Echoes of an Intimate Language
I know things are bad when poets start screaming. But things are going bad.
– Jonas Mekas1
My language, when in love, becomes as fragile as the petals of an amaryllis. Cornered by fear, my language – our language – stiffens, loses its poetic effervescence, is diseroticised. Every language moults, is subjected to the shocks of history. Certain languages hold onto us tightly; like straitjackets, binding us. Others exalt us. Every language intrinsically carries thought. Our words, our ways of thinking, are imperceptibly confiscated. Such as the word radicality.2 The radicality of a poet or a filmmaker.
Language is a seismograph, a zeitgeist sensor. Of our time. Are poets, through their ways of expressing, outside of time? Or are they so intensely surrounded by time, in their time, that they become disrupting?
As to the question “What is poetry?”, essayist and poet Annie Le Brun simply and disconcertingly answered: “Poetry is a way of being.”3 Being there. Standing upright or with slightly bent knees; like some African statues, ready to pounce. To pounce, as Le Brun does, is to remind us of the vitality of the surrealists, the meandering of desire in Sade, or the deleterious logic of the contemporary art market.4 To pounce and crack the soothing logic of market language, its imperceptible authority, its viral and tenacious fascism. To resist the twisting, the confiscation of words and images by the markets.
In a television interview,5 conducted after the release of Medea, Pier Paolo Pasolini answered this same question in a similarly simple, even terse manner: “Poetry is a way of being sincere.” Which means: to be implacable towards oneself, towards one’s own language, towards the untimely violence of the unconscious, of fantasy, of the imaginary. Towards the infinite that inhabits us.
The poet’s words fracture, move, overwhelm. Through his language – sometimes – my mind is breached in a way that no idiom can clearly describe. And there, in the gaps of language, in the discomfort of that which stammers, a sense emerges, is crystallised. Though indeed, only sometimes. Sometimes, yes. Perturbed and pierced, the poet’s language revives the extent of the strange, the unexplored territories of the visible. Through his language, I often revisit my way of seeing.
I am looking for the poet’s language. I feel it, restless, like a promise. I reckon that if the language cultivates what is possible, horizons will open. I reckon that if certain poets and certain filmmakers make me euphoric, they do so through their intimate language. A rebellious and restless language. An archetypal language. A language that claws away and leaves its trace in me.
I call intimate language that which the body is unable to silence, which – often irreducibly and obscurely – passes through us, constitutes us. It is not only the poet’s language. No. The intimate language inhabits us, is unruly. At times it’s not immediately audible to our very selves. It is not only revealed through an idiom or a slip of the tongue. Mysterious and elusive, the intimate language roams the corners of the mind that Culture is incapable of domesticating. Rather than serving as a reservoir or an identity vacuum, it is a process, a telluric movement expressing a generous and contagious subjectivity. That is how I perceive this intimate language. It lies within a region of the mind whose borders I am unable to grasp, a region where experiments happen with unforeseeable results.
Come! Come! You intimate language! So that I no longer hear myself being silent!6
And then, when it emerges, this intimate language becomes gesture. A gesture that I am looking for and that moves me. A stubborn gesture. A gesture that links and binds. An eminently political gesture. A gesture authorised by history. Or not. A gesture documented by cinema in its own particular way.
During a speech delivered at the end of the 1940s, when Stalin was still alive, filmmaker Vsevolod Pudovkin7 stated: “Socialist realism is a method of working that profoundly links the artist to reality, to the life around him and – which is what matters most – directly engages the artist in the work of an entire nation; that is to say, it turns him into an energetic and active collaborator in the construction of a communist society. We say ‘realism’ because our art reflects life in all its complexity and fullness. [...] In addition, it can be said that socialist realism cannot be considered one of those numerous artistic tendencies that have existed or still exist in different countries. These tendencies are born and die with their authors or with a small group. Socialist realism, on the other hand, born from the life of the people, belonging to the people and developing with it, is immortal, like the people; forever young and inexhaustible.”8
From this rhetoric, from the language engraved in marble, I retain the well-suited lyricism and image of the people merging with the fleshless body of the artist. A utilitarian body. I retain a language that remains unpierced by any trouble inherent to the real, inherent to a contingency. A language reduced to the implementation of a belief. A language that’s as planned as the Economy. A project whereby a new human being is sculpted, a world is perfected.
In 1953, Stalin dies. A page seems to have been turned. It is the beginning of the so-called thaw. A new generation of filmmakers emerges.9 In the West, the cinéma moderne asserts itself. It is an agitation of languages, of styles. It is the beginning of the nouvelle vague.
