Letters Not About Love

“In 1983 it is not considered safe to have Americans to one’s apartment,” says the middle-aged Soviet poet. “But I make no secret of the invitation. What I do is my business.”

This moment in the pre-credit slide sequence of the recent film directed by Jacki Ochs, who teaches film at the State University of New York at Purchase, can serve as a touchstone for a film as disrespectful of the boundaries of artforms as of the boundaries of countries. Letters Not About Love (1998) is a documentary unusual in style and subject that tracks the final years of the USSR and the Soviet Union into the sudden emergence of whatever it is that has succeeded it, through an exchange of letters. An inventive film profoundly influenced by the fusion of the personal and the political, the significance of Letters Not About Love is increased by several prominent devices and intertexts.

* * *

The poet Lyn Hejinian was among the Americans who visited fellow poet Arkadii Dragomoshchenko’s apartment on that day in 1983. Following the opening credits, we learn that in 1989, Ochs, who the film’s program notes indicate was also among that group of Americans, gave the poets a list of ordinary words. They exchanged letters about each of these, with Arkadii teaching himself English and Lyn teaching herself Russian in the process. Excerpts from these letters, spoken by actors Victor Nord and Lili Taylor, became the voiceover commentary of the film.

Organizing the narration of the body of the film, then, are the poets’ reactions. The poets’ evolving friendship, their autobiographies, and aspects of the history of their countries and of the Cold War are revealed through these readings. Yet these do not affect what the words are and how many of them are included within the film. Every several minutes, a new word appears on a black screen in stark, white print, as if marking chapters in the film.

The poets write to each other about whatever the word evokes for them. Sometimes these do not seem to be directly related at all, as when Lyn asks rhetorically if the two of them are beginning “to lead a paper life.” Sometimes these are related to affairs of state, as when Arkadii speaks about how the Bolshevik Revolution and the evolution of the Soviet state affected how people dealt with their neighbors. Sometimes these include intimate personal and familial experiences, as when Lyn discusses intimate memories of her grandmother and apprehension about her own future status as a grandmother. The letters are read as if the poets are in conversation, backed by saxophones, pianos, accordions, and sound effects. Meanwhile a palimpsest of images drawn from film, video, homevideo, government newsreels, and other sources flood the screen.

The relation between word and image fluctuates. Sometimes the correspondence is direct, as when a statue of a worker – who most Soviet and post-Soviet citizens would probably recognize as the founder of the KGB – is revealed as Arkadii, responding to “school,” reflects on his experience being taught “official” Soviet history. Sometimes it is more abstract and associative, as when, while Lyn responds to “neighbor”, we see images of people walking along the street fractured into multiple images, as if the image were shot through a prism. Sometimes there does not seem to be any correspondence at all, as when the image of a basketball rolling along a sidewalk is overlayed with Lyn’s voice, responding to “violence,” speaking of recent mass murders in the United States. Yet together they evoke an extremely sensual experience.

The segment during which the first word “home” is discussed is fairly typical within this atypical film. Lyn speaks three times, with Arkadii speaking twice in between, over a sequence of thirty five shots, all of them apparently original and handheld, rapidly cut together to last a total of three minutes and thirty-two seconds. Saxophones are often heard interweaving with the poets’ words.

Lyn’s first speech concerns her experiences waking up within her home. She describes the sight of things surrounding her, then fixates on the smells of her home, particularly an elusive “gray-green” smell that she has known since her childhood but whose source she has never been able to locate. On the image track, composed of eleven shots, a young girl is seen moving through a lush yard, playing in the trees, moving among the plants, and swinging on a hammock, simultaneously suggesting the neighbor girl Lyn heard when she woke up and a young version of Lyn herself attempting to track down this smell. Sound effects meanwhile suggest the brushing back of plants as the girl moves about the garden.

Arkadii begins by telling us that he was “trying to collect fragmented pictures” from his memory. He then describes some of these images, conjuring up experiences of his with a house from his youth. Eight shots of a mother dressing and sitting with her boy suggests Arkadii’s own memory from early childhood. Some of the cuts between the images are not entirely smooth; one, at least, is a sort of “flare dissolve,” with the transition between shots suggesting either the light overload of film stock when the camera is pointed directly into the sun, or the flare-outs at the end of film reels. A woman’s singing is also heard; possibly she is singing a lullaby.

