Tuesday, 26 January 2016
I am wrapped in a still, moonlit night. The moon is bright, its silver-blue sky vast above the desert plain. Beneath the scratchy dark shapes of thorn trees the sand is red even now, glowing with the heat of the day. It reddens the whitewashed walls of the village bar, now shadowed and quiet, whose tin roof takes the moonlight for its own. The moon above is as white as a bleached bone; the smell of warmed sand is a promise I have not yet betrayed.
The scene, night in the village of Mmathubudukwane, is from Botswana in 1994. I had just arrived, my senses alive to the unfamiliarity of my surroundings. At a local weavers I had the colours of this night made into a blanket for me, under which I slept for many years. At some point I put it out of sight, folded up in a cupboard. It smells of old wood now, pleasant but impersonal. I cover myself completely and inhale, trying to find the smell of desert sand, or a thatched roof, the smell of dust storms, of walking home under Scorpio through a sleeping village, or of air tired with heat before sunrise, but I try too hard and these images are invaded by other thoughts; of afternoon excess, of so much time wasted, of broken trust and withered friendships.
How can I now take its weight again? To earn its warmth, what earth can I offer, what rocks at dawn? You need offer nothing, says the eddying breeze, nothing but yourself; nurture what you have. Let yourself be loved. And is it this simple, and this hard? I ask, but the breeze has blown on, leaving me to find that which I thought lost, which was only unclaimed, leaving me to pick up the weft of my own life. Ah, were life but straight, how we’d live it then!
Gabbeh. Gabbeh is the landscape through which an ageing couple walk. Let me wash the gabbeh, says he when they reach their resting place by a stream. I’ll wash the gabbeh, she says, your feet are sore. You are like the full moon, says the man, as Gabbeh comes alive to his pleased laughter and birdsong.
The rug is immersed in the water’s flow. In its threads, a couple ride a single white horse. Its colours are those of their lives together: the brown blue of a river that needs to be crossed on rafts, the violet blue of distant mountains at dusk, the turquoise of a reed pond, the green blue of the reeds’ reflection in this water, the grey blue of woodsmoke from a camp fire; the indigo of a sky before a journey, the milky blue of a sky before a death, the sage blue of mountain scrub in the day’s fading light.
Gabbeh is the sparrow that becomes a canary; Gabbeh is the wind that silvers the grasses as they sway. I was looking for water, and I found singing, says the uncle, who dreamed he would meet his wife near a spring, who dreamed of a girl who could sing like a canary. I am thirsty, you are pure water, he tells her; I am weary, you are energy.
Gabbeh is the tree upon which a new branch sprouts with each child, from which a branch is removed with each death.
With belled beaters, their sound a compression of the water’s flow across pebbles on the riverbed, weaving women tighten the weft. Nearby, piles of tawny wool, and rose madder wool, and saffron wool, prefigure the silhouetted burial of a child at sunset. The gabbeh pictures a goat on a green hill, the sky orange, vermilion, violet, indigo.
Life is colour, says Gabbeh’s uncle. Gabbeh is the red of poppies, the yellow of wheatfield weeds, the blue of heaven and the shimmering sea, the gold of the sun which lights up the world. Over a fire, the dye pot gives birth to a skein of red fibres, slapped into life on a rock at the water’s edge. Life is colour, shouts the uncle in the fog; love is colour, responds Gabbeh; man is colour, woman is colour, child is colour add the children; love is colour … love is pain, says Gabbeh, who has been told that she can marry when the mother gives birth: when we’ve broken camp, when we’ve walked a while, when we’ve worked a while, when we’ve crossed the river.
Gabbeh is this waiting. The old man howls in his frustration, howls like a wolf as he beats the rug that is hung over a branch, its dust drifting away on the breeze. Why will you not leave with me?, he cries. Why do you hurt me? You do not love me. You do not love me.
Gabbeh is the tears of frustration, the shy smile, the faint nod, and the longing for the lover who trails her with the call of a wolf. Gabbeh is the sleeping on wool by a fire, the longing to ride away.
Gabbeh is the fog, and Gabbeh is the snow, upon which she leaves her scarves for the horseman to follow, her scarves of citrus yellow, magenta, and cyan. Life is colour, says Gabbeh’s uncle.
