Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Days of Eclipse

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Although it would be most fitting for me to write this entry in the form of an elegy, I cannot bring myself to any sense of lamentation when it comes to the films of Aleksandr Sokurov. His films are so diverse, combine so many different techniques and approaches, come in so many different forms, and create such unique moods and tones that I have little to lament, and I would only do his elegies a disservice by attempting to mimic them. Between manipulating found footage and images, documenting people’s lives, creating fiction, or combining all three (and more) Sokurov has a distinct imprint that resembles few others, and because he is so distinctive I often find his films impenetrable. Days of Eclipse is just such a film, but I can’t say that I believe that penetrating the film to any depth of ‘understanding’ would really help, as it might only be illusory. I once said the following of the film: I have no idea what to think of it, and I refuse to have any idea what to think of it no matter how many times I watch it. I stick by this claim wholeheartedly. I can describe the events, I can experience the ethereal mood that the film inspires in me, but I don’t think that this particular film will ever amount to any sense of understanding, and perhaps it shouldn’t. In many of Sokurov’s films there is little to understand and much to experience, as in Mother and Son, but that film’s extreme simplicity is contrasted greatly with Days of Eclipse’s preponderance of details and unexplained events. The film’s protagonist doesn’t seem to completely understand all of the events, either, and even though there are elements in the film which seem to expand beyond his immediate frame of reference I don’t know that there is any great dramatic irony that I am missing out on. As it stands I find the film fascinating, unique, and exceedingly mysterious, and I think aquarello sums up this aura when he speaks of the way the film’s ‘human comedy is borne of a tedium and acute awareness of squandered time, and the strange, surreal, post-apocalyptic landscapes reflect the wasted potential of a myopic, destructive, self-eroding society.’

There is a certain technique which Sokurov employs that may explain some of his approach. Immediately after the film’s opening shot, a flying pov which crashes into the ground, the film proceeds into a sequence of images depicting the residents of the city. This lasts for an extended duration without establishing any coherent spatial borders, narrative, or characters. This segment is essentially documentary footage incorporated into the film, and serves to establish a picture of the city distinct from the protagonist’s influence. This same distended depiction recurs throughout the film, and serves as a complete break from narrative progression in later periods. Oftentimes such an exterior shot will serve to establish an exact location, as by showing a house and then cutting inside, but by breaking up the narrative thrust these shots become disestablishing; they become disruptive in a narrative sense even while they provide some vaguely relevant context. I don’t know to what degree this is simply an example of Sokurov’s impenetrable style, but it did remind me of a similar technique used by Andrei Konchalovsky in his film Asya’s Happiness. In this film Konchalovsky incorporates several lengthy monologues of non-actors recounting their real-life experiences, thereby providing some sense of place beyond the actors within the story in a way similar to a documentary. As such, this sort of non-narrative documentation incorporated without distinction into an otherwise fictional narrative has some precedence in Soviet cinema, but I don’t know that this entirely explains Sokurov’s choice here. Whatever the intention, it has a similar effect on creating a sense of place even if the stretches in Sokurov’s film are wordless and do more to disrupt the narrative flow. Sokurov’s cinema is always filled with moments which do not aid in the narrative flow, and even the film’s dialogue doesn’t do much to drive a narrative or explain mysteries, but there is at least some sense of continuity which these documentary-like stretches do not seem to contain. I feel like these passages seem peculiarly observational, as if the camera were an alien perspective on a strange world, and this all adds to the mysterious aura that the film exudes. Thus, while this may be the most peculiar stylistic choice that Sokurov makes in the film, it does not do anything in particular that the rest of the film’s mysterious elements do not do, and they do nothing to disrupt the sense of tedium that aquarello identifies as the driving force of the film’s human comedy even if he does not mention them explicitly.

