Category Archives: contemplation

Machine art

Thanks to Unspoken Cinema for Casualty of Design‘s Lost in a moment – Tokyo.

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I’m ashamed to admit that I love The Silentists.

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Better Things

This film is about lives in which nothing happens.

Nothing happens because the characters live in small rural towns in which nothing happens and they have too little money or knowledge or confidence to make anything happen.

Several of them smoke or inject heroin. We see them doing this repeatedly.

Others are old. One is agoraphobic. Again, because of these factors nothing much happens. This does raise the possibility, however, of sitting in hospital and glimpsing a covered trolley, probably carrying a corpse, being wheeled around a corner.

When people have taken heroin they may slump back in the armchairs in their parents’ unappealing house and gaze with unseeing, half-closed eyes into the space above them. Two friends together will pass long periods like this without saying anything.

The parents, who must be doing something to keep the house going and put food in the cupboards, are away on holiday for the duration.

No one ever smiles. Not even nervously or compulsively.

The sun does not shine.

It rains.

Many people have bad skin. The one who had the best skin died of a heroin overdose.

None of this is funny.

The agoraphobic’s therapist has awful treble-clef earrings and a repressed manner to counter any expectation that she can possibly help the situation.

We enter events that have already begun, and leave them before they conclude. No one exits or enters the frame. Mostly, nothing changes between the beginning and ending of the scene.

Any decisive event that does occur happens off camera and between scenes, so not visibly and not in real time.

This could be an interesting reversal of normal film technique, which is to show decisive action and cut out the time in between. It could raise the question of which moments are really the most important in life.

But the film is as depressed as its characters. It wants us to feel its deadness. It performs its monotonous dance of death before us, but won’t take us by the arm to draw us onto the ballroom floor.

It could have been a promising short. But you need to do much more than this for a feature.

(Better Things, Duane Hopkins, ICA)

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Tarkovsky and boredom

Tarkovsky during the filming of Stalker

I’ve met a few people who think that the films of Andrei Tarkovsky[1] are boring. I understand. These films are slow.[2] Most don’t have much of a story. There’s not much sex or violence or snappy dialogue. I was bored myself the first few times I watched Tarkovsky films. I loved the beautiful, enigmatic imagery, the evocation of dream logic, but it was an effort to pay attention. Then something happened. Continue reading

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On Friday, when Channel 4 News was over and there was nothing else to watch before we went to bed, as usual, early and sober, L decided to burn some incense, something she does more for entertainment than for smell or ambience. First she lit a disc of charcoal from the all-faith religious supplies shop opposite the Round Chapel (where she has also sourced Powerful Indian ‘Do As I Say’ Spiritual Bath & Floor Wash). These discs come in a silver-wrapped stack, and when you light one side a line of sparks marches excitingly across the surface; otherwise the charcoal remains as it was, a precisely formed matt black biscuit, but we believe that, within, it has started to burn.

She put a big lump of incense into the hollow on top of the disc, and I thought, as I always do, of M’s Italian grandmother collecting pine resin for the church, and how he found some resiny bark in Snowdonia that we burned.

Soon it was giving off smoke, and soon the smoke formed a thin, opaque, white column rising dead straight and fast from a turbulent shroud on the upper part of the resin. We gazed at it from close up, exclaiming in wonder at the elegance of this convection made visible. I said this showed how easy it would be to convince someone who didn’t know better that if you could make this happen, you could also talk to spirits, to the dead. L thought it was as if we had turned the flat into a club. She looked across the room and saw that its volume was evenly filled with haze. I got up and took the batteries out of the smoke alarm. Looking down the landing, through the backlit haze, I thought about possible associations of this underwater light: fire, clubs, a film set shot this way to create a feeling of danger, of mystery, of an underworld.

On Sunday morning we were in James Turrell’s Deer Shelter in Yorkshire Sculpture Park; S almost comprehensively defying a sign outside that had suggested that this was a place for quiet contemplation and requested, among other things, that people not eat, drink or light fires, and keep their children under control. It’s a square room with a doorless entrance and a concrete bench running around the walls, which are painted white. It’s reverberant. It’s like a faith-independent chapel or mosque. Eight metres up there is a square hole in the ceiling. The surround of the hole is evidently made of plate metal, as you can’t from any angle see the inner surface of the hole; all you can see is the slightly stained ceiling and then the sky. There’s no gap, no boundary zone; just the ceiling with a square of sky in it.

The sky yesterday morning was a luminous blue, which reminded me, as such skies always do, of the strangely luminous blue skies I saw in Greece; which reminded me of backlit frosted perspex, with unnaturally creamy, high-contrast clouds floating in front. The brightness of the sky was nicely balanced with the brightness of the ceiling: you could take them both in at the same time, so this couldn’t play at being Plato’s cave;
nature didn’t blind me, nor did an imagined “beyond”, the artificial world wasn’t gloomy. It made me think of trompe-l’oeil ceilings, of blue-painted domes, of the games you play with yourself to see how far you can go towards believing that they might be real. Could this square of blue be fake? If I had thought so I would have looked for scratches, for uneven lighting, for a surface discoloured by scorching, or dead insects, or dried scum from a leak, the things that tell you how old a streetlight is, or for fluorescent tubes whose colours don’t match or that flicker. But there was none of that to be seen. The sky is a top-class, self-repairing diffuser. Still, I thought that I might simply be looking at a clever illusion rather than gazing into infinity. But I wasn’t gazing into infinity anyway; just into a volume of scattered light a few miles thick.

