Thursday, 29 October 2015

The Cinema of Alexander Sokurov by Jeremi Szaniawskiby

To write about Alexander Sokurov is no easy task. The manifold hurdles in the way of such an endeavour ultimately all converge into one single feature: Sokurov is an artist of the 19th century whose work often happens to resonate somewhat with political and historical issues belonging to either our own time or the 20th century Soviet era – an era he has never had much sympathy for. This acclaimed director has declared countless times by now that cinema is, for him, only a job, while his true callings are elsewhere, namely in painting, literature, music, and more generally “serious art” preferably pre-dating 1900 (in a way, though, one should say: 1917). The main difficulty in critically coping with his oeuvre, however, has little to do with the mandatory capability to handle a very wide range of pictorial, literary and musical references and backgrounds. The real point is elsewhere.

Take for instance sexuality. An unmistakable fascination with the male body, along with ambiguous forms of male friendship, can be easily detected in his filmography, (at least) fromDni zatmeniya [Days of the Eclipse, 1988] to Aleksandra [Alexandra, 2007]. But what are we to make of this? Shall we simply label him a gay director, and overlook thereby his steadfast denial of the existence of any homoerotic trait whatsoever in his works? On the one hand, pretending to ignore the sexual tensions in his cinema is out of the question, as they are almost ubiquitous. On the other hand, to impose psychoanalysis, gender awareness and other interpretive tools belonging to a century (the 20th) that is emphatically not Sokurov’s own may be missing the point of the singular aesthetics and worldview at stake. One should thus stick to the filmmaker’s own pre-1900 perspective and regard sexuality in his films as strictly inseparable from the spiritual, i.e. as having to do primarily with the perpetual conflict between body and spirit, or better still with the threshold connecting the body to whatever exceeds it – what the director himself, in interviews, calls “the other life” (sometimes also “the other world”), a strange energy graphically circulating in his images and subtly transfiguring the world into some “beyond” placed, as it were, right next to it. Hence, while it is undoubtedly also a matter of “sexual libido” proper, it is not just that. So here is the main difficulty of critically coping with his oeuvre: to fail to address Sokurov’s universe in its own terms might easily lead astray from it.

Jeremi Szaniawski’s truly remarkable monograph manages to successfully avoid this problem. It seizes the internal coherence animating Sokurov’s proudly old-fashioned humanism while still remaining fully and fruitfully aware of what was introduced in “non-Sokurovian” centuries like the 20th and the 21st, from cinema itself to psychoanalysis and beyond. Sexuality is here an obvious and crucial case in point. Szaniawski aptly and astutely defines the aesthetics of the Russian master not as a gay one, but in terms of queerness (p. 197), the latter being “eminently fluid,” as it “does not refer to anything in particular – it is an identity without an essence” (p. 199). “The umbrella term of queerness does not limit itself to a discussion of homosexuality, nor does it even have to include it: one can be queer without being homosexual (and, conversely, homosexual between being queer)” (p. 198): ultimately, queerness is a matter of positionality vis-à-vis normativity. The fact that Sokurov envisages this generic positionality by means of allegedly outdated and somewhat idealistic concepts like “the soul” or “the other life” does not make his cinema less queer. And queerness, in the same way, does not undermine the concrete, actual role of the spiritual within his aesthetic system.

This is nowhere clearer than in the analysis of the striking recurrence of male feet in his films. Should one explain it as a mere symptom of fetishistic, homoerotic attachment? While never denying this interpretation, Szaniawski convincingly fleshes it out (pp. 200-205) with a whole series of references to Sokurov’s own biography, to illustrious painterly antecedents (Holbein, Mantegna), to the sacred, and ultimately to the idea of a threshold between the carnal body and whatever lies beyond its representability and its death (again the “soul” in all its productive indeterminateness). If most interpretive tools bring along a substantial risk of crushing their objects of inquiry beneath the heaviness of their schemes, this is emphatically not the case here, as Szaniawski does not use them to close down the rich, organic texture of Sokurov’s images, but rather to open it up. Accordingly, sexuality is not addressed per se, but as just one among multiple, strictly interrelated dimensions.

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