Dovzhenko’s Mammoth Sunflowers

In Alexander Dovzhenko’s last silent film, his masterwork titled Earth (Zelmya) 1930, a tragic and violent narrative of the Soviet collectivization is set within a lyrical rural mise-en-scène and realized in profoundly poetic cinematography. In one of its many shots extolling the Ukrainian landscape, is featured the Mammoth (Russian) Sunflower. Apparently this glorious, or perhaps even monstrous, anomaly was cultivated in Russia and was brought into North America in 1880. It produces a single golden flower that grows up to 10″ across and is filled with edible seeds.

The Mammoth Sunflower is no innocent incident of nature. Being ‘man-made,’ it occupies the space between nature and culture. Despite its beauty, however, it is no mere vanity, it is a food crop. I suggest that, in Dovzhenko’s Earth, it is the perfect or complete symbol. It represents, the ethos of the narrative, at the same time, standing for nature per se as well as for its cultivation, its industrialization and even its collectivization, in the course of human civilization.

Incidentally, Dovzhenko is the only early Soviet era director whom the great Andrei Tarkovsky cites as a predecessor, “If one absolutely needs to compare me to someone (in Soviet cinema), it should be Dovzhenko. He was the first director for whom the problem of atmosphere was particularly important.” It must be said, in the context of this notion of ‘atmosphere’, that Tarkovsky himself eschewed the ‘symbol’ in cinema, and spoke instead of a more open and less intentional cinematic ‘image’ which he defined in terms of the notion of the metaphor, “A symbol contains within itself a definite meaning, certain intellectual formula, while metaphor is an image. An image possessing the same distinguishing features as the world it represents. An image — as opposed to a symbol — is indefinite in meaning. One cannot speak of the infinite world by applying tools that are definite and finite.’ (Interview Le noir coloris de la nostalgie with Hervé Guibert in “Le Monde”, 12 May 1983 )

In my own view, symbols are as malleable and as variable as the mind and worldview of a given viewer or community of viewers. As such Tarkovsky’s dichotomy, essential though it is to our understanding of art, is not an inevitable duality. An image must, in my understanding, contain many symbols that come forth as the viewer, or artist, determines, or designs. If, like Tarkovsky, the viewer finds that the ‘image’ satisfies in its latency, then it will be left unread and no symbol will arise. However, perhaps as a result of having more of an intellectual than a poetic inclination, I see symbols in all images. I see them even as I relish the ‘atmosphere’ of Tarkovsky’s own indefinite images! I suggest that, in art, the question – ‘image or symbol,’ is less about the essential quality or nature of the work and more about the perspective of the viewer or the approach of the artist.

May be an image of flower, twilight and outdoors
May be an image of standing, flower and outdoors

This Sunflower was grown by Jane Frankish on our allotment in the plot shared by members of the Jonathan Rogers gardening collective in Mount Pleasant Vancouver, Summer 2021.

https://www.thedigitalfix.com/film/dvd_review/the-dovzhenko-war-trilogy-zvenigora-arsenal-earth/
https://www.smartgardener.com/plants/289-sunflower-russian-mammoth/overview
https://koboiproject.com/2020/07/26/tarkovsky-monument-4-2/
http://www.nostalghia.com/TheTopics/Symbols.html

Tarkovsky Monument 4

In this 4th Tarkovsky post I present more extracts from my Messenger conversation with Hugo Moss and follow up with some observations that mark the problem of defining the film media,  while also furthering my tribute to Andrei Tarkovsky.

Hugo: I’ll just finish up by just taking issue with a smaller but important point – your claim that film was only beginning to mature in the 1960’s. Film was reaching extraordinary heights of maturity in visual storytelling by the late 1920’s, something interrupted by the arrival of sound. Although doubtless a technological advancement, sound caused a seismic shock in the way films were being made and stories told in that medium. Something very valuable was lost, almost overnight. You might take the view that by the 60’s film was recovering its maturity, but let’s not forget the extraordinary achievements on both sides of the Atlantic on the eve of sound’s invasion of commercial film. Silent film was this very sophisticated visual storytelling, they’d become so damned creative and subtle and beautiful and poetic.

Niranjan: Hugo I agree … I would even argue for 2 different mediums – one a visual medium, the other a multimedia in the vein of Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk. I believe that silent films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu, even Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc can’t be easily translated into sound cinema. I’d venture to say that it would be easier to make paintings of these silent films than to make sound films of them.

