REVIEW – Nostalgia (1983)

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?

REVIEW – Stalker (1979)

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.

REVIEW — Solaris (1972)

The fashion these days is to treat creative collaboration in the way that medieval dynasties treated royal marriage: Take one thing you like, add another thing you like, and what you are supposed to get is something doubly-awesome. However, the truth is that some creative marriages result in nothing more than the artistic equivalent of Prince Charles: Grotesquely ugly and malformed creatures that have nothing to offer but the weight of their genetic pedigrees.

Though by no means as hideous as Charles Windsor, I have never been entirely convinced by Andrei Tarkovsky’s adaptation of a novel by the great Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem. FilmJuice have my review of Solaris, which was released this week on Blu-ray.

Historically, my problem with the film has always been that while Tarkovsky seemed quite happy to strip out the novel’s engagement with the idea that it might be impossible to achieve meaningful communication with alien species, he struggled to find anything to replace it beyond some rather hand-wavy comments about guilt, memory and the power of obsession. This viewing of the film allowed me to move beyond that assessment and appreciate a lot of the things the film does right (it’s quite a lengthy review) but I think Solaris’ relative lack of success actually tells us quite a bit about Tarkovsky’s methods and what type of material works best with those methods:

Tarkovsky himself described the film as an artistic failure because it failed to escape the limits of genre in the same way as Tarkovsky’s later Stalker developed beyond the limits of Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic. While Stalker remains a beautiful and thoughtful work of science fiction, it is hard to disagree with Tarkovsky’s assessment.

The problem is that though Tarkovsky was undoubtedly a cinematic genius, his genius lay not in directly approaching specific ideas but in orbiting those ideas and inviting audiences to draw their own conclusions through the careful placement of imagery and references. On a purely practical level, ideas that audiences winkle out for themselves tend to have a lot more impact than ideas that are dumped in their laps. On a more theoretical level, requiring audiences to do some work for themselves means that every vision of Tarkovsky’s films is different and exquisitely personal to the person who first beheld it.

Despite being the only Tarkovsky film to win a Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, Solaris feels like a minor Tarkovsky as the juxtaposition of ideas and images is forced to play second fiddle to the kind of dialogue-based exposition that is common in both written and filmed science fiction. The Tarkovsky films we create in our own heads will always be more satisfying than the Tarkovsky films that exist on the screen and Solaris is a less satisfying and engaging film because Tarkovsky gives his audience less space in which to construct their own interpretations.

 

 

 

 

REVIEW — Couple in a Hole (2015)

*taps mic* Is this thing still on? Good.

FilmJuice have my review of Tom Geens’ excellent Couple in a Hole, a Anglo-French drama that set amidst the mountains and forests of South-Western France. While my critical career has not exactly been on the ascendant in recent years, I have really enjoyed the opportunity to write about films that hype forgot. In fairness, many of these films have been mediocre but every now and then, a film comes along that reminds me of why I love the medium of film and the dysfunctional artistic traditions that have grown up around it. Couple in a Hole is one of those films.

As political and economic crises make it harder and harder for young people to pursue their dreams, Western civilisation grows ever more obsessed with its own inevitable demise. Most manifest in young adult blockbusters like the Hunger Games and Divergent series, our apocalyptic fascination keeps drawing us back to stories in which the science and politics of catastrophe have been replaced with levels of emotional abstraction that speak to a yearning for absolute psychological simplicity. We don’t care whether the bombs rain down or the zombies rise up, we just want immerse ourselves in worlds where the stultifying complexity of late capitalism have been replaced with spaces where people can breathe and be themselves.

Just as TV’s The Walking Dead has spent the best part of a decade exploring the rise and fall of simple human societies and Mad Max: Fury Road imagined a radical break with patriarchal structures, films like 2015’s The Survivalist used the end of the world as an excuse to explore one man’s movement from solitude to community along with the interwoven bonds of love and trust required to make such a journey. These films are only about the end of the world in so far as they create fictional spaces where the nuances of capitalist emotional economics have been replaced with something that seems both more real and less realistic. Even outside of genre filmmaking, the end of the world has proved an enduring source of metaphorical imagery as in the case of Thomas Cailley’s brilliant debut Les Combattants where a couple need to immerse themselves in an apocalyptic landscape before they can move beyond embarrassment and confront the true nature of the feelings. Built along similar lines, Tom Geens’ second film Couple in a Hole also benefits from the lightest possible touch of the genre brush. Set in the forests of South-West France, this brilliantly acted and beautifully shot film uses apocalyptic imagery to explore the collapse of one life and the slow emergence of another.

You can read the rest of my review right HERE.

