Tag Archives: Tarkovsky

Test Dept’s Film Jukebox

UK tour brett T BW
Test Dept photo by Brett Turnbull

Prompted by cultural and political developments, influential 80s industrial music collective Test Dept have recently resurfaced and are currently touring their film DS30 (2014) along with other archive film material. Their book Total State Machine has just been released by PC-Press and is available from Rough Trade East and from the PC-Press website. There will be a number of re-issues of their recorded material soon on PC-Press/Forte Distribution. Test Dept: Redux will be playing live at the Wroclaw Industrial Festival, Poland, on 7 November and at TPO in Bologna, Italy, on 14 November. They will be appearing at the Cambridge Film Festival (4-12 September) on 12 September as part of the Microcinema event programme curated by James Mackay and William Fowler, DARK PICTURES: Industrial Music Culture. Below, Test Dept founding member Graham Cunnington picks his ten essential films, some of which have a personal significance while others have influenced the work of the group.

1.Stalker (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1979)
A seminal moment of inspiration and one of those films where you look at the world differently once you emerge from the darkness of the cinema into the light. The landscape of ‘The Zone’ in the film, where one’s deepest dreams can perhaps be realised, somehow reflected the desolation of the former docklands around New Cross where we lived at the time; mile upon mile of derelict and ruined industrial buildings and forsaken empty wasteland. The film raises philosophical questions about the nature of reality and about the existential battles of science and logic vs art and creativity, religion and belief, about right and wrong, good and evil, and it made me feel there were much deeper levels of understanding to explore in the world around me. It also heavily influenced our film Cold Witness starring the great Ken Campbell.

2. Enthusiasm: Symphony of the Donbass (Dziga Vertov, 1931)
Vertov’s film Man with a Movie Camera could be in this list as it was a huge early influence on our visual director Brett Turnbull and of Test Dept’s filmmaking style, especially during the 1984/85 Miners’ Strike. But Enthusiasm is here as it was the first sound film. The first to use sound recorded on location, and then to use those sounds, cut up into a sound collage for the soundtrack. A technique that we have developed throughout our career, using found sound in creating film soundtrack and music composition.

3. Werckmeister Harmonies (Béla Tarr, 2000)
The opening shot of the young main protagonist choreographing the drunken inhabitants of a bar in a small town in rural Hungary to act out the movement of the heavenly bodies of the solar system is a beautifully arresting scene. Béla Tarr’s customary ultra-long takes create a dreamlike metaphorical meditation on the fall and failure of the machinations and corruptions of power and the willing blindness of people to accommodate such things. A constant struggle between dark and light around prophesies of doom in a world on the brink of disaster. This film produced another jolt of a creative spark for me.

4. Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979)
The adaptation of Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness, the script, the cinematography, the soundtrack, the characters, and the surreality and unexpectedness of some of the scenes and scenarios. In every aspect an astonishing and ground-breaking film that really resonated with us, not least because the Vietnam War was a constant background noise on the news when we were kids. Some sonic material of this was inevitably extracted and used in early TD work, and many others’ too. Someone said of our original installation of DS30 on the river Tyne in Newcastle last year that approaching it by boat was like one of the scenes from this film. A compliment indeed.

5. Eraserhead (David Lynch, 1977)
Although Blue Velvet, Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive are brilliant films, Eraserhead was the first Lynch film and the first one I watched. More surreal and strange than anything I had ever come across before, it knocked me sideways. It was always on late night screenings at The Ritzy in Brixton and that was the best time for it. The strange main character of Henry, the black and white cinematography, the sound design and the atmosphere of alienation have lingered in my creative cloud, and, as a reference for being out there, doing your own thing and not giving a shit what people think, it’s pretty unsurpassed. A disturbance of the psyche that textured and coloured some of mine and Test Dept’s very early work.

