Palms (Ladoni) Review
Palms (Ladoni), a Russian film made by Artur Aristakisyan and recently released on region-free PAL DVD by Second Run, is divided into two parts, each preceded by silent film footage scored to the music of Giuseppe Verdi. It comprises a total of ten semi-episodic chapters, divisions that seem almost Biblical in nature and that possess an allegorical slant bordering on piousness. For much of the first half of the film, I felt the nagging idea that I was somehow being conned. In the second half, I stopped caring. It no longer mattered. It seems so devastatingly difficult to come to terms with what we see in Palms that my defense mechanism was to question whether the director’s voiceover narration was accurate or contrived. Are these images the product of impoverished filmmaking or an attempt to manipulate guilt from those who’d never see this level of destitution in their insulated lives? Is there really any way that the devastating accounts of the lives of the forsaken we hear in Palms could be accurate?
Forgive my skepticism. Audiences have become much more accustomed to horrific scenes being played out for truth when they’re in fact fake (Man Bites Dog and The Blair Witch Project both come to mind) than the even more disturbing images seen in Palms. Ultimately, I think the relative truth of what's on screen here is unimportant. Viewers are so trained to place certain fixed ideas regarding time and place, look and feel that we often have difficulty simply accepting what we see on the screen without wondering what’s real. I’ve come to the conclusion that trying to categorise or understand the origins of Palms is a futile endeavour. Just as I don't have to know what a photojournalist went through to capture the often horrible images reproduced in newspapers and magazines, my appreciation of Palms doesn't hinge on anything other than the staggering pieces of film captured somehow somewhere.
The persons we see in the film are not characters, even though that’s essentially what Aristakisyan turns them into. More than just being the downtrodden or, as the back of the DVD case classifies, “people who live on the margins of life and exist outside normal society,” those who populate Palms are human beings forgotten or ignored. They’re the persons we see on the street but try to avoid eye contact with, the ones we hope don’t bother us as we hurry on past. If they were another breed of animal they most likely would not have survived into adulthood. Only the substantial wealth of humans allows these people to suffer in the fringe. A man without the bottom half of his legs who pushes himself with a rolling cart down the sidewalk. A woman who lies flat on the concrete in order to make love to Christ. A young male who stares emptily from basement steps beneath a sidewalk. A heavyset man who’s blind and who has been told by his sightless parents that everyone else is blind as well, that no one can see what he cannot.
These are the men and women the narrator (Aristakisyan) tells us about. He directs these stories to his unborn baby, as cautionary reminders of life and advice to maneuver through the monolithic “system” responsible for the societal decay he describes. The narrator makes reference to many disturbing ideas, including the likelihood that the current one-month-old fetus will soon be aborted, scraped from its mother’s womb, and that the mother and father aren’t married, even possibly that they’re siblings. He also makes a point of telling his doomed child to never listen to anyone, including the narrating father. Later, he begs the unborn child to maintain poverty and virginity at all costs, to avoid being controlled or fornicated by the “system.” It’s a pitch-black message of pessimism and paranoia. Only the poor and unloved can possibly keep their autonomy. To remain unspoiled and unbroken by society, people must rule themselves without money, material needs, or sexuality.
These ideas are very much consistent with the monologue espoused by the narrator, a manifesto of dissent and free will. Starkly anti-authority, anti-society even, the narrator’s words are spoken in a calm, deadly serious manner filled with conviction. His words repeatedly attack the powerful “system” and seem distrustful of anything resembling success or conformity. To really live, to truly understand the nature of being human, the narrator suggests, one must forgo everything society deems important and exist among the poor and ostracised. This is powerful, provocative filmmaking that transcends its medium. Far from allaying any fears or wants of its audience, Palms challenges and plays by its own rules. It’s one thing to portray society’s problems in the form of actors in roles or slick documentary footage, but it’s an entirely different approach to force the grimy, dirty realism of neglect onto an audience. Palms is great art, as important as the films of the Italian neorealist movement or the photography of Diane Arbus in its depiction of those society has failed.
