Lev Karakhan: «The Cannes Festival’s Program Is an Existential Recess»
Vladimir Legoyda
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A movie by Lars von Trier that he didn’t want to watch to the end, postmodern that hasn’t come to an end, an un-Soviet film The Red Snowball Tree by Vasily Shukshin, The Sin by Andrei Konchalovsky, a glimpse of the expert cinema community and trite cliches. These and many other topics covered in a talk of Vladimir Legoyda with cinema critic Lev Karakhan in the Parsuna show. 

- Welcome, dear friends! We continue to paint parsunas of our contemporaries. Our today’s guest is Lev Karakhan. Dear Mr Karakhan, it’s great to have you here. 

- Thank you. 

- Thank you for coming. I’ve been looking forward to meeting with your for quite a while and I have a lot of questions to ask. As you know, our program is divided into five parts: Faith, Hope, Patience, Forgiveness and Love – topics that appear plain. Our guests also have an opportunity of asking the host a question. It might be too risqué to call it an opportunity – let’s call it an option. When you feel like you’ve had enough…

- When I get tired of questions. 

- Yes, exactly. That’s pretty much it about our rules. Before we proceed to the first topic, let’s start with something like an introduction, like we’ve used to all the way. I say “something like” and I mean it because it shouldn’t be just a formal introduction. Please tell me: who are you? 

-I’ve seen your shows, I’m not gonna lie, so I am ready for this question. But, frankly, I would like to remain Lev Karakhan. I don’t want to be nicknamed somewhat like “The Thinking Reed” or “Rainman”, because that sounds more like “Chingachgook, the Great Serpent”. Don’t get me wrong, I’m totally okay with American Indians but I don’t think it would be good if your guests become some kind of a tribe. A “totem cult” doesn’t seem to fit the format of our conversation. 


- Speaking on The Passion of the Christ by Mel Gibson, Zanussi once told me that he “just couldn’t sit and watch Christ being crucified for two hours”. Do you agree? 

- Well, it depends on your viewing experience. I don’t think that whether you can sit and watch this movie has something to do with faith. I personally watched it from the beginning till the end. Not because I was so fascinated by the idea, but because that’s my responsibility as a critic. You know, with The House That Jack Built by Lars von Trier it was harder. Probably, that’s the only time I felt like getting out of the viewing room. However, at the same time I wanted to see where the storyline went, and it made me stay and watch the movie to the end. But I got critical a few times and I felt like getting out. 

- Was it the only time you didn’t want to watch a movie till the end? 

- Probably, yes. I always try to wait until the end of it to have a complete impression. A superficial view is not enough for a critic. No matter what you viewing experience is, it’s very important to see how the movie ends. If there is a beginning and there is an end – a movie is complete. But if there is no end or there are five or six possible endings, the director didn’t know exactly what he had to say. 

- Was there an ending in von Trier’s movie? 

- Definitely. As an artist, he is one of the best among modern directors. But the ways he uses to provoke feelings in the audience may be deeply disturbing even for a most experienced spectator. You asked about Mel Gibson’s movie, whether it’s a challenge or not, but I don’t think it has something to do with faith as such. Faith is something within us, it is something sustainable, it can’t be undermined by a fleeting incident. We all know the creed “Symbol of Faith”. It really is a symbol, because it’s the inner gravity that is always with you, like Earth’s gravity. 

- Sure. But Zanussi spoke of a movie about Christ. Don’t you understand why he put it this way?

- I do, but I think it doesn’t have anything to do with faith. Maybe movies like that can put one’s faith to test, but it doesn’t mean they can shake it. 

- You know, I personally think he was speaking not about testing your faith, but about some things that shouldn’t be touched upon, as far as I understood. Don’t you think that biblical stories are among them?

- You mean, off-limit?

- I mean, what do you think of this at all?

- I think nothing is off-limit. It’s just a matter how well you handle them as an artist. 

- I see. But I mean exactly films based on the New Testament. 

- This is no exception. But oftentimes biblical stories are presented like corny scenes, with no clear understanding of what’s going on on the screen. Mel Gibson made an attempt to put forward his version which is, by the way, very widespread. The film is not about tortures Jesus has to face before our eyes. The thing is that the film is focused more on his body, on physical suffering. Thus, we pull away from the Truth. As Jesus said: “I am the way and the Truth and the life”. The Truth is our symbol of faith. The words of the prayer “Symbol of Faith” are exactly a symbol of Truth. So, if we focus only on physical aspect, on physical pain he experienced, his image, based first of all on the Truth, becomes trivialized. 

