Invention of Love: short film challenges us to rediscover our humanity or allow technology to define us

Andrei Shushkov, “Invention of Love” (2010)

Came across this elegant and melancholy film short by chance while hunting out another film short on Youtube.com and decided this was worth a look. And I’m glad I gave it the time of day (just under 10 minutes to be exact) as its story of a doomed romance is beautifully and economically told in a style that recalls Indonesian shadow puppetry with excellent contrasts of black silhouettes against simple coloured backgrounds of which each colour signifies some aspect of the world the characters live in and highlights the film’s theme. Set in an alternative 19th-century world of steampunk technology, an inventor yearns for love amid his mechanical gadgets and goes in search of it. He finds the girl of his dreams in the country, they marry and he takes her to his home in the city. But she is ill-adapted to life in the city where people’s pets and even vegetation in public parks are all mechanised, and the air is polluted with the wastes of industry, and the wife begins to ail and rapidly fades away.

In some ways this film is a throwback to 1920s silent film: the figures, their settings and backgrounds are all in silhouette so the film has a highly expressionistic style and there’s no dialogue so the plot is straight all-action narrative and expressions of emotion and intention are portrayed completely by the two characters’ movements. Movement is strictly from left to right or right to left and maybe in just a couple of scenes is there movement from front to back or back to front. Significantly, near the end the inventor appears to turn to the viewer (breaking the “fourth wall”) as if to plead for understanding for what he has done. Although the characters and close objects are two-dimensional, Shushkov portrays city landscapes as three-dimensional with a clever use of layers of silhouettes superimposed one over the other and shading the layers with increasingly lighter and more faded tones going into the backgrounds so as to create an illusion of aerial perspective.

The music soundtrack, in part original and in part derived from Frederic Chopin’s work, mostly played on violin, matches the plot well, accentuating characters’ feelings as they travel from joy, happiness and love to homesickness, sadness and despair.

The use of mostly blue and yellow shades to contrast the world of nature with the world of machines, industry and pollution is very effective. The yellow suggests pollution and ultimately poison and death. The white background near the end of the film suggests loss of vitality and surrender to mechanisation. While the tragic end can be predicted – viewers can guess even before the halfway mark that the marriage will end in tears – the film’s ultimate conclusion is unexpected and horrific with the inventor deciding to give his life over completely to the world of machines rather than reconnect with nature and all that gives him his inspiration and creativity. The ending is horrific due to its ambiguity: the inventor turns to the audience but his silhouetted face is blank and viewers must choose either to sympathise with his desperate actions or pity him for his inability to escape, mentally as well as physically, his hi-tech Victorian world.

The film suggests that the world of machines can replicate or copy nature but can never really replace it and while it copies, it will continue to undervalue and destroy the original live creation. Humans have lost sight of what is really valuable and sustains them; they may try to replace it with tricky and clever technologies but the results are pale and sterile substitutes. Like the inventor, we must choose whether we want to remain with our machines and allow ourselves to be defined by them or break away and reconnect with the true source of life, vitality and identity.

“Invention of Love”? The title is very ironic indeed.

 

Quasi at the Quackadero: time travel and psychological self-study in a fun fair

Sally Cruikshank, “Quasi at the Quackadero” (1975)

Here’s a great little cartoon about a mismatched couple, Anita and Quasi, living in a science fantasy future and visiting the Quackadero fun fair with Anita’s pet robot Rollo. The style of animation used in this film superficially resembles work by Heinz Edelmann who was the art director for the 1968 film “Yellow Submarine”, based on songs by English 1960s pop band The Beatles; it’s very surreal and glories in lots of vibrant colour and weird associations and juxtapositions. No surprise that in the cultural context it was released in, “Quasi …” was quickly associated with hippie culture, with all the baggage implied. Diversions within the film take viewers on some wonderfully weird and weirdly wonderful mind trips: a man’s dream becomes the gateway to a matryoshka set of universes where one yields a hidden world which in turn yields another world and so on; and visitors line up to view sideshow attractions such as watching receding time bring down skyscrapers and restore paddocks and pastures, and looking at themselves and their friends as they were when they were babies and as they might appear in 50 or 100 years’ time.

Strip off the lively colours, take the weird little reptilian duck figures aside, kick out the jaunty and quaintly antique-sounding music soundtrack, and what’s left is an amusing and rather sadistic plot in which Anita contrives to get rid of Quasi with Rollo’s help. Quasi is a likeable character, rather lazy and thinking of his stomach and what next to eat: he’s very much your average teenage boy. Anita appears a snooty big-sister type but that may be due to her peculiar slow drawling voice. Rollo is merely Anita’s ready and willing servant.

The film does risk becoming repetitive as the trio visit the various fun fair attractions, each more deranged the one before and all involving some form of internal time travel which reveals something of Anita and Quasi’s natures and how unlike they are. What saves the film from repeating itself is that later sideshow spectacles become little subplots. A con artist and his troupe of actors pretend to re-enact Quasi’s previous life incarnations and Anita sees a way to boot Quasi (literally) out of her life by sending him back to the age of the dinosaurs.

