Monday, June 14, 2021

Kelly and Andre in the Zone

Two men on the verge of middle age are taking a road trip to visit some hot springs in the middle of a wood. One of them has been singing the praises of the springs (referring, for example, to their "otherworldly peacefulness") and has persuaded the other to come along for the ride, leaving his pregnant wife behind. The relationship between the men is not quite what it was. They've drifted apart – made different life choices – and things are just a little awkward between them. Finding the legendary springs proves harder than expected and they get decidedly lost. Having left the city a long way behind them, surrounded by a panoply of different kinds of green (leaves, pine needles, grasses, mosses), they are repeatedly forced to turn their car about. At one point, upon discovering that a road sign is "literally blank", one of the men announces, in playful tones of mock awe, "We've entered a whole other zone!"

At this point during my first viewing of Kelly Reichardt's 2006 film Old Joy, of which the preceding passage is a description, I immediately thought of another film involving a group of middle-aged men, one of whom has also left his wife behind, whose relationships are strained and fractious, and who end up going round in circles during a kind of "road trip" from the city into a green world in search of a legendary location. The world that these men enter is explicitly named "the Zone" and the film, of course, is Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker (1979). Both films also feature very significant canine performances, alongside some rather slimier creatures. (I've circled the snail in the second image from Stalker below as it's otherwise hard to make out from the still.)

Having associated these two films, though, what are we to make of the connection? Does it offer anything more than a piece of cinephile cleverness? ("Did you spot the reference to Tarkovsky? Who's Tarkovsky? Are you serious?") I certainly have no "smoking gun" to prove that either Reichardt or Jonathan Raymond, who wrote the screenplay to Old Joy based on his own short story (in which the term "zone" does not, I think, appear), intended any reference or homage to Tarkovsky. Still, there are some obvious connections to be drawn between the work of these two directors from such different times and places. There are affinities in the way they use colour, for example, in that both of them have the ability to wring a great deal of intensity and subtlety from palettes that, compared tone-for-tone with those of other filmmakers, might seem subdued. (The effect of the shift to colour in Stalker, breath-taking no matter how many times one has seen the film, is a perfect case in point.) Both of them also tend to operate at a slower pace than mainstream cinema has accustomed us to, so much so that they are frequently spoken of as exemplifying a form of art cinema known, precisely, as "slow cinema".

Slow cinema, it is often assumed, operates by taking the emphasis away from classical priorities such as character and narrative. It puts much more weight on sheer perceptual experience, so that the viewer is not encouraged to concentrate on, say, motivation but, rather, to focus on what it feels like to submit to the colours and rhythms of these films over long – very long – stretches of time. There are two broad modes that such films are held to operate in. Tarkovsky represents one of them, which we might call the "mystical" mode, in which the boredom that our action-hungry selves feel on initially encountering films that operate so differently gives way – for those who are prepared to go with it – to an almost-transcendent sense of aesthetic unity, even bliss ("otherworldly peacefulness", perhaps). The other mode, with which Reichardt is often associated, might be called the "political" mode. Here boredom is intended to be functional, to make us think, ultimately, about power and agency in late capitalist America. For Elena Gorfinkel, for example, Reichardt's films involve "dedramatised scenarios in which incident replaces event, and sheer profilmic happening challenges structures of legible or discrete causality", all with a view to revealing "the linkage of quotidian activity and forms of arduous, painful labour with temporalities of exhaustion and dispossession for subjects on the margins of American life".[1]

As plausible as it can sometimes be to see Tarkovsky and Reichardt as exemplifying these two very different ways of resisting the logic and pacing of mainstream – "classical" – cinema, automatic assumptions about "slow cinema" and what it entails can also obscure as much as they reveal. Jonathan Rosenbaum thinks that the association of Reichardt's films with slow cinema has – together with seeing her work through the lens of "neorealism" and a tendency to confuse "the personal with the autobiographical" – led to some "unfortunate viewing habits".[2] One of the things, I want to claim, that thinking about Old Joy and Stalker together might help clarify is how important character, in a fairly traditional sense, is to both Tarkovsky and Reichardt.