In the Soviet Union, in the many studios scattered across that immense geographical space,10 young filmmakers struggle with the old language of control-commissions and censorship without which no filming permit gets issued. The thaw is therefore only an outward one and each and every person tries to be smarter than the system, tries to crack the granite language of a tenacious ideology, even if the “little father”11 is dead.
Among these filmmakers is the young actress, screenwriter and director, Kira Muratova.12
In an interview conducted in 1987, while talking about her work at the end of the 1960s, Muratova declared: “I depended on everyone. For us, it was said that each ‘no’ counted but a ‘yes’ did not count. If someone from the street was to say that a given project was no good, that was enough for everything to be shut down. Each ‘no’ counted. I was dependent on the Odessa Film Studio, on the Council of Editors, on the Director, on the Party Committee and the Capital of the Republic, on the Ministry of Cinematography in Moscow, and on so many others. For example, the wife of one of the officials who was against the making of a certain film...”13 Here, the method of socialist realism evoked by Pudovkin implodes. We didn’t have to wait for Muratova to figure that out, but her intrinsic language evokes a painful, troubling experience. It is as if her body, her gestures, have been confiscated. As if her intimate language is frozen, troubled.
I love the word trouble. It refers to everything that is not limpid, tidy. It’s a word that gets medicalised too often; a word used inappropriately by the police. And maybe we have ended up mistrusting this word – even when it refers to something from our internal selves. I want to bring the word back into favour. Unlike “indecision”, it is a term that refers to a tumult of the mind, to a state of suspension, to a sort of opacity of the real. That which is trouble14 merely suggests, without providing a basis for naming what is to come or what will arise. Being troubled is a state familiar to lovers. We know.
Trouble is an integral part of any creative act. Under pressure, sometimes forced to immediate clarity, trouble is often concealed, muffled, and thereby prevents any new exploration. All trouble faces fear.
In Latin, turbidus15 has the same root as trouble. Turbidus refers to what is disrupted, distraught, disorganised, confused. Let’s say it is out of the ordinary, unusual. Which often worries loved ones and less-loved ones alike. It evokes a savage, a state of mind, a quest, a desire in progress.
Like anyone, a filmmaker can be turbulentus, agitated, excited... alive. The young Leninist republic of the 1920s, for instance, authorised an entire generation of turbulenti filmmakers and poets (produced by the futurist or constructivist avant-gardes) to be ostracised, or forced them to compromise or even to commit suicide.16 That season, which was euphoric and still fascinates us a century later, was very brief.
A female filmmaker can be turbulenta, boisterous: at odds, unruly, insubordinate, averse to ritual.
In my view, Kira Muratova – director of The Long Farewell17 – was turbulenta, resistant to the orderly, conventional, stubborn syntaxes of the 1960s, 70s and even 80s in the USSR. Muratova lived in conflict, ontologically in conflict. With the authorities in power, with the ghosts of Stalin. We’ve seen it. In conflict with the language of homo sovieticus.
But how not to be uncompromising – turbulenta – if it is about risking a vision, when every true vision causes an inner shock?18 How not to be uncompromising when you touch on the intimate language, on what passes through it, on what is confusedly roaming around in it?
Following its release in cinemas in the Soviet Union in 1971, The Long Farewell was promptly withdrawn, sent into hibernation until 1987, the year in which this second film by Muratova was presented, receiving an award in Locarno.
In short, the story is this: after spending the summer with his archaeologist father, the young Sasha hesitates. Is he to stay with his translator-mother Yevgeniya or to leave her and settle far away, with his father? This likelihood shatters the mother, who has been divorced for a long time; and by way of capillary action, it also shatters the whole film.
Telling the rest of the story would destroy the crux of a demanding construction, the beauty of the mise en scène, of its montage. But what is troubling is the filmmaker’s obstinacy in finely deconstructing an apparently linear scenario, in creating a slight narrative disorder, in producing a lack. The more the film advances, the more it falters, breaks down... just like the face of its heroine. Despair rises from each image and madness lies waiting. And where a naturalistic obviousness could be established, Muratova maintains ambiguity.
“Day after day, during the shoot,” she said, “I try new things until it becomes rich enough. Then I think my eyes need a rest, and I leave it space to breathe, something white, empty.”19
Does the intimate language emerge through this breath, through this whiteness, through this emptiness? Who knows? The film, for its part, refuses any unambiguous interpretation of the situation. It merrily becomes chaoticised. Pieces of raw reality arise in an improbable way. Instability spreads and feeds the trouble – my trouble as a spectator – through the image of the characters’ states of mind. The author seems to act against, powerfully against her own scenario: unexpected temporal insertions, breaks in the sound; silence, incoherence, misframing, repetition... as if the circumstances were rambling... so as to create a dissonant score.20 From the spattered style Muratova’s poetry emerges, emotion springs.