The emphasis on time travel and apparent self-introspection might suggest a concern with the nature of time, memory and possible pasts and futures and how subjective and manipulable time and memory really are. Apart from this, the style of the cartoon, all hand-drawn and inked with vivid colours, and starring droll characters who treat the amazing wares on offer with insouciant coolness, is the most outstanding feature. The mix of past, present and future is the film’s major motif: rollicking dance-band music of the 1930s and the idea of the fun fair, itself a relic from the late 1800s and early 1900s, combine with interstellar travel and futuristic technology in a structured context that almost resembles a shopping mall, complete with rip-off merchants, that enable people to interact with their dreams and thoughts, and meet Roman galley slaves and prehistoric beasties first-hand at presumably affordable prices (in the mid-1970s anyway).

Jumping (dir. Osamu Tezuka): experimental short snapshot of the human condition through a child’s viewpoint

Osamu Tezuka, “Jumping” (1984)

Boing! BOING! BOI-I-I-ING-G-G!!! Here comes “Jumping” by the legendary Osamu Tezuka, creator of Astroboy, who made a fair few experimental anime film shorts in a long career that spanned creating manga comics and animated series and full-length feature films. “Jumping” jumps well above its weight in cartoon kingdom for its innovative adoption of a particular first-person point-of-view to present a snapshot of the human condition around the world in just under seven minutes. An unseen child trudging, hopping and skipping down a dusty road in a sleepy country town makes a silent wish and suddenly discovers he can jump longer and higher than he ever did before. Each successive jump is higher and longer than the one before and soon he is leaping above trees and over entire forests. He bounds towards an industrial estate and jumps over tall chimney stacks puffing out thick black smoke. He somersaults over skyscrapers and lets himself go into free-fall down, down to the busy city street just to bounce up again before the traffic warden booking the driver for speeding can get hold of him. He flies through a steel tower, bounces onto wharves and ships and leaps onto distant islands and other countries.

But it’s one thing to wish for something and quite another to have that wish granted … and often you end up biting off more than you can chew as the child discovers. There are suggestions throughout the film that the child nearly comes a-cropper in most situations he bounces into: he lands in a hen-house, he finds a lost toy in a forest (which might suggest another child has gone missing) and he gets attacked by a magpie. In the city, he meets a man preparing to commit suicide, nearly tumbles into a crane’s maw and intrudes on a woman sunbathing in the nude. There are close encounters with a jumbo jet and a helicopter. Farther afield, the child is nearly speared by angry hunters and becomes a casualty of war in a foreign country. A bomb explodes and he tumbles down into Hell to meet two demons.

The plot appears at first to be very simple, featuring just rhythmic bouncing that gets bigger and longer and increases in pace and tension as scenes flash by faster and the child starts losing control over where he lands and where the next bounce takes him. There is no dialogue either, just background sounds and the sounds of leaping, flying and landing on solid ground or grass. At first people are surprised to see the child but later become hostile towards him. What had once been a simple, friendly, peaceful world becomes more aggressive, complicated and dangerous. A lot can be read into the minimal plot: some people may see a moral that you should be careful about what you wish or strive for as the result may be more than what you can handle; others may find that it’s only by seeing things as others do that the world opens up in all its richness and complexity. And why shouldn’t children dream big? – it’s by dreaming big that you learn about the big bad world out there and if you’re lucky, you come away wiser and thankful for the things you already have, boring though they might be.

The hand-drawn animation is exacting in the depiction of weather phenomena, rural and urban landscapes and technical details of objects, buildings and technology. Animated figures look very cartoony but until near the end this is not a drawback as they appear very briefly. If the film has a weakness, it’s that the demons the child meets aren’t at all fearsome but merely more cartoon characters. The encounter doesn’t come over as terrifying or intense in any way and the child is merely relieved when it’s all over, as if he’d just had a dream that went bad.

This is a worthwhile film for students of film and other creative art forms (such as writing fiction) to see how a very simple story with no dialogue and with just one main character whose point of view forms the whole plot can portray a complex theme or express a philosophy about life and humanity.

 

 

 

True demon movie hiding in “Kakurenbo: Hide and Seek” but weak story and characters need more work to bring out the monsters

Shuhei Morita, “Kakurenbo: Hide and Seek” (2004)

A very lavish short film that uses cel-shaded animation to render the CG imagery three-dimensional, “Kakurenbo” has a definite dark layered look and atmosphere and features considerable detailing in its backgrounds and non-human characters. The major weaknesses of the film are in the plot and the child characters, of whom there are too many for the film to describe adequately beyond stereotype. Seven children descend into the concrete depths of Tokyo to find a place called Demon City to play a game of hide-and-seek. One of the children, Hikora, is looking for his sister Sorincha who disappeared in this area while playing the same game. The rules of the game are basic – the youngsters have to wear fox masks as they play – but as the children wander through the shadows and dimly lit gloom, one boy disturbs a statue by hitting it with a stick, and before you know it, the kids are being chased by bizarre demon monsters sprung right out of Japanese Buddhist nightmare myths. The kids are picked off one by one until Hikora finds himself alone with a small girl. He discovers to his horror who the girl is and what she plans for him, and what happens to all the children who have come into Demon City and been defeated by its monsters.

