A Solitary Ascent
Copyright © by Jackson Hawley, 9/24/13
I’ve learned that fact well over the past four years of dedicating myself to critically understanding and appreciating the arts. You don’t realize just how integral a social function the arts serve, good or bad, until you find yourself on the periphery of such experiences, more enthralled with the thing itself than the banal (and likely plain wrong) comments that will float about you merge with the masses filing out of the theater. Most of the time, instead of really investing in an artwork, people seem to invest the artwork in themselves – the chinks, the flaws, the deficits being places for people to tendril their emotions, their needs, their own lack. Yet, to me, the quality of an artwork – irrespective of my feeling toward it - is often as tangible as the side of the head of the person I’m arguing with, seemingly demanding to be smacked back to reality.
This is not me claiming infallibility. At the oh-so-wizened age of 24, I’m more than aware of the gaps in my own understanding, maturity, and self-knowledge – all three of which are required to root out one’s own likes and biases and strip them from an objective critique – but I feel glad to at least be trying to move beyond myself in such matters, which is more than most can claim. Yet, for all the import and value I think such a striving has, I would be lying if I said I always enjoyed it. I recall, a few years ago, seeing The Artist – 2011’s Best Picture winner, a “silent” film about the rise of talkies – with my then-roommates, dreading the inevitability of the question that would come on the drive home. “So, what did you think?” – I can still hear the trepidation in their own voices as they asked me. They’d all been gushing their love of the film, and I did not want to be a killjoy and take that away from them by cutting through it with criticism. However, I’ve always been unable to lie, to be other than I am for others’ sake, and so I shared my honest appraisal the movie’s watering-down of its influences: Keaton, Chaplin, Lloyd, etc. These are things any honest, insightful critic of film would notice, I think, yet once again, I became the “overly-analytical” one, the guy who cannot simply enjoy things for what they are – even though I actually did like the film, despite its debts and limitations, and said so.
I had all this in my mind yesterday as I watched the 1977 Soviet film The Ascent, directed by Larissa Shepitko. I’d seen the film skimming through The Criterion Collection’s offerings on Hulu Plus, but I was only truly aware of it because of its championing by a user on a message board I frequent, who went as far as to put the film in his personal list of Top 30 films of all time. This is a man who has seen at least 6-7x as many movies as I have, yet despite his greater experience with the form, I feel confident saying this film would not make a more objective list 10x as long. The basic plot of the film concerns two Russian soldiers – Sotnikov, a sickly, emaciated math teacher, and Rybak, a handsome, physically fit, skilled artilleryman – who go on an assignment to obtain supplies for their squadron, who are trekking through a Belarusian forest in the midst of a particularly harsh stretch of winter during World War II.
They meet others along the way, but the film’s basic crux is that Sotnikov, while physically weak, is an unflappable man who cannot betray his country nor ideals, while Rybak, the “ideal” specimen of soldierly masculinity, is a total coward, almost infinitely afraid of his own demise. The pair get captured and thrown in a German prison camp, where Sotnikov is tortured and branded by a sadistic collaborator, Inspector Portnov, who mocks his “higher ideals” and argues for a purely self-serving materialism. In the end, Sotnikov and others are hanged, while Rybak becomes a turncoat and collaborates with the Germans, only to realize subsequently that he’s made a grave error and is now forever alienated from the Russian society he’s known. And we viewers know, of course, that he’s only postponed his demise, for the Germans he’s flaked onto are only a few years from defeat.
The film’s greatest strength is its striking black and white cinematography, which, while occasionally a bit melodramatic, is often haunting and memorable. However, where it falls flat is its story, which is held back by the fact that the characters are mere archetypes, rather than truly realistic, deep, and layered ones. Sotnikov is given a bit of an inner life – staring at the moon in the moments before an attempted suicide, becoming obsessed with knocking the ice and snow off the branches of a tree as he lays shot and bleeding beneath a tree, then later having a small moment of revelation as he sees a similar tree in the distance, just prior to his hanging – but, in truth, they are not very dimensional, though they’re more naturalistic and believable than, say, the lead duo in the atrocious Brokeback Mountain. In that sense, at least, the writing is not actively bad, as much as it is merely mediocre.
