On Digital Film Grain and Medium Specificity

I believe that – regardless of the viewer’s breadth of knowledge – one has an inherent sense of what is right or wrong in an image. It comes down to a question of ethics. How a recognisable object – a person’s skin, a tree, moonlit skies, light fixtures – can be rendered obscene when the current filmmaking apparatuses cede control over to the technician instead of the object. All the technical know-how and obsessiveness that can come with the camera (whether it’s a vintage fetishisation of analog or the fastidiousness of keeping up with the latest ARRI ALEXA and Blackmagic models) undermines the necessity and resourcefulness mandated by a limited toolset, a limited toolset more closely resembling the stigmatisms/astigmatisms inherent to vision. It used to be an obsessiveness only affecting filmmakers with access to these tools. But the “prosumer” technocracy now inherent to readily accessible, high-resolution cameras make anyone privy to a once desirable and inaccessible standard, a standard contingent on manipulation (once analog, now digital).

Fixating on a favourite cinematographer also seems the wrong way to approach a film, another tendency in this cinephilia-as-technocracy (or vice-versa). A cinematographer’s artistic contributions – like many a director – can best be approached on a case-by-case basis. In many ideal instances, a cinematographer and director push each other outside of mandates they’ve previously set for themselves, even if it’s only for one or two films. Though ideal, many established filmmakers – of the ilk I mention below – remain ignorant of anything beyond boundaries they’ve set for themselves, resulting in maybe one productive shake-up in their filmography at the hands of a canny collaborator. Viewing a cinematographer’s career standalone, however, can limit their role to that of a visual stylist. There is very little writing about cinematographers that expands this categorisation. Even though it’s not the coverage in itself that’s the problem, it’s what it is premised on, being: the technocracy and fetishization of what is both in and outside of the image.

Of the films below, I watched The Twentieth Century and Uncut Gems at the Lido Cinema and First Cow at Cinema Nova, both in Melbourne. As with most films not finished in a 16:9 aspect ratio, each of the above was shown in open matting, the black bars on either side of their aspect ratios as obvious as the images themselves. This is now the norm in Melbourne, as perhaps only a couple of cinemas accommodate the correct aspect ratios. The projector overcompensates in this regard, the only “fault” of a digital projector that changes how a film is seen.

Watching The Twentieth Century, directed by Matthew Rankin, I was instantly suspicious of the 16mm imagery on display, far too “filmic” despite being shot on film. Looking at an on-set photograph confirmed that it was shot on 16mm, but I got no satisfaction from this knowledge. I still couldn’t decide – while watching the film – whether it was shot digitally or on film. And that still seems like the only valid response to what I saw, regardless of what was actually used during production. I felt much the same watching it as I do when watching a contemporary music video or commercial shot on 16mm. At an earlier point in time, 16mm images transferred to DCP’s or digital files felt easier to identify, but now the digitally scanned 16mm image is ubiquitous to the point of illegibility – either as a fully 16mm or 4K scan of an image. It’s an intermediary likely untouched by human hands, undoing the disingenuous drive to shoot on analog formats, a drive often motivated by bastardised “authentic” or “hand-made” qualities. They may have paid and gone through the effort of shooting on 16mm, but this choice is both too evident as a flourish and too distant from its original format to register as anything other than a stylistic showcase; a choice self-imposed, not necessitated.

I was searching throughout The Twentieth Century for two objects/landscapes that maintain – when shot through a digital sensor – characteristics distinct from celluloid (even when treated with artificial grain and extensive golour grading in post-production):

  1. Practical red light sources: These remain difficult to capture with digital sensors, giving off a pink/paler shade than how the actual light source appears to the human eye. Taillights are an example of this discrepancy in an easily recognisable artificial light source. They often appear in digital photography as a pink-ish glow, showing the components of the light’s redness, but not the colour itself.
  2. Nighttime exteriors: Digital sensors have difficulty capturing deep black hues, especially those of the night sky, unless it’s been treated in the colour grade. Night skies appear as slate gray or dark violet with the clouds often fairly legible. The benefit of this clarity at nighttime is one’s ability to digitally capture the illuminated clouds surrounding the moon, not merely the moon itself – as it tends to appear on celluloid. This is because a digital sensor is more sensitive to natural and artificial light, dependent on a video LOG[1] codex instead of a film negative with a limited ASA. The digital camera also has an ASA/ISO limit, but the ALEXA Mini (the camera used in some capacity on most films mentioned below) has a natural ISO of 800, greater than any existing film stock, which are manufactured nowadays at ASA’s of 500T (T=Tungsten, designed for 500 ASA sensitivity under artificial light) or 250D (D=Daylight, or 250 ASA sensitivity in natural light).

