Wake Me Up!

I’m falling asleep.  Not work. Not the company of bores. Not even the after-effects of an opening night in bed with a beautiful woman. No. The usual culprits are not to blame. It is art, yes, the very thing that should be keeping me awake, who is today’s criminal.  To be more precise: it is this film, The Colour of Pomegranates, that is guilty of this most serious of crimes.  It is too rich.  We eat a king’s meal of thirteen courses, and the belly wears the crown. My poor mind! Smothered with snoozes, it is reduced to dreaming for this obese master. Such a terrible servitude. My stomach rules my imagination. I am satiated with imagery.  

This is a film that seeks to recreate the poetic mind on celluloid. Not as a real mind in a real person - Pomegranates is not Andrei Rublev  - but as a mind that lives only in poetry. Here is a world that is imagined rather than experienced. It is a fantasy, where reality has been left outside the gates of the imagination. This creates enormous problems for the audience.  

“What!  You criticise my beauties!  You suggest my images are no good… You. You. You….”

Sergei’s touchiness alerts us to the central problem. The film is too precious, too finely wrought, too exquisite to stand up to the little truths of life. This is an art that refers only to other art; marvellous for sure, but - I choose my words carefully for fear of another outburst - it lacks that touch of vulgarity to give it vigour.  Pomegranates is an aristocratic virgin, who dressed in the finest silk lulls us to sleep with talk about Art and Morality. This is a poem where all the big words are written in capital letters. Elspeth. So lovely. So delicate.  She is so wonderful that we are afraid to disturb and disappointment her.  But her eulogies never stop, and so eventually we fall asleep; oblivious to our Duty to remain Chaste and Pure in our Dedication to the Ideal.  We prefer the comely qualities of the servant girl, whose breasts, tightly wrapped in red cotton and etched in gold embroidery, attract our gaze and incite our concupiscence. When Mariska wets her lips with the tip of her tongue we fall in love.

Poetry into film. This is a difficult manoeuvre.1 The imagery is so luscious and beautiful that it overwhelms our mental capacity, and we cannot absorb the individual pictures, which rush past us like racing cars. In Andrei Rublev the images are atolls above a restless ocean. Thus isolated we digest them easily. They also have another quality that is very dear to us: they are embedded within daily life. Tarkovsky makes us feel the human drama; the source of the film’s most powerful scenes and imagery. Andrei Rublev creates its own poetry; it has no need to borrow from the old masters. When the final epiphany arrives we are dazzled by the brilliance of the original icons; our minds flooded by their beauty and colour. But it is the contrast, the very texture of the film itself, that spellbinds us - we have seen little art in a movie which has been shot in black and white.2 Andrei Rublev is concerned with the sources of art, which are often opposed to its creation - witness the gruesome scene where the baron gouges out the eyes of an artisan. This film, recognising that art has to overcome the mundanity and the brutality of existence, teems with conflict, the generator of its vital energy. Pomegranates is unable to achieve such startling effects. Despite the richness of the colours and the intricacy of the photography it remains static and monotone. It has too many images clustered too closely together; with little time or space to grow the flow of their inner being is thus frozen.  Poems are turned into pictures which crowd the gallery walls; and we experience the fatigue that comes from looking too long at too many canvases.

I have quoted Virginia Woolf before, but I’ll quote her again, as her words are like bullets from a marksman’s rifle.

We are not so purblind as to suppose that a man because his name is Smith and he lives at Liverpool is therefore ‘real’.  We know indeed that this reality is a chameleon quality, the fantastic becoming as we grow used to it often the closest to the truth, the sober the furthest from it, and nothing proving a writer’s greatness more than his capacity to consolidate his scene by the use of what, until he touched them, seemed wisps of cloud and threads of gossamer.  Our contention merely is that there is a station, somewhere in mid-air, whence Smith and Liverpool can be seen to the best advantage; that the great artist is the man who knows where to place himself above the shifting scenery; that while he never loses sight of Liverpool he never sees it in the wrong perspective.  The Elizabethans bore us, then, because their Smiths are all changed to dukes, their Liverpools to fabulous islands and palaces in Genoa.  Instead of keeping a proper poise above life they soar miles into the empyrean, where nothing is visible for long hours at a time but clouds at their revelry, and a cloud landscape is not ultimately satisfactory to human eyes.  The Elizabethans bore us because they suffocate our imaginations rather than set them to work. (Virginia Woolf, The Common Reader 1