Couple in a Hole is a non-genre film that uses genre imagery and themes to explore characters and express emotional truths. In my review I pointed to Cailley’s excellent Les Combattants but another example of the form is Jeff Nichols’ superb Take Shelter starring Michael Shannon.

The combination of genre and non-genre elements rather reminds me of those genre short stories that use genre elements as a way of turning emotional states into metaphors and then making those metaphors concrete, the supreme example of the form being Sofia Samatar’s “Selkie Stories are for Losers” from back in 2013. For John and Karen, the death of their son felt like the end of the world and so their attempts to live with their grief take on a post-apocalyptic character.

The film is out on DVD in the UK this week and, by the looks of it, is also receiving a few screenings in indie cinemas. Seek it out, it is one of the best films I’ve seen in ages.

 

 

Anno Dominus

October 1995 saw the appearance of what may yet turn out to be the defining work of 21st Century science fiction.

Written and directed by Hideaki Anno 新世紀エヴァンゲリオ is an animated TV series that ran for 26 episodes and birthed one of the most enduring and successful franchises in the history of anime. Released in the west under the nebulously evocative title of Neon Genesis Evangelion, the series’ original title can be literally translated as “Gospel of a New Century”.

Gospels are useful things to bear in mind when approaching the Evangelion franchise as Eva is not just a TV series but a series of more-or-less consistent works that more-or-less rework the events and themes contained within the original TV series. Given that Eva is a hugely commercially and massively commoditised trans-media franchise, it is tempting to view these later films in the same way as we might view the similar properties that have emerged from Hollywood over the last ten years. Concepts like ‘remake’, ‘reboot’ and ‘reimagining’ might be useful in trying to understand the relationship between different Batman  and Star Trek films but the Eva properties are far more personal and so the relationship between them is a lot closer to that between the various Christian gospels.

While the gospels may share a setting, a cast of characters, and a message to convey, they do not necessarily line up in terms of narrative and character detail. For example, the book of Matthew claims that the Resurrection was reported by women while the book of Mark suggests that they kept the fact to themselves. More substantially, the book of Mark presents Jesus as a conduit for information about the world to come while the book of John treats Jesus as a spiritual teacher whose example we are expected to follow. Theologians may well argue that the various gospels are consistent as long as you squint a bit and deliberately misinterpret things but another way of accounting for the inconsistencies is to view the different gospels as different and more-or-less successful attempts to articulate a single divinely-inspired vision. Anno’s desire to articulate his vision has taken over twenty years and resulted in four broadly different iterations of the same basic story.

It is tempting to explore the differences between the various iterations of the Evangelion story but that would require me to write a much longer article. Suffice it to say that people who are interested in getting to grips with Eva are advised to start with the most recent run of films. The original TV series and Evangelion: Death and Rebirth are also worth checking out but they are considerably harder to find and End of Evangelion is really just an expanded and reworked version of the events described in Rebirth meaning that it will make little sense to anyone not already familiar with the themes and characters.

I’ve not written anything about Eva before but the recent UK release of Evangelion: 3.33 struck me as an interesting place to start as the current iteration of the story — the so-called Rebuild of Evangelion tetralogy — is now several years behind schedule and growing ever-more opaque with each additional volume. In fact, the development problems are so severe that Western home releases of the film were delayed by two whole years amidst rumours of demanded re-translations and re-dubbings. At time of writing, it is not clear to me that Rebuild of Evangelion will be any more successful or definitive than previous articulations of Anno’s vision but the incomplete vision we have is already more arresting and mind-blowing than any Western science fiction film in recent memory.

Continue reading →

REVIEW — The Captive Heart (1946)

Earlier this week, I wondered what a fully mature and authentic British film industry might actually look like. For inspiration, I looked to the British cinema of the 1940s and found both good and evil.

One side of the dyad is represented by Carol Reed’s The Fallen Idol, an immensely thought-provoking film about how children see the world and how that vision is subject to distortion by more-or-less well-intentioned adults.However, while the mature and authentic British film industry of the 1940s was capable of producing complex and challenging films like The Fallen Idol, it was also capable of producing films so wedded to the political establishment that hindsight reveals them to be almost indistinguishable from propaganda.

However, while it may be comforting to believe that a mature British film industry would happily churn out films of similar quality to The Fallen Idol, an authentic British film industry would almost certainly give voice to conservative and reactionary feelings that are just as much a part of the British cultural landscape as the desire to ask awkward questions and consider the perspectives of the powerless. While The Fallen Idol may embody everything I’d like to see from a mature British cinema, the opposite side of the dyad would be represented by  Basil Dearden’s The Captive Heart, an elegantly-structured and intelligently scripted film that just so happens to feel like the clarion call of a new British imperialism.