Homo sovieticus resisted this Muratovian poetry. As for me – here and now – besieged by homo economicus – I still feel its shock. I’m familiar with the echo of that intimate language – so close and yet so far away – in the same way that I’m familiar with the film’s permanent instability. Echoes of an instable world: hers, mine.
So I am proposing the following hypothesis: mythology, myths, their survival... isn’t all of this permanently actualising something? To put it in another way: doesn’t every great film revive the inexhaustible turbulence of an ancient myth? What myth stages is a troubled world threatened by implosion. A myth lays bare. A myth allows itself the frankness that is usually suppressed by morality. In a myth, the points of incandescence often turn into tragedies. In a myth, laws are constantly transgressed: one cheerfully takes revenge and kills, one fornicates ad nauseam. The stones speak, recalcitrant men are fossilised. A myth is often tumultuous, jubilant, exuberant: what is taking shape here is a magnificently messy world in search of balance, appeasement, peace. Then – in an unreasonable and elliptical manner – the effects-without-causes return.
The Long Farewell evokes the tragedy of Sophocles. But here there are no explicit parricides or suicides, no explicit incest... Muratova’s style, her intimate language, skins her characters, liberates and decompartmentalises their unconscious: it slowly emerges. The fantasies are silent but legible. The eroticism is suffocating but recurrent. Bodies and faces discreetly translate the pain. The film handles symbolism the way an experienced barber lets a razorblade glide across sensitive skin.
As with that of Pasolini, Muratova’s cinema draws its modernity from classicism, the crucible of all that is unstable, of all that is trouble. This is, I think, the political power of this filmmaker, who – in film – reiterates an irreducible real, archaic but acting in the present... far removed from the comforting stories demanded by Odessa’s studios. It is an écriture that minutely analyses an era, the end of a world. An écriture that sees.
The Berlin Wall came down. The blocs have dissolved. The bipolar world has disappeared. Certainly. But it seems to me that our language – the common, unique, unified, disembodied language we speak – creates the illusion that there are no more regimes. And yet, impalpable and without borders, new regimes have established themselves. Invisible as they are, they do seem to be active in our minds.
Most of the films I watch are comforting and backward in their way of obscuring the unstable world I live in. Films that do not – or, hardly – allow me to approach the non-thought. Here and there, surely, are some promising, rare archipelagos. There are no longer – or should I say not really? – any gulags or prisons where people die for their ideas. It would not be enough to say so much the better. But the fear, the fear of risking the intimate language is intact. That fear has moulted; it has permanently and cheerfully settled in our bodies, filtering the intimate language. It sculpts our gestures as filmmakers. A fear that absorbs the thirst for revolt. Insidious, paralysing fear. Blinding fear. Our fear of not having a place or not finding a place in the trade of images. “In order to see,” says Jean-Luc Godard,21 “you need to risk losing your place.” Passing through the fear exerted by every regime, maybe that’s what the intimate language urges us to risk. To pass through it and see. No: to pass through it in order to see. That is probably the echo I am still hearing.
Filmmakers who stay alive in my mind do so by the singularity of their écriture, by the musicality of their intimate language, by the élan this intimate language produces. Muratova is one of them. From this intimate language, an uncompromising rage filters through. A troubled language, a penetrated language. A vital intimate language. As vital as any intimate language. A cruel and elusive language. An essential language. A restless language. A radical language. Monstrous sometimes, but yours and therefore ours. The intimate language. Unbearable for others, sometimes even for ourselves. The intimate language as an antidote to the wear of words, to the translucent language of images. To the contempt to which the images – our images – are subjected. Insane images – sometimes – that no technology will be able to make contagious if the intimate language is silenced. A neglected, often unsellable language. But an essential language. An intimate language to pre-tend. To sing and film this language against a fleshless language, a poor and laminated language. So give your tongue! Give! Give me your tongue, your cinema tongue. Militate in favour of this intimate language, even if it is perceived as hermetic, indigestible, or even idiotic. Idiotic in the eyes of the indifferent. Idiotic, but – sometimes – the idiot can see. Can see better. Can see differently. Makes it possible to see through his singular idiocy. AND RELEASE your tongue! Even when it is uncertain, elusive and wild. Atonal, cruel. But vibrant. GIVE! GIVE YOUR TONGUE! And if because of its very idiocy this intimate language can be heard, then without ambiguity I militate in favour of an idiotic cinema. But listen! Listen to the intimate language! Listen: unearth that language.
- 1. Jonas Mekas, Cinéma 62, 70 (November 1962): 67-68.
