Friday, 16 March 2012

STALKER - Andrei Tarkovsky

Andrei Tarkovsky – Stalker –  seen at the Cinema – The Star and Shadow: a volunteer led cinema in Newcastle (4/3/12) :

‘My discovery of Tarkovsky’s first film was like a miracle. Suddenly, I found myself standing at the door of a room, the keys of which had, until then, never been given to me. It was a room I had always wanted to enter and where he was moving freely and fully at ease. I felt encouraged and stimulated: someone was expressing what I had always wanted to say without knowing how. Tarkovsky is for me the greatest, the one who invented a new language, true to the nature of film, as it captures life as a reflection, life as a dream.’
                                                                                                - Ingmar Bergman

9pm on a Sunday evening is perhaps not the optimum timing for a slow, 3 hour Russian epic…but then, when is? Made in 1979, following the more fragmented Mirror, Stalker clocks in at 161 minutes of pure, undiluted, vision. The story (loosely adapted from the novel Roadside Picnic, written by Arkady and Boris Strugatski), takes place in the parched sepia/monochrome tones of a dystopian future. However, the sci-fi element is repressed in favour of a more meditative and allegorical feel (no special effects, no space, no aliens…and little in the way of a delivered dramatic climax). A character, named the ‘Stalker’, leads two other men (given the names of the ‘Writer’ and the ‘Professor’) out of the bleak and crumbling setting of general urban decay – into a terrain of fields, flourishing flora and rivers. He is showing them the way to the ‘Zone’. The ‘Zone’, in a nod to the film’s original sci-fi roots, is a dangerous landscape in which some unspecified civilization has left the ominous ‘Room’. The ‘Room’ (in keeping with monosyllabic mystery) is meant to grant the innermost desires of whoever enters it. The creation of the ‘Zone’ (and its ‘Room’) led to the vocation of the ‘Stalker’, a figure chosen to guide people to the ‘Room’. The ‘Stalker’ is shrouded in unspecified religious connotations; a man weathered by sorrow and repentance driven by a faith in his role and purpose to facilitate this ambiguous pilgrimage.

 So, in short (a phrase alien to such a film) it’s not exactly a film committed to audience enjoyment. Tarkovsky famously said: ‘I am only interested in the views of two people: one is called Bresson and one called Bergman’. Subsequently Stalker is low on explosions…sex scenes…fights…and, well, any sort of kinetic energy. But it is, without a doubt a monumental achievement that manages to readjust attention spans into a near hypnotic state, in which concepts of time relax and magnify to create a viewing experience that mirrors the arduous journey of the film’s protagonists. Granted I had moments of exasperated boredom, moments in which I was silently urging Tarkovsky to call upon shock, or visit the sort of surrealism that punctuates Mirror. However, ultimately this is a film that manages to resist short-term aesthetic temptations in order to live with the viewer, breathe, roam and open up, suggesting a cinematic landscape beyond the film’s parameters. This is not simply a film you watch, leave and move on from. It is an investment and a challenge, yet despite its demanding nature, it offers also some of the most beautiful shots I’ve ever seen in a film. Shots that are made all the more powerful through their startling juxtaposition to the slow, almost mundane wandering that occupy the rest of the film. The last shot of the film, without giving anything away, manages to effortlessly conjure a sense of magic, peace and mystery that really stands as a testament to Tarkovsky’s deeply poetic feel for a single take’s development.

 The mention of poetry, rather than embodying a romanticised exaggeration of indulgent, anal dwelling, Russian reverence…is instead very relevant (honest!). Andrei’s father was a poet, and Andrei himself often considered giving up film to pursue writing, conceding that conceiving the film and the early stages of its contemplation gave him far more pleasure than actually making the film. This comes through, not only in the use of poetry in his films, but in the weighty pondering of the script. Along their journey, finding less than convenient spots to chat (casually sprawled across boggy mud, or lying in puddles, puddles of such devastating scale and miserable gravitas that they could only be Russian…these are no pavement dwelling Western puddles, or the sort of puddle that might ruin your day or prove a disheartening, trouser endangering, shoe invading dampness…these are puddles that soak the very soul! Puddles that seep into bones and gradually erode the ability to smile with the rippled history of years of oppression: literally the worst kind of puddles) the dialogue ranges across notions of art, suffering and inspiration. 

