Lev Karakhan: "Aesthetics cannot be without a sense of proportion"
Vladimir Legoyda
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- I would like to start this topic with your quotation: “There are no limitations for art because true art is impossible without a sense of moderation”. Even Democritus in his times said it. 

- Yeah, I don’t claim copyright, anyway. 

- No, I mean, I agree that moderation in everything is needed. But it’s a great maxim, anyway. The way you put it I like your even more than the phrase by Democritus. 

- Thank you.

- But does it mean, there are some limitations, after all? Because measure and moderation are another form of limitation. 

- Of course, but that’s your inner limitation. It means, only those who have that sense of measure and moderation can be true artists. 

- And that leads us to my next question. There is no true artist without sense of moderation. Is that right? 

- Yes, because aesthetics is impossible without moderation. Even aesthetics of the disgusting requires moderation, because when the disgusting overflows, it is no longer art. 

- But what if an author and his readers, listeners or spectators have different ideas of moderation?

- Well, you know, that’s why we need expert evaluation. 

- So, “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”?

- You’ve just turned to the history of Soviet and international cinema. Some facts of that history are set in stone. One may ask “Why?”. Because there is some kind of expert community. In Soviet times any film first of all would be shown in the Central Committee of the Communist Party, and only after that discussed in some magazine, The Art of Cinema, for example. The expert community is to give the primary evaluation. Those evaluations may differ, but anyway there is some median value, so, even those who don’t like a film, agree that it deserves its place in cinematograph. That value is immanent and any sentient being can find it. That’s what criteria are based on. But there is also a whole lot of films that represent the underrated or “forgotten cinema”. An amazing film Outskirts by Boris Barnet was among those shelved.  Barnet wasn’t as popular as Eisenstein, Dovzhenko and Pudovkin, “the classical triad” of Soviet cinema, the more so since his late films, such as Secret Agent, were more like genre films, however perfectly made. They lacked the atmosphere of Soviet cinema, that was felt in Outskirts. But afterwards, when that atmosphere was finally felt, Barnet finally joined that trio. 

- Let’s get back to the expert community. Dmitry Bak told me that literary criticism doesn’t exist today. He says, what we have today is only guidance in the world of books and advertisement. He knows this sphere very well, so he knows what he talks about. But what about cinema? Is the situation any better? That’s a question of key importance, with regard to what you’ve just said. 

- A statement that there’s no criticism nowadays is a lecturers’ catchphrase to take the fancy of the audience. They start to argue, like: “How? Why is there no criticism? What does it mean? Is there a hope, things will improve?”. Criticism is alive. The quality is doubtable but that’s a different story. 

These days I’ve been writing a text about Maya Turovskaya. Nowadays her art is coming back to us, and we come to reconsider her value. She didn’t stick to her time, she understood it not from within, she observed it as a researcher, and it’s a completely different attitude. Maybe, such attitude toward art is just abandoned nowadays, but it doesn’t mean, nobody can understand art this way. 

- This thought of Dmitry Bak was based on the idea that the Russian literature criticism was rather a philosophical reflection on the art of literature, but the criticism today is really either guidance in the world of books or advertisement. Maybe this field has its experts, but still there’s no result…

- I see your point, but I totally disagree. 

- With regard to literature, cinema or in general?

- In general, because there’s a concept of “noosphere”, developed by Vernadsky. Nowadays there is no demand for such criticism in magazines. I may disapprove of today’s criticism even in The Art of Cinema, which is so close and dear to me – maybe it lacks theory etc. But anyway, the noosphere exists, as well as the opinion and the intellectual environment. That is exactly the sector where evaluation is made, and it’s not going to disappear. If it lacks something, it injects some elements from the past. For example, the works by Turovskaya are having a new lease of life now. It’s not just an initiative of the magazine Seans which has designed an amazing website and published Turovskaya’s book, or the magazine The Art of Cinema which is publishing her letters. It proves that it’s the call of the time, and if it lacks something today, it is going to take what it needs from the past. The balance is sure to be struck, so the “ecosystem” works. 

