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Blurriness in Sokurov’s Mother and Son

2013/12/12 1 comment

Another Treefingers transplant.

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What most immediately struck me when I watched Sokurov’s Mother and Son (1997) yesterday is the extensive use the film makes of blurriness. On one level this is very obvious: Soku­rov plays with the focus until colors start running together, and nothing looks quite clear. Here I want to explore the ways this blurriness goes well beyond this obvi­ous aspect and to reflect on what it might mean for the film.

In broadest outline, the film is about a son caring for his dying mother in her final hours. We see nothing of what preceded these final hours, and, other than the son reading from a few postcards, we are given little indication of what it contained. Even those postcards shed little insight: there was a man, but the son’s question of his identity goes unanswered. Thus, much of the information we would normally use to locate and interpret what is going on in the film is simply unavailable to us. Here is a sort of blurriness: we can imagine any number of pasts for the two characters, but cannot choose among them.

But this blurriness lies among what is outside the film. It is more readily available to abstract reflection than to more direct feeling (though perhaps this will change on a second viewing). There is plenty in the film itself, beyond the visual images, that lacks definite boundaries. For instance, the use of sound turns on a fundamental fuzziness. In a striking scene near the end, the son is in the woods, leaning against a tree and sobbing. The diegetic sounds we hear are his cries and the wind. At the same time, we hear ethereal music that is clearly non-diegetic. Yet the sounds are layered in such a way that they start to merge together. While we can analyze it into parts that are diegetic and non-diegetic, in experience the distinction is lost, and we hear only one unified (even if internally diverse) sound. The rhythms of the parts seem to change in response to one another, to be in direct communication.

While I called the wind diegetic, the sounds of weather in the film actually occupy a strange middle position all of their own. Throughout the film, we hear intermittent thunder, yet we never see the rain that ought to accompany it. Is it really thundering? Or is that something added for the benefit of the viewer, and not available to the characters themselves? It is really impossible to say: the sounds are located in that in-between area that I detailed above.

One final example of sound that contains fundamental ambiguity comes from a shot in which we see the son walking toward the camera. As he walks, we hear his footsteps, which are quite loud. The nearer he gets to the camera, however, the more they diminish in sound. We see that physically he is walking in one direction, but the sound suggests he is moving in the opposite direction. Is he? Or is it that the camera that sees and the microphone that hears are two distinct observers? I don’t know. Either way, the shot introduces yet more ambiguity: what is seen and heard is not fully definite, not fully consistent, not able to be precisely localized.

Lastly, I want to note a fuzziness that becomes apparent at the level of action. The son is caring for the weak, helpless mother—here already is a reversal of the normal mother-son relationship. This reversal does not just exist in broad outline, however, but in specific moments. The mother is generally swaddled in blankets, much like a baby might be, and in one scene the son offers her a drink from a bottle with a nipple. As a third example, in one scene the son is comforting the mother and calls her “my little one”, just as if he were a mother looking on her child. In all of this, we can see an analog of the ambivalent footsteps: walking onward to death and walking backward to infancy are not clearly distinguishable. Mother and son, birth and death: these divisions too are far from sharp.

What does all of this add up to? I think there are three main effects. First, it gives the film a very ethereal quality. While the film and its characters are both very rooted to the earth and its physicality, this earth nevertheless is fuzzy. We feel that what we see and hear is not everything that is there. Where is it? Of that I am not yet sure, and don’t know if I ever will be.

Second, it heightens the intimacy of the film. The relationship between the son and the mother is that much closer because at times we cannot tell them apart. The whole world—physical, visible, audible—participates in this intimacy (an example of artistic metaphysics of the sort I have discussed on my blog). It is inescapable; it pervades everything.

Third, it captures the in-betweenness that is so crucial to the film. The mother is between life and death, while the son is between two emotional states and two periods of life. Neither is quite in one or the other: their state is not definite. So of course the boundaries are unclear, open to resolution in many different ways. How could it be otherwise? (On this point I owe deep gratitude to fellow contributor dreaml0ss for helpful discussion/giving me the very idea.)

There is much more to say, particularly about those points in the film where things are definite, but this post is long enough, and that task would require a second viewing in any case.

A reaction to Sokurov

I write this immediately after finishing viewing Sokurov’s The Second Circle. It was a strained encounter, mostly on account of my own faults, but I nonetheless want to comment on one thread of my reaction.

A man’s father dies. Now there is much for him to do: all the documents must be taken care of. A headstrong woman comes to bully him about this, and offers advice on how he ought to handle things. “I’m a professional, trust me.” The most chilling words in the film. I can feel his grief being constricted, choked, stifled. It cannot adopt any expression of its own, as it is being shoehorned through hoops. All of this is shown up later when he asks her a very naïve question: “what is it for?” The question is directed to her order to put slippers on the dead man’s body. Her response: “it’s the law.” Such is the response of a professional. She comments that he clearly has little funeral experience. Otherwise he would know How It Is Done. What is unfortunate is that this brilliant, naïve question yields no fruit; he remains squashed by her experience and the confidence and bullheadedness it brings. Only when she leaves, and all others, is there any release: it comes when he burns his father’s belongings. But there is something inadequate about it, which I cannot articulate. An emotion given release after it has been choked to death lies limp. I wish he had simply dug a hole in the ground and thrown his father in, the documents be damned. (Contrast with Mother and Son.)

What is amazing is how Sokurov achieves this with a minimum of facial expression—in the most constricted moments the son’s face is even hidden, and elsewhere there are only the slightest and briefest of tremors.

Treefingers: Aleksandr Sokurov

I have just posted an essay on Sokurov’s Mother and Son (a magnificent film) on ProjectTreefingers. I discuss the way the film blurs boundaries and edges to create a sense of intimacy and in-betweenness.