Russian Ark (2002) – Nostalgia is Always Beautiful… Tyranny isn’t.

Let us begin in the manner in which we intend to continue : By considering a point of medieval philosophy.  The 14th Century Logician William of Ockham once noted that entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity.  This venerable principle of ontological parsimony is most often wheeled out in order to see off the speculations of some of our more extravagantly theological or mystical co-humans.  Those who would wish into existence a vast metaphysical infrastructure where competing theories would make do with the smallest of particles and the most elementary of forces.  Given a set of facts, why would you not choose the explanation that accounted for those facts in the simplest manner?  In order to answer this question, we must first ascertain what constitutes simplicity.

The problem is that simplicity is one of those slippery terms that philosophers wheel out when an impasse is reached.  When discussing a philosophical theory, differing thinkers will first look for logical inconsistencies, then for factual incongruities, but eventually they will fall back upon a host of rather subjective and nebulous aesthetic principles : “It is counter-intuitive!” they will sniff.  “That solution is unclean when compared to the alternative” they will remark.  “It is insufficiently simple” they conclude.  Of course, this is a cynical and simplistic characterisation of the problem.  Theorists of Artificial Intelligence such as Ray Solomonoff and Marcus Hutter have made great strides in devising mathematical and statistical models of ontological parsimony fleshing out that which has, for far too long, been a refuge for intellectual scoundrels.  My assessment, however, does raise an interesting question.

Is simplicity culturally relative?  Following Ockham, we demand that extraordinary claims be supported by extraordinary amounts of evidence but what this often means is that unpopular and dissenting opinions have to work harder to gain traction.

Consider, for example, Zhang Yimou’s film Hero (2002).  At the end of the film, the protagonist refrains from killing the tyrant because he has seen the wisdom of a state where the value of political harmony and a single driving vision outweigh the benefits to be gained from the competition of differing opinions.  In other words, Zhang Yimou seemed to be suggesting that a one-party state such as modern China was preferable to the democratic states of the West.  When the film was released in the West it was met with howls of outrage.  Given that the film was partly funded by the Chinese government, many Western thinkers characterised it as propaganda.  But why is offering a different opinion seen as being tantamount to propaganda?  Hundreds of films every year express opinions in the same unrigorous manner as Hero without being labelled as such.  Is it just that when it comes to arguing against democracy, we set the bar higher?  Do we demand extraordinary evidence before we are willing to engage with contrary opinions?  Should we be more forgiving of dissenting opinions even when we see them as monstrous?

Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark is three things : Firstly, it is a love letter to the Winter Palace (now occupied by the Russian state Hermitage Museum).  Secondly, it is a technical exercise in so far as it is a film made up of one continuous 96 minute long take.  Thirdly, it is a wistful apologia for the Tsarist regime.

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Films of the Year : Not Quite the 2009 Edition

I have decided to split my favourite films into two distinct groups.  The first group is a list of the films that I have particularly enjoyed this year but which were not made or released this year.  It is a longer list than the other and because it is more a reflection of what I have seen than anything else, it will have a touch less impact.  However, for those interested, here are some of my favourite films of the year.

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Syndromes and a Century (2006) – Repetition and Change

The role of a critic is a somewhat paradoxical one.  At times of universal agreement over aesthetic principles, the critic serves as a guard dog.  A martinet.  Forever wielding his rhetorical staff to smack down those who refuse or fail to toe the line.  Like Robert McKee we point solemnly to Aristotle’s Poetics and wearily (almost sadly) shake our heads.  In order for criticism to escape the quicksands of qualification and relativism, there has to be a belief in universal principles.  There have to be rules and there has to be an order to things.  But what are these rules?  Where do they come from?  Are they, like the laws of physics, universal and embedded in the substance of the universe?  If our universe contained no sentient life forms, would it still be the case that a character must suffer after a reversal of fortunes in order to realise where he has gone wrong and how to proceed?

