Camera & Modernity + Dreams = “The Mirror” Part I

Oh, look, it's that guy from "Stalker."
Oh, look, it’s that guy from “Stalker” just beyond the bush.

The best art grows deeper with context. For instance: the second time one watches a Jason Statham flick, one feels degraded and sad, as you realize that the only thing that was good about it the first time was the novelty/shock value. The second time one reads a good novel, however, you’re bound to feel enriched, and the prose is better retained in the brain. As you may know, I’m way into Tarkovsky right now, and his films might actually be completely impenetrable without context, requiring not just patience of his viewers, but reverence and dedication to the artist himself. It can be a burden to delve into an artist like him, because it requires so much responsibility. But responsibility can sometimes feel like relief when you’ve spent too much of your time watching Jason Statham punch people’s heads; the loss of brain cell’s to a Statham foe seems to be vicariously felt in the viewer’s own head.

“The Mirror,” which some people apparently think is Tarkovsky’s best movie, is the most impenetrable, opaque one that I’ve seen. It contains a kind of a pulsating, transmutating narrative, providing impressions that last long enough for the viewer to arrive at some thoughts or feelings, but then confounding you by switching, dream-like, into different modes while staying in the same setting, or among the same characters. As the narrative of a dream wanders, and the crises change, a feeling remains, connecting events as the same dream.  Our parents appear, as do our childhood homes, ancestral feuds, deep unacknowledged fears, surreal incongruity of image: dreams are the realm of nostalgia, of unuttered thoughts, and of the unreal. Sorry to be writing about “dream space” with the earnestness of an early Freud or Surrealist, but, I mean, come on, they are really special. Dream logic is what rules the universe of “The Mirror”, making for a fascinating and extremely frustrating movie. The truth of it is dense and muddled, tied to Tarko biography, tied to Russian history, and is just about as ambitious as a movie can be. The following is my attempt to unravel some of it.

First, the myopia. It’s long been a meme for me that the particular is the key to unlock the universal, and I think Tarko is on my wavelength. There are many moments of “The Mirror” that are almost claustrophobically intimate, especially in the scenes between the mostly unseen narrator and the protagonist lady. These are scenes from a life and from a heart–complete with careful attention to moles on the protagonists’ back, the way tears run down a cold cheek, the way hair glistens when wet. The camera hovers close to her face, while she looks into it and discusses with it the practicalities of custody for her  lonely son–the camera in many scenes is quite literally her ex-husband/narrator/director himself. His voice questions her and disagrees with her just beyond what we can see.

Then there’s the matter of the ex-wife being conflated with the narrator’s mother. Mother and wife are played by the same actor. The narrator even comments that when he tries to remember his childhood, he pictures his ex-wife in the place of his mother. (I didn’t bring up Freud for no good reason.) The film wavers between the richly textured, degraded interiors of a shabby-and-only-slightly-chic Moscow apartment and a cozy, damp dacha in the north country, the former one assumes the location of the narrator’s present, and the latter where he was raised.

And then spliced into this intimacy is archival footage of civil war, upheaval, atom bombs, Cultural Revolutions, technological feats and follies of the last century. The film is a history, a mirror on the artist and his time. To make a movie like this is a both an absurdly huge and absurdly pompous task, and only a gifted-few are allowed to pull stunts like those in “The Mirror.” To show historical footage in your film is like waving a sign that says, “Hey, I’m deep.” Tarko shows scenes specifically from a border dispute war in Russia’s south-eastern reaches–the part that borders with China–and has footage of Maoist demonstrations in the newly minted Communist country from the 60s. In footage of the border dispute, the Uyghurs (who are a rather stateless people
who hang in central asia) rather mildly chant and knock about a circle of Soviet soldiers, who, young, big-eyed, and stoney-faced, simply hold them back in a line. It’s not a genuinely violent revolt. It’s not a battle. It’s not even that passionate of a protest. In another scene, we see people trudging through a flood plain, every step more burdensome than the last, their pants rolled up to their ankles as they book it, Oregon-Trail style, in covered wagons and desperation. In many of the archival footage of war and disaster, people make eye contact with the camera, self-conscious or fascinated by the thing capturing them. There is a remarkable shot of a little girl either in pre-fascist Italy or civil war Spain who looks into the camera giddily, but her face darkens into a mortified grimace for reasons we can only guess at one the other side. These scenes show small and intimate and inefficacious moments of conflict, as opposed to a grander narrative of valor or tragedy in warfare.

The constant in this wavering between small-moments-in-world-time and small-moments-in-subjective-time is the camera–an all-seeing eye that fosters self-consciousness and bewilderment, that is capable of collecting both the scurry of a beetle on a sunny stone and the destruction of entire cities by bombs.

Stay tuned for PART II because this blog post started to go OFF THE CHAIN.