There’s no escaping perception. Earlier in the week I had written to D, who is an art academic, in the hope that he would help me clarify what I think about art; in the email I debated with myself, as far as my poor understanding of such things allows, if there can be anything outside discourse. I’ve always been very fond of this picture:

What about the night? I’m sure it’s not too hard to get into the sculpture park after hours, the kind of thing a now somewhat exploded group of us used to enjoy doing, and look up through Turrell’s square into the depths of the universe. That made me think of Olbers’ paradox (not that I could remember its name, but put “paradox night sky stars full” into Google and, praise be to Wikipedia, there it is): if there are hundreds of billions of stars in our galaxy alone, and hundreds of trillions of galaxies in the universe, why is a clear night sky mostly black? Shouldn’t it be a uniform blaze of starlight, with stars near and far crowding out any darkness? If there’s a convincing answer to this, it’s not one that I understand.

Atmospherics. Chapels. Contemplation. Science. Fakery. But no beyond. No prayer. And art? Is any of this art?

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Public transport

Last night I dreamt that a bus route ran through my kitchen. It’s amazing what narrow spaces a double-decker can get through. Between the breakfast bar (it was a dream, remember) and the wall units without a scratch.

I have been back in London for three weeks.

On a bus travelling through the City I was struck by how perfectly the buildings abut each other, how perfectly the pavement abuts the buildings. How everything is clean and smooth and in good repair. Like being inside a shopping mall. The dirt and brokenness and bodge jobs exemplified by infinite thought are not here. Here are the kind of joints only possible with the help of computer design, the latest materials, surveyed, of course, by the total-control systems of our antiterrorist state. It strikes me because this isn’t a mall that is so scrupulously swept and polished and sealed and mapped, it’s the most ancient part of an ancient city. It’s under the sky. Rivers once ran here, and so on. I think that’s probably being sentimental. And sentimental value, I have decided, = no value.

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Nothing more than feelings

Tom Lubbock says that Rothko’s paintings are like power ballads:

Rothko made a real discovery when he found that, by using a very restricted language, a few bars and panes and rectangular frames of strong colour, blurry-edged and set in simple arrangements, he could stir in the viewer a powerful empathetic and emotional response. I’m not denying his ability to move you.

No, and I don’t deny this ability to Mariah Carey or Harry Nilsson, either.

Like the songs, the paintings have a hook:

And the thing about hooks is that they have an almost neurological effect. … A Rothko work is all hook, it’s designed as a simple, strong visual catch; one riff, writ very large.

The trouble is that Lubbock confesses that he is susceptible to this simplistic stuff in songs – Lionel Richie is his most shocking example – and films – The Sound of Music and ET – just as he is to more complex material. He prefers the latter because there’s more to it than emotional manipulation. So his parallel doesn’t apply to those of us who are unmoved by the emotional porn he cites. And anyway, the power ballads and cheesy films are crafted to leave only one possible response – one positive response, anyway, as rage and misery are never far away when I hear Mariah Carey. Rothko may have succeeded in evoking big emotional responses, but the paintings don’t specify quite what they will be.

You could criticise him for being just an old Romantic, still peddling the sublime, and in those late paintings with their swirling murk and stormy blacks we do seem to be among the superhuman forces of nature. I wonder if Lubbock just has a problem, in a rather British way, with the emotion, with the talk of mysticism and religion, even if it is godless; as Adrian Searle

The dim lighting and contained feeling of the Rothko Room at the Tate has always given it, for some spectators, an air of immanence and mystery. I prefer paintings in plain sight, without the heavy breathing…

and Peter Campbell

… finding the depths in the pictures suggested by some of Rothko’s statements is now, and probably always was, an act of faith that requires a sort of self-hypnosis.

seem to.

It’s true that Rothko’s paintings are imposing and direct, painted henge monuments that use optical illusions and manipulation to hold and seduce the eye. They work because they are a wallowing in the world of sense. They are as familiar and intimate as the inside of your eyelids. I think that’s why we drop our defences before them. We have known images like these since we were too young to know anything else. Such was the first thing we ever saw, and such well might be the last. No wonder these paintings release such powerful and unpredictable emotions.

In fact, I think his exploitation of the artefacts of visual perception make him more an abstract impressionist than expressionist. Or psychedelic without the primary-school colours that hippy ideology demands.

None of that makes them Celine Dion in paint.

This reminds me of The Manual (How to Have a Number One the Easy Way) by Jimmy Cauty and Bill Drummond of the KLF: a confusingly plausible method for constructing and selling the perfect pop single:

Every Number One song ever written is only made up from bits from other songs. There is no lost chord. No changes untried. No extra notes to the scale or hidden beats in the bar. There is no point searching for originality.

So why don’t all songs sound the same? Why are some artists great, write dozens of classics that move you to tears, say it like it’s never been said before, make you laugh, dance, blow your mind, fall in love, take to the streets and riot? Well, it’s because although the chords, notes, harmonies, beats and words have all been used before, their own soul shines through; their personality demands attention.

So even if the paintings are just machines for inducing a certain emotional or meditative condition in a viewer, I don’t think that makes them bad or insubstantial or unimportant art. There’s more to art than an aid to meditation or emotional release, sure, but too much contemporary art – for instance, the pointless exercise currently on show in the Turbine Hall – is directed at the conscious intellect alone. I’ve always been attracted by the idea of making art that has the immediacy, cleverness and emotional hit of a good pop song.

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Black, Lynch and Rothko

When I was at primary school a teacher told my class that there was no such thing as black paint or ink or dye: anything that was called black would, if you looked hard at it, turn out to be dark brown or blue or some other colour. Because black is not a colour, it is the absence of light, so it’s not something you can make. You can’t make an absence. If you say you can, you’re just playing with words or not expressing yourself properly.

