Monday, November 12, 2007

Alexander Sokurov

Alexander Nikolayevich Sokurov (b. June 14, 1951, Podorwikha, Irkutsk Oblast) is a Russian filmmaker from St Petersburg who has been hailed as successor to renowned director Andrei Tarkovsky. His movies are said to represent an ultimate challenge in contemporary intellectual film making.

Sokurov was born in Siberia in the officer's family on June 14, 1951. He graduated from the History Department of the Nizhny Novgorod University in 1974 and entered one of the VGIK studios the following year. There he made friends with Tarkovsky and was deeply influenced by his Mirror.

Most of Sokurov's early features were banned by Soviet authorities. During his early period, he produced numerous documentaries, including an interview with Solzhenitsyn and a reportage about Grigori Kozintsev's flat in St Petersburg.

Mother and Son (1996) was his first internationally acclaimed feature film. It was mirrored by Father and Son (2003) which baffled the critics with its implicit homoeroticism (though Sokurov himself has criticized this particular interpretation). Sokurov has also filmed the first three installments of a planned tetralogy on prominent 20th-century rulers: Moloch (1999) about Hitler, Taurus (2000) about Lenin, and The Sun (2004) about Emperor Hirohito.

Sokurov is a Cannes Film Festival regular, four of his movies having debuted there one by one. Although he has been somewhat reluctant to cast accomplished actors in his features, the Russian Film Academy awarded several Nika Awards to him. His most commercially and critically successful effort to date has been a semi-documentary Russian Ark (2002), acclaimed primarily for its visually hypnotic images and single, unedited, shot.


By Gabe Klinger

Alexander Sokurov is in a slump. It remains to be seen whether the recent decision to bring his films to the high-profile glamour of Cannes was a mistake; Moloch (1999), his first film to surface at the festival, opened the 50 year-old Russian director for serious consideration, but the praise came from David Cronenberg's artier-than-thou jury, which commentators still consider one of the events' biggest blemishes. Sitting in between one writer from Vogue and another from Paris-Match at this year's Rotterdam Film Festival, I mentioned the day's films I had seen, and one of them happened to be Taurus (2001), Sokurov's second film to compete in Cannes.

"I haven't seen it, but I can't stand his films!" exclaimed the reporter from Paris-Match. It was only at this point, late in the festival year, that I realized the mainstream press had already begun to ignore his films. At least now we have two groups, and few directors can so easily discern their viewers: those who can't even drag themselves to his films out of professional duty; and then those who keep seeing them because they truly admire what he's doing.

Susan Sontag. Paul Schrader. There aren't as many fervent Sokurov supporters as there are for Hou Hsiao-hsien and Abbas Kiarostami, arguably the two other greatest discoveries of the last two decades. Critics as well as audiences have responded wearily to his work. When Mother and Son (1997) was released commercially in the U.S., Roger Ebert refused to review it, instead duly passing along to a second-stringer, who wrote a glib, 100-word summary along the lines of, "still-life doesn't work in a movie."

Though far from being Sokurov's most accomplished work, Mother and Son served as an introduction to his painterly aesthetic, his use of colors using a paint-brush technique and bent glass to stretch-out the image. Mother and Son, like all of Sokurov's films, is slow-paced and depressive in tone. Sokurov is protective of his timing; this is especially apparent in some of his videos, which have been meticulously subtitled in a way that has the letters fading in and out rather than popping onto the screen whenever someone begins to speak. His films can be long but they're never self-indulgent; in fact, most of the chapters in his famous "Elegy" series are timed at just under an hour, and each feel as richly detailed as a novel. On the other hand, his ambitious and rarely-screened 6-hour masterpiece Spiritual Voices is a demanding film when shown all together.

Even when he's working in a political mode, one suspects that for Sokurov, the visual comes first and the meaning comes second. Like Andrei Tarkovsky, he was punished for ambiguity in the Soviet days. Unlike Tarkovsky, his films are ambiguous in intent; for instance, one doesn't know if the first two films in his autocrat series, Moloch and Taurus, are expressions in banality (Moloch was unfairly subtitled "the banality of evil") or studies in latent humanism--or something else entirely. In most of his video work (which are mostly documentaries) Sokurov's objective seems to be to capture naturalism, filming people who fascinate him in their natural surroundings. Those surroundings, however, are manipulated, directly and indirectly by light, mirrors, paint filters, and other on-the-set production techniques (Sokurov does not change his images in post-production). It would be wrong to say Sokurov is two parts impressionist and one part storyteller, just as it would be wrong to label the intent of any of his films.

