Friday, October 15, 2010

Perestroika, dir. Sarah Turner, 2009

Perestroika, dir Sarah Turner, 2009

I watched Sarah Turner’s Perestroika (2009) on the Eurostar tonight on my way back to Paris, my back to the window onto which my computer screen reflected Turner's film. It was an extraordinary experience to be watching Turner’s sumptuous images coursing across my computer screen when behind me the countryside of Northern France moved at breakneck speed. The one echoed the other, accentuating the sense of motion, of begin carried along on a journey, the goal of one set of images very clearly defined (Paris), of the other, beside the point. At Turner says repeatedly in her sensuous voiceover, Perestroika's journey through Siberia as it is seen through the window of the train in which she travels, is a process. 

Inside the Dining Car, Perestroika, dir. Sarah Turner, 2009

Turner’s images are lavish, dreamlike and entrancing: we board the train with her to go on an attenuated journey through the twentieth-century avant garde at the same time as we are taken across the desolate, alienating and otherwise unremarkable expanse of the Russian Steps. To lovers of the American avant-garde Perestroika will appear like an ode to the greatest of its directors. As the camera watches, gazes, entranced by the magic of its ability to capture an image, by the changing qualities of light at different times, in different temperatures, flickering across the screen, I am reminded of the gorgeous archival, reworked footage of Joseph Cornell. The lights of Russia appear to dance outside the window, the daylight, the sun on a flat landscape of nothing turns into a deep blue sky, and the artificial light of night woven with electrical lines, train tracks, trees, buildings in fast motion. And like the greatest of the American experimental films, while the images may appear to record nothing, they are everything because they echo the very image of film itself, reminding me of a Peter Kubelka flicker film, sometimes a Warhol single camera epic, and at other times, a Brakhage poem to the materiality and texture of film. The landscape changes, but in its repetition across the film, degraded and simultaneously overwhelmed by the reproduction of the image, and the screen of the window through which Turner’s camera looks, it becomes an abstract, pure image.

Perestroika, dir. Sarah Turner, 2009
This mesmerizing image is accompanied by a voiceover; we hear Turner telling her story, Russian orthodox chanting, the deeply seductive clicks of a photographic camera, the hypnotic sound of the train as it speeds on its tracks, and voices of Turner and her friends. It’s difficult to follow the voiceover narration as it is fragmented and lyrical, not teleological, echoing the rhythms and patterns of the movement of the train on its tracks. The voiceover is Turner’s memory of a journey taken ten years earlier with her friend Sian, and another friend who subsequently died, a journey that Turner retakes, so she says on the soundtrack, in order to understand, to work through the trauma of Sian's death in a biking accident. The intermingling of all these voices alerts us to the presence of archival video footage, taken on the initial journey, across the same landscape, in summer, not winter. The editing together of past and present produces words that don’t make a complete and coherent story, being more like a journal, the mind’s wanderings over and around the past, endlessly churning out thoughts, most of which are old, had over and over again, in its attempt to capture and make sense of the ineffabile, to "process" death. Turner’s voice reinforces the intensity of this inner voice through its deep, textured profundity.

The dining car again
 Perestroika can’t help but be placed within the history of  the cinema’s great train journeys. The film speaks to, and looks at, a long history of filming trains and train journeys that stretches back through the earliest days of the cinema, through the representation of the Holocaust and into Hollywood chase films. Trains have always appealed to filmmakers because of their birth as siblings in the transformations of modern industrial life, a life that brought with it perspectives in motion not available to the naked eye. Turner expands and extends this tradition when in Perestroika the train becomes the vehicle of memory. She says at one point that she needs the image in order to remember, to trigger her own images in language, that the image shot from the train will aid in her recovery from the trauma of her Sian's death.

However, there is more to Perestroika than its situation within this history of cinema. And the film's depth comes from the fact that we don’t ever see, and thus, we assume the camera’s inability to see what we most want it to show us: Turner herself. While we are taken inside the train at certain moments, usually through glimmers of a reflection on the window through which the camera looks, but also through its corridors and into the dining car, I found myself wanting to see Turner’s compartment, with all her technical equipment, and the friends now dead, Sian and the man with whom Turner travelled on her first journey through Siberia twenty years ago. Of course, the refusal to show us is just the point: we never get to see inside the protagonist’s reality to be fully present to her past, no matter how much she and the camera claim they are revealing to us. These moments are gone, only recaptured courtesy of the archive footage interwoven with the present.

Perestroika, dir. Sarah Turner, 2009

And so, in her characteristic merging of narrative and experimental, I understand that in Perestroika,  Turner has given us an elegy to the cinema, the beauty of its images, the enthrall of its magic, its capacity to traverse and connect disparate times and spaces, mimicking the view from a train window. And we are also tempted by the moving image's ability to create fragmentary, disparate realities that we nevertheless want to enter. Simultaneously, Perestroika transports us through the ultimate failure of film to reveal the reality of what we most persistently seek: a logical explanation of why we go back again and again and again, in search of an explanation, of an answer to why we do what we do, what happened, and how then to make sense of, to tell the story of what it was that we did, saw, experienced long after it is all over. 

1 comment:

Frances Guerin said...

"there is an inaccuracy though which is core to one of the film's themes: both journeys were taken in winter at more or less exactly the same time. in 87'-88, we were on the train on xmas day. in 2007 we were on the train on new years day. this is what's shocking: the very real change in the landscape. you mention summer and it does look like summer in places but it's the depths of a siberian winter. for me, the work functions as an environmental allegory, or at least, that's one of the layers that i consciously worked with. chris's review for sight and sound explicitly discusses this:"