Hugo: Yes, it’s a tragedy that film didn’t just split into two currents in ’29/’30 and the silent film just cut right off … So wonderful what was going on, quite as elevated as the heights of painting, I would argue, and it just died, within a couple of years, except of course for Chaplin, famously, but as an industry/artform it ended abruptly!

Indeed, silent cinema was much closer to the traditional theatrical arts – think of abinaya in Bharatanatyam and even of mime in the Western theatre tradition … I think we are on the brink of a discussion about the representational modalities of mimeses and digesis, as they were developed in the film medium … and perhaps we are  also broaching another conversation, one one the nature of multi-media … but these are other stories … What I want to do here is to continue the conversation in terms of Andrei Tarkovsky’s view of cinema and to mark his place, with less hyperbole, within this quintessential medium of the  20th century.  

Here is Tarkovsky’s own list of the 10 best films that he made at the request of film critic Leonid Kozlov in 1972 …. Yes, Hugo, like me, my hero suffers from the tendency to define and sweep clear contradictions … but bear with us momentarily … for the sake of developing some ideas about silent vs sound film. Here is the list –

  1. Diary of a Country Priest(Robert Bresson, 1951)
  2. Winter Light(Ingmar Bergman, 1963)
  3. Nazarin (Luis Buñuel, 1959)
  4. Wild Strawberries (Ingmar Bergman, 1957)
  5. City Lights (Charlie Chaplin, 1931)
  6. Ugetsu Monogatari (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1953)
  7. Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa, 1954)
  8. Persona (Ingmar Bergman, 1966)
  9. Mouchette (Robert Bresson, 1967)
  10. Woman of the Dunes(Hiroshi Teshigahara, 1964)

Kozlov remembers, “He took my proposition very seriously and for a few minutes sat deep in thought with his head bent over a piece of paper … Then he began to write down a list of directors’ names — Buñuel, Mizoguchi, Bergman, Bresson, Kurosawa, Antonioni, Vigo. One more, Dreyer, followed after a pause. Next he made a list of films and put them carefully in a numbered order. The list, it seemed, was ready, but suddenly and unexpectedly Tarkovsky added another title – City Lights … With the exception of City Lights … it does not contain a single silent film or any from the 30s or 40s. The reason for this is simply that Tarkovsky saw the cinema’s first 50 years as a prelude to what he considered to be real film-making.” This list and Kozlov’s explanation of Tarkovsky’s rational for it, explains the sweeping action of Tarkovsky’s ‘broom’, and also that of my own!

Tarkovsky and I both seem to have treated silent cinema as a mere stage in the development of a more complex sound cinema – a kind of Gesamtkunstwerk, or in more contemporary terms, a kind of multimedia. You have taken exception to this view and, in retrospect, I agree with you … Tarkovsky’s own uncertainty (clearly not a clean sweep) seems to be reflected in his last-minute inclusion of Chaplin’s City Lights! And then there is his statement statement in a 1969 interview, “If one absolutely needs to compare me to someone (in Soviet cinema), it should be Dovzhenko. He was the first director for whom the problem of atmosphere was particularly important.” Indeed, if I had to choose one (sweeping) characteristic with which to tag Trakovsky’s oeuvre I would pick ‘atmosphere’!

You have my acknowledgment that it is an error to consider silent cinema as a developmental stage and also that it is an error in my initial claim that film is ‘the’ quintessential medium of the 20th century. It seems there were two distinct celluloid mediums!

(slightly edited version of a post made originally made on AUGUST 13 2017)

Image: https://www.rbth.com/literature/2014/11/26/andrei_tarkovsky_biography_wrestles_with_the_filmmakers_remarkable_41717.html

http://www.openculture.com/2014/08/andrei-tarkovsky-creates-a-list-of-his-10-favorite-films-1972.html

http://www.michaelchekhov.com.br/en/quem.html

https://www.cambridgescholars.com/download/sample/57808

Tarkovsky Monument 4

tarkovsky listIn this 4th Tarkovsky post I present more of my Messenger conversation with Hugo Moss and follow up with some observations that mark the problem of defining the film media …  while furthering, of course, my tribute to Andrei Tarkovsky.