Gabbeh is the water that reflects the moon after the couple have ridden away through the reeds. Gabbeh is the mountains across which the lovers ride. Gabbeh is the moon.
Poems quoted in first section:
Accept who you are.
don’t drown the poem in plane trees;
nurture it with what earth and rock you have.
George Seferis, Summer Solstice in Three Secret Poems (1966)
Ah, were life but straight, how we’d live it then!
George Seferis, Fog (from Turning Point, 1931) in Complete Poems, translated and edited by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard, Anvil Press Poetry, London, 1995.
A couple of days ago I found a dying sparrowhawk in the field next to the house, although the adjective seems too strong for a bird whose rich egg yolk-yellow eyes were still bright and curious, but a bloodied, fractured wing is death for a bird that lives by hunting, especially the kind of low, swooping, veering style of a sparrowhawk. I first thought I had caught the bird in the middle of a kill, with its talons holding a chaffinch beneath it, but realised that this colour that had deceived me came from the sparrowhawk’s rufous breast seen from an unusual angle as it tumbled, dragged and flipped across the grass, downhill towards the safety of a hedge. It was face down in leaf litter when I picked it up and saw its pierced wing and the upper leg bare of feathers. Perhaps it had been caught on a barb of wire in a swoop. To find it returning my gaze while I stared in admiration at its talons and the sharp hook of its beak was unnerving, not least because it remained inscrutable and utterly unknowable as it watched me, its eyes a mirror for any qualities I tried to ascribe to them. The streaking across its breast was the same colour as last year’s dried oak leaves that rattled in the wind behind me, and which were still attached to the trees, soon to be ousted by the bud growth of spring.
In one of those coincidences that I find myself ever less surprised by, I had just been reading J.A. Baker’s classic 1967 book The Peregrine and because of this I had it in my mind to, finally, watch Kes. Even disregarding the buzzards and kites that I see most days on the hill, it seemed that birds of prey were going to form the theme of my days for a while. So, with that in mind, here are a few thoughts that came after watching Ken Loach’s Kes that same evening.
Appropriately enough, the film begins in bed, a place where in dreams, mundane horizons are of no account, even if here they are soon shattered by an alarm clock and a surly brother. In fact, this is a film shot through with the horizons of limited expectations and the possibility of somehow transcending these with a different perspective. These horizons can be literal too: right at the beginning we see Billy running to get to his paper round after he finds his brother has nicked his bicycle, scampering through the streets and rows of houses and then cutting upwards towards the skyline across a field. The smoked and ruddy bricks of the houses is similar in colour to that of the kestrel’s chestnut mantle and wings.
In class Billy look like the archetypal dreamer, gazing abstractedly out of the windows, but in fact, when he is interested and inspired, he is as directly to the point as a bird flying to the glove for meat. After spying the kestrels’ nest at the top of a derelict wall, he doesn’t take no for an answer from the farmer who tries to clear him off his land. Soon they are engaged in conversation about the birds and where he can find out more. After the library proves unhelpful (‘you‘ll have to have somebody over 21 who‘s on the borough electoral roll to sign the form’), a book on falconry makes it into his jacket in a second-hand bookshop. The bird has already given him access to a different world. He also gets the butcher onside when he knows what he needs to feed the kestrel. Likewise, when he knows it’s worthwhile and he has a sympathetic ear, he candidly tells a teacher just how things are with him at home, with his classmates and with the other teachers.
I think of all the names that Billy is called, is given or even gives himself throughout the film: Billy, Casper, weeny little twat, German Bight, goalie, an ape, raggedy scoundrel, someone who wants to be awkward, a nail, a bad ‘un, and even – in a nice ironic moment when he is shown on his morning paper round carrying his sack with the name of a paper – The Star. None of them captures him fully, and certainly not the core of him that sees him driven to catch and train a kestrel.
I think of Billy too, holding his class rapt with that air of slightly bored attention peculiar to teenagers, after he has been volunteered to tell the class about his hobby. Even if they can’t realise it now, he has inspired them, showing what it means to be fired with enthusiasm and respect, and how that can be the key to transcending circumstance.