However, this is not to say that there are not moments of absurd comedy. Having finally reached the dilapidated, half flooded building in which resides ‘The Room’, the philosophy of their journey, the seriousness of their fate and the decaying grandeur of the building are all punctured by the unexpected ringing of a telephone. This intrusion of the pedestrian phone call manages to dispel the mystic spell of over 2 hours of solemnity with a shrill reminder, each man is inherently ridiculous. We are all ridiculous, silly, misguided, puddle ridden, stumbling examples of inadequacy. Like the characters in Stalker, we are all keen to peek above our own moronic mortal meanderings and glimpse some sort of meaning, to transcend, to find our innermost desires. What Stalker , so impressively articulates, is that it is that process of looking that defines us ,and compels us to live, not what is found or exists beyond our finding. Or, in laymen’s terms: aint the destination but the journey! After the gargantuan journey, ‘The Room’ pales from a beacon of promise to an anti-climax best left untouched, or an unknown too dangerous to enter, an infinity of possibilities that maybe, maybe should be destroyed?

A book has recently come out by Geoff Dyer, entitled ‘Zona’, which follows the film scene by scene- digressing in and out of the author’s memories, life and his views on the film. If you are at all interested in Stalker it is definitely worth a browse! What Dyer brilliantly achieves is a page turning book, of humour and wit, about a potentially over intellectualised and daunting film. Instead of pandering to a grovellingly verbose sense of Tarkovsky reverence, or using the film as an unwitting springboard for academic narcissism, he makes it, simply, a fun read! This in itself is a great achievement. However, I did find at times a mild disappointment at his unwillingness to expand on certain scenes in the film, seeming often too reliant upon the notion that Tarkovsky never intended his films to be interpreted symbolically…i.e. adopting a kind of ‘it is what it is’ attitude. In my opinion this hinders the book’s ability to communicate the film’s lasting power. That is being pretty pedantic though and, for a book about a single (and potentially inaccessible) film – it is a successfully entertaining, thoughtful and unique book. 


The Stalker’s wife gives a monologue near the end of the film. She turns to the camera and begins her story. Having calmed her broken, desperate and confused husband, she begins to explain the nature of their relationship. She seems grubby, ragged and tired, but desperate to maker her undying devotion known. Her speech is candid and directed at the camera, at the viewer, breaking the fourth wall in a way that seems closer to documentary than theatrics:

WIFE: You know your Mum was dead against it. You had already learned I expect, that he’s God’s fool… the whole neighbourhood was laughing at him…he was such a pitiful bungler…And Mum used to say ‘He’s a Stalker, a condemned man, always under arrest, and remember what sort oft children Stalkers have…’But what could I do?  I was sure I’d be fine with him – I knew, of course, that there’d be a lot of grief too, but bitter happiness is better than a depressing, grey life – or maybe I just told myself that afterwards. But he just came up to me and said ‘Come with me.’ And off I went. And I’ve not regretted it once. Not once! I’ve felt bad, I’ve felt terror, I’ve felt shame. But even so, I never had any regrets, nor envied others- that’s just how fate was, how life was, how we were. Even if our life were without grief, it wouldn’t be any better for it. It would be worse. Because it would also be without happiness, and without hope.’
                                                - taken from the screenplay, in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Collected Screenplays, trans. William Powell and Natasha Synessios (New York: Faber and Faber, 1999) ,p.415.

Tarkovsky later wrote, in response to this scene and the film’s end: ‘In Stalker I make a complete statement – namely, that human love is the miracle capable of withstanding any dry theorisation about the hopelessness of the world. This feeling is our common and incontrovertible positive possession. But we no longer know how to love…’
                                                - Cited by Natasha Synessios, in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Collected Screenplays, trans. William Powell and Natasha Synessios (New York: Faber and Faber, 1999) ,p.379.

