From Solaris, 1972. Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky with cinematography by Vadim Yusov. Via Screenmusings.
From Solaris, 1972. Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky with cinematography by Vadim Yusov. Via Screenmusings.
Antoine Volodine’s short story “The Theory of Image According to Maria Three-Thirteen” is collected in Writers, a book available in English translation by Katina Rogers from Dalkey Archive Press.
Writers is one of the best books I’ve read in the past few years: unsettling, bizarre, satirical, and savage, its stories focus on writers who are more than writers: they are would-be revolutionaries and assassins, revolting humans revolting against the forces of late capitalism.
Writers (which I wrote about here) functions a bit like a discontinuous novel that spins its own web of self-references to produce a small large gray electric universe—the Volodineverse, I guess—which we can also see in post-exotic “novels” like Minor Angels and Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven.
Volodine’s post-exotic project refers obliquely to the ways in which the late 20th century damns the emerging 21st century. And yet the trick of it all is that the stories and sketches and vignettes seem ultimately to refer only to themselves, or to each other—the world-building is from the interior. This native interiority is mirrored by the fact that many of his writer-heroes are prisoners communicating from their cells, often to interrogators, but just as often to an unresponsive void.
“The Theory of Image According to Maria Three-Thirteen” takes place in such a void, a kind of limbo into which the (anti-)hero Maria Three-Thirteen speaks herself into existence. It’s an utterly abject existence; Maria Three-Thirteen crouches naked like “a madwoman stopped before the unknown, before strangers and nothingness, and her mouth and her orifices unsealed after death…all that remains for her is to speak.” She speaks to a semi-human tribunal, a horrorshow, creatures “without self-knowledge.” After several paragraphs of floating abject abstraction, Maria eventually illustrates her thesis—an evocation of speech without language, speech in a deaf natural voice–to this audience.
Her illustration is a list of scenes from 20th-century films.
I found this moment of the story initially baffling—it seemed, upon first reading, an utter surrender to exterior referentiality on Volodine’s part, a move inconsistent with the general interiority of Writers. Even though the filmmakers alluded to made and make oblique, slow, often silent, often challenging (and always beautiful) films, films aesthetically similar to Volodine’s own project, I found Volodine’s gesture too on-the-nose: Of course he’s beholden to Bergman, Tarkovsky, Bela Tarr!
Rereading the story, and rereading it in the context of having read more of Volodine’s work, I take this gesture as the author’s recognition of his aesthetic progenitors. Volodine here signals that the late 20th-century narrative that most informs his work is cinema—a very specific kind of cinema—and not per se literature.
This reading might be a misreading on my part though. Maybe Volodine simply might have wanted to make a list of some of his favorite scenes from some of his favorite films, and maybe Volodine might have wanted to insert that list into a story. And it’s a great list. I mean, I like the list. I like it enough to include it below. I have embedded the scenes alluded to where possible, and in a few places made what I take to be worthy substitutions.
Here is Volodine; here is Volodine’s Maria Three-Thirteen, speaking the loud deaf voice—
And now, she begins again, to illustrate, I will cite a few images without words or almost without words, several images that make their deaf voice heard. You know them, you have certainly attended cinema showings during which they’ve been projected before you. These are not immobile images, but they are fundamentally silent, and they make their deaf voice heard very strongly.
The chess match with death in The Seventh Seal by Ingmar Bergman, with, in the background, a procession of silhouettes that undertake the arduous a scent of a hill.
The man on all fours who barks in the mud facing a dog in Damnation by Bela Tarr.
The baby that cries in a sordid and windowless apartment in Eraserhead by David Lynch.
The bare facade of an abandoned apartment building, with Nosferatu’s head in a window, in Nosferatu by Friedrich Murnau.
The boat that moves away from across an empty sea, overflowing with cadavers, at the end of Shame by Ingmar Bergman.
The desert landscape, half hidden by a curtain that the wind lifts in Ashes of Time by Wong Kar Wai.
The early morning travel by handcar, with the regular sound of wheels, in Stalker by Andrei Tarkovsky.
The old man with cancer who sings on a swing in Ikiru by Akira Kurosawa.
The blind dwarfs with their enormous motorcycle glasses who hit each other with canes in Even Dwarfs Started Small by Werner Herzog.
The train station where three bandits wait at the beginning of Once Upon a Time in the West by Sergio Leone.
The flares above the river in Ivan’s Childhood by Andrei Tarkovsky.
The prairie traveled over by a gust of wind in The Mirror by Andrei Tarkovsky.
She is quiet for a moment.
There are many others she thinks. They all speak. They all speak without language, with a deaf voice, with a natural and deaf voice.
Read Teju Cole’s essay “A Reader’s War,” which tries to square Obama’s reputation as a man “widely read in philosophy, literature, and history” with the White House’s policies of drone warfare. From the essay:
How on earth did this happen to the reader in chief? What became of literature’s vaunted power to inspire empathy? Why was the candidate Obama, in word and in deed, so radically different from the President he became? In Andrei Tarkovsky’s eerie 1979 masterpiece, “Stalker,” the landscape called the Zona has the power to grant people’s deepest wishes, but it can also derange those who traverse it. I wonder if the Presidency is like that: a psychoactive landscape that can madden whomever walks into it, be he inarticulate and incurious, or literary and cosmopolitan.