When I used to do photographic colour printing – which you had to do in a totally dark darkroom, with no safelights, just a little glowing green light floating in space to tell you where the “expose” button on the enlarger timer was, and your memory of where you put the box of printing paper and the scissors and where the door handle was – I liked standing there with useless eyes. It wasn’t black, of course. I could watch the coloured dots and squiggles writhing about like tadpoles. When I read about photons popping in and out of existence in a vacuum, seething, as quantum physics says they do, I think about those coloured dots. None of the darkrooms was completely light-tight, though, so after a minute you’d begin to see cold white wedges where daylight was leaking in. A minute more and you’d see a bit of the wall lit up by the light. It would seem incredibly bright, but I knew that if the roof was suddenly taken off I’d be blinded. Then I’d think about how you can see a single candle flame at a distance of several miles on a very dark night, or so I had read. About how your eye can register a single photon of light.

I’d think about black velvet, the blackest thing anyone seemed able to think of. Or soot, the mattest thing I had ever seen. Or the black powder I used to make paint with.

Disappointingly, I had also found out that matt black isn’t as black as glossy black. But glossy black always exists alongside specular reflections, pretty much the brightest things you can look out without hurting your eyes.

A film editor once told me that to represent blackness in film, the frame had to have some light in it. She said there was a certain maximum ratio of dark to light. It was obvious, when I thought about it. You’re looking at a cinema screen, a highly reflective surface in a room with at least a couple of emergency exit lights on. If you film a coal cellar at night, you’ll get a negative as clear as it can be. If you make a print from it, you’ll get a print as opaque as it can be, which is not totally opaque. Run that print through a projector in a cinema and you’ll be allowing the minimum amount of light possible onto the screen – the projector light shining through nothing but film black plus the exit lights. But that’s still some light. Enough to see that the screen is a light-coloured rectangle, much brighter than than the curtains and walls around it. The same thing happens with video monitors. Turn them off and you see how unblack they are.

To represent blackness, you have to prevent the viewer’s brain from dwelling on the true lightness of the screen. You need to distract it with some kind of image, force it to accommodate a tonal range wide enough for it to see the darkest tone as black, give over enough of the screen to the lighter tones so that the brain doesn’t disregard them as simply a bright light, so that it looks for detail in them and adjusts its awareness of brightness levels accordingly.

Once I’d started to think about the problem of blackness in film, I began to notice how David Lynch’s films go much further than most in representing pure, unrelieved blackness. At moments of transition, we are led into a glimpse of total blackness, a vertiginous velvety blackness: when Fred Madison goes down an unnaturally dark corridor in his apartment in Lost Highway, or, in Mulholland Drive, when Betty turns the corner in her aunt’s apartment, and just before the dead Diane is found in her house, and as we fall into the inexplicable blue Alice-in-Wonderland box, and when the movie director Adam orders “Kill the lights” before kissing the notably and glossily brunette Camilla on set, or behind the diner after Diane has put the contract on her. Flirting with darkness.

A poem, or incantation, from Lynch’s Twin Peaks suggests that darkness allows a passage across otherwise unbridgeable gulfs:

Through the darkness of future past
The magician longs to see
One chants out between two worlds
Fire walk with me

The mystical. Which brings us to Mark Rothko. “Black-form painting” No.1, I think. A more glazed black next to a less glazed black. Which is the real black? Is either? Between them, as if by accident, a strip of a lower layer of still blacker, matter black is visible. To see that as anything other than real black, you would have to try quite hard not to look at the other, lesser blacks. The same trick that the cinematographer and print grader uses; while looking from one black to another, our gaze has to trip over that crack into what we cannot see as other than real black.

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Spiritual Voices

Episode 1

How did contemporaries describe the composer whose music we are about to hear?

“Small and fussy, with a slightly stupid look in his eyes. All in all, an unprepossessing figure. Plumpish, just over five feet tall, always on the move, with a large head, a fleshy nose, and pock-marked skin – not very attractive to look at. He had pale blue eyes and blond hair. His vague. distracted expression was due to short-sightedness. As a result of long journeys on inadequate fare he suffered from rickets. His deformed skull, bossed forehead, diminutive stature, and misshapen hands are all signs of the disease.” This is Mozart.

He had pale blue eyes and blond hair. His vague distracted expression was due to short-sightedness. As a result of long journeys on inadequate fare he suffered from rickets. His oversized head, diminutive stature, and misshapen hands are signs of the disease.

Mozart died in 1791. “On the night of 4th-5th December, the Royal Composer Mozart passed away. Famous from childhood for his outstanding musical talent, through a combination of natural genius, inherited ability and steady application he achieved the consummate mastery to which his works bear witness. Charming and universally loved, they cannot but remind us of the irreparable loss to music his death represents.” In the words of a Viennese newspaper, “On the 4th of this month, in the small hours, the Royal Composer to the Emperor, Wolfgang Mozart, famous throughout Europe, came to the end of his short, 35-year life. Even the greatest in the field were amazed by the rare talent of this great musician. But what has this highly talented man left behind him? Everlasting fame, a helpless widow, two small children and unpaid debts. One of his children, though still only little, already plays the clavichord so well that he amazes and impresses his listeners. It was said by many that Mozart was a Freemason and some documents suggest that his death may have been the work of the Freemasons.” From a Berlin newspaper: “Mozart has died. He was already ill when he returned from Prague and his health declined daily from that point on. He may have had dropsy. He died in Vienna at the end of last week. Because of the severe swelling of the corpse, it has been suggested that he may have been poisoned.”

Imagine the strength this extraordinary, unique being must have needed to take his place amongst people, to defend the place for which he was destined by God and Providence. What hard, cramped lives people live! How cruel and merciless people can be.

What a light touch!

We are now going to hear the music of Olivier Messaien, a modern French composer. Listen carefully. Listen carefully to the music and try to feel the sounds, feel how the voices in this work combine with one another. Messaien didn’t come to music by accident. His spirit and his talent prove his devotion to music. But he is a man of our time. Is there harmony in this music? Isn’t each note a separate sound? Doesn’t each note assert its own value? Sometimes, when I listen to Messaien, it seems to me that I am not listening to music but to the instrument tuning up all by itself. There is no composer, just a piano in an empty room, and the sound is not the result of warm fingers on cold keys, but is merely a sound generating itself.

