333 Great Directors: Otar Iosseliani

“If art is a phenomenon that brings joy to people, it cannot have a destructive effect, al­though with the help of words written on paper, one can lie, one can create filth, and one can deform the human psyche. The same applies to the screen because it is a blank slate — you can project anything you want on it: Swineherd and Shepherd, Trac­tor Drivers, Ivan the Ter­rib­le, or Office Romance — which are all very different movies, to put it gently. At the same time, we saw Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane and the films of Woody Allen, Jacques Tati, and Jean Vigo. Incidentally, Vigo made only one film, but in my opinion he is still the greatest artist that has ever existed in cinematography. There is another wonderful film, Miracle in Milan by Vit­torio De Sica.”

Why This Director?: I heard about a director who utilized no real language and just mise en scene in the comments over at The Dissolve (RIP) in an article discussing Godard’s Goodbye to Language, and was instantly intrigued and made a note to check him out. His lack of reputation struck me as all the better: all I knew about him was that some random individual thought he was underrated, and that his most acclaimed film outranked all of Tarkovsky (and was #2…with Potemkin at #100, so yeah) when they voted for the Best USSR/Russian film at the SCFZ. Even his one movie that got submitted to Best Foreign Film (and fairly recently to boot-he still works at 82!) had no reputation.

My Last Experience Was…: None whatsoever.

What Did I Watch: I first watched April, his first feature (well, I count 45 minutes as qualifying) and #96 on that SCFZ list. A lot of times for this project, my logic was the same as Julie Andrews in Sound of Music: “Let’s start from the very beginning, a very good place to start…” Second was his most popular work, There Once Was a Singing Blackbird.

Where Does He Fit: Disclaimer for this entry and all in the future: this is all based off of a small body of work that I am judging. With that out of the way, Iosseliani is an absurdist, and he is dipping his pen deep into a well of various bodies of movies with his first full film, an absurdist piece of nonsense that starts off with jaunty music and people playing instruments out of their windows, a sort of chorus that replaces the voices and language. A boy and a girl meet, and it looks like they will fall in love even with the latter trying to avoid the former by running playfully away in the city streets, but the soundtrack and various people walking by carrying furniture and making crashing by are what keeps them separated.

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It is not a natural collection of noises, either, with a scene of children running by featuring clattering noises rather than anything resembling footsteps, so when they finally partner up (no real reason for it) and go off into the wilderness by a tree with beautiful tranquil music playing, it feels like a natural place, a vista, complete with idyllic livestock grazing away peacefully. Alas, this is only a honeymoon, and we head back to the routine of opened windows and men going to work while the couple looks at their new apartment, eventually filling it up with the chairs everyone carries.

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From this point on, the message of “materialism is shit” is used in the couple slowly falling apart, with a love that keeps the power and water functioning giving way to trees being cut down (*piano crash*) and ignoring each other in favor of polishing crystal glasses and stuffing their apartment so full of crap they can barely make their way around. That is when the gibberish language kicks in.

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April does its job well, but it is not even close to perfect (the one filmography ranking I saw for Iosseliani ranked this last) and is very much a first feature, with a very short man that is dressed in black and decides to continually get involved with the couple’s affairs serving a purpose that I personally cannot make out and dragging the action to a halt to boot. The metaphor sure as hell is not subtle, but it works thanks to the strictness of how the director sticks to the repetition of details within the absurdism. Loud, repetitive sounds are the most appropriately ridiculous thing one can imagine, right?

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“Much” more beloved is Blackbird, which was admired by Andrei Tarkovsky, still gets love from certain circles of cinephiles, and is the only Iosseliani to have more than 100 views on Letterboxd. To which I say, good for him, as it is an exciting piece of something I’d never quite seen before even if it badly needs a restoration/new subtitles, as the quality I saw it in is pure shit.

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Iosseliani only made two documentary shorts and another feature, Falling Leaves, between April and this, but the ramp up in originality is huge even if there is something a little disappointing about having to put up with actual dialogue. But unlike the slow, luxuriant April that needed to be either much shorter or longer (although 45 minutes is an underrated movie length), this goes quickly from the start, with one character immediately searching for the tardy musician Gia, who gets on stage right at the start of the performance before he has to do anything on the drums.

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His big moment is over quickly, but he is clearly still pissing everyone off with his antics, leaving his girlfriend to go off with no explanation, then leaving the friends he meets behind for a woman, and so on, although he never seems to be all that bothered by it.

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All these rejections, by the way, take under five minutes, and the movie continues in this vein for about half an hour (aka half the running time), with things like metronomes and clocks ticking in the background. Not exactly subtle, but there is a point in a music store run by his father where he makes a vague comment along the lines of not wasting a minute. It is the skeleton key to the whole picture.

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Iosseliani’s obsession is not things like materialism or anti social behaviors or absurdism, it is on the human drive. We do not need to understand what the couple is saying when they argue, just the tones and the fact that the water stopped running. But Blackbird’s focus is tricky, with a character so pathologically driven by the urge to not waste a single minute that he throws away every single one of them, his interactions roundly unsatisfying and pissing off his employers by wringing out his break a little too far, most cleverly utilized in a scene where he sees a small child playing a musical instrument and shuts the door on him4050. The formalism matches the content, and that is always thrilling.

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Most Valuable Asset: His eye for cinematography. April relied on static tableau, Blackbird used tracking shots. Both were gorgeous in their starkness and helped make the long silences go by quickly.
Buzzword: Dissonance.
Most Excited For: And Then There Was Light, which was mentioned in that original comment and seems to be his second most well regarded.

Coming Up Next: Recent Palme winner Jacques Audiard.

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