Demon City looks much bigger than it really is and the buildings seem to be of different architectural styles but then most of the film is shrouded in darkness so perhaps my mind is being overactive and filling in the blackest parts with images of Indian Hindu temples runing riot in carvings and statues of animal-headed gods and leering goggle-eyed demons. Pity though that the same level of detail doesn’t apply to the seven children who could be clones of one another apart from size, shape and hair colour. Indeed, two kids actually are clones – they’re identical twins! – but whether they are boy or girl twins, does it really matter? English-language dubbing turns the kids into teenagers of Scooby-Doo country: their strangled talk seems trite and inappropriate for the film’s ambitious visual settings. Even Hikora, who should be the most developed character, comes off as an underdone stereotype with limited emotion and motivation. The use of fox masks obviously cuts down on the amount of work the animators would have had to do to individualise the seven children and create a range of emotions for each and every one of them but at the same time the masks dehumanise them and force viewers instead to scrutinise the children’s body language for expression. Ah, big mistake there! – the children’s bodies aren’t very expressive at all and there is so much shadow (lights in Demon City are dim for a reason) that even body outlines can be hard to discern.

The one-track plot flits from one group of children to another as they are separated into three groups and each group is pursued by a different demon. The action gets repetitive and the film stalls in parts where a child is caught by a demon and the scene fades into black. For a film of its nature, there’s no build-up in tension towards the scene where Hikora is the only one left standing: one expects a lot of quick and sharp editing in the scenes where demons corner children and the kids make narrow escapes only to find themselves in dead ends and the monsters bearing down on them. A lot of screaming and wailing might be expected too but apart from one teenage boy who exhibits a lot of bravado but is actually a scaredy-cat, the children meet their fate grimly with very little vocalisation and not much pleading or bargaining. The twins especially are mute beings.

Anyone who’s played hide-and-seek won’t be too surprised at what happens to Hikora but the conclusion does come across as more anti-climactic trite than creepy and horrific. Overall this is a good-looking little anime that could have been tightened up with respect to plot and its characterisation worked at to bring out the child characters’ individual quirks and motivations for playing the game. Deeper characterisation could have enlivened the film with teenage gang rivalry, jealousies and fights over girls, and one-upmanship. As the kids quarrel and fight over which street to turn into, the monsters stalk them silently. The game itself could be expanded into something more than just hide-and-seek: there should be different levels of proficiency, treasures to search for and weapons to pick up to fight the monsters. I’m really surprised the game in this anime isn’t designed like a computer game that gets more complicated the deeper you go into it. No lessons are learnt, no skills are picked up. If there is a deeper message in “Kakurenbo”, it may be that the game, childish though it is, represents the gradual loss of carefree innocence that children used to have in a pre-industrial age and the destiny of all those who venture into Demon City is the destiny of children when they leave school or university and are acknowledged as adults: enslavement in a machine society. The demons represent those adults responsible for preparing young people to take up their appointed slots in the giant factory system that is modern Japan.

There is a real demon movie hiding in “Kakurenbo” but it’s going to take a lot of work for future animators to seek it out.

Cat Soup: surreal meditation on life and death, time, religion and the universe

Tatsuo Sato, “Cat Soup” / “Nekojiru-so” (2003)

Here is a beautifully animated surreal short film which superficially looks like a children’s film but is clearly intended for adults: an early circus scene in which a strange magician chops up his assistant into pieces with a chainsaw and the film zooms in on body parts with meat, blood and bone marrow clearly exposed will dispel any and all lingering doubts! The style of animation is at once simple with the main characters (two cats) drawn with very charming large heads and large eyes in the style of  “Hello Kitty” mascots, and other characters and some objects also very basic in appearance; yet backgrounds, buildings, various props and creatures the cats encounter have realistic details. The plot also is simple and complex: on one level, it’s a quest and on a different level it’s an investigation into faith and religious belief, the nature of God, the life cycle and death itself.

Nyatta is a boy cat whose sister Nyakko is nearly taken away by Death; he struggles in a tug-of-war for his sister’s soul with Death and both rivals come away with half her soul. Nyatta determines to retrieve the other half of Nyakko’s soul from Death so he takes her to a circus and this trip sends them on an odyssey that drops them onto a boat in a vast ocean, then into a retelling of the Hansel and Gretel fairy-tale and through a desert where they come close to dying from thirst. They meet some strange characters: a pig who allows his flesh to be cut up and eaten, a man who dresses in bondage clothes and tries to cut them up with giant scissors and a woman who sews dismembered limbs back onto bodies. The strangest character of all is God Himself who treats Earth as a giant bowl of soup (blood soup as it turns out) and runs time backwards and forwards on a creaky mechanical clock machine.