Hugo: I’ll just finish up by just taking issue with a smaller but important point – your claim that film was only beginning to mature in the 1960’s. Film was reaching extraordinary heights of maturity in visual storytelling by the late 1920’s, something interrupted by the arrival of sound. Although doubtless a technological advancement, sound caused a seismic shock in the way films were being made and stories told in that medium. Something very valuable was lost, almost overnight. You might take the view that by the 60’s film was recovering its maturity, but let’s not forget the extraordinary achievements on both sides of the Atlantic on the eve of sound’s invasion of commercial film. Silent film was this very sophisticated visual storytelling, they’d become so damned creative and subtle and beautiful and poetic.

Niranjan: Hugo I agree … I would even argue for 2 different mediums – one a visual medium, the other a multimedia in the vein of Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk. I believe that silent films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu, even Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc can’t be easily translated into sound cinema. I’d venture to say that it would be easier to make paintings of these silent films than to make sound films of them.

Hugo: Yes, it’s a tragedy that film didn’t just split into two currents in ’29/’30 and the silent film just cut right off … So wonderful what was going on, quite as elevated as the heights of painting, I would argue, and it just died, within a couple of years, except of course for Chaplin, famously, but as an industry/artform it ended abruptly!

Indeed, silent cinema was much closer to the traditional theatrical arts – think of abinaya in Bharatanatyam and even of mime in the Western theatre tradition … I think we are on the brink of a discussion about the differences between the representational modalities of mimeses and digesis as they were developed in the film medium … and perhaps we are  also broaching another conversation on multi-media … but these are other stories … What I want to do here is to develop the conversation in terms of Andrei Tarkovsky’s view of cinema and to attenuate my own hyperbole regarding his place within what I have argued  is the quintessential medium of the  20th century.  Here is Tarkovsky’s carefully considered list of 10 best films that he made at the request of film critic Leonid Kozlov. Yes, Hugo my hero suffers from the same tendency to define and sweep clear contradictions … but bear with us momentarily … for the sake of developing the conversation about silent vs sound film. Here is the list of Tarkovsy’s 10 films –

  1. Diary of a Country Priest(Robert Bresson, 1951)
  2. Winter Light(Ingmar Bergman, 1963)
  3. Nazarin (Luis Buñuel, 1959)
  4. Wild Strawberries (Ingmar Bergman, 1957)
  5. City Lights (Charlie Chaplin, 1931)
  6. Ugetsu Monogatari (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1953)
  7. Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa, 1954)
  8. Persona (Ingmar Bergman, 1966)
  9. Mouchette (Robert Bresson, 1967)
  10. Woman of the Dunes(Hiroshi Teshigahara, 1964)

Kozlov remembers, “He took my proposition very seriously and for a few minutes sat deep in thought with his head bent over a piece of paper … Then he began to write down a list of directors’ names — Buñuel, Mizoguchi, Bergman, Bresson, Kurosawa, Antonioni, Vigo. One more, Dreyer, followed after a pause. Next he made a list of films and put them carefully in a numbered order. The list, it seemed, was ready, but suddenly and unexpectedly Tarkovsky added another title – City Lights … With the exception of City Lights … it does not contain a single silent film or any from the 30s or 40s. The reason for this is simply that Tarkovsky saw the cinema’s first 50 years as a prelude to what he considered to be real film-making.” This list and Kozlov’s explanation of Tarkovsky’s rational for it, explains the sweeping action of Tarkovsky’s ‘broom’, and derivatively, my own!

Tarkovsky and I both seem to have presented silent cinema as a stage in the development of a more complex multimedia or Gesamtkunstwerk. You have taken exception to this view and, in retrospect, I stand with you … Tarkovsky’s own uncertainty (his list is clearly not a clean sweep) seems to be reflected in his last-minute inclusion of Chaplin’s City Lights in his top 10! And then there is this citation from the master, “If one absolutely needs to compare me to someone, it should be Dovzhenko. He was the first director for whom the problem of atmosphere was particularly important.” Indeed, Dovzhenko’s Earth was a touchstone for Tarkovsky and if I had to choose one (sweeping) characteristic with which to tag Trakovsky’s oeuvre I would pick ‘atmosphere’, which I believe is same the term I would use to characterize silent cinema! In this characterization, you have both my acknowledgment of the greatness of the films of the silent era and also of the problem of my assertion that film is a single medium, made in the course of my claiming that it is the singular medium of the 20th century.

Image: http://www.openculture.com/2014/08/andrei-tarkovsky-creates-a-list-of-his-10-favorite-films-1972.html

http://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/news-bfi/lists/10-great-films-inspired-andrei-tarkovsky