In February, 1778, Mozart and his mother were in Paris, looking for work. Mozart’s mother wrote to her husband that she would sit all day long alone in their little room, as if under arrest, that the room was dark and uncomfortable, and that its windows faced onto the light-well. To crown Mozart’s sorrows, in July of that year his mother died. She was 57. In a letter to a friend, he wrote: “My dear friend, weep with me on this, the saddest day of my life. I am writing at two in the morning to tell you this: my darling Mama is no more. The Lord has claimed her. He was waiting for her. I accept this, and submit to the will of the Lord. He has given and he has taken away. But what grief, what anguish, what terrible strain I have experienced over the last two weeks! She died without knowing it – out like a candle. Three days before she died, she confessed and received Communion, she received the Blessed Sacrament. She was delirious all through the last three days, but today, at twenty-one minutes past five, it became clear that she was close to death. She was completely unaware of her surroundings. I pressed her hand and she started to talk, neither seeing nor hearing me, not conscious of anything. Exactly five hours went by in the same way until, at twenty-one minutes past eleven in the evening, she passed away.”

Mozart’s 19th Piano Concerto, Second Movement.

You are now going to hear part of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony, Second Movement. Mozart and Beethoven are beings from the same civilisation. Both are extraordinarily, immensely gifted. They have many more similarities than differences.

The more remarkable and outstanding a person is, the more difficult and contradictory their relationship with life – this life on earth. These beings stand little chance of being reconciled to life. Little chance.

This is the Second Movement of Mozart’s 23rd Piano Concerto. Let us listen to it again, so as to remember it, to keep it in our souls. Let us gratefully remember the eternal Mozart, the martyr.

Always on the move, with his fleshy nose and pock-marked skin, he was not attractive to look at. He had pale blue eyes and blond hair. His vague, distracted expression was due to short-sightedness.

Episode 2

In Russia, the snow and cold seem endless. Not a sound… and not a soul.

Flicking through my journal, this is what I read: “At the beginning of June, with a light heart, yet also with sadness, I quickly collected my things and left Russia.”

In June, Tadjikistan is already very hot. Against all odds, I have arrived here.

A small military airfield. Now I know that in a few hours, I’ll be at the border.

Before us, a flight by helicopter – just a short flight. Once we have landed, we will have a long and possibly dangerous journey through the mountains.

God help us all.

On my left, there is a precipice, the River Panjsher and Afghanistan. I keep a sharp eye out on all sides: there is a risk of ambush. This is the only route to the frontier post. Helicopters will not fly over this region.

They’ve been waiting for us. They’re discussing whether we should move forward all in one group or separately?

No point taking risks – let’s keep together.

On the mountainside there are abandoned gardens and fields sown with crops. No-one is going to come back here. The wind is hot.

This young man is in command of one of the Russian frontier posts. How old is he? 22… 23? It’s very hot.

Give me the parcel.

Well, we’ve arrived. This is frontier post No. 11.

We’ve arrived.

Everything seems dreamlike – I put it down to exhaustion or excitement. I look around me. I am thirsty.

Episode 3

This is what I wrote in my diary: “It was very hot last night. I slept a dreamless sleep.”

Use your gun. Hold the wire up with the butt.

At that time, we often used to leave the little valley where the company was stationed and climb, keeping strictly to the paths, up and up.

I found the going tough. I often had to ask for a rest. We sat and rested in silence, looking down at the frontier post.

What sort of cigarettes are they? De Luxe?

I don’t know – with filters.

Go on, then.

Reach out.

Has someone taken a grenade?

Today is June 17th.

There were 4 out of 5.


Yes, 4 Starts.


Put one ahead of us, by the second hill.

Mazalov! Come here.

Are the alarms in place?

Not yet.

And the type 2s?

Yes, one.

On the path we’re going to take?

It’s off during the day.

We’ll add a tripwire later.

Put a PZM mine in front of that trench.


Right in front of the trench.

The situation is stable.

I’d like to go to the village.

I got home on the 31st.

Can you believe it, I got home on the evening of 31st December.

I’d love that, even at 11 p.m.

Just because they held me up for 4 hours.

These trenches cover the approaches to the frontier post. It is one of several, situated at different vantage points. Each post is surrounded by its own minefield and is responsible for its own defence. If these soldiers win an engagement, they save their own lives, and the lives of those below. If they lose, everyone dies. In this war, it seems, no prisoners are ever taken.

It’s OK for you. We’ve still got to go down.

Chapter 11: The Tale of the One-Eyed Devil



No. This water is from the base.

Can we wash?

We washed in the Panjsher. An officer came, the commander of the base…

He came up here.

He saw us bathing, he sent a soldier to say “Get out quick!”


Yes. This water needs boiling.

No problem.

Let’s put it here.

I reckon the war’s over.

They’ve left us alone today.

Don’t speak too soon.

They might still give us some bother.

Any news?

Not a peep. I’ve reported.

What about decorations? Makarych and Bukhan?


What for, the Order of the Easy Chair?

Yes, they’ll be put forward for a decoration. And why not that guy, our bloke? Why not put forward Saraikin?


I don’t know. They say there were two scouts in the mountains.

Were your men there too?

They were taken out, [laughing] along with the others. It must be a joke.

Well, there was that boy who came back in tears. A frontier-guard. Valerka was there. The group was just going down with ammunition.

After morning prayers, I waited for a quarter of an hour, discharged my gun [laughs], and that was it. I looked sadly up at the sky.

Vityok, the water-carrier.

They’re brought some wounded to Post 10. They said a Russian got killed.

If it was true, there would have been a hell of a row.

