Perhaps one of the strongest endorsements for a work of art is to acknowledge one’s ambivalence toward it. I change my mind about Dog Star Man each time I see it. Again and again I reconsider its symbols, endure its pacing and marvel at its virtuosity, and I am never able to digest it. In part, this is a good thing. I find that the best art, by and large, actively prevents one from getting too cozy with it. However, this is not the kind of uneasiness I feel watching a given film by Cassavetes, Bergman or Bresson. My ambivalence about Dog Star Man is almost strictly intellectual as opposes to the emotional discomfort and uneasiness elicited from repeated viewings of A Woman Under the Influence, Scenes from a Marriage or Une Femme Douce.
The biggest difficulty I have with Dog Star Man is the lack of narrative complexity. Despite Brakhage’s reputation for visual abstraction, this is a narrative film; make no mistake about it. It is the story of human life, the great myth of the existential journey through the figure of the filmmaker/protagonist. It is as P. Adams Sitney describes it (paraphrasing Brakhage I believe), one of the tales of the tribes. But unlike the narrative cinema of Andrei Tarkovsky that Brakhage so admired, his narrative is clunky and his symbols seem trite and loud. As a tale of the tribe, Dog Star Man comes across overdone and lacking any shade of subtlety. Yes, it is intense, messy, visceral, physically and psychologically grueling, but I wonder if the film’s effects are multi-dimensional or just singularly taxing. This is not to say that it lacks formal complexity. Dog Star Man is in fact quite adventurous formally, but I cannot help feeling that the message cannot catch up to the method.
He uses images as if they were musical notes, though Brakhage knew that this very concept was dubious. Images can never really function as notes do. He describes trying to defend his movies to Andrei Tarkovsky for precisely this reason: “I remember saying, wait a minute, just like I had before Window Water Baby Moving, I have some pure music coming. Because he’s arguing, this isn’t music, it has symbols, things that are nameable. It was a very intelligent argument, maybe one of the most intelligent I’ve ever had, but it’s totally dedicated to destroying the possibility of my kind of films.” (Brakhage Meets Tarkovsky 2) I’m rather inclined to agree with Tarkovsky, at least regarding most of Brakhage’s camera films, because the ultimate effect is one of overload, rather more cacophonous than musical. A note is a note, but an image is a sign with all kinds of meanings carried with it.
This method renders Dog Star Man exceptionally challenging for first-time viewers. Why all the trees, breasts, stars, organs? A clever student will make the symbols into metaphors: trees to stars, breast to moon, etc, and there is indeed some of that to be had. A close-up of a vagina superimposed over a baby’s head followed by an image of a stained glass Madonna heavily relies on the viewer’s understanding and familiarity with a set of pre-established signs, namely the iconography of Western mythology and Christianity. But a much more ambitious sign arrangement propels Dog Star Man. Vaginas are not just vaginas anymore; dogs are not merely dogs. They are explicitly materials – images to be manipulated like two colors of paint one would mix together to come up with the desired color. That I am left unable to give these signs a denotative meaning or assign a name to these colors is quite likely the filmmaker’s intention, and possibly one of the film’s great strengths.
Documentary filmmaker, Fred Wiseman, says the problem of cinema is that the director tries to show what is inside a person by photographing his or her outside. This sounds like exactly the opposite of much of what one can see in Brakhage’s work. More than just using stock footage of the inside (cells, organs, etc.), Brakhage tries to visualize an inside and project it on the screen. Maybe scratched up celluloid, overlaid images and optical printing effects are not what you see in your mind’s eye, but for Brakhage those techniques function as metaphor. Let us be certain to understand his purpose. Brakhage does not represent the internal; metaphors do not represent, signify or stand in. Metaphors compare. They change the meanings of the things they compare. In Dog Star Man it is often difficult to distinguish between internal and external, that is the eye and the mind’s eye, even if you have a good grasp of the symbols and mythology.
This movie is about really basic stuff. Why am I here? Brakhage explores this question from various fairly well known angles – the struggle between man and nature, the miracle of birth, the simultaneous beauty and agony of sexuality, confronting the otherness of woman. All of these are pretty standard canonical tropes in the history of western literature and art. Dog Star Man is the story of the same journey we know from the Odyssey, the Divine Comedy, Don Quixote, Moby Dick, and As I Lay Dying. It is the western myth in which the protagonist first becomes self-aware, and then attempts to come to terms with his or her place in the universe by confronting and struggling against basic human fears.
