits. I reviewed it for FilmJuice over here.

 

One of interesting things about Almodóvar’s career is that while most of his films deal with sexuality in quite a comic fashion, his work rarely comes across as either exploitative or patronising. This not only makes him singularly brilliant at handling female characters, it also allows him to steer his films in some quite unexpected directions. For example, despite revolving around a group of nuns who struggle with unusual desires and unfortunate histories, Dark Habits systematically locates the characters’ humanity and treats them all with the utmost respect. This desire to handle matters of the flesh with the same kind of high-minded seriousness that is usually afforded ‘respectable’ spiritual crises serves to both date and electrify the film as Dark Habits now feels a lot like an attempt to understand the kind of abuses and moral compromises that led to the clerical abuse scandal. How else are we to view a film in which religious figures use their positions to seduce and silence the vulnerable? How else are we to view a film that presents giving in to your hidden desires as a moment of spiritual triumph? Never anything less that morally and spiritually serious, Almodóvar extends understanding but not forgiveness.

 

I reviewed all six films included in the superb Almodovar Collection box set and I’ll link to a different review every day this week.

REVIEW – Nostalgia (1983)

September 21, 2016
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My Tarkovskyian odyssey continues… FilmJuice have my review of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia, the film he made in Italy prior to his self-imposed exile from the Soviet Union.

Nostalgia is a film that rather took me by surprise. Much less well known than the science fiction films Solaris and Stalker, and less-widely discussed than the historical epics Ivan’s Childhood and Andrei Rublev, the film can be viewed as an attempt to isolate and explore the same devout ambivalence towards the search for spiritual truth that exists in all of Tarkovsky’s films but without the genre scaffolding that accompanies his better-known works.

As with Mirror, Tarkovsky responds to the lack of genre boundaries by exploring experimental narrative structures: In Mirror, he used a non-linear structure inspired by the idea of images flashing before the eyes of a dying man. In Nostalgia, he uses a structure known as a mis-en-abime in which different layers of reality run together:

 

Nostalgia is a film that is fuelled by Tarkovsky’s unhappiness at the realisation that he would most likely never be able to return home to the Soviet Union. Tarkovsky explores these feelings through a complex narrative structure known as a mis-en-abime. The structure begins with the figure of Gorchakov, a respected Russian poet who visits Italy in preparation for writing the biography of a composer who left Russia a serf and returned a celebrated artist only to wind up ending his own life in a fit of despair. The fact that Gorchakov’s situation resembles that of Tarkovsky is evident from the details of the two men’s lives, from the fact that Gorchakov’s first name is Andrei, and from the fact that the film is littered with references to Tarkovsky’s real-world films and writings. The second level of the structure revolves around the subject of Gorchakov’s book, a man who left Russia a slave only to find success and later return home before killing himself in a fit of despair. The life of the composer thus serves as a warning to both Gorchakov and Tarkovsky. While Tarkovsky blurs the boundaries between himself and his protagonist, he also blurs the boundaries between his protagonist and the composer in a series of dreams that could just as easily feature the family of the poet as the family of the composer. The term mis-en-abime comes from the French and refers to the practice of painting blocked up windows to look like real windows through which one could see the world. Thus, the world is literally placed in an abyss, a truth refracted back up to the surface through layers of text and metaphor all pointing straight to the anguish that Tarkovsky was feeling about his looming exile.

What surprised me about Nostalgia was the fact that I think I now prefer it to Stalker.

Thematically, the two films are very similar in that they are both heavily symbolic works that deal with man’s search for meaning and conclude on images of profound spiritual ambiguity. They are also quite similar visually in so far as they both feature long takes comprising beautifully composed shots of architectural decline that mirror the protagonist’s mental state. What surprised me about Nostalgia was the way that it seemed to do pretty much everything Stalker tried to do but does so in a far more focused and purified manner, almost as though someone had taken Stalker and boiled it in a enormous cauldron until all that was left was a thick black paste of existential alienation. Where Stalker provokes, Nostalgia demands. Where Stalker eludes, Nostalgia disappears.