6. A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, 1971)
The fact that this had been banned and could only be watched on illegal VHS video tapes created the initial intrigue. As a punk in South London in the late 70s, violence was a part of my teenage years. The streets were a dangerous place where gangs of Skinheads, Teddy Boys, Casuals, Hells Angels and Bikers were out to get you. This film reflected that reality – Alex and his Droogs wear their identifying uniform and commit ‘ultra-violence’ much as some in those sub-cultures did – but it also made such an impact on me through its depiction of a government using psychological conditioning to control its citizenship, fanning the flames of my own young anti-establishment tendencies. The design of a near-future, much like our own but strange and alien too, helped by the invented language of Nadsat, appropriating words from other sources, and the incredible soundtrack by Walter (later Wendy) Carlos, transplanting Beethoven’s Glorious Ninth Symphony onto the Moog synthesiser; all an inspiration which would come back to me years later when me and the other members of TD came to work on the Kubrick film Full Metal Jacket as extras.

7. No Mercy, No Future (Helma Sanders-Brahms, 1981)
Incredibly difficult to watch, but this is an enormously powerful work and, along with Sanders-Brahms’s other film Germany, Pale Mother, had such an influence on me, coming out of both in tears, absolutely drained and devastated. A story about a schizophrenic young girl in West Berlin, under the shadow of the Wall, alone and alienated in a brutal city, looking for god. It was an eye-opener that such a powerful emotional effect could be got through a story so uncompromising, uncomfortable and disturbing. It sparked an interest that would eventually lead me to have the courage, many years later, to develop and tell my own story in the solo play Pain.

8. Mad Max II: The Road Warrior (George Miller, 1981)
Another future dystopia, it was a toss-up between this and Blade Runner, even though that is undoubtedly the better film, but MMII gets in due to the mutated vehicles and repurposed materials giving an obvious link with TD and our choice of scrap-metal instrumentation. What drew me in was the lonesome road warrior with his dog and his souped-up car, concerned with doing the right thing, but only just, something I identified with completely in my imagination. Also, the opposing tribes: the bad biker-punk gang so much more beguiling than the boring hippie goodies inside their oil-well encampment (except for the cool wild kid narrator with the boomerang). A high-octane-powered roller coaster ride. As TD, we later hooked up with the Mad Max-inspired Mutoid Waste Company, who were living at the time in a quarry in Italy, mutated their own vehicles and could have been characters straight out of the film. We went on convoy with them around Italy and felt as though we actually were.

9. Ghost Dog (Jim Jarmusch, 1999)
I just love this film with Forest Whitaker’s depiction of the eponymous lone hitman who communicates by pigeon and constantly refers to the Hagakure: Book of The Samurai, trying to interpret its code as a spiritual guide; his character here resonates with my own conflicted struggle for a spiritual understanding, beyond religion, in a harshly unspiritual time. He moves through the city unnoticed by most except the few who really see him, accompanied by RZA’s great score, and when you come out of this film you want to do the same, in that lazy, slouching walk that he has, just to be as cool as him – even though he kills people.

10. Koyaanisqatsi: Life out of Balance (Godfrey Reggio, 1982)
Really three films in one post. This, along with Powaqqatsi: Life in Transformation and Naqoyqatsi: Life as War introduced another element into my creative perspective. Film as documentary and as art with a powerful societal message and without words (except those spoken or sung in the soundtrack). The mixture of breath-taking imagery depicted in slow motion or time-lapse with the modernist minimalist repetitive looping soundtrack by Philip Glass created a gloriously vibrant and addictive mix. The films depict the human impact on both the developed and developing worlds, starting from untouched natural landscapes through human intervention to the urban and built environments and beyond to the technologically driven world we inhabit today. Astonishing works, of which maybe a little influence trickled through to our film DS30.