- There are some more questions I wanted to ask you about Soviet cinema. Actually, I wanted to ask them under the topic Hope, but we changed the subject then. Soviet cinema was great particularly because it created the language we spoke and are still speaking today. In post-Soviet cinema there are only a few movies that contributed to the development of language, like Liquidation or Brother. But there’s an opinion that it was caused not so much by changes in the quality of films, but rather by changes in the environment. There wasn’t much entertainment at that time, so everybody would go to the cinema and watch new movies. Now the entertainment industry is flourishing, we have the Internet etc., so there’s no demand or profound need for new films of that kind. Anyway, language stratification has become too obvious: the language of the youth and of older people differ, so there’s no shared linguistic environment where those catchphrases from movies would go to. Don’t you think so?

- No, I don’t. We might as well say that there’s no demand for standard language, that literature still uses the language that was formed ages ago and that there’s nothing new in it. In any kind of art language is living; it develops in connection with events and paradigm shifts that take place around us and that we have already touched upon. Another thing is that at the dawn of cinema, language explorations were incredibly active and kept the whole cinema community busy. Nowadays cinema art is already over a century old and it manages its efforts more carefully, but still all over the world there are artists who don’t put their linguistic exploration on hold.  

- Sorry, but I meant not the language of cinema but cinema as a language, the language we speak, when we use catchphrases from films and can understand one another.

- As Marietta Chudakova aptly put it, “we no longer can hear one another”. She said it back in the Perestroika times, meaning that the transmissivity, the audibility of that noosphere fell dramatically.  

- What do you think are the reasons for it?

- I think, disunity is the reason. Today there is no common, so-called “public space”, we try to recreate it artificially with all kinds of discussions about the Russian idea or the way we live in general, but there’s no way it can be recreated synthetically. The common space that we could live in, shrunk, it no longer exists in the size it had before. Let’s take “kitchen talks” – they really were such public space. We couldn’t hear one another, but all kitchens were a single big one that served as a platform for such conversations. Nowadays there’s almost no such pass-through space left, it has been divided, there are a lot of social groups that have no intersections. 

- Exactly, that’s what I’m talking about. 

- So, that’s why each social group has its own catchphrases, and we might not know them. There’s no new The Diamond Arm, that would excite everybody. 

-And there’s no chance something like this can appear?

- Of course, there isn’t. 

- On a related note, I had a very interesting episode and I would like you to give your opinion on it – do you think it’s a one-time case or there is some hope.  When I teach review writing to my first-year students of School of Journalism at MGIMO University, I usually assign them watching some movies as home task. But a couple of years ago, when I understood they don’t watch the movies I assign, I started to make them watch The Red Snowball Tree. Three years ago one girl, a very diligent student, a winner of a National Olympiad, wrote me something like: “I’m too far from the aesthetics of Soviet cinema, I grew up in a totally different environment, and the end of the movie, when he dies and she runs – I understand that the director demised it as touching, but to me it’s not touching at all.” I gave I sigh – what could I do about it…

- So it goes. 

- That girl has a Telegram-channel – not very popular, but an interesting one. And in a year’s time she wrote there that some time ago she couldn’t understand Soviet cinema at all, but when she finally did, she could watch only Soviet films. Do you think, young people start to watch such films when they become more mature or it just depends on a person?

- First of all, The Red Snowball Tree is not a Soviet movie at all, it’s un-Soviet. 

- That’s right. 

- Recently I had a pleasure to assign it to my students at the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography and understood that if you watch this film attentively, it feels more like a work of French existentialists. For each year students I try to choose the key word, that would become their motto. For freshmen that word is seeing. Nobody “sees” cinema, it’s perceived through the existing system of stereotypes. The same is applicable to The Red Snowball Tree which is considered to be a Soviet movie. But it’s in no way a Soviet at all! Moreover, it’s contains an incredible contradiction to Soviet cinematograph. The concept of “being-toward-death” which we’ve just discussed, is present in the personality of Prokudin. He has his own great story of happiness that he has found with Lyuba. But we witness that idyll only for a couple of minutes – suddenly the gangsters from his past appear and we understand that his number goes up. Moreover, he is ready for it because he has nothing to lean on. His tragedy is that he doesn’t have festivity inside - he searches for it elsewhere, but he can’t find it. Even in the moment of confession when he sees his mother, he doesn’t find it – that is a cold confession that doesn’t fill you up inside. 

There’s also a dialogue between him and Lyuba, when she says: “Let’s escape”, but he answers: “Where to?”. This scene is of key importance for the plot, and Shukshin proves he is a great master by including it.  There’s no escape from yourself – that’s what this short scene is about. It’s a formula we all know. Moreover, when he is standing with his neighbor on a bank of a river, if I’m not mistaken, he says: “I wish I had never been born”. 

