****/**** Image A Sound A
starring Willem Dafoe, Dounia Sichov, Simon McBurney, Christina Chiriac
screenplay by Abel Ferrara and Christ Zois
directed by Abel Ferrara
by Walter Chaw I had a dream when I was very young. A fever dream, while tangled in my parents' bed sheets, delirious and afraid, soaked and burning. I bore horrified witness to a line of bald monks stretching into an impossible black, all awaiting their execution by beheading and various other cranial offenses. I couldn't make out the executioner. I wondered why my parents couldn't see what I was seeing, and in my confusion, I didn't know if they were angry with me or lying to me. Abel Ferrara's Siberia has somehow manifested this fever dream of mine in a sequence where its ex-pat protagonist, the Jack London-ian Clint (Willem Dafoe), rides a dog team through the arctic on his way to a cave carved into the side of a jagged rockface. He passes a village in the midst of some sort of violent cleansing where gunmen force a group of men, naked and bald, into the cold to be executed, one after the other. When I had my hallucination as a child, I couldn't have been more than five or six. I had never, at that point in my life, actually seen a monk. When I finally did, some years later, I felt as though I'd already borne witness to their martyrdom. When you first read Carl Jung's Memories, Dreams, Reflections, you're confronted with two beginnings--two approaches to what is one of the most profound works of self-examination in the history of Western thought. The first is in the prologue, the next in the first chapter (called "First Years"). In the prologue, Jung writes:
My life is a story of the self-realization of the unconscious. Everything in the unconscious seeks outward manifestation, and the personality too desires to evolve out of its unconscious conditions and to experience itself as a whole. I cannot employ the language of science to trace this process of growth in myself, for I cannot experience myself as a scientific problem.
Then, in that opening chapter, Jung recounts his earliest memories: of lying in a pram on a sunny day, of being fascinated by waves on Lake Constance when a fisherman appeared to announce that a corpse has been discovered. Jung's father rushed to see it, but Jung--just a child lying in a pram, after all--was forbidden from taking a look. He refers to these glimpses of the past as "nothing but islands of memory afloat in a sea of vagueness, each by itself, apparently with no connection between them." Part memoir, part foundational text for an entire cosmology sprung from his early association with Freud, a veritable intermediary between the obscure language of the unconscious and the limited expression of the conscious, Memories, Dreams, Reflections came upon me like a thunderclap when I was a child. I read it too young to misunderstand it. In its suggestion of a collective unconscious, a well of images the mind draws from and that binds us to one another as mountain climbers tie themselves to their mates with ropes and tethers across blinding snowfields and limitless crevasses, it provides the only religion I've ever really needed. I believe in the sublime, just not in the divine.
Early on in Siberia, Clint falls down a steep rockface to find himself beside a subterranean pool. A snake cuts through it and a bright, burning light is reflected in it, a kind of sun here in the belly of the earth. There's another version of Clint here, too: a reflection of himself, who tells him that "time will pass and you'll continue to be lost." Snakes and the sun are what Jung calls "archetypes"--or, rather, they can be. Jung was clear in his definition of "archetype" as "irrepresentable, unconscious, pre-existent in form that seems to be part of the inherited structure of the psyche and can therefore manifest itself spontaneously anywhere, at any time." (Civilization in Transition, para 847.) He didn't believe they came with forms beyond the force of emotion that attached itself to form. For me, the way I understand this concept is only through the notion that there are images that evoke the same innate, unlearned response across time and cultures, and that those images are from shared, collective experience--like the psychosexual revulsion of a snake, for instance. Or the warmth of the sun. Or the dark of a cavern. Or the confrontation with the Shadow, which Jung defines as
the inferior part of the personality; the sum of all personal and collective psychic elements which, because of their incompatibility with the chosen attitude, are denied expression in life and therefore coalesce into a relatively autonomous ‘splinter personality' with contrary tendencies in the unconscious. (The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, pp 284)
At the bottom of this well in Siberia, Clint confronts his Shadow--the unexamined parts, the suppressed parts, of his personality--and is forced to deal with his father's disappointment. There's a scene like this in The Empire Strikes Back, the most useful text for popular understanding of basic Jungian concepts. Luke, the golden hero, descends into a wet cave on Dagobah as his mentor warns him that whatever he takes with him into the underneath is what will be used against him there. He confronts his father, only to learn that the father is himself. Clint's Shadow says, "You complain that your father didn't know you--he carried you on his back through life and all you can do is criticize some oversights he committed." Clint protests. He says, "I loved my father," to which his Shadow replies, "You were not a loving son. You were a burden to him." Then Clint's father himself manifests (Dafoe again), his face covered in shaving cream, an absurdity that implies Clint's clearest memories of his dad are of him shaving. I can remember the way my dad's shaving cream smelled. (It came to me unbidden while I was watching this.) His father wants to go fishing. He leaves his glasses on a rock ledge, and Clint puts them on. The child has become the father.