Pomegranate and Cockerels: The Rich Mysteries of Sergei Paradjanov’s World

Sergei Paradjanov

Format: Cinema

Release date: 22 February – 9 May 2010

London + Bristol

The Paradjanov retrospective ran at BFI Southbank throughout March

More information on the Paradjanov Festival website

A few months ago, a little picture caught my eye. Framed on the white wall of a London Georgian restaurant, it was a small black and white photograph: an old, bearded man leapt through the air, his jacket gathered around his arms like a pair of wings. A couple of women stood behind him, hands raised, their stance somewhere between amusement and bemusement. There was something mysteriously arresting about that picture and I couldn’t help but feel intrigued. A couple of months on and a major BFI Southbank retrospective later, I now recognise the soaring figure as Sergei Paradjanov (1924-1990) – a singularly spectacular creator of images. In this case, it was his own vivacious portrait; within his films, an infinite series of majestically beautiful tableaux. The rich red of a pomegranate seeping into white linen; an ornate royal hunting party seated on bold black horses, raising their pistols to the sky; a handsomely beautiful woman, bedecked in a wreath like Caravaggio’s Bacchus, her shoulder covered by a plump white cockerel.

Despite citing Tarkovsky, Pasolini and Fellini as influences, Paradjanov’s aesthetic is not quite like anything else in cinema. Screening before several features at the BFI retrospective, Kiev Frescoes (1965) perfectly demonstrated the potency of his mysterious visions. This film collage is a 13-minute compilation of rushes and tests from a feature, banned in pre-production by the Soviet authorities. Incomplete and fragmented, these scenes might have left the viewer confused and searching for meaning. But despite a lack of context or narrative, the viewer could not help but yield to the image of three immaculately attired military men perched on stools, sceptres in hands, or the sound of luscious water sweeping over floorboards. It was an exceedingly powerful initiation into Paradjanov’s oeuvre: works that delight and indulge in the aural and visual possibilities of film.

Paradjanov studied film at the Moscow Film School, VGIK, but his concept of the filmmaker was founded much more on his own romantic sensibility than on a formal education: ‘You torment others with your artistic delight,’ he said in the documentary Paradjanov: A Requiem (1994). ‘You can’t learn [filmmaking]. You have to possess it in your mother’s womb.’ After making several features and documentaries in the 1950s, Paradjanov took a new direction after seeing Andrei Tarkovsky’s debut feature, Ivan’s Childhood (1962). Taking Tarkovsky to be his ‘mentor’, he rejected Soviet social realism as ‘submissive works by court artists’ and embarked on Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors (1964), a Ukrainian folkloric tale filmed in the Gutsul dialect. His break from social realism and championing of the Ukraine region (he categorically refused to dub the film into Russian) prompted much hostility from the Soviet government. He was blacklisted and imprisoned three times on various trumped-up charges. Although Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors resulted in personal suffering, it was a revelatory moment for Paradjanov, both in terms of style and content, as he explained in Paradjanov: A Requiem: ‘That’s when I found my theme – the struggles of a people. I focused on ethnography, on God, love and tragedy. That’s what film and literature are to me’.

These were themes that Paradjanov would pursue in what many consider to be his ultimate masterpiece, The Colour of Pomegranates (1967). Screening after the short Kiev Frescoes, it was this film that was chosen as the main feature to launch the retrospective. It may have made more sense to open with Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors, since it was this project that marked Paradjanov’s adventurous new approach to filmmaking and, of the two, The Colour of Pomegranates is the more accomplished, complete film. Shadows of our Forgotten Ancestors is a truly extraordinary film in itself but it loses a little pacing in the final scenes and cannot quite compete with the tender beauty of The Colour of Pomegranates. From a chronological perspective, it would have been beneficial for BFI audiences to see such career progression through the programming. It seems likely that the decision was based on the fact that The Colours of Pomegranates is Paradjanov’s best known film. Sadly, Paradjanov does not enjoy the reputation he deserves – I’m sure many people have sat in the same Georgian restaurant and not known the identity of the man in the photograph. The BFI season was the first-ever opportunity to see his shorts, features, documentaries and unfinished projects all gathered together and it was encouraging to see screenings sold out to engrossed audiences. From the career-spanning material presented at BFI Southbank, it is clear that he is a director who must be considered one of the masters of cinema.