On the subject of self-imposed limitations, the process of shooting on film is now one step closer to a digital camera’s workflow as printing processes, film stocks and laboratories scarcely exist for extensive optical colour timing. The still-enigmatic processes and errors that develop an analog image are the camera’s aforementioned (a)stigmatisms. These (a)stigmatisms are further linked to the optical eyepiece that the filmmaker looks through, as all that separates what one and the camera see are a few glass optics. Inside the digital eyepiece is a screen, one similar to the camera’s monitor displaying its RAW codex of what the camera configures, adjusted with either a customized or ready-made Look Up Table[2]. As such, the digital sensor’s red light source is an approximation of what was previously – between the optical eyepiece and camera negative – a mediation of a recognisable form. There are no inherent (a)stigmatisms to the process of a 2-4K resolution digital workflow. Now that 16 and 35mm images are – with few exceptions –finished within these resolutions, these analog (a)stigmatisms have also been largely smoothed out (though film’s finer-attuned exposure levels still allow for the aforementioned, reconisably human exposure levels and colour temperatures). Each quality in the image is limited to the intentions of their technicians, a megalomania that now dictates how contemporary cinema and – furthermore – the eyes that watch it process these recognisable forms.

On-set photo taken on the set of The Twentieth Century, with Rankin behind the camera

There need to be new, digital limitations. Once-common Standard Definition cameras, constrained to a 720×576 resolution, limit what can be adjusted within a set range according to a lower ISO and higher contrasts. But with 2-4K cameras, the now outmoded techniques of yore (the old lenses and tungsten lights) don’t properly deconstruct the clarity and control inherent to their high resolutions. Anamorphic lenses mounted onto a digital sensor eliminate the time constraints inherent to a 4-perforation film magazine (3-4 minutes on a portable, 400ft mag). But this discrepancy in time – and consequence – changes the image. With these advances made and costs cut, a digitally captured anamorphic image, as a result, looks cheap. This comes back to the intuition I spoke of above. Regardless of the technical know-how or the preference for film or digital, my conviction remains when an image is “wrong”. Digital-sensor anamorphic images are wrong, as is footage treated with artificial film grain in the colour grade, as is celluloid scanned and overly manipulated digitally from the developed negative.

An egregious example of the three tendencies above is in Uncut Gems. Watching it in the cinema, I determined the digital segments from those shot on 35mm, but felt – as with The Twentieth Century – that I’d discovered nothing more of the images themselves. This is the prevailing disappointment of technical investigations and the dubious images that encourage them. There have been too many articles speaking of the technique involved in these dubious images: The Safdies professing their love for cinematographer Darius Khondji, interviews speaking of anamorphic lenses, the time constraints of 4-perf film stock, focus pulling and single-camera setups.

There was a shift from seeing the film on a TV and then at a cinema, obviously, but not in the way I expected. As with The Twentieth Century, open matted black bars were evident, this time at the top and bottom of a 2.39 aspect ratio. What was more evident in the theatre was a discrepancy between footage shot digitally and footage shot on film. In the aforementioned coverage of the film, celluloid was pushed to the forefront as its aesthetic selling point, specifically long lens anamorphic. On Kodak’s blog and in interviews, it was stated that only night exteriors were shot digitally. In the theatre it became evident that the following scenes were also shot digitally:

  • The opening minutes set in Ethiopia (but shot in South Africa)
  • The nighttime exteriors and interiors, which make up roughly 50 minutes of the film’s runtime
  • The scenes towards the end of the film featuring Julia Fox, in both the helicopter and at the Mohegan Sun casino

But again, I felt neither gratification nor disappointment in identifying these scenes as such. Making up nearly half the film, the key identifying feature of the above scenes was the grain predominant in the image. Reading up on it, 35mm elements were filmed on a grey card and superimposed over the digitally captured images, in addition to the high ISO digital noise that appears as its own, distinct grain element in low light conditions. The digitally captured scenes were shot with the same anamorphic lenses as the scenes shot on film, an attempt at medium consistency that, instead, stretched and broke apart the digital sensor, distorting it with an ease non-existent when large-format celluloid is shot through with the same lenses.