I did not expect Tarkovsky to make a better film than Stalker and yet Nostalgia is precisely that.

Another reason Nostalgia surprised me was that I have only just seen it for the first time and have encountered it at a time when my relationship with science fiction is in something of a state of flux.

Much of the coverage of contemporary science fiction revolves around the battle between people who want the genre to become more diverse in its representation and people who want to genre to remain wedded to the same old characters and story-patterns. Despite being both instinctively sympathetic to calls for more diversity and instinctively unsympathetic to the suggestion that science fiction should focus upon pandering to the deplorable tastes of right-wing Americans, I am struggling to find anything of interest in the output of genre imprints.

The problem is that the big genre imprints appear to be cutting back on the kind of experimental or difficult books that I have grown accustomed to reading. As margins are squeezed and companies become more risk-averse, the rational choice is to focus on the more profitable market sectors and my choice of novels has always been something of a minority interest. Given that I do not enjoy reading commercial genre fiction, the question of who is represented in those kinds of works can never be anything more than an irrelevant abstraction, at least as far as my choice of reading matter is concerned. It’s almost as though there were a debate raging about the diversity of professional rugby league teams: Instinctively, I am naturally inclined to defend the people calling for more diversity but even a suite of perfectly diverse and representative rugby league teams would fail to get me to go and watch a game of rugby. This is why my Future Interrupted column has tended to look at works that are published on the margins of the genre.

This alienation from the field has also had the knock-on effect of prompting me to consider the purpose of genre storytelling. The conventional defence of science fiction is that it allows writers to explore ideas and areas that are difficult to approach from a mainstream perspective. Works like Nostalgia suggest that this is completely and utterly false: Nostalgia does everything Stalker and Solaris try to do and yet does so without a single genre trope.

So, given that films like Nostalgia do science fiction better than science fiction and much of the interesting works of literary science fiction are being published by non-genre imprints, is it time for me to abandon science fiction to the people who want nothing more than character-based escapism?

Future Interrupted – The Hospitality of Bafflement

September 14, 2016
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Interzone #266 is now a thing in the world. I urge anyone and everyone to head on over to the TTA Press website, Smashwords or any other purveyor of quality eBooks with a search function and an ounce of sense.

 

This month’s non-fiction begins with an editorial by Stephen Theaker who compares his experiences organising the British Fantasy Awards to the administrative difficulties involved in striking a balance between the need for good, fair, and systematic institutional governance and the need to prevent an organisation like the Hugo Awards from surrendering their identity to a group of easily-manipulated alt-right interlopers. While I no longer pay that much attention to the Hugo Awards, it is interesting to look back over the last couple of years and compare the actions of the World Science Fiction Society with the recent actions of the Labour party. I think the big difference is that while the Labour party have responded to a massive increase in membership by seeking and any all reasons to exclude and disenfranchise their new members, the World Science Fiction Society have used their position to blunt the Puppies’ teeth and funnel them into a form of engagement that is more respectful towards existing power structures and affinity groups. Of course, you might very well ask why any institution should be encouraging fascists to engage, particularly at a time when genre culture is supposed to be addressing its questionable political history but that’s really none of my business.

Elsewhere, Nina Allan‘s column takes in the British folk scene while David Langford announces (somewhat alarmingly) that he has managed to copyright the term “ansible”. Nick Lowe‘s film column finds him being uncharacteristically charitable towards Justin Lin’s shameful Star Trek Beyond and Tony Lee is rather puzzled by Tarkovsky’s Stalker. So much wrongness… so much.

This month’s Book Zone is its usual cavalcade of riches with reviews by Maureen Kincaid Speller, Ian Hunter, Jack Deighton, Elaine Gallagher, Stephen Theaker, Andy Hedgecock, and Wendy Bradley.