The film is worth several repeat viewings for the colourful surreal visuals alone. All animation is done with traditional hand-drawn or hand-painted methods. A water elephant tries to help the two cats in the desert but evaporates, a giant bird contains within it all the world’s clouds and weather and butterflies of metal flit through a swamp. The scene in which God loses a walnut and forces to time run backwards and forwards in order to get the nut back is a highlight that features scribbled animation in shots where humans execute other humans, a pedestrian is run over by a car and guillotines fall (or not at all in all three shots). Most memorable is a scene where the two cats wind up sitting on huge red waves, frozen in movement and resembling waves on traditional Japanese woodblock prints in detail. The colours are not very psychedelic and blatant: they can be bright but usually they are subtle and the surprises and the magic come by way of usurping viewers’ expectations about things that appear on the screen at any one time.

“Cat Soup” isn’t to be watched for its plot which is bare yet turns out vague and puzzling: the value of the film is in its strange visuals and juxtaposition of actions in bizarre sequences: to take an example, a pregnant woman falls over a waterfall, a stork saves her and feeds her to its chicks, the chicks defaecate and the poo lands in soil from which a tree grows and sheds tears with images of the woman’s babies within. This sequence has no relation at all to the cats’ quest; it exists to illustrate the random nature and cruelty of life. The later sequence in which God disrupts the chronology of the universe to search for his lost walnut suggests that such randomness and cruelty are often due to petty thinking and behaviour and lack of foresight and consideration. God Himself is a small-minded being whose main concern is where His next meal might be coming from. The very vagueness of the film and the strange sequencing of visuals and actions invite multiple interpretations of what it might be saying.

Rather than try to make sense of what the film is throwing out, viewers should relax and immerse themselves in the cats’ adventures: I consider that this is the goal of the unusual visual style and associations that appear. Huge red tsunami waves that don’t move? An elephant made entirely out of water? Mechanical butterflies? These are ingenious ploys to get you to suspend logic and rational thinking.

For those who still insist on finding something that makes sense, there is a message but it’s a very pessimistic one: we can forestall death with all the effort we can muster but it can still come at unexpected moments. Belief in God or religion is of no comfort; God is an arbitrary and capricious being. There is also the idea that if one is fated to die, then one accepts that fate. As with many films of similar nature to “Cat Soup”, dealing with universal themes, the ending may seem a depressing let-down and a nasty joke on the animators’ part.

Russian Ark: visual travelogue through art and culture meditating on identity, history and time

Alexander Sokurov, “Russian Ark” (2002)

At last a film was made with just one take and a well-executed and visually gorgeous film it is too. “Russian Ark” is an affectionate journey through just over 300 years of Russian history, art and culture and a travel guide through the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, taking in a tour of the Winter Palace in particular. An unseen narrator (voiced by director Sokurov himself) has become a ghost through an unknown accident and is fated to haunt the corridors and galleries of the museum throughout its existence starting in the very early 1700s. He meets 19th-century French diplomat the Marquis de Custine (Sergei Dontsov) and together they trawl the museum buildings, seeing, meeting and sometimes interacting with people of the past and present. They are unintentional witnesses to some significant and not-so-significant events of Russian and St Petersburg history including Tsar Nicholas I’s reception of Persian diplomats come to apologise for a mob lynching of a Russian ambassador in Tehran and the siege of Leningrad (1941 – 1944). They watch the daughters of Tsar Nicholas II dance in the Winter Palace corridor and the Marquis himself takes part in a huge and extravagant ball to the music of 19th-century Russian composer Mikhail Glinka.

The film makes some references to the Marquis’s life: he was known to be very religious and was skeptical of Russian attempts to appear European and civilised. The Marquis and the unseen narrator provide a “plot” of sorts in which they comment on what they see and express opinions and feelings about Russian art and culture. Mildly critical comments about Russian people are made: their seeming reverence for the rule of tyrants, their penchant for trying to keep up with the West and copying the West on a grand scale, the notion that big is best where Russia is concerned. The question of what it means to be Russian is raised but as the film progresses the narrator and the Marquis end up carried away by the visual glories they see and the discussion of Russian identity as something distinct from or parallel with European / Western identity, however superficially conducted, melts away.

The roving camera becomes the film’s major character and the narrator is its voice; the film acquires a voyeuristic and even conspiratorial air as the camera glides, often unseen, through the Hermitage and the Winter Palace. The camera and the Marquis don’t try to hide – the Marquis often addresses people directly in spite of the narrator’s pleas not to speak to people – but watch people from behind windows, columns or other spectators. Viewers familiar with Russian and Soviet history may be reminded of the authoritarian, police-state surveillance aspects of past Tsarist and Soviet governments and present post-Soviet governments. The single-take structure of the film with its intrusive Peeping-Tom flow immerses the viewer in whatever the camera lens takes in; the viewer becomes part of the stream of images and ultimately a participant in the film’s proceedings. The Russian Ark, for which the Hermitage Museum is merely the physical bearer, turns out to be the Russian people and their artistic, cultural and historical heritage, worth preserving, remembering and passing down to future generations. By watching the film, viewers share in the responsibility of interpreting and passing on the best of Russian and Western art and culture to the future.

