Arena: Andrei Tarkovsky

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More slow cinema. The Antonioni documentary was broadcast by the BBC in their regular Arena arts strand, as was this 50-minute profile from 1987. Andrei Tarkovsky is a favourite Arena of mine, one I’ve watched many times over the years, whether original broadcast, VHS tape or digitised copy. As with the Antonioni film it’s one of many such episodes which functions as an ideal introduction to its subject.

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1986 was the year of Tarkovsky’s untimely death so Charlie Pattinson’s documentary served as a memorial as well as a celebration of a director whose reputation had been growing throughout the decade. I love the way this one starts cold with a series of clips from all seven of the feature films; no comment required. Further clips follow but the real value is in the extracts from interviews and talks given by the director which punctuate the biographical chronology. The first of these is a declaration of Tarkovsky’s belief that film-making is a unique medium in its ability to capture and assemble temporal moments, something he explored in depth in his book, Sculpting in Time. In his talks and his writings he can often seem overly serious when discussing his work, especially in a world where film-making is largely regarded as merely another division of the entertainment industry. But he regarded both art and film-making as serious affairs, and many of his films required considerable effort to be made at all. Hollywood has long been notorious for confounding the endeavours of maverick directors but the apparatchiks at Goskino were seldom better, continually rejecting new proposals or interfering with the films after they were made; Tarkovsky’s diaries are filled with accounts of his struggles with the bureaucrats who oversaw film production. When he wasn’t fighting censorship attempts or refusals to release a new film he was dealing with other refusals to approve his projects altogether. We’re fortunate that Stalker exists at all when most of the exterior footage needed to be reshot after the negative was ruined by incompetent processing. This calamity wasn’t the director’s fault but Goskino were reluctant at first to let him finish the film. These constant struggles eventually compelled him to leave the Soviet Union in order to make films elsewhere, a painful decision which is discussed in the final part of Pattinson’s documentary by the director’s wife and production assistant, Larisa. The pair were allowed to leave the country but they were also forced to do so without their young son, a typically cruel and petty punishment by the Soviet authorities.

In the Antonioni post I mentioned that Tarkovsky’s present popularity is sustained by Solaris and Stalker much more than by his other films. People who only know the director from his excursions into science fiction may be surprised to hear him dismiss Solaris as his least successful feature on a personal level. Documentaries such as this may encourage some of those viewers to explore the rest of his filmography.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Zone music
Sine Fiction
Rerberg and Tarkovsky: The Reverse Side Of “Stalker”
The Stalker meme

Dear Antonioni…

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Sit through the credits for Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life and you’ll be rewarded at the very end with a written suggestion: “If you have enjoyed this film, why not go and see La Notte?” The joke being that a notoriously sombre offering from Michelangelo Antonioni is the antithesis of a laugh riot. In 1983 you could still poke fun at a director whose films were acclaimed as well as derided for being slow and serious; in 2022 this no longer seems likely. Antonioni hasn’t exactly been forgotten but his visibility as a cultural signifier has deflated considerably since his final feature in 1997, and the cinematic landscape has changed a great deal since 1983. The most significant change where Antonioni’s films are concerned is the way in which the techniques that once set him apart from many other directors have been thoroughly absorbed into the language of cinema. His predilection for sustained shots, for posing his characters in striking landscapes or architectural spaces, for refusing to offer simple explanations for the behaviour of those characters; none of this seems as radical as it did in the 1960s. We have a sub-genre today known as “slow cinema“, a form which Antonioni’s films helped make possible. It’s easy to characterise these aspects of the Antonioni oeuvre as running counter to a Hollywood that prefers everything to be swiftly delivered and comprehensible. But Antonioni’s techniques have followed the course of any aesthetic innovation which in time becomes a part of the available range of options for an artist, wherever that artist may be situated.