 

This issue’s fiction includes:

  • Tade Thompson’s “The Apologists”
  • Georgina Bruce’s “Extraterrestrial Folk Metal Fusion”
  • Ray Cluley’s “Sideways”
  • Aliya Whiteley’s “Three Love Letters From an Unrepeatable Garden”
  • Malcolm Devlin’s “The End of Hope Street”

 

There is also my Future Interrupted column considering the merits of Emma Geen’s debut novel The Many Selves of Katherine North, which I vigorously recommend to anyone interested in the kind of great science fictional narratives that are currently coming out from mainstream publishers.However, you will have to wait a few months for that review to be republished.

This month’s reprint dates from the beginning of the year when I found myself moved by this piece by Nathalie Luhrs about the Locus Recommended Reading List. The interesting thing about this piece is that rather than limiting itself to the usual hand-wringing about the field’s lack of representation, the piece actually considers how much of this problem is due to factors more fine-grained than simple prejudice. Indeed, the section that really caught my attention features a load of graphs proving that your chances of featuring on the recommended reading list improve vastly once you’ve been included at least once. In other words, while the field does have a representation problem, this problem is at least partly down to the fact that people tend to read and nominate the work of people who are already familiar to them. Historically, this problem would have been addressed by critics going out of their way to find new books by new writers but the progressive marginalisation of critical voices means that new authors wind up entirely at the mercy of their marketing departments. As a result, I decided to spend a year writing exclusively about recent (-ish) first novels with a preference for work published outside of the genre mainstream. I began the series by writing about the Australian author Lisa L. Hannett’s debut novel Lament for the Afterlife, a book I found both impressive and baffling.

 

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Lisa L. Hannett’s long-form debut Lament for the Afterlife recalls Nina Allan’s The Race in so far as it is neither a conventional novel nor a conventional short story collection: Unlike a short story collection, the individual sections make a lot less sense when removed from the context provided by the rest of the book. Unlike a novel, there is no unifying plot and the sense of continuity provided by character and setting is tenuous to say the least.

The links between the book’s chapters feel unstable because Lament for the Afterlife contains almost no conventional exposition. Rather than telling us about people, places, and events, Hannett invites us to construct these things from the detritus of subjective experience as provided in paragraphs like this:

 

Peyt’s legs twitch, left right left right, and he’s got a desperate urge to piss. He’s seen the kind of questioning Cap’s talking about. Back at camp, with some twelve-year old runner they accused of squealing. Peyt carried the kid’s body away on his stretcher. “I’m no Whitey. I can’t read this fucking guy’s mind. Never could.” Dake? Dake? Dake? Dake? Dake? Dake?

 

What is happening here is that Hannett has positioned her authorial camera so close to the characters’ streams of consciousness that their thoughts and feelings blot out the people and places that inspired them in the first place. Trapped within the event horizon of the characters’ emotional maelstrom, everything we learn about the world of the novel comes from its reflection in streams of consciousness and pages of barely-contextualised dialogue.

The book lacks the unifying effects of narrative and character because of the difficulty involved in extracting these things from the literary equivalent of raw sense data. We may know for a fact that someone is feeling scared or happy, but we can never be sure whether the people and events provoking these reactions are the same as in previous chapters. Certain names and terms may recur but Hannett not only works to destabilise the meanings of words, but also explores particular events from sometimes radically different perspectives. A few hundred pages of this and you cannot help but become aware of how much you take for granted every time you form an opinion. Reading Lament for the Afterlife may be an almost singularly difficult experience, but it is also immensely thought-provoking.

 

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By making us work for basic elements such as character and internal chronology, Hannett is encouraging us not only to think about the artificiality of conventional narratives but also the tenuous nature of our own identities. Do we experience a coherent self or a stream of emotions and thoughts, which are then stitched together into something that resembles a character from a novel? Lament for the Afterlife is part of a literary tradition that questions the intellectual underpinnings of the conventional novel except that Hannett’s book goes much further than conventional anti-novels.