Friday, 2 March 2012

Sir Reginald Moonface

Sir Reginald Moonface was a pretty labrador. He had bright eyes, a wet nose and an inoperable tumour. The tumour billowed impressively from underneath his jawline, not dissimiliar from the distended bulge of a croaking frog. Reginald lived in a kennel fashioned from toothpicks, mud and an assortment of dry leaves. He had a red collar and a pleasingly shiny nametag. The nametag read: Sir Reginald. His owner had neither the time nor inclination to add 'Moonface'.
    He was, by any standards, a forward thinking labrador. Reluctant to urinate in public, unimpressed by frisbees and cautious around water, his owner thought him a curious specimen - bordering on dull. Perhaps one of Reginald's most notably progressive and distinguishing traits was his tolerance of cats. Tired and frankly insulted by the expectation that a dog should chase a cat, that canine should be matched against feline, that pooch should be enraged by a fluffy tailed whiskered nemisis, and the entailing charade of cartoon connotations of an ultimately humiliated, salivating and panting dog - Reginald instead strived to pioneer a more sophisticated perspective. On seeing a cat (nextdoor there was a paticularly smug and eccentric siamese, named Isobella), he would craft a profound look that, neither confrontational nor hospitable, suggested 'you do your thing...I'll do mine'
    Reginald was an indulgently ecclectic soul. His palate was paticularly obscure, favouring as he did, the taste of anchovies on toast, pienapple yoghurt (increasingly hard to find - to Reginald's dismay) and of course an array of varied faecal dishes. He had, from an early age, been an avid collector. In his delightful cabinet of curiosities, Reginald had proudly amassed a small gallery of oddities. He had gathered acorns, a blue polythene bag, two Tanzinian postage stamps dated from '98, one prophylactic sheath (ribbed), a pair of half moon spectacles, a photo frame - without a photo, a long dead juvenile crow, a fraying length of rope, three average sized marbles, a stuffed trout, anonymous love letters found in a small casket by the river, one train ticket to Bognor Regis, a partially chewed scarf, and...a much coveted collection of Portugese military memorobilia. Each night, before turning in two anti-clockwise circles and collapsing to sleep with a sigh, Reginald would behold his treasures with near paternal pride. In a nightly perusal of his gathered trinkets, he would pay closest attention to the military memorobilia; nudging each medal, badge or propaganda based pamphlet into prime position with the delicate inching of his wet nose.
    Reginald lived in the small town of Snodland, situated on the A228 in the reasonable county of Kent.Snodland was formerly home to Thomas Fletcher Waghorn (1800-50) a postal pioneer who courageously shortened the overland route between England and India to a,  back then astonishing, brevity of 45 days. More recently it has been the cherished hometown of white reggae singer Judge Dread (real name Alex Hughes 1945-98). Reginald never cared for the Dread's music, but was humbled by the monumental success of Waghorn, in the parameters of his postal service. Sir Reginald Moonface would often, with the aid of  port and good company, wax lyrical regarding the overlooked merits of Chopin's chamber pieces. However come midnight he could be found rolling in a puddle of his own making, slurring the words to 'Mr Brightside' and other such overplayed wonders.
   Without warning Reginald would often disappear, disturbingly this could render whole weeks un accountable for. At least once a month Reginald would find himself face down in a foreign hedgerow with no recollection of where, why or how. On returning home he would take heightened comfort in his toothpick kennel, hoard of acorns, marbles, long dead crow and military memorobilia. It was in those moments, with great and undiluted affirmation Sir Reginald Moonface took great pleasure in reacquainting himself with himself.
Sir Reginald Moonface - he let the phonetic opulence of his title languish on his pink ham tongue. Sir Reginald Moonface was an undeniably singular labrador. Sir Reginald Moonface. An accomplished dog. Reginald. Lathered in the echoes of aristocracy. Sir Reginald. Perfumed in the nuanced aromas of smeared scents. Moonface. A deity unto himself. A labrador. Sir Reginald. Content and established. Himself, no other. Sir Reginald Moonface. A rare example of an animal at ease with its own transgressive being, far exceeding the conventional labrador template...and with such pride, such dignity, such assured aplomb! Sir Reginald Moonface - how you impress. With a satisfied grunt Sir Reginald Moonface settled into the pillow of his ungainly tumour. Both silken eyelids drooped, and before long he was twitching in that way only dogs can; the somnambulant jerk of the dog dream. Not even Reginald was beyond that. In dream, he liked to speculate, we are all equal and rightly revert ,with hedonistic abandon, to our instincts...and so, with a sizeable globule of saliva dangling from his awkwardly placed head, front paws scrabbling at the air, he whimpered into the night: a dog like any other.

