WITHOUT A SCREEN : History’s Dream

Joe Wright’s recent screen adaptation of Anna Karenina is a creature of uncommon grace. It bears unique qualities of material and visual craft, tonality, and expression, all presented in the extreme. Wright presents a breathless continuity of time and space as he unfurls the famously tortured forbidden love between the married Anna and the predatory Count Vronsky. Her affair, driven by tempestuous passion, has far reaching consequences and leads her down a dark path. The story is described as timeless mainly because its themes of emotional/intellectual/societal discontinuity are a constant with the human condition. Wright has found an original way of interpreting the word “timeless” by exploiting the fluid temporality that cinema allows by nature, as well as abstract spatial fluidity that theater allows.

Famed French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Melville (Le Samourai) once said, “Cinema is foremost a dream,” and nothing could be closer to the truth. Film models itself on the structure of dreams and cognition. One might extrapolate that dreams are the seed of cinema, able to make leaps, breaks, and blends of locations, times, emotions, and identities. Dreams are also our most tactile means to explore history because they access our faculties of sense, emotion, and experience.

Without A Screen has assembled a collection of films that thrive on cinema’s dream-nature, used as a means to draw portraitures of ill-fated romance. These films also inject themselves into “the past” to provide a near-primary experience of history as only human thought is capable of otherwise. Bernardo Bertolucci described his film The Dreamers (2003), as expressing the “prevalence of the present,” because as he suggests, cinema conjugates only the present tense. The subliminal effect is that the audience, emotionally enraptured by what is seen and heard in the contained reality of a film, is contemporaneous to those events, no matter when they took place. This too makes Anna Karenina as a film, timeless in a literal sense.

THE NEW WORLD (2005) Terence Malick’s interpretation of Pocahontas and John Smith is a sensuous experience. It contains all the benchmarks of the director’s elegant and engaging 360 degree shooting style with voice-over narration of characters’ internalized thoughts. Images and sounds of nature, textures of the land and the elements create a dreamlike historically-based experience. “I thought it was dream… what we knew in the forest. It’s the only truth,” John Smith says to Pocahontas.

EROS PLUS MASSACRE  (1969) Director Kiju Yoshida’s Japanese New-Wave masterpiece centers on two aimless students Eiko and Wada in 1968 Tokyo, thriving in the socio-sexual revolution of the time. The two explore the philosophy and life of Sakae Osugi – a Taisho Era anarchist who set ideas in motion about free-love – and his lover, prominent feminist Noe Ito. The two time frames, 1920’s and 1960’s, gradually bleed across one another physically, ideologically, and emotionally as each set of characters aches of society’s growing pains. Yoshida’s epic-length work is a benchmark of counter-cinema that is as wandering as it is urgent. Wildly asymmetrical compositions exploit the widescreen format like few filmmakers ever have.

FLOATING CLOUDS (1955) Mikio Naruse’s chronicle of a man and a woman’s degradation that stem from a wartime affair, is regarded as one of Japan’s greatest films. Flashbacks establish the emotional history between Yukiko and Kengo, and merge into the present like characters’ daydreams. Yukiko and Kengo, who worked together in southeast Asia for the forestry office, strike up an affair in the intoxication of their isolation however, when relocated back to post-war Japan, existential and economical malaise lead to an endless succession of disappointments and loss. Kengo, married to an ailing woman, refers to their time in Dat Lat as a dream, and how that dream is perhaps the only truth of their entire lives (something it shares directly with The New World). But that dream is drawn out beyond its borders as the two seem unhappily but inextricably entwined, unable to reinstate the souls they feel that they lack.

SIBERIADE (1979) spans six decades and three generations of a rural Russian family, and runs a generous 260min. Andrei Konchalovski’s Cannes winning epic unfolds with near mythical tones, while investigating both the abstract and tactile qualities of an evolving Russian people. The remote Siberian village of Elan, a bastion of untamed nature and isolation is mainly home to two extended families – the proletariat Ustyuzhanin’s and the well-to-do Solomin’s – always incongruous in their relations. Elan is also the unlikely prism of Russia’s 20th century, unlikely because of how removed it is from the immediate actions of society and politics. Interstices of old footage of the two world wars, the Bolshevik revolution, the industrial boom, and an extended period of rapid modernization create sepia-washed dreams between already ethereally tinged chapters. Called “an examination of the Soviet spirit,” Konchalovski’s expansive vision penetrates deeply into human qualities of yearning, desire, and resilience alongside the currents of a unique cultural history.

THE DREAMERS (2004) Matthew, a naive American student studying in French in France 1968, inducts himself into the cinephile subculture at the cusp of the May riots. He meets “twins” Theo and Isa, two strangely close and equally obsessive film-buffs who invite Matthew into their home and into their close orbit for what becomes an unsupervised existential quarantine. What makes this film such a “dream of history” is the language of film references/imitations that the three hone as a game-like precursor to their intense sexual investigations. Bertolucci splices the actual scenes being referenced by the characters directly into his own film to create simultaneous realities of past/present -almost like flashbacks – which also generates a kind of figurative sexuality. There is a lot to unpack in this film. For a more thorough analysis, visit my blog.

Author: Aaron Mannino

Aaron Mannino is a Philadelphia area artist, film enthusiast, and some other things. He has made contributions on film analysis to the publication Korean Quarterly. Visit his blog or his website for writings and art-ings.

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