Daniel Garrett, firstname.lastname@example.org
August 31, 2004
—for Tracey, in memoriam
“I started this film with the question, ‘What is the meaning of life?’ Everybody needs their own chance to ask themselves what life means to them, especially when a person goes through a painful period.”
—Kim Ki-Duk, in an interview with Lynda Lin for TheMovieInsider.com
“We have to learn to see ourselves in things that we thought were outside of ourselves in order to dissolve false boundaries.”
—Thich Nhat Hanh, “The Three Doors of Liberation,” The Heart of Buddha’s Teaching
Often when generations look at each other, one generation sees rough manners, uncouth clothes, indulgent sensuality, and an ignorance of much that matters in culture and history, and possibly criminal impulses. The other generation sees unnecessary formality, a lack of energy and vital engagement, allegiance to corrupt powers, and a concern for subjects and details that have not mattered in years. There’s a chance they might be embarrassed or relieved to share interest in a work, a book or piece of music or film, that is considered a classic: a work that is about fundamental subjects, such as birth and death, men and women, parents and children, home and exile, individuality and community, knowledge and ignorance, wealth and want, work and idleness, war and peace; a work that uses language and imagery that excites, a work that is informed by history and tradition but that feels alive. One day, the films Father and Son and Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter,…and Spring may be considered such work.
Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter,…and Spring, the film by Korean director Kim Ki-Duk (we would usually write Ki-Duk Kim, family name last), begins with its title on what seems to be rice paper. We see then two male figures painted on an outside doorway not connected to walls, a doorway between land and a monk’s dwelling on a lake. The doors sit in the bottom of a valley of trees, hills, and rocks, and the doors open on a lake on which floats a house on a raft. An old monk hits a wood gong against a gourd, apparently part of his spiritual observance. A small boy sleeps on a mat on the floor to the left of the standing monk; and between the sleeping boy and standing monk is a door to which no wall is attached. (The door is real, but the wall is in the mind. There are three doorways in the film, including the one at the front of the monk’s dwelling.) “Wake up,” the old monk calls to the child. The boy gets up, dresses, and opens the door and goes through it; and once on the other side the boy says his morning prayers before the statue of Buddha. (There’s a pool of water in front of the statue.) The old monk sweeps, and the boy sits with a dog that at first looks like a cat. The old monk puts on a cloth backpack, enters the small row boat tethered to the raft, and the boy follows—the boy wants to pick herbs for medicine; and the old monk rows them to the gate we saw with the painted male figures when the film first began (and as the monk rows, the boy imitates his gestures). They walk through the gate, and take a foot path until they get uphill where there is no path, and the trees and bushes are dark green in the spring weather, and the boy picks herbs. The boy sees a snake and flings it away; and then the boy walks to a large sculpture carved in white rock, another Buddha. The old monk goes to the boat, the boy follows, and the old man closes the door separating land and sea and rows the two back to their dwelling; and at home, the old man shows the boy the difference between a medicinal plant and a poisonous one: the difference is in the detail, a detail that requires perception, recognition, knowledge. That is one lesson the monk gives the boy—simple, and important.
The boy rows the boat alone, sleeps, shoots a sling shot from a tree, urinates at night into the lake, runs after butterflies, very much living a child’s life; accompanied by chanting on the film’s soundtrack. In a shallow pool, near large white, gray, and greenish rocks, the boy catches a small fish, ties a rock to it, and puts it back in the water giggling; and he ties a rock to a frog and snake. The old monk sees this (how did he get to land without the boat?); and the old man attaches a large rock to the boy as he sleeps during the night. The old monk cleans a Buddha statue as the boy wakes; and the boy feels the weight of the rock, and asks the monk to remove it. The monk asks the boy about his attaching stones to the fish, frog, and snake; and tells the boy to walk. “It was wrong to do it,” says the boy of his tying rocks to small, living things. The monk has him free the fish, frog, and snake before his own burden is removed—and the boy climbs over beautiful land, rocks, and through water to do so, and finds that the fish has died (he buries it in the dirt), the frog is alive (he frees it), and the snake is bloody and dead (and the boy cries). The boy has learned something about cruelty and responsibility, time and death.
“It’s the beginning of a long life, told in seasons, and representing an evolution through the straits of folly and sadness to dawning consciousness and rebirth,” wrote Desson Thomas about the film in the May 7, 2004 Washington Post. Peter Rainer in the April 12, 2004 issue of New York magazine wrote, “This sequence would not be out of place in one of the Grimms’ more grotesque fairy tales, but it also contains a troubling psychological truth: The child’s cruelties do not seem like the handiwork of an innocent scamp. The balm of prayer doesn’t really work for this boy because, on some deeply disturbing level, he is untouched by grace.” (I disagree with Rainer’s last thought; the boy might be touched by grace but he is still human, fallible. People whose lives are comfortably ordinary are rarely tested in the way this secluded boy is: isolation protects him and makes him vulnerable. Unpracticed in the ways of the world, he may be undone when he finally lives in the world: “When we look deeply into our children, we see all the elements that have produced them. They are the way they are because our culture, economy, society, and we ourselves are the way we are,” wrote Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist, in The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching—150. Also, the director Kim Ki-Duk has said, while discussing in Pasadena Weekly a previous film of his, Address Unknown, that he doesn’t think it’s necessary to divide things into good and bad, that it’s better to understand each character as a human being.) “Kim’s movie conjures a sense of spiritual discipline as suspenseful as it is stunning to watch and exhilarating to contemplate,” wrote David Sterritt of Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter,…and Spring in The Christian Science Monitor’s movie guide, dated April 2, 2004.
The film stars Oh Yeong-Su, Kim Young-Min, Seo Jae-Kyung, Ha Yeo-Jin, Kim Jong-Ho, and the director himself. (Names have been spelled differently elsewhere, such as that of Oh Young-Soo, who plays the old monk.) The cinematographer is Baek Dong-Hyun. Kim Ki-Duk’s previous films include Crocodile (1996) and Wild Animals (1997), portrayals of alienated youth; and Birdcage Inn (1998) and The Isle (1999), which depicted prostitution; and Real Fiction (2000), which shows a man taking murderous vengeance. Kim Ki-Duk’s Real Fiction, which he has called the film he cares about the most, was filmed in 200 minutes using concurrently ten 35mm cameras and two digital cameras, after a ten-day rehearsal period. It is a film that seems, technically, an experiment comparable to Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark (2002), or Mike Figgis’ Time Code (2000). Kim’s Address Unknown (2001) is about the Korean war; Bad Guy (2001), about prostitution; and The Coast Guard (2002) about the guilt of a man involved in an accidental shooting. Kim Ki-Duk has had a prolific career, but his previous works do not have the reputation of being films in a classical mode; and the film Spring Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring seems precisely that.
The changing of the seasons, which most people witness and which no one of us can affect at all, offers experiences (lessons) in beauty, time, and acceptance, just as the aging of a human being has its own inevitability, its own facts and knowledge. Buddhist thought, which advances the path to peace, and encourages leaving anxiety, conflict, and desire behind, is a way of seeing all of existence as always present in one form or another, with each being and thing something we are connected to (connected to all, there’s no need for desire or envy). Buddhist thought was introduced to Korea by China; and Korea was a conduit for Buddhism between China and Japan, with Korea apparently influencing the development of Japanese Buddhism. That introduction of Buddhism to Korea has been dated to the year 372, the fourth century; and the focus then was on study and moral discipline, though various priorities later developed—an emphasis on consciousness, “pure land,” dharma, and scholarship. There was sometimes conflict between the value given to meditation and that given to study, also disagreement regarding gradual and sudden development (enlightenment). An important aspect of Korean Buddhism has been an attempt to reconcile its various ideas and practices, to achieve balance—harmony. Film director Kim Ki-Duk has said that in Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter,…and Spring there are usually at least two beings in each scene and that is his own allusion to harmony, as the possibility of conflict and harmony occurs when there are two beings or realities present.
When the summer segment of the film begins, the boy we saw during the spring of a previous year is now, years later, a young man, a monk; and the actor playing the young man has an open, round face very similar to the boy we saw. The young man sees snakes mating on land, as two women arrive, a mother and her sick daughter (it’s not clear if the sickness is physical or emotional). The young monk rows them to his master, the old monk, and as the young monk does so he points out a three-hundred years-old tree, and tells the girl that she will be as healthy as that tree. Arriving at the old monk’s abode, we see a chicken pecking at the floor, and the old monk welcomes the two women before they go in to pray before the Buddha statue. The young monk watches the girl, and watches her later as they all lie down to sleep; his watching is a sign of interest.