The artificial grain and stretched frame felt empty, despite the noise and grain buzzing around the screen, appearing on top of the image instead of within it. The grain didn’t conform to its corresponding colour or contrast, first of all. From an interview with ASC Magazine, Darius Khondji referred to additional grain elements as “grain ghosts”. Taking this into account, one is looking at dead digital images – or at least an image equivalent of an allograft, surgically injected with cadaver bones to compensate for a life non-existent otherwise. The intent of this grain application – as with the anamorphic lenses – is to help it flow with segments actually shot on film. But the overt intent undoes medium specificity. One would shoot digitally in low light scenarios to get a greater exposure level and ability to adjust highlights in the scenes, but the application of grain – both practically and implicitly – undoes this by muddying the actual image that was exposed in-camera. I’m not interested in confronting Khondji on his logic, but there’s suspicion that arises with technicians like him who very easily bow to questions about their technique – most of them encouraged by the likes of both ASC and Filmmaker magazines.

It was in the screening of Uncut Gems that I also saw a trailer for First Cow, a film I’d already seen at home months before. I was instantly averse to the images, adjusting to footage I never remembered watching. As with Uncut Gems, the grain elements were distracting, to the extent that the film’s exposure was also greatly affected by the grain, sapping out highlights and natural light predominant in the images.

Seeing the film again in a theatre (with the black bars, again), I was reassured by a more consistent image, the one I remembered watching at home and whose artificial grain was applied so as to forget about it minutes into the film. Unlike Uncut Gems, it was shot entirely on an ALEXA Mini, creating a more consistent image than Khondji’s mix of analog and digital formats. Kelly Reichardt and cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt also shot Night Moves on the original model of ALEXA with similar amounts of low-light scenarios and grain application.

Colour grading is usually the final step in the filmmaking process, along with sound-mixing, so the trailer’s visual discrepancies may have been from an unfinished grade. Either that or A24 wanted to turn up the levels of exposure, making it more conventionally legible and going against Reichardt and Blauvelt’s intentions.

First Cow (taken from the finished film)

Second First Cow (taken from the trailer)

A more obvious unfinished grade that struck me was in the trailer for Dark Waters. Being the first film Todd Haynes and Edward Lachman shot digitally together, there was a bland uniformity to the images that I don’t associate with either the filmmaker or cinematographer. Watching the finished film, there’s a noticeable difference in the colour grade. The contrast is much more toned down and the image more textured, attributable to the grain applied throughout. Unlike Uncut Gems and First Cow, Lachman utilised a program called LiveGrain, which professes to be a “real-time texture mapping” tool that strategically applies grain to digital footage, advertised as an alternative to shooting on film. Uncut Gems and First Cow applied real grain elements through DaVinci Resolve, whereas Lachman used a more recent tool exclusively licensed to larger-scale productions. LiveGrain’s website shows off a relatively short and exclusive list of productions that have used the software, many of them either Netflix or HBO productions. Because of a lack of transparency on their website, I have no way of identifying a price range for the software nor who could have access to it. Based on the productions that have used it and little else available on the website, it seems more inaccessible than the celluloid it’s trying to emulate – or more likely replace.

Dark Waters (taken from the finished film)

Dark Waters (taken from the trailer)

Reading interviews with Lachman, he expressed resistance towards shooting on an ALEXA Mini, stating that he compensated for the image’s clarity by using Tungsten lights, gels, old lenses and the aforementioned grain software to “deconstruct” the image. I understand his frustrations – likely beyond his control – but shooting a digital sensor through older equipment in no way ameliorates the real (but few) sacrifices actually inherent to high-end digital sensors. Instead of the contrast problems being worked to his advantage, we see it literally covered up in the finished film, an effect highlighting the absence of celluloid.

First Cow and Dark Waters are the least egregious, recent examples of films using digital grain that I know of. But it remains that, through the examples above, I’m no longer interested in arguments of film vs. digital, especially if those advocating for film – like Lachman/Haynes and Reichardt/Blauvelt – are willing to sacrifice the image they’re capturing, so as to sublimate it with the ever-aspirational “filmic” look (a word used to describe everything but images shot on film). Inversely, film itself is also distanced from its material condition by the digital phases required for their editing and exhibition. These methods only seem to be ways of distancing one from their given tools, tools that capture the surrounding light in the little amount of time that permits it, the simplest way I can try to articulate the practice of being a filmmaker.