Stalking The Truth: On Modern and Antique Modes of Searching

totes not in kansas
totes not in kansas

People are people, were people, and forever shall be people. I think that modernity, or antiquity, or contemporaryness (though useful terms for categorizing common hairstyles, cocktail fads, and to some extent, cultural interests) are misleadingly narrow constructions, witholding real information about the condition of the human soul. BECAUSE THE HUMAN SOUL IS IMMUTABLE. People are always the same, regardless of the time you’re born and the material and geographic circumstances of your life. Know what I’m sayin?

That said, there is a mode of being I’ve been pre-occupied with lately, a mode I’d like to designate as extremely un-contemporary. A mode that is diametrically opposed to our present time, and I am starting to think it’s one mode I need to be in all the damn time, even though our times are telling me not to be.

Let’s call this the “stalking” mode.

I’ve just spent a good few months obsessing about the Tarkovsky movie “Stalker.” I’ve replayed it a lot in my mind, though I’ve only seen it once. I’ve had several hours of conversation about it with one friend, and exchanged emails about it for months with two others. I read Geoff Dyer’s delightful pseudo-critique/memoir/ramble “ZONA” about it. It’s been living in the primest real estate of my imagination.

For those unfamiliar with the film, let me explain. “Stalker” is a metaphysical science fiction movie, a damp, dripping, mysterious, and thoroughly ungallant “search for the Holy Grail.” Stalker is a guy in this shitty, conspicuously-Baltic industrial ruin world who leads two other guys (Professor and Writer) to a forbidden area to find out their heart’s true desires. The forbidden area can be only traversed and navigated by the Stalker–he’s like a travel guide. This area is known, literal-Tarko style, as THE ZONE. The place inside THE ZONE that reveals the heart’s true desire is called THE ROOM.

In conversations with friends, the question erupted: how pure is the Stalker? THE ZONE, we understand, is dangerous: you make a false step there, and you die. The Stalker, like one Chosen, is the only one with the seemingly primordial knowledge of how to safely traverse the area, and he advises his wards to show reverence to THE ZONE. And yet he’s never allowed to partake of its fruit. He’s not allowed to have the essential truth about his self revealed in THE ROOM. Stalker’s predecessor (PORCUPINE) made that mistake, and ended up killing himself.

We learn from Stalker’s wife that dude is only truly happy when he’s in THE ZONE and feels it calling to him when he’s not there. All around, Stalker has a reverence for the Zone, an addiction to the Zone, mystical knowledge of the Zone.

But Stalker’s pure relationship with the zone  is complicated by the fact that Stalker is paid by some fools to show them around. He seems genuinely pained by their insouciance and disbelief in the fruits of the Zone, but at the same time, how else is he going to make a living? His relationship with the zone might be idealogically pure, but he apparently can’t be choosy about who he takes on to the Zone. It’s not a pilgrimage and he’s no one’s guru. He’s just a tour guide.

At first, I thought of the long-suffering-of-fools Stalker as a Christ-figure. He was Chosen and he is Driven to show others the truth of themselves in the Zone. I swear he even recites some Beatitudes at some point, saying something about how the meek shall inherit the earth. But then, you gotta think about the less glamorous aspect of money changing hands. I could go on, especially about the figures of Professor and Writer, but why bore you. I’ve now decided that Stalker is not a Christ figure but a Tarkovsky figure. He’s a film-maker, an artist. Someone concerned with revealing serious truths, but who also has to make money by doing it, and must suffer fools in the process. The impulse to make films and search for truth itself is a pure impulse, but the material aspects of it muddle the art, and can potentially ruin it. It’s a dangerous game, this truth-stalking through art, but only those who are truly CALLED to it really have anything to teach us about ourselves. From what little I know of Tarkovsky, he was a serious fellow, and took movie-making and truth-searching very seriously.

This serious search for truth–and the placing of the artist’s alterego at the heart of one’s Russian masterpiece–reminds me more than a little of Tolstoy’s character Levin in Anna Karenina. Poor Levin: forgotten in the dust-bin of literary history. Everyone always forgets that he’s Anna’s foil, so caught up are we in her sexy, black curl bursting infidelity. Levin, not so different than Lev T. himself, can’t fucking stand the artifice required of a person to get along socially in Moscow, much less hang out with the gaudy nouveau-riche scenesters of Petersburg. He’d rather be piling hay with his serfs, ahem, peasants, out in the country. Levin is always wondering what true fulfillment looks like, and how he’s going to go about getting it. He’s way into what I like to think of as the pastoral fallacy–that reverting to old ways, simple ways, will lead you to true fulfillment. (Tolstoy wore peasant attire even though he was a goddamn count. Nice try, Lev.) Levin, of course, is just one side of the coin–Anna, in her impulsive majesty, shares some of Tolstoy’s personal vices. (He was known for his infidelities.) To be all neat and structuralist about it, Levin gets the happy ending when he finds true love and a simple life in the country. His search for truth is not resolved, because the search, the fitful, tentative grasping for what makes meaning, the stalking of it as though it were something easy to startle on a hunt (of which there are many in the pages of AK), is itself the truth. Anna, as we all know, though, thought she found fulfillment, but the heart is capricious, and we all know how she got her comeuppance.