That's not to say Tarkovsky's films should be labeled. For the sake of comparison, Sokurov seems much less conflicted about the existence of god than his predecessor. As a result, Tarkovsky's style has the feeling today of being self-conscious, his symbolism unmistakable (even if the effect is always profound). In Sokurov, the murky (visual and otherwise) amounts to a calculated transcendence. One can also see that Sokurov's protagonists are not in a spiritual purgatory; from the boy in The Second Circle (1992) to the old woman in A Humble Life (1996), their roots are buried deep in the ground below them. Tarkovsky's characters - from Ivan to Rublev to the stalker - have formal cinematic traits; their road to certainty is open-ended.

It was Tarkovsky's letter of recommendation to Lenfilm Studios that jumpstarted Sokurov's feature film career. From his very first, The Lonely Voice of Man (1978), to the very latest, all of his films have the involvement of Lenfilm (at one point Troitsky Most Studio). From the amount of work he does, Sokurov stands alongside many of the prolific filmmakers working in Japan (where he's encountered funding for several videos); he's even a celebrated television personality in Russia, much like Takeshi Kitano and Nagisa Oshima in Japan. His films couldn't be further from this reality of course.

Anyway I couldn't even begin to scrape the surface of what Sokurov's films are really about, nor do they invite connections from other periods in movie history (except historically). It doesn't help that this director is largely non-cinephilic; maybe I can see some isolated moments from other documentary films: the images of defeated countrymen in the Evening Sacrifice (1984), the feeling of tourist alienation (to put it crudely) in Oriental Elegy (1996), the rapid montage of family photos in Dolce (2000), the empty road and unseen narrator in Elegy of a Voyage (2001). The last thing I'd like to note is that Sokurov stubbornly prevails as a filmmaker artist, not because he is uncompromising and doesn't care about the commercial aspects. It's because he likes to paint and if he's good at that (and he is), then it will give all his films some consistency. In a recent debate with a friend, I tried to separate the descriptors "masterwork" and "work of of a master." We agreed the "masterwork" is the film that seems to function on all levels of cinema, and that the "work of a master" will always be merely esoteric. Lucky for us, Sokurov is a champion of the last genre.

Every Man for Himself


Directed by
Alexander Sokurov

By Fred Camper

In one of my favorite jokes connecting Russian pessimism with a failure of imagination, two Russian fishermen catch a golden fish. It offers them three wishes if they'll spare its life. The first fisherman says, "I wish that the hold of the boat be filled with cases of vodka," and his wish is granted. The second says, "I wish that the entire ocean be turned into vodka," and they lower a bucket and start drinking. Then the fish reminds them that they have a third wish. They look at each other, scratch their heads, and the first says, "I guess we'll just take another case."
Alexander Sokurov's 218-minute video, Confession, manages to elevate this theme to the level of art. Considered by many Russia's finest living director, he's created a madrigal to melancholy, a hymn to failure, in which an apparently gay naval commander lacks the courage to act on his desires. Set in the cramped space of a nondescript ship amid barren arctic snowscapes, it consists mostly of the sailors' repetitive actions and the commander's lugubrious narration. The few possibilities for happiness or meaning hinted at hardly offer convincing ways out of the gloom. Stan Brakhage includes a line from Louis Zukofsky's poem "A" -- "Raise grief to music" -- in his 1967 meditation on war, 23rd Psalm Branch. Sokurov may be said to have raised melancholy to music in Confession, being shown at Facets this Sunday at 12:30.

Originally made in 1998 in five parts of 52 minutes each for television, the video was cut to its current length (by Sokurov) a year later. The title for each part has the same subhead -- "From the Commander's Diary" -- and is followed by a disclaimer calling the plot and characters "a fantasy of the author." And in some ways the video is structured as a diary: the commander is heard in voice-over, and most of the shots represent his point of view, even those in which he appears.