There was a time when my wife was working on a pretty famous book 400 Questions with Father Maksim Kozlov.

- Yes, an amazing book!

- Apart from the questions she asked him, she was asking everybody around her, what question would they ask Father Maksim. And our son said: “Ask Father Maksim, what would he ask Christ about if he met him?” After some thought he answered: “Why should I ask anything? Everything is already crystal clear.” That absolute clarity, the truth of your comprehension shouldn’t be omitted in discussions about Christ and biblical scenes. Otherwise we will have to experience what the great people of the 19th and 20th centuries experienced, be it Tolstoy or Chekhov. I would say, they’ve played their part, a very difficult one, in forming the modern idea of faith, especially Chekhov. Generally, I think we underestimate the huge role he has played in shaping of the modern mindset of intelligent people. 

- So, what exactly was the role Chekhov played?

- My grandmas would constantly repeat Chekhov’s famous saucy lines, like “Ta-ra-ra-Boom-der-ay!” or “Yepikhodov broke his cue”. These things are on the surface. But if we dig deeper, we will see some inner atheism that was typical for them. Actually, it comes from Chekhov, because the whole of his theory of “small deeds” which Chekhov’s aesthetics is based on, is connected with shifting away from basic questions and with attempts to give specific or, as Chekhov put it, “practical” answers to basic questions: the questions about the Truth, the truth in our faith, about what do we believe in. It would be too harsh to say that we “fall back to practical answers”, so, if we limit the discussion of basic questions only by practical answers, we are sure to trivialize our understanding and our faith. 

- You think, Chekhov doesn’t touch upon those basic questions in his works at all, don’t you? But what about today’s attempts to reinterpret Chekhov, in particular, from the Christian perspective to find Christian sense in his works. Do you think they are fake? 

- Well, I think they are too naïve. Chekhov said it clearly that the image of an “intelligent believer” was inconceivable to him. He found the concepts of belief and intelligence incompatible, let’s face it. It doesn’t derogate his value as an artist, but his philosophy is often concealed and we try to adapt it to modernity especially when there is some kind of ideological necessity for it.  But in fact, Chekhov played a huge role in making faith, related to metaphysics in a broad sense, a very practical and ethical matter. This was very important especially in his time. But it cannot remain so today when a much wider range of questions of faith is open for us.

- But apart from author’s philosophical concepts, can there be something coming from above that is transmitted through him?

- Of course, there may be something resonating like a sound of a broken string. 


- There’s a set phrase “the great Soviet cinema”

- Yes, there is. 

- Is it really that great? And is there a hope that it has or will have decent successors to carry on its traditions?

- Sounds like “Make America Great Again”. Okay, let’s follow Trump’s way. For sure, the Soviet cinema is great, it goes without saying, and we needn’t bother with proving it. We’re speaking about hope, and the cinema of the Soviet Union was mostly related to hope, because the categories of the past and even of the present were subordinated to the category of the future. Contrariwise, in modern cinema the category of the future is mostly reduced. Recently I read a very good collection of interviews by Olga Sedakova, an amazing poet and writer. She also speaks about hope, and there was a thought that seemed very close to me: to implement the idea of hope in your mind, you need to understand the very sense of your existence. 

Everything is lost when sense is lost. Nowadays we are witnessing a fight against sense, one of the principal fights in the today’s world. On a related note, I was impressed by I phrase I came across in the Internet: Luther’s famous formula “Here I stand; I can do no other” was reinterpreted as “Here I stand; I can do more other” – this is how we lose sense. In this regard, another good formula comes to mind. As Pasternak put it: “In everything, I want to reach the very essence”. Nowadays it can easily be reinterpreted like “In everything, I want to breach the very essence”. Such processes rain down on us. They seem to be totally unstoppable and they mean loss of sense. 

The so-called era of postmodern hasn’t come to an end, however, many people try hard to bury it. I think, that’s because people don’t want to accept that it’s neither a style nor an aesthetic concept, but a mindset that is here to stay. It’s an inevitable result of the Modern age that allowed the Human to become the Maker. It is a highly significant phenomenon both from historical and philosophical perspectives, and today we watch it continue.  The Human triumphed, but he lost the sense of everything – namely the Truth that we were talking about in the beginning of our conversation. 

- That’s why he can stand and can do other. 