Consider how elusive (how hard to pin down with language), and yet how wonderfully precise, is the emotional texture of the sequence in Old Joy in which Kurt (Will Oldham) and Mark (Daniel London), the two protagonists, return to their car after finally locating, and bathing in, the hot springs. They walk along the path through the trees in silence, side by side, their hands hanging loosely. We get a sense that they are comfortable with one another, and yet somehow not truly relaxed; note the way that Kurt drops his rucksack on the ground while waiting for Mark to open the car door, the irritability that their silence hints at, and the loneliness evoked by the way the film holds the image of trees and road, after the Volvo has driven off, for just a fraction of a second longer that one expects. Some kind of renewed connection has surely been established between the two men (whether or not there was any kind of literally sexual encounter, Kurt's massaging of Mark is indubitably erotic), but the mood of the aftermath is rather bedraggled. Is this because of what happened (are they embarrassed?) or, instead, because it's over? Do the two men sense that, whatever happened, it was only – could only have been – momentary? That there is no way truly to recapture their "old joy"? The answers to these questions aren't clear, but what comes across beautifully is that it's not simply that the film doesn't know what they are – this has nothing to do with vagueness – but that Kurt and Mark don't know, either.

In the same piece I cited earlier, Jonathan Rosenbaum claims that "unfulfilled fantasies belonging to viewers and characters alike are present in all of Reichardt's features – namely, the failure of life and the world (nature, humans, society, even sometimes animals) to conform to the expectations molded by culture, genres, and many other conditioned reflexes". Old Joy is very much about this, about the way that fantasy is not an alternative to reality, but rather part of reality; that what we hope for, or regret, or fear, cannot but affect how we experience the world and one another. The novelist M. John Harrison, best known for his work in science-fiction and fantasy, said of his supposedly non-fantastic novel about mountain climbing, 1989's Climbers, that his goal was "to show fantasy and reality as co-dependent".[3] Stalker works in very similar territory. Even aside from its narrative of a Room that supposedly grants one's innermost wishes, many commentators on the film have explored the senses in which Tarkovsky's Zone seems to reflect the psyches of the characters exploring it, its dangers coming as much – if not more – from within as from without.

Here, however, we encounter another point of contact between Tarkovsky and Reichardt which has served as a stumbling block for some viewers, namely the presence in their films of distinctly unlikable characters. Even as sophisticated a critic as Rosenbaum writes of the character Gina (Michelle Williams) in 2016's Certain Women, that "because we aren't privy to so many self-doubts" as we are in the short story by Maile Meloy on which it is based, in the film "her chiding of her husband and daughter seem more self-centered". But what's wrong with characters that are a little self-centred? Aren't we all? Isn't that an important and also an interesting part of our lives? Rosenbaum at least comes close to implying a rather too-easy connection between character likability and viewer interest (the less likable the characters, the more boring the film).

The ending of 2013's Night Moves is a useful test case. For some viewers, the fact that Josh (Jesse Eisenberg) ends up trapped – his dreams of ecological heroism in ruins, guilty of a murder he committed simply not to be found out by the system, but now unable to get even the most menial of jobs precisely because he mustn't be found out by that very same system – will provoke a reaction of, "Who cares?" He's been selfish, thoughtless, and standoffish throughout the film, so why should we viewers care about him now? For me, however, the inexorability of his situation and the complete uselessness of his ever-deepening self-pity are both completely riveting and utterly terrifying, even if I certainly don't "like" the guy. Josh shares this self-pity with the eponymous protagonist of Stalker (Alexander Kaidanovsky), something that critics have tended to see as a mistake, as detracting from the character's supposed purity, even saintliness. I've written at length elsewhere that this is itself a mistake, and that Tarkovsky's film can be read as a compelling exploration precisely of self-pity.[4]

There's some self-pity in Old Joy as well. Though it doesn't come through nearly as strongly as in Night Moves or Stalker, both Mark's fear of the impending demands of fatherhood and Kurt's admiration of Mark's more settled life ("So fuckin' brave man – I have never gotten myself into anything that I couldn't get myself out of") contain elements of self-pity.[5] This might cue us towards a recognition that Reichardt's interest in friendship – one that runs through all of her films in one way or another – has more light-and-shade than is sometimes recognized. The double-edged quality of the epigram to 2019's First Cow ("the bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship") seems to me to have been rather underplayed. Yes, Blake's proverb indicates that friendship is in some sense our natural state, but what follows from this? The nest is where birds rear their young, but the web is where spiders ensnare their prey. (This is, after all, a Proverb of Hell.)[6]