Telling this story again is not Brakhage’s achievement. He makes it new. He puts the viewer through the journey all over again in his own idiosyncratic way. Even if the tropes and symbols are tired, Brakhage revives them by injecting film into the mythology. Dog Star Man is not just animals, genitalia, the human circulatory system and heavenly bodies. It is also self-conscience, deliberate and obtrusive celluloid. The western viewer will be familiar enough with the journey. One will recognize Brakhage’s concerns as the fundamental mythology of the Western world. But the experience of Dog Star Man is to be lived through, rather than discussed afterward. One must gaze upon its unique light and take part in its palpable duration. Dog Star Man is not the story of a journey; it is the journey.
Akerman is a genius of the performative mode. Meaning is bodily, whether between bodies like the lovers wrestling in je, tu, il, elle, or bodies in isolation like the titular heroines in Jeanne Dielman and Les rendez-vous d’Anna. Anna lies in bed alone or looks out of hotel room windows like a woman in a Hopper painting. Toute une nuit explores the embrace; couples fall together like Pina Bausch choreography. Empty rooms and public spaces wait for people to occupy them. When action is so thoroughly minimal, little things become events. Jeanne misses a button, and that tells the story.
I am surely not the first to say that Béla Tarr is unrelentingly serious, and I will not be the last. Not since Alexander Sokurov’s The Second Circle have I watched a movie that felt so much more like physical endurance than an active intellectual and emotional experience. I’m sure this will lead many viewers to call it pretentious. It is certainly repetitive, quiet, minimal, long and, perhaps most crucially, very, very somber. It forces you into its rhythm sooner or later, but you never get comfortable with the tone.
The Turin Horse is a punishing film. The people in it are ugly and often cruel. Their lives are repetitive and arduous. There is little plot, little action, little change of scenery, but there are plenty of long, long takes in which no words are spoken. When a talkative neighbor drops by to borrow some liquor, his speech, rather than providing new interst, quickly becomes tedious.
The prelude tells the apochryphal story of Nietzsche throwing his arms around a brutally beaten coachman’s horse, then reminds us that we know what became of Niteszche after this episode but we don’t know whatever happened to the horse. I think this encourages some viewers to interpret what happens in the film as a punishment, but I would argue that this context is mere pretense. It is a red herring.
I hate to use the word “allegorical” because I assume people immediately start thinking of The Matrix or some such. The Turin Horse is allegorical, but it is absolutely not The Matrix. The difference between the two kinds of allegory represented by both films is that The Matrix relies on static and clunky symbols, whereas The Turin Horse is rooted in physical reality and concrete details.
Just because it is an allegory it does not necessarily follow that every image is part of code that must be cracked. So I would caution against the symbolic interpretation i.e. the potato represent this, the horse represents that. How does one make a movie about death, about the journey into death, without resorting to symbols? We are talking about representing the unrepresentable. It isn’t what the horse or the potato represents that matters so much as the texture of the horses coat or the rippling of its muscles, the photographic reality of the act of peeling and eating a single steaming potato.
A narrative needs an engine, but we must not mistake the engine for the whole machine. As Andrei Tarkovsky, no doubt one of Tarr’s great teachers, often had to explain when asked about Stalker: it is not a metaphor, it is a specific journey undertaken by specific people, and they have to confront challenges and negotiate obstacles along the way. He suggests, in short, that Stalker is not a metaphor for life; it is life. The difference isn’t an easy thing to get your head around, but if you can The Turin Horse will make more sense.
This year’s Jeonju International Film Festival featured a retrospective of Kidlat Tahimik. In addition to showing all of his films, JIFF had scheduled for an event called “Cinetalk” to follow the screening of Turumba. In addition, since he made himself available for a Q & A after Perfumed Nightmare, I assume that Tahimik did much more than his scheduled appearance. He introduced Perfumed Nightmare saying, “I don’t make films; I let them happen.” “If I make films,” Tahimik added, “then I make them with the cosmos.”
