Mother and Son
The Tears of the Soul
In a conversational exchange noted in an article on Mother and Son in Film Quarterly, between Paul Schrader and Alexander Sokurov, Schrader says, "I once had a teacher who said that anything inside a frame is art. When this cup is put inside a frame, it's not a cup it's art." Sokurov replies, "I disagree with that, art is the hard work of your soul. And a cup is still a cup." In the Mother and Son piece, the writer Robert Buckeye notes that in the director's apartment in St Petersburg, "one hears the music of Wagner, Scarlatti, Tchaikovsky. There are no contemporary writers on his shelves, and he reads mainly the classic Russian writers, particularly Chekhov, and the great modernists, Flaubert, Faulkner." In an interview with Cineaste, Sokurov says "...the world of art is already created. Very often, especially in the U.S., I hear talk of "new art", but this calls forth in me only a smile, and sincere sympathy."
Yet in relation to the latter comment, isn't his one take HD feature Russian Ark new, an opportunity to do what numerous long take specialists like the Hungarian Miklos Jancso or his own fellow Russian and mentor Andrei Tarkovsky could not do; what virtuoso directors like Hitchcock, Ophuls and De Palma would have been fascinated by? Like Mike Figgis's Time Code, this was the shock of the technologically new, but where it seems that for Figgis it was part of restless experimentation consistent with a director also known for making Jazz, for Sokurov it came from a much deeper place. "...The themes that come to life or materialize within my films are born of ideas that have existed in me, the author, for a very long time. None of them is accidental or circumstantial." Russian Ark, a film about several hundred years of Russian history filmed in one long take as it passes through various rooms in a St Petersburg museum, is technology serving ontology, serving being: the means of production is on hand to film history in "one breath".
By the same reckoning, the formalism of Mother and Son is interested in catching the last breath of a dying mother. The film covers the remaining, elliptical period in a woman's life as she is cared for by her visiting son. The image is late Impressionist in form but innovative in technique. "Alexander and his cameraman Alexei Fyodorov" Cineaste notes, "photographed scenes through panes of glass at varying angles, using reflected light to produce two-dimensional, painting like images, as if they were reflected in the surface of a teardrop". The image becomes as tremulous as a Van Gogh painting, as warped as a Munch picture. Sokurov asks us not to enter into the three-dimensional illusion, but accept the two-dimensional limitation that releases the soul.
Obviously many have a problem with a word like soul, a word that can cover a multitude of meanings without grounding us in anything that makes analytic sense. Yet though Sokurov is given to many a religiously inclined statement - "I do not doubt that the universe was not created by an evolutionary method" - he can also be fascinatingly provocative. "If we never had encountered art with the feeling of death - in films, in the pages of a book, or in a painting - then when we confronted the reality of death, we wouldn't be able to live through it...Our souls would fall apart from grief because our essence would not be prepared for it." For Sokurov, art's purpose is to prepare us for death, a variation on the Ancients. Epicurus's notion that we should "rehearse death", and Seneca's belief that "it is a very good idea to prepare ourselves for death", find their correlative in Sokurov's claims for cinematic art. If he finds most films worthless, and would never make a commercially oriented movie, it is because "death is a theme of absolutely fundamental importance, and art, it seems to me, demands thematic fundamentalism."
What we want to explore is the means with which Sokurov prepares us for death in the very viewing experience, how he offers us an optimism of form in the face of potentially diegetic despair. Some might call this space the holy, the transcendentally spiritual; yet let us instead take into account Sokurov's comments about religiosity, and also an idea explored by Slavoj Zizek in his book The Fright of Real Tears, Schelling's 'geistige Korperlichkeit' - spiritual corporeality. Zizek sees it in the work of Tarkovsky, saying that the director escapes being yet another "Russian religious obscurantist" by "entering the spiritual dimension only via intense physical contact with the damp heaviness of earth (or stagnant water)." In Sokurov's work, in especially Mother and Son, but its companion piece Father and Son also, the spiritual takes on tactile form. The corporeality is in one's shaping of the world, of rendering it meaningful. At the beginning of Mother and Son, we see the eponymous couple next to each other as the mother lies dying and the son is stretched out next to her with his arm propping up his head as she whispers her fears and anxieties to him. The image is smeared and warped, a two-dimensional swirl of colour and form, deliberately denying the three-dimensionality that film can so readily imitate. As they whisper words to each other, as the bodily proximity and the visual intimacy conveys a sense of the other-wordly, we needn't think especially of the other world as God's, but chiefly as one beyond the material thereness of our own. If Zizek admires Tarkovsky for containing the spirit within the material presence of film, and filming nature in its splendour and dismalness, Sokurov goes further in creating a haptic and aural reality based chiefly on the hyper-sensitive and the hyper-sensual. Reality recedes much further here than it usually does in Tarkovsky, but, consequently, does this make Sokurov yet another "Russian religious obscurantist"?
