After nearly eight years of writing and posting monthly weblogs, featuring in-depth analysis of the greatest works of world cinema, as well as ten years of writing and directing a handful of original films and contributing time and skills to more than a dozen more, I’ve taken a sabbatical.
You may have found us after attending a film festival, or seeing our films on the web. You might have encountered this website upon searching for serious commentary on international films. The series “Films of Our Enemies,” which has generated interest among many film enthusiasts, worldwide, will likely be continued before the year’s end, but please acquaint yourself with other projects of mine in the meantime.
On the other hand, you may have resurfaced here from our Youtube programming that is dedicated to Dr. Charles Greenleaf Bell’s epic series “Symbolic History Through Sight and Sound.” There are over 160 videos there that attempt to span the entire cultural history of humankind, from the prehistoric to the great beyond, all in one collection.
Then again, there are some of you that have been with us since the nineteen-nineties when we first went online. If you knew us then, you may already know about the multi-award-winning work I’ve done as a display artist throughout the years? Recent creations have been tailored toward the customers of Goler Shoes in Santa Fe, but there was an entire decade previous to this when we were traveling a lot and putting our art in front of a quarter to a half a million consumers per year.
The featured image was taken from a bricolage that I composed using a clothes hanger and a high-heel shoe, evoking not only dry bones of antelope, deer and livestock remains, scattered over the southwest desert, but, of course, Georgia O’Keeffe, whose paintings so fetchingly abstract images from those artifacts in her breathtakingly original way. O’Keeffe is so emblematic of Northern New Mexico that there exists an entire museum dedicated to her in Santa Fe. That’s where Goler Shoes is also headquartered, comprende?
The bricolage from which this image was taken debuted as a Goler Shoes display for the Fall of 2016. I simultaneously oversaw the digital capturer, layout and reproduction of the design (with thanks for the expertise of Steve Zeifman at Rush Creek Editions), for Goler’s print advertisement campaign.
Above is the poster for the billboard. Here is the bricolage in the photograph above in a Goler Shoes’ display window for Fall 2016:
Here is the front window from the same campaign:
The theme for the window display above was “like moth’s to the flame.” It consists of my small collection of cheap, colorful asian insect kites, hovering over a pink Himalayan salt lamp, in front of an exceptionally enchanting original, hand-painted silk scarf that my lady dashed off some 20 years back.
The object is to help Goler sell shoes, but for me it was also a way to acknowledge the plight of the many refugees cast about in search of freedom last year. Along with our marketing pitch, I added a proposal for my clients to consider donating a percentage from the big sale to the Red Cross.
Refugees are a formidable set, reminders of the tenacity of the human race. Facing down considerable hazard, they, the dispossessed, leave everything behind.
The conundrum they’re faced with is sacrifice home or die. Maybe all of us will be faced with it some day.
The third and final Autumn 2016 display, began with a slice of real life. The phrase in the bottom of the window, hand-lettered, on satin ribbon, sheds both literary and figurative light.
“You can try to wrap the world in leather or you can put on some boots.”
Years back I heard someone drop that quote and never forgot it. That black deer hide, I bought from a local skinner. That green globe, is a ceramic planter. The light-grey one next to it, is solid granite, and weighs half-a-hundred pounds.
Those sexy shoes are all stamped Donald Pliner, the store’s biggest brand. The map underneath it all was drawn when Santa Fe was still Old Mexico. It bemoans how, despite how many wars are fought, and refugees are displaced, geo-political boundaries forever drift, like dunes in the wind.
Since the prologue of the film “12” is a quote invoking mercy, let us follow mercy’s progress through the story. It’s not about letting a crime go unpunished, but becomes the antidote to punishing unjustly.
A school gym is empty except for a lone sparrow. A flock of middle-aged jurors files in and starts carrying on like kids. Deciding the fate of their fellow human being’s future starts out much like sport, replete with hoops, nets and parallel bars. Before long, the quest will be compared to a junkie’s fix, a little later, a coke fiend’s bliss, before the jury is ultimately, soberly dismissed.