The trajectory of Old Joy takes us from one friend – Mark – alone in his garden, to the other friend – Kurt – alone in the city at night, some of the camera angles strangely canted. We are suddenly alone with Kurt for almost the first time in the film, just as the end of Stalker puts us alone in a room with the Stalker's daughter Monkey (Natasha Abramova) for the first time. Both films don't only tell the story of a journey to and from a special "zone" but also end with the discovery of new, hauntingly ambiguous zones. To decide whether either ending is or isn't a "happy" one would be as crude as it would be impossible. Just as Monkey's telekinesis could signal the arrival of a new form of humanity as easily as it could indicate the end of humanity as such, the end of Old Joy, in its quieter way, expresses loneliness (Kurt has nothing to do but wander among strangers) as much as it does human connection (he and the homeless man do speak to each other, however briefly).

Both Old Joy and Stalker emphasise the sheer range of human relationships. Loyalty and knowability (the dog-like aspects of people, we could say) are as characteristically human as inscrutability and alienation (their slug- or snail-like aspects, perhaps, although that is not all that the invertebrates in these films signify). But to say that we can't decide whether the endings are "happy" or not isn't to say that happiness is irrelevant to these movies; quite the opposite. They are about human happiness, about the idea of happiness. That in Old Joy it can seem that we can only say "I was happy"[7] – and in Stalker "I will be happy" – does not mean that happiness is merely an illusion. Both films show us, instead, that happiness can only be an origin or a destination, not a dwelling-place. We have to pass through the Zone, because we can't live there.

(1st March 2021)

[1] Elena Gorfinkel, "Exhausted Drift: Austerity, Dispossession and the Politics of Slow in Kelly Reichardt's Meek's Cutoff" in Tiago de Luca & Nuno Barradas Jorge (eds.), Slow Cinema (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016), pp. 123-136: 124-5

[5] Compare, incidentally, that line of Mark's with the Professor's remark in Stalker that "one should never perform irreversible actions".

[6] A double bill of Old Joy and Alex Ross Perry's Queen of Earth (2015) would be a fascinating opportunity to explore the inextricability of the constructive and destructive aspects of human friendship.

[7] Compare Theodor Adorno's Minima Moralia, section 72.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

A trick of the wiring – for John Russell (1954-2021)

John Butcher, DL, Lol Coxhill, Ute Wasserman, Chris Burn, John Russell, and Alex Ward at Fete Quaqua 2010, The Vortex, London

            The first couple of times I met John Russell were a little alarming. One of these was, I believe, the first time we ever played together – September 23rd 2006 at Colourscape which was set up on Clapham Common. John played beautifully but I found him rather stern. I think he was slightly injured in some way and hence couldn't help the crew moving equipment, but barked at others to do so. Another time, I presume earlier than this – I think perhaps the first time I ever spoke to him – I was in the queue at the late and lamented Red Rose in Finsbury Park (site of so many of the gigs that John tirelessly promoted, until the Vortex became a welcoming new home for Mopomoso after the Red Rose's closure) and he – not knowing me from Adam – rolled up his trouser leg and showed off a startlingly vivid wound on his lower leg. Part of what was going on here – including the fact that both incidents involve injury – presumably had to do with John's struggles with alcohol, although for most of the time I knew him he was very much the victor. I remember untouched bottles of wine in his house that were there purely for the pleasure of the constant stream of visiting musicians. John understood hospitality better than anyone; apparently the Latin "hospital" meant a guest-chamber, which is a darn fine description of his flat in Walthamstow.

            Another factor in my slight intimidation had nothing to do with John and everything to do with me and the fact that I was star-struck. He was – and of course remains – one of my musical heroes, a contributor to a number of albums that very much shaped my aspirations for the kind of musician I wanted to become. Two in particular stand out – The Scenic Route with John Butcher and Phil Durrant, and London Air Lift with Evan Parker, John Edwards, and Mark Sanders. (Much as it was a treat to hear John play in trio many times with Evan and John in recent years, I always regretted that, as far as I remember, I never heard the quartet with Mark live, which achieved on that album a near-perfect balance between the chunky muscularity of the best free jazz and a dogged refusal to order the music around.) I've been lucky enough to play with all the musicians on these records, some of them quite regularly, but I've never entirely shed the feeling of fanboy awkwardness with any of them. (With luck that at least helps keep me on my toes musically – a gig with any of these guys is one you don't want to fuck up on!)

