Watching Muratova in a time of social isolation

Кадр з фільму "Астенічний синдром", 1989

I first encountered Muratova’s work during another period of social isolation: as I was writing my DPhil dissertation at the University of Oxford. My boyfriend at the time was a film scholar and he was insistent that we watch pretty much all of Muratova’s ouevre on his laptop sitting on the floor of his tiny, but fastidiously tidied, dorm room. At first I was appalled and intimidated by the frenetic chaos of Muratova’s films, their stubborn resistance to interpretation and their nauseating, cacophonous soundtracks. Gradually, however, I began to derive a perverse pleasure from their difficulty. As the palette of themes and cinematic gestures that Muratova deploys across her works became familiar to me, I began to feel welcomed by them, in the same way as a foreign language, that at first resists attempts to access its meaning, gradually gives up its secrets and morphs before your very eyes to become known, familiar, and intimate.

Some ten years later and I am watching Muratova again in preparation for teaching a post-graduate seminar on the topic of rethinking the Russian canon. Encountering once more the difficulty of her work, and imagining the reactions of my students who have been dutifully deconstructing The Asthenic Syndrome in response to prompts I have circulated, I find myself thinking once more about my shift from hating to loving Muratova. Talking about the film with them, exploring its recesses of meaning and the complexity of its artistic gestures, I feel myself falling for Muratova once more. Her films are like the company of spikey, but hilarious friend who you are never able to get too close to. As much as you may wish for it, they will never drop their arch mannerisms and open their hearts to you. Instead they leave you feeling dazzled, impressed, and disturbed; ultimately, in doubt of your own mental capacity to keep up with them, to really understand what it is they mean.

Not the obvious company for a time of national crisis and mass hysteria, then. But watching Muratova during the COVID pandemic leads me to think about a whole series of different questions to those I listed on my student handout just weeks before. In this short intervention, I’ve tried to re-read The Asthenic Syndrome, Muratova’s 1990 masterpiece and one of her most internationally acclaimed films, through a viral lens. My intention is not to point out the “lessons” Muratova can teach us for dealing with a time of crisis, this would be entirely inappropriate. It is rather a mediation on attention and how this shifts when we are forced into conditions that are new, unfamiliar, and perhaps unpleasant. Getting used to my lockdown, which includes, as it does for many, juggling working from home with herding a feral toddler, I come to Muratova with a different set of needs and expectations. And I find, as I always do, that there is more than enough in her work to inspire and propel me: this is why she is a director that I have continuously returned to across the years.


Part 1: Social Distancing

I’ve started running again. This tends to happen at times of crisis, and rarely sticks, but I’m on quite a good streak at the moment. As I jog along the River Eden, I swing wide to give the requisite two meters to dog walkers, parents with tots on trikes, and older couples, who seem most nonchalant of all among the crisis-time flaneurs. This act of COVID etiquette, intended as a gesture of solidarity, nevertheless feels like a minor violence. Keeping distance is entirely at odds with our socialization, which prizes intimacy, community and connections. I try to correct this incongruence by smiling knowingly at everyone I dodge along the path. The gesture seems appreciated and people return it sometimes adding little quips which I’m always too late to hear once I’ve removed my headphones. Social isolation, though, has led people to the streets in their droves: I weave between the ones and twos and threes who punctuate the path with much more frequency than normal, smiling as I go.

Being repelled like two norths on a pair of magnets from those around me leads me to think of Muratova’s violence of intimacy. I ponder one scene in particular from The Asthenic Syndrome, the grieving female lead of the black-and-white film-within-the-film walks down a broad but densely populated pavement colliding with passers-by as she goes. She butts shoulders with a running youth, before hurling herself at the woman walking in front of her, who falls heavily to the ground; she ricochets onto another pedestrian, who grumbles complaint, before launching a full assault on another passing man, who pleads with her to forgive him for whatever wrong he has done her. I read this scene as an allegory for the assertion of individual will in the climate of claustrophobic intimacy that marked the late-Soviet moment. Deriving strength from her grief-struck madness, the woman choses not walk in step with her fellow compatriots but instead collide with them, with a violence that is both unsettling and compelling. A refrain from Schubert’s Menuetto. Allegretto plays nonchalantly over the woman’s socially destructive trajectory, marking the contrast between the dance of social conformism and her impermissible act of transgression. Is social distancing an act of conformism or transgression? It feels to me like both.        