Lyn then tells of her association of the word “home” with the state of California, and, more specifically, Northern California, where her family has lived for several generations. Again after the visual and audio, she moves into other senses, and speaks of breathing the air and breaking the dirt and the grass. Seven shots show a rugged coastline, then a large bird, perhaps one of the condors native to the area, soaring high above.

Arkadii’s second contribution about “home,” like Lyn’s, speaks more broadly about the cultural matrix within which he lives. He evokes “the Russian dream of home,” which he sees as paradoxically also a dream of an escape from home. He then suggests that this may be one of the key differences between their cultures. In eight shots, we once again see the boy and his mother, within a space that is likely their home, this time preparing to drink tea together. Then we see him out in the street, playing with a ball. These images, side by side suggesting inside and outside, parallel Arkadii’s paradoxical characterization of the Russian home.

Lyn’s final contribution, the final speech in the sequence, is spoken over one single shot, slowly tracking over a dresser, with a sound suggesting the tinkling of jewelery spliced into the background. The unity of time and space within this shot complements what Lyn is saying, characterizing the idea of home as a single space that one controls, although all one may do within that space is “shift papers and spoons.” Yet, Lyn adds, this is not necessarily a bad thing: “I’m happy enough with that.”

This sequence initiates us into the sensual experience that is then continued throughout the film. The mesmerizing images are extremely bright, awash in high toned, bleeding reds and grassy greens, while the sounds are crisp and lush, ranging widely in source and pitch, yet always clear and well-defined, complementary rather than mutually cancelling. Together, the two tracks often conjure other sensual experiences not directly available within most film or video watching experiences. The camera brushes through vegetation, evoking the sense of touch, as we search for the elusive smell Lyn describes within this field of smells. Then Lyn describes the taste of the salty air along California’s coast, and the feel of digging in its earth, while elsewhere, the touch of bumping against jewelry on your dresser as you prepare yourself one morning is conjured as we hear the tinkling of glass.

* * *

While Letters is throughout a film rooted in such primary sensual experiences, nonetheless more abstract issues do emerge through a combination of the resources of image and sound track. One issue broached rather allusively is the cultural repression characteristic of both countries throughout the Cold War. Both poets speak guarded criticisms which the images complement.

Lyn’s responses to the word “poverty” broach the inequalities and indignities that are inherent in capitalism. “The common poverty that we see in North America is increasing all the time,” she says at one point, backed by a haphazard piano progression in a minor key. “I know that capitalism doesn’t exist without it, since it’s a binary system in this respect. For every success, there must be a failure, and for every failure a success. In this sense, we can say that capitalism here is a great success, with the result that there is a lot of poverty.” Under McCarthyism, even such guarded observations about the cruelties of capitalism could lead to blacklisting and ostracization as a suspected agent of the Soviet Union (and to much worse in official and unofficial colonies of the United States, such as Chile and the Congo / Zaïre). Lyn’s ending her ultimately negative commentary focusing on the success of capitalism seems designed to evade such repression, seeing as the repression continued into the time she was writing.

Arkadii’s responses to the word “neighbor” broach the paranoia and terror that began soon after the Revolution and climaxed under Stalin. Backed by muffled accordion music, he details how, after the revolution, people were compressed into cities, “into a monolith, in time losing the qualities which today we speak of as individual features.” This compression, as well as the insistence on equality between the workplace and home, caused people to accept “the neighborliness which made them completely transparent. A neighbor at that time became the one who insistently and sleeplessly watched you.” Later Arkadii speaks of a former neighbor of his own who had worked in that era. This neighbor reported Arkadii to the police because the poet was at home so often, he typed, and he had suspicious visitors. Along with his commentary about the suspicion surrounding his having Americans to his apartment, and later news about the attempted Stalinist coup against Gorbachev, Arkadii thus quietly reveals how this paranoia has carried through until today.

The image track complements the poets’ commentary in these scenes by loosely illustrating the outcome of that repression. As Lyn speaks about the “success” of capitalism, we see disheveled men eating handouts of oatmeal and bagels, representatives of the poverty that she recognizes as the necessary corollary of that success. As Arkadii speaks about Soviet neighborliness, we see Russian people in public spaces, then, as he alludes to the terror, older black and white film footage and still photographs are revealed, implicitly suggesting they are images of that (perhaps) bygone era of constant investigation. Also revealed are long, dark, empty corridors in apartment buildings, in which anything, including KGB agents, could be hiding.

