Monday, March 30, 2009

Mother & Son

Aleksander Sokurov's Mother & Son (1997) seems to take place in a space that falls somewhere between the conscious and unconscious. It is the story of an ailing mother tended to by her son that takes place in a small house in a very rural area of Russia. The mother seems to be on her death bed and even when she is awake it seems that she is never far from slipping back into sleep. The film begins with the mother recounting a dream she just had, which we find out was the same dream that her son had. This establishes a subconscious or metaphysical link between the mother and son, suggesting they inhabit not only the same physical space, but also the same space beyond conscious perception, which is extraordinary for something as personal as a dream. The landscape itself is also very dream-like. Much of it is filmed in soft focus with clouds and mist in the mise-en-scène, giving the film a hazy, ethereal quality. I think perhaps the most important subliminal aspect of the film is the sound. Most of what is heard on the soundtrack is not seen on the screen, so it is ambiguous as to whether the sounds are being created in the offscreen diegetic space of the film or if it is coming from an extra-diegetic source like the characters' imaginations. The film begins with a black screen and the faint sounds of waves breaking on a shore. One would expect then, that the first images on screen would be of the sea. Instead we see the mother laying in bed with her son behind her, gazing into a space off screen. Perhaps the sea is just outside the house and the son is looking at the waves through the window, but we have no idea, since the first few minutes are essentially a tableau, a static shot of the mother and son laying down. The only visual connection we have to the sounds of the waves is the rhythmic rising and falling of the mother's chest as she breathes. In later scenes we learn that the house is not adjacent to the sea, but is surrounded by rolling hills. The house itself is filled with sounds whose immediate source is not apparent. The sounds of a crackling fire are foregrounded in the soundtrack but we don't see the fire, except in a later shot. Even then the fire is relegated to an insignificant corner of the frame, almost inversely proportionate to the importance placed on its sound in the earlier scene. There is also a scene within the house where the buzzing of a fly is extremely loud and prominent within the soundtrack, yet the fly is nowhere to be seen. Outside of the house, the unseen sounds are also the dominant aspect of the soundtrack. There are natural unseen phenomena like wind, which while heard can not itself be seen, but is visually manifested in the images of bent trees and the undulating ripples in the wheat fields. There is also the sound of thunder accompanying the images of low hanging grey clouds. Man made sounds factor in as well. In one scene we hear the whistle of a train and see a plume of white smoke, but the train itself is obscured by a ridge in the landscape. There is also the faint barking of dogs, and the only other sonic evidence of humans is very faint and comes in the form of laughter and song. Since there appear to be no other dwellings nearby, it is unclear whether these sounds are sourced from within the film or within the psyches of the characters.
Mother & Son seems to almost be an antithesis to the early work of Sokorov's countrymen like Eisenstein, Pudovkin, and Vertov. Where these directors worked in opposing dialectical images in fast paced rhythmic cuts in the Soviet montage style, Sokorov uses almost exclusively long take photography. That's not to say there is no dialectic tension between the images. Here they are presented within one image on the screen, instead of a series of images like the montage directors. This is a style not unlike Jean-Luc Godard employed in films like Le Week-end and One Plus One which Brian Henderson wrote about in his essay "Towards A Non-Bourgeois Camera Style". He writes that the long takes still require the active participation of the viewer, but not in the way that André Bazin suggests the viewer selects what is important within the space of the frame during the long take. Instead Henderson suggests that "the viewer is not drawn into the image, nor does he make choices within it; he stands outside the image and judges it as a whole". I believe this theory can be applied to the scene in which the train finally makes an appearance in the frame while the son is out walking. He is by himself for once, not having to care for his mother, and the train enters the frame from the right and exits the left side while we watch him from behind as he watches the train. The train is a symbol of modernity, a contrast to the primitive dwelling that the son shares with his mother that lacks running water or electricity. Since the train also requires other people to operate it and would either be full of passengers or goods that would need to be unloaded by other people when it reaches its destination, the train can also be seen as a symbol of life. The son almost seems to be yearning to be on the train, to have it bear him away from his present surroundings. This is also the case in the scene where the mother is carried outside and is laid down on a bench by her son. She is surrounded by verdant plants with a vibrant, saturated green color, the very picture of life, that provide a contrast to her deathly pallor. The shot leading up to this scene also suggests a non-bourgeois camera style, when we see the son carrying his mother from the house to the bench in a long, deep space shot that tracks very slowly to the left. The camera doesn't expressly follow the son, and seems to be almost an impartial observer and if the son happens to walk into the frame, then so be it. The narrative (or what narrative structure there is) also unfolds at an extremely languid pace, almost as if it is taking place through the eyes of a dying person trying to observe every minute detail of this world before moving on to the next.
Another visual aspect of the film that I believe is worth noting that it is quintessentially Russian (rolling green hills, birch trees, rippling fields of wheat) but seems to be in contrast with the Soviet-era communist films with the subject of the mother and son. This pairing seems to be representational of the iconic Madonna and child paintings that were a trademark of the Russian Orthodox churches dating back to the 15th and 16th centuries. In this case however, the context is inverted and shows the son grown up and taking care of the mother, who is rendered as helpless as a baby by whatever disease is afflicting her. This is evidenced in the scene where the son actually gives the mother a bottle to suck from, suggesting she is too feeble to even drink from a glass and has reverted to a state of infancy.