Adults in the film are, with a couple of exceptions, sour, vindictive or swinish folk for whom shouting has become a natural mode of communication. Even the Headmaster berates the collection of pupils in his office, delivering a prepared speech on how times have changed and telling them that they have ‘nothing solid or worthwhile underneath’. This is obviously false, and says more about the inadequacies of his approach than the boys themselves, who quite rightly laugh at his tiresome posturing behind his back.
A key scene comes with Colin Welland’s sympathetic teacher sitting with Billy in the kestrel’s shed. Billy talks about the difference between training a kestrel and having a pet, maddened that people he meets can’t tell the difference between the two things, and talk of ‘Billy Caspar and his pet hawk’ as if such a bird could be tamed. Instead, he is awed that a wild bird does him a favour by letting him sit and watch her on her perch. Welland mentions the silence that comes with their respect.
By the end though, this silence has gone, and birdsong fills the air when Billy goes looking through the fields for Kes after he finds an empty perch. The place the film leaves Billy is similar to that of My Way Home, the last part of Bill Douglas’s trilogy, when just before the film leaps into the startling white sand of the Egyptian desert, Jamie is left in a Salvation Army hostel, with no prospects or possibilities in front of him. We are left to imagine his journey to a time when the noise of a jet plane can scour out the physical location of his upbringing. Even if Kes does end up below a hawthorn in a hedge, I can’t help but feel promise for Billy. It’s unsure what he’s going to grow up to be but I just don’t see him joining the banal bar chat of adults who we have seen in the film talking about themselves mostly, bemoaning their lives or bragging about how things will be. His life may not turn out to be as extreme as J.A. Baker’s experience with the peregrine, in which he says, ‘we live, in these days, in the open, the same ecstatic fearful life. We shun men. We hate their suddenly uplifted arms, the insanity of their flailing gestures, their erratic scisssoring gait, their aimless stumbling ways,’ but for a young man to have learned awe, reverence, and a kind of grounded wonder through his own experiences is certainly something that will stay with him and set him apart.
John Cameron’s evocative score – his first – is composed around themes of flight and grounding, but it’s the former you remember, as Harold McNair’s flute soars and relishes the possibilities of its brief, wonderful flights, doing its best to ignore the undertone of melancholy that waits to pull it inevitably earthwards.
As for the sparrowhawk that I found, by the end of the day it had gone from the hedge where it had sheltered – foxed or farm-dogged probably. As I walked back across the field, the late evening cloud lowered over the land like a ragged grey blanket, and it began to spit with rain, welcome after weeks of dry weather.
The tale of an innocent man getting caught up in the wreckage created by the speculations of rival bankers is an apposite one for our times. The film, inspired by Émile Zola’s novel of the same name, is Marcel L’Herbier's L’Argent – Money – from 1928. With a budget of five million francs it was a big international co-production featuring German stars in Brigitte Helm and Alfred Abel, three days of shooting in the Paris Bourse using 1500 actors and over a dozen cameramen, a night scene of expectant crowds in an electrified Place de l’Opéra, the construction of large sets of luxurious apartments and offices and even the interior of a bank. And yet within this film of excessive scale there is another, far more intimate film at work. For all the international high finance in operation, this is also a chamber piece that tells the story of solitary people in large rooms, who meet now and again, play out their power games and attempt to possess others. The two films are interdependent. The critic René Lebreton, writing in Comœdia in 1929, noted this when he wrote that ‘each of L’Argent’s tableaux is in some way permeated by an almost carnal frisson in league with frightful power that confers to its shareholders wealth.’
The film depicts the machinations of finance. In an attempt to revive the capital of his Banque Universelle, financier audacieux Nicolas Saccard invests in an aviator’s attempt to fly 7,000 km from Paris to Guiana, where the aviator also has options on land containing oil. Publicity surrounding the flight captures the public imagination and the bank’s shares are popular – especially with rival financier Gundermann, who unknown to Saccard, has stocked up on them to hold on to until the right moment comes to ensure his competitor’s ruin.
The film shows a world of arrangements and deals wherein people are objects of secondary importance to the primary goal of moneymaking. Except the aviator’s wife Line, everyone knows this. Even the aviator Jacques Hamelin has a presentiment of his part in Saccard’s grand scheme, but is prepared to go along with it because it allows him to fulfil his dreams of exploration and achievement.