But we also get many details of the sailors' lives -- as the commander sees them. Life onboard is an endlessly repetitive routine: washing the deck, dressing, undressing, cleaning oneself without benefit of a shower, washing one's clothes while showering. Swirling snow in the surrounding landscapes rhymes with the sailors' busy movements, making their condition seem a natural -- if hopelessly random -- state. It's not that Sokurov transcends any of this by providing hope. Rather he creates a tremendously moving portrait of despair and its causes through imagery that's both sensuous and confined, giving his repetitions a strange beauty. As the work gradually unfolds, we also come to understand what entraps these men, particularly the commander, even if they don't.

In some cases the commander has set an activity in motion: sailor after sailor is asked to disrobe during a medical exam he's ordered. In his pseudophilosophical narration, the commander appears to speculate -- insofar as one can infer from subtitles -- about whether he could have a relationship with any of his men, but then acknowledges that it couldn't last because the sailors come and go: "I am beach and they are water." Though he spends a great deal of time viewing his subordinates shirtless, the ship's tight interiors and the glacial pace of the men's labors seem to drain them of vitality. Not especially lively and rarely playful, they appear a fantasy of male flesh divorced from any inner life.

The landscapes are even bleaker than the ship: rocky ridges laced with snow against dull gray skies, or tiny settlements against snow, including one village the commander describes as having been built "stone by stone by slaves." In one long scene the sailors unload coal, bag by bag, in a place that appears to be just a few old buildings. At first their movements seem mechanical to the point of abstraction, but gradually the camera moves in, and soon there's a close-up of the coal, whose blunt, gritty presence offers one example of the way the video alternates between mournful distance and banal physicality. Some scenes emphasize various kinds of entrapment. In one, the camera slowly pulls back from a stooped sailor cleaning a confined area of the ship, framing him in the narrow passageway to suggest a man imprisoned by architecture. But as the camera continues its pullback, we see another sailor doing the same thing in the foreground, which transforms the image once again: now it's the identical, monotonous work that dehumanizes them -- at least as much as the commander's gaze.

The commander quotes briefly from Chekhov's short story "Gusev," which is set in the tropics. Inspired to write the piece after he witnessed two burials at sea, Chekhov includes a startling account of the fish that greet the protagonist's corpse as it sinks beneath the water's surface. The creepy physicality of that description is reminiscent of the beefcake and dead lands of Confession -- as it is of a man's almost comically inept attempts to deal with his father's corpse in Sokurov's 1990 film The Second Circle.

Near the end the commander confesses his "bitterness" that nothing will come about in his life: "People will not change because they can't or they don't want to." The "nothing" perhaps represents his ongoing failure to consummate his desires; indeed, one guesses he's a virgin. But he also seems to refer to a more general failure of imagination -- he's one of those who "can't change."

Sokurov's images, which constantly collapse in on themselves, emphasize self-enclosure -- the compositions in many of his films and videos have a curiously warped feel. The light source in the shower scene is sometimes at the edge of the frame, sharpening and appearing to limit it. And an outdoor night scene toward the end includes an open fire near the center of the composition, but rather than illuminate the surrounding darkness, the flame seems about to be smothered by it.

The video portrays a dullness of mind so opposed to change that it finds only copies of itself in the world outside. The shower scene, for example, shows a clothed sailor looking lasciviously at his nude comrades, smiling. But he's less a separate character than a projection of the commander's desires. Ultimately Sokurov explores the way human consciousness can become a prison, walling off the self from visual, emotional, or physical contact. When the sailors watch TV, it seems to reflect their life rather than offer an alternative: they see only a few snippets of divers in bathing suits, a joke on their own alienated relationship to water.

There are few hints of escape. The commander speculates that the arctic would be a good place to read "thick" books by "old" writers, losing oneself in literature. And Confession includes a brief dream, a cut from a sleeping sailor to images of swimming and gathering berries. But these are far outweighed by the story's various tombs -- the arctic, the ship, the commander's vision. Near the end he looks out at yet another snowy landscape and speculates, "The serfs of the 30s were looking at this terrifying beauty." But we learn nothing of serfs or of the 30s. Instead, when he says, "I am looking at it too," we see his hand out of focus in the foreground, superimposed on the landscape. Inevitably the filtering effect of individual consciousness prevents the commander from truly connecting with another time, again locking him in the trap of the self.

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