Although the positioning of The Colour of Pomegranates was questionable in terms of chronology, it proved an ideal choice in terms of impact. It is as revelatory a film as Ivan’s Childhood. Inspired by Armenian miniatures and icons, its tableaux slowly evoke – rather than tell – the life of the 18th-century poet and troubadour Sayat Nova. Because of its impressionistic, allegorical approach, many have described the film as non-narrative, but it is, in fact, fairly linear in its storytelling. We see the young poet growing up in a simple, wool-farming community; his time as bard at the court of King Erekle II; his desire for the king’s sister; the loss of this love; his retreat to monastic life; his grief over the death of his mentor, Father Lazarus; and in turn, his own old age and death.

The Colour of Pomegranates

As the troubadour moves towards death, his former muse and childhood self appear among the compositions as he looks back on his life – ‘In the Sun Valley of the distant years, live my longings, my loves and my childhood’ – but the film tends to move forward with few flashbacks. It is more that the linearity becomes lost among the rich symbolism and surrealist touches. As Sayat Nova falls in love with his muse, the beautiful princess at court, Paradjanov introduces interludes of masque and mime artistry as a couple perform a dancing courtship, disappearing and reappearing among hanging woven rugs. The poet’s death is portrayed through a long sequence of allegories: chained workers scything hay; a blindfolded man stumbling through a bleak landscape populated by dancing angels; a swinging pendulum that knocks his childhood self to the ground; the poet laid with arms outstretched among glowing candles as white chickens fall around him. The unique poetry and symbolism of these images can leave the viewer a little disorientated at times – especially those unfamiliar with the traditional culture of the Caucasus – but the opacity somehow adds to the mystery and majesty; and on repeated viewings, the recurring motifs reveal the inner logic of the film and the way that early experiences influenced the elder poet. The colourful woollen yarn, the chaotic farm animals, the literature and the music of his youth informed his artistic conception of the world (‘From the colours and aromas of this world, my childhood made a poet’s lyre and offered it to me’). Sayat Nova’s death scene among the chickens perfectly recalls an exquisitely beautiful scene from earlier in the film, when the child poet lies down on a monastery roof, surrounded by books, pages rustling in the wind, his arms outstretched and staring up at the sky.

Laden with the poet’s suffering and biblical and folkloric symbolism, there is an epic, earnest solemnity to The Colour of Pomegranates; and while such gravity and careful construction could lead to austerity and artificiality, there is also a consuming warmth and sensuality. His effervescent and corporeal sensibility mirrors Pasolini and Fellini more closely than his other mentor, Tarkovsky. The extraordinarily striking actress Sofiko Chiaureli plays the part of both poet and muse, exploring male and female sexuality (Paradjanov was himself bisexual and first imprisoned for a homosexual act with a KGB officer) and the film is joyously abundant with melodic folk music and heightened sounds: the crinkling of books’ pages; the squelch of pomegranate seeds; the dripping of wool dye onto metallic plates; the urgent chirping of bird song. There is almost no dialogue in the film; instead these sounds, intertitles displaying lines from Sayat Nova’s poems and the occasional voice-over convey the message.

The Colour of Pomegranates is an emotionally affecting film and is especially poignant given Paradjanov’s own suffering in prison and the loss of his first wife, who was murdered by her own family after converting from Islam to Christianity. Lost loves and issues of ethnicity, subjects raw to his heart, are treated with immense compassion. And yet, The Colour of Pomegranates is also a film that joyously arouses all the senses: a truly sensory experience without precedent or successor. Paradjanov once said, ‘whoever tries to imitate me is lost’. Given the unique, mystifying, enigmatic visions he sets before the viewer, imitation would be frankly impossible.

Eleanor McKeown