I am not a great fan of Sokurov’s movies. Unlike his loose predecessors Tarkovsky (his sometimes mentor) and Sergei Paradjanov, both of whom I love, Sokurov’s emphasis on aesthetics-above-all gives his films a decadent quality lacking in his predecessors. Russian Ark was a staggering technical achievement that takes too oblique a view of Russian history. Father and Son pulls out one visual trick after another, but fails to take its premise (a near-sexual bond between father and son) anywhere. The Sun, about the day Hirohito announced he was not a god, is much more coherent, but Sokurov’s expressed avoidance of the political is at times myopic.
But there is one area in which I cannot think of a rival for Sokurov, and that is in sound design. I cannot think of another director who orchestrates the sound of his movies with such meticulous depth and attention to minute detail. The detail is so great that there were points in The Sun where I wished the actors would be quiet so I could take in the layers of sound behind them. The “score” of the first half of The Sun is a disorienting mixture of birdsong, faint but shrill electronic tones (recalling Artimiev’s scores for Tarkovsky), and brief strains of decontextualized classical music. I don’t do it justice by describing it; Sokurov and his sound crew–composer Sergei Yevtushenko and soundpeople Sergei Moshkov and Vladimir Persov–construct scores that rank with the most experimental and successful of the modern electro-acoustic movement.
In The Sun especially, the score is crucial to the success of the first half of the movie. Hirohito’s ancient position in the very modern world is portrayed uncomfortably with the electronic intrusions insinuating themselves into his relentlessly formal and regimented life. Seen in a theater, it’s an enveloping, unnatural sonic environment that marks this uneasiness. Much has been made of Sokurov’s increasing difficulties seeing, and whether or not the grayness of the first part of The Sun is an allusion to this, the richness of the audible aspect of the film is an implicit answer to the dilemma Alexander Kluge proposed in The Blind Director.
Update: It looks like Mr. Wheeler has beat me to the punch, as Androgynous Turtle waxed rhapsodic on Sokurov and sound over a year ago. I must say that I found Beau Travail to be a much more successful film than Sokurov’s Father and Son, but I was happy to find Mr. Wheeler’s comments. Please come back!