There are inconsistencies, as well. Near the beginning of the film, Sotnikov is being set upon by a squad of armed German soldiers, and Rybak has a choice: leave him behind and deliver the supplies to his unit, becoming a hero in the process, or try to save Sotnikov. Given what we later learn of the man’s self-centered outlook, it’s clear he’d choose the former, yet instead, he turns around and puts his life in danger to save a man he barely knows and who, to this point, has consistently annoyed him with his sickliness and physical limitations. The limitations of the characterization also affect the acting. The performers do an excellent job of embodying the big emotions written into the script, but if acting is about communicating a good deal about a character, that means it is reliant upon the interpretative possibilities afforded by the script, and this one simply does not offer the subtleties and nuances that create a space for truly great acting to occupy.
Really, the film is a pretty straightforward, obvious allegory for the Christ myth, with Sotnikov as a sort of Jesus-like figure and Rybak as a Judas – an allusion that is even made explicit when Rybak descends from the hill on which the execution took place and is confronted with the acidic stares of his countrymen, who are disgusted by him and mumble the Biblical traitor’s name as he passes. The movie is “realistic” in the sense of having physically visceral violence, but when considered in its totality, one is not left with much of true substance, artistically, for the film’s philosophical posit is a pretty simple, even obvious, one. Compare the execution scene to the granddaddy of all cinematic wartime executions – Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory. In that film, there are worlds spoken when a man sentenced to be shot simply glares at the ceremony’s officiate, who had selected him for death as a result of his own cowardice. You see, in his eyes alone, all the hatred, disgust, and even pity he feels toward his condemner. When you compare that moment to Rybak hanging on Sotnikov’s coat just before the latter is executed, crying and wailing for the noosed man’s forgiveness, the difference between real, layered drama and melodrama cannot help but stand out to one who is willing to look. The film is almost more like a Russian moral novel from the 19th Century – as though storytelling had not advanced a step in the century after Dostoevsky.
Yet I’ve no doubt this film truly does belong on the forumgoer’s Top 30 list, for he’s said before that he thinks it foolish to try and differentiate between “best” and “favorite”. For him, it seems, the world of art begins and ends with his own emotional attachment to what he’s experienced, and in my mind, it’s to his detriment that he refuses to make such distinctions. And yet, I cannot help but think that, were we to get together in real life, the conversation we’d share would be much more pleasant, would connect us more (at least in a superficial way), if I agreed with him regarding the movie’s quality – however wrong I may find such a position to be. The same would have been true two years ago, had I simply “let go” and enjoyed The Artist as much as my roommates did and seemed to want me to.
I don’t want to do so, and I don’t even think I could, at this point. And yet I find myself thinking of the end of The Ascent, when Rybak, after being unable to hang himself in an outhouse, stares out the prison’s ajar gate, at the white of the snow-coated village - a world to which he can never return - and falls to his knees, wailing. The objective part of me could contrast this moment unfavorably against a similar moment at the end of Yasujiro Ozu’s excellent The Only Son, when an elderly mother looks at the gate of the factory she works at and realizes the existential trap in which she’s lived – a slow, self-chosen self-annihilation. But the part of me that wonders at the experiences I might have had in a reality where I never made the decision to accept that art has a qualitative reality separate from my own likes and dislikes… well, that part of me feels a bit more like Rybak, standing in confines I’ve come to by choices I’ve made, staring out at a society of which I may never again be truly “part” of, in the full sense of that word. Perhaps wailing would be a bit strong, but there’ve been a few drunken nights, arriving home from a party hosted by “artsy” friends – alone, of course - when I’ve had to choke back the possibility.
Of course, most of me feels more like Sotnikov, standing by my conscience instead of choosing what is easier and better, personally. I’m confident that time will bear me out. The Rybak in me dwindles away, month by month, and I’m sure that, someday, I’ll be able to pluck him out. But for now, he’s there, all right, and his withering pains me.
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