Friday, 25 November 2011

Alexander Sokurov - The Russian auteur and his Faustian pact with Putin

Modern mass culture, aimed at consumers, is crippling people's souls," the late Andrei Tarkovsky claimed. This is hardly the remark you expect from a film-maker. Cinema, after all, is the mass-culture medium par excellence. It's expensive, collaborative, industrial, and reliant on technicians, labs, marketing and distribution. There have been few film-makers able to escape the commercial constraints on their craft. Tarkovsky, who made his best films within the straitjacket of Soviet-era censorship, used to talk of his work as being akin to "sculpting in time". The phrase would have made film financiers in the West wince. The idea of directors chiselling away at their images was the antithesis of Western studio working practices, which were about budgets, deadlines and release dates. The Russian was an anachronistic and unusual figure 30 years ago (he died in 1986). From today's vantage point, he seems as outlandish as a dodo, or a director from another planet. "Tarkovsky is the greatest of them all. He moves with such naturalness in the room of dreams. He doesn't explain. What should he explain anyhow?" Ingmar Bergman wrote of him. The door to that room has long since been closed. That's why it was so surprising at the Venice Film Festival when the competition jury, headed by Black Swan director Darren Aronofsky, ignored the claims of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Shame and various other much-hyped movies to give the Golden Lion to Tarkovsky's disciple, Alexander Sokurov, for his cinematic version of Goethe's Faust, one of the movies showing in a season of the director's work at London's BFI. What made Sokurov's triumph in Venice register all the more strongly was that it came at a time when governments across the world were slashing their culture budgets. His brand of film-making seems to be under threat more than ever. "Culture is not a luxury. It is the basis for the development of the society," Sokurov chided politicians when he picked up his award. However, Faust had an unlikely politician-patron in the form of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. ...

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