There is a mist on the lake, a gorgeous image.
The young woman is suffering, the old monk tells her mother, who leaves her daughter in the old monk’s care; and the young monk rows the mother back to land during a light rain. The daughter does look very unhappy; and she sits in the rain and the young monk holds over her head and shoulders a large basket. One day while the girl is dressing the young monk comes into the room and is clearly conflicted about whether to turn away (he is uncomfortable, but attracted). He later warns the girl away from sitting on a short statue, possibly a sacred statue, and he seems tormented by duty and desire. The young woman prays to Buddha, and falls asleep while praying; and the young man finds her asleep, covers her with a blanket, a second kindness, but then he touches her, a sexual exploration, and she slaps him. He kneels to pray, guiltily, and she touches his cheek—and the old monk opens the door and asks about the young man’s praying, a rarity at that time of day, and the young monk prays harder, sounding the gourd, a funny moment. We see the young man in a boat rowing, before he asks the girl if she wants to go along—she does, seeming mildly pleased; and they go through the gate, walk the land, wade into a pool of mostly clear, sun-dappled water with swarming small fish, which she tries and fails to catch. The young monk watches her, falls into water, swims, and catches a small fish for her. He tries to touch her and she knocks him into the water. The young man, at night, rests on the same mat as his master, but is unable to sleep and looks over at the girl, where she sleeps beyond the visible door and the invisible wall separating the two sleeping mats.
The young man pounds herbs into medicine, first too roughly, then softly when the old man corrects him; and the young woman drinks the somewhat bitter medicine. The young man later, in the boat, rows wildly, obviously sexually frustrated; and he jumps into the water without coming up for air—and the girl stands to see what’s become of him, by which time he has swam up to the edge of the raft—and he pulls her into the water. They get into the boat, and he rows, very determined; and he takes her hand and arms through the gate (water surrounds it now), there are two ducks nearby (mating?); and the young monk and the young woman have sex on the rocks. They lay together, seeming content, looking up at the sky; and they walk—he carries her on his back over rocks. As they return to the dwelling on the raft in the lake, the old monk is writing with water on a dry rock (the writing evaporates). The young monk looks penitent, but later he leaves his sleeping mat with the old monk, and rather than open the door between sleeping mats goes through the invisible wall to share a mat with the girl. In daylight, he moves a statue for the girl to sit on, the same one he warned her against earlier. He scares her with a cricket, a boy’s flirtatious gesture, not a man’s. The old man watches the two, while the chicken pecks. The young man puts water and a small fish in the girl’s shoe. “Are you recovered?” asks the young monk of the girl; and she says, “Yes, completely,” and he wonders, then, what’s wrong with him.
One early morning the young man and woman take the small boat out and have sex in the boat near an ancient tree, then fall sleep, and the small boat floats back to the monk’s dwelling with the lovers naked and sleeping; and the old monk sees. The old monk calmly throws a chicken with a leash attached into the boat, and gently pulls the boat back to the monastery—then he pulls the stopper out of the small boat’s bottom. The water filling the boat wakes the lovers up. “I did wrong, Master. Forgive me,” says the young monk. When the girl says she’s no longer sick, the old monk says that maybe sex was the right medicine—but he tells the girl that it’s time to leave, which the younger monk does not want. The old monk says that lust creates desire to possess and that leads to murder. (One critic, Liam Lacey of Toronto’s Globe, has voiced skepticism of this line, but I’m too aware of its truth—and have mourned someone killed by her husband; and the courts are full of such stories.) The young monk cries as the old monk rows the now well young woman back to the mainland; and the young woman arrives at the gate in a blue sleeveless top and blue jeans (she’d worn a white dress during most of her stay with the two men). The young monk puts the Buddha statue into a bag and leaves, while the old monk lies on his sleeping mat—but the old monk is not asleep. With the chicken as company, the young monk rows to shore. The old monk prays, while hitting the gourd he holds, to the Buddha painted on the wall.
Autumn finds the gate between lake and land open, as the old man gets into the small boat going back to the raft with a cat in his bag. Also in his bag, various plastic-covered foods, and something that looks like a cooked rice loaf wrapped in newspaper—and when he unwraps the food the old monk sees that the newspaper says that a man, age 30, has fled after murdering his wife. A bell on the raft rings. The old man stitches a garment, a monk’s clothing; and soon a man in black sweater and pants with a plaid shirt, and carrying a bag, arrives. The old man gets him and returns him to the monastery. “Have you led a happy life ’til now?” the old monk asks. The young man says that the woman he loved went with another man. The old monk asks the young man if he doesn’t know that what you like others also will like. The young man is still angry; even after killing the woman, he rages. (How could the young monk turn into this angry man? He has lived in the world.) The young lapsed monk returns the Buddha statue he had taken when he left, and he takes the small boat out on a misted river, and he rages inland standing, thrashing, and kicking in a pool of water (the old man watches—how did he get there?). The young man’s anger introduces a different kind of energy, a different tone and kind of expectation, to the film.
The young man’s anger, his murder of his wife, and his torturous memory are less like the rest of Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter,…and Spring and more like several other movies Kim Ki-Duk has made, films in which troubled individuals and the conflict, even violence, their trouble creates is the principal subject, films that have made Kim seem like a disturber of the South Korean public peace—and have made him seem a modernist: critical, experimental, a memoirist, a provocateur, a teller of truths. About his characters’ violence, Kim Ki-Duk has said, “The violence that they turn to, I prefer to call a kind of body language. I would like to think of it as more of a physical expression rather than just negative violence,” in a February 2002 Sense of Cinema web interview with Volker Hummel. Kim’s presentation of volatile spirits and social problems is something that has made him both controversial and respected. “Kim’s value for this age [of New Wave Korean filmmakers] originates in the discomfort he creates for his audience,” wrote Jung Seong-Il, a Korean critic, as part of an interview on the Screening the Past web page, November 21, 2002. That interview, translated from the Korean into English as many of Kim’s interviews are, included Kim’s candid comments about his life, work, and reputation. Kim has felt that his own lack of formal training and working class background has been used against him sometimes, and that the art of his work hasn’t been fully explored, nor its genuine relation to Korean reality. (Kim Ki-Duk grew up in a village, before moving to Seoul with his parents. He attended an agricultural school, but did not graduate; and he subsequently worked in factories, and joined the marines and became an officer. He was even involved with a church for a time, and thought of becoming a minister, according to Kim So-Hee, CineKorea.com. Kim Ki-Duk’s longtime interest in painting took him to Paris, where he worked for a couple of years, a time that he says gave him a sense of independence and a vantage point from which to look at Korean society.) About Bad Guy, in the Screening the Past interview Kim said, “The film shows images of our split Korean society and critiques the social system that is governed by prejudice.” Kim voiced that “I use film as a medium to illustrate the metaphors that are important to me.” And: “Since my first film Crocodile (1996), I have tried to make films with religious motifs. These motifs are mixed with themes of sin and self-wounding situations. People can choose whatever they want to see in my films. I leave the choice up to the audience. However, the religious elements in my stories offer a return to Mother Nature and innocence. These days, our lives are full of artificiality. We have to try much harder to regain our innocence.”
It may surprise those contemplating Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter,…and Spring to know that Kim Ki-Duk once received a Christian education: “Throughout my childhood and early teens I attended a Christian mission school. I think I was brainwashed by hopes and promises of salvation. I tried my best to escape from this strict Christian mentality, and I finally did it. But, after escaping from it I learned that Christian values are important. They were just too difficult to follow while I was surrounded by them.”
In Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter,…and Spring, the unhappy young man, who killed his wife and returned to the Buddhist monastery on the valley’s lake, writes a message on pieces of paper, a kind of suicide note, and puts these on his eyes, mouth, and nose—and his breathing is stifled; but the old monk sees this stifling, and angrily whips him. The old monk ties him up—we can see whip marks on the younger man’s naked back. The old man uses the living cat’s tail as a paint brush and with black ink paints a message on the exterior floor of the floating monastery. The young man cuts off his hair with a knife, a still bloodied knife, no doubt the same one he killed his wife with; and he changes into the monk’s garment prepared by the old man after he read the newspaper article. The old man’s assignment to him: carve out the letters of this message and drive the anger from inside of you. (The old monk continues to add to the message, using the squirming cat’s tail, as the younger man carves.)