Both Tarkovsky and Tolstoy are guys that would have probably agreed that the aim of art is to tell us something about living. I know more about Tolstoy’s aesthetics, so I can confirm that he saw realism as the purest means of revealing “man to himself,” to using the phrasing of the day.  His prose is plain-spoken and elegant, and he was attempting to take snap-shots of life, then let them reel out in real-time. He probably would have made really long mumblecore movies if he’d been around now, except they would have been profound.

Both Tolstoy and Tarkovsky have placed, at the center of their narratives, a striver, a searcher, a stalker who is perpetually hovering close to fulfillment and to meaning, but never getting it actually. They are just on the prowl. I find it admirable and beautiful that they have placed doppelgangers at the center of their narratives, and use these characters as a means to continue their own search. This is a mode that does not happen with the same earnestness now. This is a mode that is serious and noble. Things that are serious and noble now are probably seen as old fashioned. Sorry, this is maybe about to be a diatribe.

I felt this year that the movie “The Master” attempted to address some of this truth-stalking business, but the master and his path are fraudulent, and the master’s disciple has a brain that has been pickled in booze, and seems to be merely tagging along to fulfill his urges to eat and fuck, animal-like. A serious look at how to find fulfillment, as far as I can tell, is not on anyone’s agenda in the way Tarko and Tolstoy made it the cornerstone of their entire artistic output. It’s not like I’ve watched every movie… So I could be wrong. (Oh, and of course, there’s always Terrance Malick, grasping for the branches on the tree of life…) But, what I’m saying is, the earnest search for truth, well, that’s old fashioned. We live in a post-modern time; we kill our idols, god is dead, narratives are tangled and subjective, language is contingent, yada yada. Hard to agree on the human soul when the stuff of our times is the shifting sands of the unknowable. How is a person supposed to muddle through this and find any truths? How is a person to navigate this mess and find out something about living?

I guess, by reading long Russian novels and watching long Russian movies.

A Trip Down Memory Lane

Image
Yes, it would appear I own this movie.

In a caffeine-induced mass-organization of the apartment. Sorting through a pile of early 21st century detritus that has been laying around for years: CDs and DVDs covered in ash, dust, and long-dried droplets of beer. I have discovered that over the years, through moves, various roommates, and my own abominable movie-returning habits, I have acquired possibly the world’s worst and weirdest DVD collection.

In the “I’d watch it again” category:

Tony Scott’s “The Last Boy Scout” (thanks, Nicole. Sorry I am so bad at ‘borrowing’ stuff.)

Almodovar’s “Volver.” Loved this movie and saw it thrice in 2006, spawning a year-long Almodovar obsession; wonder what I’d think of it now?

David Lynch’s “Mulhullond Drive.” For as much trash as I talk about David Lynch, I should probably remember his movies a little better in order to fully engage with my detractors. I originally saw this movie when it first came out, WHEN I WAS IN HIGH SCHOOL, and no longer remember much of it. And I have no idea why I have a copy of it: is it properly mine? Or, who lent it to me?

PTA’s “There Will Be Blood.” The case of this film has a ‘blockbuster’ sticker on it. Hm. Just saw “The Master” and might be time for a re-viewing of its predecessor; I feel that they share flaws. The organic brilliance and grandiosity of the first hour is eventually overshadowed by PTA’s need to make more brilliant, grandiose, dramatic, doom & kabloom scenes, losing focus and dragging out the end of the movie.

In the WTF category:

“The Mechanic.” A Jason Statham flick full of the requisite vein-popping, head-bashing action, but this time it’s set in the Louisiana Bayou, a place with a regional dialect so mysterious to most Americans that the setting conveniently erases the need to give any real backstory for why Statham’s “American” accent sounds so bizarre. Also, Donald Sutherland is in it. I accrue movies like this because anna + redbox = disaster. Redbox allows for a shameless anonymity that renting at, say, Odd Obsession does not, so it makes me rent all kinds of stupid shit because I think to myself, “Oh, it’s only $1!” Wrong, it’s $25, every time, because I never return redbox rentals.

“The Messenger.” anna + redbox = disaster.

“Harry Brown.” anna + redbox = disaster. This movie was sort of worthwhile. “Harry Brown” is an ostentatious exploitation movie that revisits Michael Caine’s earliest acting persona as a hard knocking gangsta in Hodge’s British classic “Get Carter.” Except this time, he’s a geezer. It is to Caine as “Gran Torino” is an update to Clint Eastwood’s earlier vengeance persona in “Dirty Harry.”