Through these now-standard practices, filmmaking seems far more distant than it actually is. Even the beneficial immediacy of a digital camera’s images needs to be stretched out in phases and finished in a studio, if we were to go by the films above. The technicians feel it necessary to elongate the process of creating an image either out of habit or by dint of the growing pains still evident in these still-nascent digital apparatuses. The question of a “look” and how it can be manipulated bemuses in the end as – with all the self-imposed and pre-existing hurdles – I struggle to find an image beneath the affects.

[1] LOG (Logarithmic) – The raw, unaffected footage of a digital sensor. Essentially the camera negative, but more neutral and unaffected than its analog alternative.

[2] LUT (Look Up Table) – Used to manipulate a digital sensor’s neutral LOG (seen either through the eyepiece or on its display screen), according to a look decided upon in preparation by the cinematographer and/or director.

 

„A Mountain Pass Demands a Decision From Us“

Extracts of Makabe Jin and Ogawa Pro

“Passes are places of decision.

The familiar melancholy of parting drifts at passes.

Squeezing the mountain road

The ridges loom over your exposed body

And before long you put them behind you.

Two views are woven together.

Without losing one world,

You cannot enter the other, separate one.

Only by enduring a great loss

does a new world unfold.

When standing on a pass

the path you’ve passed us a charming memory

and the path unfolding below is pleasing.

Paths do not answer.

Paths do nothing but invite.

The sky above the pass is as sweet as a dream.

Even if you know the route

there

you must abandon one world.

To hide such feelings

the traveller stops to pee

pick some flowers

enjoy a cigarette

and take in the view as far as the eye can see.”

– “A Mountain Pass”, Makabe Jin

~

While protesting in Sanrizuka, student-activist Higashiyama Kaoru was shot in the head with a tear gas canister at the hands of a riot police officer. He died shortly after the fact. Kaoru is pictured below.

“When Kaoru was born the leaves were green and the sky was serene. Today is the same kind of day, with serene skies and full of green. That sky sees many tragedies in the world of the humans. A heart as broad and pure as the sky is the finest tribute to my son.”

– Higashiyama Kaoru’s father, from Sanrizuka – Satsuki no sora sato no kayoji

“Humans are amazing, no?

Trees and flowers and beasts in the snow

They can’t live properly.

The time when words are abandoned is coming.”

– Post-screening report card from a 26-year-old woman from Tokyo, re: Nippon-koku: Furuyashiki-mura

~

“Will I support you? If all this means is screening films, then I’m against you. Basically, it’s the problem of peddling humanism. If we can’t provoke revolution, then making films that inspire sympathy is nonsense. The beginnings of struggle may start with sympathy (as long as it does not befall oneself). However, does not one need an after-film discussion that makes this sympathy your own problem?”

– Survey written by a worker from the Nakano Ward Office after a screening of Nihon Kaiho sensen: Sanrizuka no natsu

“After one of his publications, a coal worker broke into the Ueno’s home. He approached the author with a knife, plunging it into the floor and demanded to know why Ueno wrote what he did. Ueno defended his work rather than running away. In documentary, one must bet one’s life. Ueno once wrote: “Don’t be frugal with money; don’t be frugal with time; don’t be frugal with life.” Only Ueno Hidenobu could do this. Ogawa Shinsuke didn’t have the guts.”

– Honma Shusuke (former member of Ogawa Pro) on author Ueno Hidenobu

(all extracts taken from Abé Markus Nornes‘ Forest of Pressure)

~

Makabe Jin in Toge – Zao to Makabe Jin

more: Village Time – Shinsuke Ogawa Pro’s Sanrizuka: Heta Village

Village Time – Shinsuke Ogawa Pro’s Sanrizuka: Heta buraku

A scene in which a father mourns his son’s suicide takes place. The village farmers – or, what’s left of the “Parents Alliance” – gather for a meeting in the midst of Narita Airport’s imminent construction, one set to destroy Sanrizuka’s agricultural community in the process. Two of the villagers’ sons – named Haruo and Masahiko, who make up the part of the “Youth Action Brigade”– are being held prisoner and interrogated for 90 days by the police after a violent protest took place at the Toho Crossroads near Sanrizuka, involving 260 riot police. The “Parents Alliance” hold a meeting discussing ways to keep the community strong and maintain the crops as their sons’ resolves are beaten down. To fray the bonds between the farmers further, detectives go from house to house, spreading the lie that each neighbour has confessed to their son’s guilt and will bend to the demands of authorities, which will lead to the levelling of Sanrizuka. None of the families have bent, but the manufactured mistrust necessitates a strengthening of ties and re-assertion of ethics.

