Has a film ever had a better opening? The camera falls to earth. Yuri Khanin’s astonishing score plays out over images of the Turkmeni community. Faces stare out at us. We listen and we watch.
Which is the fundamental praxis of receiving cinema. Listening and watching. Only, usually, there is so much information to be processed that we almost forget this is what we’re doing. Sokurov follows in the footsteps of Tarkovsky, who sought to make his art of cinema into an experience to rival that of the great masters; which is also to say to rival or equate to a religious experience. Perhaps the key to this experience is to become aware of our existence through the act or art of engagement. This demands something most of our cinema rejects: self-consciousness as a part of the process; rather than the eradication of the self (also known as escapism) so much of cinema has sought to bring about.
Days of Eclipse lasts for over two hours but it reached a point where as far as I was concerned it might have lasted for six. The film depicts a Russian doctor who is living in Turkmenistan at the fag end of the Soviet empire. He is young, good looking and listless. The world is draped in the torpor of heat. It’s as though it’s under glass. A friend of his dies and there’s no explanation of why. Another friend of his has a weird, animalistic stain growing out of his wall. The doctor crosses a road and gets involved in a fight. He’s told his work is potentially seditious, so he decides to burn it, but then, the papers already alight, he has second thoughts and puts the fire out. Strange beasts crop up in his life: lizards, snakes, lobsters. Finally he escorts his friend as he leaves, heading for the sea.
What does it all mean? There are undoubtedly narratives at work here, about the demise of an Empire, about the search for significance in a world where the quest for Utopia has stalled and ground to a halt. However, perhaps as an aspect of these themes, or perhaps as part of the director’s own investigations into the real nature of and potential of cinema, the film also comes across as a dialogue between viewer and screen: an exploration of how the act of viewing oscillates between the passive and the active. Sometimes Sokurov’s images and use of sound overwhelm us, demanding nothing but reception. But at others the film asks its audience to make an effort, to engage, to find the humour and the pathos without these things being spelled out.
Sokurov has achieved belated fame beyond his country’s borders. I recently saw his feted Russian Ark on DVD. Where that seemed showy, slightly ponderous, with occasional flashes of brilliance, this earlier work felt swathed in a viscous genius, which seeped through the colour distorted print, frame after frame.