Well, get some boxes to take the stuff to the mountains.

Preparing for Liberation Day…

We’ll get some boxes.

I look at these soldiers and it seems to me they can’t have had much in the way of human happiness. They have left Russia, and everyone who looked to them for help. Perhaps some of them don’t have anyone waiting for them anywhere. Lord, save and protect us.

Put your trousers on.


Put your trousers on. Where are the others?

Still over there.

Hasn’t Gurin said anything?

Is he back?

It was Ponarin who left.

He hasn’t said anything. Either that or I didn’t hear him.

This is the 46th calling Plevna. Did you get through? Roger.

Where’s your gun?

Where’s your gun?

They took it.


My gun. But we have three.

I don’t care. Take your things and go down.


For your treatment.

I brought the ointment with me so as to put it on up here.


Put your things in the dug-out.

Which do you prefer? Meat or butter?


Give me some water.

Give me the mug.

Where is the tea? Have you hidden it?

Are you off your rocker?

My what?

Your rocker.


Yes, with sugar.

Thanks for dinner, Yura.

Have some tea.

Have you tried the radio? You must.

You must contact them.

They’re not answering.

Are you using their channel?

No, ours.

What did you say?

There’s too much cloud. Stormclouds. Anyway, it’s quiet today. What about tomorrow?

Maple 1 calling Maple 2. Maple 1 calling Maple 2. Maple 1 calling Maple 2. Their receiver’s not switched on.

You know that song, Your older sister got married…

It’s the next one on the tape.

We can listen till nightfall.


That’s when we have to give the tape back.

It’s not allowed on night-watch.

Look, lightning.

The clouds have been drifting across all day.

“You… You don’t even look at me/You won’t remember me/You don’t even look/In my direction. You don’t even look at me/You don’t even know I love you.”

We need a guitar.

I didn’t find any in Kulyab.

Why should they have them?

37,000 roubles isn’t much for a Zenith Reflex.

Do you think it’s expensive?

Yes, a bit.

The other guy’s got a Zenith, that’s why he wants one.

Did you leave the axe?

That axe over there?

I put it there?

Did you take it?

No, it was hot.

He says we’ve mucked up the tape.

Sanya, here’s a mission for you: you can repair the tape-recorder sockets.

I need another battery.

Why? This one is OK.

Look, it’s working again!

Today is a strange, uneasy day. Our surroundings blend into the dust. This wind is called the Afghani. It makes one feel lonely and troubled.

It looks a bit like rain. No. I don’t put any faith in those clouds.

No, it’s not going to rain. This is Asia. Everything is complicated.

Sanya! Send the men over for their dinner.

He can’t hear.


Eat, eat!


Switch on the radio!

Use the radio.

Use our channel.

Send your men over for their dinner!

He’s got it at last.

It’s going to rain.

Look at those clouds.

They are coming from two directions.

We’re going back to the frontier post, but I still can’t forget those flashes. Another note in my diary: “I feel safe. I am not afraid to follow these men along the path. They seem to treat me as one of themselves. But perhaps I’m wrong to think that they see me as one of them.”

The day is over. The base is less than a kilometre away.

There’s no more water here.

There should be some over there.

Go and wash them.

Is the spoon clean?

Do you want tea in it?

Tea at breakfast, tea at lunch and lots of tea at dinner.

Everybody happy?

Happy birthday!

How old are you?


Cigarettes, Lighter.

Wine, please.

People will think it really is wine.

It’s OK, we’re eating rice.

What are you eating?


Have you finished?

Vovchik, Vovchik!

Come and eat.

Is it stewed?

It’s pretty rough.

Call the other’s while it’s still hot.

The day is over. No fighting today. Thank God.

Left, right…

An alarm went off in the bushes. So they really were there.

Call them for dinner, or it’ll be cold.

I arrived at Guchkom in April. When I first came, the grass was still short. When I left, it was ready for haymaking.

“I’ll never forget that day/The day when I became a soldier”

Aim quicker! The second mortar, fire!

Hurry up!

Hurry up, the second mortar! Go on, go on!

Go on, aim!

You must aim quickly!

Well, I’ll be off now, back to my position.

Good night.


Episode 4

All day long, the sun has kept coming out, only to disappear again behind pale clouds. A sultry day, devoid of colour.

Go on, go on! Go on! Go on. Easy does it! Stop!

Shut the door!

Are the tracks broken?

They’ve got stones in them.

OK, got it.

OK. Chuck it over there. Don’t forget to scrape it.

Anyway, we’ll go for a bathe afterwards.

Where are we going to swim? In the Seine?

There’s a river.

How about on the other side of the Panjsher?

Oh yeah, and let’s walk to France!


That’s enough digging.

Once more.

Chuck it over there.

It’ll roll down.

Is that me?

Go and wash.

And can I get myself shaved double-quick, too?

The captain told me to just this morning.

The captain? He says that to everyone.

There weren’t any razors.

I haven’t shaved because I haven’t had the chance.

Misha! Got a cigarette?

I wish I was back on my kolkhoz.

You don’t need to dig there, do you?

Not so deep, anyway.

What, go and leave everyone in the lurch?

No way.

This is how we help the Tadjiks.

No, this is how we help ourselves.

Two days of spadework in one day!

I’ll call you if I need you.

Are you staying here?

We’re leaving.


Right now.

Don’t be shy.

Fair’s fair.

Well. Remember them to us.

And you were crying. [laughter]

The plane hasn’t taken off yet.

Thanks for everything. Don’t forget to shave.

Remember me to them, back in Russia.

Going home to Russia. Demobilised.

Safe journey!

Be seeing you.

Well, go on, then!

Keep in touch!

That’s it. For them, military service and this war are over. Let’s hope nothing happens to them on their way over the mountains.

Turn off the engine! Misha, stop it.

Take off the brake!