Thursday, 1 March 2012


And so, tis that time of Film logging adrenaline in which, with nimble fingers tapping and myopic screen staring scrutiny, the mollusc imparts his viewing documentation. It may not be interesting, it may not be entertaining, may not even be worth your time (pretty much a given)...but my God it sure is...a film log. So, without further equivocation...It has been a month of opportunities missed...I wanted to see 'Martha Marcy May Marmaduke Marigold Jeff Marlene' (or words to that effect)...but missed it, missed i tells ya! Still, I have high hopes for that...and shall definitely be seeking it out on DVD. I was also intrigued by Polanski's 'Carnage', and so - naturally - missed that too. I didn't want to see 'War Horse' and so, in missing that..succeeded to a certain degree..? Anyway, equestrian evading elitism aside ( 'What's wrong with a Spielberg family tear jerker that delivers the entertainment goods!?' I hear you cry... and Kermode gave it a good review...can't argue with Kermode...and yet I feel, unfairly, I would be rooting for the glue factory from the opening credits...). However, it has been a month of consistently dam gooood films otherwise...For a more expansive overview of the month's films: Concise and informative: two virtues this blog neglects with unrelenting commitment. The Films:

L’AtlanteJean Vigo – Cinema (4/2/12) - Made in 1934, this film is often beautiful, continually hilarious, touching, and effortlessly ahead of its time. Following a recently married couple and their life upon a barge, the film combines a joyous innocence (played out through the casual acrobatics of undeniably cute kittens, young love, roughish drunkards, bad tattoos, Parisian romanticism-and an eye for brilliant and eccentric characters) with moments of surrealism ( noticeable in a startling underwater scene,  the erotically charged implication of quick cut parallel scenes, a fascination with the odd, the cluttered mementoes of travel…ranging from tribal masks, nude photos, severed hands in a jar, antiquarian musical boxes and a grotesque puppet…to the cluttered crockery of an old sailor with a magpie’s mentality). 9/10

Le Quattro Volte -  Michelangelo Frammartino – DVD (5/2/12) – A rare example of a film that by-passes dialogue and the structure of character narratives in favour of cyclical observation. In a sense characters still exist; it’s just that the characters in this film exist through nature and the natural, as opposed to human interaction. The film follows a goat herder, a goat and a tree (with inspiring cameos from a sheepdog and an impressive gathering of snails). Evoking notions of reincarnation, the film uses long static shots-allowing the natural world (hillsides/rustic lanes/swaying trees/morphing clouds/sweeping shadows) to play out in its own time. A film that is moving, funny and beautiful (in ways which deserve such overused and sweeping terms). Through its inherent slowness, our relationship with the film (and the concept of film) is changed to allow a very peaceful, contemplative interaction with simple (but easily overlooked) epiphanies of the natural world. From a swirling cloud of dust, caught and illuminated in a shaft of light, to the entertaining, funny and emotive antics of the baby goats. A genuinely different and uplifting feat of cinema. 9/10

Tinker Tailor Soldier SpyTomas Alfredson – DVD (14/2/12) – A fantastic cast, supported by a developed and interesting score ensure the film’s, admittedly complex, plot maintains its compulsive and hypnotic momentum. However, being somewhat incompetent at following convoluted and tricky espionage based films, my enjoyment was at times compromised by a generally bewildered inability to follow the sophisticated array of deceptions, characters and scenarios. Alas- my concentration span and grasp of all things logical impedes my focus…and before you know it, I am scrutinizing inconsequential details (like what brand of mint Gary Oldman is, so profoundly, popping into his mouth), while managing to only tenuously get the gist of who was leaking what to who, when and why. My struggle to maintain a rational interpretation of unfolding events, entirely reflective of my own plot flustering flaws, detracted from the film’s impact-it is, meanwhile a credit to the director’s assured control of scenes and appropriately cold and sober style that I was (confusion aside) hooked throughout. Therefore, for those in possession of the assets of plot following calculations (i.e. probably most people bar myself…give me a warped, dream/reality, mind fracturing, art-house introspective voyage and I’m fine…a concrete plot with intricate details…and yup, I’ll descend into a distracted pondering of mint related observations) I highly recommend it! So, it probably deserves an 8/10…but (through no fault of the film…and merely as a quirk of my own shameful stupidity) it gets a less exciting, undeserved – 7/10
The Woman in BlackJames Watkins – Cinema (20/2/12) – With 6 seconds shaved from its original cut, to reduce the rating from a 15 to a more profitable Potter crossover 12A audience, the film remains a chilling and effective jump-fest. Although hardly reinventing the well-worn ghostly tropes; indulging in an admirable buffet of formulaic genre games, from creaking floorboards, ill-advised solitary wandering and the unreliable candle flickering in the shadows , to creepy children, the chipped glass stare of  neglected dolls and an obligatory hostile community of oddball fuckwits. However, while not pioneering any new ground…it doesn’t need to. Within the parameters of the type of film it is (a standard suspense saturated gothic chiller…a type of horror that, in its lack of ‘torture porn’ aspirations, or anguished laboured psychology, arrives with a refreshing nostalgia – befitting of the ‘Hammer’ brand), the film readily delivers. It is, in short, fun. Daniel Radcliffe provides a solid performance which, while hardly the sort of role that requires challenging diversity, is nevertheless executed with consistent success. In style and tone the film sits somewhere between The Others and The Orphanage, more engaging than the former and less memorably accomplished than the latter (to be fair, The Orphanage is an exciting, progressive and brilliantly shot emotional film…as opposed to The Woman in Black, which is a successful exercise in genre). 7/10 (see...this is where ratings become misleading...7/ good as 'Tinker Tailor..'? Well, not really...but within the boundaries of its own intentions...7/10 enjoyment factor!)