One thinks not, and it rests in his capacity to contain the spiritual if not quite in the materialism of a Tarkovsky, then at least in a form that generates a becalmed state. In the Cineaste interview Kirill Galetski asks him if, in relation to death, he adheres to any system of belief. Sokurov replies; "I think not...I reckon that faith takes shape through upbringing and education. I wasn't brought up under any religious orientation....Just as in the acquisition of grammar, in the acquisition of religion, one must learn...For me, religion is a very serious labor of the mind and the heart." Is a cinema of the spirit not also a process of acquiring a grammar, a mode of visual perception that can create if not the presence of the spirit, then the absence of pragmatic material existence? Sokurov's achievement in Mother and Son is to make the mother's death irrelevant; irrelevant in keeping with the Ancient's idea of preparing ourselves for death so that one can die with the absolute dignity of a demise, that one doesn't struggle against the forces that wish to take us. When Seneca says in Letter xii in Letters from a Stoic, "every day, therefore, should be regulated as if it were the one that brings up the rear, the one that rounds out and completes our lives," it is a statement of universal intent. It is not only the dying but also the very much living who need to attend to the question of death. It may be the mother who dies, but the son must live her death as if he were preparing for his own also.
If we think of how many films that deal with death deal as well with the capacity for moving on, from Terms of Endearment, The Son's Room and The Father of My Children, whether the death happens late in the film, early on or in the middle as respectively happens in the films we mention, the capacity to move on is vital. Death interrupts life, but it doesn't permeate it. The Seneca comment would be irrelevant in the context of these and many other socially-oriented films about dying. But Mother and Son is not at all a socially-oriented film. We have little context for the son's life, the hassles often pertinent to dealing with a dying relative, the funeral arrangements or the will; all we have are the bare bones of a mother's passing. It again brings to mind Seneca. ""Put me in the line of the decrepit, the ones on the very brink," he says in letter xxvi. "However, I congratulate myself, mind you, on the fact that my age has not, so far as I'm aware, brought any deterioration in my spirit, conscious as I am of the deterioration of my constitution." Need the soul be no more nor any less than the feeling of accepted resignation even as the constitution inevitably deteriorates - a recognition of the body's limits to contain the entirety of what we are?
Obviously, for many here, the begged question demands an answer and they fill it with the notion of God. Yet Sokurov invokes the spiritual without arriving at the categorically holy, evident in an exchange between mother and son more than halfway through the film. The mother announces that she is afraid of dying; the son says there is no reason why she should. She wonders why she should live; the son replies that there is no reason for living; only for dying. When the mother asks what her reason happens to be, he tells her she has no reason. Is this an example of Russian theological obscurantism, with the son making declarative statements and not only failing to back them up, but also immediately contradicting himself no sooner has he offered them? There is no reason for living only for dying he insists. But then he provides no explanation for why he thinks this and then tells his mother that she has no reason: saying instead that she should live and enjoy life. If Zizek notices though that Tarkovsky resolves his mystical mumblings in concrete detail, Sokurov offers his variation of it in the bodily warmth that assuages far more completely than the words offered. This is spiritual corporeality becoming ever more corporeal through the closeness of the bodies. When the mother initially says she is scared of dying it is after the son puts her into bed, and sits at a distance from her. When he tries to explain to her that she must live and enjoy life he has her in his arms, caressing and touching her, calming her more with touch than language, with deeds over words.
What might be useful to think about is Sokurov's mode of spirituality; not its logical coherence, or its exemplary weaknesses. Most of the great filmmakers of the spirit find their own appropriate means with which to speak the spiritual. Ozu's lay in the precision of his shot/counter-shots and the general stillness of the frame. In painterly terms one would invoke the still life, with the characters themselves often almost as still as the objects to which Ozu would intermittently cut. In Tarkovsky, it would be the landscape shot of, say, Bruegel's January (Hunters in the Snow) in Mirror, perhaps Jacob van Ruisdael's Jewish Cemetry in Nostalgia. Herzog has openly acknowledge the importance of certain landscape painters, including Bosch and Bruegel, Grnewald and da Vinci. "These are", he says, "the kind of landscapes I try to find in my films". (Herzog on Herzog)Sokurov is drawn here to the pieta, to the work of Bellini, Lipp or Michelangelo's Pieta.