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In 1963 Stanley Kubrick put La Notte on a list of 10 favourite films, and there’s a case to be made that 2001: A Space Odyssey is science fiction filtered through Antonioni’s sensibility; or there would be if Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke were more concerned with human beings. A better candidate for SF Antonioni-style is Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, and there’s a further case to be made that the continued popularity (or visibility) of Tarkovsky’s films is one of the main reasons we hear less today about the man Tarkovsky named in his diaries as “the best Italian director working today”. The first film Tarkovsky made after he left the Soviet Union was Nostalgia, a drama about a Russian writer in Italy that was co-written with Antonioni’s regular screenwriter, Tonino Guerra. (The pair began work on the Nostalgia screenplay while staying at Antonioni’s house.) Tarkovsky’s films are just as serious and slow as Antonioni’s, more so in most cases, but Tarkovsky remains visible because we’re living in a world where once-disreputable genres, science fiction in particular, are now a dominant form, and Tarkovsky just happened to make two cult science-fiction films. It’s difficult to imagine Antonioni being nakedly generic but Blow-up is partly a murder mystery, albeit one that refuses satisfactory explanation, while The Passenger is an extenuated thriller with all the dynamics pared away, and with the climactic event taking place while the camera is looking elsewhere. In Il Deserto Rosso Monica Vitti loses her mind in the industrial wastelands of Ravenna accompanied by the buzzes and whines of Vittorio Gelmetti’s electronic score. There’s nothing overtly science fictional about this but the film would make a fitting companion to a screening of Stalker.

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All of which brings us to Dear Antonioni…, a 90-minute documentary by Gianni Massironi which serves as an ideal introduction to the director and his works. The film was a co-production with the BBC, made to coincide with the release of Antonioni’s final feature, Beyond the Clouds, in 1997. Dear Antonioni… is also the title of an open letter to the director by Roland Barthes, passages from which are read by several of Antoninio’s actors. The readings punctuate a chronological examination of the director’s career, from his early documentaries and excursions into Neo-Realism to the features that established his reputation. If it had been made ten years earlier it might have hastened my appreciation of his films.

During my erratic self-education into the works of European directors I had a hard time getting used to Antonioni. I liked The Passenger very much, had a grudging respect for Blow-up, hated Zabriskie Point until the final 20 minutes or so, and for a long time regarded L’Avventura as over-rated. But my old video lists tell me that I taped this documentary anyway because I felt the problem was more a result of my own impatience rather than anything in the films themselves. A further problem was getting to see some of the films at all. I’ve mentioned before how difficult it used to be to appraise the work of directors outside the Anglosphere if you weren’t living in a city with a decent arts cinema. Il Deserto Rosso was never on TV, neither were La Notte or L’Eclisse, two major features which I still haven’t seen. The latter pair are mentioned in Dear Antonioni… but no clips are shown which makes me wonder if they were subject to a rights dispute like the one that kept several Hitchcock films out of circulation for many years. Antonioni himself is only present in historic interview footage but there’s plenty of production commentary from his screenwriters, Tonino Guerro, Sam Shepard, and Mark Peploe, plus more actors and collaborators including Monica Vitti, David Hemmings and Vanessa Redgrave. I’d also forgotten that Alain Robbe-Grillet turns up to present a lucid argument for Antonioni’s films as “Modern” (or Modernist) works in contrast to the Hollywood idiom exemplified by Alfred Hitchcock. I won’t attempt a précis of Robbe-Grillet’s remarks, it’s easier to suggest you hear them for yourself. Whether you’re a neophyte or an aficionado this is an unfailingly intelligent and absorbing study.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Michelangelo Antonioni, 1912–2007

Weekend links 408

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Kujaku (2018) by Yasuto Sasada.

• “The Ernst picture [Of This Men Shall Know Nothing] has also been interpreted as depicting sexual alchemy, which also ties in with much of Peter Grey’s writing on Babalon and the goddess’ connection to sexual magic and the three ‘Fs’: f(e)asting, flagellation and fucking!” Hawthonn’s Phil & Layla Legard talk to Folk Horror Revival about their superb new album, Red Goddess (of this men shall know nothing).

• South London “Psychic Circuit”: A walk with London writer Iain Sinclair inspired by cult writer Steve Moore—from Shooter’s Hill and the Shrewsbury burial mound to Charlton House then Maryon Park and the locations used in Antonioni’s Blow Up.

• Czech filmmaker Juraj Herz, director of The Cremator (1969) and Morgiana (1972), died last week. One of his later films, The Ninth Heart (1978), featured an animated title sequence by Jan Svankmajer and Eva Svankmajerova.

• The week in psychedelic visuals: Ben Marks on Bill Ham’s San Francisco light shows (a piece from 2016), and Dangerous Minds on Astralvision’s Electric Light Voyage (1979), a light show on Betamax tape.

• “From glaciers to nuclear bunkers, photographer Chloe Dewe Mathews descends into the dark heart of the Swiss mountains that inspired Mary Shelley.”

• Mix of the week: Secret Thirteen Mix 250 by Sote, and XLR8R Podcast 537 by SNTS.

When The Horses Were Shorn Of Their Hooves, new music by Dylan Carlson.

Emily Temple on Edward Gorey’s illustrated covers for literary classics.