The contempt with which characters, Saccard especially, play with other’s lives is shown by the simplest of means and gestures. For all the opulent display in the film, this is a tale in which the most telling gesture is a shrug of the shoulders. Four examples: early on when it appears Saccard is ruined, the sinister doom bird of La Méchain, a woman who preys on ailing companies, watches him walk away to his fate with a simple shrug, her eyes twinkling with greed. His fortunes will change, other men will take his place with their own plans for financial gain; she will be there waiting to pick from the carcass of their dreams. (She is, by the by, played by the cabaret singer, art nouveau poster girl and favourite model for Toulouse-Lautrec, Yvette Guilbert, in one of her very few film perfomances).
Later, we see Saccard, in Hamelin’s home where he has gone to hear the man’s plans for his transatlantic flight. His eyes however are on Hamelin’s wife Line and his thoughts are on possessing her as much as they are on the plans for the journey. When she walks away after serving him a drink, he sees her pat down a badly worn rug with her feet (an act picked up on by Jean-François Zygel’s fine piano accompaniment) and he chuckles, once, to himself: he has suddenly realised that she can be bought.
The next shrug of the shoulders comes after Saccard, contrary to the press reports of Hamelin’s death, has received word that he in fact safe and well. He exploits this information by waiting until his shares fall low enough that he can buy them all back. Line, however, believes she has lost her husband and goes to confront Saccard in his office, where he is busy deal-making on his numerous telephone lines. Line’s attitude on realising that her husband is alive is one of horror and complete incomprehension of Saccard’s world. In the face of this, Saccard shrugs his shoulders and gets back to the telephone lines.
The final gesture comes when the warder is showing Saccard the door of his prison cell. Saccard’s mind is alive with ideas for the future and has continued walking. He turns, shrugs again, and walks in, inviting the warder to join him in his plans – which he does when no-one can see that he has gone into the cell. It’s a fantastic ending, which in its symbolism of a banker hatching plans of dubious legality from the inside of a prison cell with the collusion of a warder, is highly charged. We know the cycle will recommence; we know that the lives of more innocents will be caught up in the financial paper chase, and we know that their fates will be met with a simple shrug of the shoulders.
Beginning with the very letters of the opening title, this is a film of sheen, glitter and sparkle, from Saccard’s eyes with their predatory gleam to jewellery, dresses, sequins, hats and drapes; throughout, surfaces are alive with reflected light. Even scenes that fade to black leave the scintillation of jewels as the last sight of a person’s form. Saccard’s grand party, displayed in grand sweeps of show, dissolves into a halo of glow and glister.
In L’Argent, personal want is is always connected with financial gain. When Hamelin shows Saccard the photographs of the place to which he is planning to fly, Saccard glances through them perfunctorily, more interested in Hamelin's wife. He looks up at her back, her dress a sheen of black satin. There’s oil there, says Hamelin, and the link is again made – as previously in the restaurant where Saccard eyed up Line’s legs beneath the table – between business and sex, desire for possession and desire for money through commodities. Many of Line’s clothes have the sheen of black gold. When later, on his knees, Saccard kisses her, he kisses the gold-braided hem of her dress, bought on her absent husband’s cheque account.
Pearls, a bracelet, a dress – something is always glistening on the other notable woman in the film, Baronne Sandorf – part clothes-hanger, part femme fatale – which sees Brigitte Helm, fresh from her role as Maria in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, appear as a lithe, fickle, scheming socialite whose attentions and sinuous charms are only for those on the up and in the money. Her best scene sees her meet Saccard in her home in a dress that appears closer to liquid than fabric. She slinks around and writhes like a silverfish as she and Saccard play out a charged scene of sexual jealousy and domination while the busy hands of baccarat players shadowdance on the ceiling of the gaming room behind the screens.
This a fascinating film of its time. There is the frenzied activity of the stock market, depicted at times from a bird's eye view of the antlike activity of the waving arms, scurrying, frantically waving men under high ceilings, leaving behind them a litter of trading slips on the floor, but this is also a film of newly-established communication lines – telephones, telegrams, wireless announcements, switchboard operators; lightboards and ticker-tape machines processing snippets of news in a world of exploration and exploitation. In one notable sequence, the stock market floor is intercut with shots of the turning propellor of Hamelin’s aeroplane before he leaves on his record-breaking attempt.