Clint comforts his lost son, telling him a tale of fishing that his father has told him. What he's saying without saying it is that it is his job to protect him and then, when he's dead, it will be the things he taught him about survival that will protect him. Siberia is about Clint's failure as a father--and a husband. And a son, too. He can't protect his child, he can never have the relationship with his father that he desires because his father is dead now, and he has betrayed his wife (Dounia Sichov) through a series of dalliances physical and emotional that have left her brittle and broken. At the start of Siberia, we meet an older Clint as he serves drinks in a shack-like bar at the end of the world. A native fisherman (Laurent Arnatsiaq) comes in for a shot of rum and coffee with two spoons of sugar and no more. The dogs howl for food and another version of Clint, in an apron and parka, feeds them. Then a woman (Cristina Chiriac, Ferrara's wife) and her aged mother come in from the cold. They speak Russian. They're grateful for the warm drink against the frigid night. She reveals her breasts, full, and her belly, round with child. It's Clint's, we infer, by the way he kisses it, cradles it. They fuck, and Ferrara reveals himself again to be a cartographer of the loops and whorls of skin as it presses against itself in tectonic waves of eroticism and connection. It's sexy--but we can't quite shake the image of a bear mauling Clint, nor the image fast-following of an old and diseased woman taking the place of the young mother and birthing a horse's head on a hide blanket.
Portents, images denoting revulsion mixed with lust, as is the way with most sex acts: the elevated and the carnal meeting at an intersection where the purity of the flesh gives way to its imperfections and failings. In another cave (maybe it's the one Clint enters after witnessing the massacre of the innocents), Clint confronts unconventional human forms asking for communion, comfort in his arms, or at least a release from their suffering. A man has been unmanned, bloodily; there's an invitation to dance to a 45 spinning on a child's turntable, Del Shannon's "Runaway"--one of the most haunted tracks of that era in music: keening, growling, Shannon's suicide looming in its presentation. Clint travels to the beginning of the Universe and forward again to its heat death, across a desert to a surgical theatre set up in a tent there, where a man warns that one ought "respect the presence of sleep, that is the first thing." Jung believed the unconscious spoke to us loudest through dreaming--that there's a language we must learn if we are to ever unpack the flickering, evanescent cave drawings left on the inside of our skulls by our connections to sentience passed through us before, imprinted in the finest of hands on the pathways of our brains. Clint goes to a green place. He finds himself back in ice, his shack destroyed. His friend the fisherman arrives with a catch, and over a sputtering fire, Clint scales it, dresses it, roasts it for them to share. In the morning, the fisherman is gone, and the fish is whole again. I don't know what that means, although I feel what it means.
Siberia is a challenge to engage. It requires an active viewership. It meets you not even halfway--it's a catalyst for a personal reaction from a filmmaker who spent the first part of his career as a provocateur and is now spending the rest of it as a Virgil through the Infernos of his own failures and on through to the palace of whatever wisdom he's won by surviving. In many ways, Siberia is a blank text. It risks that presenting an audience of adults with images from a well of collective experience will spark recognition, revelation, even and especially discomfort. It's shocking and embarrassing, sometimes corny in its earnestness, the baldness of its statements about how our dead fathers are disappointed in us and how our estranged sons are mere expressions of our own incompleteness. Late in the game, Clint puts on his boy's broken glasses, and suddenly he's the boy again--the child who has failed, failing his child. The child who has died to spawn the man, still trapped inside him like a corpse in a coffin. Clint looks at the fish he's eaten the night before, restored as he's slept and presented back to him as either reproach or reward, I don't know. He's dreaming in the way we're always dreaming: seeing reflections in the faces of others of people we've betrayed or lost--coming to terms with Shadows we can never destroy but must embrace if we're ever to be free of our loathing of the past and anxiety over our future. If we're to have any kind of future at all. Maybe that's what the picture's about: tearing it all down, covering it in blankets of forgetful snow, and waking to a new morning with all of the things that were always there for us--the lessons of our dead loved ones in the bounty laid before us every morning as a gift, if only we could see it as such. Siberia is a gift. I'm grateful for it.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers Lionsgate brings Siberia to Blu-ray in a 2.39:1, 1080p presentation. This is a difficult transfer to judge using conventional metrics, as the DI frequently pursues mood at the expense of image clarity. The climactic dog-sled scenes, for instance, are awash in an impenetrably dense teal that dulls contrast and obscures shadow detail but is highly effective at evoking the utter grimness of late afternoon in the dead of winter. Black level fluctuates throughout depending on the locale (DP Stefano Falivene favours natural, chiaroscuro lighting), while some of the visual effects, such as a brief detour through the solar system to the surface of the sun, register as soft compared to the cinematography. The picture was shot digitally, likely with variants of the Arri Alexa (the camera that credited rental house Panalight seems to specialize in), but it persuasively mimics film despite the absence of grain. An attendant 5.1 DTS-HD MA mix is comparatively reserved though atmospheric, with shards of sound--barking dogs, snarling bears--occasionally jutting through the low-simmering surround and LFE channels to unnerving effect. Dialogue, almost all of it delivered by Willem Dafoe, is crisp and resonant. To fault this disc technically would be to fault the film aesthetically, and that would be dumb. Despite Abel Ferrara's penchant for commentary tracks, the only extra on board is a theatrical trailer that tries its damnedest to sell Siberia as a thriller.
92 minutes; R; 2.39:1 (1080p/MPEG-4); English 5.1 DTS-HD MA; English SDH, Spanish subtitles; BD-25; Region-free; Lionsgate