Hidden Hydrology: Coil’s Lost Rivers studio sessions.

Tube: Minimalist YouTube search

Sukhdev Sandhu is In Wild Air

• Lost Roads (1988) by Bill Laswell | Lost Sanctum (1994) by Lull | Lost Ways (2016) by Pye Corner Audio

Weekend links 279

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Untitled painting by Jen Ray.

• Lots of architecture links this week so it’s fitting that one of them is director Ben Wheatley talking to David Fear about his forthcoming film of JG Ballard’s High-Rise: “I was just thinking about this the other day, how hard it was to get a hold of stuff before the Internet. You really had to hunt down stuff or have someone who knew what was up to say, ‘You gotta read Naked Lunch, mate. You gotta read Crash.’ […] They were secretive things you had to ferret out, those books. It was the same with music and certain movies. And drugs.” Related: Souvenir d’un Futur, photographs by Laurent Kronental of the high-rise banlieues of Paris.

• “In Ancient Egypt, if a lowly official received the glyph of an owl from the Pharaoh, it was understood that the recipient should take his own life.” Carey McHugh in a brief history of the owl.

• I’d always thought the red buildings seen briefly in Blow-Up (1966) had been painted to Antonioni’s orders. Not so, says Another Nickel In The Machine.

He belongs right up there with Poe and Kafka. The best writer of weird fiction in the past half century. And the reason he belongs there is Ligotti’s both visceral and intellectual, formally experimental and able to tell a traditional horror story with equal ease. He’s also modernized the weird tale, from his early work on. The later workplace stories complete that process. The other thing he brings is a very dark sense of humor and a sense of the absurdity of the world—and a critique of that world that serves as subtext. All of these elements in harmony—symbiosis and contamination—equal genius. I read his work in a continuum that includes Kafka, Poe, Angela Carter, Bruno Schulz, Rikki Ducornet, and the great Caitlin R. Kiernan, but also absurdists and realists and flat-out surrealists. I appreciate that Ligotti stories can be revisited and reveal new dimensions.

Jeff VanderMeer on Thomas Ligotti

David Ferry talks to the people trying to excavate the remains of sets from Cecil B. DeMille’s first film of The Ten Commandments.

• As part of the ongoing vinyl reissue deluge, Crammed Discs are releasing a 10-disc box of albums by the great Tuxedomoon.

• At Strange Flowers: I see for it is night, remembering Marie Cermínová, better known as Surrealist artist Toyen.

Blue Sun Chiming, an animated video by Elisa Ambrogio for the song of that name by Six Organs of Admittance.

• At BLDGBLOG: Occult Infrastructure and the “Funerary Teleportation Grid” of Greater London.

• Enigmatic music makers Watch Repair are now selling their works at Bandcamp.

• Video by Harald Albrigtsen of whales basking under the Northern Lights.

• The urban explorations of Russian photographer Ralph Mirebs.

• Mix of the week: Secret Thirteen Mix 164 by Discipula.

The lost rivers that lie beneath London

Egypt (1985) by Tuxedomoon | Whales Tails (1986) by Cocteau Twins | London’s Lost Rivers (1996) by Coil

Wavelength

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Thanks be to YouTube for once more resurrecting moments of underground cinema which would otherwise be very difficult to see. Wavelength (1967) is Michael Snow’s experimental masterwork, a 45-minute zoom across a New York loft that ends on a photograph of waves that fills the screen. This recipe for ennui is not without incident: we see a bookcase being installed, someone plays a Beatles record—Strawberry Fields Forever—a man breaks into the apartment and collapses. (He may be dead but we never find out.) Throughout this, the film is subject to flashes of colour filtering, moments of negative inversion and sudden flares of light. For at least half the running time the sound is replaced by a droning oscillator tone which rises inexorably the closer the camera brings us to its destination.

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Between these events there’s plenty of time to meditate upon the meaning of the title: the various wavelengths of sound and light, the distance across the room to the view of the waves, the waves themselves. It’s a fascinating film which is linked for me (and may have influenced) two other takes on the long take: JG Ballard’s short story The 60 Minute Zoom (1976), in which a man monitors his wife’s infidelity from a hotel balcony, and the celebrated shot at the end of Antonioni’s The Passenger (1975) when Jack Nicholson’s character is assassinated off-screen in another hotel room while the camera floats miraculously through the iron bars of the window. You can see Wavelength in full here. I’d recommend watching it full-screen, it requires immersion.

Previously on { feuilleton }
() by Morgan Fisher
La Région Centrale
Downside Up