You’ll ruin the brakes!

Take off the hand brake!


They’ll never come back here again. That’s it. It’s over. Safe journey.

There’s a soldier’s mess for those who are staying. Goodness, it’s hot here.

Ready, Faizev?

Don’t forget your guns. We’ll blast them over to the east. Your position will be like this. How many mines are there already?

I don’t know the exact figure.

Take your section and go up there.

Can we have a rest?

Comrade Lieutenant, we’ve been sitting on guard all night long.

So have we.

And we were standing.

Where are they dragging us off to?

Comrade Lieutenant, what are your orders?

You cover the 20 metres from that bush to there.

To that hole?

No, make a barrage at the narrowest point. You, cover the corner near that tree. Take the fuses.

Go a bit further down, where the lieutenant is – I don’t know his name. Lay a tripwire going upwards.

Up there?

Use a PZM. Fazrahimov, come here!

I’m Faisiev.

I told you, you’re to go further ahead with Maltsev. Fazrahimov, er, Faizev, do you see the tree? Go up there, dig a hole and lay a mine. When I give the order, take off the safety device.

This is the cap. When it’s pierced, the TNT explodes.

As if they knew what was going to happen, they decided to lay more mines around the post.

Sanin! Ready?


Major Abramovich… He was ready to die rather than leave what he was carrying. Now there was a man of principle.

Want a smoke?


Fomenko, I know him. I’ve been to his place.

About time too!

30 minutes.

You can’t trust batteries these days.

They’ve been tested.

Yes, but they are all…

Not that one, give me a Number 7. Take one out of my back pocket.

Screw it right down, OK? Here. Don’t short-circuit it or you’ll wear the battery out in no time. You, what’s-your-name, Faizev! Take a PZM and go up as far as the precipice, OK?

We’ve got one infra-red.

Should we put a PZM over there?

You’ve got PZMs, move forward, not too far up the slope, not too near the river.

Where the bush is. So as to aim the blast at them. Lay it diagonally. Right, Bekov! Get your mine ready.

Ready, Faizev?

Don’t forget your guns.

Take off your headgear, except for your helmets. You must wear helmets in action. Put on your helmets! Stand to! Quick, now! Straighten your uniforms. Form ranks. In your ranks! Attention! Comrade Captain, the company is ready. The Deputy-Chief Lieutenant Kaverznev.

Good day, comrade border guards!

Good day, Comrade Captain!

At ease!

Stay in ranks.

No news for the moment. No movements of armed personnel detected within the protected area. The population are busy working. They may try to provoke us by attacking the post from the rear with small groups armed with mortars. We can’t rule out the possibility. Conclusion: reinforcement all round. In your ranks! Attention! This is the plan: Rakhimov, Gabirov, Nibadullaev: 1 – H – 18. Yeraliev: 20 – 10 – 19. Dmietriev!


18 – H – 9 – 9. Nasyrov, Khadulloev!


26 – 15. Ageyev!


20 -10 -19.

The rest of you, off duty. Are any of you unfit for action?

What are you doing? Just in case, just in case…

When the base was finally attacked, at first it wasn’t frightening.

Eagle 13 calling. Eagle 13 calling. Hearing you. Yes, I can see it too, that spot. It’s done. We’ve already covered it with our ordnance.

Liberty calling.

Liberty, revoke last order.

Volga 10, this is Kulyab 65. K9, Eagle 13 calling, hold on.

Maybe it’s coming from over there. That’s the square Liberty mentioned. Falcon 29 at post 46.

Move forward in single file and be very careful, including on the way back. Repeat.

Did he say where the firing was coming from? From the direction of the base, you can take… about a kilometre, see? They are positioned like that. It might be coming from thereabouts. Or from over there. Hard to say.

Follow the river!

OK, I’ll get to work then.

What kind of injuries? Minor or serious?


Switch channels and explain what’s happening. Straight at you or in another direction?. At which block, 1 or 2? Report, 1st! Get Vikin out of there immediately and try and see where the sniper is shooting from.

Rakhimov, all you lot in the trenches lie down, and put your helmets on, there are snipers out there!

Got it. Go on. You there! Yura, why have we lost contact? What’s up? Liberty, keep a sharp eye on the Curtain.

They’re still firing samovars. We’re OK for the moment. We’re firing back. We’re firing back at them with our own samovars.

Come here! Keep the dog out of here. They must retreat.

Fire closer to us, they’re already on the slope. Target the road. OK. The road, lads, the road!

Salyut! Salyut 1!

Nasyrov has made bread dough.

He’d better bake it, then.

Salyut 1, Eagle 13 calling. Fire at the road again, keep it coming, more thickly.

At the road, the road! Mortar!

Their commander reported activity in that sector. We must make a decision and carry out a manoeuvre. Let’s transfer the men from there and concentrate them here. The enemy’s altered his line of fire. He’s shifting it towards us. Just leave the service guns. No, not from the Curtain, from those positions.

Transfer them where?

Let’s think.

At the end here, in Position 1? Or closer to the mortars.

Closer to the mortars. At the Maples. There aren’t enough of us.

The Maples are in the open.

But there are places to shelter in.

They’ll be out in the open when they move.

There’s no-one left here to man the ordnance.

All right with you if I go out and take a look around?

If you like. They are all on the hills.



Look, there must be a lookout on the hill.

War is hideous, from the very first shot to the last. There is nothing but dust, the smell of burning, stones, hot shrapnel, blood, a hint of fear. No room for aesthetics.

Let’s get into position.

On foot, that way.

Call me when you arrive.

It’s us he’s aiming at. [giggles]

Where’s it coming from?

Watch out for shells!

Mind your belt.


Go on. You’ll have to clean it.

It’s stuck!

They’re waving a white flag.

We weren’t shooting at them.

Got it.

Have you been in the truck long?