Before imprisonment, farmer Sannomiya Takeji’s son, Sannomiya Fumio, hanged himself from the tree of a nearby shrine. Takeji now holds court in the meeting and is greeted with a prolonged silence. After two title cards provide the context for his son’s death, Takeji explains the process by which a local detective scrutinised him and his wife in the weeks following their son’s suicide. Takeji summarises his final response to the detective’s scrutiny as follows:

“I don’t like talking to you about this, but I think my son was a great man. And I still think so, no matter what anyone says about him. I’ll never change my opinion. And from now on, I’ll never entertain the possibility that my son was a fool, so I’ve nothing to say about him to you.”

In order to capture this moment, the camera and sound have to be recalibrated to “village time”, a concept coined by the Pro to describe the farmers’ process of thought on film. The process begins with a farmer speaking during a meeting then promptly scanning the room, watching their words absorb among their neighbours. “Village time” is, contrary to its name, the designation of outsiders looking in – of a collective settling a relationship to their “taisho” (object). Every filmmaker could learn from “village time” as it’s shown in Heta Village, and would more accurately be called “Ogawa Pro time”, as it’s a process by which the filming apparatus tunes into a dialogue without traditional means of coverage and cross cutting. Instead, a single camera and its 400’ 16mm magazine pan the room for 11+ minute long takes. The film’s form is, by dint of technological and artistic advances, adjusting to a greater function. It was a clearing towards a greater solidarity, partially manifested by proxy of the extra minutes available on the extended magazines new to Ogawa Pro. Regardless of the rural connotations implicit to the designation of “village”, the “time” alluded to isn’t merely “time” that comes from Heta’s farmers, it’s an opening that – even for the professed allegiance of Ogawa Pro to Heta village’s cause – allows for the filmmakers’ eyes, ears, lens and microphone to synchronise and assume a life implicit to their subjects; a life beyond their craggy faces, dirty hands and simple, “village” antics. The strength in Ogawa Pro’s technique is that it assumes and doesn’t discover. The difference is inherently political, as Tokyo’s media outlets and their vested interest in the construction of Narita airport “discovers” only peasants not understanding the industrial drive towards progress, another word for destruction.

Implicit to the “village time”, also, is something beyond a dialectical form. There’s a silence after a suicide, then a revelation, if one is willing to wait long enough. This is where Ogawa Pro’s outsider status proves fruitful, as the film begins with an interview of a villager affectionately called Grandpa Tonojita, who speaks of the “mura hachibu” (village ostracisation) enacted upon the local Niya family. Their residence has been levelled and leaves an open field in its wake, one the village has to tend to keep from growing fallow. The Niya family bent under authoritative pressure and “sold out” their land to the developers of Narita Airport. The ostracisation isn’t elaborated upon by Tonojita, though he informs Ogawa of what drove them out of Heta. The other villagers, though it was a local custom, refused to assist in the burial of the Niya patriarch after his body had been returned home from the hospital. With no assistance and nowhere to bury the body, the Niya’s drove their patriarch to a crematorium and, in the process, heard the beating of an oil drum from their Heta neighbours, intended as a call to action as police forces encroached in on the village. The Niya’s, hearing the drum after this unspoken ostracisation and further neglect, thought the villagers were coming to kill them.