The old man’s own anger may be also both an expression of his values—concern for the younger man, a sense of what is right—and also a violation of those values, an assertion of will instead of acceptance of what is. Buddhism does not ensure that a man will be delivered into perfection. In fact, Buddhism in Korea developed through dynamic individuals, various schools, travel to China, aristocratic interest, and with political stability and concurrent development in various fields such as architecture and painting; it was worldly; and at times some of its adherents were driven to it for very impure reasons—to escape military service or to make money, according to the online reference Wikipedia. Buddhism was thoroughly suppressed in Korea from about 1392 to 1910, about five-hundred years, and that for economic and philosophical reasons—its support by the government had been costly, and there was the rise of, the competition from, Confucian thought. Buddhist monks and nuns were even forbidden to enter cities. The monks did make a favorable impression when they helped repel a Japanese invasion of Korea between 1592 and 1598, forming an army of several thousand. A subsequent invasion in 1910 by Japan brought proselytizing Japanese Buddhists who had a somewhat liberating effect; and by the time the Japanese were no longer in power in Korea, beginning in 1945, Korean Buddhism had begun to be established anew. While Korean films have often had a moral dimension, films with Buddhist themes have become more popular since the 1980s. Film was first shown in Korea in 1902, with the first film a kinodrama called Uirijeok Gutu, or The Righteous Revenge (1919)—a play with a motion picture insert; and the first silent film feature was made in 1923, and the first sound film, Ch’unhyang-jon, in 1935. (Darcy Paquet has produced “A Short History of Korean Film” for KoreanFilm.org; and Hyangjin Lee’s book Contemporary Korean Cinema from Manchester University Press is more comprehensive—and offers variant spellings of names and titles.) Im Kwon-taek’s Mandala (1981), and Bae Yong-Kyun’s Why Has Bodhi-Dharma Left for the East? (Dharmaga Tongjoguro Kan Kkadanlgun, 1989), Jeong Ji-Young’s Beyond the Mountain (Sansan-I Buseojin Ileum-I-Yeo, 1991), and Im Kwon-Taek’s Come Come Come Upward (Aje Aje Bara Aje, 1989) are other Buddhist films. That is all history, the movement of men and women through time. The old monk’s anger in Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter,…and Spring is both a sign of passion and of limitation, of humanity. The old monk had been both guardian and teacher to the young man, and may feel the young man’s act is his own failure.
Two policemen arrive through the gate and call for the “holy man” and the old monk rows to get them, as the younger man continues to carve. The police draw guns, and the young monk points his knife—he’s told by the old monk to continue carving, and that this will restore peace; and the old monk tells the policemen that the carving will be done by tomorrow morning. The police wait while the young man carves, with their guns out—they try to shoot a can out of the water (garbage and technological violence they have brought with them), but they miss a target the gunless old monk easily hits. During the night, the young man carves by candlelight—and one of the policeman, after putting his gun away, holds the candle so the young man can see. A mist is over the lake, a beautiful scene of blue; and in the early morning the young man falls asleep, finished with carving. The old monk sweeps away the wood chips, and makes paints out of mussel shells and various plants. All help in painting the carved letters while the young man sleeps; and the cat watches. The old man wakes up the young monk. There are brown fall leaves—and the house raft seems to rotate, a last view of the valley and lake from this dwelling for the young man. The policemen take the young monk away without cuffing him, an act of trust. The small boat does not move, despite the rowing, until the young monk turns around so the old monk can wave goodbye to him. The boat, once empty, returns to the old monk—and the old monk writes letters on paper, just as the young man had before, and he puts wood in the small row boat, building a pyre on which he’ll sit, and he pulls the stopper out of the boat’s bottom, puts paper with the “shut” message over his eyes, cries, and the pyre of wood on which he sits burns beneath and round him. A snake moves from near the small boat (is the old monk’s spirit now resident in the snake?—reincarnation of enlightened men usually is said to return them to higher forms, before nirvana); and the snake crawls onto the monk’s former dwelling, making itself at home.
Winter’s effect: the lake is frozen, there is snow, the trees are covered with white, and the weather is cold. A man arrives, enters the gate, says a brief prayer, walks across the ice toward the house raft and sees beneath the ice the small boat, which he bows over (a tingling bell sounds); and he enters the house raft and there’s a snake seated on the old monk’s clothes. The man moves the Buddha statue (he sees the fish near it are frozen), lights a candle, and puts on a monk’s robe. He goes out and cracks the ice above the old monk’s small boat, the funeral pyre, and extracts a souvenir; and he carves an ice sculpture, a Buddha, and puts the souvenir from the monk into the statue. Then, the man carves a hole in the lake of ice from which to get drinking and bathing water. He sees an exercise book and starts exercising, which looks like choreography and spiritual practice. Is this the return of the young monk who had been arrested, now older, or a different man? (If it’s the young man grown older, that means the character of the boy that we see in the first section, in spring, is played by four different actors as the character ages, becoming, in effect, different people; and the latest embodiment of the character is played by the director himself.)
A woman with a baby arrives with her face entirely covered, hidden; and she walks across ice to enter the monk’s abode. The mother prays before the burning fire and the Buddha statue that had been taken and returned by the young monk, and she cries—and she takes off her shroud so her child can see her face one last time and then she puts the covering back on. Did she give birth to the child without being married; and now cannot hope to raise it in her community? Or is she simply too poor to care for it? She leaves the child, and falls into the hole in the ice the monk opened for his drinking water. (Is this accident or punishment?) The next morning the baby cries and sees its mother’s shoe floating in the hole of water and goes after it, and the monk follows the baby and sees the woman dead beneath the ice (the monk retrieves her body, and uncovers her face). The monk ties a rock to his back and carries a beautiful statue over ice and land—it seems a statue of a woman, possibly a deity (why do I think it is female? its long arms and legs, its elegance, though I don’t now recall breasts); and this is the monk’s punishment and tribute; and we hear chanting on the soundtrack, and the intense singing of a woman’s voice—and we see a small fish with a rock attached to it by string, a frog with a rock attached, and a snake so encumbered too. The present is connected to the past; and amends must be made for all brutality, accidental or intentional. The monk makes his way to the top of the valley—we can see the great distance he has traveled from the lake where he now lives: and in that distance we measure time and dedication. He has chosen a life of discipline; and, arguably, all he has been has made whatever wisdom he has possible; and that seems, indeed, very expensive wisdom.
The ice melts into water, flowers blossom, and the last section of the film is one of spring. The baby left by its mother is now a boy being sketched by the monk who cares for him, who teaches him. We see the boy playing with a turtle—roughly. The last scene is brief, and it is a view of the statue that the monk placed at the top of the valley.
Peter Rainer concluded his New York magazine review of the film thus: “Kim exalts nature—life’s passage—without stooping to sentimentality. He sees the tooth and claw, and he sees the transcendence. Whether this is a Buddhist attribute, I cannot say, but the impression this movie leaves is profound: Here is an artist who sees things whole.” Publishing in the March 31, 2004 New York Times, A.O. Scott wrote, “Like Blake’s ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience,’ the film’s lyrical plainness is the sign of a profound and sophisticated artistic sensibility.” After complaining about some of the theatricality of the film and its sometimes emphatic soundtrack, Scott concluded, “It seems less a modern work of art than a solid, ancient object that has always been there, waiting to be found.”
The film actually was made over the period of a year but only shot for about five days in each season for a total of about twenty-two days. It was filmed in a Korean national park, with the monastery being built for the film and removed at the end of filming from Jusan Pond.
Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter,…and Spring, by Korean director Kim Ki-Duk, is a lovely, moving, and wise film, possibly one of the best films I have ever seen. The first time I saw it, I felt serene; and the second time I was thrilled—more than thrilled, I was happy. It is a film that allows us to see beauty—form that appeals to the senses, form that satisfies the mind’s hope for perfection, form that gratifies the spirit—and it allows us to witness spiritual presence.
Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter,…and Spring, like Father and Son, is a film that treats the life of the spirit, a life that is constant and usually imperceptible, as fundamental: as do Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind by Michel Gondry (and Charlie Kaufman), His Brother (Son Frere) by Patrice Chereau (and Anne-Louise Trividic), and The Mother by Roger Michell (and Hanif Kureishi), films that explore ambiguity, conflict, and the difficulty of love. I see such films in the same way that I listen to Caetano Veloso (A Foreign Sound; Best Of) and Patti Smith (Trampin’), read George Yancy’s African-American Philosophers and Edward Said’s Reflections on Exile, or walk in Manhattan’s Conservatory Garden or Queens’ Forest Park: charmed, full of new reflections, impassioned, as they remind me that something else exists. I might have questions about Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter,…and Spring, wondering about who the other visitors to the monastery might have been, and the little that is revealed about the young woman who becomes involved with the young monk and is later killed—is she used simply as a device to demonstrate his character?—and I might have reservations about the supernatural power of the old monk, about its existence and discreet use; but those questions were not foremost while seeing the film. Those are questions, and films like Spring, Summer, and Eternal Sunshine, His Brother, The Mother, and Father and Son are the kinds of films, that are likely to come to mind in private moments, possibly late at night, as I think about various things—what I’m going to do with the rest of my life, whether I can get a favorite pair of shoes resoled for an affordable price, American politics, a favorite Afghan or Thai restaurant I haven’t visited in a while, my preference for Chekhov over August Wilson, things I think about idly, or deeply, as I read and listen to music, Joni Mitchell, Nina Simone, and: “Everything must change, nothing stays the same. Everyone will change, no one stays the same. The young become the old, mysteries do unfold, for that’s the way of time—nothing and no one goes unchanged...Rain comes from the clouds, sun lights up the sky, hummingbirds do fly. Winter turns to spring, a wounded heart will heal, but never much too soon...There are not many things in life you can be sure of, except rain comes from the clouds, sun lights up the sky...,” the Bernard Ighner song that Randy Crawford sings on her Best Of album, released by Warner Bros. Records, 1996. Some works become part of one’s own thinking, one’s own being.
The Epic of Gilgamesh, Plato’s Lysis, and Montaigne’s “Of Friendship” were texts that gave me a refined language that matched a dream of male friendship, though time showed me that it is not wanting, willing, or working that would make the dream come true. I was a boy who grew up sometimes mystified by the purpose of men, whereas I could see that women talked and made sense of the world, responded to anger and tears, cooked, cleaned, sewed, planted gardens, harvested crops, and worked in factories, stores, and offices. I could see some of the things men did, such as bringing home paychecks, fixing cars, playing sports, helping to build homes, and causing trouble for women and children, but men seemed less available, less important, than women. Although women could be just as destructive as men, they seemed to offer more to balance the danger they brought. My stepfather was sometimes kind, sometimes seething; and my father was thousands of miles away, useless then and useless later. Uncles were pleasant visitors, but visitors they were, and my grandfather was a genial trickster, and sometimes one needs seriousness. None of these men were mentors; and no man would ever be one to me. I was a boy who grew stranger as I grew older (many things are transformative: aloneness, intelligence, pain, talent). I recall seeing movies such as Jason and the Argonauts, Fail Safe, and Some Like It Hot on television when young, and movies, television, music, and books were formative influences. I befriended an exemplary student, a southern (white) Christian, when in high school, as intelligence was what I wanted to develop and that friendship was, at least a little, a way of liking myself through someone else. In college I met an African-American interested in eastern philosophy, a fact that recommended him to me, as did his interest in sociology, literature, music and film, and his amusement at foolishness. He would give me a Freedomways journal issue on Lorraine Hansberry, a writer I admired, and later a poster featuring black Buddhist statues (I think these statues were located in southern India). While working for a magazine, I met a Canadian Jewish man, interested in writing essays and fiction, and five years younger than me—we saw Silence of the Lambs together and spent hours talking about it; and we organized a writing workshop together; and years later he told me that I’d been a mentor to him. I was becoming friends with a Ohio-born political scientist, someone with a direct and funny honesty, but while going through a rather trying time, I gave him as well as a couple of other people copies of manuscripts (I didn’t tell him that if I didn’t survive, I wanted the manuscripts to survive me)—and he told me that in preparation for his parents’ visit he threw the manuscripts out with other things. I have not seen any of these men in years. More recently I have not been able to see, despite my invitations, someone—decent, smart, hardworking—who calls himself a friend. The five people I have described are all admirable people, people I liked very much; and these are all failed friendships, failures for which I could blame time, distance, temperamental differences, and misunderstandings. Winter turns to spring, a wounded heart will heal, but never much too soon. I find myself wondering, though, about the purpose of men; and films such as Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter,…and Spring, and Father and Son suggest something else exists—or can be imagined to exist.
“I am interested only in classical form and content. In the professional world, much of the art has been utterly forgotten and therefore my conduct is sometimes seen as radical, but it’s simply that I remember a lot.”
—Alexander Sokurov, in an interview that appeared on Wellspring.com
“I am prepared to believe that it is more difficult for Russians to accept the severance of ties than for anyone else.”
—Joseph Brodsky, “In a Room and a Half,” Less Than One
“Our only grounds for supposing something to be logically possible are that we can make sense of it; we can spell out what it would be like for it to be true. Our only grounds for supposing something to be logically impossible are that we can derive a contradiction from it.”
—Richard Swinburne, “Nature and Immortality of the Soul,” Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy
A young man asks his muscular father to carry him on his shoulders, and though the father tells him he is no longer a child, he carries him, in Russian director Alexander Sokurov’s carefully composed film Father and Son, a scene that demonstrates that boys can be indulgently loved by their fathers beyond childhood; and this image, one man carried by another, has been used for the film’s poster in the United States. The Russian poet Joseph Brodsky wrote in an essay of memory, “In a Room and a Half,” that each child craves mastery and maturity, a life away from home, and after they achieve their independence they realize how fragile and warm home was, how vulnerable to nature and time, and that “if there ever was anything real in his life, it was precisely that nest, oppressive and suffocating, from which he so sadly wanted to flee. Because it was built by others, by those who gave him life, and not by him, who knows only too well the true worth of his own labor, who, as it were, just uses the given life.” (471-472) Father and Son is about a fragile and warm home, one the son hesitates to leave. Father and Son is suffused with a pale, golden light, something that could give it an evocation of melancholy and memory, but though the film’s purpose is undeniably serious I found it restorative. The film’s screenplay is by Sergey Potepalov, the cinematographer is Aleksandr Burov, with production design by Natalya Kochergina, and the film editor is Sergey Ivanov, and music was composed by Andrey Sigle based on Tchaikovsky. Men can choose each other with love and in strength, according to Alexander Sokurov’s Father and Son, a film that has a subject, the relationship between a father and son, which is not unusual though its treatment is. The two men have achieved an intimacy that can be described as ideal, suffocating, or strange. The two men look at each other intensely, touch each other easily, and speak their most genuine concerns; and they use intuition, and understand each other. A young woman, and a male neighbor, engage the son but do not successfully compete with the father’s place in the son’s life.
The film begins with anguished breathing, which we hear during the credits, before we see one set of hands holding another set of hands down and hear a man saying, “Easy, easy. It’s over.” A young man, still grappling, with his mouth open for a moment in a screen-wide yawn, is being comforted by his father after a nightmare. (That yawn reminded me first of a baby’s bawling, of birth, then of a dark cavernous opening akin to death.) The men are wearing little clothes, and the impression is one of nudity; and, as has been traditional in much western art, being naked signifies trust, lack of falsity, imminent communion—wholeness, a spiritual presence. “You saved me,” says the young man, the son, who dreamed himself in some kind of trouble. (He thinks the people in his dream—enemy combatants? or the rest of the world? or those who resent his relationship with his father?—would have killed him had his father not wakened him.) His father is about forty years old, possibly a little older. “I love you,” says the son, whom the father comforts as if he were much younger. The comforting father is played by Andrey Schetinin, and the son by Aleksey Neymyshev. (The actors’ names also have been spelled Andrei Schetinin and Alexei Neimyshev elsewhere.) The son describes part of his dream, seeing himself outside and alone, amid raindrops, though we do get a glimpse of someone who looks like his father in the dream.
The son is getting a medical education as part of his training as a soldier, which his father had been also until an injury to his lung ended his military career. The father’s wife, the boy’s mother, has died years before; and he remembers her through his son.
