DON’T GRIEVE (Giorgi Danelia, USSR [Georgia], 1969, 4)
I wonder if the Ma and Pa Kettle movies play like this when shown in Tblisi. Or perhaps more precisely, what if modern Greeks themselves had actually made (the film of) ZORBA THE GREEK. It’s very hard for me to judge this as a work of art or an entertainment to be honest — it made almost no impression on me, either positive or really all that negative. Not because DON’T GRIEVE is difficult or opaque in any way — it’s a straightforward peasant comedy about the 19th-century village doctor, who’s a slacker, and his encounters with the various townsfolk, all broad peasant / aristocrat / bourgeois types — the town drunk, the town tramp, the shrewish wife, the pompous lord. If you’re over 30 and culturally awake, you’ve seen this movie, even if you haven’t. I laughed a couple of times — a Chauceresque game of role reversal involving male-male ass-kissing or some other southern-region pucker-up (film leaves it vague; if you’re Georgian, you probably know which it is); there’s a couple attempts at pathos involving villagers sicknesses and the sorts of diagnoses doctors give in various tones of voice; and some mixing of the two, as in the climactic scene when a dying man insists of having his wake while alive. But DON’T GRIEVE too loosely plotted to really work as farce, too tonally uneven for tragedy (Chekhov did not include scenes of ass-kissing for a reason). I didn’t care about anything while I was watching it, and I’d’ve forgotten about it in a month under any circumstances. As it is, that time span will probably be about four hours because of the next film I saw, from more or less the same time and place … and THAT one was a mind-blowing masterpiece.
THE COLOR OF POMEGRANATES (Sergei Paradjanov, USSR [Armenia/Georgia], 1968, 9)
When I left the theater, I IM’d Steve Greydanus (a Catholic filmgeek bud who’s graciously letting me stay at his home thus making my NYFF week possible) that “I wish I could go back back in time and have made you see this with me, kidnapping you at gunpoint and forcing you in if necessary.” As great as, e.g., the Dardennes are, people have made films like theirs before. And probably will again; realism is ageless. But nobody has made a film, I am very confident in saying over all of David Hume’s objections, like COLOR OF POMEGRANATES. It really does have an aesthetic that assumes the rest of cinema history never happened. And according to an aesthetic I’d’ve wanted Steve to see — medieval visual art on film, in service of a liturgical “narrative.”
I put that word in quotes rather than call POMEGRANATES non-narrative, because it does purport to be about the life of Sayat Nova, a 17th century Armenian monk-poet-songwriter-troubadour. And it kinda does … it starts with him as boy, follows the stages of his life and career (boyhood, marriage, widowhood, the monastery, troubadour calling) unto his death, and elements of his poetry are spoken on the soundtrack. Traditional Armenian dances, liturgies and songs are presented. But as far as the conventionally “biopicky” elements go, this film makes ANDREI RUBLEV (also a 60s Soviet film about a monk / artist that paid little attention to the few known facts of his life) look like RAY or WALK THE LINE. Instead, POMEGRANATES is like leafing through a book of Eastern Christian tableaux and icons that happen to go in enough of an order that you can figure out the saint’s/artist’s life points. But there is literally not a single moment in POMEGRANATES where biographic storytelling is the privileged point (“and then this happened”) or which follow the conventions of realistic representation (that which, as a Bazinian, I believe cinema naturally bends toward). Instead, Paradjanov creates something truly and utterly unique, and truly medieval, even beyond Rohmer’s PERCEVAL or ASTREE AND CELADON.
Everything in POMEGRANATES is presentational and performative, not representational or realistic. All the sound is nondiegetic, even when it appears to the contrary. There are no conversations. Nobody in the film acts or moves at all like a real person, instead usually looking right at the camera, full-frontal, or in stylized oblique poses. Instead, the logic is liturgical. When a confirmation-type rite is performed and St. George is invoked, St. George appears on his horse and rides through the tableau for no “reason” but truly present, as if incantation begets incarnation. Dance is used narratively, as in the courtship of his wife, in which red, black and white veils and costume ensembles shift and change with the moods and modes of desire. Some use of perspective is technologically unavoidable, but Paradjanov does his damnedest to fight it, flattening out the space and filling it wherever possible with depthless elements across the image, as if filling out a tableau or adding icon episodes (the camera needless to say never moves). His color scheme is also anti-perspective without being splashy — usually filling out the “background” or the base elements with a neutral or drab color like beige or gray while primary colors splash onto the space (literally in the opening sequence of multiple shades of red) and they accordingly pop out sharper and iconographically. Between the non-natural and sometimes non-existent sound, the non-natural color, and the non-natural space, literally every element is foregrounded (in both senses) until we’re not following life as a drama but looking at the images of a life (and listening to its sounds).