Everything finished as suddenly as it began. The enemy retreated to the mountains to muster reinforcements.

We received 26 missiles. Exactly 26.

They have nothing better to do than count in the hills.

Oh yeah?

Yeah. They count the explosions.

You’re wrong, they get data from the other side.

We prevented them from counting.

No, they work directly with Afghanistan.


As soon as it’s repaired, we’ll know if the planes are going to strike again or not.

He was going to call.

Just going through the motions.

It was just a show to frighten them.

It’s over, it’s over.

You can put that down, if you like.

Not too many four-letter words?

It’s life, You should warn us.

It’s realistic.

It’s realistic, but…

Here they come, at full speed.

He dropped the first one before he got here and he’d already left before the second. They must have warned him.

It was him they were signalling to.

He works for them part-time.

I haven’t used up the munitions. I won’t be taking any more. I’ve got enough.

All day long, the sun has kept coming out, only to disappear behind pale clouds. A sultry day.

At Post 13, the quartermaster had been. The way they looked at him! Hey, he’s from the Moscow detachment.

Do you remember, yesterday? That girl in green who kept standing there.

Were they all dead, or what?

The brides…

Yes, she was there…

I worry about you.

No need. We can even make water from sand.

Today there was a birthday.

There was one yesterday, too. Mishin’s. Concentrated milk and candies. What a birthday! We sat here and ate potato stew.

OK, that’s enough.

You’ll be all right. It’s tough.

Episode 5

This is what I wrote in my diary: “A soldier is warming himself in the sun. He is lying on the slope not far from the gate of the frontier post.”

It is December, and this is December 31st. That winter, there were some sunny days. It hardly ever snowed, but there were some sunny days. Because of this, all the passes were open to traffic in all directions, and none of us could tell [sighs] what each day would bring. Meanwhile, we had to get through the day. Sooner or later the year would finish, and God willing, next year it would all be just memories – memories of our dear ones, be they living – or dead.

His trench overlooks the Panjsher and a foreign country. And he himself is far from home.

This letter will take three months to arrive.

What time is it now?

A quarter past four.

Thank you.

We often used to leave the little valley, where the company was stationed, and climb, keeping strictly to the paths, up and up…

Let’s go the short way, shall we?

Can you imagine what your mum is going today?

What would she be doing?

Celebrating New Year.

Without you.


We’ll be stopping for a cigarette soon.

The hand with the stone means you have to do the carrying.

Have you got a stone? If I get the stone, I’ll do the carrying. Otherwise, it’s you. OK?

Yes, go on.

If there’s a stone, I get to carry. If there’s not stone, you do. This one. You get to carry.

No, you do.


If you’d got the stone, you’d have had to carry.

But it’s the other way round.

So, today you do the carrying.

In the mountains, with each step we climbed, our lives were worth less and less, but we prized them more and more.

You can’t put anything in the drawer. It gets stolen.

One time, those big heavies down by the river were on duty for 10 hours non-stop. They were dropping with tiredness.

Let’s make some tea right now.

The minute he got hold of it, it burst into flames. The commander saw him, he was covered in dirt. He told us to wash him. Five of us had to scrub him with a rag in the WC. But we managed it!

Come and eat, guys.

Come and eat.

Everyone must be responsible for himself.

Your section is well-organised.

Why give them back?

When I leave, each man must do his chores.

Everyone must have his responsibilities.

I’m a tank commander, so I’m responsible for my crew.

I’ve found it!

Found what?

The shore!


Stop it. I told you it had fallen. Why didn’t you pick it up?

Move a bit.

My family still think I am in Altay.


Altay. [laughter]

My family don’t know.

Most of us said nothing to our families.

I wrote I was going to be travelling around in a car. And that I’d be back in 4 months or so.

They’ll be thinking, 4 months? But he was supposed to be demobbed before New Year’s Day? [laugh]

According to my last letter, we’re in Mongolia.

What, you?


I signed it. They made me sign the contract.

The cook has done a good job. The soup is excellent.

We’re all cooks here.

Have some more.

No thanks.

Curtain, Elk 30 calling.

Who is Elk? Curtain?

Curtain 30.

Situation normal here.

Have you got anything for me?

Yeah, a kilo of TNT.

A kilo of TNT.

A horned elk.

That’s Bedin.

He hasn’t been down here for a long time.

He earns too much. He needed a sack to put it in. He was paid for 2 months instead on one. Happy times!

Kesha, what’s the matter?

No one wants to talk.

I’m fed up.

Why are you drinking it?

Borya, look in the tub.

It must be half-full.

How much is there left in the tub?

There’s still some.

About half.

Borya, bring me my bag.

Your bag of medicines?


You want to take some?


What do you want?

To take some medicine

For what?

My spots.

Fill the bowl half full.

Elk 30 calling, you’re very faint.

Hearing you 2 out of 5.

I didn’t get it.

This morning, he was loud and clear. Now I can’t hear a thing.

Perhaps there’s no power.

So what? Their transmitter is crap.

The person in charge of this high mountain post is allowed to have a personal dug-out, with a stove. He is allowed to be alone, at least sometimes.

The night falls quickly. the wind is very cold. It gets a bit frightening, not because of the darkness all around, but because you can’t hear anything. The wind is howling in the ravines. It’ll be New Year very soon. As night falls, the clouds sink lower and lower, closer and closer to the base.

Happy New Year to all of you.

The same to you.

Take the cakes.

I’ve nothing to put them in.

Use your hands.

They’re a present for you.

Well, see you later.

Give them our best wishes.

Yes, New Year is very soon.

Don’t squash the cake.

A feast!

They bake cakes for themselves.

Wait, Sergei, I’ll help you.

They’re made a big cake.

But Sergei, you don’t drink champagne.

No, I don’t, but…

Give me time to dress.



Make a wish, it’s nearly midnight.