Former member of Ogawa Pro, Fukuda Katushiko, was shocked upon hearing the villagers’ further plans to ostracise another family who’d caved in, as he and the other Ogawa Pro members assumed the “mura hachibu” tradition was a rural myth that had long been apostatised. The “village time” is now bifurcated in its effect. Both heterogeneous and stereotypical assumptions of the villagers are now true, despite how antiquated the latter, “mura hachibu” appears, seemingly counteracting whatever radical dialogue took place in Sannomiya’s “Village Time”. Katushiko left Ogawa Pro after the completion of “Sanrizuka Village”, remaining there as the Pro left for Magino and he continued making films tertiarily related to the Sanrizuka struggle. One of his later films, Kusa tori soshi, returns to the site of an ostracised woman with no mention of the Sanrizuka struggle. The woman, Someya Katsu, tends to what Abé Mark Nornes describes as “her shockingly green plants”. I haven’t seen the film, so I can only rely on Nornes’ description, one already distinct from the Sanrizuka series in what is described as colour footage, a film stock never previously used to document Sanrizuka’s farming communities (Ogawa Pro’s Sanrizuka – Gogatu no sora Sato no kayoijim, the last film in the Sanrizuka series, was shot in colour but prioritised the waning Sanrizuka student-radical struggle). With 16mm colour stock being ubiquitous enough by the mid-80’s, “Village Time” has now been relayed from the villagers’ patience onto a former Ogawa-Pro’s filming apparatus, now evolved from the interceding years spent waiting. His lone status and ability to render the verdant gardens of Someya Katsu bring him closer to what the other members of Ogawa Pro had given up on. The green garden is now a by-product of something greater than “Village Time”; a time that goes by without a name (i.e. a more meaningful one), guided not by the Pro but by Katsu’s resistance. By remaining with her, Katsuhiko makes it a shared resistance unseen in the earlier films.

Katsu may have been the woman Heta’s farmers were about to ostracise, the discussion about which Katushiko was so shocked. But at the other end of village ostracisation yields a woman tending to her green plants and working at a pickle factory still obstructing Narita. Even beyond “village time”, form and function’s fusion evolves with this lone filmmaker who watches the lone farmer, each separate from their former communities and persisting on the other side.

The End of Summer/Early Spring

The sun from two hemispheres.

~

„Here’s a song about the sunshine, dedicated to the sunshine“

Health and Efficiency, This Heat

I.

II.

The sun flared and died

beyond my horizons.

The earth rotated

unnoted in my notebooks

– May 16, 1973, Wisława Szymborska

III.

PETRUCHIO –
I say it is the moon.

KATHERINA –
I know it is the moon.

PETRUCHIO –
Nay, then you lie; it is the blessed sun.

KATHERINA –
Then, God be bless’d, it is the blessed sun

– – The Taming of the Shrew, Shakespeare

IV.

Then tracks were lain
across the plain
By broken old men
in torrid rains
The towns grew up
and the people were still
Sleeping in the midday sun
Sleeping in the midday sun
Sleeping in the midday sun
Sleeping in the midday sun
Buffalo Ballet, John Cale

Roberto Bolaño / Andrei Tarkovsky

– Excerpt taken from the short story Días de 1978 by Roberto Bolaño, from his collection entitled Llamadas Telefonicas (trans. Chris Andrews)

This might be a good time to leave, thinks B. But instead he opens the bottle and offers them a glass of wine, which the pale girl accepts without without batting an eyelid, as does U, although he seems unwilling or unable to drink and takes only a sip, as if not to offend B. And as they drink, or pretend to drink, the pale girl starts talking, telling them about the last film she saw; it was awful, she says, and then she asks them if they have seen anything good, anything they could recommend. The question is, in fact, rhetorical. By posing it the pale girls is tacitly establishing a hierarchy in which she occupies a position of supremacy. Yet she observes a certain queenly decorum, for the question also implies a disposition (on her part, but also on the part of a higher agency, moved by its own sovereign will) to grant both B and U places in the hierarchy, which is a clear indication of her desire to be inclusive, even in circumstances such as these.

U opens his mouth for the first time and says it’s a long while since he went to the cinema. To B’s surprise, his voice sounds perfectly normal. A well-modulated voice, with a tone that that betrays a certain sadness, a Chilean, bottom-heavy tone, which the pale girl does not find unpleasant, nor would the people shut in the bedroom, were they to hear it. Not even B finds it unpleasant, although for him that tone of voice has strange associations: it conjures up a silent black-and-white film in which, all of a sudden, the characters start shouting incomprehensibly at the top of their voices, while a red line appears in the middle of the screen and begins to widen and spread. This vision, or premonition, perhaps, makes B so nervous that in spite of himself he opens his mouth and says he has seen a film recently and it was a very good film.

And straight away (though what he would really like to do is extract himself from that armchair, and put the room, the house, and that part of town behind him) he begins to tell the story of the film. He speaks to the pale girl, who listens with an expression of disgust and interest on her face (as if disgust and interest were inextricable), but he is really talking to U, or that, at least, is what he believes as rushes through the summary.

