Hard to Be a God (Alexei German, 2013)

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“God…If you exist…Please stop me.”

It was impossible, in the days leading up to seeing Hard to Be a God, not to think of it in terms of Tarkovsky. Sharing authors with Stalker, and a setting not unlike Andrei Rublev, I assumed I’d be on similar ground. Five minutes in, however, it became clear we were walking through a profoundly distinct territory.

Hard to Be a God is no Tarkovsky film. It is nastier, uglier, squelchier, more unforgiving, more visceral and with an entirely different philosophy of humanity as it perceives a world made of mud, shit, piss, and blood. Concepts of human dignity are met with undying cynicism, as we would expect better from animals than we see from these people (being not from Earth, their status as “human beings” falls into a degree of pedantic uncertainty, as well as a moral one).

We follow the stumbling journey of the scientist known mistakenly as Don Rumata, believed to be the son of a pagan god, navigating through the city of Arkanar, rendered a pogrom in a pigsty by a culture of brutal suppression of anything that gives the slightest nod towards Renaissance, as he engages in the strangest, adulterous relationship with this code of ethics that, above all, precludes him from interfering violently with the practices of this unnamed planet’s deranged inhabitants, eventually breaking it fully.

As primitivists, who drown letter-writers in latrines, clash with zealots who lacquer hanged men, opposing factions mirror and seem to blend into one another. Major political shifts seem to take place, invisibly within ellipses, and throwaway lines relating to incomplete abstracts seem to repeat endlessly. This world seems devoid of linearity, and we as spectators and Rumata too seem to feel trapped in a state of defeatist, relentless perpetuity – an inescapable present tense of brutal squalor.

Hard to Be a God offers not a satisfying story, but a deeply astute insight into just how unsatisfying it may be for God to oversee and interact with us, after all. This film is a direct line to the ultimate thankless task that perhaps warrants more comparisons to the sisyphean angst of Woman of the Dunes or the woefully determined reparative violence of The Virgin Spring than the earnest spiritualism of the better known master of Russian cinema. This is a film very much worth watching, just don’t expect to leave happy.

****1/2

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Industrial Soundtrack For the Urban Decay (Amélie Ravalec, 2015)

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I was really looking forward to this. The title suggested that I was going to be in for some psychogeographical complement between the sounds of the industrial scene and Herzogian documentary-style footage of estates and ghostly urban sprawl, like a contemporary reimagining of Einstürzende Neubauten’s “Halbe Mensch” and instead I watched a surface-level talking head fest with less information than BBC Four’s 2009 program Synth Britannia.

Covering almost exclusively the mot accessible and synthpoppy elements of Industrial, with massive gaping holes as far as artists like Nurse With Wound, Coil, Whitehouse and Merzbow are concerned, Industrial Soundtrack For the Urban Decayteaches you nothing new, but at least seeing it at the cinema gives you the opportunity to hear some Throbbing Gristle and SPK played on louder speakers than you probably own at home. This fact becomes all too abundant, however, thanks to the shoddy mixing job and poor quality of the sound recording equipment, resulting in many of the interviews getting drowned out by music many of us have heard before.

However, given that the interviews are nothing but musicians making incredibly bold Great Man Theory statements, all claiming to be the first musicians of discord, first practitioners of sampling techniques, selectively forgetting futurism, free jazz and musique concrète as just three examples, we aren’t missing all that much.

At 52 minutes, Industrial Soundtrack For the Urban Decay is a short, pretentious and dramatically wanting affair, salvaged only somewhat by the quality of its primary source material, which will itself be entirely familiar to a solid 90% of its audience anyway.

**

Heaven Adores You (Nickolas Dylan Rossi, 2014)

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Heaven Adores You is without a doubt a charming, beautiful and emotive tribute to the music of Elliott Smith and the effect and affect it had on those who knew him and those who didn’t. However, as others have criticised as well, its narrative contains certain glaring omissions and perhaps too strong an investment in claiming him as Portland’s own (one cannot help but feel the film itself becomes a little resentful and loses a certain amount of interest when it reaches Smith’s exodus first to New York City and then Los Angeles). Clearly the filmmakers were not as privileged in terms of access to the cornucopia of primary source material as those behind Cobain: Montage of Heck (and the comparisons will be abundant) were.

Still, this does mean that Heaven Adores You provides the viewer with a much clearer insight into Smith’s Portland years, both solo and as a member of Heatmiser, than I personally had previously. The way the sound editing transitions between often amateur-shot live footage and album recordings and the introspective, psychogeographic relationship the film has with both the urban and rural landscapes that were the backdrops to Smith’s creativity makes Heaven Adores You an engaging and appropriately sentimental appreciation of one of the most unique and profound singer-songwriters of our time.

***1/2