Raging BullMartin Scorsese – DVD (21/2/12) – Robert De Niro lends the film an uncompromising, committed and magnetic focus through his performance as Jake La Motta. He exhibits the infamous body change: impressively toned and muscled boxer at his height transformed into a tragic belly-bearing and paranoid sleazy embarrassment. Brutal fight sequences, terrific tension engineered through fraught relationships and some arresting use of slow-mo. with black and white. Unfortunately the sound on my DVD occasionally decided to abandon certain scenes…leaving De Niro enigmatically and with soundless conviction mouthing…well…I have no idea. Blasted technological wankery. Still, this was only on a couple of isolated and short moments-which, due to the film’s all round brilliance, did not reduce my enjoyment. A very different tone than Goodfellas and Cassino -  LaMotta’s doomed and violent character injects the film with an uncomfortable and worrying presence, around which everything else unravels.  7.5/10

The Edge of Heaven Faith Akin – DVD ( 23/2/12) – A masterfully constructed drama which deservedly won ‘Best Screenplay’ at Cannes in 2007. An old man, (short, cheeky swagger, flat cap and tight polo shirt under a generic tracksuit top: prime ‘European old man, sitting at a plastic table playing cards outside a cafĂ© and gurning happily as life goes past’ material…not to stereotype…but he had that grinning carefree, characterful glint; shrunken and old but still chasing waitresses, in a way it seems English old folk can’t quite manage. It seems the English oldies (as stereotyped) are resigned to a shuffling stoicism, punctuated by occasional grumbling or enthusiastic anecdotes about daytime gameshows…ANYWHO….this old man was that particular European strain of old…apologies, this tangent is bordering on, if not completely, irrelevant) wanders, nay, struts, into what is obviously a pretty grim red light district. On finding his prostitute of choice, he eventually (after several later visits) offers to pay as much as she makes, if she will live with him. All she has to do is live with him…and (he emphasises with priority) fuck him. We meet the old man’s son, a university professor who begins to doubt his vocation, and doubts, even further, any remaining integrity in his father’s choices. What then follows is an unfolding drama in which three families intertwine through chance and choice, exploring separate cultures, generations, politics and relationships. It is an ambitious and brilliantly executed drama, drawing lives together with believable and tragic consequences. From a young political activist, a lonely mother, and the life changing thrill of unexpected meetings, everything is balanced with intricate measure and set in motion by the old man’s unorthodox relationship with the prostitute. It also features a really interesting soundtrack that corresponds to the varying cultures with authentic and (little heard over ‘ere like…or condemned to the expansive and reductive ‘world music’ section) memorable choices. 8/10

Tony Takitani- Jun Ichikawa – DVD (28/2/12) – A beautiful film based on a Haruki Murakami short story and, like Murakami’s style, the film manages a simple and elegant sense of poetry through an understated existential melancholy. The film is simple, haunting and successfully evocative of Murakami’s masterful ability to be at once movingly human and intriguingly bizarre. Also features a suitably tragic, poignant and minimalist piano soundtrack by Ryuichi Sakamoto. 8/10