I read the introduction of those loaded props in the early proceedings as a charge of responsibility, to each individual in society, for overcoming personal indifference. In the long game, evolution will refine this tendency out of us, or else. It’s just one more misguided death wish. Let’s let it go now, before its too late…?
A marooned bird is an apt metaphor for the central figure in this controversy too—a young Chechen perched under the punitive screw. It is not insignificant that this young man has already been made an orphan by a war that took both his father, step-father and his beautiful mother, too. In my country we don’t hear much about Chechens, except for their quarrel with Russia over sovereignty issues. I have just read twenty minutes worth of Wikipedia about them. They have brown, black or red hair and brown, green or blue eyes. They are a people associated with the Caucasus, as far back as 3000 B.C. The majority of them are Sufis, but their religion, before Islam, centered around sex, death and the hunt, just like the rest of us.
The Chechens are fiercely independent. They have a saying “enter in freedom.” Their totem animal is the wolf because wolves are both cooperative and independent. Like wolves, their numbers have dwindled over the centuries, defending depleted homelands.
I cannot speak for Chechens nor for Russia, so I will compare their story to a story from my own neighborhood. Although they’ve survived here for thousands of years, Native Americans, in the region where I live, have been marginalized on their own land for generations. For millennia, they’ve led sustainable lives here in northern New Mexico. Then came conquistadores and missionaries, followed by government agencies. We’ve all heard the story; in less than 200 years, they’ve become of the most underfed groups in the country. Its is not only unjust, it’s reckless. The hearts and souls of the twenty-two tribes living in the Southwest U.S., in the 21st century, are utterly and intricately intertwined with this land. We can never fulfill our potential here unless we do it hand-in-hand.
Getting back to this masterwork of modern Russian cinema, a maxim of drama known as Chekov’s gun, is whittled at, imaginatively, in the script of “12”. The rule states “if you say in the first chapter there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off.” It becomes extra-specially relevant when the lethal weapon in “12” happens to be a high-tech special-forces blade. While a few jurors do make use of it, threateningly, to state their point, none of them is killed or maimed. The symbol is spiked with indictments of arms trade. It implies that guilt for this felony spreads back, through the supply chain, to anyone that profits financially, no matter who’s convicted, or toward whom the weapon is aimed.
Summoning scrutiny’s sharpest intent, the murder weapon’s lethal tip skewers reams of litigation and written testament. A replica of the same weapon, introduced in a similar way by a dissenting juror, exposes how this major piece of evidence, admitted deceptively, generates a major misconception. It also elucidates how facts can easily be construed to promote one point of view, to the exclusion of another, but the sword of truth always cuts both ways.
At midpoint, the sparrow makes herself obvious by taking flight through the room, landing on a table set out with the food trays. An often-shared quote from the good book starts out, “consider the birds of the field, they neither toil nor sow…” That little bird says to me, “let us reconsider again, since people and birds co-exist, voluntarily, for the sake of shared needs, why not everybody?
The recurring clip of a dog running down the middle of the road, with a man’s hand gnawed off at the wrist, is possibly a bit more pessimistic. Mercy gets stripped to the bone. Incidentally, that hand and dog are a nod to Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo” (1961). I first saw that medieval Samurai showdown in a 16mm print, projected on a living room wall when I was still a teen. My friend Ben was very keen to show me.
I next watched “Yojimbo” a decade later at some rickety Rocky Mountaintop cinematheque in the 80s, at the instigation of an Aikido practicing friend of mine. Neither of those times did I care that the character played by Mifune was committing a great act of mercy. The dog with the hand was the one thing about the film I never forgot. With that one frame, Kurosawa convincingly maintains, war’s only winners are the beasts feasting on the remains.
The influence of John Ford on Kurosawa is well-known, followed by Kurosawa’s influence on the spaghetti westerns by Sergio Leone. “Yojimbo” has been imitated endlessly. I just found out, incidentally, by researching it, that the dog and hand image has been re-appropriated perhaps as much as any other shot in motion pictures since. I’s inclusion may be meant to lament the last turn of events in “12.” For what began looking like a story of redemption, ends up twisting into just one more turf war being fought. If you don’t know “Yojimbo,” it too has a gangster plot.