- Exactly.

- That’s an incredible phrase for the whole Soviet cinema, but it just wasn’t heard. Cinema watchdogs were very experienced in terms of proletarian solidarity and class struggle, but still there were things they simply knew nothing about and were deaf to. That’s a monster of a phrase for the whole Soviet history. What happens next is some kind of a suicide. He understands he will be killed, but he does not show any resistance. He goes to the meeting with the gangsters who came to him, without resisting. Though, he can resist, and we see it in an amazing scene, when Lyuba’s ex-husband turns up and Prokudin kicks the hell out of him. Prokudin is a jailbird, an experienced scrapper, a tough guy with attitude, so he knows how to handle such situations. But here he goes like a lamb to a slaughter, because inside he has nothing that would let him live on. He can’t find motivation to carry on – that is his problem. It was a huge personal problem for Shukshin himself. Sometimes we are unaware that art, especially such confessional cinema, may represent personal destinies, because The Red Snowball Tree is Shukshin’s personal confession. 


- A not so difficult issue, but still a deadlock: movies based on real events, particularly on people’s life stories. Here’s a recent one about basketball players…

- You mean Going Vertical?

- Exactly. Good movie, awesome box office, everybody has watched it – everything is so good. 

- Yes, a smart movie.  

- Right, but anyway, the wives and relatives of some people took a grudge, and they don’t care that the film is good and all. Was this because of the producers’ lack of moderation or because of the misunderstanding of those who took offence? I asked Dostal when he was sitting in this chair about veterans who were offended by his work, Penal Battalion [about convicts at war]. He said that he had scrutinized all documents, but anyway, there were veterans who would say: “It never happened”. They don’t care about the right of a film director to add fiction, about the documents he studied. Is it possible to deal with this at all?

- Of course, not. There will always be mechanics who will say that train brakes are not set right. 

- It reminds me of Pushkin’s famous: “To a shoemaker – just judge the shoes”. This can be sorted out in a general way, like ignore them, but if you deal with someone in particular? Would this be different?

- Time heals. Time needs to pass before it stops hurting. Anyway, I think there must be some kind of ethics regulating how we can bring up sensitive subjects concerning characters, prototypes of which are still alive and may take what they see on the screen to heart. It’s a thing we cannot do without. But at the same time, art is impossible without fiction; it can’t be represented only by documentary films. Even documentaries nowadays are based on fiction. 

- We see it more and more often…

- There’s even a genre of “mockumentary” or “post-truth” – there are different terms to describe this. All those “post-“ things exist within the postmodernist philosophy. “Post-truth” is nothing other than what Trump confidently calls “fake news”. I think, looseness is inevitable, but the thing is that there is some mark you shouldn’t overstep not to hurt anybody. 

- And where is that mark?

- But how is it related to forgiveness? That’s my question, as long as I have the right to ask a question, I ask it. 

- Is it forgivable? If it is, then for whom? For example, let’s take Dovlatov, an author I really like. Recently, I found out that in his work The Compromise he wrote about real characters without even changing their names. Those people took offence because, as they said, they were “completely different” in real life. So why didn’t he change their names, at least? 

- It’s hard to say. After all, everything depends on the author. And then it is up to us to judge whether he was right or not in breaking some conventions. Oftentimes, objections become minor and irrelevant as time goes by. 

- Yes, definitely. Nobody is gonna dispute on a movie about the 1812 war. 

- I’m convinced, an artist who tries to reconstruct history has a right to add fiction. I mean a true artist, not a falsifier, who twists historical facts. A true work of art isn’t viable without a tinge of fiction. That takes us back to the topic we started with – question of faith, only on a larger scale. An artist can’t be happy with just practical answers, he has to deal with fundamental questions, which require abstraction. This will require transforming real facts into something that art is made of. After all, any work of art, be it a work by Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy, stems from prototypes, and it’s a fascinating game for all literature experts to identify prototypes. There’s always some underlying reality there. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not trying to liken Going Vertical to Leo Tolstoy, they are of totally different magnitude. 

- I wouldn’t dare even think of comparing them! So, it turns out to be a problem of audience, rather than of artists, but viewers don’t understand it for the reasons you’ve just explained. 

- Of course, they don’t. 

- So, there’s nothing to be offended by?

- One viewer in the theatre may understand this, only because he or she is somehow related to the story. 

- No, I mean, usually those who don’t understand it or don’t want to, they get offended. 