Part 2: Vertiginous chaos

The Polish journalist Agata Pyzik writes that “while her contemporaries pursued metaphysical themes, Muratova was incapable of such grandiloquence.” Yet there is plenty of embedded philosophical reflection in Muratova’s films. In one of my favourite scenes from The Asthenic Syndrome, two intellectuals debate the place of violence in achieving political ideals while they stand in a seething queue for salted fish. “We have to educate the soul,” insists one long-haired liberal, gesticulating wildly, while his interlocutor repeatedly interrupts him: “sometimes you have to cut off hands to get what you want.” The debate is followed by an unbearably long take of customers tussling with each other at the front of the queue; old women elbowing and shoving each other out they way as they scramble to get the attention of the contemptuous fish seller. The overdubbed soundtrack is fraught and alarming, its tones of clamour and panic would be more suited to a scene of rebellion or pogrom than a fish market. What is it that Muratova is trying to tell us here? That philosophising is absurd in political economies that dehumanize their subjects through deficit? Or that macro-violences will always translate to micro-violences, as the nation, like a dysfunctional family, passes on its character defects from one generation to the next?

Whatever the answer to these questions, it leads me to think of the empty shelves I now encounter in the local supermarkets. Has a similar scene just taken place here? Hordes clamouring to strip the aisles of their toilet roll and hand sanitiser? But while Muratova’s crowds are compelled by some dark economic force, our panic buyers are propelled by abstract fear. This fear propels my neighbour to hoard twelve bottles of Domestos, which I imagine will be used like some folkloric tincture to repel the virus from her home. Fear also compels parents of endlessly energetic toddlers like mine to bulk buy sand to fill newly bought sandpits. I scan the online  for bags of the stuff: sold out, sold out. Muratova was a master of depicting fear. The way its insidious influence bends lives, seeping out in behavioural dysfunctions, crooked relationships and madness. While grandiloquence was not her style, she, perhaps most profoundly of all the directors of her time, was able to capture the state of social tension and psychological angst that pervaded late-Soviet society. I wonder what she would have made of our COVID times.


Part 3: The Failure of Communication 

I think Muratova would have liked Zoom. Indeed, sometimes taking part in a Zoom chat feels like being in one of her films. Muratova’s cinematic world is one in which individuals are unable to connect. People constantly speak at cross purposes, they mindlessly recount interminable anecdotes and rehearse conversational conventions without ever really achieving dialogue. One sequence from The Asthenic Syndrome presents a string of communicative failures: a man loudly declaims poetry on a park bench while the women sitting next to him steadfastly chatter on about domestic affairs; a destitute figure shouts loudly into the busy streets about a murdered friend while passers-by hurry about their business; a woman in a house coat stands eerily in the empty corridor of a kommunalka reciting a chastushka to no-one in particular; and finally, in true Muratovian style, a pseudo- conversation takes place between two grotesque personas whose affected ways of speaking and overblown theatrical mannerisms completely overshadow the content of their words.


In Muratova’s world communication has permanently malfunctioned. Years of empty rhetoric and vacuous officialese have eroded the foundations of community, precluding any form of social connectivity. Speaking at cross purposes is a manifestation of a broader social malaise. People are unable to listen to each other because they are not listened to, authoritarianism has denied them their human capacity to be attentive to each other. I don’t think this true of our times of social isolation. Perhaps one positive conseqeuence this crisis has been to make us be more attentive to each other, to connect more frequently and more thoughtfully than we had done before. These days I pipe my mother-in-law, who’s self- isolating alone three hundred miles away, into our garden each morning while I play with our daughter. We might not exchange too much news – who has news these days anyway? – but the act of connection is affirming enough. While Zoom may freeze and jitter, causing the face on the other side of the screen to stop mid-sentence or blurt all of its anecdote in a speeded up form, it is nevertheless a lifeline. Unlike Muratova’s characters, who are stuck in their dysfunctional world, we await the return to normalcy, which will perhaps be more connected and caring than the world that we have known until now.