The film opens with footage of injured British soldiers marching through the French and German countrysides. These are the remnants of the British Expeditionary Force and they are destined to spend the rest of the War in a German POW camp. The film introduces us to a variety of different characters, provides them with back stories and then allows us to watch as the men come to terms with both their new situation and the demands placed upon them by their connections back home. As I say in my review, the effect is very reminiscent of the so-called Cosy Catastrophes that dominated British science-fiction in the aftermath of World War II:

Back in 1973, the British author and critic Brian Aldiss argued that British writers like John Wyndham had a nasty habit of depicting the end of the world as a cosy catastrophe in which survival demanded little in the way of hardship, sacrifice or philosophical re-orientation. The classic example of this style of science fiction story is Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids in that, after escaping a London full of man-eating plants, the protagonists settle into a Sussex mansion where tea is drunk, cake is made, and the class system endures. Though somewhat unfair to Wyndham, it is easy to see how the generation that survived World War II might have come to imagine the end of the world in terms of rose gardens turned into veg patches rather than rape, cannibalism and disease. To this day, popular British representations of World War II are far more likely to dwell on ration books and period kitchens than the experiences of men who spent their formative years dodging bullets and climbing over corpses.

The idea that ‘Englishness’ will endure the collapse of civilisation is absolutely central to The Captive Heart. Aside from the fact that all of the various sub-plots involve British people doing British things in a POW camp until they can get back to Britain and continue being British, the film’s primary plot-line involves a man falling in love with Englishness as he falls in love with an English woman:

(Michael) Redgrave’s Czech officer is something of an interstitial figure as his growing love for Mitchell’s widow is skilfully interwoven with a growing love for the English born of their many kindnesses. There’s even a montage of people playing cricket as a voice-over talks about fruit trees coming into bloom in the back garden. The reason The Captive Heart was released so soon after the end of World War II is that Ealing Studios began making it before the war had even ended. This means not only that the film was made without being touched by the realities of war but also that it was made with very little idea as to how England (or indeed Britain) might fit into a post-War Europe. Unsurprisingly, the film resonates with a distinctly imperial mind-set in that English values are shown to be not only eternal and immutable but also exportable to Eastern Europe where tales of English decency and sacrifice would doubtless fill the squares with people desperate to try their hand at cricket. Seen in this light, Michael Redgrave isn’t so much seduced into English as colonised by it.

If I am blurring the line between Englishness and Britishness then it is because the film makes exactly this mistake. Much like Laurence Olivier’s wartime Henry V, Englishness is parlayed into Britishness through the use of loyal Welsh and Scottish subalterns who hint at a broader conception of Britishness only to doff their caps to the English upper-classes.

The Captive Heart is a deeply conservative film and that conservatism is manifest in its abject failure to imagine a future that was not identical to the twenty-years between World War I and World War II. The Captive Heart cannot imagine a world in which Britain isn’t a global player or where Englishness is neither admired nor emulated. Nowadays, people often use the acronym “TINA” to refer to our failure to imagine a world other than that provided by neoliberalism but I think works like The Captive Heart and Day of the Triffids are examples of an older version of TINA whereby people simply could not imagine a world without cricket, empire and an all-encompassing class-system.

 

The Organization Geek

I sometimes think that my generation got the wrong end of the stick when it came to the question of conformity. My first encounter with conformity as a theoretical concept came in my early teens when some pre-cursor to GCSE psychology mentioned Solomon Asch’s conformity experiments in which a subject was confronted with a room full of people giving the wrong answer to a simple perception test. Supposedly overwhelmed by peer pressure, over a third of Asch’s subjects chose to follow the group and give the wrong answer.

I say “supposedly” as while a lot has since been written about Asch’s experiments, most of it has been reductive, simplistic and wrong. The problem lies not in the work itself but rather in the tendency to package it up with Stanley Milgram’s experiments on obedience and Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment as part of a broad cultural narrative about the hazards of conformity.

By the time I was first encountering experimental psychology in the early 1990s, conformity was being presented as a Bad, Bad Thing that caused you to speak untruths, torture people to death and generally behave like a German prison camp guard. Indeed, a lot of the research into obedience and conformity that took place in the middle decades of the 20th Century is best understood as trying to understand the rise of Nazi Germany and thereby prevent it from ever happening again. The work of Asch, Milgram and Zimbardo may have been lousy and misunderstood science but it was great propaganda as it sold us a vision of humanity as a species wired for obedience and moral cowardice.

Continue reading →