The film is scored into his memory. Even today he can remember it in detail. At the time he had just seen it, so his account must have been vivid if not elegant. The film tells the story of a monk who paints icons in medieval Russia. B’s words conjure up feudal lords, Orthodox priests, peasants, burnt churches, envy and ignorance, festivals and a river at night, doubt and time, the certainty of artand the irreparable spilling of blood. Three characters emerge as central, if not in the film itself, in the version of this Russian film recounted by a Chilean in the house of his Chilean friends, sitting opposite a frustrated Chilean suicide, one beautiful spring evening in Barcelona: the first of these painters is a monk and painter, who unintentionally brings about the arrest, by soldiers, of the second character, a satirical poet, a goliard, a medieval beatnik, poor and half-educated, a fool, a sort of Villon wandering the vast steppes of Russia; the third character is a boy, the son of a bell caster,  who, after an epidemic, claims to have inherited the secrets of his father’s difficult art. The monk represents the Artist wholly devoted to his art. The wandering poet is a fool, with all the fragility and pain of the world written on his face. The adolescent caster of bells is Rimbaud, in other words the Orphean.

rublev-fresco-2

The ending of the film, drawn out like a birth, shows the process of casting the bell. The feudal lord wants a new bell, but a plague has decimated the population and the old caster has died. The lord’s men go looking for him but all they find is a house in ruins and the sole survivor, the caster’s adolescent son. He tries to convince them that he knows how to cast a bell. The lord’s henchmen are dubious at first, but finally take him with them, having warned that he will pay with his life if there is anything wrong with the bell.rublev-fresco-3

From time to time, the monk, who has renounced painting and sworn a vow of silence, walks through the countryside, past the place where workers are building a mould for the bell. Sometimes the boy makes fun of him (as he makes fun of everything). He taunts the monk by asking him questions and laughs at him. Outside the city walls, as the construction of the mould progresses, a kind of festival springs up in the shadow of the scaffolding. One afternoon, as he is walking past with some other monks, the former painter stops to listen to a poet, who turns out to be the beatnik, the one he unwittingly sent to prison many years ago. The poet recognises the monk and confronts him with his past action, tells him, in brutal, childish language, about the hardships he had to bear, how close he came to dying, day after day. Faithful to his vow of silence, the monk does not reply, although by the way he gazes at the poet you can tell he is taking responsibility for it all, including what was not his fault, and asking forgiveness. The people look at the poet and the monk and are completely bewildered, but they ask the poet to go on telling them stories, to leave the monk alone, and make them laugh again. The poet is crying, but when he turns back to his audience he recovers his spirits.

rublev-fresco-1

 

 

 

 

 

 

And so the days go by. Sometimes the feudal lord and his nobles visit the makeshift foundry to see how work on the bell is progressing. They do not talk to the boy, but to one of the lord’s henchmen, who serves as an intermediary. The monk keeps walking past, watching the work with growing interest. He doesn’t know himself why he is so interested. Meanwhile, the tradesmen who are working under the boy’s orders are worried about their young master. They make sure he eats. They joke with him. Over the weeks they have become fond of him. And finally the big day arrives. They hoist up the bell. Everyone gathers around the wooden scaffolding from which the bell hangs to hear it ring for the first time. Everyone has come out of the walled city: the feudal lord and his nobles and even a young Italian ambassador, for whom the Russians are barbarians. Everyone is waiting. Lost in the multitude, the monk is waiting too. They ring the bell. The chime is perfect. The bell does not break, nor does the sound die away. Everyone congratulates the feudal lord, including the Italian.

The celebration begins. When they are over, in what had seemed a fairground and is now a wasteland scattered with debris, only two people remain beside the abandoned foundry: the boy and the monk. The boy is sitting on the ground crying his eyes out. The monk is standing beside him, watching. The boy looks at the monk and says that his father, drunken pig that he was, never taught him the art of casting bells and would have taken his secrets to the grave; he taught himself, by watching. And he goes on crying. Then the monk crouches down and, breaking what was to be a lifelong vow of silence, says, Come with me to the monastery. I’ll start painting again and you can make bells for the churches. Don’t cry.

And that is where the film ends.

When B stops talking, U is crying.