Henderson, Brian. "Towards a Non-Bourgeois Camera Style". Film
Theory & Criticism. ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. 6th
edition. Oxford University Press. New York & Oxford, 2006. p. 56.

film journals - My Take On Cassavetes

I'm just posting a few of my better essays from my Film History 1960 - present class.

This was my first time seeing The Killing of a Chinese Bookie(John Cassavetes, 1976), and the first thought that popped into my head after seeing the opening shot of Ben Gazzara as Cosmo Vitelli was that he looked exactly like another character I've seen him play. In his white leisure suit with the top few buttons of his shirt undone, he was the spitting image of Jackie Treehorn, the porn movie producer he played in the Coen brothers' The Big Lebowski. As the film progressed, it was clear that the Coen brothers appropriated his character traits as well. In The Big Lebowski when The Dude asks Jackie how the smut business is going, he replies, "I wouldn't know, I'm in the entertainment industry." Likewise, Cosmo essentially lives either a life of make believe or self-deception, however you'd like to look at it. He runs a club that he fancies as a cabaret act, but which in reality is little more than a tawdry strip club masquerading as a cabaret. He takes great care in putting on a show with singing and dancing, and even has one of his dancers open the night's entertainment by reciting poetry (Edward Lear's "The Owl & The Pussycat") with the words changed to include the club's name.. However, the patrons of the club seem to be interesting in the entertainer's other assets. Frequent shouts of "Take it off!" are heard from the crowd, and the occasional bared breast or ass elicits cheers far louder than the song or dance routines.
The club has a Master of Ceremonies called Mr. Sophistication (played by Meade Roberts) who is anything but sophisticated. It seems he is the butt of a joke but is completely clueless to that fact. He has also constructed an alternate reality in his mind that he fully buys into, since he is of the opinion that he is more of a draw for the club than the girls are, but as I've already mentioned the biggest crowd response are from bared flesh. He also attempts to add a sheen of glamour to the surroundings. "Let's transform ourselves into Paris" he implores of the patrons at the club, attempting to recreate the ambience of a cabaret show in "la ville lumière" during la belle epoque. However, the mundane reality of a late 1970s Los Angeles strip club is never quite transformed to turn of the century Parisian fantasy. It's hard to be coaxed into a flight of fancy by someone whose mustache is comically penciled in. Despite all this, Mr. Sophistication still has an undeniable underdog's charm that only someone so fully and sincerely committed to a cause against daunting odds can affect. Mr. Sophistication also seems to function as a Greek chorus somewhat, since his song towards the end of the film comments on the unifying theme of escapism and pretenses with its lyrics " imagination is funny / makes the cloudy days sunny / imagination is crazy / your perspective gets hazy".
The aforementioned Cosmo is also a dreamer, desperately trying to rise above his current station in life with no success. Towards the beginning of the film he is shown paying off a debt to a gangster type who he discredits as a lowlife with no class. Cosmo is hardly the picture of class himself though, driving around in beat up cars, drinking in dive bars, and running a strip club. He attempts to portray himself as a dapper playboy type of character in the vein of Bob le Flambeur. We see him riding around in a chaffeur driven Cadillac picking up girls who work at his club to accompany him at an all-night gambling party, to give him the air of a sophisticated gambler. However, he can not even manage to pin the corsage on his "dates" and has to enlist the help of his chauffeur pin the flowers on the ladies' gowns. There is a harsh juxtaposition between his fantasy world and reality the next morning when his Cadillac drops the girls off at their homes. His tuxedo and the ladies evening gowns, more suited to the milieu of a downtown nightclub, look somewhat ridiculous in the harsh light of morning on the manicured postage stamp lawns of the suburbs.