This recovery of primary sensual experiences is central to what might be seen as a more metaphorical function of the film. The words that are the explicit subject of these letters have no inherent political inflection. Yet the poets’ still connect them allusively with repressed politics from within this space that is simultaneously the Soviet Union and the United States, consequently saturating the political issues with new freshness. Thus the artwork functions as a sort of therapeutic space in which Cold War traumas, so long repressed under the massive historical teleologies of moving “toward the dictatorship of the proletariat” and “making the world safe for democracy” can slowly reemerge, beginning with the primal physical experiences of the world.

* * *

Several intertexts enrich the historical resonance of the film. These include several “epistolary” works, that is, works structured around the exchange of letters, and particularly letters between different countries within the oeuvres of two artists: Viktor Shklovsky and Chris Marker.

Shklovsky’s novel Zoo, Or Letters Not About Love, consists of twenty-nine or thirty-four letters (depending on which edition you select), between an unnamed male, apparently representing Shklovsky himself, and his beloved Alya, apparently representing Elsa Triolet, to whom the book is dedicated. The male lover, like Shklovsky himself, is a writer in exile in Berlin soon after the Russian Revolution.

Alya, like Elsa who apparently wrote the letters assigned to her, wanders the breadth of Europe with support from her wealthy family. Alya / Elsa has severed their romantic relationship, though Shklovsky himself in the early letters still writes to her of his love. Soon she bids him no longer to write to her about love. He complies and writes to her about other issues – the weather, animals in cages, various writers, etc. But he soon realizes that all of these are merely metaphors for his love for her. The forbidden subject remains constantly on the periphery, but nonetheless provides a constant resonance, much as the repressed political issues do in the film directed by Ochs.

Arkadii in some ways recalls Shklovsky. Both exist on the artistic fringe of the same city. Shklovsky was a member of the pre- and post-Revolutionary group of literary critics known as the Russian Formalists, a group whose ranks also included Roman Jakobson and Vladimir Mayakovsky (both referenced in passing in Shklovsky’s book), who came under enormous criticism during the Soviet era. Likewise, Arkadii, who has been wildly prolific in imagistic, experimental poetry, is introduced to us as a representative of Russia’s underground art circle, rather than as a representative of “official culture.”

The two also lived through eras of profound change in the city, a change that can be located within the change of the city’s very name. Shklovsky witnessed the revolution after which St. Petersburg became Leningrad; Arkadii witnessed the collapse after which Leningrad once again became St. Petersburg. The latter moment is represented in the film during the exchange of letters about violence, a rare letter during which political issues take center stage. Not long after the rolling basketball appears as Lyn discusses mass murders, Arkadii slowly speaks the date of “August 20, 1991, Tuesday,” then reflects on the upheavals taking place around him. Over images of children fighting in the snow, Lyn then tells of how she herself learned about the attempted Stalinist coup against Gorbachev. Over images of cars smashing together, Arkadii then speaks of the warfare taking place in Moscow.

One of the most poignant moments in the film begins as Arkadii once again slowly pronounces the date. Over images of Russians moving aimlessly through public spaces, speaks allusively of the collapse of the Soviet Union and how it has affected the most intimate actions of its now former citizens:

August 24, 1991.
And so that’s all. It is all over. But as it seems I have no strength left, I want, bluntly speaking, to sit and look at the wall.
And yet, it seems to me that even a few hours of war, in an instant, annihilated what could be called our sense of privacy. Each intimate thought, the intention of a gesture or a nod, became a public act noticed by everyone.
And this trauma is very persistent. I think our consciousness requires a vast amount of time in order to get rid of it. Forgive me, but I feel as a matter of fact a complete inability to talk about it, to talk about anything, or indeed to write.

As with Shklovsky and his art, the points of contact between the film directed by Ochs and the multimedia art of Chris Marker are many. Many of the films with which Marker is credited are structured around the exchange of letters, flood the screen with images with little to no precise association to the words being spoken, deal evasively with Cold War politics, and feature aphorisms and digressions that blunt the political issues addressed.

Letter From Siberia (1957), a sort of absurdist travelogue dispatched by a wandering cameraman to a friend in France, features a sequence run three times with three different voiceover commentaries. One is in the style of pro-Soviet propaganda; one is in the style of anti-Soviet propaganda; and one is objective. The sequence thus allows views from opposite sides to be voiced on the same issue, a tactic very similar to the structuring principle of the film of Letters Not About Love.

