Friday, 4 July 2014

A String of Prayer Beads For the Eyes: Artur Aristakisyan's Palms (1993)

(an essay and poem written for the booklet of Second Run's DVD release of the film)

A powerfully original but disconcerting Russian film, filmed entirely among the community of beggars and outsiders in Aristakisyan’s home town of Kishinev. I recall having to write this in beautiful June weather when I really just wanted to be outside in the garden. Alas, it was not to be, and for a few days I had to reluctantly draw the curtains against the sun and immerse myself in Aristakisyan’s world, as revealed through a greenish-hued check disc. At a point the piece stalled for a while and I needed another input. That day, in a much-missed junk shop in Kington not unknown for serendipitous finds (for me at least), I came across a copy of Jeremy Sandford's Down and Out in Britain, a book I'd not seen before and which I've not come across since, which was exactly what was required. Thank you.



A blind, begging boy has been told by his parents, also blind, that everyone in the world is in fact blind. 'Not a single person can see himself,' they have said. So when the boy is ignored by people, he waits patiently, realising that they may not yet be aware of his presence. Of the many images in Palms that imprint themselves on your mind, this one, of a world populated entirely with blind people living off each other’s charity, is at its heart. 


Perhaps surprisingly for a film populated almost entirely with beggars, Palms has nothing to do with charity. Its real subject is proximity. In its relentless depiction of life at the margins and with its discomfiting jabs of authenticity, it is an affront to personal space. Why should this be so?

Part of the answer comes in a quote from John Berger’s essay Steps Towards a Small Theory of the Visible, in which, considering the current omnipresence and elusiveness of images, he describes the system outside of which the people in Palms exist. What are depicted, he says, “used to be called physical appearances because they belonged to solid bodies. Now appearances are volatile. Technological innovation has made it easy to separate the apparent from the existent. And this is precisely what the present system’s mythology continually needs to exploit. It turns appearances into refractions, like mirages: refractions not of light but of appetite, in fact a single appetite, the appetite for more.”1

In contrast to these fugitive appearances, there is no doubt that in Palms we are in the company of solid bodies, maimed and damaged bodies even, not seeking our attention or intervention, utterly indifferent to us at our safe distance, yet completely present. They feed no appetite, create no wealth, yet still they stubbornly exist, heavy with the affront of parasitic life.

One of the usual lures of cinema is the attraction of journeying in safety to places and with people you would not otherwise meet. Palms presents you with no seductive journeys. It does not care about you and it does not indulge you. It leaves you with nowhere to go except back on yourself, making you keenly aware of your own reaction – your disgust, your righteousness, your shame, the boundaries of your love. Watching Palms, you are no longer the centre of the world. How can you incorporate this place and its people? At times, the film even looks like it comes from another century. The flashes of modern clothing and accessories – a leather jacket, a handbag, a pushchair – belonging to people in the streets, seem incongruous.

In his words, with Palms, Aristakisyan presents a film of outsiders objectionable to the system. What makes them so? An answer comes at the beginning of Part Two with the epileptics, of whom he says that they 'proved to be objectionable because they didn’t need to go anywhere. They were at the border between worlds and could see clearly.' It is this lack of need, this appetite only for necessities, that is objectionable.

The System

The system will engulf everything that has sense.

In Palms, 'the system' outside of which the beggars live remains undefined. This is unimportant; political system, social system, system of mercantile totalitarianism, whatever name you care to supply makes no difference. When you are outside of it, the terms are meaningless. The only thing worth knowing is the essential fact that power, wherever it is found, 'starts to ferment, like wine'. Always.

Palms is a confrontational film. It may even provoke fear in some, a fear of  losing control, or of losing position. If the defining characteristic of the system is its appetite for more, the refraction of this appetite is through advertising, all of which is predicated on the promise of control and the seduction of choice, sometimes even the control of chance. Living through a time saturated with such messages, to lose choice is something that cannot be countenanced. This, especially, appears unendurable. This is why the image of the blind boy begging in a blind world, with all of its people entirely reliant on charity, is central. This is the system’s nightmare.

In Aristakisyan’s second film, A Place on Earth, set in a hippie commune in Moscow, many of Palms’ themes are developed to their extreme. The commune’s members have turned against all accepted social hierarchies and codes of separation. There are no longer boundaries between human and animal, adults and children, desire and disease, squalor and food, free love and obligation, your own body and your body’s ownership by others. Of that film, Aristakisyan has said that it 'reveals our worst fears: it shows the scariest version of what might happen to us.' The comment applies equally to Palms.

When Jeremy Sandford, the writer of Cathy Come Home, spent time with those out of the reach of the welfare state in Britain at the end of the 1960s, he wrote in his introduction to the account of his experiences, Down and Out in Britain, that 'I sometimes had the fancy that perhaps the rest of my life was only an illusion – that those things I prized, friends, children, a home, were just a dream from which I would awaken back to the reality of a narrow dosshouse dormitory.' The country and the decade are different but his experience of fear is recognisable. Palms makes you keenly aware of all the frail, and ever more virtual ties of modern existence.


