15 June, 2007


Memories of a near-silent picture I saw, alone, at the National Film Theatre in October 1997. The film was Marlen Khutsiev's 1991 Infinitas (Beskonechnost); its extreme obscurity makes any second viewing highly unlikely, and so I cling to these fading recollections, more and more precious in the passage of time.


It is evening. A man is at home; he contemplates the street from his window, and mutters some remarks on life, on things coming to an end, in the quiet style of which the Russians and the French are so fond. He is old but not elderly, perhaps 50 or thereabouts; he possesses a sort of sturdy vigour. His name is Vladimir. (What name says 'Russia' more?) He decides to walk in the park, and sits on a bench beside a path that emerges from an arbour. Upon the path materialises a young woman, a silhouette in the glow of a dull sunset. She is probably beautiful; certainly muselike. Does Vladimir interact with her, or only observe? There is also a young man, who will recur throughout the film–a man who is, we are told, unless it was only ever in my imagination, Vladimir's younger self. When at last our protagonist returns home, he finds at his door a queue of proletarians clamouring to take objects from his apartment. This does not appear to surprise him, although there is no indication that he had been expecting such an event. He allows them to dismantle his home and carry off his possessions into the grey unreality beyond the frame of the camera. Again, Vladimir leaves. He decides, if I am not mistaken, to return to the town in which he was born.

The film is in colour, but I remember it in black and white, and I remember it as if it were me walking in the park, and me encountering the rabble at my door, although my recollection of the scenes is indistinct and without focus, as if it were only the fact of the memory, and not the memory itself. Or again, it is like that sort of memory which is so old, and so ritualised in one's mind, that one is no longer sure if it is real, or only the echo of a dream.

The film is almost three and a half hours long, with an intermission, and virtually no dialogue. There is a protracted reminiscence, repetitive and monotonous, of the War, of soldiers marching and drilling endlessly, and this part of the film, I believe, was genuinely in black and white, as if composed of old footage. There are trains and platforms—I remember the whistles. And there is an evening scene, a soirée, with a Strauss waltz as accompaniment.

What I remember most vividly, but still without clarity, is the film's conclusion, a long moment of deadpan poetry. Vladimir is, let us say, stranded in a field, huge and dull. A great clamour has passed on, perhaps the War, leaving in its wake a terrible quiet. He sees his younger double, and something about the double's appearance tells us that this is the last time, and indeed, that the film is about to end. The two men walk together, along a train-track, abandoned—they are talking, but we do not hear their conversation, or else we hear a little, and the rest is inferred. Again it is evening, and the sky is luminous, suggesting that ambivalence of the human soul as it comes to rest, wanting nothing, empty of moment. I recall an almost overwhelming sensation of satiety, of a journey without purpose. Soon the two men, Vladimir and himself, stray from the track, and descend into a darkened area, perhaps wooded. They emerge at a stream. The youth immediately dashes across, extending his hand to the protagonist. Come over, he says, you can make it across. Vladimir shakes his head, and indicates that he will cross a little farther up, where the way is easier. So they walk side by side upstream, parted by a few feet only, glancing at each other, still able to converse; the older man gestures continually, nodding and pointing ahead. The youth, for his part, continues to beckon, with a wide nonchalant sweep of the arm. Ahead, up ahead, Vladimir points. The stream is widening in a gradual calculus, almost imperceptibly. The men begin to stride, with added urgency, and the camera follows them from above; its eye does not flinch, but rather is steady, or as I have just put it, deadpan. The measured calm of the camera, divine but without judgement, indicates the ineluctable—the immobility of two men, who are really one man, playing a set part, as if in a dream. The stream continues to widen. Small bushes separate the men, and yet they continue to talk; then thickets, until they can hardly see one another. Their talk is lost in the noise of the waters, for the stream is now a river. We follow the water, from above, leaving Vladimir behind, and his double also, and at last the camera pans upward, showing no longer a river—but now, rather, the sea itself.


This scene is doubtless an allegory for modern Russian history. I do not know any Russian history, and I am glad—for if I did, that sequence of river and sea could only have been less beautiful. On the way back home I crossed the Hungerford Bridge—the old iron one (now extinct), narrow with a frail railing, badly painted and unlit, and from which you could see beneath your feet the waters of the Thames, dirty old river, green and viscous—a young couple were canoodling passionally within view of St. Paul's, lit up in the distance, grey and bright in the plum dusk. Nobody at school was interested in silent Russian films.


Languagehat said...

I hope I get the chance to see this movie sometime -- it sounds wonderful. I realize part of the point of your post is to present your memories of the movie rather than the movie itself, but just to clear up one misremembered feature, according to an online plot description the people who show up at his apartment are not looters but purchasers:

Somehow, Vladimir's apartment got listed in the papers as a place where the occupant was looking to sell belongings. Material goods are in short supply, and before long, there is a crowd of people at his door, bundled against the winter weather. Somehow, the only thing he can muster the energy to do is let people in and sell most of his things to them.

John Cowan said...

How the devil you can suppose, O Conrad, that conscious elucidation can damage the quality of direct experience, and at one and the same time write your many elucidating discussions of the things you have experienced, escapes me entirely. The rainbow is more beautiful because I understand how it appears, not less.

Irritably yours,

Robert said...

From the start of your telling I got a slight "touch" of A Christmas Carol. I hope this sad reflection is not brought on by your new location at the height of "The Season"! If so what will come out in November?

Nevertheless it would be well worth searching for it. There are many film societies and small cinemas which will feature requests if one is prepared to wait long enough.

As we look towards the Queen's birthday parade, Royal Ascot, Henley and Wimbeldon, a period when good weather is not assured but champagne and strawberries are, I bid you welcome to our shores.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Steve, I hope you do too--it would be right up your street. Thanks for the correction; wasn't far off though!

John: your usually acute critique has I think failed you this time. Adding semantic content to an object--Newton explaining the physics of the rainbow, or a rabbi interpreting a line in the Torah--is always, I think, to add beauty to it. But the artist shouldn't explain his own work. If I had known, for instance, that Vladimir and his younger self were the two Communist factions diverging, never to return together again, my appreciation of the boundless possibilities of the final image would have been limited--the semantic content would be reduced. It would have been disappointing in that political allegories are the dullest, after moral allegories. Had you, on the other hand, provided a convincing and imaginative reading of the scene as a metaphor for the divergence of the Russian Communists, or of North and South Korea, or of the Realists and the Nominalists in the thirteenth century--that I would always have time for.

Robert: my memory is a happy one, not gloomy at things passed. It would be nice to find it again--I found one internet page that listed it but was out of copies, plus it was in Russian, which made it impossible for me to read. Good to be back in London, though--that's for sure. Expect some material on the city.

chris miller said...

Spending over three hours with a melancholy Russian who wanders about feeling lost and alienated ?

No.. thankyou .. I'll think I'll skip on renting this film.

But Conrad's recollection of it was so enjoyable -- I think he should write a movie guide for people who don't like watching movies.

John B. said...

I'm with Steve above--this film sounds wonderful.

Have you seen Russian Ark? Although otherwise quite different, its end is reminiscent of the end of Infinitas, at least as you have described it.

Conrad H. Roth said...

John, yes I have. I liked it OK; some parts were good, and the costumes wonderful. Definite similarities with the ending, too.