Modernism in Latvian cinema
Sonora Broka, Film Theorist

With enviable regularity, Inga Pērkone provides new publica­ tions for the shelf devoted to theoretical writings on Latvian cinema. Since 2008 she has published Cinema in Latvia. 1920– 1940, I can only love... The Image of Woman in Latvian Film, The Reality of Production. History of Latvian Feature Film, and finally, the recently released You, the great evening sun! Essays on Modernism in Latvian Film. In the introduction of the latest book, the author is already pointing to the next line of research, evidently work in progress: “The chapter on the Riga style – the circumstances of its emergence and its poetics – is to be viewed also as a starting point or material for a history of Latvian docu­ mentary cinema.”

Instead of a chronological approach, Pērkone has chosen a more attractive perspective on the history of Latvian cinema. She clarifies this in the newspaper Diena: “The notion of mod­ ernism in cinema has been analysed from various viewpoints. I have followed the route of the golden mean which perhaps is the most popular one – both a chronological and a theoretical frame­ work.”1 Although the term “modernism” has been used as the common denominator for this compilation of essays, the study is not restricted to the 1960s, usually considered the height of modernism in film. The collection of essays and articles reveals “personally favourite manifestations of modernism in Latvian cinema” in the time period from the 1960s up to the present.

Inga Pērkone is comfortable in the field of film history and theory. Certain chapters of the book are so densely packed with quotations from the works of film theorists and specifically film theory, as well as philosophical terms, that the question arises whether the academic writing style will offer an equal sense of comfort to the reader. An answer to these doubts may be pro­ vided by an excerpt from the chapter “The Paradigm of Pakalni­ ņa”: “Latvian audiences, accustomed to easily absorbed mass culture, on the whole regard the films directed by Pakalniņa ne­ gatively.” However, I will quote David Bordwell and Noël Burch: “Why wouldn’t film directors turn to the elite like composers have done it in various periods of time? We define the “elite” as people who undertake the hardship to watch and review films (many films). Likewise, one must listen repeatedly to a lot of music, in order to be able to appreciate the last quartets of Beethoven or the works of Anton Webern. Both for the per­ ception of music and parametric narration one must have train­ ing, practice and theoretical knowledge.”2 The chief stumbling block for a more thorough enjoyment of Essays on Modernism in Latvian Film could be more likely of a completely practical na­ ture. The author herself admits that “the greatest problem in the writing of this book, as well as in all research related to Latvian cinema, is the inaccessibility of films shot in Latvia”.

So there, having armed oneself with training, practice and theoretical knowledge (because terms and concepts have not been explained in the book), it is possible to get a completely different idea about the seemingly known and familiar Latvian cinema. In fact, Inga Pērkone has written something like an ex­ planatory film dictionary, the interpreter of directors’ dreams. It could, however, be also defined as a portrait gallery. The essays astonishingly accurately outline the personality of each direc­ tor, and what’s more: the form of each essay corresponds to the creative handwriting of the particular director. What was the impetus for this approach – is it an intentional method on the part of the author, thus achieving a more vivid textual texture, or having delved into such a detailed film analysis, was she instinc­ tively tempted to follow the corresponding rules of the game in the text as well?

In the essays Rīgas stila poētika (“Poetics of the Riga Style”) and Aivara Freimaņa laika kristāli, (“The Time Crystals of Aivars Freimanis”), a period of aesthetic, deeply Latvian, well brought up and sensitive modernist film is discussed in serious, classi­ cally analytic language. The next chapters such as, for example, Saistītu notikumu izmeklēšana (“Investigation of Related Events”), are considerably distanced from the peacefulness of fishermen’s villages and a schematic structure of analysis, taking the reader through a labyrinth of chaotic and multi­layered images for which there is no exit to be found, offering only the general direction. This particular essay, while examining Ansis Epners’ film Būris (‘Cage’, 1993) (based on the novel of the same name by Alberts Bels) and Jānis Putniņš’ film Varmācības meditācija (‘Medita­ tion on Violence’, 1993), addresses also the relationship be­ tween modernism and postmodernism in film. It differs from the rest of the text in the book with the correspondence be­ tween the author and director Putniņš, thus rendering the text more personal, and adding extra edge to the interpretation of the cinematic symbols.

The book Essays on Modernism in Latvian Film possesses two rather contradictory features. Alongside the explicitly analy­ tical studies there are also emotionally charged articles, where vivid mythological portrayals and quotations from Goethe and Thomas Mann are interwoven with investigations of a director’s creative evolution (“The Poetics of Podnieks”). The essays have been written over a relatively long period of time – the earliest is from around 2000–2001. When reading the texts in the order they were written, the changes and development in research meth­ odology applied by the author over the years becomes evident. In the earlier articles – “The Poetics of Podnieks” one already mentioned and Atvērtais logs (“The Open Window”, 2004) – there is more observation, more space for thought, whereas in the later articles written purposely for this book, for instance, “Poetics of the Riga Style”, the form of expression has become significantly more technical and ascetic, replacing the space for thought with a dense usage of quotations from film theory and a scientific analysis of the cinematic language.

The volume concludes with a detailed study of Laila Pakalni­ ņa’s creative oeuvre. The analysis of the works of this particular director in the context of world modernist cinema was the initial intention for the book. And precisely these two essays unite and even out the rhythm of the publication. The book is introduced with essays discussing modernism, firstly as a form and then as a narrative mode, but the essays dedicated to Pakalniņa’s films: Raibā suņa paradokss (“The Paradox of the Mottled Dog”) and Marijas dzīve (“Marija’s Life”) come closest of all to the notion of a film dictionary. Inga Pērkone offers us the opportunity to get acquainted with the alphabet of Pakalniņa’s cinematic language and its basic rules, moreover, she accurately marks out the cru­ cial turning­points of these rules.

You, the great evening sun! Essays on Modernism in Latvian Film is a unique contribution to the research of Latvian film his­ tory. Besides, the elegant presentation of the book will appeal not only to experienced film enthusiasts. Also, the filmography at the end of the book can serve as an excellent source of inspira­ tion for home movie nights – of course, taking into account that only a tiny proportion of the films is available to the public.

Translation into English: Laine Kristberga

1 Adamaite, Undīne. Zelta vidusceļš juceklī – Diena, 19.03.2013
At: (accessed 22.04.2013.).
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