Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Film in New Haven: Boris Barnet's By the Bluest of Seas (1936)

In spite of his own insistence that director Boris Barnet might be “heretically counterproposed” as the “greatest of all Russian filmmakers,” [1] and the consent of no less an authority than French critic and filmmaker Jacques Rivette who once proclaimed that “Eisenstein apart… Barnet must be considered the best Soviet filmmaker,” [2] British author and film critic Gilbert Adair concedes that Barnet “has never quite made it to the captain’s table of 20th century cinema.” [3] The reason for this neglect in part may begin with Barnet’s complex disposition within Soviet film history: though his directorial career began in the late silent era and extended unabated into the 1960s, Barnet belongs neither to the heroic age of the Soviet silent cinema with its montage filmmaker/theorists Sergei Eisenstein, Lev Kuleshov, Vsevolod Pudovkin and Dziga Vertov, nor to the Russian Thaw (Mikhail Kalatozov, early Andrei Tarkovsky) and its aftermath in the Soviet Republics (Armenia’s Sergei Paradjanov, Georgia’s Otar Iosseliani). In other words, he is not a figure properly of either of the Soviet cinema’s golden ages. Rather, Barnet seems to map more closely onto another, far less esteemed period in the nation’s cinema: namely to the brand of film practice, Socialist Realism, that became mandatory under Josef Stalin. Even so, the best of Barnet’s work from this period – and above all, By the Bluest of Seas (1936) – fits as uncomfortably within the parameters of Socialist Realism as do his silent masterpieces within the tendencies of the Soviet montage cinema. Ironically enough, it is perhaps his final masterwork, 1961’s Alyonka, that best summarizes its age, no doubt because the Soviet cinema had finally caught up to Barnet, not Barnet to his nation’s cinema.

Still, if Barnet fails to exemplify the center of Soviet film practice at its best (particularly in its prewar phase) it is precisely this incongruity that determines the superior quality of his art. Following a short career as a screen actor that began with Kuleshov’s 1924 The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks – perhaps the clearest Soviet influence for Barnet’s early slapstick phase – Barnet directed his “Keatonesque” first feature, 1927’s The Girl with the Hatbox. [4] From this farcical debut by the “father of Soviet comedy,” Barnet’s career-defining emphasis on the emotional lives of his protagonists is already present, as is a structure (and thematic platform) that he will reuse in By the Bluest of Seas: the love triangle. [5] (Abram Room’s less comic Bed and Sofa, from the same year, importantly celebrates the same theme via a ménage à trois structure.) Hence, The Girl with the Hatbox rejects the practice of the collective protagonist that emerges in The Battleship Potemkin (Eisenstein, 1925) and The End of St. Petersburg (Pudovkin, 1927) ahead of Stalin’s related directive.

Barnet’s rarely-screened third feature, The House on Trubnaya Square (1928), exceeds the excellent Girl with the Hatbox in every respect – not the least of which for its’ comic set-pieces: the pounding out of rugs in the tenement becomes hotly contested; the film stock is arrested as a peasant girl is about to be hit by a streetcar, before being reversed in order to explain how the duck she is chasing has arrived in the city; and lastly, dolls respond to this escaped duck via the film’s cutting, as if to lampoon Eisenstein’s intellectual montage. Moreover, The House on Trubnaya Square looks forward to Vertov’s The Man with a Movie Camera (1929) in its exposition of a city waking. Of course, Barnet’s city, though ravishingly photography – particularly after a rainfall has wet its streets – is populated significantly with dingy apartment houses that do as much to mock Soviet living conditions as will Ernst Lubitsch’s latter-day Ninotchka (1939). Indeed, it is here, as well as in Barnet’s sympathetic portrayal of his simpleton female protagonist, that the director’s subversive program materializes. Thus, it contains all of those elements that make the director’s cinema so singular within its national context: The House on Trubnaya Square is critical, funny, free and pictorially stunning. For this writer at least, Barnet’s silent opus is one of the greatest Soviet pictures of the 1920s; perhaps its only true equal is Vertov’s The Man with a Movie Camera.

Nevertheless, as perfect a comedy as it may be, The House on Trubnaya Square does not quite mark the director at his absolute peak; this distinction belongs to his mid-1930s masterpiece, By the Bluest of Seas. The film opens (and closes) with what are arguably the most beautifully-shot seascapes in the history of cinema: Barnet and cinematographer Mikhail Kirillov’s camera captures the region’s luminous sunlight as it refracts through the salty air and dances off the translucent Caspian Sea surface. As the surf explodes in slow motion into the misty heavens, the image track becomes as sensuous as that in any visual medium, exposing the film’s intention to procure icons of unsurpassed natural beauty. By the Bluest of Seas might just be said to improve upon the natural world.