Near the son’s military institution, we see women watching the soldiers, shyly, giggling. The son is in his second year of training, and his father waits outside the base for him, within movements of light and shadow; and the father asks another soldier to tell his son that he is there. When the son comes out, he greets his father, and soon after the young man’s girlfriend arrives. The girlfriend watches the two men from near a window. The son’s comrades are also watchers, and it’s not always clear if they’re watching father and son, or the girl, or both. (The angles in the film provide this ambiguity; and help give the film a distinct rhythm.) The son, called Alexei, notes his father’s smile but tells him that he doesn’t look well, then says he saw his father’s x-rays and there are no spots on his lungs (no sign of injury, or disease). Soon after the son goes to talk to his girlfriend, with a window between them, and they move from left to right and right to left, in flirtation, in defiance of the window’s barrier; and she says that he is afraid his father thinks he’s a bother and takes his father’s side. The son asks, “Why can’t I love you both?” The girlfriend admits that she has found an older lover, which her boyfriend takes calmly, asking if “it,” indicating sex, is different—she says, Yes, as the man is older, and that women are always older than men, which seems a suggestion of female depth and erotic imagination. There are a lot of close-ups—faces, and eyes. After the young woman leaves, the son goes back to his military practice, a kind of boxing, that seems to involve a few wrestling moves, something the father watches for a time before going home. It is easy to imagine the father was simply lonely to see his son, possibly worried about Alexei after his nightmare, and was relieved to see that all was well, and that he also felt a little foolish about his concern.
When the son, Alexei, arrives home later, he carries in his bag clothes to be washed, and then does lifting exercises, at which point his father hears him and comes out. The son is not hungry, as he’s eaten; and he goes into another room and looks at his father’s x-ray. The father follows and says, “What’s that?” “Your portrait,” answers the son. “It’s for scaring children,” says the father, of his skeletal image. “You’re not hiding behind clothes, or your muscles,” the son says. “Muscles are an exaggeration,” agrees the father. The father suggests his son change his clothes, taking off the green camouflage military dress (does the father want a clear division between who his son is in public and who he is in private?). “You’re the beautiful one,” says the son, who plays with a large ball as they talk. The son compares his father to a tree, and says his father has legs like roots and a chest like a trunk. Andrey Schetinin, who plays the father, is handsome and agile; and he reminds me a little of Rudolf Nureyev in his prime, beautiful without being pretty, and looking complete, as if he had given birth to himself. The son, blond, is slim, attractive and even impressive but not entirely formed yet. The two are briefly interrupted by a neighbor, Sasha. Tchaikovsky is on the radio. The two men, father and son, look at each other in silence; and in that silence, that looking and waiting, is a tension, but it is a kind of dramatic tension we rarely see in cinematic domestic situations unless there is the possibility of sex or violence. It is a silence filled with perception and possibility. The two men, father and son, stand facing each other, and the son touches his father’s face, then his own, and comments on how different they are. “You’re next in line, I’m behind you,” says the father, indicating that the son’s life is the future while the father is becoming part of the past. “That’s your answer to all my questions?” asks the son. “Some questions have no answers,” says the father. The son says that he read the commentary of saints in which they say that “a father’s love crucifies, a loving son allows himself to be crucified.”
The father tells his son to change his clothes again, before going to his own room and bed, where he continues to look in his son’s direction. The things in their apartment look old, including the radio and telephone and sewing machine. The father takes out a stash of photographs of his own friend, Kolya, a soldier who is now missing, a soldier who privately vowed to kill the man who sent him and his comrades on a mission in which all but he was killed. The father thinks that despite the photographs he is beginning to forget Kolya’s face—no doubt, his animated face, his face in different moments and moods. The son, his eyes closed, calls out for his father (was this why the father had been looking in his direction, in anticipation of another bad dream?); and the son, beginning to stand with his eyes still closed, apparently sleepwalking, asks, “Where’s Mom?” The son admits that he had a dream in which he almost killed his father. His father tells him to whisper his trouble to water; and the son goes to the sink and runs water to do so, in the hope his worry will rush away like the water. “Your dreams are getting out of hand,” says the father.
“How old were you when I was born?” asks the son. (Is this a question a young man would ask, or a much younger boy?) “Twenty. Almost twenty,” answers the father. “You argued with her?” says the father, alluding to the son’s girlfriend. (Is that why the son dreamt he almost killed his father, feeling he had to choose between the two?) The father and son look at each other, and the father says, “I want you to be happy.” The son asks, “What are you thinking—that I’ll be happy if you leave?” The two men hug. There’s a brief scene—a dream—with the two outside in a grassy area, as in the son’s other dreams, and the father and son are in uniform, with the son first, the father following. And next we see an early morning with the father outside, exercising with a weight. The door rings, and Alexei interrupts his shower to tell the father. The father answers the door, and it is Kolya’s son, who has been searching for his own father and wondering why his father disappeared. Kolya’s son sits near a wall of black-and-white photos; and we see a radiant blond child in many of them, presumably Alexei. There’s also a photograph of a woman who may be Alexei’s mother. Kolya’s son says that his father told him that he became another man after the war, and that’s why Kolya and his wife, the young man’s mother, divorced. (I almost wrote the boy instead of the young man, and that’s because of the dependence the young men have on their fathers; it keeps them young, somewhat immature.) Kolya’s son wonders if his father, who disappeared the previous winter, killed himself or someone else. Andrey Schetinin as Alexei’s father introduces the two young men to each other; and after Kolya’s son asks about why Alexei’s father (who is only referred to as Dad, by Alexei, in the English subtitles) has left the military, the son of the house takes him into another room and says he doesn’t want his father bothered by the inquiries.
Alexei’s father has returned from war and seems alone and anxious but for his son, their neighbor Sasha, and the visitor, Kolya’s son. His wife is gone, presumably dead; and he values his son more because of the terror of war (fatality) and his own aloneness. Alexei tells the visitor that his father had a lung wound, and pushes the x-ray into the other young man’s face. Alexei goes out on the wooden bridge between apartments, a bridge that connects Sasha’s apartment with the father and son’s apartment in two different buildings. (A man watches Alexei do this—is that man Kolya?) Kolya’s son goes out on the bridge too. “Are you afraid?” asks Alexei. “Nothing compares to my father’s disappearance,” says Kolya’s son. Alexei’s father, who is very upset to see them out on the bridge, from which they could easily fall, makes them come back inside the apartment and hits Alexei; and there is a fight: the fight, a father’s attempt to exert control also exemplifies his ultimate lack of control, and I think it’s then the father says, Nothing will come from nothing, which seems to curse both his son and himself.
Alexei makes an appointment to meet Kolya’s son later; and Alexei goes out on the roof where his father is. Alexei guesses that his father knows something he is not telling about Kolya; and the father admits Kolya’s intention to kill a commander. The father and son play ball, to the consternation of a neighbor. When Alexei and Kolya’s son meet, they walk and talk; and there’s an airplane overhead—one of the few signs of contemporary life. They get on a streetcar, and Alexei puts his arm around Kolya’s son, who admits that his father had given him an apartment key he never used, never suspecting that just as he needed his father, his father also needed him. (Kolya drank when he came back from the war, and his wife put him out of the house, something Alexei finds hard to understand.) Kolya’s son says to Alexei, “It’s a strange city. Where are you taking me? Somewhere in the past.”
One scene on their town tour looks like a watery impression, as if it were filmed from a reflective mirror with an unusual lens (a technique Sokurov’s reported to have used before), as if the real is becoming memory or dream.
The two young men can see the town from a hillside; their walk together has brought them to this perspective, a view from above, possibly a god-like height. Alexei says something like, “The father is always alone, but he survives everyone.” (Is he talking about an ideal father—or a deity?) Kolya’s son says, “Those aren’t your words, or your ideas.”
Alexei, after inviting Kolya’s son to visit him and his father again, goes to see his girlfriend. He’s missed her and he’s curious about her other and older man; (from the street, he looks up at her as she stands on a balcony) and he tells her he had many dreams the night before, including one in which they had a son together. She says she is surprised that he would dream of a baby as he was also so careful when they made love that she would not become pregnant. He asks for the chain she’s wearing, and she gives it, but when he says that a father’s love crucifies and a loving son accepts this, she asks for it back, calling him a poor crucified boy. When he leaves, she looks sad; and she says, “You’re not brothers,” remarking on the lack of a generation gap of understanding between father and son. (Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons involved such a gap in understanding and purpose, though the fathers and sons loved each other.) The son goes home, and out onto the roof and asks his father to come out with him. The son says the girl has said that the two men have built a fortress for themselves that no one else can enter. (Did she say that? We did not hear it—is the son describing something she said, possibly at another time, or is he expressing his own thinking? The son claims, unbelievably, that he is already beginning to forget the young woman; and that one day he won’t even recognize her.) The son tells the father that the father won’t be alone, that the father will get married—which means he accepts that his father’s life, not only his own, will continue if and when they part. The father thanks him for saying that. Sasha comes by and Alexei introduces the two of them as if they had never met, and Alexei says that he loves his father very much, tears on Alexei’s face. (Sasha wants to live with the two of them; he asks Alexei to “take me into your home,” but Alexei says being a neighbor is being close, and Alexei rejects the idea of Sasha living with them.)