He was serene, thoughtful and deliberate during discussion, often mining gold out of superficial questions and staying on point throughout regarding the danger of losing local culture. His answers to questions often included the word “duende.” The thing he said that I have been thinking about most was his advice to young filmmakers to tell the local story.
There are many cinema tropes we could apply to Tahimik’s movies. Stan Brakhage once called it telling the tales of the tribes. Murnau had a similar idea about the cinema as the means to create the new mythology. Tahimik does make movies on this grand scale, yet his sense of humor, his do-it-yourself ethic and his self-taught, amateur filmmaking have also earned him comparisons to Ed Wood. The mix of these is not only his charm; it is his genius. Tahimik’s films show us how you can create a self in a global culture that seeks to eliminate such possibility. They encourage us to do likewise as the fundamental means to effect societal change.
At the beginning of Perfumed Nightmare, Kidlat, playing himself, drives his jeepie across the only bridge in and out of his hometown. In longshot we see the jeepie get almost all the way across then reverse. This is the narrative trajectory of the film: leaving and coming back the way you came. Shortly after this there is sequence that shows Kidlat working his way toward a state of readiness to depart. He drags three versions of his jeepie across the bridge with a rope, first as a small push toy, next as a child’s peddle car and finally as the actual steel vehicle. He announces, “I am Kidlat Tahimik. I choose my vehicle and I can cross this bridge,” then “I can cross any bridge,” and finally, when pulling the full-sized jeepie, “I can cross all bridges.”
The crosscutting between public events (a funeral, a beauty pageant, a wedding) and the lush countryside can seem disjointed, but it is establishing precisely the relationship between the two principle aspects of rural village life. The influence of the west is ever present. The voice of America radio is but one major presence of the western world. Kidlat leaves his country enamored with the West. Indeed one would have to be to go off with such a cartoonish American dressed, as he is in shorts, safari shirt, sunglasses and a Smokey the Bear hat. It is unclear why the American takes an interest in him, and decides to take him to Paris. I suppose it is enough that he is a comic representation of America and that as such he would take what he wants from the third world and think that he is doing someone a favor in the process.
The sense of humor, the light-hearted improvisational attitude about life is one of Tahimik’s most important qualities. A local businesswoman hires Kidlat’s jeepy to haul a huge block of ice. They don’t travel far before the block slides out the back of the vehicle and a chunk of is shatters on the pavement. Children scurry around grabbing shards of it for themselves, and there is an insert shot of Kidlat himself taking a demonstrative bite out of a huge hunk and laughing.
One of his recurring interests is the way village culture adapts industry on a small scale. In Perfumed Nightmare this is manifest in a long sequence of men working on old jeepies. There are detail shots of grimy fingernails and dirty hands manipulating metal and swinging hammers. The pings and crashes turn into soundtrack music. “An old jeepie never dies,” he says, as the mechanics repair, replace and salvage. Kidlat even makes a child-sized pedal-jeepie out of spare parts to give to his son.
From a Western perspective, which I take it upon myself to represent, there is a particularly excruciating scene that shows pre-adolescent boys “becoming men,” that is, being circumcised. It is as graphic as it could be, complete with the isolated soundtrack noise of the “clap, clap” of the hammer on the handle of the blade as it slices through the tiny foreskins.
This may make you squeamish, it’s certainly difficult for me to watch, but the point is to paint a broad picture of the culture. It is not meant to shock, but demands some negotiation on the part of the viewer to fit such a “primitive” practice into the world we have been getting to know so far. It also will serve as a point of reference later, when Kidlat finds he cannot live in the wasteful and dishonest world of the West.
Kidlat seamlessly befriends people from all cultures. It should come as little surprise that the people he develops relationships with in Paris are the street vendors. They constitute the community that is closest to what he left behind. They are also the old world relics that are being pushed out of modern Paris.
However, it doesn’t take long for Kidlat to get over being enamored of the bridges in Paris, and the only thing left for him is to become a mythological being, to change the world with his breath. He blows into the new incinerators, and they turn into spacecraft to take him back home. Only it is not mere myth, for he does not proclaim himself a God. Rather he declares his independence from the this world of limitless, unchecked “progress.”