By the end, Line and Jacques have come under the protection of Saccard’s pekinese-petting rival Gundermann, played by the other German star in the film, Alfred Abel, who also appeared in Lang’s Metropolis as the futuristic city’s leader. Clipped and precise in his actions, he stands in marked contrast to the moon-faced, corpulent, cigar-puffing capitalist Saccard. While Jacques is in court, Gundermann meets Line in his extraordinary antechamber, an enclosing circular room filled with a map of the world showing his shipping lines, supply routes, refineries and ports. Your husband is an admirable engineer, his invention is full of promise, says Gundermann in front of a depiction of South America. Hamelin’s skill can be exploited, profited from. As before, he, and Line have been bought, and Gundermann is again master of all – subject, of course, to the rumours and whispers, bluff and bluster that plays out on the chequered gaming-board floor of the Bourse. And if things don’t work out as planned, he can always shrug his shoulders. That’s what money really buys.
As I write, the snow that has fallen on much of Britain still lies thick outside. With many people over the last few days having wondered at and taken photographs of landscapes made new through this snowfall, and having engaged unselfconsciously with a natural element in a way that is seldom seen except perhaps in summer at the seaside, it seems a good time to look at a beautiful film portrait of an artist who spends his life trying to understand the forms and rhythms of nature on which he bases his work. The film, Rivers and Tides, was made in 2000 by the German director and cinematographer Thomas Riedelsheimer and it’s about the artist Andy Goldsworthy. It’s part documentary and also part artist’s work diary in which Goldsworthy reflects on the creation of some of his extraordinary works in nature, from the most lightly ephemeral – a throw of dust into the air, or wild garlic leaves resting on top of a rock and blown into a stream – to the more permanent large-scale commissions such as his serpentine stone wall at Storm King art centre in New York. Along the way we get to learn just a little of the effort that goes into creating something that appears effortless. Appropriately enough, the film begins and ends with snow.
‘I want to understand that state and that energy that I have in me that I feel in the plants and in the land,’ says Goldsworthy at the outset. Growth, time, change and the idea of flow in nature; these are the constant companions in his art. There’s the flow of water obviously, and time and again the film returns to the river where he works at his home in Dumfries, but Riedelsheimer’s skill in this documentary is that he alerts you to the related flow in, for example, stone and in bark, eloquently showing what Goldsworthy can only haltingly communicate through his words.
The film is full of moments of wonder, one of which comes near the beginning as, after feeling disconnected from the land after a flight to Nova Scotia, Goldsworthy goes out at four in the morning to try to to engage with his new environment. He works with pieces of icicles, holding them in his bare hands until they freeze together to curve around the top of a boulder. He finishes when the sun is up and the sculpture is illuminated wonderfully, thoroughly inhabited, by the rising sun, the very thing that will bring about its destruction. ‘So often,’ says Goldsworthy, ‘the very thing that brings the work to life is the thing that will cause its death.’
This film is a corrective for anyone who is tempted to view Goldsworthy’s work as a merely whimsical rearrangement of nature. The close-ups of his farmer’s hands with their blackened and broken nails and plastered cracks is testament enough to that. Rather, it’s an attempt to get to the very heart of his enterprise which is an absolute dedication to understanding the elements of the natural world and their interconnected rhythm and flow. In short, this is a film about the sheer bloody-minded hard work, often in the damp and the freezing cold, that lies behind the sense of joyous, childlike wonder his sculptures can provoke. At one point he is shown working in the middle of winter drizzle in Dumfries as he pulls blackened bracken stalks from the ground; beneath his waterproof coat he is wearing three separate layers of fleece. ‘Good art keeps you warm,’ he says.
Though Goldsworthy’s sculptures appear deceptively simple – and this is part of the wonder they provoke – they are the product of years of working nearly every single day with the tools of his trade: water and earth, wood, stone, leaves, twigs and flower petals, aiming always at an understanding of his materials through experimentation and learning. His understanding of natural engineering is nowhere better illustrated here than with his length of green hazel leaves pinned together with thorns that slowly unfurls like a long reticulated amphibian in the river. Fragile but unbroken, it twists and turns downstream with the current.