But, drilling still straighter for the core of “12,” I consider it near genius how the folk dance that the young Chechen demonstrates, twice, at the onset of two momentous passages in his life, aims the knife, not outward, toward an enemy, nor anything unkind, but tucked inward, it becomes an extension of his own spine.
Please, allow your attention to spread into this eddy with me, temporarily. How much of all that is fine about humans is involved in the act of turning in place? Gravity is our adversary until we adopt ambulation. How much more grace is exercised if we advance, through practice, to whirling. To straighten up and spin right is to transcend our weight, times our height, at least. There’s liberation to be leveraged there. Whirling is also useful for venting pent-up aggression. A healthy society should practice martial arts and folk dance together, in combination, to provide a full range of creaturely emotions with a civilized means of self-expression.
Likewise the knife is similar to a cross in design, delineating folks who are primarily cruel from those primarily kind. It is not as simple as black and white, since we are all composed of both, to differing degrees, but justice alone does not wield the sharpest blade. If apathy is the dulling trait we each most need to self negate, mercy is a most deserving edge to activate, by all peoples, parties and states.
Let’s not forget, “12” is an all out homage to the original film “Twelve Angry Men,” (1957) by Sidney Lumet. The movie exudes the morality of half a century ago. The decision to remake “12” for the present day argues that, no matter how much times change, our core values stay the same.
I was sure the motion picture version must have been adapted from a stage play but, in this case, it flowed the other way. The American production was stacked with Broadway heavyweights, no less, but the film script is from an original teleplay.
As many a great storyteller has done before, Mikhalkov no sooner delineates what legitimately divides us, than contradicts with proof what binds our fate. Four separate votes, involving twelve men, over the course of a long night, is what it takes.
Revealingly, the most steadfast juror is an artist, portrayed by Mikhalkov himself. He is the one who maintains his convictions, from the very start, and backs them up more than anyone. Inviting the accused to move in with him is the very pinnacle of artistic élan. In this script, the director of “12” proclaims the virtues of mercy to his fellow man.
Andrey Tarkovsky was harassed by Soviet critics but praised by the proletariat. I think his written remarks about masterpieces of art being immune to association or else prone to infinite association, which is the same thing, was an evasive action taken by a misunderstood genius trying to be bullet proof. Who can blame him?
It’s not that I disagree with his enlightened presumption, but I’m pretty sure that analyzing its components in order to discover layers of meaning in art is as natural for audiences as our search for meaning. No masterpiece can elude our need to break it into digestible units. To discourage us from analyzing complex works of art, when the human brain is conditioned to do it, is ludicrous. Great movies are displayed on the high altar of a movie screen, after all, like some blessed sacrament. Absorb as much of their greatness as possible; digest, assimilate, amen!
Surely Tarkovsky is warning us to not get carried away with the sound of our own digestion. Regarding analysis of jazz, Duke Ellington was quoted as having said, “too much of that kind of talk stinks up the place.” In other words, let the art speak for itself. If words could say everything, then we would need nothing else.
Why then, do I analyze films? Not to make definitive pronouncements on their merits. In discussing anybody else’s work, I try to limit myself to specifics that might provoke a common response or well-meaning debate. I don’t write to be quoted, but simply hope that someone reading this might discover the movie for themselves. If they’ve already discovered it, perhaps I will provide them an excuse to look again.
Tarkovsky’s suggestion that infinite associations can be provoked by a single masterpiece, is not entirely relevant, in my opinion, since the likelihood of most humans making identical associations is much greater than us making unique ones. Art reaches us through our imagination and through our senses. Our senses are all going to have a common reaction to certain stimuli. That’s one thing great art understands. It seems to me an artist depends on the fact that essential associations eventually will carve predictable lines through common precincts in our brains.
Getting back to Tarkovsky’s second film, as Act III of “Andre Rublev” unfolds, the narrative line shifts radically and our attention switches from the floundering faith of a monk/painter Rublev to the budding prodigy of an orphaned son of a bell maker Boriska. Rublev shifts to a supporting role, however we are still viewing the action through his eyes, so Tarkovsky really isn’t hanging the narrative out to dry.