This is biopic as tone poem, an attempt to reproduce the poetry’s effects without slavishly reproducing the work itself. (I get why some folks thought I might hate this, but the film it most reminded me of is Andersson’s SONGS FROM THE SECOND FLOOR, POMEGRANATES being the product of a Christian society in a way SONGS is of a post-Christian one.) POMEGRANATES isn’t trying to produce Sayat Nova’s life but life as Sayat Nova saw it … one of the most effective psychological elements is the gap between the persona in the incantatory poetry (which feels a bit like an Armenian “King of Pain”) and the rich, surreal iconography on the screen. One of the earliest images is of a young boy crucified by books — that makes no sense, I know … but it does, here. I’m not sure I understood everything in POMEGRANATES — indeed I know I didn’t; too many of the details are obviously culturally specific for it to be otherwise to a non-Caucasian. But I always felt like I was getting enough and, more importantly, I also wanted to know more and was just dazzled by what I did understand. Ironically, the best possible companion piece to POMEGRANATES would be a SAYAT NOVA biopic directed by the Armenian John Madden.
HEAVEN KNOWS WHAT (Ben and Joshua Safdie, USA, 2014, 1)
Someone needs to put the Safdie brothers on Prozac or at least switch their regular coffee with Folger’s Decaf Crystals. HEAVEN KNOWS WHAT, an episodic film about a circle of smackheads on the New York streets, is one of the loudest movies I’ve ever seen, and I mean that adjective literally as well as the critical metaphor sense. The film is wall-to-wall people shouting at each other, over each other, at nobody in particular … especially when they’re told not to shout. The soundtrack is crammed with way-too-frequent doses of painfully tuneless noise that sounds like thrash metal without its tuneful harmonies and lyricism (I exaggerate not a bit). The sound mix is so over-the-top that if audience members were talking in the theater, it wouldn’t be a problem — you couldn’t hear them anyway. The shaky camera magnifies everything by (usually) staying close in to the characters and having very little focal depth, so much of the space on the screen is out-of-focus and you can’t avert your eyes. Just sharing the same theater space as this film is like reading a 5,000-word blog post in all caps — an existentially unpleasant experience that you just want to fucking end. There is a reason I don’t go to raves, blast krautrock at 12, or blog like FilmCriticHulk.
Now, I can groove to some extent with the existential-assault mode, being a big fan of IRRREVERSIBLE and all. But that film was artful and the noise was purposeful. Here, the effect is (a contrived notion of) artlessness, of gritty realism, and in the service of (non-)story and characters about whom I could not possibly give fewer fucks. On the former point, the film is a structural disaster it can only stop, a weakness which the Safdies realize by having someone talk over the closing credits. But it’s banal talk anyway … one of 8 billion reasons Mike Leigh is a genius is that as big an asshole as Johnny is in NAKED (which this film resembles in a lot of ways), he’s an articulate asshole. These people are just loud twits in love with the sound of their own loudness. I’m not appealing to the silly sense that characters must be “relatable” or we must like them as if they’d be our (potential) friends. HEAVEN KNOWS WHAT is about heroin junkies who live for and care only about their next fix. I get they won’t be model citizens and they’ll do some bad shit, but you need some reason to care more about them than they do about themselves, especially if they’re causing you discomfort. It’s just too MUCH … all flow and no ebb. When a person screams in public “suck my clit, asshole,” my patience with her is going to be rather thin and I’m not gonna sweat whether she slits her wrists, which of her junkie fuck toys she wants more at this hour, or her latest screaming jag.