Works like Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman and Alain Robbe-Grillet’s La Jalousie critique the conventional novel by stressing the fallibility of experience and the tenuousness of human identities. However, because the anti-novel is a reaction to traditional novels, it shares mainstream literary culture’s commitment to the real world. This means that while the anti-novel may chronicle streams of consciousness and feature loads of sentence fragments placed out of chronological order, the currents of subjectivity all flow towards the oceanic depths of a world that is both fixed and comprehensible. Lament for the Afterlife does not share this commitment to the idea of a world independent of experience.

Hannett’s book is set in a world that appears to have been devastated by centuries of total warfare pitting the human race against a people known only as the greys. Somewhere along the way, humanity appears to have acquired a mutation that causes its innermost thoughts to become physically manifest in a cloud around the owner’s head. Touching the manifested thoughts causes the thoughts themselves to be changed and so the boundary between interior psychology and external physicality is rendered virtually non-existent. Hannett further explores the blurring of thought and world by pointing out that, while people continue to fight and die, nobody has actually seen or spoken to a grey in living memory. In fact, Hannett even goes so far as to suggest that the greys might be little more than a figment of humanity’s over-active imagination. However, given that this is a world built with genre tools and contained within a book published by a genre imprint, we must question where fallible human perspectives end and unstable metaphysics begin. For example, it is all very well saying that the greys might be the product of human fears but this is a world in which thoughts are physically manifest meaning that the greys could both be real and a product of humanity’s constantly-evolving fears. As Nick Harkaway suggested in The Gone Away World, the boundary between truth and fiction tends not to stick around once you do away with the distinction between thought and reality.

 

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Lament for the Afterlife is a terrifyingly difficult book that takes no prisoners and makes no concessions to accessibility in the form of familiar genre tropes, gripping narratives, or strong characters with whom to empathise. This is high literary art as a towering rock face and the only finger-holds available to readers are those they are able to carve for themselves… and therein resides the problem with this sort of book.

Survey the history of experimental writing and you will find that deconstructive cleverness has always been linked with the belief that formal innovation would serve to open up emotional and intellectual vistas that had been blocked off by the formal conservatism of the modern novel: When Anne Garréta’s Sphinx recounts a love story without gender-specific pronouns, it is out of a desire to explore a romance shorn of all gender dynamics. When Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves moves between stilted academic writing and typographic collage, it is out of a desire to show the limited and fragmentary nature of human comprehension and how cognition can both move us closer to understanding, and divorce us from reality. While experimental fiction can actively mess with form, structure, style and typography, it needs to find a way of connecting with readers or it runs the risk of feeling like an academic exercise. For all its references to war, fear, loss, and forgetting, the intellectual core of Lament for the Afterlife is a feeling of profound bafflement.

 

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Reading this book is like being asked to solve a cryptic crossword puzzle using clues extracted from a plate of alphabet pasta: It’s brilliantly clever and nobody has ever done it before, but only people with very specific tastes are going to want to spend their time wading through a book that is even less comprehensible and forgiving than the world itself. Lament for the Afterlife reads like an intellectual exercise aimed at people who are already in the business of writing; Ambitious stylists will tear the book apart, extract all of its technical brilliance, and channel that cleverness into communicating ideas and emotions that are more compelling and hospitable than bafflement. For all its intellectual power, this is a book that feels destined to provoke passionate debates in hundreds of seminars and shrugs of bemusement everywhere else… and that’s actually kind of okay.

One of the things that experimental work can do is force audiences into fresh relationships with an artistic form. Just as the impressionist painters made us realise that humans see reflected light rather than objects and early literary modernists reminded us that we glimpse the world through a thicket of subjective impressions, writers like Hannett draw our attention to the fact that we still expect our novels to feature characters, coherent worlds and profound meanings that surrender themselves to our interpretative skills. What are demands for profundity if not an echo of the much-derided requests for likeable characters? Where are the strong themes to which we can relate?!

Not everyone reads for the same reason and not everyone relates to books in the same way. Lisa L. Hannett’s debut work of mosaic fiction is a book for people who want to be aware of the broken bones that lie beneath the skin of narrative.