A fundamentally profound approach to the politics and history of the very process of art making links these works as well. As Jonathan Rosenbaum has pointed out in an essay included in his collection Movies As Politics, in the video The Last Bolshevik (1992), which is structured as two letters written posthumously to Alexander Medvedkin, a filmmaker of the ’20s and ’30s who lived until 1989, Marker never credits himself as the director of “his” films and videos; instead he opts for credits like “conception and editing” at the end of Sans Soleil (1982). Such an approach sidesteps the ahistorical mystifications of the auteurism associated with other Parisian filmmakers and critics of Marker’s generation, and in such a context thus emphasizes the collaborative nature of most filmmaking. In a similar gesture, as Joe McElhaney has pointed out in an article in Millennium Film Journal, in the installation Silent Movie (1995) Marker even relinquishes the prized right of final cut to a random computer process. Similarly, while it is occasionally referred to as “a film by Jacki Ochs,” Letters Not About Love itself and its press kit almost completely avoid any auteurist pretenses, instead emphasizing the contributions of all those who worked on this film that were determined in many ways not by Ochs herself but instead by the associations of poets, jazz musicians, and others.

Such democratically historical rigor also allows us to understand the significance of this elusive film. Like Marker, as Rosenbaum points out in relation to The Last Bolshevik, and as McElhaney points out in relation to Silent Movie, Ochs and her team create a forum in which both participants and spectators are invited to think about, talk about, play with, and even joke about history. Here, as with the Cold War chronicles usually attributed to Marker, these are central issues of twentieth century history. Yet the massive historical teleologies of “toward the dictatorship of the proletariat” and of “making the world safe for democracy” are set aside. We return instead to small scale, invisible, personal experiences and associations that are not the subject of international intrigue, nightly news broadcasts, or nuclear treaties, much more familiar forums for conversations between (former) Soviets and Americans. There is no peace to be kept or war to be avoided, no economic strategy to advance, not even a homeland to maintain except the homeland of friendship through art.

Ochs herself is distinctly conscious of the collaborative nature of the project. “I am interested in ‘filtering,'” she wrote to me in a November 23rd email message, “the idea that each of us comes equipped with our own cultural / personal filter which we utilize in any conversation we have.” Within this project, she stimulates the discussion through providing the words, then allows the words to flow through Lyn’s and Arkadii’s filters, then through the other filters that she and others working on the film provide, then through our own sensual filters, then through what we ourselves provide in a discussion of the film. Each filter can take away something – such as the potentially political dimension of “home” in a project dealing with two lands at war with each other – but it can also add something, as when the camera moving through the garden, accompanied by the sounds of brushing through branches, suggests the sensory experience of pushing through tangled vegetation, or as I have attempted to do in my discussion of the film.

The segment dealing with the final word, “window”, foregrounds that with the ending of the Cold War, we are now entering a new era, an era in which the sensual historical recovery that this film allows might take place on a more large scale level. As the poets discuss what the word evokes for them, we see many images of windows. Together sound and image emphasize that for this film a window is what film theorist Noël Carroll, in an article in his collection Theorizing The Moving Image, has identified as a verbal image. A window is a transparent object that separates two distinct spaces, spaces that can be seen and studied one from the other, and thus can be seen to represent the larger function of Letters Not About Love, to make people in two distinct countries examine each other. In a more metaphorical sense, the concept of the window also parallels the transitory moment the film represents. The eras of the Soviet Union and of the Cold War are clearly ending, and something else is beginning. As the film is made, the participants are connected to both the era that has passed and to the era that is beginning, rather like a window is connected to both inside and outside.

Both the image and the sound track emphasize the confusion of this process late in the film. Images from the two lands are matted together as the poets speak about the difficulty of separating themselves from each other and from each others’ countries. During the “window” segment, Arkadii even refers to a “metaphysics” of the window, and Lyn to its “symbolism” that she is unintentionally elaborating. Yet still they shy away from making explicit analogies to the historical process, just barely able to address directly the issues that have been repressed by the warfare between two radically opposed, yet perversely similar, ways of thinking about history. That we must do ourselves.

Works Cited

Carroll, Noël. “Language and Cinema: Preliminary Notes for a Theory of Verbal Images.” Theorizing the Moving Image. New York: Cambridge UP, 1996. 187-211.

McElhaney, Joe. “Primitive Projections: Chris Marker’s Silent Movie.” Millennium Film Journal 29 (Fall 1996). 42-50.

Rosenbaum, Jonathan. “On Second Thoughts (Marker’s The Last Bolshevik).” Movies as Politics. Berkeley: U California P, 1997. 338-343.