What shall I wish for?

Got it!

Where’s your ring?


Eternal life!


I’ll keep these horns.

Six, five, four, three, two, one…

Take cover!

Happy New Year!

Too far.

Happy New Year 1995!

Civvy Street!

Happy times for all our boys in Tadjikistan.

Except for Rustam.


Long live our Union…

Of Republics!


Two for tonight, guys.

Wait for two o’clock.

Two for tonight, and two at two o’clock.

The best would have been to open all four at once.


There’s no witch behind us.

Do you remember when they baptised us with a club? We were so happy.


How shall I do it?

How? You’re the one who’s cut it like that.

I’ve cut it already

Let’s cut it there.

How shall I cut it?

Cut it into small pieces.

We’ll get one jump ahead of the enemy.

You give it the works. We’ll do it properly.

We’ll help you. We’ll come and spew over them.

That village is five minutes’ work.

Three shells will do it.

Smashing! This cake is delicious.

Did you have a party like this last year too, Andrey?

There are our friends…

Are they celebrating too?

Shall we begin?

Is everyone in tune?

“Oh you, great frost/Do not freeze me/Do not freeze my horse”

We chose the wrong opera.

Give me a light.

“Do not freeze me/Do not freeze my horse/My horse/With his golden mane”

What about “The Steppe”?


“The Steppe”?

“The Steppe”. “Nothing but steppe all round…”

Come on, Igor. We’re all mortal.

Let’s have a drink.

To absent friends.

Come on, Safar, courage. You knew Andrey too. Take it. Take it, let’s drink.

There’s only milk. No sour cream.

Hello, Santa Claus!

I’ve brought your present. How is the watch?

OK. No unauthorised activity on the border.

Anyway, I’ve brought you a present.

Thank you, Santa.

What’s this?


Thank you very much.

In the cold night, in the darkness, to be sure, there’s not much pleasure in picking your way across minefields. We set off. They were waiting for us up there.

Happy New Year, lads!

The same to you!

We’ve been waiting for you for ages.

Did you go to sleep?

We’ve only just been relieved. Is everything all right?

Yes. Is everything quiet here?

So far, yes. We don’t know what’s in store.

What time is it now?

Ten past three.

Can we sit and rest here for a bit?

No problem! Come in, have a look… We’ve left you some champagne.


It’s symbolic.

There’s hot coffee.

Coffee, too!

If there’s any left. Do you want some?

Yes, a bit.


With pleasure.

Wait… where did we put it?

We’ll have a bit.

You can film our life here. A NATO soldier would have topped himself long ago. Only our lads can…

Just a drop.

I know, I remember.

A little drop.

Thank you for coming up here.

God bless you.

The cameraman is cold. Pass it round.

Have a drop, Sergei.

Alexei, would you like a drink?

Not now.

Not now? Then that’s it.

That’s all then.

If there were more… Damn it! I wonder what it’ll be like, 1995?

Is there any left?


No one wants to talk.

The day’s over.

Tomorrow is another day.

We’ll go through the day, same as usual.

Then it’ll be the weekend and you’ll come down.

Is it Wednesday or Thursday?


Only Tuesday?

I’ve lost all count of time.

Too much salt?

No, it’s all right.

I’ve put too much in it.

Is there any tea?

I don’t know.

Let’s make some.

There’s none left.

The bowls need washing… Any water?


To wash the bowls with.

It’s hot.

That’s good.

One last smoke? A very quick one. Come on!

No. If I’m not smoking, why should other people?

It’s dog eat dog in the army.

You have to show your teeth sometimes.

You don’t have to. I never do.

Sometimes you can’t help it

I haven’t got much longer to go.

Just a bit longer.

Nearly there.


Just a bit longer.

Not much.

I’d like to go home on Shrove Tuesday.

Or on Frontier Guard Day.

Whatever the date, it will be a holiday.

Will you be staying till New Year?

This is the Year of the Pig. They made a pig’s ear of it, right enough. Wait, wait…

A leap year.

1, 2, 3, 4, 5…

Curtain 7, Curtain 7, Maple 1 calling.

1, 2, 3, Curtain 7,

Curtain 7, Maple 1 calling.

Where are the strangers? Where are they? Hello, nose. Good boy.

We’ll be saying goodbye, then. We’re going down.

Shall we come with you?

No, thanks.

Happy New Year again. Sorry we disturbed you. Best wishes. We’ll come again tomorrow. Goodbye and good night

Goodbye. Be careful on the way down.

Be careful.

Somehow I managed to see the face of my watch. It would soon be dawn. The year was on its way. I had to sleep for at least a few hours and pack my things to go back to Russia, to St Petersburg.

“You won’t leave me, will you?”


“Hello. Do you remember me?”

“I haven’t forgotten you.”

“That’s good.”

“Where are you going?”

“Back home. I live alone now.”

“It isn’t possible.”

“Why? Everything is possible.”

“God won’t let such a terrible thing happen.”

“He does sometimes.”

“God will protect her.”

“And what if He doesn’t exist?”

“I’m dishonoured. I’m a terrible sinner.”

“No, you’re not. If you are a sinner, what am I? Your sin and your dishonour are made clean by the saintliness of your heart. Never let anyone say that it’s better to end one’s life.”

“Do you often pray?”

“What would I be without God?”

“And what does God do for you? Nothing… You are too poor and lowly for Him.”

Yes, it’s time to go back to Russia. In Russia it is still cold. Snow and silence. And not a soul.

Spiritual Voices

Directed by Alexander Sokurov, 1995

Camera: Alexander Burov, Alexei Fedorov

Sound: Sergei Moshkov

In 5 parts: 38 min, 33 min, 87 min, 79 min, 90 min

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Filed under contemplation, dialogue, documentary, fill in the blanks, film, serendipity, Sokurov