Presently, a man is pulled from the inland sea and the spell of the film’s breathtaking beauty is momentarily suspended. Narrative will follow, as will pleasures other than those of looking. Indeed, as the aforesaid gentleman is pulled from the tepid saltwater he warns his savior that he is ticklish, which therefore almost immediately establishes the film’s jocular tone. More slowed footage of the staggering seascape follows, as does an image of the pair dozing in their vessel, before they reach a remote island that will be their home until the pair return to the sea at the picture’s end. With this retreat, Barnet reprises the same human-less subject of his opening imagery, framing what will be otherwise a love triangle – or more properly quadrangle – narrative. In this respect, Barnet seems to follow the lead of Ukrainian master Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s great Earth (1930).

Where Barnet departs from Dovzhenko, and indeed from so much of the cinema of the era, is in its apparent lack of an ideological program, apart again from the subtle dissent implicit in the sacralizing of individual feeling. Upon reaching the shore, our two shipwrecked sailors, one light-haired (Nikolai Kryuchkov as Alyoshka) and one dark (Lev Sverdlin as Yussuf), quickly fall for blonde beauty Misha (Yelena Kuzmina). Staying on to work in the island’s kolkhoz – though Alyoshka’s heartache sidelines him for a time – the pair vies for the attention of their buxom object of desire. She returns their interest with a broad, heart-rending grin, and even a few joy-filled kisses, though ultimately her heart belongs to a missing third. Amidst the film’s ever-palpable eroticism – By the Bluest of Seas is the sexiest of Soviet films [6] – Misha holds out hope that he will return, that he will in effect come back from the dead, transforming By the Bluest of Seas into something of a resurrection story. (As Iosseliani once claimed, Barnet’s picture is a monument to “desire and fidelity.”) [7] Yet, her faith might just mean heartbreak for both of our head-over-heel male protagonists, who have spent the film’s duration crooning of and for their love and dancing shirtless for her attention. Indeed, Barnet’s love quadrangle insures that someone will get hurt.

In the far-removed world of By the Bluest of Seas, the fate of the human heart proves infinitely more consequential than the abstract good of the collective. Life is about love, not labor – just as By the Bluest of Seas is itself about the “love of life.” [8] Accordingly, Barnet’s picture consistently manifests joy across these many emotional pitfalls. By the Bluest of Seas is musical-comedy not only in form, but also in tone. This is to say that while melancholy may be present (and real) in Barnet’s film, it is worn as lightly as the film’s dissent; each remains hidden beneath the film’s shimmering, sun-dappled surfaces. Call it the Barnet touch.

In spite of everything that has been said, By the Bluest of Seas nonetheless remains a surprisingly difficult film to champion, let alone to write about, no doubt because its pleasures are so pure. To any detractors that it may have, present or future – and these fictional “detractors” would argue undoubtedly against its greatness, not its goodness – let us invoke our same original authority, Jacques Rivette, in the context of his remarks on one-time neglected giant of the cinema, Howard Hawks: “the evidence on the screen is the proof of [his] genius.” [9] In the example of By the Bluest of Seas, a better way to state it might be to say simply: the evidence is on the screen. That is, whether one cites the filmmakers’ land and seascape photography, the bodily and performative representation of desire and feeling or the emotional stakes for which the protagonists are playing, the unadulterated pleasures of Barnet’s film are there for those with eyes to see and hearts to feel. This is a film with which to fall in love.

Following By the Bluest of Seas, Barnet’s cinema would not remain so “refreshingly ideology-free,” beyond even his compulsory foray into patriotic subject matter during the Second World War. [10] (The most significant Barnet film omitted until now has been his 1933 Okraina [a.k.a. The Outskirts], which does offer a politically-inflected message in its critique of war; then again, this anti-war theme can be read rather easily along the individualistic lines sketched above, and does little therefore to illuminate his relationship to imposed Socialist Realism.) In his 1951 Bountiful Summer, to cite just one example of the director’s latter-day politicization, “comedy” and “propaganda” are joined to tell the story of a “utopian Ukrainian community” – save for the comedy, this is very literally Dovzhenko terrain. [11] However, with his penultimate Alyonka a decade later, Barnet renews By the Bluest of Seas’ Romanticism in Soviet Asia (the eponymous pre-teen heroine ranks as one of film’s most endearing romantic leads), its predilection for landscape photography (here passing over the golden surfaces of the Steppes), the slapstick origins of his cinema (he speeds up much of the comical classroom anecdotalizing) and finally his characteristic subversive individualism (again the headstrong Alyonka or the trapped housewife, who hangs a Reubens print on her wall to great derision). And then there is the fact that Alyonka is, above all else, hugely entertaining – a quality that it shares with the director’s best, whether it is The Girl with the Hatbox, The House on Trubnaya Square or his supreme By the Bluest of Seas. To refuse to admit to this is to “refuse to be satisfied by proof.” [12]

