Moscow – Winter in monochrome

Moscow winters tend to become very monochrome in every sense of the word. When you stare out of the window everything looks like a black and white Japanese painting, all misty swirls and opaque brushstrokes. Today is one such day.  The steam pouring out from the tall chimneys of  electric power stations around Moscow adds a misty mystery to the atmosphere as the vapour drifts in copious clouds across the horizon. I’m not sure what long periods of such conditions do to the human psyche – perhaps I’m better off not knowing, especially after fifteen years as a resident.
To go out in -10 with a freezing wind blowing billowing snow off the north east or where ever, is not a pleasant prospect and most sane people avoid it. So what to do. No problem. Firstly I am writing this new blog. This I hope will be an occasional series of pieces or chronicles about a film makers life in Moscow and occasionally just the life of a simple human being who happens to live in Moscow.
Generally however the perspective will be from film making because that is what I do – make films in Russia and from time to time in other places as well – Japan for instance in 2009. As yet I am not sure exactly what shape this blog will take and how the content will develop but it is likely to have a more personal tone with simple and maybe even mundane reflections. However as the artist and photographer Alexander Rodchenko once wrote. “Our task in photography is to make the extraordinary appear mundane and the mundane appear extraordinary”.  Such a philosophy can unearth unexpected and rich deposits of knowledge and insight. So taking this as my starting point, off we go.

"Faces of Moscow" Photographic exhibition in Moscow

The snow is starting to melt as the days become warmer here in Moscow. All day the “alpenists” have been nosily clearing snow and ice from the roof of our apartment block. A long day with not a great deal to show for itself in many ways although our Japanese lesson always makes us feel good. Learning Japanese through Russian is a unique experience but I prefer it. It keeps my language skills sharp. At the moment working hard on the editing for“Stanislavsky and Russian Theatre”. Its gradually coming together and hopefully I will hit the end of February deadline.
Yesterday visited a friends exhibition of photographs at the House of Journalist in Moscow. Slava Sachkov exhibited together with the photo journalist Sergie Shevtzov a series of photographs reflecting Russian life and people. Slava has photographed the portraits of many of Russia’s most influential cultural figures including Solzhenitzyn. We have worked together on various occasions and I am glad to say he was the camera operator on two of the films in the series about the Russian avant-garde –  “Mayakovsky” and “Meyerhold Theatre and the Russian Avant-garde” Therefore its a real pleasure to see his work exhibited at this major exhibition in Moscow. 
Below is a selection from the exhibition.
Poster for exhibition “Faces of Russia”



News about Copernicus Films work in progress

Its a long time since I have written anything here and I feel like I am letting people down and myself down so here is an update of what has been happening lately and what is likely to happen soon. Basically I have been continuing work on the two Japanese films in some earnest and have got them to a point where I will be able to go to the UK to record the voice overs. This will tie in with another project which I have been working on about Russian theatre. Its a completely new project which is taking up a great deal of time but I think it is worth it because it involves the collaboration of a well known acting college in London (More later). That will be coming up in April but at the moment I am still down to writing the script and researching the material. Arranging interviews is on the cards in the next few weeks or so. The film will require probably three interviews. I will also have to get some more archive material from the archive in Krasnogorsk which is a little way outside Moscow. It requires some tricky negotiation with the administration there but that’s another story. In addition to all of that there is continuous editing going on with the two Japanese films.(I hope to have titles sometime soon so I can stop calling them “the two Japanese films”. Talking about Japan, just to mention there was a superb conference this week for three days about Japanese culture and art here in Moscow. Eighteen speakers on a variety of subjects from mandalas, to contemporary Japanese art. Confirmed many of my researches and it added to my pool of knowledge about Japan.

What's been happening back in Moscow

Already a month since we have returned from Japan. The backlog of business was formidable even though I tried to deal with a much as I could while we were on the road in Japan. Reasonably successful dealing with most things but all the same the sheer volume of tasks was overwhelming once we arrived back in Moscow. I had made a conscious decision to try and hit the ground running and get straight back into editing as soon as possible and that more or less worked out. Just getting back into the rhythm of Moscow life is a task in itself but then I have plenty of experience.

Its time to really take stock of what was the outcome of the whole Japan trip. The first thing to say is that we achieved at least 95% of the goals we set our selves plus an extra 20% of other goals which were fulfilled through the chances and opportunities thrown up by simply being in Japan for such an extended period. Ultimately these things aren’t quantifiable in any meaningful sense but it gives some idea of scale. For instance after visiting Oshima with Akira Suzuki and meeting the curator of the Island Museum in memory of Gomo Kimuro we decided to interview both of them and the connections they have with the Island and its culture.I hadn’t really intended this, I really just wanted to look at the Island and film a bit especially as David Burliuk spent time there painting with his family. It unclear how to use this material but there are various possibilities which are worth pursuing.

As for the main task in hand, that is the two films about Japanese art which are in progress (One traditional one contemporary), the material which we have shot and coupled with the extensive research we were able to complete in Japan have broadened and given depth to a project which was already at a well developed stage. The situation as it stands now is that I have to extend the post production stage for a much longer period than I expected but in the long run it will be of over all benefit to the project.

