Sunday, 22 January 2012

Alexander Sokurov: The Stone - Камень (1992)

Director: Aleksandr Sokurov
Writer: Yuri Arabov
Stars: Pyotr Aleksandrov, Leonid Mozgovoy

Susan Sontag chose Stone as one of the ten best films of the nineties. Employing the flow and fugitive feeling of a half-remembered reverie—full of mysteries, portents, inexplicable happenings, and chimerical objects—the film, set in the Chekhov Museum, centers on the relationship between a young museum guard and an older visitor who seems at different times to be a lover, a doctor, or a surrogate father. Shot in evanescent black and white with a sound track of silences, breathing, natural sounds, and fragments of classical music, this rarely screened work is a haunting and enigmatic evocation of the dream state. ...

The film is a severely obscure meditation on pre-revolutionary Russia in the form of an encounter between a ghost from the past and the ghost's present-day guardian. In fact, the two characters seem to be the shade of Anton Chekhov and the young man who tends a Chekhov museum in the Crimea, though that is never made explicit.

A lot of other things remain inexplicit, at least in part because the black-and-white photography is mostly so medium-gray that the images are not easily understood. There's no way of telling how much of this is intentional. The old man, who resembles photographs of Chekhov, wanders through the museum like someone who has been a long time away. He seeks the familiar touch of a piece of furniture. He plays the old piano. He makes doctor-sounding comments, telling the young man that he needs to eat more iron. At one point he states flatly: "Tolstoy was wrong. A patch of land is too little."

The young man doesn't have much in the house to feed his guest, but they make do with what's at hand. They drink ink as their table wine. The old man puts on his evening clothes, as if preparing for the opera. Toward the end they walk across the chilly hills.

Mr. Sokurov occasionally uses an anamorphic, or squeeze, lens, though he doesn't unsqueeze the images for the finished film, thus creating the same effect one sometimes sees in the opening credit sequences in videos of CinemaScope movies. Everything looks tall and skinny. There are other times when the dimness of the images prompts one to wonder whether the characters within the film have the same difficulty seeing each other, or whether this is just a poetic effect.

This print of "Stone" asks more questions than maybe even Mr. Sokurov intended.

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