“Doctor Parnassus.” anna + redbox = disaster. Never even watched it.

“Sherlock Holmes.” anna + redbox = disaster. Also didn’t watch this.

“What a Girl Wants.” Perhaps you’ve never heard of this movie. It is a modern princess story about a wily American girl who discovers that her father is a landed British artistocrat (played by Colin Firth). Dad needs daughter to help remove the union jack flagpole from his ass; daughter needs dad because, well, she needs a dad. Lent to me by my Aunt Maggie, who loves Colin Firth as much as I do.

“Definitely, Maybe.” Undoubtedly left in my computer by an ex-boyfriend who was hell-bent on having the most awful and pedestrian taste in movies in order to upend everyone’s expectations of him. It was defending movies like this that really gave him the reputation he sought.

“Hitch.” Ditto from above.

Episode III of Star Wars. This, I believe, once belonged to my 6′ 5″ roommate named Bjorn Delacruz. I wonder if he wants it back.

I could go on (found at least a dozen other horrible movies), but why waste all of our timez. Thanks for coming down memory lane with me before I crash from too much coffee and horrible nostalgia.

Clint Eastwood Ain’t No Goddamn Charleton Heston

DO YOU FEEL LUCKY?
DO YOU FEEL LUCKY?

Gran Torino is a humble movie that took less than a month to film. The script is surprisingly stiff and relies on cardboard prototypes of ethnic family bonds and white suburban distance to achieve its emotional impact. But due to several endearing performances and Clint’s masterful delivery, the film is meaningful, bittersweet, and American in its soul.

Walt Kowalski coughs up blood between sips of Pabst and is physically humiliated in old age. What he lacks in muscle fiber he makes up for in vitriol against the world.

Beaten-down Thao (Bee Vang) and dragon lady Sue (Ahney Her) move in next door. Sue’s plucky frankness and Thao’s willingness to be influenced by the Philip Roth-ian Great Man of Walt eventually win over the reluctant old Polack in equal amounts.

American film goers are familiar with the urban hard-man Dirty Harry, arguably Clint Eastwood’s most iconic character. Though the Dirty Harry movies look a whole lot like one of them dime-a-dozen cop-flicks of our day, I’d say Dirty Harry as a character is conflicted like an O.G. Jason Bourne, but tougher, more brazen and more American. Harry and Bourne are two men against the world in their quest for justice and truth; in the process they are either alienated from everyone or they alienate themselves.

The forces of Law and Order are no more than red tape for Dirty Harry; the law’s strong arm is too restrained and the courts are simply too slow to effectively deal with all the evil abounding in the world. So Dirty Harry executes his own cowboy justice in a world gone all soft.

Now, my big thesis when writing this reflection was going to say that Gran Torino shows Dirty Harry, this time in the body of Walk Kowalski, coming to peace with the powers that be. But when searching for various photos of Clint holding a firearm, I came upon the salon.com review of the film, which says, ” The ending is a too carefully calculated apologia for Dirty Harry.” I was disappointed to see someone else coming to this conclusion so dismissively, so now I really must elucidate further.

When the defenseless Thao gets bullied by the neighborhood’s Hmong gangsters, Clint thrills audiences by pulling out a shotgun and pointing it right at one of the hoodlum’s heads. The movie demands respect for the man with a gun; on one hand it glorifies manly violence by portraying Walt as a legitimate threat and a figure who terrifies even the toughest of young gangstas. But the other hand takes away this respect when we learn to see Walt as a dying and bitter old man.

Walt is simultaneously tough and pathetic, and for the majority of the movie the audience is pulled into the Dirty Harry tug-of-war. Indeed, it asks us, “Is vigilantism the only true justice?”

If Salon thinks Gran Torino is a “calculated apologia,” they would be implying the answer to my questions would be “yes,” for Dirty Harry and “no,” for Gran Torino.

But let’s establish this: In neither film are we supposed to respect or trust the police. In both films we are drawn by Clint’s sharp-dart eyes, quick tongue and old testament sense of justice.

SPOILER ALERT:

In the end, sure, Walt lets the police be the actors of justice.

But is it only because he’s old? Were Walt’s world a different shape–were there fewer AK47s on Detroit streets, were he a little less decrepit, were death less near–would he have sacrificed himself, or would he have assembled a few like-minded vigilantes, driven to the gangstas house and had a good old fashioned shoot out? Is Clint suggesting that old age forces old men to come to terms with law and order out of necessity, or is he suggesting that old men come to this conclusion because it’s the right one?

PROBABLY NOT WITH THIS GUN IN YOUR FACE
PROBABLY NOT WITH THIS GUN IN YOUR FACE