- They don’t want to, because their own truth appeals to them more. 

- I had a great time watching Sin by Andrei Konchalovsky. I’ve read the reviews and found them totally off the mark, at least the ones I’ve read, although I myself had some questions afterwards as well.  But the reviews were too harsh. They criticized the director for what he didn’t intend to do: “why is it not shown how he became a genius?” and so on. But the movie is not a biography, not a story about a great artist…

- That’s a story about artist Andrei Konchalovsky. 

- Yes, it’s more like a story about himself. 

- This film is a great example of director’s work. Making a film is a physically demanding process, especially for Konchalovsky, a man in his 80s, but he managed to do his job flawlessly.  There’s another reason why the film was of particular interest for me: I think, there are two films in one. Konchalovsky makes no secret of it. That’s why he was choosing the film’s title for so long. Originally the film was to be named Monster, but then he changed his mind and gave it the title Sin. The words monster and sin seem to have completely different meanings; however, they are linked. But how? I think, Konchalovsky takes no interest in Michelangelo as an artist and a genius. David, who comes into the picture, is perceived as something distant, coming from Michelangelo’s past. He is just standing there, nothing more. We don’t see what Michelangelo is doing, but nothing goes right. We don’t see him complete any work. We just see that enormous block of marble, that he has to make something from, but it remains just rock. It’s a monster that is hard to deal with, and it’s unclear how to do it. That lack of understanding, which Konchalovsky experiences at such a mature age, I find extremely valuable, because not everybody can confess that he or she doesn’t understand something. I’m not going to teach Konchalovsky how to live the right way, it would be pretty ridiculous. I’m just trying to explain to myself, what his incomprehension comes from, and I see the roots of this problem in the lack of dialogue with God. 

- In fact, his Michelangelo admits it. 

- He does, who does he confess to?

- To Dante. 

- To Dante, who is an artist too. Olya Sedakova, whom we’ve already talked about today, called it “Parnassus faith”, meaning that any artist is confined to his artistic experience, and it’s only another artist that he can confess to. Dante’s shadow, that appears there, is another artist, there is no talking to God. The artist suffers because all his creations remind neither icons, nor prayers. But who does he confess to? To another artist, of course – a genius, but still an artist. All these things reflect “Parnassus faith”, that one needs to get out of to start believing. Only having done it one can approach that monster. Otherwise it will always remain a monster. The film presents us the drama with a quite youthful spirit, at least far from being mature, and I find it incredibly interesting.

- At the end of the topic Forgiveness, I would like to ask you a personal question: have you ever apologized for what you’ve said or written? 

- Well, you know, I can’t say I’ve had to apologize for what I’ve written…

- Or maybe regret saying something?

- I had to apologize years afterwards. There was a time in my life when it was important to me. I won’t mention the name, but this story, a real one, is connected to one famous person.  It was about his words “Cinema doesn’t amount to Tarkovsky alone; if you don’t recognize Matveyev, working with you will be difficult”. Yes, it was said this way. It happened in the perestroika years when I made up a story out of it. I obviously tried to follow the time that actually I had been recommended not to follow. That was my fault. It took me long years, even decades, to understand that simple thing. In the end I apologized to that person. 

You need to experience a moment of confession to accumulate an ability to forgive. It’s hard to ask for forgiveness without it as well, and a phrase by King Claudius in Hamlet convinces me in it: ”My words fly up, my thoughts remain below: words without thoughts never to heaven go.” 

- Yes, this phrase sounds differently in Pasternak’s and Lozinsky’s translations. 

- It’s great anyway and the meaning is the same. One can hardly pray without confession, one can hardly admit fault without repentance. Sometimes it takes years or even decades. And to be honest, I don’t see anything wrong about it – time doesn’t matter if it happens in the end. We all have a lot of sins we simply forget about, but confession is “an explosion of a sin”. Sometimes you go to confession and try to remember all the bad things you’ve done, but afterwards it dawns upon you: “Oh, there’s something I forgot about!”, and you go for another round of confession. Of course, it has something to do with forgiveness, but sometimes people may say: “It’s too easy for you to ask for forgiveness, that means nothing to you!”. And they do it not without reason, because if you apologize without living through that forgiveness inside, if you skip that mental work, it has little sense – it doesn’t concern your inner world, your inner experience, it doesn’t become your experience, which is very important. If that’s the case, is such an apology true? I don’t think so.