            But I think what really lay behind all this was John's concern for – and genuine interest in – others. If he couldn't help people run the gig smoothly, he'd damn well make sure that the other musicians didn't think they were above mucking in with the less glamorous side of things. (If free improvisation has a glamorous side, that is.) Life and music were equally serious businesses to him. Though I'm not quite sure I could entirely explain why, I think that an index of his profound seriousness – his sense that life wasn't round the corner, but was what was happening, right now – was his delight in sheer silliness. We shared a mutual fondness for Robert Fripp's combination of pomposity and drily self-aware humour, and I'd regularly get emails with links to various bits of Fripp-related nonsense that popped up on the internet. (The last time we played together, at my 40th birthday concert at Café Oto, he claimed to have snuck in a snippet of "21st Century Schizoid Man" as a birthday present, though I admit to missing it at the time…) The recent string of "lockdown lunch" videos were a particularly rich seam, of course. "Lockdown has got to 'em," he said of this particular video.

            So, I have many happy memories of John at various gigs; having cups of tea at his place; marvelling at his skill with the Guardian crossword while in the car on tour with John Butcher. (It's a matter of regret to me that we never made a CD with that trio, but recordings do exist.) But my story here isn't "special" because so many people have extremely similar memories, all completely different in detail but identical in warmth and vividness. As a musician and as a human being (they aren't mutually exclusive) John unfailingly exhibited a real dedication and openness. He was one of the hardest-listening musicians I know and really had what musicians call (in that slightly enigmatic way perhaps a little irritating to non-musicians) "a sound". This wasn't just a matter of recognizability (instantly recognizable as his playing is), nor of the sonic qualities – brittle, spidery, glassy, springy – of the noises he made (perhaps most beautifully captured on the 2009 solo recording hyste) but was really something to do with his way of relating to the instrument, a matter not so much of "singing" – I'm not sure that John ever made his guitar "sing" – but of "sounding", of knowing when to coax, when to wrestle, and when to simply insist; John always made his guitar sound.

            As attendees of Mopomoso concerts will know, John could be something of a raconteur. But his capacity for precise verbal expression is perhaps underestimated. One phrase from this article has long stayed with me as genuinely illuminating about the way he thought about music, as well as inspirational for the kind of music that free improvisation can be:

One of my aims is to have the ability to use all the sound elements that the instrument can produce and, in improvising, to constantly pick and choose their meaning (i.e. their musical function) within the context of a developing music.

Looking over old emails from John, I discovered in a message from 20th May 2011 a little something that – "much to my surprise" he said – came out as a kind of poem. I present it here as a specimen of the combination of precision, eloquence, and enigma that was John Russell. Thanks for everything, John.


Engagement seems to be the key.                                    

Engagement in the here and now.                                        

But everything now left before it arrived.                            

A trick of the wiring.


Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Bergman 28: Cries and Whispers (1972)

I've seen this once before, and found it very impressive but also a little irritating. This seems to me now rather unfair, a result of confusing some of the things the film explores (a certain histrionic quality, a desire to shock) with the film itself - which is not entirely inappropriate, but seems so less now than it did then. The sense of various kinds of hauntings came across to me very strongly this time. I think I responded most to some beautifully delicate but very effective details, like the way that when Harriet Andersson first gets out of bed she's perfectly upright, while none of the other horizonal or vertical lines in the shot are true; or the way Erland Josephson gives a cruel little lesson in facial interpretation which Liv Ulmann doesn't deny so much as suggest that he can only find in her face what is true about him - which is perhaps a little allegory of film viewing.

Friday, June 26, 2020

Bergman 27: The Touch (1971)

The panning this got on first release seems rather unfair to me. For much of the time it is a remarkably convincing portrait of an affair, and any linguistic stiffness is entirely plausible diegetically. (It doesn't help that there's some rather awkward dubbing, particularly early on.) There is extraneous material that doesn't seem to work (the letters delivered as talking heads, not a patch on Winter Light; the insects in the statue - both heavy-handed and rather obscure; and even the Holocaust references). But I think Elliott Gould is very fine, conveying both the character's self-indulgence and his genuinely damaged quality - both culpably childish and on the brink of mental illness. Bibi Andersson, despite being second choice (after Liv Ullmann, apparently), is rather quietly virtuosic, and von Sydow is as excellent as ever. The narrative might seem to give von Sydow a rather unpleasantly sanctimonious position as the man who understands that his wife is not nearly as emotionally mature as she thinks she is, but even this is undercut - or at least complicated - by the note of rather sadistic triumph that comes into his face in his confrontation with Gould.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Bergman 26: Fårö Document (1970)