It’s instructive to see the failures too, the sculptures that don’t come off, as these are an essential part of an artist’s work, especially one who takes the possibilities and inherent qualities of natural objects to their limits. In one sequence a built cone of stones on a beach falls four times, getting stronger with each attempt. When it is finally completed it is, Goldsworthy says, completed by the sea, given to the sea as a gift. The following morning, with the light of dawn on the horizon, the sea returns it to the air and – incredibly, given the difficulties of its construction – we see it emerge from beneath the water into a new day.
Natural colours in juxtaposition provide startling sights that at first glance seem unnatural: the blood red of iron stone, rubbed into pigment and then loosed into the flow of the stream or into a rock pool where it looks like blood in the water; or the surface of a rock pool covered with bright leaves, shading on one side from umber, through scarlet, tangerine, lemon and lime to mint and then to the green of rich pasture, or a trail of dandelion heads through a bluebell wood. At other times it is the colour black that startles, as with a peat-covered boulder that illustrates a point about the absence sheep create in a landscape. It’s a film to alert your eyes to colour and reawaken a child’s sense of wonder too. A dandelion’s head is yellow of course, but how often do you look to see just how many shades of yellow there are in this common flower? As they sit in a rockpool, their colours, from sulphurous yellow to greeny-gold and marigold orange, seem more apparent than before. As Goldsworthy says, his work is about ‘revealing patterns and forms – seeing something you never saw before but which was always there but which you were blind to.’
Early on when Goldsworthy makes a driftwood whirl as an attempt to understand the meeting of the flow of a river with the current of the sea, a man comes up to him and tells him about the salmon hole that’s next to where he is building the structure that will later go floating off on the current. I’m reminded of the film Running Fence by Albert and David Maysles about Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s 1976 project to erect a 24 ½ mile long, 18 ft high nylon drape running through two counties of California and on into the sea. The alluring combination of ephemeral beauty, good design and practicality saw people wanting to get close to the art, literally so in the case of one of the ranchers on whose land the fence was sited. After appreciating how firmly the poles were fixed in the ground, he saids, ‘I think I’m going to come and sleep up here tonight, it’s so nice, sleep right up next to the fence.’
Rivers and Tides is an astute and sympathetic film portrait of a man and his art, photographed beautifully and complemented well by Fred Frith’s music. It knows how to make connections that Goldsworthy struggles to put into words. Indeed, in contrast to his half-formed and touchingly halting explanations of his work, it is his art that has all the eloquence here. What is perhaps most surprising is that, given that all his cues are taken from trying to understand the forces, bonds and rhythms and ceaseless change in nature, the very same nature that surrounds all of us, and on which we rely so thoroughly but which we often disparage or ignore, is that his work is just about unique.
The film ends with some of the most ephemeral of Goldsworthy’s works – throws of dust and snow to the sky, where their twisting wraiths of red powder and sparkling ice glimmer, glisten and disappear into light and shade. After his final throw, Goldsworthy walks out of the camera shot and brushes himself down, the snow drifting away from his body on the wind like the throws he has just produced, a man unconsciously at one with his art.
(written for a MovieMail podcast in 2008)
As I begin to write this, misty feelers of fog are creeping into our valley which is still clear and frosty from the night. We live high up, and below us the land is hidden, the air thick with white. It is still, entirely still, the only movement in the garden the flicking of yew boughs as blackbirds peck at the red berries. The Black Mountains, all but the rounding of Waun Fach, are in fog. Around the house, the grass is frosted white, the apple trees are frosted, the gorse and the bracken on the hill are frosted. That we would have fog today was apparent last night when, although the night was clear, the smell of the air changed, as the breeze from the east became metallic under the starry sky. Now, the fog wraiths begins to settle in the valley. I look up again and the air has greyed and thickened, the sun now a white disc in a blue-grey halo.
I begin like this because of a film I watched late last night. I discovered it by chance – there is no mention on the cover of the DVD that it even exists on the disc. Finding a bonus film by a director is a treat; finding one unmentioned on the packaging that is even longer than the main feature is a real bonus. The film is called A Humble Life. It was made in Japan in 1997 by Alexandr Sokurov, and it's an extra on Artificial Eye’s DVD of his film Mother and Son.
