Notes from the Underground: Tarkovsky, Alli, Maddin and Me


Andrei Tarkovsky re-wrote my life. I was merrily moving along on my little path, happily completing my B.F.A. in photography at Parsons, when a friend suggested I check out the Tarkovsky film festival at the Film Forum. The imagery reminded him of my artwork (www.annenorda.com). I signed up for a double feature—Mirror and Nostalgia—the perfect blend of Russian surrealism and melancholia. Although the realm of sadness Tarkovsky dredged up felt more visceral, something like heartbreak or deep regret.

When I plopped down at the Film Forum for my first dose of Russian avant-garde, I was instantly transformed into an underground groupie. What was this cinema of moving art? Why hadn’t I experienced it before? If Tarkovsky could make movies that reek of pure art, have little or no logic embedded in the story structure and wallow in the most personal and enigmatic material I’d ever encountered, then perhaps there was hope for me. Perhaps I, too, could be a filkmmaker! Damn the friend who delivered me unto Tarkovsky! At the time, I was a simple “artiste.” I had no intention of stepping into a three-act narrative world. And then came Mirror. Nostalgia. Solaris. Andrei Rublev. And Sacrifice. I could create films that didn’t make sense! Ahh… freedom! (I didn’t actually fulfill that imperative… I’ll address that later.)

For those unfamiliar with Mr. Tarkovsky, this highly esteemed director, now deceased, was initially not only rejected, but reviled by most of his fellow countrymen. His sensibility defied Russian logic. Now he’s considered their premier post-modern moviemaker.

I’ve watched Tarkovsky’s imagery creep into our popular culture over the years. Entire scenes, like the milk pitcher, falling in slow motion and crashing to the floor, and the woman, floating over her bed, have been lifted from his films and etched onto our music videos, commercials and films.

When I plotted my first feature, I intended to emulate Tarkovsky’s style, but my inner writer didn’t let me. I turned out to be a more literal storyteller. Granted, a few moments in my film could, perhaps, be called “Tarkovskyesque” (or I’d like to think so…), but for the most part it’s straight narrative. In my heart of hearts, I’m a surrealist, but I can’t seem to take the leap of faith and commit to the conceptual realm. I’m too concerned about story and logic and “will the audience get it?” Tarkovsky wasn’t concerned with the audience’s comprehension level; he aimed straight for the under layers of their psyches. I love that!

My next two encounters with the underground contingent were up close and personal. One is fairly well-known and has had relative commercial success: Award-winning Canadian avant-garde master, Guy Maddin. The other, a Finnish American, Antero Alli, is toiling away in near obscurity in Berkeley, planting his brain juice, which is slowly seeping up to a broader consciousness.

I’m tangentially related to Antero Alli. He’s my cousin’s half-brother. This obsessive genius artist has been churning out films for over a decade. His work is confounding to most people, but for his true fans, he’s a conceptual god. I will admit, my first reaction to his work was “huh?” but the idiosyncrasy of his vision eventually grew on me. I let myself be washed over by the hallucinatory quality of his storytelling and now count myself a fan. Where else am I going to get surreal films performed by mad theater performers (Antero’s Paratheatre troop) woven with the poetry of Sylvia Plath, the philosophy of French Surrealist Antonin Artaud and the musings of Rainer Maria Rilke?

The latest, Invisible Forest (www.verticalpool.com/invisibleforest.html,) is a strange concoction of Shakespearean fantasy gone awry in a hidden forest, psychoanalysis and cryptic mythical storytelling. In my favorite sequence, a man renders a rant on “the void” while suspended in a tree. Ten minutes on THE VOID. In a tree. Brilliant.

Antero shows his work at local Berkeley art houses. He hasn’t had luck with the festival circuit. I suspect his meanderings and mysterious treks into the psyche go a smidgeon too far under the ground for most programmers’ agendas. But what’s it about!?!?!? There’s the rub. I can’t really answer that question either. They are experiential. Antero doesn’t rely on outside funding, so he can continue to cull the always evocative corners of his mind ad infinitum. This is the courage to create. This is the courage not to worry about next month’s rent.

My third encounter with an undergrounder was a hoot! My film premiered at the Kansas International Film Festival last year and Guy Maddin was the guest of honor. I’m embarrassed to admit I didn’t know who he was, but the festival LOVED him to death. His film, Brand Upon the Brain! (Love that title! Don’t get it, but love it!) was the centerpiece film of Kansas and they gave him a special award for something… for being Guy Maddin, I believe… You gotta love the Kansas award. Shaped like a massive coffee cup with a rabid audience member inside, 3D glasses hooked to her head, as she clutches the edges of the cup, terrified by what she’s viewing. Everyone at the festival wanted one.

Guy seemed almost more pleased with this big cup than the award he received from Toronto. His film, Winnipeg, won the Best Feature at the festival. He flew to Toronto for an afternoon to accept the honor and came right back to Kansas to complete a dire mission. He and the festival director Ben Meade had plans to fly over Kansas and do some 8mm shooting for their communal art project.

They were having way too much fun plotting this little piece. Guy was a gentleman (and I don’t use that word often) with a subtle streak of humor that I can’t aptly describe. Was it cynicism? Playfulness? Did he take himself too seriously or not seriously enough? I found this enigma in his film as well. Brand Upon the Brain!, inspired by silent film aesthetics, crept into my bones in a way few “normal” films do. Repetition is Guy’s sword and he wields it well. Redundancy became spirals of meaning upon meaning. It was so lovingly created that, despite the absolutely bizarre plot (a girl falls in love with a sailor, who is a girl pretending to be a boy while her brother tries to save their orphanage and their father is a zombie in a perpetual lab… I swear, I’m not making it up…), you knew you were being drenched in art.

Guy’s film seemed at times haphazard and at others, intricately constructed, like one of those huge grandfather clocks, with all the gears somehow linking and moving it all forward. Guy confessed that much of his work is based on his own childhood experiences. Considering the bizarre nature of his oeuvre, I fear he was raised by trolls.

The stories these three moviemakers tell are profound, occasionally hilarious, often disturbing visions. All three use the fodder from their own lives and, like hefty cows standing their ground, chew the cud of their imagination and spit it out onto the screen in completely unique, bold and distinct patterns.

Though I’ve been tempted, I have yet to join the underground. And, though I wasn’t raised by trolls, the work of those who might have been has transformed my idea of what is possible in the infinite art of film.

Eternally, optimistically,
Anne

Anne Norda is an award-winning artist, writer, director and producer with one feature, Red Is the Color Of (Best Feature Film, 2007 LA Femme Film Festival), under her belt. She was born in North Hollywood, schooled at the Parsons School of Design and was a Fulbright Scholar in photography. She’s a Finnish and U.S. citizen and has lived in Paris, Helsinki, LA, NY and Bangkok. Her dream is to run a major movie studio. Or be a Pulitzer prize-winning poet and dedicate her life to art and the transformation of humanity. Whichever may come first.

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