How important is it for the audience to experience Boriska’s initiation from Rublev’s point of view? Critical. Rublev, the conflicted monk/artist, gets his religious faith and creative inspiration super-charged by witnessing the unknown craftsman take a quantum leap.
The ringing the enormous bell at the finale becomes an audio/visual talisman to forever remind us a truly great artist works in service to the people. A truly great artist’s and any truly holy mystic’s responsibility are one in the same. Both are pioneers, confronting the fact that whatever any of us does ripples through the culture with consequences.
What worker in the realms of imagination would not relate to their process as a fire burning off superfluous matter; getting out of the way and becoming a conduit for a greater power? Rublev receives a summons from the prince but procrastinates and waits for the juice to come down from God–the artist’s conscience, in other words–he is rewarded with the privilege of witnessing someone else step into their genius. this, in fact, melts the last of Rublev’s resistance. Observing the good vibe that Boriska’s sacrifice generates, Andrei rededicates himself and his talents to a life of service.
In the aftermath of the fiery rite of passage, mud takes the place of blood and coats the crowning shot’s pieta-like design. Borisky remains mired in regret, even though he has greatly succeeded. He gambled with his talent and won, but can scarcely comprehend such luck.
He’d have been beheaded if he’d failed. Instead his bell sends good vibrations out over the land. The royals ride off to party. Common folk take the day off as well, but pitiful Boriski weeps and wails for what he thinks he lacks. Mirrors in Tarkovsky’s movies come in many guises. Rublev looks down at this one, realizes Boriska is his reflection and lifts him out of the mud.
Tarkovsky did his best over the expanse of his short career to call out the best in his fellow artists. He was blessed with some consummate craftsmen with which to collaborate, capturing all the intricately designed and timely processes of his magnum opus. Nevertheless, political censorship bogged down this film after its premiere, dishonoring its great director as well as the top-notch crew that made it. While the Soviet’s government sealed the country’s fate as a failed state, their artists bequeathed us some of the greatest works ever made.
Next month “a summersault into the unknown” beginning with “Nostalghia” (1983)
In his book “Sculpting in Time,” the director adopts the attitude that the more the artist’s views are hidden the better for the work of art. I am not convinced Tarkovsky practiced this. The artist’s view seems to me to be the most obvious thing about any work of art. It’s the very thing that makes it art. So, we obviously don’t agree on what the term “artists view” means. Does he mean that art is less pure if the artist creates it to solve personal problems rather than collective ones? The artist’s conscience is on trial.
What is the point of hiding your views if you are an artist? Does he refer to the artifice that we create as the thing we hide our views behind? If so, does it follow that the more splendid the artifice, the better concealed the artists views? I don’t think so. Does he mean to hide his views so that they cannot be found or so that they cannot be easily detected? Are they to be walled-off from the work entirely?
No, they are to be disguised and smuggled in, silently, right through the audiences’ self-limiting defenses, past their precious prejudices to side-slip our cultural conditioning. If art helps us find meaning, as Tarkovsky states in his notes, then an artist would be obliged to share any vestige of meaning he or she has gathered through experience with his art. Sharing helpful information is what its about, is it not? Tarkovsky was making a statement against propaganda. He’s not going to pry open our minds so he can fill them up with what is in his. His objective is to leave behind a community of wide-open minds.
We’re at the point in our brief analysis of “Andre Rublev’ where Tarkovsky and his band of master Soviet craftsmen stage the casting of a massive church bell for the camera. Imbibe, with me, some of his potent allegory. Four blast furnaces dispense blazing bronze into an earthen mold meters deep in the ground. It would be hard to find a moving image with more poetic power than the casting of bronze to articulate the refinement of artistic conscience.
I’m going to digress briefly here and confess why the third act of “Andre Rublev” especially impresses me. There are bell makers in my family. They own a foundry to this day. Its bells ring all over the old country. The relatives that immigrated here from the Balkan alps found work in mines, metallurgy labs, and steel works along the Rockies in Colorado, but back in the old country they were bell makers. I was a jeweler for much of my life and so a predilection for liquefaction of metal can, evidently, transfer through the blood.
Deep background aside, just try and snore through the action in Act III once the fire begins to roar. Tarkovsky commandeers all possible avenues to our senses to capture the imagination, not to enslave, but to woo.
