Temperate Solotvyno (Ukraine)

My most recent doc, Salt in the Air, is set in this small village in the Carpathian Mountains. Naturally, people ask me about the town because I was going there a lot to produce the film. It's a long flight from New York to Kyiv and then a longer 13-hour overnight train ride to Mukacheva and then a significant drive 2-3 hours through the mountains to Solotvyno.

Perhaps the most common assumption is that the place is very cold. But what I found was more like a temperate microclimate, ideal for a salt-lake spa and other medical facilities. The Carpathians reminded me of the Great Smokies here in the U.S. Old, wise, misty, mysterious. The Carpathians are beautiful and appear from above as an enormous backwards C that stretches from Slovakia, through Poland, down across the lower western corner of Ukraine and into Romania, plus a small part of Hungry. I'm sure they have more serious winters than the ones I experienced. Nevertheless, the flora seems to suggest rather warm temperatures and good moisture. Over a third of all European plant species grow there. Here is a still image from Salt in the Air. You can see the mossy vines hanging from the trees, shrouding an old man and his bicycle, both obscured in an early morning fog. 

According to local historians, Solotvyno itself was once a Roman town in a region called Pannonia. If you look at a map, you can see that the Carpathians form a huge basin. And before the Romans, the area around Solotvyno was a small sea that eventually dried up and was pushed together by shifting mountain ranges to form the huge salt deposit we have today. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the village has struggled with corruption and a declining industrial economy based on salt. But they are also attempting to revive the region as a place where people can go to heal, whether from asthma by breathing in the salty air from the mines or from other ailments that the local salt lakes and mineral muds might cure. I sympathize with this effort, and yet I wonder about possible contaminants in the water and soil. The Russians are purported to have had a "secret strategic military object" inside the salt mine. (Salt is said to be impermeable to radar, at least to some degree.) More on this later, but this unproven legend naturally raises questions and concerns. Seasoned local miners, officials and old timers debate the validity of the claims. There's a lot to say about Solotvyno, so I will stop here for the time being. 

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I Love You, Salt!

I've been part of a longitudinal blood pressure study since I was about six years old. The researchers at the University of Minnesota recently invited me to an in depth examination during which they asked me hundreds of questions about my diet.

  1. Do I eat Doritos? No.
  2. Do I eat at McDonalds? No.
  3. Do I drink pop? No.

And so on. Page after page. No. No. No. No. That is, until we got to salt. Yay! I said, Yes, I eat a lot of salt! And I put a 10 by the question just for fun. The nurse was surprised. And then I told her that I love salt so much, I made a film about it called SALT IN THE AIR. Is this a vice? I don't think so!  We are very lucky to have salt in abundance, and such good salt! I love Maldon salt. Yum.

But salt is more serious than taste and enjoyment. Without it, we would not be here. In other words, salt is equal to air and water. And like air and water, salt is the earth made palatable. We cannot live without it, nor can any other form of life. Below is a photo of a wall of salt in the salt mine's at Solotvyno, where my film takes place. Salt mines are a bit frightening and immense. Hopefully the film will premiere soon so you can see what I mean! 


Silhouette of a Small and Quiet Funeral

This short film by Pablo Lamar caught my attention today. It's a single take that focuses first on a man and then a small community, maybe a big family or a small village, as they sing a funeral hymn and then carry a coffin down a hillside. The title, I Hear Your Scream, seems a bit overstated and misleading to me, at least for this melancholic piece. And yet it does heighten the tension surrounding the silent man. I imagine that maybe his wife has died. It's a good little film for a patient viewer. And if you like silhouetted cinema, it's for you. (Apologies for anyone not on Mubi, but you can still watch it for $0.99.)

