Friday, 4 July 2014

A String of Prayer Beads For the Eyes: Artur Aristakisyan's Palms (1993)

(an essay and poem written for the booklet of Second Run's DVD release of the film)

A powerfully original but disconcerting Russian film, filmed entirely among the community of beggars and outsiders in Aristakisyan’s home town of Kishinev. I recall having to write this in beautiful June weather when I really just wanted to be outside in the garden. Alas, it was not to be, and for a few days I had to reluctantly draw the curtains against the sun and immerse myself in Aristakisyan’s world, as revealed through a greenish-hued check disc. At a point the piece stalled for a while and I needed another input. That day, in a much-missed junk shop in Kington not unknown for serendipitous finds (for me at least), I came across a copy of Jeremy Sandford's Down and Out in Britain, a book I'd not seen before and which I've not come across since, which was exactly what was required. Thank you.



A blind, begging boy has been told by his parents, also blind, that everyone in the world is in fact blind. 'Not a single person can see himself,' they have said. So when the boy is ignored by people, he waits patiently, realising that they may not yet be aware of his presence. Of the many images in Palms that imprint themselves on your mind, this one, of a world populated entirely with blind people living off each other’s charity, is at its heart. 


Perhaps surprisingly for a film populated almost entirely with beggars, Palms has nothing to do with charity. Its real subject is proximity. In its relentless depiction of life at the margins and with its discomfiting jabs of authenticity, it is an affront to personal space. Why should this be so?

Part of the answer comes in a quote from John Berger’s essay Steps Towards a Small Theory of the Visible, in which, considering the current omnipresence and elusiveness of images, he describes the system outside of which the people in Palms exist. What are depicted, he says, “used to be called physical appearances because they belonged to solid bodies. Now appearances are volatile. Technological innovation has made it easy to separate the apparent from the existent. And this is precisely what the present system’s mythology continually needs to exploit. It turns appearances into refractions, like mirages: refractions not of light but of appetite, in fact a single appetite, the appetite for more.”1

In contrast to these fugitive appearances, there is no doubt that in Palms we are in the company of solid bodies, maimed and damaged bodies even, not seeking our attention or intervention, utterly indifferent to us at our safe distance, yet completely present. They feed no appetite, create no wealth, yet still they stubbornly exist, heavy with the affront of parasitic life.

One of the usual lures of cinema is the attraction of journeying in safety to places and with people you would not otherwise meet. Palms presents you with no seductive journeys. It does not care about you and it does not indulge you. It leaves you with nowhere to go except back on yourself, making you keenly aware of your own reaction – your disgust, your righteousness, your shame, the boundaries of your love. Watching Palms, you are no longer the centre of the world. How can you incorporate this place and its people? At times, the film even looks like it comes from another century. The flashes of modern clothing and accessories – a leather jacket, a handbag, a pushchair – belonging to people in the streets, seem incongruous.

In his words, with Palms, Aristakisyan presents a film of outsiders objectionable to the system. What makes them so? An answer comes at the beginning of Part Two with the epileptics, of whom he says that they 'proved to be objectionable because they didn’t need to go anywhere. They were at the border between worlds and could see clearly.' It is this lack of need, this appetite only for necessities, that is objectionable.

The System

The system will engulf everything that has sense.

In Palms, 'the system' outside of which the beggars live remains undefined. This is unimportant; political system, social system, system of mercantile totalitarianism, whatever name you care to supply makes no difference. When you are outside of it, the terms are meaningless. The only thing worth knowing is the essential fact that power, wherever it is found, 'starts to ferment, like wine'. Always.

Palms is a confrontational film. It may even provoke fear in some, a fear of  losing control, or of losing position. If the defining characteristic of the system is its appetite for more, the refraction of this appetite is through advertising, all of which is predicated on the promise of control and the seduction of choice, sometimes even the control of chance. Living through a time saturated with such messages, to lose choice is something that cannot be countenanced. This, especially, appears unendurable. This is why the image of the blind boy begging in a blind world, with all of its people entirely reliant on charity, is central. This is the system’s nightmare.

