Thursday, September 23, 2010

Modern Maestros: Aleksandr Sokurov

Maestro: Aleksandr Sokruov
Known For: critically acclaimed Russian art films
Influences: Tarkovsky, Tarkovsky and... well Tarkovsky

Masterpieces: Russian Ark
Disasters: none
Better than you remember: none, or all
Box Office: over 2 mil for Russian Ark

Art cinema is alive and well (and not as difficult to watch as the naysayers keep naysaying), and the lovers of such cinema are thankful that rather prolific Russian Aleksandr Sokurov has reached a point of notability where those of us who live in the western world can anticipate all of his films getting a release date (now if we could only do something about that back catalog.)  Sokurov, a long time pupil and friend to contemplative, languorous, spiritual poet filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, the man who brought us Solaris, continues his mentor's work on a regular basis, churning out films that utilize the camera, and occasionally video to capture a unique perspective on the human condition, and not always in the domain of spirituality and death.  Yes, Sokurov himself admits that death is a significant theme of his, and yes he is responsible for 1990's The Second Circle, in which a man wanders through his home around his father's recently deceased body pondering the details of mortality and 1997's Mother and Son in which a man wanders through the nature outside the home of his dying mother, pondering the details of mortality (both films are brilliant I should add, especially the latter which was Sokruov's big (and by "big" I mean "of modest size") American breakthrough.) but Sokurov's recent films, while the spectre of death is always there (isn't it in all great drama?) focus more on people's perception of their place in the world.

Yes, Aleksandr Sokurov's films are becoming more accessible as well, while not sacrificing all of the great elements that make them art.  His two most recent films, Alexandra and The Sun still focus on a single person's experience of the mundanities (all the stuff that wouldn't make it into other films) of life.  But the settings in which he places his subjects are more unique, allowing for a bit more excitement, to use that term loosely but not lightly.  Alexandra follows a woman who visits her son's military station on the Russian/Chechen border.  The Sun examines the life of Japanese Emperor Hirohito during the ending days of World War II.  In that film Sokurov demonstrates how adept he is at playing with the camera's aesthetic eye to make his point.  In the film, the actions of Hirohito examining a fish or perplexedly accepting a diplomatic shipment of Hershey bars from the American forces don't tell the story as much as how the camera presents him doing these things.  And doing these things in his palace, he is presented as an almost god-like character, large in the frame, full of power.  But once in the presence of General McArthur, he is diminutive in the frame, overwhelmed by his surroundings.  For Sokurov, the visual is the tool.  He employed mirrors to distort the images in Mother and Son, creating surreal yet serene painting-like images.  For Russian Ark, his most famous film in America, he shot the entire elaborate film in one take using the camera as a first-person point of view.

Sokurov's cinematic exploration of man's place in the world will continue next, and quite appropriately, with his own take on Faust.  Though nothing is specifically in the works, expect more entries in his planned tetrology on historic world leaders (in which The Sun was the third part, Taurus is the second part (about Lenin), and Moloch was the first (Hitler)).  Expect them to find a friendly reception at a festival followed by a thankful release in the west.  For those of us who lament the days when "art cinema" was seen as a genre that meant neither "weird" nor "boring" the growing status of Aleksandr Sokurov after over twenty years is a promising sign.

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