We offer the comparisons very superficially; merely to say that the question to ask of the spiritual filmmaker is not what do they mean; but how do they formulate the spirit so that meaning comes through? If we feel at the end of Mother and Son a sense of well-being, it is because Sokurov has convinced us not of God's existence, but of the beauty of our own in all its spiritual possibilities, and not only its bodily actions. Sokurov creates the opposite of a soulless environment, with the influence of Bellini and Lipp, Munch and Van Gogh, it is an attempt not to trust in the transparency of the image, but to create an opaque one. He wants to reverse the great realist (and indeed spiritual critic) Andre Bazin's idea in an essay 'The Aesthetic of Reality' that in the neo-realists their work was closer to the "sketch rather than to the painting", and that in "their hands the camera is endowed with well-defined cinematographic tact, wonderfully sensitive antennae which allow them with one stroke to get precisely what they are after." Instead of the transparently real, Sokurov often searches out a milky texture, this opaque need to create the space for the soul that feels like an enveloping mist of oceanic feeling, one belonging to a realm man cannot quite see because he is living reality, not attentive enough to the spiritual world that encompasses him.
This sense of other worldiness that is also especially evident in Sokurov's film about Lenin and Stalin (Taurus), Hitler (Moloch) and Hirohito (The Sun) isn't only visual; it is also aural. Certainly, many Russian films are strongly post-synched and amplified, but Sokurov's also create an echo like a whisper from afar. Sometimes in Mother and Son it is the sound of nature, sometimes it might be the music of Mikhail Glinka, non-diegetic music, certainly, but that sounds like it might be coming from somewhere nearby, not especially imposed on the soundtrack. Sokurov is in this sense a great director of what Michel Chion in AudioVision calls the superfield, "by virtue of its acoustical precision, and relative stability this ensemble of sounds has taken on a kind of quasi-autonomous existence with relation to the visual field." This means that off-screen space has its own existence that does not depend on its imminent on-screen presence. We can hear a car start, a voice shouting, a crowd cheering and not expect it to become part of the on-screen. The other-worldly in Sokurov can quite simply be the world beyond the immediate screen-space, part of the superfield as Chion describes it.
But there is also, if you like, a microfield, nicely exemplified in a passage in a Martin Amis short story, 'The Coincidence of the Arts', where he refers to a character whose "ears were trained inwards only, and he listened to the muscle creaking in the root of his tongue." This is the inwardly that Sokurov captures as well as he captures the outer-worldly, and for the same ends: to kill the social dimension and release the metaphysical, the sense of a world beyond our own as it is usually perceived, inside and out. When the son goes out into the woods and weeps up against the tree, we hear his own sobbing and groaning almost as though we were inside his body, while also hearing the external sounds of wind rustling the trees, birds chirping.
As we've noted, Sokurov insists the theme that frequently interests him is death, saying "death is not a theme that's exclusively mine. Death is one of the principal subjects of classical Old World art. Even though I am a modern person, all of my roots lie very much embedded in the traditions of the Old World." Yet this fascination with the old world demands new forms. Sokurov pushes further into the Tarkovskian question of how to visualise the soul. A pointless question many might insist, believing that the soul is a metaphysical non-issue; yet for some of the filmmakers we've already discussed it is one of the most pressing of concerns, and each filmmaker must find their own way of revealing it. Sokurov may say that "in essence an artist cannot create anything new", but there are means in which the old can be reformulated. The story of Mother and Son is no more than that of a man and his ailing mother whom he looks after until she passes away. But within that simple story is the possibility for thoughts and feelings that release the emotion of grief without the plot mechanics of the lachrymose. In the very title Sokurov invokes the general rather the singular, the importance of mothers and sons more than a particular mother and son. When we often cry during a film how often are the tears engineered out of the social, both in terms of the situations the characters get into, and the actors playing the roles? When Robin Williams sits down with Matt Damon's young genius in Good Will Hunting, Gus Van Sant in mainstream mode lays out the mechanics of common feeling: loss and regret; hopes, fears and opportunities dashed and decisions that need to made. It is all very well done on its own terms, but these are the sort of social terms mainstream filmmaking masters.
Sokurov wants not the fright of real tears, in Slavoj Zizek's phrase concerning a Kieslowski documentary First Love, nor the social tears of Good Will Hunting, but metaphysical tears - the emotionally unremitting, where death inevitably waits. Sokurov shows us the dignity available in the waiting: he offers nothing less than the tears of the soul.
© Tony McKibbin