In Aristakisyan’s second film, A Place on Earth, set in a hippie commune in Moscow, many of Palms’ themes are developed to their extreme. The commune’s members have turned against all accepted social hierarchies and codes of separation. There are no longer boundaries between human and animal, adults and children, desire and disease, squalor and food, free love and obligation, your own body and your body’s ownership by others. Of that film, Aristakisyan has said that it 'reveals our worst fears: it shows the scariest version of what might happen to us.' The comment applies equally to Palms.

When Jeremy Sandford, the writer of Cathy Come Home, spent time with those out of the reach of the welfare state in Britain at the end of the 1960s, he wrote in his introduction to the account of his experiences, Down and Out in Britain, that 'I sometimes had the fancy that perhaps the rest of my life was only an illusion – that those things I prized, friends, children, a home, were just a dream from which I would awaken back to the reality of a narrow dosshouse dormitory.' The country and the decade are different but his experience of fear is recognisable. Palms makes you keenly aware of all the frail, and ever more virtual ties of modern existence.


My son, it’s true that I want you to become a beggar. I, your father, wish you to become a beggar, because I love you my son.

There are many words in Palms, remorseless words that follow logic into the abyss. Aristakisyan’s first address to his unborn son takes place over a black screen, putting us in his son’s position, in the womb. By implication, what follows is an address to us too. His words, an attempt to understand how to save his unborn son’s spirit, are profoundly disquieting, for they intimate how we too can save ourselves from spiritual ruination. 'Either a man lives in the spirit or in the system, and thereby becomes its agent,' he says. The options are terrifyingly limited: have nothing to do with power, beg, go out of your mind. Everything else is compromise. The only thing you may claim to own is your virginity. 'Unite your destitution with your virginity. It’s all that I can advise you,' the unborn son is told. 'Destitution will protect you from the system, and virginity from fornication with the system.'

Aristakisyan recognises however that even his language is tainted by the system, dooming his speech to collusion. There is no getting outside of it. What other options are open, he asks – to learn the language of birds? When he addresses the man who hides in his basement, nicknamed 'Pithecanthropus' by those at the hospital from where he escaped, he tells him, 'you’ll start speaking later on, when people have used up all the combinations of words and will eat their’ll speak when people will lose the gift of speech out of shame.' The man stares out at us, a rebuke to words used meaninglessly, as if they have no value, and do not refer to people, or things.


If we are reluctant to journey in the film, what hope is there then of salvation? The usual channels are closed to us. We are not comforted with visions of redemptive beauty. At the end of Chapter I, Bedding and Clothing, the district in which Palms was filmed is shown. It could have been depicted so that the points of reflected light on the ground were made to glisten, to represent hope or promise. They don’t. They look like litter.

In Chapter II, Life on a Swamp, there is a scene of a boy drinking from a plate as water flows next to him. This is not the picturesque poverty that sells diaries and calendars. The water is rain overflowing from a gutter that feeds the swamp on which he lives.

We become aware of the urge to transmute images to beauty, or at least something that can be understood in the context of art or cinematic history. With relief we note the scenes of ruined houses and courtyards that resemble daguerreotypes brought back by 19th century travellers, a still-life of a plate of apples, a woman carrying a man down a road that previews a similar situation in Aleksandr Sokurov’s Mother and Son, a depiction of a man with doves and a candle emerging from the darkness that calls to mind the chiaroscuro lighting, and maybe even the subject matter, of a Caravaggio painting. These are moments of relief and reassurance that our aesthetics are still in place.

This is to confuse the picturesque with necessity. The houses are condemned, the apples are for sale, the ragman needs to get down the street. There is nothing here to support our world.


The system privileges physical and psychological renewal and reinvention; it even hijacks people’s bodies, making them understandable only in terms of comparison. In Palms, it is confronted by people who wear their stories – of rejection, failure, suffering, indifference, acceptance, dogged resistance – on their bodies instead of erasing them. Such bodies are unsightly to the system. They are the bodies of people just stubbornly there, claiming nothing more than the territory that they inhabit.

There are so many stories here: a woman who lies on the ground for forty years after being deserted, a man who sleeps with doves, a woman who carries the head of her failed executioner in her belongings, a man so taunted that he bit through his veins, a woman who leaves out food and drink for her dead husband who visits during the night, a man who wishes his unborn son to be a beggar. All of these stories are hidden, almost completely, behind nothing more than the palms of beggars. Palms opens our ears.

Watching Palms, I have the curious sensation that it is an artefact of a destroyed civilisation – its epitaph perhaps, or a memento mori that went unheeded.