The father puts on a jacket to go out for a walk. (Is he going out to make friends, to find a woman?) The son says that something inside hurts (he is insistent; is he not willing to give up his father just yet? or is he now overwhelmed by the earlier breakup with his girlfriend?); and the father comes back inside. They talk a little about the young man’s pain, then lie down on their different beds. The father listens for his son’s disturbance in sleep, but the son’s sleep seems quiet—and we see the outdoor scene that has appeared in the son’s dream before, only now no one is there. That seems one dream, the son’s dream. It seems next that it is the father who dreams (unless the son has become the father in his own dream)—and that the father dreams that he is alone, on the roof, as it snows, cold. It may be that after losing his girlfriend and accepting the pain of it, the son has found peace; and that the father, blessed by his son’s love and prophecy that the father will one day marry again, can accept being alone, even if it means a period of coldness. The film begins and ends with a dream, the first a dream of fear and the last a dream of acceptance.
Decades ago Virginia Woolf, who knew the work of Chekhov, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and others, observed that the Russian personality combined the simple and the subtle, and noted that Russian writers turned to the subject of suffering not in amusement or intellectual curiosity but in sympathy, and create a sense of spirituality, that they believe in the existence of the soul, and that the work of those writers suggests that it is suffering that makes men brothers. Suffering as bond, it seems to me, can mean that each person fears a change in his condition or that of the other as change will affect the relationship, calling into question whether suffering is a state of soul, society, nature, or a just reward for faulty efforts—and so suffering is perpetuated. In Father and Son, a film its director, himself the son of a soldier, has said was partly inspired by 19th century Russian and European literature, it is not suffering but joy and love that connect; and there is still a suggestion of Russian soul.
“Soul” has been identified with perfect form, and with idea, essence, energy, spirit, fundamental personality, and ghost; and it may be less bound to daily changes than the body. “Plato thought of it as a thing separate from the body,” but soul and body are thought to affect each other (substance dualism), says the beginning of Richard Swinburne’s entry on the subject in the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Aristotle thought soul was a living thing’s form, its way of being in the world. Kant thought that a concern for moral perfection was rooted in the soul’s supposed immortality. How would I define soul? I would define soul as feeling so intense, so significant, it transforms vision, voice, and gesture; as an amalgam of the things we are—emotions and mind and energy; as both experience and the aura of experience; as a metaphor for that faculty of being and transformation. The Russian soul is perceived as witness to the ridiculous and the wildly wounding, as witness to wealth and poverty in the history of Russia, a vast land of extreme temperatures peopled by aristocrats and peasants, high level bureaucrats and workers, given to contemplation, worry, and mysticism, and associated with an indulgence in vodka (and recent rumor has it that the Russian soul can be entertained by rock music, pornography, and black market luxuries).
Father and Son is one of several recent Russian films on the familial relations between males, such as Boris Khlebnikov and Alexei Popogrebsky’s Koktebel and Andrei Zvyagintsev’s The Return. Western mainstream films are more likely to be about quests for money, power, and women. Although we regularly see male lust in other films onscreen, we rarely see male love: we rarely see a constancy of care and intensity, even between men who are relatives or long-time friends. I think Sokurov asked himself, Why shouldn’t men say exactly what they mean to say—or need to say—to each other?—and had father and son do exactly that.
Alexander Sokurov, who was born in 1951, and whose work in the 1970s and 1980s included both feature films and documentaries, sometimes about economic and political subjects, and subject to censorship, is now known for films about themes that are considered timeless: death, in The Second Circle (1990), Stone (1992), Russian Elegy (1993); war, in Spiritual Voices: From the Diaries of War (1995); nature, in Oriental Elegy (1996); and family, in Mother and Son (1997). His admirers have included Andrei Tarkovsky, Martin Scorsese, Paul Schrader, Susan Sontag, and Nick Cave. (Sokurov has made films also about Hitler and Lenin that are considered idiosyncratic, and politically questionable.) Sokurov’s Russian Ark (2002), a survey of culture and history, presented as a tour of The Hermitage recorded in a single shot, a single breath, was the work that brought him much fame and popularity; and it is a work Sokurov has described as his collaboration with time.
Sokurov is dedicated to fulfilling his sense of what film should be, and is concerned with the look of his film image and the spiritual and ethical content of his films. He said in a wonderfully revealing interview with Lauren Sedofsky in November 2001’s Artforum, “Plane Songs,” which I discovered weeks after seeing Father and Son for the second time, that “If film as art exists, then the real problem resides in optics. The camera lens is an immense reproach to the film director. It points to the dubious nature of the artistic result and, really, the very process of filmmaking. The picture created by an optical device possesses a high degree of objectivity; at the same time, it’s monstrously subjective. This conflict is a real tragedy for film. Aesthetics comes down to seeing a good-looking picture on the screen. This beauty, however, has been created essentially by neither the director nor the cameraman but rather by the frozen liquid of optical glass. I’ve spent a long time familiarizing myself with this process, getting inside it, in order to find my own way of freeing myself from it. It was necessary to define the artistic hierarchy in the visual work and to decide, ultimately, that my model would be painting. The point of convergence with film was clear: the picture plane. Strictly speaking, the surface of the screen and that of the canvas are one and the same.”
When Father and Son was presented at the 2003 Cannes film festival, Sokurov was reported at a festival press conference to have said, “With Father and Son, we didn’t want the setting to be attached to any specific time or place. What really matters in the movie are the eternal bonds that exist between the characters. These are blood bonds, the most human of all bonds, the most delicate, bonds whose consequences are usually irreversible. We are tormented by these ideas. We have a debt towards our parents. It’s a huge responsibility.” Journalists asked him about what they perceived as the homoeroticism of the film, and he said, “European society has reached a blind alley, and that can explain why people tend to think that. In Russia, that isn’t something that would come to mind. I want father/son and mother/son relationships to stay as warm and natural as possible. For me, a son will always be his father’s child, even when he’s grown up.” (Quotes are from the official Cannes festival web site, at festival-cannes.fr)
The attention the father and son give each other—open, lingering gazes—and touching—is not the way western men commonly behave; and the acting in Father and Son on first viewing does not seem naturalistic but instead stylized, obviously modulated, almost theatrical in its expressiveness (it seemed less stagy to me upon second viewing). We think of men as active—so the question is, What will men do? This, too, lends a sense of possibility to the proceedings. Will they do more than perceive, feel, and think? Will they do more than love each other? “Everything about you is important,” the father says to his son.
The most understanding commentary I’ve read thus far of the film and its portrayal of father and son was by John Anderson in his June 17, 2004 review in New York’s Newsday, though he was also aware of the unique viewpoint of father and son in the film and how that might affect reception of the film: “They care for very little but each other. Their hearts are laid open. What we see is fulfillment of the Christian ideal—which is why the film, gold-hued and iconic, seems so terribly unreal,” and “A more naked movie than Father and Son is hard to imagine and would be impossible to watch.”
The reviews of Armond White in New York Press and A.O. Scott in The New York Times also seemed sensitive to the film’s content and worth, but also indicate that it is hard to see the film without seeing sexuality. “The male-male relationship is political, familial, erotic, philosophical, cosmic, satirical, holy,” White published in the June 30-July 6, 2004 New York Press. “Gender and soul (the latter a specialty of Russian cinema from the silent master Dovzhenko to Andrei Tarkovsky) are combined on an exalted plane,” White declared. He also wrote, “Set in an unspecified time and place, Father and Son’s enigmas are intriguing due to the consistency of Sokurov’s khaki/flesh/earth-coordinated imagery. With cinematographer Alexander Burov, he offers a spellbinding spectrum of brown, beige, rust, green, gray and pink. They work in the tradition of Sergei Eisenstein’s sinewy male portraits (Battleship Potemkin, Que Viva Mexico)—one of the great sexual quandaries of film history—but use a soft, muted palette rather than Eisenstein’s personally ecstatic radiance. This is the key to unlocking Sokurov’s link of highly physicalized naturalism and spirituality. The real world isn’t transformed; rather, the interchanges between the preternaturally handsome Ne[y]myshev and Schetinin are abstracted into pantomime and secret conversation. Life’s numinous qualities are unveiled.”
