Thursday, April 20, 2017

206. Russian director Andrei Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky’s film “Belye nochi pochtalona Alekseya Triyapitsyna ” (The Postman’s White Nights)(2014) (Russia): An amazing, profound elegy reconciling one to the fact that good and evil coexist in Russia, then and now

Where does this music come from? From the heavens or from the ground? Now it’s stopped.
--- A quote from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, used as the end quote for The Postman’s White Nights

Any serious Konchalovsky film viewer will recall that the end-quotes of his films, when used, are very important to put the tale one just viewed in its intended perspective.  He did use it with aplomb in Runaway Train (a quote from Shakespeare’s Richard III) and Shy People (a quote from Revelations in the Bible). What is the music he is referring to? It would be too simplistic to consider it to be the music of the film’s composer Eduard Artemev, the talented composer of Tarkovsky’s three monumental works—Solaris, Stalker and Mirror, and the important Russian sci-fi film Dr Ivan’s Silence. The music is most likely to be a metaphor for the waves of good and evil forces that an average Russian encounters in life and learns to live with over time.

The real postman Aleksey Triyapitsyn "acts" as himself--his army clothes
indicate his status of a paid government employee

Now, Andrei Konchalovsky’s career can easily be divided into three distinct phases: pre-Hollywood work in former USSR, some with classmate Andrei Tarkovsky (The Steamroller and the Violin, Ivan’s Childhood, Andrei Rublyev) and some alone; his Hollywood phase (which included Runaway Train, Maria’s Lovers and Shy People); and the recent post Hollywood phase in Russia working with the obviously unusually talented co-scriptwriter Elena Kiseleva. The Postman’s White Nights marks the beginning of this exciting new phase in Konchalovsky’s career when he begins his collaboration with co-scriptwriter Elena Kiseleva. His second film with Kiseleva was Paradise (2016). He is currently working on a third film with Kiseleva, tentatively titled Il peccato. This critic could see parallels in this fascinating collaboration with that of the late Polish maestro Krzysztof Kieślowski’s collaboration with co-scriptwriter Krzysztof Piesiewicz, towards the evening of his respective career that resulted in his masterpieces Dekalog, The Three Colours trilogy, and The Double Life of Veronique.

The Postman’s White Nights is one of the finest works in recent years from Russia that can rub shoulders with the cinematic gems of Andrei Zvyagintsev. The depth of the film can be lost on a casual viewer while it can offer profound commentary on Russia for the mature viewer.

The rural Russian folk smoke endlessly, drink tea and vodka, and die often alone

What did Konchalovsky and Kiseleva do in The Postman’s White Nights that will stun the viewer? They scripted a tale set in a rural setting where the village school is in ruins; men are turning alcoholics and survive on pensions; newspapers, bread, medicines, are brought from the nearest town by a postman, an alcoholic in the past, currently a bachelor; with one other regular government employee posted in this village an unpopular lady mayor, living alone with a young son, because she fines folk caught trawling fish in the nearby water bodies to win brownie points with her unseen superiors.

Everybody smokes, but the postman has kicked his drinking habit
after it ruined his family life 

As in both the Konchalovsky and Kiseleva films, the scriptwriters build-up details that do not seem to add up midway but punches you at the end of the film. And if you blink you might miss that brilliant visual that says more than all the spoken words in the entire film. (There is a third partner in the Konchalovsky-Kiseleva films: cinematographer Aleksandr  Simonov). The Russian government obviously seems to have ignored the well being or the development of this rural township.  Not only is the school in ruins (possibly because there are not enough kids to attend school) but the folks there have only the TV sets as sources of entertainment. There are no tractors to till the land, only animal driven ploughs. From all evidence there is only one plough for the entire community. It is no wonder that people in that locality are driven to steal outboard motors of boats or trawl the water bodies for fish—an illegal act for all except the powerful generals who infrequently visit the area. But not very far away, Russia rocket/space power is quietly advancing ignoring the plight of the rural poor.

The good and the bad coexist in the rural world with the committed postman being the prominent do-gooder. The townsfolk do not go out of the way to help the postman when he faces a professional crisis with his motorboat’s engine stolen and thus not being able to discharge his duties for the rural folk.  In the world of email communication and mobile telecommunication, the postman fills a multitasking role. And he loves to do it. He has to file a theft report and wait for a replacement to be supplied.  The elders in the rural areas wistfully recall better days during the socialist regime and some even recall being in Vietnam during the war there.

The postman and the mayor's son

What most viewers are likely to miss out is an important decision taken by director Konchalovsky—all characters in the film’s rural setting are played by authentic villagers. The only professional actors are the two individuals who play the roles of the lady mayor and her delightful young son, Timur, who addresses the postman as “uncle.” Now that is incredible considering how the onscreen presence of the real postman engages the viewer.  One would mistake him for a professional actor able to convey so many complex emotions and body languages.  The Russian title of the film would read as the white nights of Aleksey Tryapitsyn, the name of man who plays the postman in the film. He is playing himself. Thus the entire script revolves around real people playing themselves.  But the script belongs to brilliance of Konchalovsky and Kiseleva.