This strikes me as something of a small masterpiece. Working in 35mm and 16mm, and both colour and black and white, Bergman and Nykvist construct a remarkably evocative but direct and unfussy portrait of the island of Fårö and its inhabitants, human as well as - in particular - sheep. All the images are striking, but never self-regarding, and Bergman's deceptively probing interview style (almost entirely off-camera) suggests he could have had a whole sideline in documentary, like some kind of much less mannered Herzog. Bergman has certain things he clearly wants to convey about the island and the situation of its people (as comes out explicitly in the political proclamations at the end of the film), but this does not obstruct the film; rather, it seems to have helped him focus his portraits of the islanders. And these portraits are, without exception, remarkable. I suspect that careful study of this film might be very illuminating about the ways that Bergman worked with his actors in his fiction films.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Bergman 25: The Passion of Anna (1969)

An intriguing sequel - of a sort - to Shame, also shot on Fårö and using some of the same locations. The film appears to turn Shame into the dream of Liv Ullmann's character here; she, alongside von Sydow, Bibi Andersson, and Erland Josephson, all turn in consistently strong performances. The film makes explicit the theme of the mismatch between character and expression, of how the most intense pain might leave no trace on the surface. (A theme related to one of Stanley Cavell's great preoccupations, in his work on film and elsewhere - the problem of skepticism, the dawning sense that there is no way of knowing other people.) It is not immediately clear to me whether the film means to underline this possibility; it seems just as likely that it intends to point towards its impossibility, that it would represent a fantasy of inexpressiveness as security, keeping the world at bay behind an impenetrable barrier. (Hence, I think, the deliberate paradox that the sporadic interviews, supposedly with the actors about their characters - in which von Sydow talks about the difficulty of expressing inexpressiveness - sound just as considers, as scripted, as the rest of the film. But I don't mean to say I know exactly who did the scripting.) It's remarkable to see what Bergman and Sven Nykvist do with Eastmancolor in this, only Bergman's second colour film (and All These Women feels like an exception proving some kind of rule anyway). It begins by seeming surprisingly informal, almost, in the use of handheld camera, and some quietly jagged editing. But it proceeds to draw some kind of distinction between inside and outside, and includes some extraordinary portraits - particularly of Ullmann and Andersson - that are simultaneously cruelly exposing and tenderly attentive. Von Sydow's front door is in stained glass, evoked by the redish tinge that colours his scenes with Andersson and the cold blue light of the television that plays on his and Ullmann's faces as they watch footage of the Vietnam war. Overexposure is also literalised into a visual metaphor, as when Josephson shines very bright lights at von Sydow in his photographic studio, but it can have contradictory effects. The bright white light on Andersson the morning after she sleeps with von Sydow is harsh (prompting her to ask him if he's noticed how ugly she is), but at the end of her "out of character" interview, the image is suddenly overexposed, turning her briefly into something literally radiant, beautiful and somehow inhuman at one and the same time.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Bergman 24: The Rite (1969)

All the familiar Bergmannian themes are present, intermingled in that way he has of constantly teetering on the edge of allegory without offering any kind of "key" to the "meaning" of the film (see The Silence in particular), but this is still a strikingly unusual film. The film plays the theatrical off against the cinematic; none of it couldn't take place on a stage (the explicit division into titled scenes underlines this), but the intense and almost continual use of close-ups gives it an intrusiveness that is somehow without intimacy and that I think would be very difficult to achieve in the theatre. Bergman himself appears as a priest, robed within a confessional, perhaps deliberately recalling Death in The Seventh Seal. The film's themes might hover too much between the over-familiar and the (presumably) personally hermetic, but there is a hypnotic intensity to everything - particularly in the bewildering (and also almost continuous) swings between dominance and submission in the various permutations of the characters - that is engrossing, even as the emotional temperature never truly rises. I presume that this is a deliberate effect, given the film's concern with performance - the most affecting performance is most vulnerable to being exposed as merely affected.