About Father and Son, in the June 18, 2004 New York Times A.O. Scott wrote, “Its images and emotions are vivid, disquieting and also hermetic, and while it may frustrate your desire for clear storytelling and psychological transparency, it has an intensity that surpasses understanding.” Scott writes about the central characters, “Their relationship is inflected with a virile tenderness that makes them seem more like comrades or lovers than parent and child,” and concludes his review with, “In the literature of the West, fathers and sons push one another toward tragedy. In its place, Father and Son offers romance.”
“Romance,” like eroticism, represents a dominant value in relationships in our time. Rather than romance or eroticism understood in contemporary terms, the film may provide a new model of language, image, and love, a new myth. However, in the June 16-22, 2004 Village Voice J. Hoberman described the film as featuring “a wildly eroticized filial relationship,” and, while appreciating the film’s technique (“amazingly staged, inventively edited, and rich in audio layering, with camera placements that sometimes verge on the Brakhagian”), Hoberman said the film “borders on the risible.” Risible: laughable, ludicrous. On the web site of KinoKultura, which covers new Russian cinema, Birgit Beumers (in Bristol) last year wrote, “Visually, the film contradicts Sokurov’s statements: the relationship between father and son is homoerotic, but there are also homosexual overtones in the relationship between the father and the other boys who visit.” I find this assertion questionable, especially as she offers no specific evidence for it. Almost any display of strong feeling between men in our time is haunted by the suspicion of homosexuality and the threat of emasculation, of becoming feminine. Only queer men are expected to declare love for another man in a way that acknowledges the importance of that love; and thus—if two people are close, people often look for or project the presence of sexual desire. But in Father and Son, I see not sexual desire, though there is affection and physical expressiveness, a pleasure in each other’s presence, between father and son—and neither father and son are particularly suspicious of or hostile to other men, but who do they befriend but a neighbor, and the son of the father’s military buddy? However, beyond the intimacy of the father and son and their mundane friendships, I would argue that the angles Sokurov uses give his screen a flat surface, so that a man lying on a bed can look as if he’s standing against a wall—and, while iconic, this can reduce the film’s visual dimensionality (and possibly also its psychological dimensionality: one might see form and gesture more than feeling or motive, so the physical intimacy resonates for some viewers more than the emotional intimacy). I had thought of all that before locating the November 2001 Artforum interview in which Sokurov says, “The question is whether we need a three-dimensional space at all. The development of pictorial art reposes on the artist’s understanding of the flat surface as a canon, an objective reality that should not be fought. Filmmakers treat it as a void that has to be filled—an absolutely ridiculous practice. If you accept this canon, however, it leads to a system of restrictions that allow you to concentrate on the main matter, the moral dimension. Since camera lenses are generally designed specifically to create the impression of volume, we have had two developed in Russia specially for our films. They reverse traditional illusionistic volume and emphasize the illusion of a plane. These are the first steps, but we still have a long way to go before we have significant artistic resources for the flat film image.” Now that I have discovered that interview I find myself wondering why someone who covers Russian film is unaware of the director’s important and relevant ideas.
Kim Ki-Duk, who likes the paintings of Klimt and Schiele, remarked on his own preference for a certain kind of flat imagery in the Jung Seong-Il Screening the Past interview, regarding his film Bad Guy, “I like filming my characters with straight angles as though they were posing for a portrait. Many of the scenes were framed like still photographs capturing a moment. This portrait-like quality of the beginning scene implied a family photo atmosphere. I also like framing characters in wide shots in order to show their whole bodies. This often creates a lot of headroom and negative space around the characters. Thus, creating flat scenes helps me establish a kind of equality between the characters.”
(One imagines that one of Sokurov’s influences may be the Byzantium mosaic and fresco tradition from which came the painting of saints and religious scenes—icon painting—intended to inspire spiritual contemplation, a form of painting Russia is known for. Many of the icon paintings seem to be both portraits and dramatic scenes. I do not have complete knowledge, nor do I expect it of others, but the lack of it indicates why a criticism of understanding and praise regarding art is more useful than a criticism of denunciation. The KinoKultura writer also says that Sokurov’s appreciation of 19th European literature contradicts his noting of 20th century European decadence, suggesting she’s unaware of the changes that have occurred with time in culture—and that Sokurov intends his Father and Son to reflect specific cultural values, such as reverence for parents. Who would have thought that writer, Beumers, had edited an anthology, Russia on Reels: The Russian Idea in Post-Soviet Cinema, that seems attractive, readable, intelligent and useful—and includes a chapter on Sokurov and his work’s relationship to painting?)
“Homoeroticism remains prevalent throughout the movie and there’s no question that Father and Son is a love story, even if its characters’ sexual desire goes sublimated or unexpressed,” wrote Steve Erickson in his film review in the June 17-23, 2004 Gay City News. (How unexpressed? The father was married to a woman he loved, they gave birth to a son, who has been making love with a young woman.) Erickson also wrote, more observantly, “For a film that places so much emphasis on the military, Father and Son is strangely apolitical. The war in which the father fought must have been the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, yet this is never made clear. There are no references to contemporary culture or politics. Tchaikovsky dominates the soundtrack. Shot in St. Petersburg and Lisbon, the two cities seamlessly blend together. Ultimately, Sokurov’s approach amounts to an evasiveness that suggests that a literal interpretation of the story is too reductive.” Someone might assert that a man who knows his friend intends to kill a military leader and does not report it to officials has made a political decision; and that when he tells his son about this plan and the young man does not seem concerned, a political decision is also implicit: the personal is more important than the political. This may suggest that the government only inspires limited loyalty. E.M. Forster once said that given the choice between betraying his country or his friend, he hoped he would betray his country.
(In a Moscow News interview with Sokurov viewed online July 21, 2004, Sokurov said, “The impact of political factors and motives is exaggerated while human motives are underestimated or even simply ignored, which is very typical of our contemporary life.” Preceding this he had said, “It is important to understand that everything that is happening in private life or in society or in a country or on a whole continent is the result of people’s action or inaction. There can be no question of any mysticism or external intervention. Wherever people fight aggression, ethnic intolerance, and Nazism, results are there for all to see. Where none of this is being done, things are getting worse and worse.”)
The St. Petersburg Times published, in a September 26, 2003 article by Tom Birchenough, this comparison between Father and Son and some of Sokurov’s previous films: “Lacking the technical genius of his Russky Kovcheg (Russian Ark) or the stronger emotional currents of his earlier Mat i Syn (Mother and Son), it is set in an unnamed city (using Lisbon exteriors). Its central relationship—even disregarding the homoerotic themes that many Russian and foreign critics saw despite the director’s protests—is equally remote.” Obviously, I do not find the film’s technique lacking, though it is important to ask to what extent Sokurov’s technique serves the particular story he has to tell, nor do I find its central relationship remote. I suspect that it’s hard for some viewers to recognize or value something that they do not see in their own lives, such as experimenting with tradition or tenderness between men, and which they do not see often in film.
Robert Bly, a deep image poet, seeing the poverty of models offered men in society, used literature, mythology, and ritual to call men to a renewal of strength and sensitivity (Iron John, 1990, The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart, 1992), encouraging men to value ties with their fathers and other men, and in The Maiden King (1998), written with Marion Woodman, he used Russian myth as part of this work. The more feminist men’s movement associated with Changing Men magazine, and Michael Kimmel (who edited with Tom Mosmiller Against the Tide: Pro-Feminist Men in the United States, 1776-1990, a Documentary History, 1992), and John Stoltenberg (Refusing to Be a Man: Essays on Sex and Justice, 1999), offered social critique and progressive attitudes that never became very popular, though some male styles have changed, becoming more androgynous (sensitive and sensual), as a July 1, 2004 New York Times article by Sharon Waxman on representative matinee idols, such as Johnny Depp, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Tobey Maguire, attests.