Look at how they built the script. The entire background of the life of the postman is provided by Aleksey Tryapitsyn’s monologue as he sifts through old photographs of himself with the movie’s camera placed behind his head and shoulders.  Who is he talking to? The viewer. Such a monologue is never repeated until the end sequence where all or most of the village folk sit shoulder to shoulder on a ferry, their differences forgotten, without a word spoken, looking at the camera. Who are they looking at? The viewer.

The postman shares his childhood fears and tales with the
mayor's son.

The next striking visual is the repeated morning waking shot of the postman looking down at his boots on the carpet that he need to get into. He is living alone. There is no tap water; he has to fetch water in pails. The mayor and the postman wear camouflage army clothes—possibly because they are the only paid government employees.  His life is spartan.

The filmmaking trio emphasize rumination and natural beauty—the characters are constantly reflecting, outdoors and indoors.  Those sequences are with the music of Artemev as in the early Tarkovsky and Konchalovsky films.  And that leads on to the dark grey cat (“there are no cats in the village” the viewer is informed, and ergo the cat is a metaphor of a silent imaginary friend of the lonely postman—a cinephile will recall Tarkovsky used totemic images of a dog in Stalker).  The silent cat comes through the window, follows Aleksey Tryapitsyn during his imaginary visit to the school ruins, and finally sits on the stomach of the reclining postman. Does the cat have a common link with a cat’s images on the postman’s tablecloth?

Simonov's cinematography and Artemev's music can be stunning 

...and who wouldn't ruminate on contemplating the natural beauty of Russia
captured by cinematographer Simonov?

Apart from the good actions and the bad actions of the characters in The Postman’s White Nights, the overarching philosophy of the film is to accept this truth and reconcile what is left of one’s life with this attitude. The postman runs away but decides to return to the same community where, not surprisingly, he is still welcome. Konchalovsky “ran away” from USSR to work in Hollywood only to return to Russia with all its continuing faults and greatness. The film might be a great anti-smoking film with almost all the elders addicted to tobacco and evidently not healthy but the young boy also learns to smoke following the actions of the elders. But in the end segment, Konchalovsky, Kiseleva and Simonov are pointing out with their tongues firmly in their cheeks that Russia is launching spacecrafts and rockets not very far from the world of rural folk who can’t fish in the water bodies without asking for trouble or have any entertainment beyond state TV. And guess what, these Russians on the fringes of Russian society addicted to tobacco and vodka are still happy and content as long as they get their pensions.

Where does the strange sustenance of the Russians come from? From the ground, or from the rockets? A Shakespearean conundrum indeed!

It is a meaningful film for the serious film viewer, and richly deserving of the Venice film festival honour.

P.S. The Postman’s White Nights won the Best Director Award (Silver Lion) for Andrei Konchalovsky.  Detailed reviews by the author of Konchalovsky’s earlier films Runaway Train (1985) and Paradise (2016) were posted earlier on this blog. A link to the Konchalovsky written paper/lecture on the "Russian Soul" is provided on this blog and the contents are closely linked to the basic mood of the film. A critical line from that lecture reflects the essence of the film's ending "Why Russians can build a rocket and send it off into space, but not make a decent car?Mr Konchalovsky is also one of the author's 15 favourite active filmmakers.

Saturday, April 08, 2017

205. US director Jim Jarmusch’s film “Paterson” (2016) (USA): A delicate, well-conceived film on a bus driver turned poet constantly noting beauty in ordinary subjects, thanks to his contented life with a supportive spouse

Paterson would appear to be a simple tale; but it is not. It is a film where Jim Jarmusch the original scriptwriter over-shadows Jim Jarmusch the director. Yet they are both the same individual in two roles. The script is trenchant; it is brilliant. The direction follows the script. A script on a week in the life of a bus driver who writes poetry.

Bus driver Paterson (Adam Driver) at work

Optimistic, poetic Paterson  lives in Paterson City, where commercial activity
obviously is in distress (see signage on the walls)

Why is this original script brilliant? Paterson, in the movie, refers to several things—it is the name of the lead character (the bus driver and amateur poet); it is the name of the city in New Jersey, USA, where the story takes place; it is the name of the volume of the collection of poems of Pulitzer Prize winning US poet William Carlos Williams who worked as a paediatrician in Paterson, New Jersey. 