When his mother bathed him
the wooden trough was whole.
When he pushed himself from eight storeys
the trough broke
and his body now lives between his birth and failed death.
This is a film for beggars.

The blind boy believes that everyone in the world is blind,
so when a person seems to ignore him, he waits
understanding that they may not yet be aware of his presence.
This is a film for the blind.

People with money see an eighth skin on beggars,
a skin of bandages, rags and dirt,
which is a convenient disguise for both.
This is a film for the cold.

A man hides in a basement
and only comes out on Sundays
so he won’t be taken away
by those he has escaped.
This is a film for fugitives.

Another man lives in a hill of rubbish
so bloated that passers-by
must push him through his gate.
His fence just holds it all in.
This is a film for hoarders.

Among the pigeons and doves of the city
are those that took food and love from the attic man
and they now keep his memory.
This is a film for the dead.

Beggars, the blind, the cold
fugitives, hoarders and the dead.
We are all watching now
from beneath our clothing
from among the scraps and waste of our lives,
unwilling to lose our tongues
and unable to find our silence.

The Cremator (Juraj Herz, 1969)

 (written for MovieMail in 2006)

It’s unsurprising to learn that director Juraj Herz studied puppetry with his exact contemporary and friend Jan Švankmajer; it comes out in a certain way of viewing and orchestrating people, of using parts of their bodies to represent the whole and of seeing opportunities for playful transition when other filmmakers might find barriers to representation.

In The Cremator, the puppet-master – and the cremator of the title – is one Karl Kopfrkingl. Indeed, in one of the first scenes he is shown orchestrating a social event, dictating who should sit where, what drink should be served, and – with heavy irony and as part of the film’s very blackest of humour – telling people not to smoke. He is beguilingly mild-mannered, a soft-spoken teetotaller who views his work at the crematorium as a benign service, freeing people’s souls for reincarnation, his passion for his work fed by a fascination with Tibet and its burial customs. He’s also an oily, manipulative, grotesque monster, almost terrifyingly bland and composed, and whose smiling mouth never quite matches the calculation or, sometimes, the fear in his eyes.

Kopfrkingl is also a suggestible character, whose profession puts him in a position of great usefulness to the occupying force in the country. Initially non-committal to their presence, his devotion to the cause grows as the prospects of his advancement, along with its promise of access to an exclusive brothel (blondes only), and his own self-delusion increases. His are the actions of a blessed reincarnator, not a mundane stoker. When he gets to the point of saying that he is doing what he does to prevent people’s future suffering in the new ‘higher moral code’ that will be brought about by his masters, then his delusions are almost complete. Of course, devotion to a cause requires self-sacrifice. There’s no place for ‘inferior blood’ in the new order of things, and when it is suggested to him that his own dear wife of nineteen years has half Jewish blood, and that consequently his children are also similarly tainted, then the form of his terrible sacrifice becomes clear.

It takes a second watch to really bring out this shocking film’s careful plotting and planning, and also just how riddled with jokes it is – though these belong to some little-visited netherworld of humour. It is perhaps most chilling in showing just who it is that has it in them to commit atrocities – not just the ranter or the leader, but the civil servant, the quietly-spoken family man, the loving husband.

The playful transitions that I mentioned earlier are most apparent in the slightly disconcerting elisions that take place as one scene melds into another. The more they happen, the more apposite they appear, reinforcing Kopfrkingl’s thinking of how easy, natural and right it is to pass from one state of being to another. From life to death is really no more than picking out a particle from a cup, or removing dust from the surface of a picture, or covering over someone’s name. Likewise this is a fascinating film of pretence, of the unsaid and the implied. Words said often hide the thoughts behind them. In one striking moment, an invitation extended to Kopfrkingl to join ‘the party’ is quite literally overlaid with the connotations of sexual privilege that have been bubbling around in Kopfrkingl’s mind since the beginning.

Zdeněk Liška’s score is eminently fitting, with his musical counterpoints situated somewhere between fairground and liturgical themes. This is not a musical accompaniment for souls in transit to reincarnation though, rather it’s the ironic comment on an absurd, melancholy and tragic game. Watch out too for the opening credits sequence which is Švankmajer-esque in all but name, with its tearing of heads and its tumble and pile of cut-out bodies.