In a poem the reader must recreate the imagery for himself. In Pomegranates Sergei does all this thinking for us. We are reduced to spectators at a bravura display.  All very attractive, for sure for sure, but…tiresome if it goes on for too long.  A museum full of masterpieces can bore us as much as a reality programme monopolised by nonsense.  We need variety.  We want a little sour mixed in with the sweetness. The second-rate should jostle with the magnificent; the scared should be polluted by the profane. A few moments of vulgarity a warrant for our liberty, creating a space to think for ourselves; safe from the guide who will insist on talking about every detail in her collection.  “Here is a Rubens, you will notice the heart-shaped pink on the left buttock; the heart you will know….”

To watch Sergei’s performance is to leave us with that weakest instrument of the mind -  discursive thought. Perhaps this is its purpose. The reason why the film is hailed as a 20th century masterpiece.  Here is a movie made precisely to receive the critics’ accolades. Indeed, Pomegranates encourages such low-level thoughts, goading us to tease out the meanings from a compendious array of allegorical symbols; such as the sheep gathering around the dead Archbishop, or St George riding past a house on a horse (one image in a particularly brilliant sequence).  Later we stop the film to sit and gaze at an extraordinary picture - it is of a bunch of priests eating pomegranates - and we speculate on the artistic influence: is it Caravaggio, done in the daylight?  In a moment of academic madness we think about cataloguing all the Russian Orthodox icons that have been turned into set designs. Nor can we forget the influence of Andrei Rublev; a very different kind of film despite the superficial similarities. But now we are thinking again….

The difference between these two films is instructive, and highlights the contrast between a real work of art and a brilliant but failed experiment. Sergei’s somewhat static and overly conscious work, with its worship of the aesthetic, is quite distinct from a genuine masterpiece, which stimulates thought not dulls it. In Andrei Rublev the images are part of a dynamic world populated by real characters. In Pomegranates the people are little more than portraits. Tarkovsky, unlike Sergei, is able to make us feel the artist’s sensibility, while he also evokes the social background that helps it grow and mature. It is a complicated process. The great Russian only too aware that there is no simple correlation between a man’s life and the work it generates. It is the atmosphere inside the artist’s head that is the source of his creations; and this arises out of a mind experiencing and reflecting upon his own life and times. A sympathetic soul will appreciate the art, but not will necessarily understand the mind of the man who made it.  A fellow artist cannot be so complacent.  Unsatisfied with such appearances he will want to both comprehend and represent this unique artistic persona. The result: he reinvents his colleague’s sensibility within his own fictions. His atmosphere able to capture the essence of the other’s - Tarkovsky’s Rublev’s - through the artifice of art.

Discursive thinking is for the academics and the tour guides, who will know all the minutiae of an artist’s biography and its paintings. This is too easy.  Worse: it bores us. We need films that are more elusive than this. We want movies to stimulate the audience to think for themselves in the privacy of their own minds. We will not understand a movie if we listen to a running commentary. Throw the headphones away!

In Pomegranates the meaning is too obvious because the images are too clear and sharply defined.  Sergei compounds his error by explaining them in each chapter heading. We go into a gallery. We look at the curator’s words. Then we quickly glance at the painting, before moving on to the next caption… Oh dear, we have become captives of someone else’s mind. Soon we will become disciples who will worship him - this is a film made to be studied at the university.  We imagine a student, she has short black hair and wears a pink mini-skirt, writing a thesis chock-full with references to Gombrich and Panofsky. One day we take her to a bookshop whose windows advertise expensive monographs published by Phaidon and Hatje Cantz. We open the door and go in. We exchange a few pleasantries with the staff - I flirt with a Russian doll - and we show her a few books; their beautiful images soiled by the graffiti of small print. We make a dismissive comment. She smiles and disagrees and reads out a long succession of staccato sentences. The words tire us. Our head nods. We hold it up, to look at the flower printed on her blouse; its petals shading her breast, its stem tucked into her pink skirt… We hold it… We nod again. And we… And…our…lids..begin..to.droop….

1. Even a great poet like Pasternak found it difficult to transcribe his poetic sensibility into the more compatible form of the novel.  Despite the wonderful metaphors, the book is like a wood scattered with bluebells, it is only in the early childhood pages of Doctor Zhivago that we get a true sense of the poet’s mind.

2.  But note: they are brought in wholesale into a movie that can accommodate them.