Update (4/18/2008): Having now seen the film for a third time, I regret not discussing the film's transitional-phase sound. To summarize, By the Bluest of Seas alternates between long, silent passages, often accompanied by recorded music, scenes featuring post-sync dialogue with little to no ambient sound and added intervals featuring individuated sound effects. While this entails a fairly standard transitional product, By the Bluest of Seas' sound strategy reinforces its narrative freedom to combine toward a remarkable formal roughness - not unlike Jean Vigo's L'Atalante (1934). In fact, both films' soundtracks attain a poetic quality, as for instance in the Soviet picture when Misha's act of ripping off her necklace (presented in slow motion) is shown without sound. Much more could and indeed should be said, though at least by making this addendum, I hope to provide a better sense of the film's tone.

Also, in my attempts not to include spoilers, I have underplayed the film's Christian implications. So, to warn of the presence of spoilers now, let me just say that this is not simply a film that trades on faith, or that we have appeals to the male leads on the basis of how they might feel if the situation was to be reversed, but further, a resurrection occurs with Misha's return from the sea: her prolonged reemergence from the surf (amidst the mourning of her death by the members of the "Lights of Communism" kolkhoz and our two protagonists) provides one of the film's most dream-like touches, and one of its greatest outpourings of joy. Also, her return to and then departure from the farm's great hall initiates one of the film's finest comic set-pieces: the awarding of a suit to Yussuf, which Alyoshka uses to get close to his Misha's in the dark-haired gentleman's forced absence. By the Bluest of Seas indeed extends the slapstick humor of its silent antecedents, which is a quality again that is reinforced by the picture's silent-sound hybridity.

[1] Gilbert Adair, “By the Bluest of Seas” in Film: The Critics’ Choice, ed. Geoff Andrew (New York: Billboard Books, 2001): 158.
[2] Jacques Rivette.
[3] Adair, 158.
[4] Ibid.
[5] “The Extraordinary Mr. Barnet."
[6] Adair, 158.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9] The full quote reads “the evidence on the screen is the proof of Hawks’s genius.” Jacques Rivette, “The Genius of Howard Hawks” in Cahiers du Cinéma: The 1950s – Neo-Realism, Hollywood, New Wave, ed. Jim Hiller (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1985): 126.
[10] Adair, 158.
[11] “The Extraordinary Mr. Barnet."
[12] Here the actual quote is as follows: “you only have to watch Monkey Business to know that it is a brilliant film. Some people refuse to admit this, however; they refuse to be satisfied by proof.” Rivette, 126.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Michael Snow & the 1970s Aesthetic of Excess: La Région centrale (1971)

If 1970s film aesthetics was defined by a single common feature, it was the principle of excess. In Hollywood, this quality of excess manifested itself in the further roll-back and transgression of Hays-era prohibitions, leading not only to the so-called Hollywood Renaissance of the late 1960s and early 1970s, but also to the well documented explosion of exploitation cinema. In Japan, the X-rated pink movies of the era bested Hollywood's comparatively mild attempts to create a morally retrograde cinema. India witnessed the emergence of a relatively artless blockbuster cinema to compete with similar developments in Hollywood excesses in their own right - while Europe seem to discount the concept of popular cinema altogether. Indeed, in that latter context, the art film experienced its least commercial instantiation with running times often exceeding the 180-minute mark: Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris (1972) comes in at a lean 165-minutes when compared with Céline and Julie Go Boating's (1974) 190 minutes, Jeanne Dielman's (1976) 201 minute-length, The Mother and the Whore's (1973) 210 minutes, the four hours of Theo Angelopoulos's Travelling Players (1975) and Manoel de Oliveira's Doomed Love (1979), and of course, most spectacularly of all, Jacques Rivette's 773 minute Out One (1971) and its 4-hour abridgement, Out One: Spectre (1972).

Along with Stan Brakhage's Scenes from Under Childhood (1967-1970), Michael Snow's 180-minute La Région centrale (1971) extends this principle of excess to the avant-garde. Of course, it is not simply for the film's punishing duration, but more importantly for the scope of its ambitions - another era hallmark - that La Région centrale rates as one of the defining examples of 1970s film art. Like the cinema of Rivette, Snow's concerns itself foremost with allegorizing his medium's basic ontology. Before expanding on the particulars of this process, however, a brief description of the film's singular technique might be helpful. From IMDb:

[La Région centrale was] entirely shot using a robotized camera set on the top of a mountain in the Canadian wilderness - in winter. The camera was mounted on a mechanical arm that could move in any direction (even upside down). Using instructions recorded on magnetic tape, the filmakers could control the arm's movement, creating short "routines" that had do be checked and programmed daily. During the entire movie the only sound heard are mechanical blips and electronic noises synchronized with the camera movement...