Running two and one-third hours, Aristakisyan’s film takes on a near-hypnotic effect. The low quality of the footage serves its purpose by drawing the audience in like we’re watching some kind of forbidden film the “system” doesn’t want us to see. As I said, I began to not care whether anything I was seeing was real, fabricated or altered as the film progressed. Palms is brilliant enough to sustain such queries without collapsing. It’s an important film that never demands to be so. It seems strange and mildly humourous to discover that this unique work was awarded several prizes in the documentary field. It’s really not a documentary any more than it is a fictional narrative. Categories are for store shelves and internet browsing and, in this particular example, apply more to outside perception than what the film gives us, the audience. I’m not one to interpret truth even from documentaries, but truth is far from what one should expect from Palms. Any truth is sure to influence the viewer as a result of the emotions aroused within one’s own perception more than what Aristakisyan shows us. For all its painful realisations and reflections into a specific human experience, Aristakisyan's film is ultimately manufactured and shaped by its director and narrator, and done so brilliantly.
Palms, released here for the first time on DVD and occupying spine number 26 in the Second Run line, is intentionally presented in an exceptionally terrible video quality. It looks horrible - grainy, damaged black and white shot in 16 mm and transferred to 35 mm. Despite that, Second Run appear to have done everything right in their presentation. A polished version of Palms seems antithetical to everything the film shows us. It should be unnatural, a shock to the crispness we expect from other films and a reality check for those unable to accept that dire poverty and unassuming opposition to wealth exists beyond what cushy consumerism can implicitly approve. The grade I’ve given the video represents a comparative score in relation to what viewers might expect from a film from 1993 and what Second Run have done. In short, Palms looks like it was made in 1923 instead of 1993, but Second Run have faithfully reproduced the damaged aesthetic from Aristakisyan’s work, in a transfer approved by the director. I can’t fault anything on Second Run's part in their video image. It’s in the correct 1.33:1 aspect ratio, transferred progressively onto a dual layer disc, and the contrast shows nothing to be concerned about. I don't know of any way they could have presented a better looking film while staying true to Aristakisyan's vision.
The mono audio is minimalist and subdued, but, again, seems faithful to the film’s intent. The only sounds we hear are Aristakisyan’s Russian narration and brief musical excerpts of Verdi operas. It’s far from noteworthy, but it sounds like one would expect. Again, Second Run appear to have made any necessary adjustments perfectly and given consumers a clean audio track free from complaint. Subtitles are in English only, white in color, and removable, but only accessible from the menu. I was unable to switch subtitle tracks, or advance among the chapters, when the feature was playing.
The disc has been outfitted by Second Run with two significant extra features. A twelve-page booklet has a thoughtful essay and poem by Graeme Hobbs. I was especially struck in Hobbs’ essay with the comment that Palms ” does not care about you and it does not indulge you.” This is a well-considered statement and one that I cannot disagree with. The film seems much more designed with focusing on the inhabitants of the area it explores than with its audience, a daring and provocative choice. Also included is a video interview with Aristakisyan running approximately 21 minutes, in Russian but with English subtitles.
In many ways, this up-close look at the man who made Palms ruins much of the allure of the film. Truthfully, I wish I’d never seen it. It shows Aristakisyan as serious, arrogant and concerned with himself more than the persons shown in Palms. The interview answers some of the questions viewers might have after watching the film, but perhaps not how they wished they’d been resolved. Certainly each person will have his or her own take on the interview, but I’d advise skipping it if you absolutely loved the film. It adds nothing and takes away much of the simplistic honesty we’re seemingly given. Would we be better off if Da Vinci or Michelangelo had left behind justifications and background for the Mona Lisa or The Last Supper? Palms, while not hardly on that same plane, stands as a truly unique artistic achievement in late 20th Century filmmaking and it’s unfortunate that the man responsible for it saw fit to demystify much of what he created. It might seem crazy to fault Second Run for including the interview, but perhaps it also serves as a cautionary example of the idea that not every film benefits from additional insight into the creator’s mindset. Sometimes the work truly does speak for itself.