- So, I find it difficult to talk about Hope, because sense is lost. But if we include the Truth and the categories related to it, particularly Faith, the category of Hope reappears. Generally, the cycle “Faith-Hope-Forgiveness-Patience-Love” that our conversation comprises of and that we see on the screen, is a single whole and it can be easily unified by the adverb “because of”: Faith because of Hope; Hope because of Patience; Patience because of Forgiveness and Forgiveness because of Love. 

Recently I had a discussion with my friends about the purpose of life – such a nice and easy subject for a small talk, for half an hour. In the days of my youth I saw the purpose of life in self-fulfillment. I was convinced one should realize oneself to that extent, so that not to “regret the years spent for no reason”, as Ostrovsky put it. However, we do spend a lot of time for no reason. Nowadays every now and then we hear about “procrastination”. Unfortunately, it is something that all of us suffer from - the time wasted is a deep hurt for everybody. Our personal confession is related to this as well, because only when you leave it behind, you can embark on some path and start moving forward. 

Turning back to your question how I would introduce myself, I would say I’m “The Moving One”, because it’s very important to be on the move. Once you give way to procrastination, you stop moving. The Truth is also about moving – finding it is not a single-time action, there’s no way you can do it once and for all, and eventually achieve salvation. What you should do is try to recreate this understanding every single time, every single moment, find it anew at different stages of your way. 

- Since we talk about Hope in connection with Faith, have you reconsidered somehow these concepts in your life? Are there any ideas you’ve abandoned? Or is there anything that has changed radically along the way?

- Well, one night when I was young, I had a dream. May I share it with you? At that time I had Dostoyevsky on the curriculum, and I read a lot of his works. So, that night in my dream I saw the words “Win time – lose spirit, lose time – win spirit” in burning letters. Of course, I was puzzled, especially since I can't say it was something subconscious - it was said in a different language. I thought it meant something like “if you lose time, don’t rush, just relax”. But the more I live, the better I understand that the phrase “don’t lose time” is about historical time: if you are too tied to your historical time, if you can’t find your internal time, you lose spirit. That’s what evolution is related to. 

Lately I’ve been writing a big article on the movie A Hidden Life by Terrence Malick that was presented at the Cannes Festival in 2019. The movie is about a martyr Franz Jaegerstaetter, who refused to serve in the fascist army and was executed for that. I hope, we will see this movie soon, because this story of an ordinary but very religious peasant is incredibly interesting as an experience. From psychological point of view, it’s very hard to understand his position. Why did he refuse to serve in the army, what was so wrong about it? Although, there were also cases when Nazis themselves refused to serve as well and they were executed too. So, the psychological aspect of the movie is incredibly interesting. But the most important thing about it is the non-historical essence of inner existence: you are not tied to direct time, to some specific time context, you do not fall out of it, but you are independent of it, and that is very important. Thus, the inner life is, in some sense, protected from what is happening outside of you.

- But you won’t see much of this in movies. You’ve characterized the program of the Cannes festival as “existential recess”. With the points they bring up, they are out of the subject, as far as I understood. 

- The era of postmodern as a whole is “existential recess”. Existentialism brought us to a precipice. One of the earliest examples of living an existential crisis is Tolstoy’s famous “Arzamas horror” – it was a pure existential crisis in one of its earliest forms.  

- Don’t you think, it could be a result of a writer’s block?

- It could be caused by anything, but, in fact, it was a pure existential crisis. He was contemplating suicide, after all. That means, he was totally unable to lean on anything mentally, he fell out of his historical time and found himself in emptiness. That is likely to have caused his crisis. But existentialism showed us one simple thing – death is inevitable. As Heidegger famously put it, life is “being-toward-death”. This turns out to be a milestone that one had better guard oneself from. And postmodern let us do it – it let us guard ourselves from the precipice that started to appear in the human. What is an “existential recess”? It’s when you don’t have to jump off from a cliff; when being yourself, being endowed with spirit doesn’t mean leaving this world, namely dying. That means, one might as well live on the edge. 

In New Zealand folks have a great amusement – bungee jumping. It’s when people jump from bridges. I even saw people jump from a TV tower in Auckland. Just imagine somebody jump from the TV tower in Ostankino! That’s playing a game with the abyss: you jump dive from a building, being tied by just a rope. That’s basically all one needs to know about postmodernism: death and risk are turned into an amusement ride. The world has turned into an enormous amusement park. We are standing on the verge of the precipice, we have neither something to lean on, nor some understanding of the Truth, at least as a “symbol of faith”, but anyway, we are doing a nice job of guarding ourselves from that precipice.