At the moment its too early to reveal the substance of the films in question simply to say that they will concentrate on Japanese art seen from an unusual perspective and contemporary art in Japan. The films will be linked thematically so that from time to time there will be a seamless crossover from one film to the other but at the same time the two films will stand alone as separate entities and can be viewed as such. Editing is progressing at a slow but steady pace and unfortunately you can’t rush these things, its laborious,time consuming but rewarding. Time will tell.

The Avant-garde series is selling well in most outlets. The Pompidou centre in Paris ordered more discs and negotiating with Guggenheim about Kandinsky film.

Japan – Kyoto Filming

Arrived in Kyoto several days ago and have been working since our arrival. Shot a lot of footage already. 1000 tori gates of happiness, Arashiyama and a boat ride through mountain “rapids” down to Arashiyama, one of my favourite places in Kyoto. Some new footage but mostly picking up what I missed before and what has occurred to me after editing. One of the main advantages of our return is filling the gaps in my knowledge which I hope will make the script fuller and deeper.

These two films will be a completely new departure for Copernicus Films after recently completing the series “The Russian Avant-garde – Revolution or Renaissance”
However its fair to say that the two planned films are an offshot of the experience of the film David Burliuk and the Japanese Avant-garde

We have now returned to Tokyo after a week in Kyoto. Plenty of new material already which will work well in both films, although this is really only the start. I was particularly pleased with the Heian Shrine material of which I really didn’t have enough of. Taking a breather for a day while we settle into Tokyo. Apartment is quite good and we feel pretty comfortable with it – central and in the same area we lived in before so we know where everything is located. We will spend the next day or so relaxing, seeing friends and planning the next few weeks. Natasha has some things he needs to do as part of her own programme. We have a pretty good idea of what we want to do and what I want but it requires working out the finer details. Still trying to get into some kind of rhythm but that is just a question of time. Natasha as always giving full support and keeping a full photographic record of everything as well as getting on with her own business. This evening we will meet with Akira Suzuki who I interviewed for the David Burliuk film.

Tarkovsky and Time

Watching many films which use slow motion for effect gives rise to the question of time in film making. Tarkovsky seemed to be able to create time in his films, to slowdown time, speed up time and play with the concept of time in general exploring its dimensions character through the lens of the camera and its relationship to the speed of the film. Tarkovsky does use slow motion in his films but even then it is not noticeable as an effect or something which is artificially induced in the process of editing.

One example of this characteristic is particularly evident in the film Andrie Rublev. In the scene after the taking of Vladimir there is a lull in the action. A group of soldiers are battering down the door of the cathedral where the local population have taken refuge. The sound of the ramming is a set beat repeated over and over again. The two princes, Russian and Tartar are patiently waiting almost unconcerned with the proceedings sitting on their horses who also seem to be waiting patiently, resting so to speak. The repose of the riders and the horses contrasts with the rhythmic beat of the battering ram. The whole effect creates a sensation of two strands of time operating simultaneously. When the doors of the cathedral are finally breached, the two princes and soldiers burst through the open doors and the two time strands are united with their combined action, that is the entrance into the cathedral.

This episode marks the beginning of a kind of fall of civilisation and is followed, historically, by a period of desolation in Russia and to some extent, if I remember rightly it marks a period of desolation in Andrie Rublev’s artistic and spiritual state, which for Russian icon painters are one and the same thing. The spiritual and the artistic are combined in the activity of painting icons. This period of desolation ends in Russia and in the film and for Andrei Rublev, with the final scene of the tolling of a huge bell which has been cast by a young boy whose father, the master bell maker was killed in the preceding upheaval. The scene is fraught with tension as there is no guarantee that the bell will ring true as the secret of casting the bell may have been lost with the death of the boy’s father. Two of the workers start to swing the hammer which creaks with the rhythmic swinging creating a beat which seems to echo (in my mind) the rhythm of the pounding of the cathedral doors which I just mentioned above. As the hammer approaches closer to the side of the bell, the tension and anticipation increases until suddenly we are released and from this state with the relief and joy of the first deep peal of the bell which resonates around the waiting crowds. Its supposed to be, I believe, for Tarkovsky a moment of renewal and transformation in the film. Once again two strands of time which are identified in the rhythm of the battering ram and the rhythm of the bell being tolled are organically unified in the overall structure of the film. The moment of the first sound of the bell is similar to the moment when the doors of the cathedral are breached. The circle has been closed and there is a spiritual restoration with the pealing of the bell. The rhythm of the battering ram and the scene with the bell and the consequent transformation of the scene to a new rhythmic and visual structure are mirrored in each other which unifies the opposition of their content.

The bell scene is almost identical to a scene in Ridley Scott’s film about Christopher Columbus. He uses the scene to mark I presume the establishment of civilisation in the New World, However it appears to be added into the film seemingly with little or no purpose other than a good scene. The fact that the church is destroyed later in a storm adds little to the significance of the scenes inclusion in the film. Incidentally the writer of Andrei Rublev, Director Andrie Konchalovsky, appeared on a Russian TV programme and was quite critical of Ridley Scott albeit in a different context. I wonder if the two are connected and if Konchalovsky had the bell ringing scene in the back of his mind when he made his comments.