Where Perfumed Nightmare makes a mythology of the local story, Turumba states it directly, and discloses the consequences of development explicitly. Though it celebrates the local culture, Turumba also shows how village culture is exploited and threatened.
Turumba begins by detailing the village life focusing on the inventiveness and exuberance of the people. The Turumba festival is the lynchpin of the narrative because it gives Tahimik a chance to reveal village life at its joyful best, but it also contains the seed of the familial disaster. Because she appreciates their unique craftsmanship, the German antique dealer puts the family in business making paper mache dolls far beyond their traditional output. They become rich and can suddenly afford television, phonographs and electric fans, but what begins as a positive boon quickly gets out of control. When business is good it begets more business and soon everyone is working overtime to meet the next order, skimping on quality and letting all other concerns, particularly the Turumba festival, fall to the wayside.
This is manifest most clearly in the character of the father who starts the film as an integral part of the traditional festival, but ends it as a callous businessman. Tahimik includes several scenes of the father singing and leading band practice so that the audience can understand the loss. It is a personal loss of his own values and a loss for the community because he is a revered participant in the festival.
In contrast to the father is Patí the blacksmith. He uses technology as well but he does not let it use him. In part Patí is presented as an alternative to the father because he is a proponent of rather old technology. Metallurgy has been with us for quite some time. The more salient aspect of his character, however, is that Patí is content to stay within certain limitations. He has no lust for more, no desire to accumulate things. His mind is rather one-track. He loves steel, but he loves it for it’s potential. Patí sees the trailer that has arrived to load the paper maché dolls into, and he thinks only of the machetes he could make out of its parts.
The fundamental tension in both films is between the positive and negative effects of progress. Tahimik, after all, uses the most advanced technology of the time to record and preserve a culture that technology is destroying by progressing unchecked. This was the predominant subject of Tahimik’s talk following Turumba.
During the Q & A that followed the screening, someone asked Tahimik if the community he documents exits anymore, and can it be brought about in the places it does not exist. As he was answering, I thought of how the rural areas and small towns in the States tend to emphasize xenophobia and racism as key components of community building. I wonder if this is a Western problem. In the West when we make the family the center, even and perhaps especially when that family extends to the small community, it tends to foster mistrust and fear of outsiders.
I also wonder if we are not past these kinds of communities as a global possibility. It seems to me that everyone everywhere just wants to be able to access the Internet from his or her mobile phones. Most people don’t want to really live among the trees and rivers the way Tahimik believes is necessary. Some people want retreats; they want vacations, but they don’t want to live like that. Hell, I doubt I could live like that at this point.
Maybe wholesale rejection of cutting edge technology is not the only answer. The best thing about Tahimik is that he leads by example. I don’t see how anyone could be in his presence for five minutes and not want to live the life he espouses. Maybe we don’t have to change the world if we are willing to change ourselves. Both Perfumed Nightmare and Turumba show that we do not have to submit to the march of progress. There are always options. We can do as Kidlat does in Perfumed Nightmare; we can reclaim our independence through acts of defiance and love.
I have mixed feelings about the posting a video of such poor quality. However, I think you still get an idea of how great this film is, and perhaps it will even inspire you to seek out a better copy. I would start here: http://www.brucebaillie.com/
In the meantime please enjoy today’s film and our first Alternative Feature
Appreciation for All My Life:
The first time I saw Baillie’s minor masterwork, I was struck by the sheer beauty of it, but I concluded that it was a quite incomplete film, as if the single shot was but a small part of a film that did not exist. Here, I believed, was something akin to a great contemplative shot from a film by a meditative master like Andrei Tarkovsky or Yasujiro Ozu, but without the narrative context it so much needed. After watching Baillie’s film twice more in classroom settings with mostly first-time viewers I have found my initial response to be rather common, and I now understand that my first assessment of All My Life had more to do with my immaturity than the film’s incompletion. The film requires a particular cinematic maturity on the part of the viewer.
All My Life is a film that will likely upset the friend to whom you recommended it. A great sigh will come, then the question: “What was so great about that?” Many people are unwilling to accept this because they want knowledge from their art. They want some position about something to be declared by someone or something so that they can argue with it. Scholars and students alike are unaccustomed to treating experience as a form of knowledge. We all have a preference for the knowledge we can gain from an experience. Consequently, we often forget to have the experience even while it is happening.