I suspect that aesthetic sensibilities are the products of their owner’s culture.  The values themselves are formed over time by generation upon generation of artists telling similar kinds of stories and yet gradually changing both the stories and the forms those stories take.  This is why older texts can seem odd or unbalanced to modern readers.  It is also why critics have to be alive to the possibility that sometimes, a failure to toe the line is not a failure but a great success.  As John Crowley puts it in The Solitudes (1987), the first part of his Aegypt cycle :

“It seems to me that what grants meaning in folk tales and legendary narratives – We’re thinking now of something like the Niebelungdenlied or the Morte D’Arthur – is not logical development so much as thematic repetition.  The same ideas, or events, or even the same objects recurring in different circumstances.  Or different objects contained in similar circumstances. (…) A hero sets out (…) to find a treasure, or to free his beloved, or to capture a castle, or find a garden.  Every incident, every adventure that befalls him as he searches, is the treasure or the beloved, the castle or the garden.  Repeated in different forms like a set of nesting boxes.  Each of them, however, just as large, or no smaller, than all the others.  The interpolated stories he is made to listen to only tell him his own story in another form.  The  pattern continues until a kind of certainty arrises.  A satisfaction that the story has been told often enough to seem, at last, to have been really told.  Not uncommonly, an old romance’s  story just breaks off then, or turns to other matters.  Plot, logical development, conclusions prepared for by introductions or inherent in a story’s premises, logical completion as a vehicle of meaning… all that is later.  Not necessarily later in time but belonging to a later, more sophisticated, kind of literature.  There are some interesting half-way kind of works like The Fairy Queen, which set up for themselves a titanic plot , an almost mathematical symmetry of structure, and never finish it… never need to finish it.  Because they are, at heart, works of the older kind.  And the pattern has already arisen satisfyingly within them.  The flavour is already there.  So, is this any help to our thinking?  Is meaning in history like the solution to an equation or like a repeated flavour?  Is it to be sought for, or tasted?”

This passage raises two interesting ideas.  Firstly, it raises the possibility of a time when different aesthetic principles were in force.  The Arthurian myths and romances are not primitively written works with a questionable track record when it comes to coherence, but rather works that appealed to a different idea of what makes a good story.  Not all stories need to take the same form or follow the same rules in order to be great.  Not all conceptions of character have to fit in with our current folk-psychological models.  Secondly, it hints at a model of aesthetic revolution.  An almost Darwinian process through which stories are told, abandoned, revisited, rebooted, reinterpreted and retold.  Crowley is speaking of stories within a certain mythical tradition or saga but might this not also be true of the telling of stories in general?  Might this process not also explain how certain kinds of story-telling can evolve over time?

Carlos Reygadas’ Silent Light (2007) has appeared on a number of ‘Best Films of the Decade’ -type lists.  I consider it to be quite a dull film.  My problem with Reygadas’ work is that it is a film that deals in themes and techniques that will be familiar to anyone who has seen a work of post-War cinema.  It clings limpet-like to the existentialist tradition that was pioneered by the likes of Bergman and Antonioni and it explores these well-trodden themes using the same set of cinematic techniques that all art house directors have been using since the 60s.  Silent Light contains long takes.  Silent Light contains awkward silences.  Silent Light contains ambiguous plotting.  Silent Light contains a fantastical dream sequence.  To watch Silent Light is to gag on the stench of intellectual decay.  It is as though the post-War art house consensus has finally played itself out, its stories told and retold using the same old techniques.  Just as the Cahiers du Cinema critics who would become the directors of the Nouvelle Vague once rejected the theatricality of French post-War cinema, do we stand at a point in time when the story-tellers have to move on?  Must new tools and new stories be told for this and the next generation?  One director who seems to instinctively answer this question with a resounding affirmative is Apichatpong Weerasethakul, the Thai director whose Tropical Malady I wrote about a short while ago.  His Syndromes and a Century is not merely a good film, it is a film that makes a robustly compelling argument for Weerasethakul to be considered one of the greatest living film-makers.

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