The flowing single-take format does have its disadvantages: its arbitrary route through the Hermitage assumes viewers already are knowledgeable about Russian and Soviet history and can make sense of what they see and why Sokurov chose to focus on some famous historical incidents and personalities and not others. Why Sokurov didn’t focus on some part of the construction of the Hermitage and the Winter Palace or of St Petersburg is a mystery since that could have told us something about the personalities of the Tsars and the power they wielded and about the nature of Russian society during the imperial Romanov period. There are significant events missing from the film: the 1905 Russian Revolution; the revolutions in February and October 1917 that respectively felled the Tsarist government and brought the Bolsheviks to power; the 1918 transfer of the Soviet government to Moscow; and the bombing of the museum during the city siege in World War 2. The format is very subjective: the immersion of viewers into the film sweeps them along and admits no resistance or criticism of Sokurov’s view of Russian history and culture. Even the Marquis near the end of the film is awed and impressed by what he sees and experiences, and admits that Russians are “European” after all. The film even dismisses itself as a historical drama: the Marquis early on talks about Russia being a theatre and Russians as actors, and this idea is picked up at the end of the film when hundreds of people attending the ball leave the building by going down an enormous staircase. People wanting a history lesson will be disappointed – they will know no more about Russian and St Petersburg history at the end of the film than they did at the begininng.

With the single-take structure, there will be untidy moments where edits are needed and errors in timing and pacing become apparent. Apart from one early scene where an actor appears to miss his cue with Dontsov waiting patiently behind a set of double doors, the action and pace are smooth, graceful and leisurely in keeping with the notion of plunging the viewer into Russian and European art and culture. Sokurov and Dontsov keep up their patter without missing a beat so to an extent the single-take form has been successful. The camera’s movements do not jar though it’s possible some viewers might feel nauseous after seeing the effortless way it pans around or circles objects and people.

Watching this film, it’s hard not to feel nostalgic and sad for the loss of Imperial Russia, especially when one considers the upheavals, the chaos, genocide, suffering and tragedies that followed in the Soviet period. A strong sense of time passing and erasing, diminishing or changing the meaning of events and artefacts from various historical periods can be felt. This is reinforced by the way the camera travels through the physical museum and history, backwards and forwards, in what’s meant to be a cyclical journey through space and time; some viewers may find the film repetitive in parts. Audiences need to know that the real Tsarist Russia, for all its wealth, flamboyance and exaggerated grandeur, was a harsh world for the majority of its subjects and had its share of invasion, famine, tragedy and mass killings. We need look no further than St Petersburg itself which was built on the labour of conscripted Russian peasants and Swedish and Finnish prisoners of war in the early 1700s. Perhaps Imperial Russia is best appreciated as a place to be visited in novels and stories by Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Turgenev and Gogol, nicely sanitised according to individual preference, and never to be actually visited except by ghosts.

 

 

The Cathedral: search for life’s purpose and oneness with God isn’t fulfilling in this little film

Tomasz Baginski, “The Cathedral” / “Katedra” (2002)

It’s a short film – less than seven minutes – created entirely with 3D computer animation but Baginski’s “The Cathedral” is beautiful and stunning visually while vague and weak on plot and character. A lone pilgrim has come from afar to a huge cathedral structure on a barren planet at the far edge of the universe. What quest brought him here is unknown as the film lacks spoken-word monologue or dialogue. He gazes around him as he walks through the vast edifice of intertwined trunks and branches through which human faces and statues can be seen. As he passes the statues and arrives at the edge of a cliff, at which the cathedral stops repeating its structure and gapes, as if in reverent awe at the abyss below, the focus discreetly shifts to some of the statues’ faces close-up and we see slight twitches, a knowing look, a secret smile, an expression of pain and sorrow, in these portraits.

Those of us who’ve seen numerous science fiction horror films can guess what happens to the pilgrim once the sun rises and casts its rays over the unfinished cathedral and the man himself. This reviewer wasn’t surprised; it was rather like watching that special 4-episode Doctor Who adventure “The Five Doctors” in which a renegade Time Lord seeks immortality and has his wish granted. Very likely the pilgrim’s quest was more about coming closer to God or finding inner peace and purpose to his life. The reply is that of humankind overall searching for its ultimate destiny in the universe with the pilgrim playing just one more part in his people’s outreach to the infinite: the pilgrim’s quest is the same as humanity’s quest and ditto for his purpose in life. As to whether the pilgrim was asking the right question in the first place and got an answer he didn’t expect or want or was led on by his beliefs and upbringing to find God and peace, only to discover too late that he’d been deluded all along or even tricked, viewers will have to decide for themselves. A sly black humour may be at work here and there is a paradox too: to reach God, to know our ultimate destiny as individuals and as members of a collective, must we submit to enslavement to find freedom?

At least the animation is  elegant and beautiful, majestic in parts, and has a slightly sinister Gothic look to it. Colours are dark and gloomy and the atmosphere is creepy. Some viewers who know the English doom metal band Cathedral may find the style of animation reminiscent of that group’s album covers of fantasy art by Dave Patchett. The film cathedral is an organic structure of inter-twined trunks and branches: tall, imposing, commanding respect, yet severe and not at all bulky. Huge spaces within the building emphasise the barrenness of the world around and highlight the pilgrim’s existential enquiry. The film spends little time on its protagonist and doesn’t encourage much viewer sympathy for him: this is the major weakness of “The Cathedral”. Viewers have to guess what he’s come to the cathedral for and work out from his behaviour and actions at the edge of the cliff his inner anguish and turmoil and loss of faith and hope. Perhaps he realises what’s in store for him but doesn’t know what to do. When his purpose is achieved, viewers catch a brief glimpse of his face, frozen in calm, but the moment may pass too quickly for viewers to see whether this is the calm of inner peace or of the resignation that comes with being an immortal vegetable.