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The Cosmos

Some film scenes hang around in the front of my brain with a frequency that approaches constant. I'm not talking about the occasional memory inspired by some everyday occurrence, like the way cutting garlic reminds me of Goodfellas when Pauly cuts the garlic with a razor. It's much more frequent than something like that, as if these scenes are an embedded reference, a memorized visual poem that enlivens my thoughts and enriches my life all the time. Do you have this... um...  what should I call it... cinemania?   

One such scene for me is the opening of Bela Tarr's incredible Werkmeister Harmoniak, one of my favorite films. I would estimate that I think about that scene at least twice a week intently and that it's almost always there passively below (or above?) other thoughts, like where I'm going to get my morning coffee or how much longer will I have to wait before it's my turn to have a delicious ice cream cone.

The scene opens with a tight shot of a metal grate on the door of a small furnace. You can see the flames through the slits in the metal and you can see the word Memphis in the center, which I always found interesting and wondered about in the way I wonder about manhole covers here in New York, the ones that say Made in India on them. The effect of this brief reference is an instant searching, a dream of the lives lived to forge those pieces of steel. I know I'm doing this when I watch the film, but it's a passive effort. And, yet, even though it is passive, or perhaps because of it, I believe thoughts like these are one of the reasons the film cements itself inside me, as if these miniature brain adventures secure the film's longevity in me.

The metal grate is opened and old beer is splashed on the flames to put them out. A bartender starts asking people to leave. There are a dozen or so men slouching around the place in various states of inebriation when Valuska arrives to, as one man puts it, "Show us." (I like this translation and I wonder and hope that it is accurate.) Another man tips over on the floor and can't seem to right himself. Then Valuska comes into the scene and begins to describe our existence through a story about the cosmos. He compellingly conjures an image of life on earth by guiding these drunken men to play the roles of planets in our solar system. You're the sun. You're the earth. You're the moon. As the men begin to slowly dance around in their orbits, doing something like a waltz, Valuska describes a solar eclipse and the fear and darkness it brings to all living things on earth. To them, the world seems to be ending. But Valuska brings us back from the brink as the solar eclipse comes to an end and life returns to normal. At that point the bartender, a Mr. Hagelmayer, kicks everyone out. Valuska leaves and walks down the middle of a dark road in the cold on his way to help his uncle.

The entire scene is achingly beautiful hopeful true sad. And I watch it in my mind's eye all the time. 

Limousin Limousine

Internet etymology tells me that the word “limousine,” which we take to mean those long, low rides of questionable taste (slightly different, I would argue, from the “stretch”), actually refers to a cloak-and-hood traditionally worn in the “Limousin” section of France. Apocryphal? Perhaps, but the shape of an early covered carriage that separated the driver from his ride supposedly looked like the hooded women of central France circa 1905. 

Which brings me to the topic: the limousine as a creative device. Lynch knows it, of course. But now both Leo Carax and David Cronenberg have joined us for a slow-mo cocktail ride along a Manhattan cross street in the 50s or along the Seine. Lynch leaves the vehicles alone for the most part, but Carax and Cronenberg make them a centerpiece and a plot device. Limousines literally keep the story moving in both Holy Motors and Cosmopolis, which makes them similar films in a mechanical sense, though not exactly thematically. But beyond just a crank-arm to move the plot, or a shortcut to express superficial luxury, it’s really the aesthetics of filming inside a limousine that work. The framing of the shots and the distance from the camera to a man or woman sprawled on the back seat are remarkable, endurable and beautiful. For this reason alone, we will probably continue to see films that use limousines as a base-line for a plot. Limousines are cinematic. 

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Of Related Parts

Connectedness, even wild associations, have always been one of my pleasures, a kind of gaming in relation to things and ideas and reflections. A phrase I’ve always loved, and I think I created, is whether or not “I am the best Enrico I can be, or if someone else could be a better me.” It’s that kind of twisty-smithing that gets me up in the morning and helps me see through projects that have strongly varying skill sets and demands. Film. Writing. Art. Conversation. Reading. This has become my life somehow and is the foundation for Related Parts. This is of that and all the way around.