It is important to understand the difference between these two kinds of knowledge. As Baillie once told an interviewer: “I have almost no data stored in my brain. My life and my art are entirely noninformative.” It is not a lesson learned or a message obtained; it is rather a state of being achieved. All My Life provides an experience of time that is only possible in cinema. A shot is a fixed chunk of time. It is a preserved duration. Baillie has eliminated the baggage of storytelling, and delivered only that essential element of cinema – the shot. The lack of narrative is far from being a weakness; it is indeed the film’s great achievement. One may even say All My Life is the only perfect film ever made.
Freeze, Die, Come to Life (Vitaly Kanievksy, 1989)
We at Cinema Underground are proud supporters of Mubi.com. I don’t know what the odds are that you would know us and not know them, but if you don’t, click on “Mubi” in the links section, and check them out. Before I begin discussing today’s film I would like to draw your attention to a list that one Mike Spence has posted at Mubi, which he calls, “Unavailable films whose release on (English language) DVD is more important than getting Kubrick’s work on blu-ray.” Here is a link: http://mubi.com/lists/3383.
I bring this up because Vitaly Kanievsky’s 1989 masterpiece, Freeze, Die, Come to Life! is one such movie. It is currently only available on VHS from New Yorker. Perhaps there is some debate over the rights to release it on DVD? I would like to write briefly about an “Incomparable Moment” in this film, which we plan to make into a recurring feature. The tenets of this feature should become clear as you read on.
Freeze, Die, Come to Life! takes place in a Siberian mining camp/town in postwar Stalinist Russia and centers on the hijinks and predicaments of a boy named Valerka and his friend Galia. It is a dreary and brutal setting, but Kanievsky’s project is to always be injecting light into what could quite easily be a socialist-realist picture of the old Soviet variety or a ponderous metaphysical vision along the lines of Béla Tarr, Theo Angelopoulos or Andrei Tarkovsky.
Freeze, Die, Come to Life! pits exuberance against fear, violence against calm, beauty against deformity and happiness against sorrow as matters of narrative structure. There is never a final verdict upon the lives of the people in the film. It is not a question of revealing the nature of their situation to be ultimately tragic or comic. Instead Kanievsky shows that life is always both in balance, or if not perfectly harmonious then a pendulum that swings back and forth between the two states of being.
In one scene an old woman drowns kittens one by one, the implication being that she would not be able to afford to feed them. Later Valerka’s mother gives him a pet pig, an animal that many people in the impoverished town would no doubt view as a source of food. In another a joyful celebration of music and drinking turns into a drunken brawl that ends with two men, each missing a leg, helping each other up and hobbling off together laughing.
There are indeed several moments one could choose from in Freeze, Die, Come to Life! and call it “incomparable,” but for me, the scene that distills the tension I have discussed thus far and explodes it with chaotic exuberance is:
THE RETRIEVAL OF THE ICE SKATES
In short, Valerka’s ice skates have been stolen and Galia tells him that she knows who took them, so she takes him to get them back. It is unclear throughout whether the clandestine operation is meant to be funny or frightening. There is an expectation of the possibility of violence upon being found out that is reminiscent of John Carpenter’s favorite tactic in Halloween. It is unclear how much danger they are in. However, there is also something of Chaplin in Valerka’s body language, in the absurdity of the situation and ultimately in the resolution, when he finally opens the door to the shed where the skates are, a chicken bursts out as if attacking him, and as the two run away, a naked man emerges standing a screaming at them in only his boots.
I suppose it would be considered a jump cut, for the next thing we see are the two of them laughing hysterically, alternately pushing at each other and leaning against each other. And there is another voice on the soundtrack, another person laughing along with them, an adult sharing in there moment of revelry. It is Kanievsky himself. We may conclude this because we here his voice in the beginning of the film singing and saying, “Let’s begin,” and then again at the end directing the enigmatic final scene.