The filmmaker penetrates deep into our subconscious recesses with his novel explorations of mid-tones and greys, his uncanny knack for rhythm and pace, precocious echoes and rapturous vapors, mysterious murmurs from nature beckon from enchanted byways, all scintillating in supportive counterpoint to character arc and story beat.
I have been searching for a word or phrase that stands for what Tarkovsky mastered and I found it on the splendid art series by Charles Greenleaf Bell, the entirety of which Open Channel Content LLC has posted on YouTube for your edification.
“Omnivoyant” is the word Dr. Bell’s series supplied and also a quote to help explain it. This is from part fourteen of the “Symbolic History Through Sight and Sound,” entitled “Fifteenth Century – Early Renaissance.” The actual quote is by a medieval philosopher talking about the eyes of Christ in devotional painting.
“If I strive in human fashion to transport you to things divine. I have found nothing better than an image which is omnivoyant… such… I call the icon of God. This picture, brethren, ye shall set up in some place… and each of you shall find. From whatsoever quarter observed, that it looks at him as if it looked at no other…As in a mirror, an icon, a riddle. I see life eternal which is nothing less but that blessed regard, that gaze of love that never ceases to behold me even in the most secret places of my soul.” Cusanus (1401-1464)
This is what Tarkovsky’s movies do. They tap in to the root of the collective unconscious and look back at me and you with great regard. In act III of Rublev, for example, the horned helmet and his ruffians ride into the churchyard acting contemptuous and rude. The same clan of Tatar horsemen that conquered the town ten screen minutes ago are back in the churchyard, inciting a fight among the local dogs with spoiled meat.
Right here, Act III scene one flips fate’s coin from abduction to seduction. At the mid-point of the previous act, Rublev the monk adopted a young woman who is a bit touched, but very tuned-in to human nature. Durochka is her name and Andrei, the monk, kills a soldier to spare Durochka being raped.
So here in Act III this charmed female savant gets caught up in some tawdry snare again. The haughty heathen appraises his little rabbit, up and down, amused that she comes across more childlike than full-grown. Andrei looks on from a safe distance, while the foreign raiders box in the peasant girl for their horny lord. Up to now, Durochka’s lived by a simple sort of native grace, but all that might be about to break. Andrei’s faith is tested twice. If he doesn’t do something she’s lost for good. Yet, if he does, they will surely do him harm.
The monks stand by in collective disgrace looking more marooned on an island than ensconced in God’s dwelling place. They couldn’t look more distraught. It’s dead of winter. Dogs snarl and tear at each other. The harvest has gone to rot. Now these well-fed Tatars gallop in making sport. Hired horsemen cajole and corral the helpless one they’ve caught.
Watch how she endears herself to us as an uncommonly curious soul with some native twinge of witch in the mix. Watch now while the fierce warrior and the enchanted waif face off. From cloak to tongue they appear distinctly different stuff, but when he asks her to become his eighth wife, she more than catches his drift.
Everyone else has a good laugh. Meanwhile, this proud stud of a medieval mobster gets caught off guard by the charms of a girl that seemed retarded. We are watching one of the most enchanting moments in motion pictures. Of course, it involves a mirror. The sculptor of time was never keener than when Durochka pulls herself close to that devil’s belly, polishes his breastplate to catch a glimpse of herself, then gazes up in the eyes of her plunderer with hers lit up in raw and wild wonder. His expression mirrors her effect, to us, as that beast’s intents are bent to love from lust.
This film’s in a class of its own, like so much Russian art, music and lit. Tarkovsky’s art combines harmonics for the most discriminating sophisticate. Who could have seen it coming when the most frightening figure in the story becomes the disadvantaged peasant girl’s ticket. In a final pass by the lens, late in Act III, we see Durochka clothed fresh, head to toe, a good deal better off yet still as comfortably herself as ever with lovely Tartar horse and child in tow.
Tarkovsky was an alchemist, a shaman and folk physician. May his illusions live on to enchant generations. Positive and negative charges, visible and invisible rhythms, complimentary opposites and their parental nodes balance, almost algorithmically, throughout his life’s work. For me, the seven stories Tarkovsky fashioned for the screen are among the finest antidotes for the handful of toxic things in this world I wished I’d never seen.