The 1970s-styled music soundtrack is a drawback to the film: the melodramatic orchestral music doesn’t gel well with the disco beats and the result doesn’t suit the film’s style. Atmosphere is diluted and the film appears less sinister than it should. This is one occcasion where no music or very minimal, unobtrusive music, perhaps of an ambient nature, is called for.

If it had been a bit longer to allow for greater character development and to immerse the viewer more into its dark atmosphere and strange, half-live / half-dead structure, “The Cathedral” would have been a great little film about the quest for immortality, unity with God, the relationship of the individual to the community of humankind and the nature of faith and religion.

 

The Sampo: good-looking film with a moral let down by watered-down story and wooden acting

Risto Orko and Alexander Ptushko, “The Sampo” (1959)

A joint Finnish-Soviet fantasy production aimed at a family audience, “The Sampo” is a very loose retelling of some of the tales in the Finnish national epic Kalevala. In the original stories, the aged bard and poet Väinämöinen is the major character but here becomes a support character with scattered screen time here and there. The film’s focus falls on the fortunes of the hunter Lemminkäinen (Andris Oshin) and the blacksmith Ilmarinen (Ivan Voronov) as they battle the evil witch Louhi of the North Country (Pohjola). The trouble starts when Louhi (Anna Oroshko), greedy for personal wealth, decides she wants a sampo made. The only person in the world with the knowledge and skill to make a sampo, a magical object that can dispense endless riches, is Ilmarinen so Louhi contrives a scheme to force him to come to her. She kidnaps his beautiful young sister Annikki (Eve Kivi) and holds her prisoner; the news soon reaches Ilmarinen. Lemminkäinen has been wooing Annikki so he and Ilmarinen leave their community Kaleva and travel together to Pohjola to rescue Annikki. Louhi demands ransom in the form of the sampo and another arduous task from both men so they oblige and eventually Annikki is released to go back home with them.

Sounds all very straightforward but some complications arise: Lemminkäinen decides Louhi can’t be allowed to keep the sampo all to herself so he swims back to the witch’s cave hideout while Ilmarinen and Annikki continue home. Lemminkäine ‘s rash actions endanger himself and his entire community in Kaleva as Louhi swears vengeance on him and tries to destroy his people by stealing the sun. Väinämöinen (Urho Somersalmi), portrayed as the community’s leader, leads his people in a cooperative effort to fight Louhi and her army of sorcerers. Unfortunately for everyone, the sampo itself ends up destroyed, its parts scattered throughout the world, and Lemminkainen is only able to retrieve a small part for Kaleva.

Viewers may quibble that a TV series with hour-long episodes would have better suited Kalevala with its different stories and their subplots: the great Indian epics the Mahabharata and the Ramayana were successfully televised as ongoing TV series by India’s public broadcaster Doordarshan in the 1980’s at a time when that country was much less wealthy than it is now and the special effects needed for both shows must have been a massive and hugely expensive undertaking. As it is, “The Sampo” is a series of little episodes in an overarching story about ambition and greed and the disasters they cause along with the value of cooperative effort in overcoming a great enemy. There is some redemption as well. At least the moral messages that appear compensate for the patchy good-versus-evil plot which doesn’t do justice to the epic’s complexity and dark characters. Some original Kalevala stories are worked into the movie but in a way that drains them of their power and prevents them from enriching the plot and its characters: to take one example, the subplot in which Lemminkäinen’s mother (Ada Voitsik) rescues her son and brings him back to life is so whitewashed from its original that a lesson about effort and sacrifice is precluded and so the subplot becomes unnecessary. One story that unfortunately didn’t find its way into the film is Louhi’s all-out showdown with Väinämöinen, Lemminkäinen and Ilmarinen in the boat carrying the sampo; the script-writers substituted two weak episodes separating the fight and the sampo’s destruction.

The film’s main asset is its special effects: they may look cheap and some are cheesy but they’re right for the job and aren’t excessive for their scenes. (Now that would be cheesy!) Ilmarinen’s separate creations of a horse and boat from fire and metal are suitably awe-inspiring and his sampo, a slightly hokey creation of coloured crystal, actually gains credibility as a wealth generator and then as a good luck charm once in pieces. Scenes in which Kaleva is cursed with everlasting blizzard and winter and in which some unfortunate people are covered over with snow are commendable. On the other hand some effects are quite comic and probably unnecessary: the twirling bear shot merely looks weird and creepy and the scenes with a talking birch tree are laughable.