As far as I know there is nothing like this in all of cinema. Perhaps the closest analogue would be a painter inserting his likeness into one of his works. The effect here is quite different, partly because it is so unexpected as to be disorienting, but also because painters do this either as a means of self-critique or as a wink to the spectator. Kanievsky’s desire is somewhat simpler. He wants to participate with his actors, and with his audience. He wants all of us to share a laugh together.
Since it is the express purpose of Cinema Underground to, in part, celebrate films that are rarely seen, I would like to discuss a documentary that is quite difficult to find. If you don’t take a course in documentary film at university or you don’t live next to an art house theater that puts on a Gary Kildea retrospective, you have probably missed his classic, Celso and Cora. I can’t even find images for it to dress up this post.
The only picture I could track down was at Icarus Films where you can buy a VHS copy of the movie for $440. It is a shame that so few people have the opportunity to watch this ground breaking documentary. In addition to being every bit as important as films like Sherman’s March and Roger and Me in terms of challenging the traditional documentary form by making it more personal, Celso and Cora possesses many other virtues that I shall enumerate below.
I have to begin by discuss what other people think of the movie. This is part of what makes it “undervalued” after all. I am often curious about audience reaction n general, but I think in the particular case of this film a misunderstanding about its content and purpose may contribute to its limited availability. The first time I watched Celso and Cora I was in a course about documentary filmmaking, and I remember the consensus appraisal of my classmates being that the movie was exploitative, that Kildea took advantage of his titular subjects. It was introduced to us, in fact, as a “problem” film, and the class identified the problem correctly.
It is typical of people who have never wanted for anything in their lives to find fault with anyone who tries to show them that there are people less fortunate in the world. We have a rather narrow view of people who live in poverty and so we have a quite limited range of expectations from a film that features them as the subject. Celso and raises questions about the responsibility and honesty of the filmmaker to be sure, but accusing it of exploitation seems to me to reveal more of the viewer’s unwillingness to confront his middleclass liberal complacence than the selfishness of the filmmaker.
What are the responsibilities of the filmmaker? He must present his subject in a truthful way. It is particularly significant in Celso and Cora that the truth runs deeper than revealing the economic hardships of poor people in Manila. It would perhaps be more comfortable for us to watch a documentary simply about being poor. Talking heads and found footage are often easy to distance. As it turns out Celso and Cora is as much about the communication breakdowns between people who are in love as it is about poverty. It is actually less about the economy as it is about how hardship adversely affects marriage, family, friendship and love.
Celso and Cora is also about the relationship Kildea develops with the couple and their family. It shows that the filmmaker and his “subject” have become friends. Kildea films the process of getting to know someone. By doing so he adds another layer to the narrative so that the shift in Celso when he begins calling Kildea “pare,” is as important as Celso losing his job. There is more than one thing going on in the movie. There is more than one story and more than one tone.
Celso’s attitude in general shows that a person can be happy even as his means to happiness are stripped away again and again. When we finally see Celso unhappy, it isn’t because he is poor; it’s because Cora has left him. Is it really his humanity that makes viewers uneasy? Is the most unsettling aspect of the film the fact that people who live in abject poverty still live a very similar life to my own? Celso and Cora and their children are not the Yanomamo in Ax Fight do not, and I think the chief reason is that Kildea thinks rather differently of humanity than Napoleon Chagnon and Tim Asch.
The way Bill Nichols describes the situation in Representing Reality this is indeed the fundamental problem with ethnography at all. The subjects are humans, yet all the film seeks to do is expose their weirdness, otherness, inhumanity. What kind of movie is that? Is it not just a bit too easy to depict the Yanomamo as “primitives”? Obviously they are different from “us.” Instead of counting and cataloguing the ways in which they are so, why not save some room to show how they are like us as well so that we can understand them to be human?
Celso and Cora succeeds because its subjects are not a topic. There is a reason Kildea did not call his film Poverty in Manila, or The Poor People of Manila. It is not an issue film. Celso, Cora and their children are not cast as primitives either by race or by social class, but presented as people very much like the audience that watches them. They are emotionally complex. They are hung up on heavy existential doubts. They worry from day to day about how they will get by financially. I’ll admit that this is not the point of ethnography or even “documentary”, but for Kildea and the couple who became his friends, at least it makes a good film.