Mother and Son – Alexander Sokurov – A son tenderly takes care of his ill mother. They live in a simple cabin in what appears to be a meditative wilderness: a non-specific anywhere (nowhere) that recalls Tarkovsky’s pastoral ‘zone’, with its melancholy fields and eerie quiet. At only 71 minutes, each long and peacefully sorrowful shot accommodates for an appreciation of time that echoes with a gravitas far beyond the film’s slight length. Using warps of perspective, simple shots become dreamily stretched. As with most (all?) of Sokurov’s films, sound is overlaid later to create an oneiric discrepancy between image and sound, lending voices and diegetic atmosphere an unreal immediacy. In the same way that water in the ears or certain annoying headphones seem to amplify the internal sounds of the body, so too does Sokurov’s sound seem to be a result of internal frequencies. It is as if the voices, the wind, the whimper of tears and all of the varied whispered strains of, deeply Russian, sadness float- reverberating in some imagined headspace between viewer and film. It moves the film closer to abstract art, not in the sense of non-figurative representation, but in the sense of an aesthetic and spatial medium to observe and inhabit; a composition that, the more you stare the more is revealed. Encouraging this angle of observation are the colour changes that with a languid cloudy drift , combined with the smudged and hazy frame of several shots, adds to a gently contemplative – at times unsettling – dream feel.
Granted, considered from a literal perspective, it’s a film in which a bloke (the son) carries his ‘less than perky’ mother down a series of winding rural lanes, punctuated by rests, sleep, sadness and an occasional slightly gnomic conversation. This is adopting a bluntly insensitive approach, but there are inevitably moments were the spell of heavyhearted poetry gives way – being a human in a time beset by internet links, infinite clips and email/txt updates, the Russian muse is a glacial antidote. I’m not saying, with cliché riddled abandon, that we are all plagued by an inability to concentrate and that attention spans have been eroded to a half second twitch of pornographic Tourette’s. No. I am saying that I feel partly apprehensive of the genuine, earnest and felt. Which is of course, a pretty sad thing. A ‘thing’ worthy of the Sokurov treatement:
single shot (15 mins) boy sits alone, stares at glaring screen…numb,so numb…he moves, as though to get something to eat or maybe go outside, but no, he was merely shifting his weight from one flattened buttock to another. A shadow moves across the dimpled cream wall, sun streams in from the window. He squints – it is making the screen hard to see. Boy leans over to the window and pulls down the blind. NEW SHOT: The house from the outside, nothing special: one window at the front, neglected lawn. The sun becomes dazzling, the shot begins to tilt incrementally to the left while perspective stretches in the opposite direction –it’s queasy. The sun; camera flare; gets brighter and brighter and- CUT TO – back to interior shot of boy at computer. He is now crying. CUT TO BLACK. THE END.
There were times, perhaps because I was aware of the reverence in which this film is held, where I was more acutely aware of the ‘artistic experience’ I was missing as opposed to the experience itself. On the DVD there are quotes from Susan Sontag (so, naturally one is primed and ready for a culturally seminal slab of …something), while New York Times seems to be ushering in an era of revelation: ‘Heart aching,luminescent…Sokurov is a master’ and then, then…they’ve only got a quote from Nick Cave: ‘ Transcendent…A thing of such beauty, such sadness…I wept from start to finish’. When someone, nay, Nick Cave, professes to have ‘wept from start to finish’ it’s a hell of a lot of pressure on the ol’ tear ducts to perform! It reminded me of the debut novel by Ben Lerner Leaving Atocha Station, in which at one point he describes walking around a gallery, as an aspiring poet he is continually frustrated by his ability to be genuinely moved by the art he sees. So, having read Cave’s tentative praise I spent a lot of the film wondering why I was so emotionally inept. Rather than imagining the history and relationship between the eponymous mother and son, I spent more time thinking about the colours, how the sound was intriguing and just why it felt bizarrely ominous at times. Meanwhile I’m sure a different viewing could more emotionally engage with the possibility of the unspoken and potential (in all that space – the long shots – wind combing fields – trees – trees – hillsides – more wind) life shared by these two figures.
There is definitely a dimension to Sokurov that enables his films to tap into that ineffable significance which Ben Lerner’s character was searching for in the countless, defiantly unmoving, paintings. Having only seen Faust and a collection of short Elegies in a BFI Sokurov event, I still feel as though he has a keen and rare ability to tease out visual epiphanies. There are seconds in Faust, just blurred close ups on faces or unexpected shifts in light, that are genuinely startling. Moments that leave you grasping for synonyms of ‘transcendental’ – moments in which, entirely aside from plot or narrative, an image is imbued with arresting (already I want to shy away from the sentimentalism) beauty…I found myself, on several occasions, moved almost to tears simply by a face – and not even necessarily a face witnessing, or part of, a ‘tragic’ situation – just an incidental look, a glance. I was not ready for an out and out bawling of Nick Cave proportions, but dammit there was an emotive hiccup somewhere, trembling at the unexpected acquaintance of this ‘artistic experience’. The sort of ‘almost tear’ that is banished before its arrival by a wave of premature smugness that glowingly thinks ‘I’m having a moment of true artistic connection – significance – epiphany – no need for words – pure’ – all of which eclipses the previous tender and un-reflexive feelings…and so said tear retreats.
All of which leads me to wanting to watch Mother and Son again. As, although I was not entirely immersed in the film (even feeling towards the end that the delicate symbol of a dying moth was a cumbersome conceit…a metaphysical freight train of blaring symbolism that I wasn’t ready for, that I was too self consciously reserved to embrace and enjoy) I did feel the same, rare, un-cinematic - more poetic, quality that comes across in Tarkovsky. Cinema that refuses to busy itself with keeping an audience ‘onside’ and earnestly tries to explore a subject, at whatever pace appropriate, serves as a bracing reminder of artistic priority. Even if it estranges, bores and disappoints, films like this begin to access modes of meaning and emotional significance that could not exist otherwise. Through two figures as simple as ‘mother’ and ‘son’ there is a universal simplicity, making the film at times almost fable-like, and yet through its attention to drawn out shots and spatial lingering the viewer is encouraged to experience individual and momentary sensations of importance. Subsequently Sokurov addresses clearly monumental and universal themes (mortality, suffering and other fuzzy pastimes) while similarly fostering a uniquely personal way into the film: with its knotting trees and rippled fields, stretching lanes and dark sky, Mother and Son becomes a film to inhabit, and once in that space explore.