Speaking of trees, yours truly finds the main characters Ilmarinen and Lemminkäinen as solid, expressive and unyielding as wood: they don’t so much talk to each other and to others as declaim their sentences. Lemminkäinen dares just about anything and everything to knock him over – his face is frozen into expressions of resolution of varying degrees – and even death doesn’t wipe that mask off his visage. Annikki is just a McGuffin figure to get Lemminkäinen and Ilmarinen up and running to Pohjola to meet the witch. The only worthy acting (maybe over-acting) comes from Oroshko who clearly relishes playing Louhi. Believe it or not, Oroshko is female in spite of her character’s very mannish appearance with overgrown eyebrows. Some of Louhi’s sorcerers offer performances to match Oroshko in overdone drama, especially when they think of the sampo and say in wonder: “…. sampo! …” and get that dazed faraway look in their eyes, but the camera doesn’t pay much attention to these individuals.

The film looks very beautiful and colourful in a way that might remind viewers of a certain age of Walt Disney nature documentaries of the 1950s – 60s; wherever the opportunity beckons, the camera lavishes its gaze on the silvery forests, the lakes and rivers, and general Finnish countryside scenery. The impression is of serenity and tranquillity in the dark and still birch trees. Opening scenes in the movie show rural people at work cutting down trees to clear the land for planting crops. Once the focus is on Lemminkainen and Ilmarinen journeying to Pohjala to save Annikki, the film pays no more attention to portraying rural Finnish life other than showing how men and women dress and how the interiors of their houses might appear. Unfortunately being a good-looking fantasy film isn’t enough: a strong plot, lots of adventure, memorable characters tested and matured by adversity, and interactions with conflict – and the original Kalevala has plenty of these! – are just lacking here.

Ashik Kerib: flat plot and hammy acting wreck ethnographic survey / travelogue of Azerbaijani culture

Sergei Parajanov and David Abashidze, “Ashik Kerib” (1988)

The last completed film by Georgian / Armenian director Sergei Parajanov before his death in 1990, “Ashik Kerib” is a sumptuous survey of the culture of Azerbaijan as it was from the 1500’s to the early 20th century. The film takes the form of a retelling of Russian author Mikhail Lermontov’s short story of the same name (which in Azeri and Turkish means “Unfortunate Lover”) and is performed as a children’s fairy-tale. Two young lovers, the minstrel Ashik and a rich trader’s daughter Magul-Megeri, pledge their love and wish to marry; unfortunately the girl’s father, greedy for a huge bride price, prevents the marriage from going ahead unless Ashik can cough up the wealth required in 1,001 days. During this period, Ashik has many adventures in faraway lands and undergoes one trial after another as he tries to raise the money. If he doesn’t get back in time with the bride price, Magul-Megeri’s mean old man will marry her off to the equally odious Kurshudbek. Can Ashik raise the money and return home in time to claim his love?

As with Parajanov’s previous films like “The Color of Pomegranates” and “The Legend of Suram Fortress”, the film’s presentation is rich and layered with many shots of still life (a jug on a rock against a mountain waterfall, Persian-style miniaturist portrait paintings, displays of jugs, cups and musical instruments) that demonstrate what everyday life was like for Azeri people or the rich and middle-class among them at least. Scenes are filmed at some distance from the actors to show off their cultural context which helps to explain why they think and behave the way they do; there are very few close-ups and many of those are head-and-shoulder shots. The effect is one of a series of moving dioramas which suit the episodic nature of the plot, broken up into many short chapters each revolving around one incident. Dialogue is minimal and serves mainly to advance the story. The musical soundtrack is nearly continuous throughout the movie and doesn’t match the action closely so some viewers may find the wailing singing annoying and shrill.

There are many outdoor scenes which give the impression of Azerbaijan as a semi-arid grassy country where horses and Bactrian camels seem to be the main animals used for transport. Urban life takes place in small towns or large villages of old stone buildings.

Aimed at children, the film often features histrionic acting by villains or those who threaten Ashik in some way. Villains are readily identified by their lurid make-up and hammy, buffoonish actions. The two lead roles are passive and make little effort to overcome the obstacles that separate them: things happen to Ashik and he suffers and despairs a great deal but the plot’s convolutions give him no opportunity to try to improve his fortunes. This is where the film founders: if it’s a fairy-tale, surely Magul-Megeri and Ashik should have some direct or indirect access to magic so they could help each other? Magul-Megeri could find a wise woman or magician to send a helpful dove to guide Ashik and keep him out of trouble, and that dove could convey communications between the two to keep each other’s spirits up and hold Kurshudbek at bay. The film already deviates from the original short story as it is: if Parajanov and Abashidze had followed it closely, the plot would end up as a remake of one of Parajanov’s other films in which a Romeo leaves his love to pursue fortune and ends up wealthy but forgets to return home and marry the girl pining for him.

As it is, the plot and Ashik wander from one struggle to another until time runs out and something has to be done to get Ashik back home. There’s very little sense of the wonder and enchantment that should have accompanied this otherwise interesting ethnographic survey of Azeri culture. Usually with films in which a hero must endure trials and tests of character in a fairy-tale narrative, the main character is seen to change into a nobler person and proves a worthy marriage partner. This doesn’t happen with “Ashik Kerib” and so in spite of the beautiful visual work and the good-looking lead actors, the film becomes just an exotic moving travelogue with some interesting still-life scenes but little else to hold the audience’s attention.

