Friday, April 11, 2014

You Missed It At Light Industry: Poem For The Inland Sea

Yulia Soltsneva made this film based on pre-production material her husband and long time collaborator Alexander Dovzhenko (Zvenigora, Arsenal, Earth) left behind after his death during the post-Stalinist thaw. It's a lyrical, slow propaganda piece about a Ukrainian village (based on his own) about to be submerged under a "new sea" meant to stem drought and feed a hydroelectric plant.

I have yet to make anything like a complete study of Soviet film, which is a tradition Dovzhenko was a major figure within, but I would still like to recommend this movie. Please be advised, though, that this is the dilettante's perspective and some of the subtly of this film was likely lost on me.

Barthélemy Amengual in his (French) book on Dovzhenko writes, "The great films of Soviet cinema attest, for the most part, to the justice of socialism. Dovzhenko’s persuade us first of its beauty." To dream with a film, with a book, a piece of music, we need first a moment of liberation from the real. Filmmakers bear this burden more severely than any other kind of artist. The albatross of the concrete world imposed on the filmmaker by his camera is usually relieved with money in America and with the illusion of money in the rest of the world. Dovzhenko/Soltsneva liberated their audience for their dreams with dialectics. They bring poetically liberating conflicts into every element of filmmaking. The clash between red and green (in the mise en scene, with party gels, and probably helped by the aging print used for the video file Light Industry projected from) is managed carefully so that the film can first flirt with realism (and the danger of censorship) in its depiction the real unhappiness of collective farmers in Ukraine and then later, as the colors over-saturate and their conflict grows more intense, the filmmakers can signal a flight from the prosaic into the poem.

One of most effective devices they used to produce this conflict was the use of rear projection, as in the above still. Another was sound: a general returning to the village for the first time after WWII with his son, walking through a field of high grass. The general is remembering fighting the nazis in a field like this, as we watch him walk we hear the sounds of battle. Hard cut to his son, walking in the same place in the screen, from the same angle, but his soundscape is the sound of wind in the grass and birds singing.

The "poetry" in Inland Sea is often so direct it's embarrassing, just as embarrassing as it is to hear someone you love start singing in a beautiful voice. The audience at Light Industry often reacted by laughing, but it wasn't laughter at the film or with it, but an uncomfortable laughter at the kind of beauty we've methodically potlatched and purged from our society. In a film like this, it reemerges as something too precious for us to hold in our hands - scenes like a technicolor dream of the general gathering up geese huddled together in the snow outside his house. He brings them inside and remarks at their lack of fear, at how much they trust him now. His wife and child want to eat them but he violently refuses. Later we watch him releasing one of the birds off the edge of a cliff. In sequence, in Dovzhenko/Soltsneva's shots, and with his dialogue it works, it's incredibly beautiful, but also completely ridiculous. We laugh for the same reason people laugh at David Lynch or Herzog when they're telling an audience on David Letterman or at Penn what they really think, what's really at the heart of these movies that we love. As much as the bravery of a Lynch is the rape scene in Blue Velvet, it's also the scene with the robins of love suddenly appearing to strains of Julee Cruise's overexposing aural bliss. Dovzhenko/Soltsneva are on this level, are this brave, produced images this rich.

And then there's the propaganda, which is the other reason we laughed. This is really where I feel out of my depth. From the little bit I've been able to read online it seems like Dovzhenko, like a lot of Soviet artists, had a complicated relationship with Soviet-style Communism and Stalin personally. I don't feel like I'm able to parse out exactly which scenes in the film are ironic and which are sincere. I know that some of these filmmakers personally fought in the October revolution and all of them sought to revolutionize film itself with a philosophical tradition that Marx was supposed to be the apogee of, a philosophy whose worth they proved with works like Happiness and Potemkin. Chris Marker's The Last Bolshevik details both the hope of this generation, which is so hard for us to imagine now, and that hope's severe and brutal destruction by the prototype of the of the fascist state, Stalin's USSR. Men like Dovzhenko and Eisenstein lost their health and their minds. 

Added to this tension is John Riley's warning:
We cannot view [Dovzhenko's] films or read his writings in the form in which he left them. His major films have been cut; his minor films lay buried in archives; some of his most cherished projects never made it to the screen; his film scripts have been censored; his correspondence, diaries and notebooks continue to be published in bowdlerised versions.
...for a full understanding, Zvenyhora demands a knowledge of Ukrainian history and folklore, implicitly underlining the stresses between the Soviet Union and its constituent countries, and arguing for nationalism, whether as some degree of self-determination or a simple respect for their traditions.
As a historical and cinematic foreigner, viewing a film once that I may never have the chance to see again, I have to accept that some scenes will always be a cypher. But working with a shoddy memory and an internet education, I'll risk the conjecture that Dovzhenko/Soltsneva did have tongues firmly in cheek when they wrote/filmed scenes in which these farmers surrender their huts, their livelihood, and their village for the sake of the future of socialism. When the general's grandfather says he's 'grateful there's no god' when remembering bitterly how the Soviets destroyed a church his father built with his own hands, the difference between the authors' political obligations and their sense of humor seems clear.

"Freedom is a good horse to ride, but to ride somewhere," writes Matthew Arnold. If irony begins its life as a move for autonomy, irony is at its most vital when its works in service of an essential freedom. Irony for irony's sake, freedom for freedom's sake is not enough. Nihilistic irony, postmodernist irony, of the kind we have in the current environment of anti-comedy we see in shows on Adult Swim and Comedy Central produce freedom with an industrial logic, it produces freedom on command, like drugs do, attacks the world that tries to make sense of itself to chase after freedom like miners chasing coal veins. If you'd like to see a dangerous kind of irony, an irony that risks its exposure to a totalitarian government, to film critics who work in the service of that government, this irony may very well be at work in Poem For The Inland Sea, it's likely this film was supposed to be as funny in 1958 as it was in 2014. 

Which is enough to say: see it, if you can. It's lush, it's formally sophisticated, it's poetic, and it's pretty funny, with or without your Western prejudices about who these men were and what they believed in and why.

I'll end this article with a few selected passages from John Riley's article on Dovhenko (I read some other sources, I swear!). It's much more studious and entertaining than this one:
"I cannot create films without grandfathers. I am lost without a grandfather. A grandfather is the prism of time."
Dovzhenko had often spoken his mind in the past, regardless of the political consequences but he seems to have been driven to breaking point, allegedly describing Soviet democracy as 'the greatest lie and hypocrisy which humanity ever knew.' 
 ...his second wife Julia Solntseva, who not only went on to make several of the films that Dovzhenko had only scripted but in 1970 completed her devotion with _The Golden Gates_, a documentary about him. Not only did she continue his work but she was also careful to preserve his reputation by maintaining the obfuscations and rewritings of history that Dovzhenko, like every other Soviet artist, had been forced to employ, including possibly playing up or down youthful anti-Tsarism and Ukrainian nationalism as appropriate.
This was the period when conflictlessness was increasingly what was desired in art (musical life featured the 'conflictless symphony', though many would consider it an oxymoron). But for Dovzhenko, conflict was at the heart of creativity, just as it was the root of Marxist dialects and, indeed, of film montage. The time that it took to bring Michurin to the screen was probably just as much due to timorous officials who found it easier and safer to reject something than approve what might later be condemned, as the cloud under which Dovzhenko was still operating.
Despite the regime's treatment of him, he decided to 'ask Stalin that my heart be removed from my chest before cremation and buried on my native soil in Kiev'

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