From the start, we see a series of fluid, spiraling camera movements punctuated by jerky in-camera reframings. The shadow of the aforementioned apparatus is visible on the frozen ground. Shortly, the view shifts from a Smithsonesque ("Spiral Jetty") pebble field to the horizon of this Northern Québec locale. As the film continues to unspool, the pre-programmed 'routines' slowly omit more and more of the icy, light blue sky until we are faced with this barring-less color field. At this juncture, the camera movement of the prior passages has become virtually invisible, though it is equally clear that the same strategy continues (which the return of the horizon will soon confirm). In the meantime, Snow's image has collapsed into virtual abstraction, rendering the texture of the grainy 16mm stock increasingly visible.

So too are we made aware of the camera's lens in the extensive flaring that characterizes this and a number of the film's subsequent 'routines.' In these, moreover, the glass surface becomes progressively dirtier, thus giving us a sense of a world delimited by the lens's impermeable boundary; the camera at this moment is more than the lens - it is a behind the glass as well.

The physical properties of the camera, however, are made clearest still in a series of jagged, diagonal vectors that imitate a bouncing when the camera quickly shifts directions after reaching the ground line. In these moments, the camera's physical volume, its embodied quality in essence, is made manifest: the camera can only move through negative space; its lower limit is the same as the human body - even as it seems to travel freely through the heavens.

Speaking of the camera's export to the upper reaches of the visible, Snow begins by offering us progressively larger glimpses of the Québec skies again before thrusting into the deep blue. Thereafter, Snow offers us segments of each splitting the screen, first horizontally and then vertically. With the latter configuration in particular, especially once the camera movement is sped up to the point of abstraction, Snow imports a sense of his mise-en-scène as film stock, passing through the projector in a succession of moments too quick to glimpse on the atomic level of the individual frame. In a similar passage rapidly skimming the surface of a mountain lake, La Région centrale mimes an image stream, run too quickly to be examined, but theoretically subject to a slowing that could again make the image readable once more. What we have is projection in short.

Snow's work, in sum, highlights both the element nature of the medium - its division into discrete frames unspooled too quickly to be seen - and again the process of projection itself, with landscapes running horizontally and vertically before our eyes, at an ever-changing pace. In this respect, La Région centrale bares more than a passing resemblance to the work of Brakhage, from Anticipation of the Night (1958) onwards. This particular film is echoed in the film's brief night-time segment with the moon swinging quickly across the upper right corner of the frame. In fact, as we see this single, luminous object crossing the screen, its projection like a flashlight broaching an otherwise pitch black theatre, we are made aware of its trail scorched onto our retinas in its absence. Metonymically, we are reminded of the film's winter landscape, out-of-view, but still present in our collective remembrances. No less than Brakhage, La Région centrale is about the act of seeing.

As the film reaches its conclusion, Snow's abstraction becomes even more pronounced with a thin band of land briskly moving in and out of our view. On this occasion, a second of the director's work, Mothlight (1963), serves as a reference. However, in those moments of purest absence, the films of Paul Shartis emerge as the closer point of comparison, as for instance the filmmaker's N:O:T:H:I:N:G (1968), which seems to counter Wavelength's arguments for an ontology of cinema emphasizing space with one that highlights the fundamental work of light in the medium. (I was fortunate enough to see both films on a Madrid double bill eight years ago - one of the finest avant-garde double features I suspect I will ever see.) In this regard, La Région centrale positions itself as summa for the North American avant-garde of the previous two decades, while reframing this tradition within the newly emergent aesthetic of excess that would characterize the rest of the decade.

In the end, La Région centrale is the spiritual twin of Jacques Rivette's Céline and Julie Go Boating (1974) and that film's allegorization of the filmmaking process. Then again, if there is greater emphasis on the act of creation, of invention in Rivette's subsequent opus, Snow's film emphasizes the projected image and therefore the experience of film viewing itself. (So they are fraternal twins, I guess.) In other words, Rivette seems more concerned with the making and Snow with the seeing. Of course, this is not to limit Snow's ambitions: La Région centrale further makes us aware of our place on this planet, the workings of gravity and its stipulated absence, and finally this planet's revolving trajectory through the heavens. Snow's masterpiece is not only reflexive, it's cosmological. There is, in other words, an excess of ambition here.