Andrei Rublev (1966) – Some We Call Nothing at All

September 7, 2016
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Towards the end of his life, Andrei Tarkovsky decided to set down some of his ideas not only about film in general but also about his own artistic process. The resulting book – Sculpting in Time – is extraordinary in so far as it manages to be both lightly conversational and intensely theoretical without every seeming to break stride or shift emphasis. While the book covers a lot of ground, it is forever returning to these sweeping metaphysical proclamations about the nature of art and the quasi-spiritual role of the artist as a figure in 20th Century culture. As befits an artistic genius like Tarkovsky, most of his proclamations are in direct opposition to each other and yet themes and methods do emerge from the chaos.

One of the book’s recurring motifs is the idea of the artist as destroyer who does not so much create new meanings as remove extraneous in an effort to reveal hidden patterns of truth and meaning:

 

What is the essence of the director’s work? We could define it as sculpting in time. Just as a sculptor takes a lump of marble, and, inwardly conscious of the features of his finished piece, removes everything that is not part of it — so the film-maker, from a ‘lump of time’ made up of an enormous, solid cluster of living facts, cuts off and discards whatever he does not need, leaving only what is to be an element of the finished film, what will prove to be integral to the cinematic image.

 

The eccentricity of this worldview is perhaps best expressed through one of Tarkovsky’s own thought experiments: Imagine making a film that captures every detail of a person’s life. Imagine filming every last second of their life and doing so with a mastery of style and technique so flawless that you convey not only the objective facts about your subject’s life but also the nuances of their inner turmoil. According to Tarkovsky the resulting document could be beautiful, thought provoking, and compelling to watch but it could never be a true work of art. For Tarkovsky, art was not about capturing and reflecting objective truth but about simplifying reality to the point where it becomes comprehensible to the human mind.

The question we need to ask when watching the films of Tarkovsky is whether the truths uncovered by the process of simplification are supposed to be anything more than the reflection of our own prejudices. Was Michelangelo’s David literally present in the marble before he picked up his tools or did he simply hack at a piece of stone until it started to resemble our pre-existing ideas about men with huge hands and tiny cocks? Like many Soviet filmmakers of his generation, Tarkovsky understood the psychological processes involved in making sense of cinematic imagery and he understood that a series of evocative images would encourage audiences to leap to their own conclusions as to the ultimate meaning of the film. These questions become even harder to answer when you realise that Tarkovsky not only acknowledged the death of the author but viewed his audiences as active and equal participants in his own artistic process thereby ensuring that the truths we uncover in the films of Andrei Tarkovsky are always at least partially our own.

Given that the metaphysical and epistemological issues surrounding Man’s Search for Meaning are obviously present in mature works like Stalker or Mirror and obviously absent from his debut film Ivan’s Childhood, Tarkovsky’s second film Andrei Rublev can be viewed as an important transitional work in so far as it spends nearly three documenting the life of its subject without ever managing to secure a definitive meaning beyond those generated by the speculation of the audience.

 

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Thought Projectors 3

August 30, 2016

It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these but a very short notice reviewing gig deprived me of the couple of days in which I had planned to write something a bit more substantial. I have also come to the end of my slate of reviews for external publication meaning that, like the ocean in Tarkovsky’s Solaris, I languish in the doldrums of structureless being and wait for the arrival of new projects and inspirations.

Speaking of projects, I am currently in the process of taking another look at my semi-mythical history of the New Weird.  I started it a couple of years ago and stopped when I quit Twitter back in 2015. Since then, the project has expanded to about 35,000 words and contracted back down to about 10,000 words before stabilising somewhere in between. One of the interesting things about the New Weird project is the way it has interfaced with the rest of my thinking about science fiction, fantasy and the construction of cultural history. Some of the ideas have since gone into Interzone columns but the process of writing those columns has itself had an impact on the project as I’ve returned to the original text and revised it based upon the changes in my mood and thinking. For a while, I was happy to sit on the project indefinitely as a) I didn’t want to open my mouth about science fiction in public without the kind of 6 month bumper provided by the Future Interrupted time-delay, and b) I was happy having that large project sit at the back of my head like a creative sub-conscious. I guess the question is whether I want that sub-conscious to remain sub-conscious or whether I want to bring it out into the open, making the entire thing conscious, and move on to develop something else. Dunno. Will see.