- 2. In a recent essay, the philosopher Marie-José Mondzain said the following: “The most threatened words are the ones that the language of the global flood of verbal and iconic communication is slowly erasing after having twisted them over and again so as to bend them to market forces. Gradually, the capacity to act is destroyed by these very confiscations, which want to destroy any transformative energy.” [original quote: « Les mots les plus menacés sont ceux que la langue du flux mondial de la communication verbale et iconique fait peu à peu disparaître après leur avoir fait subir torsion sur torsion afin de les plier à la loi du marché. Peu à peu, c’est la capacité d’agir qui est anéantie par ces confiscations mêmes, qui veulent anéantir toute énergie transformatrice. »] in: Marie-José Mondzain, Confiscation. Des mots, des images et du temps (Paris: Éditions Les liens qui libèrent, 2017). [own translation]
- 3. Annie Le Brun, Appel d’air (Paris: Éditions Verdier, 2012).
- 4. Annie Le Brun, Ce qui n’a pas de prix. Beauté, laideur et politique (Paris: Éditions Stock, 2018).
- 5. “Pour le cinéma – Pasolini à propos de Médée et de Mille et une nuit” by Pierre Mignot, TF1, 1975.
- 6. This is how Samuel Beckett ends one of his poems. The full poem goes like this: “Music of indifference / heart time air fire sand / of silence collapsing of loves / covers their voices so that / I no longer hear myself / being silent.” [original quote: « Musique de l’indifférence / coeur temps air feu sable / du silence éboulement d’amours / couvre leurs voix et que / je ne m’entende plus / me taire. »] in: Samuel Beckett, Poèmes, suivi de mirlitonnades (Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 1978). [own translation]
- 7. Filmmaker, author of some 20 films, including: Mother [Mat] (1926) and Storm Over Asia [Potomok Chingis-Khana] (1928).
- 8. Vsevolod Pudovkin in: Louis Daquin, “Immortel, éternellement jeune et intarissable,” L’écran français, 232 (12 December 1949).
- 9. I’m thinking of Aleksei German, Gleb Panfilov, Sergei Parajanov, Andrei Tarkovsky, Otar Iosseliani.
- 10. The most famous studios were located in Minsk, Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev, and Odessa.
- 11. Joseph Stalin, 1878-1953.
- 12. Kira Muratova was born in 1934 in Bessarabia, Romania. After graduating from the Russian State Institute of Cinematography (VGIK – Moscow), she settled in Odessa and died there in 2018.
- 13. Frédéric Sabouraud, “Éloge de la ténacité. Entretien avec Kira Muratova,” Cahiers du Cinéma, 402 (December 1987).
- 14. In French, the word trouble also means “turbid, unclear, cloudy, blurred”. [translator’s note]
- 15. Félix Gaffiot, Dictionnaire illustré Latin-français (Paris: Éditions Hachette, 1934), 1615.
- 16. I’m thinking of Dziga Vertov, Sergei M. Eisenstein, Aleksandr Dovzhenko, Vladimir Majakovski, Vsevolod Meyerhold, Osip Mandelstam, Aleksandr Medvedkin.
- 17. She also directed (among others): Brief Encounters [Korotkie vstrechi] (1968), Getting to Know the Big, Wide World [Poznavaya belyy svet] (1978), Among Grey Stones [Sredi serykh kamney] (1983), The Asthenic Syndrome [Astenicheskiy sindrom] (1989), Passions [Uvlecheniya] (1994), The Tuner [Nastroyshchik] (2004), Eternal Homecoming [Vechnoe vozvrashchenie] (2012).
- 18. Raphaël Gély, “De la vulnérabilité originaire de la vie perceptive à l’événementialité du sens. Réflexions à partir de Merleau-Ponty,” Bulletin d’analyse phénoménologique 6, no. 2 (2010): 180-203.
- 19. Frédéric Sabouraud, “Éloge de la ténacité. Entretien avec Kira Muratova,” Cahiers du Cinéma, 402 (December 1987).
- 20. Eugénie Zvonkine, Kira Mouratova. Un cinéma de la dissonance (Lausanne: L’âge d’homme, 2012), 227-239.
- 21. Quoted from memory. If he is not the one who has said it, I think he could have said it.
In 2018, by analogy with similar initiatives in other art forms, Sabzian created a new yearly tradition: Sabzian invites a guest to write a State of Cinema and to choose an accompanying film. Once a year, the art of film is held against the light: a speech that challenges cinema, calls it to account, points the way or refuses to define it, puts it to the test and on the line, summons or embraces it, praises or curses it. A plea, a declaration, a manifest, a programme, a testimony, a letter, an apologia or maybe even an indictment. In any case, a call to think about what cinema means, could mean or should mean today.
For the second edition on 8 March 2019, Sabzian was honoured to welcome filmmaker Claudio Pazienza. He chose Dolgie provody [The Long Farewell] (1971) by Kira Muratova.