Black comedy is most often a narrative phenomenon, even if it arises from unusual distortions of typical narrative modes, but in Sokurov’s film there is little narrative from which this tragicomedy can spring. As such, it is difficult to substantiate a significant point of view on the film’s tragicomic dimensions by describing anything other than the experience of life as a somewhat absurd and delirious experience within the film. To this point the film succeeds marvelously, as there are few moments which are not colored with a sort of hazy delirium typical of Sokurov’s style. Sokurov has other films which are far more explicitly comedic, as with Moloch’s bizarre incarnation of Hitler, but I think this film better exemplifies a consistency of tone, even if its most apparent cause is the impenetrability of the film’s setting and mood. I doubt there will be a film included on this blog with a more subdued sense of tragicomic tension, so I won’t really be stressing the point, but the film is so tantalizing that I feel it deserves mention. Days of Eclipse’s protagonist emits such a calming aura that I rapidly forget that he is repeatedly annoyed by phone calls, confronted by his uninvited sister, accosted by a roaming soldier, discouraged by anyone who hears that he writes, and confronted with tragedy and despair. Through it all he exhibits compassion, kindness, and a fluidity of movement which transmits a persistent sense of calm. Sokurov captures beguiling moments which seem to spring up only in his films, be it the protagonist’s youthful acrobatics (including an uneventful sequence punctuated by a hop onto a windowsill, an extended pause, and a backflip onto his bed) or instances of nonsexual intimacy between adult males, so often strangely interpreted as sexual, an interpretation which totally perverts simple, meaningful affection into something crude. Sokurov presents almost everything in a manner which no other filmmaker does, so interpreting any actions as if he were a typical filmmaker is simply ludicrous. There are several scenes which stick out as prominent moments of the film, all plot related and of some lasting consequence, but these scenes just don’t seem as relevant in a Sokurov film as in other films. When I watch the film I find that the elements which have the greatest effect are the smaller ones, be it beguiling way in which Sokurov shows the protagonist eating a sandwich with a lizard looking on or the way the protagonist cradles a lightbulb hanging from the ceiling or the way the camera distorts the protagonist leaning against the door to seem as if he were lying horizontally on top of it. Some films scatter these moments of spontaneity throughout an otherwise unremarkable plot, but for Sokurov these elements become the backbone of the film’s tone, one which, as I said, I find oddly soothing. All of this serves to push the elements beyond the protagonist deep into the background, the seeds of discontent and violence and surreality and death which would probably overtake the protagonist and thus the film if it were a Kafka story. Were these elements absent it would be easy to see how the protagonist glides through life caring for those immediately around himself and immune to the stresses that drive others to suicide, to sailing off for parts unknown, but Sokurov weaves these elements in among the more bizarre elements to create something inexplicable but magical, a protagonist who not only survives but seems to thrive simply by staying true to his way of living, no matter how it contrasts with the traditional ways of those he lives amongst or the anti-intellectualism of the authorities. By placing this protagonist in among the variety of befuddling details Sokurov confounds any strong critical messages and manages to turn every additional absurdity into a means of focusing in on the unusual but exceptional humanism of its protagonist, and yet this is not a tale of the great promise of humanism but simply a testament to its ability to merely survive. There is no great victory, and in fact there are a string of losses, and I could even say that the film gives off the implication that no man can make a great difference within such an absurd and suffocating environment, a bleakly comic message befitting of Kafka but delivered here through Sokurov’s seductively soothing tone. This tone gets flipped on its ear in The Second Circle, which is probably the bleakest film I have ever seen, but here it works magnificently. If there is any definitive thing to say about The Days of Eclipse it is that it is like nothing else, and in that alone I feel like its place here is justified since it could otherwise drift unnoticed among a sea of more traditional films without being pounced upon for its wholly unique riches.


  1. "If there is any definitive thing to say about The Days of Eclipse it is that it is like nothing else, and in that alone I feel like its place here is justified since it could otherwise drift unnoticed among a sea of more traditional films without being pounced upon for its wholly unique riches."

    Wow, I agree! I’m happy to see something (anything) written about this amazing movie, and I think you’ve gone straight to the heart of its seductive power with your description of the "calming aura" of the protagonist. And, definitely, I get a feeling of tragicomic tension, as fear and loss collide with comic absurdity.

    Is the "documentary footage" of city residents really so much stranger than more typical landscapes or cityscapes? Not only does it evoke the distant Soviet outpost in much the same way as the abandoned pipeline or the heat waves rising from the roads, but it may serve a story purpose as well. You almost addressed this when you wrote, "I feel like these passages seem peculiarly observational, as if the camera were an alien perspective on a strange world." I’m reminded of a particular scene where the point of view is high over the city, listening to both the radio broadcast in the protagonist’s house and a dance tune from an outdoor club. Put together with the various "flying camera" shots, I think Sokurov is suggesting an almost scientific and - dare I say it - non-human observer. Beyond that, I have little desire to go, though I’d never "refuse to have any idea what to think"! I’ll watch it again and see what happens.

  2. 'Is the "documentary footage" of city residents really so much stranger than more typical landscapes or cityscapes?'

    To me the documentary elements are presented as 'peculiarly ordinary', which at times can be more atypical than presenting something bizarre as bizarre. Dissonance must have something to do with it. For instance, in Asya's Happiness the documentary-like aspects are presented as the backbone of the ordinary, cementing the fictional elements as un-peculiarly ordinary by association. It's less that the elements are stranger but that they seem strange within the context. The bizarre seems normal and the normal bizarre. Fun.