Dni zatmeniya / Days of Eclipse (1988)

4 08 2017

Regarding the films of Aleksandr Sokurov, an acquaintance of mine one emphasized the idea that his films are “not bound to Earth.” For whatever reason, this phrase has always stuck with me. There’s a precedent for this in art film, of course. Filmmakers like Ingmar Bergman and Andrei Tarkovsky often looked up to the heavens and towards a life after this one. I think this phrase, “films not bound to Earth” probably stuck with me more because of its poetry. I kept returning to that it while watching Days of Eclipse. While it is not an entirely untrue description, I find the reverse equally accurate. In other words, Days of Eclipse is deeply bound to Earth and invested in exploring its finite quality.

Sokurov opens his film with an overhead shot of a desolate Turkmenistan town. Complimented by a saturated sepia filter, one is hit by the dry heat of the landscape. Housing is visible, but family units seem bunched up together, as if they are trying to blanket themselves from the dead, unoccupied space that dominates it visually. The camera’s acceleration express discomfort. This is the territory most of us only dare to inhabit through the filter of Orientalist anthropology. We can’t actually stay here. Alas, the camera plummets into the ground. In this instance, Sokurov’s film is quite literally “bound to Earth.” More importantly, we are stuck in a village destined to vanish in the haze of its stiff climate.

The crash of the camera is followed by a extended montage of the town’s people. They are often elderly, sometimes grotesquely malnourished, and always displaying the bruises of the inseparable twin forces of climate and poverty. When I first saw Days of Eclipse years ago, I particularly loved this sequence because it reminded the edgy budding cinephile I was of Harmony Korine’s Gummo. In that film, a disaster from the past has reshaped the space of a city’s inhabitants. By extension, it has also reshaped their lives. In Sokurov’s film, there is no one disaster from the past. Instead, it is a natural disaster occurring, the disaster that is our current geological age. It should be emphasized that none of this “natural” even as it pertains to nature. Malyanov is a physician and in this context, represents the idealism of science. Perhaps he and it (“it” being science) can find a solution, but his devotion runs into countless obstacles.

Unlike GummoDays of Eclipse ties its attention towards one individual. The aforementioned Malyanov is our hero, and he is an impressive one. He is youthful, optimistic, and strikingly handsome. It is unclear how long he has been in this village and why he continues to stay. The film’s first line of dialogue is him, perhaps jokingly, informing us that he is on vacation. He is endlessly reminded that he can and should return to Russia. His research is also unclear, but he maintains that he is invested in the region. Despite this, he seldom leaves his house, never interacts with the locals, and accomplishes little. The strangeness of the space overwhelms him, and he is also bogged down by the inseparable forces of poverty and heat, although he gets more relief from it than the townspeople do.

With Malyanov’s perspective privileged, we never reach beyond the surface of the “everyday life” of the other people in the town. When they are present, Malyanov is usually not far off, drifting aimlessly around a local congregation and gazing at them in bewilderment. We are treated to a few more montages resembling the one in the previously described opening. For a film in which the camera often lingers on its protagonist, it seems all too eager to speed through the surrounding population. On the surface, this is a criticism. Arkady and Boris Strugatsky set the film’s source text, Definitely Maybe, in Saint Petersburg. Sokurov has relocated the action to rural Turkmenistan. As a drama about the end of the world, or as I prefer to describe it, a world-ending drama, one would not be without evidence to suggest Sokurov’s move as Orientalist fantasy.

Yet, Malyanov never becomes the European hero to the repressed and darker third-world. Russia’s historical identity is in flux. Today, we now know it as Europe. Cultural imaginations of race or ethnicity can be, at the same time, tightly enforced and vaguely understood. An enormous continent was once Asia, but now it is Europe. In Days of Eclipse, we are in a timeline when the Soviet tentacles stretch towards and sap the energy and resources of places like Turkmenistan. The landscapes has been redesigned to fit the iconography of Soviet’s historical heroes and yet it has also been left behind. It speaks to Sokurov’s power that he can communicate this relationship in one shot, and then extend this imagery by lingering on the spatially-induced heartbreak felt by Malyanov’s closest friend, Vecherovsky. He was forced out of Russia with his mother and father, both of whom he never sees because “they live on the other side of town.” His anguish, it should be said, occurs in the film’s most impressive interior space, a spacious house that his parents left for him before they moved.

It is not all that novel a concept to link science fiction with climate politics. If anything, it has become increasingly unavoidable. Middle-brow Hollywood films, financed by the pockets of industry liberals, make enough noise at the box office to demand a return to the well. Smart mainstream critics can single out these films as “interesting” and speaking to our specific moment. They make the rising tides and record heat-waves the thrilling catastrophes they already are, hinting at the urgency with which we should approach this epoch. In real life, we linger. Like Malyanov, we sit in our rooms, curious for the answers, but unproductive. The reserve energy of the youth is surpassed by a deteriorating landscape that doesn’t even make our leaders blink. Days of Eclipse does not play to our fears of a dystopian future, but instead captures the lassitude of our present. Sokurov’s wide-angle lens fits every inch of beauty possible in the neglected spaces. He has made a movie tenderly bound to Earth, speaking to its beauty and pain in the same breathe. As a result, those rising tides and record heat-waves are not thrilling, but heartbreaking.

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