Viy: Gothic fairy-tale horror film of Cossacks and seminarians threatened by witches, vampires and demons

Georgiy Kropachyov and Konstantin Yershov, “Viy” (1967)

A rare 1960s Soviet film in the horror genre, “Viy” is more Gothic fairy tale than a straight horror film, due to its close adaptation of the original short story by 19th-century Ukrainian / Russian author Nikolai Gogol. Yet the film itself has the look of many horror movies made in the West at the same time with lots of colour, some excellent photography and a staged look to the sets. What makes this movie different from contemporary horror films is that the story is steeped in the culture of the people and time from whom and which Gogol was inspired to write his story. The setting is in rural Ukraine some time in the 1300’s or 1400’s when Slavic-speaking people settled in the eastern and southern parts and inherited customs and folkways from people already living there that became the basis for Cossack culture. An Orthodox seminary breaks up for holidays and the students walk to their homes: three of them decide to take a short-cut across some fields but get lost. One student, Khoma (Leonid Kravulyov), stays at a farmhouse and meets an old witch there who tries to ride him like a horse; he beats her severely and runs away home. Later he is contacted by his seminary to be told that he must say prayers for a Cossack chieftain’s dying daughter (Natalia Varley). He is forced to travel to the village where the chieftain and his family live and discovers to his dismay that the girl is not only now dead but may be the incarnation of the old witch. The chieftain compels Khoma to stay in the village and say prayers for three nights for the girl who specifically requested the young man’s presence before her death. During his stay, Khoma gets drunk, acts stupid and tries to escape but the chieftain and his servants make sure that every night for three nights running Khoma is in the dilapidated church next to the young woman’s bier reading and chanting prayers.

The first half of the film builds up steadily to the moment when Khoma’s three-night ordeal begins; there isn’t much to attract people looking only for horror but for parents and children watching together, the scenes of past peasant and religious life in a faraway country will be of interest. The character of Khoma is clearly established: he’s young and not particularly devout, and he likes to drink and have a good time with the other seminary students. By the time he starts his nightwatch, viewers already have a clue his faith in God is shaky and there’s a good chance he won’t last the three nights. The villagers look up to him and call him “philosopher”, the chieftain is more suspicious of him but insists on his presence as the daughter had asked for him by name. The teachers at the seminary treat him as a bit of a fool. Apart from Khoma, everyone else plays support but the film is all about a test of one fallible man’s character and faith when surrounded by evil. Kravulyov perhaps looks too healthy and robust to play a fragile, naive youth but his portrayal of Khoma as perhaps not too bright and very out of his depth in the real world away from the shelter of the seminary is very good.

And what evil there is, in the second half of the film – the special effects might not be great by the standards of horror films made outside the Soviet Union and eastern Europe in the 1960s but they’re adequate for “Viy”: the girl’s coffin flies through the air in circles, giant hands emerge from the walls and floors and deformed creatures literally crawl out of the woodwork to menace Khoma. They cannot breach the circle of chalk he has drawn around himself so they call for Viy, the biggest and most evil demon of all, to break through the magic protection sustained by Khoma’s rapidly fading courage and confidence. Some of the acting probably needs to be more overdone, the demon make-up and costuming are at once hokey and scary, and Viy does look like a laughable carnival freak but the demon attack on Khoma is truly frightening though not at all gory. The animated skeletons and a close-up of a cute bristling monster weasel are major highlights. The filming method used in the horror scenes is outstanding with the camera continuously circling around Khoma or the flying coffin to create a sensation of delirious fear, dizziness and helplessness.

Apart from the use of special effects and the constantly rotating camera during the nightwatch scenes, the cinematography isn’t very remarkable though it does show the colour and flavour of rural Ukrainian life of several hundred years ago very well. The aerial riding scene is good with aerial photographs of lakes and forests whizzing by in the background behind the witch and Khoma to suggest the couple’s speedy flight. The music soundtrack by Karin Khachaturyan is notable with very screechy violin strings in parts and softer, more bell-like tones in other parts.

Viewers will note a sexual subtext to the story: the witch’s ride can be read as a metaphor for seduction or rape and the chieftain himself suspects Khoma of having had sexual relations with his daughter. He knows Khoma is poor and tempts him with the promise of a thousand gold coins in payment if the young man can sit through the three nights with the girl’s corpse so the night-watch is as much a test of his self-control and honesty as it is a test of his religious faith. Perhaps if the film-makers had deviated from the original short story during the horror scenes and allowed the witch to try to seduce Khoma and tempt him with pleasure mixed with terror, the film might have become an artistic work in its own right that appeals to all audiences and not simply a retelling of a story with fairy-tale elements.

There aren’t many horror films that mix horror with dark fantasy, folk-tale elements and an examination of human nature and superstitious cultures, and put them all in a world that’s at once ordinary yet fantastic enough that witches, vampires, demons and werewolves can live there and “Viy” remains a good example of what’s possible with that kind of fusion.