In the film, Sokurov shares a living space with an old woman, Umeno Matshueshi, who lives alone in an old house, 130 years old we are told, in the village of Aska in the mountains of the Nara Prefecture in Japan. For a short while he shares with us the textures, sounds and rhythm of her life as she sits, makes fire, eats and sews a mourning kimono. She agreed that Sokurov could stay near her all the time. He says, ‘all the hours and minutes which I was allowed to spend in her old house, she let me sit near her. I needed it to see enough of her, to my heart's content.’
‘I can remember well enough,’ says Sokurov, ‘how everything became interesting: walls, utensils, wind, light, sounds – all her life’. As well as a short time spent in her company, the film is an extended appreciation of the textures and sounds of her life: the earthen floors and smoke-blackened ceilings, the matting and the paper screens. At one point the camera lingers over the pale worn wood of the front step, its grain now ridged like blown sand dunes; the perspective changes and these become mountains, while the splits running through the valley in the centre are the slow gougings of a glacier.
I think of Jun’ichiro Tanizaki’s words, from his meditation on the Japanese sense of beauty, In Praise of Shadows, where he says, ‘we do love things that bear the marks of grime, soot, and weather, and we love the colours and the sheen that call to mind the past that made them. Living in these old houses among these old objects is in some mysterious way a source of peace and repose.’ No object in the film better shows this particular sensibility than the mirror whose growth of bacterial bloom and patina is so extensive that it resembles an image of the earth seen from the air.
Now the white air has brightened. Soon there are rays of sun through the window, its light illuminating the dripping winter leaves. Now a slow river of fog drifts westward through the valley, as the low sun gives even the sheep on the hill opposite long shadows that fall away beneath them. Across the hill, someone is fencing in the fog, his sledgehammer ringing ever more clearly as the stake hits hard ground. A while later, there is the tack tack tack of staples fixing wire. I need to be outside. The film recalls me to small pleasures and the wonder to be found in the textures of aged objects. In the greenhouse there are clay pots into which I will plant my hyacinths.
Arriving in twilight at the house, Sokurov could not sleep for the blowing of the wind. We hear this wind throughout the film, through leaves and through distant trees; we hear the sound of rain, and then, more intimate sounds, familiar from Mother and Son – the haunting, dated notes of a parlour piano, a guttering candle, the creak of footsteps on wood, the draw of a fire and the the crackle of burning twigs, the drawing of a screen, the stroke of fingers across floor matting, the bubble of water in an iron kettle on a fire. We hear night birds and thunder, the turning of paper, bells and frogs, the pull of thread through fabric, the sound of snow falling on a carp pond.
The images in A Humble Life are often shown behind mists that drift through the film as if to give it its own magical patina of memory. By chance I came across the following lines about the Japanese landscape by Lafcadio Hearn, which give this context: ‘Only the general lines of the land, the general aspects of its nature, the general character of the seasons remains fixed. Even the very beauty of the landscapes is largely illusive, –a beauty of shifting colours and moving mists. Only he to whom the landscapes are familiar can know how their mountain vapours make mockery of real changes which have been, and ghostly predictions of other changes yet to be, in the history of the archipelago.’
The fog thickened through the afternoon. Just before dusk it briefly cleared and as it rolled back it revealed the ground in tree shadow that had remained frosty through the day. It looked like the fog itself had left the ground white.
The last words in the film are given to Umeno Matshueshi, who wanted to mark Sokurov's parting by reading her poetry to him in the main room of her house by candlelight. It is the first time we have heard her soft, sure voice. She reads:
ten years have passed
since I lost my husband
still the pain and bitterness
are in my heart like thorns
it finds consolation in late autumn quietness
a bamboo pipe is heard
the crickets stopped singing
snowstorm is coming
If, like me, the winter was starting to infiltrate you with its dank grey gloom, then this film may be helpful. Not by providing any shallow sensation or temporary artificial escapism, but through showing the need for the acceptance of living accordingly through certain seasons and times, and living at a depth that accepts and works with the seasons’ sounds and textures instead of denying them. Near the beginning of his film, Sokurov says, ‘My soul seemed to be in search of beauty and kindness, otherwise, for what did I deserve this gift, this encounter?’
I found myself at peace after watching his film, a form of contentment in its December guise.