Anyway… on with the things that have been occupying my mind of late. Warning, some of these videos are quite long but all of them are awesome.

 

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REVIEW – Stalker (1979)

August 23, 2016
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Frequent visitors to this site will know that I value Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker above all other films. The reasons for this are really two-fold:

Firstly, I think that Tarkovsky’s films set the bar for a cinematic golden age known as the European art house movement. Tarkovsky was one of the first Soviet filmmakers to reach maturity having seen early works of European art house film and I think his films took those methods, combined them with approaches developed by Soviet filmmakers, and produced a series of works that have — in retrospect — come to define that particular sensibility. Stalker is special as it is not only devastatingly beautiful and enormously rich, it is also one of those rare films where everything seems to work both individually and collectively.

Secondly, Stalker is one of my critical compass points. It is not just that I tend to judge other films in terms of how well or poorly they compare to Stalker, it’s that my critical methods have been (consciously or unconsciously) been shaped by how well adapted they are to the task of writing about films like Stalker. Our culture teach us how to respond to the culture we consume and I have definitely found myself drifting closer and closer towards the task of writing about these kinds of beautiful but complex films.

I have actually written about the film before a couple of times before but I think I am most satisfied with this latest nihilistic take. FilmJuice have my review of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, which has just been re-released on Blu-ray:

Tarkovsky may have been a genius but he was also the product of a very specific cultural moment. His films are littered with religious symbolism and articulate a profound yearning after spiritual truth but his stories inevitably seem to deposit their characters in states of complete existential crisis. The tension between the content of Tarkovsky’s stories and the style in which he chose to tell them speaks not only to the absence of religion in Soviet lives but also to the brutal materialism implied by Soviet Montage Theory. Indeed, if people can extract meaning from the juxtaposition of two completely unrelated images, how can we imbue this meaning with any form of value? If ‘meaning’ is just a product of the way human brains process information, what are we to make of our desire to find meaning in the chaos of our lives.

Tarkovsky’s Stalker is about man’s search for meaning and how all searches for meaning are doomed to failure. The world is a beautiful place, filled with bliss and horror but the meaning we place on these experiences are ours and ours alone.

Ivan’s Childhood (1962) – Adolescent Dreamscapes

August 18, 2016
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Andrei Tarkovsky’s first film began life as a respectful adaptation of an autobiographical story about a child’s experiences working as a military scout during World War II. The story had already been translated into over twenty languages as well as critically acclaimed both at home and abroad but the studio’s first choice to direct the film had somehow managed to bungle the project resulting in nothing but thousands of feet of wasted film and a sizeable number of debts. After firing the director, the studio reached out to his classmate and offered him the project on the understanding that we would need to deliver a completed film as quickly and as cheaply as possible on the grounds that another man had already burned through the reserves of patience and good will that were usually accorded to novice filmmakers.

As with a number of Tarkovsky’s films, the production of Ivan’s Childhood resonates with many of the same issues as the film itself. For example, just as Tarkovsky had been denied a professional adolescence by the mistakes of his classmate, the film’s protagonist finds himself plucked from childhood and forced into premature adulthood where the world offers no protection from the consequences of his actions. Equally spooky is the way that the protagonist of Ivan’s Childhood is forced to run across minefields for the sake of those who follow just as Tarkovsky was forced to fight for the idea that directors should pursue their own artistic visions rather than contenting themselves with adapting the visions of others.

Setting aside the somewhat uncanny details of the production process, Ivan’s Childhood remains an impressive piece of filmmaking. Beautifully acted, astonishing to look at, and thematically rich, the film explores the interlocking boundaries between childhood and adulthood, dreams and reality, as well as between conscious and unconscious thought.

 

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