My son, it’s true that I want you to become a beggar. I, your father, wish you to become a beggar, because I love you my son.

There are many words in Palms, remorseless words that follow logic into the abyss. Aristakisyan’s first address to his unborn son takes place over a black screen, putting us in his son’s position, in the womb. By implication, what follows is an address to us too. His words, an attempt to understand how to save his unborn son’s spirit, are profoundly disquieting, for they intimate how we too can save ourselves from spiritual ruination. 'Either a man lives in the spirit or in the system, and thereby becomes its agent,' he says. The options are terrifyingly limited: have nothing to do with power, beg, go out of your mind. Everything else is compromise. The only thing you may claim to own is your virginity. 'Unite your destitution with your virginity. It’s all that I can advise you,' the unborn son is told. 'Destitution will protect you from the system, and virginity from fornication with the system.'

Aristakisyan recognises however that even his language is tainted by the system, dooming his speech to collusion. There is no getting outside of it. What other options are open, he asks – to learn the language of birds? When he addresses the man who hides in his basement, nicknamed 'Pithecanthropus' by those at the hospital from where he escaped, he tells him, 'you’ll start speaking later on, when people have used up all the combinations of words and will eat their’ll speak when people will lose the gift of speech out of shame.' The man stares out at us, a rebuke to words used meaninglessly, as if they have no value, and do not refer to people, or things.


If we are reluctant to journey in the film, what hope is there then of salvation? The usual channels are closed to us. We are not comforted with visions of redemptive beauty. At the end of Chapter I, Bedding and Clothing, the district in which Palms was filmed is shown. It could have been depicted so that the points of reflected light on the ground were made to glisten, to represent hope or promise. They don’t. They look like litter.

In Chapter II, Life on a Swamp, there is a scene of a boy drinking from a plate as water flows next to him. This is not the picturesque poverty that sells diaries and calendars. The water is rain overflowing from a gutter that feeds the swamp on which he lives.

We become aware of the urge to transmute images to beauty, or at least something that can be understood in the context of art or cinematic history. With relief we note the scenes of ruined houses and courtyards that resemble daguerreotypes brought back by 19th century travellers, a still-life of a plate of apples, a woman carrying a man down a road that previews a similar situation in Aleksandr Sokurov’s Mother and Son, a depiction of a man with doves and a candle emerging from the darkness that calls to mind the chiaroscuro lighting, and maybe even the subject matter, of a Caravaggio painting. These are moments of relief and reassurance that our aesthetics are still in place.

This is to confuse the picturesque with necessity. The houses are condemned, the apples are for sale, the ragman needs to get down the street. There is nothing here to support our world.


The system privileges physical and psychological renewal and reinvention; it even hijacks people’s bodies, making them understandable only in terms of comparison. In Palms, it is confronted by people who wear their stories – of rejection, failure, suffering, indifference, acceptance, dogged resistance – on their bodies instead of erasing them. Such bodies are unsightly to the system. They are the bodies of people just stubbornly there, claiming nothing more than the territory that they inhabit.

There are so many stories here: a woman who lies on the ground for forty years after being deserted, a man who sleeps with doves, a woman who carries the head of her failed executioner in her belongings, a man so taunted that he bit through his veins, a woman who leaves out food and drink for her dead husband who visits during the night, a man who wishes his unborn son to be a beggar. All of these stories are hidden, almost completely, behind nothing more than the palms of beggars. Palms opens our ears.

Watching Palms, I have the curious sensation that it is an artefact of a destroyed civilisation – its epitaph perhaps, or a memento mori that went unheeded.


When his mother bathed him
the wooden trough was whole.
When he pushed himself from eight storeys
the trough broke
and his body now lives between his birth and failed death.
This is a film for beggars.

The blind boy believes that everyone in the world is blind,
so when a person seems to ignore him, he waits
understanding that they may not yet be aware of his presence.
This is a film for the blind.

People with money see an eighth skin on beggars,
a skin of bandages, rags and dirt,
which is a convenient disguise for both.
This is a film for the cold.

A man hides in a basement
and only comes out on Sundays
so he won’t be taken away
by those he has escaped.
This is a film for fugitives.

Another man lives in a hill of rubbish
so bloated that passers-by
must push him through his gate.
His fence just holds it all in.
This is a film for hoarders.

Among the pigeons and doves of the city
are those that took food and love from the attic man
and they now keep his memory.
This is a film for the dead.

Beggars, the blind, the cold
fugitives, hoarders and the dead.
We are all watching now
from beneath our clothing
from among the scraps and waste of our lives,
unwilling to lose our tongues
and unable to find our silence.

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