Tenderness between men does not always indicate homoeroticism or homosexuality; but as homosexuality has been invoked in the reception of this film, it must be addressed. It is becoming less arguable, that is—more obvious, that two men who want to have a relationship together should be able to do so without social or legal obstruction. Andre Gide argued decades ago in Corydon that societies that had made a place for homosexuality corresponded with high points in western civilization, naming the ancient Greeks, the Renaissance, the England of Shakespeare, and that without homosexuals there would be no civilization. Conversely, more recently, others, such as Johann Hari (Attitude, July 2004), have written about the connection of homosexuals with fascist movements—there are very significant connections. (The “Kids in the Hall” satirist Scott Thompson, in a July 7, 2004 interview in The Onion, described the gay community as “an immature community, and immature communities don’t like the truth. When a community is trying to get accepted by the mainstream, they don’t like people inside that group to show the ugliness, to lift up the rocks and show the worms underneath.”) Whole histories have been written in the last three decades alone about gender and sexuality. Despite the example of laudatory work by Michel Foucault, Jeffrey Weeks, and Dennis Altman, usefully provocative work such as Margorie Garber’s Vice Versa: Bisexuality and Eroticism in Everyday Life and Bert Archer’s The End of Gay and the Death of Heterosexuality, and recent well-researched and mature works like Louis Crompton’s Homosexuality and Civilization, much of the work on male sexuality reads like detective stories told in a salacious tone, seeded with inept academic jargon, concluding with a criminal conviction. Sexuality is influenced by both social goals and taboos but remains personal, if not always private. In spiritual terms, the pursuit of any form of sexuality is not likely to lead to personal peace; and sexual satisfactions are short-lived. However, the male body has been eroticized increasingly in the last twenty to thirty years, partly in response to the changes in values, discourse, and behavior brought about by the social movements for the rights of women and gays. That eroticism has been taken up not only in the arts, such as film and theater, but by the advertising industry: naked and nearly naked men are used to sell cologne, health products, and even clothing. There have been very good films about men in love or in lust (My Beautiful Laundrette, Happy Together, Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train, and Yossi and Jagger); and I would have enjoyed a well-made film by any good director on those subjects, and I could have accepted a father and son incest story (as I did accept a brother-sister incest story in Angels and Insects), but I don’t think any of that is the subject of Father and Son.
It seems to me that more fundamental than sex are perception and spirit; and that the director of Father and Son, Alexander Sokurov, is very consciously emphasizing perception—the looks between the characters, the change in their expressions, their voiced insights are matters of perception, and perception of a primary relationship. The philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty wrote decades ago in “The Film and the New Psychology” (Sense and Non-Sense) that “Perception is not a sort of beginning science, an elementary exercise of the intelligence; we must rediscover a commerce with the world and a presence to the world which is older than intelligence.” (52) Merleau-Ponty described how the meaning of a shot depends on what precedes it; and how an image or scene can be read will depend on context. What occurs in Father and Son from beginning to end is an intimacy of mind and spirit between father and son and preparation for separation between the two—not incestuous sex. To read more into it, is to impose a foreign element. (J. Hoberman wrote that Father and Son comes straight from the artist’s unconscious, but when CultureDose.net’s Dan Callahan describes the opening scene and says the son’s mouth looks first like a vagina, then an anus, whose unconscious is being revealed?) This is not to deny that there is sensuality between father and son, but rather to deny there is sexuality between them. I have seen men kiss their babies and toddlers as if they would devour them, but I did not fear for the child’s bodies, psyches, or lives—I knew this was sheer pleasure in the existence of their children, pleasure in love. Why should children cease to be loved simply because they grow older? I suspect as well that the difficulty some reviewers had admitting that the men in the film are very attractive is one reason why they see the film as homoerotic—they would rather see the eroticism as located in the film rather than in their own eyes or loins. Other reviewers like the idea of almost anyone being queer—it makes homosexuals seems less of a minority. No doubt, the casting of a vibrant and youthful man as the father contributes to the sense of erotic possibility; and Andrey Schetinin, who plays the father, looks like a dream fuck—handsome, intense, joyous, expert, loving—but there are many sexy parents who do not have or want to have sex with their offspring, and usually their offspring do not desire sex with them. (The supposed implication of incest did not inspire distaste, sadness, or outrage in any of the reviewers I have read.) What would father and son incest mean—that they had become sexual perverts; or that they had found what many people want, a relationship that offers them everything, the nurturing of a parent, the support of a friend, and the sexual passion of a lover?
Why does it matter whether the relationship between the father and son is seen as homoerotic? Such a reading goes against the director’s intention, goes against what, in fact, his film is about; and by seeing this unintentional and dubious content the viewer is not paying enough attention to what the director actually placed in his film for viewing. Father and Son is an idealized loving relationship—but apparently not an ideal shared by all. Merleau-Ponty wrote “the joy of art lies in its showing how something takes on meaning” (57-58), but prejudices—not simply negative attitudes, but the residue of genuine past experiences and insights—can make it difficult to have new experiences and see new meanings.
Individuality—of experience, perspective, culture—is often given recognition, even respect, in words, but too often, when real world evidence of differences is presented, there is disbelief, disregard, and disturbance. Individuality is more talked about in the abstract than it is accepted in reality. Films are, of course, both an escape from reality and a way of facing aspects of reality in an orderly way. Father and Son offers a vision in which austerity is balanced with passion, and tradition is offset by an appeal to a general concern—family—that is not sentimental or vulgar. The moments when the son tells the father that he expects him to marry again, and that he loves him, frees the man to be more than a parent, frees him to live the rest of his life; and the father’s freedom frees the son: they can love each other without fear, guilt, obligation, worry; and they can choose to love others. The film doesn’t really remind me of any other; but when I think of the combination of rigor and feeling, a few other artists do come to mind: Eric Rohmer, Robert Bresson, Peter Greenaway, Kathleen Collins, Henry James, Adrienne Rich, and Barbra Streisand. In one of Joseph Brodsky’s essays in his book On Grief and Reason, Brodsky describes the creativity, detachment, imagination, and tolerance for difficult experience required of an artist—making it clear that a simple reading of his life or work is not likely to be a true one.
Rainer Rilke, whom the Moscow-born poet Marina Tsvetayeva called poetry itself, wrote “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” a poem in which meaning does not exhaust mystery, a poem that describes a piece of sculpture “suffused with brilliance from inside,” sculpture that is not only an object to be observed but that provides a view from which to observe (a view art provides: “for here there is no place/that does not see you”); and the poem ends, “You must change your life.”
The wonderful and terrible thing is that after our lives are lived, no matter the agony or ecstasy, value or waste, they will be for others nothing more than stories, allegories of experience.
Cho, Francisca. “The Art of Presence: Buddhism and Korean Films.” Representing Religion in World Cinema: Filmmaking, Mythmaking, Culture Making, edited by S. Brent Plate. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.
Craig, Edward. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. London: Routledge, 1998.
Brodsky, Joseph. Less Than One: Selected Essays. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1986.
Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Sense and Non-Sense. 1948. Translated with Preface by Hubert L. Dreyfus and Patricia Allen Dreyfus. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1964.
Nhat Hanh, Thich. The Heart of Buddha’s Teaching. 1998. New York: Broadway Books, 1999.
Rilke, Rainer Maria. The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke. Stephen Mitchell, editor and translator. 1982. New York: Vintage International, 1989.
Taylor, Richard and Nancy Wood, Julian Graffy, and Dina Iordanova. The BFI Companion to Eastern European and Russian Cinema. London: British Film Institute, 2000.
Daniel Garrett is a writer of journalism, fiction, poetry, and drama. He wrote for The Reporter, a student newspaper at Baruch College, publishing articles on poet Grace Schulman, a student strike at Medgar Evers College, and a march on Washington; and Garrett is a graduate of the New School for Social Research. His extensive “Notes” on culture and politics appeared on IdentityTheory.com, as did his essay on the inner life and social world in James Baldwin’s work—and The Compulsive Reader published his essay on Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room on its web site. Garrett’s experience of the 2003 New York City blackout, “A Simpler Chaos,” appeared onTechnologyReports.net’s “Blackout Tales” page. His essay on the singer (and band) Sade appeared on AllAboutJazz.com, and PopMatters.com published his piece on Annie Lennox. Daniel Garrett’s work has appeared in The African, AIM/America’s Intercultural Magazine, AltRap.com, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black American Literature Forum, Changing Men, The City Sun, Frictionmagazine.com, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse-Apprentice-Guild.com, Option, The Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, The St. Mark’s Poetry Project Newsletter, 24FramesPerSecond.com, UnlikelyStories.org, World Literature Today, and a few small book anthologies. His commentary on the films and music of Diana Ross has appeared on Offscreen.com, as have his essays on In The Cut, Yossi & Jagger, The Barbarian Invasions, Cold Mountain, Dirty Pretty Things, The Dreamers, Japanese Story, and other recent films.