Late in the film, Kopfrkingl is shown against a background of Hieronymus Bosch’s painting, ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’. As he is driven off at the end of the film, the reincarnated Buddha on the way to the throne in Lhasa, and having seemingly eluded his own attendant death, he leaves the Garden, and moves across the panel into ‘Hell’, though his mind by now is filled with the glory of another Bosch painting – the ‘Ascent to the Empyrean’.

David Holzman's Diary (Jim McBride, 1967)

(written for MovieMail in 2006)

Truth is Beauty 

David Holzman’s Diary is both spoof documentary and satire – and a funny one at that, but doesn’t really feel like either. This is a testament to how well judged the tone of the film is, trading its apparent lack of guile against the more sinister impulses that surface with Holzman’s character. The innocence makes the troubling scenes more uncomfortable, the darker elements colour the more apparently mundane exchanges. It’s also a credit to the acting ability of L.M Kit Carson. To act in front of a camera as if you’re not acting is quite a trick, and he pulls it off, aiding the sensation of his character’s reality going awry.

It was a film concocted by director Jim McBride, cameraman Michael Wadleigh (later the director and cameraman of the film of Woodstock) and L.M Kit Carson, who plays the character of David Holzman. Its purpose, by way of ‘noted French wit’ Jean-Luc Godard, was to explore the idea of ‘filming truth’. In the film, Holzman is taken with the noble folly that by recording a video diary he can somehow reveal ‘the mystery of things’, his life’s hidden patterns and signifance. Well, in a way he does exactly this, but only to prove the adage that you should be careful what you wish for.

The film is also a fascinating time capsule, and when Wadleigh glides the camera through the streets of New York’s Upper West Side, recording its life and people - the delivery boys on bicycles, the people hanging out on their stoops, the sofas and mattresses on the street, a conversation with a street goddess, you sense that the film is in these moments coming near to fulfilling Holzman’s ambition.

One of the reasons Holzman starts filming is because he has received an A1 classification from the draft board. The news that fades in and out of the background soundtrack talks of the times: ‘more than 300 negro and white citizens of Newark have joined in a peace crusade’, ‘Pentagon sources say US forces in Vietnam will be strengthened by at least 80,000 men in the next year’. It is a mood that informs McBride’s accompanying film on the Second Run DVD, My Girlfriend’s Wedding, in which his then girlfriend talks of her reasons behind marrying a Yippie to get a green card. She has travelled to America to join the revolution. He marries just to ‘do something irreverent’.

Truth is conditional on its means of representation

The ‘truth’ revealed in David Holzman’s diary is conditional on the portable recording equipment he uses to capture it, in this case an Eclair MPR 16mm camera (‘she weighs about 18lb’), an Angenieux 9.5-95mm zoom lens, a Nagra tape recorder and a Lavelier microphone. Holzman describes them as ‘all of his friends’. Except they’re not. The camera becomes the dark side of Vertov’s all-seeing Kino-Eye, addictive, craving novelty, sensation and ultimately, humiliation. Television is nothing to it, the small screen provides small fare, hardly even an hors d’oeuvre, and the camera’s appetite can devour a whole evening of tv in a minute. No, what it requires instead is the red meat of prowling and intrusion, the thrill of illicit power, of voyeurism and knowing more about its subject than the subject knows of himself. By the end of the film, after peering into a woman’s life through a window across the street and stalking a woman in the subway (a relentless and profoundly discomforting scene by the by), Holzman is reduced to shouting at the camera ‘what the fuck do you want?’. The camera says nothing of course, just sits there recording, but by now it is a thinking machine, enjoying Holzman’s discomfort while at the same time assuming a rather hurt demeanour. ‘I’m sorry’ says Holzman.

Truth may not necessarily set you free

As Holzman finds out, if you’re going to submit yourself to the impartial and implacable scrutiny of the camera, you better be prepared for what it’s going to show about you. His friend Pepe derides his whole enterprise. In his speech, delivered from crotch height of the painted man in the Cuban-themed mural behind him, he tells him that his decisions have become aesthetical rather than moral, adding that by devoting himself to being recorded on camera he is actually withdrawing from life rather than engaging with it. ‘You’ve stopped living somehow’ he says.