Tarkovsky may have known that “The Sacrifice” would be his last film, but it would be trite to say that he was putting himself up on screen as its tragic hero. Certainly the filmmaker would not deny a common bond with that man. Both are confronting the hour of their death.
I think what the filmmaker was revealing about his own personal drama, coping with terminal illness, was that he felt like the wrong side was dying. Their reputations were made off of his. His critics were a cancer, not him. They claimed his work as justification for their own and were forever trying to rebuild his art in their image.
But in Tarkovsky’s universe there surely should be some sort of natural law to spare the poet before the critic. At the same time, I can understand where any dying man might entertain the hope, wish, fantasy, whatever you call it, that a sacrifice of sufficient magnitude should bring about salvation for his loved ones. Here, I believe, is the common coordinate point where Alexander the main character of “The Sacrifice” and Andre, the director’s, predicaments overlap.
“The Sacrifice” it’s about WWIII and the hero is an aging intellectual, not some hunky, wisecracking superstar in a carnival costume. Even more interesting, this one’s a film critic. In the last act, the critic barters his reputation and all his material possessions away, to God, in exchange for the salvation of his loved ones. Then he sneaks off and sleeps with a witch. Next morning, we can’t possibly guess which desperate act did the trick, but something did. One senses it was a bit of both. In any case, in the end, his family is spared and Alexander has to fulfill his part of the bargain.
It appears as if Tarkovsky means to humble his critics, but in the end, a critic, saves the world? Consider how he did it. By giving up his reputation and all that it bought for him. Ironically, the message becomes that a critic’s highest achievement is to censor them self. The filmmaker sends this poor slob out into the world homeless, mute, stripped of reputation, literally escorted out of the picture by the men in white coats. With the great conflagration at the end of his movie, one could conclude Tarkovsky’s dying wish, at least as an artist, was to burn those critical voices out of existence.
The opening title cards of “The Sacrifice” play over a detail in a reproduction of an unfinished painting “Adoration of the Magi,” by Leonardo. Meanwhile, we listen to The “St. Mathew’s Passion” by Bach. As the titles conclude, the squeal of seagulls fades up. Eventually it will become evident that we are in an upstairs room in Alexander’s Swedish seaside sanctuary. For now, the camera cranes up on a lushly depicted tree in the painting, on a wall. The tree towers over the rest of the composition. The action cuts from that image of a tree, to an actual tree by the seashore, where seagull sounds make more sense.
Already, we are being invited to distinguish between a picture of a tree and an actual tree, Painter René Magritte did a similar thing with a pipe and caption in his “The Treachery of Images,” (1935).
After a few more frames, we will be supplied with the story of a tree to add to the equation, in order to thoroughly uproot any preconception that art is interchangeable with the things it presents. Besides a preview of the end of the world, we are being availed of an opportunity to challenge our preconceptions in a way that only cinema can supply.
It’s Alexander’s birthday and with the help of a very young boy whom everyone calls Little Man, an old man planting a barren tree by the sea. The little one is too young to comprehend a story the old one is telling. It’s about an elder monk that plants a barren trunk with his protégé. After much nurturing by his pupil, the monk’s tree eventually blossoms.
Alexander concludes his monk’s tale with a digression on how a method or a system can be applied to change virtually anything. No matter how insignificant an action is, if done consistently with focused intent, it will change the world. He proposes, one could simply rise up out of bed at precisely the same hour every morning, draw a glass of water from the sink, flush it down the toilet and that would tip the scales of change.
Smells positively Zen-like on the surface, but with a peculiar after scent. I’m almost certain it is a veiled insult, mocking censors who prefer their own idly formulated prejudices over an artist’s hard fought insights. Andre strikes back, making one of them admit how absurd their occupation really is. I didn’t fit these frames together until after I’d watched the film three or four times.
Tarkovsky endured the misunderstanding of men like Alexander throughout his career. Still he got up out of bed every morning, turned on his imagination and made one world-changing work of art after the other. Whatever his censors perpetrated against him, in his final film he flushes all their efforts down the drain.