Scriptwriter Jarmusch’s lead character is a bus driver who likes poetry, writes poetry, and lives in a house with book shelves full of books of poetry by Williams and other poets. A 10-year-old girl with a penchant for writing poetry in a secret notebook who meets Paterson for the first time amiably describes him after the brief encounter as “a bus driver who likes Emily Dickinson” (the poet). The bus driver writes his poems in his own secret notebook, before and after driving his bus. These poems are odes to his partner Laura, of Iranian lineage. Now, Jarmusch’s choice of the name Laura for bus driver Paterson’s partner is not accidental—the Renaissance Italian poet Petrarch (1304-74) too wrote all his poems to his muse Laura de Noves, the wife of a Count, whose beauty made Petrarch leave priesthood even though their relationship was platonic.

Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) paints and wears black and white
and even put black and white icing on her cupcakes

Jarmusch’s creation of Laura is equally amazing. Laura is equally a creative individual as Paterson is. She loves to paint at home with white and black colours. She goes to the extent of painting her clothes while wearing them. When she bakes cupcakes, the icing is again black and white. Even her guitar that she orders on-line is painted black and white! When she takes her spouse Paterson to a movie—the movie is in black and white. Yet Laura is odd—she is devoted to her husband and recognizes his gift for poetry. She is equally devoted to her pet dog.  Her life seems fairly limited to home management and an interest in music. Yet she manipulates her husband to agree to buy a costly guitar on-line but makes up for the cost by making equal or more money selling cupcakes at the local farmer’s market.  And guess what? She had dreamt it first.

Now writer Jarmusch elegantly contrasts the life of the loving couple, who love each other intensely, despite their quite different likes and dislikes, constantly encouraging and supporting each other, while other couples in Paterson do not seem to get along with as much élan despite being together. The love between Paterson and Laura helps the bus driver Paterson to see beauty in ordinary objects and mundane situations.

Marvin the dog on a Persian carpet at home.
(The dog got a rare award at Cannes! And the film is dedicated to it, as well)

Paterson (Driver) takes Marvin out for a walk,
 before entering a pub for his daily glass of beer 

The third most important character in the script is an English bulldog called Marvin who waits outside the pub dutifully each evening as Paterson has his daily glass of beer. The dog is apparently fond of Laura more than Paterson. But the apparently docile dog is cunning enough to make Paterson wonder who is tilting his mailbox. And when Marvin is left alone in the house he wreaks revenge on Paterson the bus-driver in his own way.

Laura recollects having dreamt of having twins with Paterson. The script introduces us to several pairs of twins in Paterson and motley people all interested in writing poetry. The sets of twins include elderly men sitting on a bench, passengers on the bus, twins in the pub, the 10-year old girl poet who possibly has a twin sister, and so on. Poets include a 10-year-old girl, a man waiting to get his laundry washed, and a tourist. The recurrence make you marvel at Jarmusch’s interest in adding details that would have been inconsequential in most other screenplays.

Paterson (Driver), having lost his secret notebook. gazes at the waterfall
in solitude

Japanese actor Masatoshi Nagase as a Japanese poet, arrives at the waterfall
viewing site and later sits down with Paterson and discusses poetry.

All that, of course, would be limited to characters and character development. Towards the end, the script shifts gears as it introduces magic realism. Peterson, who has lost his secret poetry notebook, wistfully gazes at the waterfall in Paterson city, sitting alone on the bench. An amazing encounter with a Japanese poet leads to Paterson being gifted with an empty notebook—as though the tourist knew of Paterson’s recent loss. Paterson the bus driver-cum-poet renews his writing after this unexpected gift from a guardian angel—a tourist who is meeting him for the first time.

The final line Paterson writes is “Would you be a fish?” This might intrigue many people viewing the film. A fish might look good but it cannot read or write. And in spite of its agility in the water it can get caught and end up as food. Ergo: being a poet is better than being a fish.

The importance of supportive couples is contrasted with one that does not

A word about the actors in Paterson. Is the casting of Adam Driver as the bus driver a mere coincidence? Is the casting of the Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani as Laura who dreams of Asian images of elephants and furnishes her floors with Persian carpets, another coincidence? Is the casting of the Japanese actor Masatoshi Nagase [the lead actor in Naomi Kawase’s equally reflective Japanese film Sweet Bean (2015)] yet another coincidence? Quite evidently Jarmusch builds on details while writing his script, while casting and directing.

This film establishes Jim Jarmusch as one of the top two directors working in USA today alongside Terrence Mallick.

P.S. This critic is disappointed that this original screenplay did not even get nominated for an Oscar. It is far superior to others that were nominated in 2017. The film is one of the best films made in 2016. Unfortunately, this critic viewed it only in 2017 and, therefore, Paterson is likely to find a place in the top 10 films of 2017 of this critic. Earlier on this blog, this critic had reviewed Naomi Kawase’s Sweet Bean (2015) with actor Masatoshi NagaseMr Jarmusch is also one of the author's 15 favourite active filmmakers