Pitifully dependent on his need to record his life by the end of the film (though it is not mentioned a second time, the spectre of Vietnam provides a motivation for his actions), Holzman has been relieved of his means of doing so. It’s a nicely balanced impasse, though whether he can use the information he has learnt about himself through his project in any meaningful way is a moot point.

The Determination of Touch: Karoly Makk's Another Way (1982)

(written for MovieMail in 2006)

I wrote about this together with Karoly Makk's peerless 1971 film, Love, but I revised the text of that for a podcast I did in 2010 so I'll put that up separately.


Another Way begins with the washing of Livia’s body. It is a baptism of sorts, and a motif that Makk also uses at the end of his 1971 film Love, when Luca washes her husband’s body after he has been released from prison. Both scenes mark the transition to a new stage of their respective lives, though in Livia’s case, it is certainly not one she would have chosen, paralysed and without her friend and lover, Eva.

The theme of washing and touching another person is central to both films and both feature brief but concentrated moments which are pivotal in this regard. In Love, the bedridden Mother is often shown with her hand outside the sheets, needing touch but resentful too that it can’t be her son who touches her: ‘When I die, only my son will touch my hand…if my son can’t hold my hand then I want to be alone.’ Scenes of contact are used sparingly and are all the more tender because of it. When Luca washes her mother-in-law’s hand, sponging it, holding it, towelling it dry, she prolongs the touch beyond the perfunctory needs. It is a brief but central moment to the film. It is a touch that neither prefers but because of the absence of János – one’s husband, the other’s son – it is all they have. It exemplifies just how thoroughly the politics of state repression have affected the most intimate moments of people’s lives.

The politicisation of touch is just as central in Another Way, which has at its heart a relationship between Livia and Eva, two journalists working for the same magazine. The scene that draws together the ambivalence at the core of their relationship occurs after Eva has left the magazine, unwilling to compromise or cut a controversial article, and returned to her mother’s house in the country. After an absence of months and unanswered letters, she is visited by Livia, who arrives with a small suitcase. Their relationship is still undefined – their mutual attraction was obvious in the city but Livia was unwilling to fully act upon her feelings. Now she has left her military husband to visit Eva, who has been working in the kitchen and whose hands are covered up to the wrist in sticky dough. Livia hesitates outside the house; Eva picks dough from her fingers. Then Eva looks up and smiles the most disarming, the most beautiful of smiles. Her eyes sparkling with tears and happiness she beckons Livia towards her with sticky fingers. The promise of touch between them is there but also its present impossibility, she is the predator, the sticky trap, but in the least predatory of environments, her mother’s kitchen. I would swap an awful lot of cinema for that one brief sequence.

Throughout the film there is an ambivalence about the way Eva is represented. The first we know of her is that she is dead. A bird of prey flying away from the scene of her death is an expression of her soul escaping the concerns of the earth but it is also sinister, a bird of prey, a heavy dark bird; wolves howl in the background. She is compared to a spider waiting in the corner of her web, and is often shown at the edges of scenes but she is also more nervous than predatory. The musical themes that accompany Eva and Livia’s affair also show this ambivalence; the melancholy sweetness of guitar music is contrasted with a nervy theme on a saxophone. All this is indicative of Makk’s interests as a director. He says, ‘I feel most at home with irresolvable or contradictory human relationships.’ The tragedy is that it seems Eva’s irresolvable fate has continued with her into death.

As with Love, there is a sureness of cinematic touch here, a feeling of rightness in the use of angles and editing. It’s in the simple things that could well pass by without notice; in Love, when János travels home after release on the tram, we look at him from above, watching him from the point of view of a standing passenger but also at an angle which, allied with the sound of the tram, gives a queasy feeling that we can well understand János is feeling. In Another Way, you need look no further than the scene already mentioned with Eva beckoning with her dough-covered hands. Livia moves forward and her face fills the screen for a few moments, allowing us to regard her as the face of a soon-to-be lover. Makk doesn’t overlook the small details either - witness the bird's wing chipping in the enamel bowl immediately after the opening credits.

These deft touches would be undercut if unsupported by good performances and mention needs to be made of just how good the acting is by the two Polish women who inhabit the lead parts, Jadwiga Jankowska-Cieslak and Grazyna Szapolowska (the latter familiar from Kieslowski’s A Short Film About Love and No End). They are perfectly cast, and their relationship trembles with the uncertainty of life.