Layla Alexander-Garrett’s memoir Andrei Tarkovsky: The Collector of Dreams is new from Glagoslav. Their blurb:
The Sacrifice is Andrei Tarkovsky’s final masterpiece. The film was shot in Sweden, during the summer of 1985, while Tarkovsky was in exile; it turned out to be his final testament. Day after day, while the film was being made, Layla Alexander-Garrett – Tarkovsky’s on-site interpreter – kept a diary which forms the basis of her award-winning book Andrei Tarkovsky: The Collector Of Dreams. In this book the great director is portrayed as a real, living person: tormented, happy, inexhaustibly kind but at times harsh, unrelenting, conscience-stricken and artistically unfulfilled.
I’ve been riffling through it over the past few days. Alexander-Garrett describes her time with Tarkovsky in vivid detail—there’s a concrete richness to the book, and the author doesn’t try to psychoanalyze or interpret or otherwise interpose herself between the reader and the subject. More to come.
A list of great sci-fi movies would undoubtedly include Ridley Scott’s signature films, Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982), but I don’t know if there’s enough room on that list for Scott’s latest Prometheus, a gorgeous collection of set-pieces smeared onto a messy, hole-filled plot, signifying nothing. I’ve already written at some length about Prometheus’s metaphysical shortcomings, but I’m never especially happy to write negative reviews without providing alternatives. Here are seven movies that demonstrate the best in depth of intellect that the genre has to offer.
1. Metropolis, 1927 (Dir. Fritz Lang)
Metropolis foregrounds many of the tropes that will come to dominate serious sci-fi (film and literature alike). The dystopian future of Metropolis imposes a strict division of classes, relegating the poor workers to underground drudgery while the (literal) upper class enjoy privileged leisure. Lang explores this divide via a Romeo & Juliet story of sorts—Freder, son of the city’s Master becomes infatuated with Maria, a girl from the underworld. He follows her into the labyrinth under the city and soon witnesses industrial horrors that harm the subterranean workers. The plot becomes more complicated when a mad scientist unveils an automaton—a robotic Maria—that he will use as part of a nefarious scheme. Metropolis’s expressionistic design and camera work still seem fresh and innovative almost a century after filming, and the film’s take on class disparity is as affecting as ever.
2. Alphaville, 1965 (Dir. Jean-Luc Godard)
Godard’s dystopian New Wave crime noir talkie follows the strange exploits of Lemmy Caution, who drives in from the Outlands in his Ford Galaxie to find a missing agent, capture the founder of Alphaville, and destroy Alpha 60, the totalitarian computer that keeps Alphaville’s citizens from indulging in poetry (or other forms of free expression). Godard makes no attempt to design a future: Alphaville is filmed in contemporary Paris. The effect is baffling; Alphaville is an exercise in uncanny realizations. The dialogue is pure New Wave stuff—crammed with literary and art reference—and will just as likely bore as many audience members as it enthralls. In the end though, Anna Karina as Natacha von Braun is reason enough to watch this film.
3. 2001: A Space Odyssey,1968 (Dir. Stanley Kubrick).
Watch it. Then watch it again.
4. Solaris, 1972 (Dir. Andrei Tarkovsky)
Tarkovsky’s Solaris is a slow, engrossing meditation on grief. Based on the novel by Polish writer Stanisław Lem, Solaris centers on psychologist Kris Kelvin, who goes to the space station orbiting the planet Solaris in order to investigate the series of emotional collapses that the crew have suffered. Kelvin soon slips into his own existential crisis, as a ghost–or psychological construct—of his dead wife appears to him. Solaris is gorgeous and measured, using its near-three-hour running time to grand effect.
5. The Thing, 1982 (Dir. John Carpenter)
Antarctic research station. Shapeshifting parasites. Kurt Russell. Dogs. Flamethrowers. Blood tests. Kurt Russell’s beard. Ennio Morricone’s score. Wilford Fucking Brimley. Paranoia. Paranoia. Paranoia.
6. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, 1984 (Dir. Hayao Miyazaki)
A millennium after apocalyptic war destroys human civilizations, the groups that remain scramble to control the few resources left on the planet. A toxic jungle swarming with mutant insects—and dominated by the giant Ohmus—encroaches on the few bastions of clean soil that remain to humankind. Adventurous Princess Nausicaä though learns the secrets of the jungle—and also knows how to communicate with the Ohmus—only she has to navigate sides in the emerging war between rival kingdoms. Miyazaki’s film, based on his manga, is lush and detailed, a fully-realized world that is simultaneously frightening and beautiful. The film’s take on ecology is not so much preachy as it is prescient.
7. Primer, 2004 (Dir. Shane Carruth)
Primer was shot on a $7,000 budget, but it never looks or feels cheap. This story of four engineers who invent a time machine in a garage is decidedly unglamorous and consistently engaging; Carruth (who also wrote and stars in the film) throws the audience into the deep end, offering no exposition, let alone explication for the audience to latch onto. The film explores the bizarre moral implications—and possible side effects (and defects) of time travel.