Bright Lights Film Journal

One Resurrected Drunkard: A Dialogue on Tony Palmer’s Testimony

“Palmer’s meticulously composed images hide the fact that this film is, in a sense, underdetermined, open to endless speculation; it is uncontrolled, savage, and thus, indeed, sometimes given to uncensored crudity.”

Persons of the Dialogue:
Andrew Grossman, a cynic
Michael Morse, an artist
L. Trotsky, the bartender

(A bar at night in an unnamed city; on a television screen above the bar plays a soccer game)

L. Trotsky: What’ll it be?

Andrew Grossman: Rusty Nail.

Michael Morse: Harvey Wallbanger, with two umbrellas.

Andrew Grossman: (to the bartender) Can you turn on something else? There is no logical connection between voluntary inebriation and the witnessing of children’s kicking games.

L. Trotsky: (with surliness) You sure?

AG: Absolutely. Hooliganism may be inebriated, but inebriation isn’t hooliganism.

(The bartender switches off the soccer game and, after perfunctorily hunting through the channels, happens upon a black-and-white film.)

Michael Morse: It’s Testimony (1988), British director Tony Palmer’s film of Solomon Volkov’s edition of Shostakovich’s (highly contested) memoirs.

AG: With the redoubtable Ben Kingsley as an only occasionally drunk Shostakovich.

MM: Though I’m ambivalent about the fact that the insidious, self-serving Volkov served as advisor to the film, I must say that finally, I see a film expressly, almost perversely designed for myself, not simply another adolescent film idolizing music-making, as are most cabbage-headedly romantic bio-films about composers . . .

AG: It’s a limp, disreputable subgenre, seemingly for children . . .

MM: . . . but an intensely, if indeed expressionistically, historicized film that’s part diary, part cosmic fantasy, a cascading onslaught of imageries redolent of both Shostakovich’s music and his era. Most importantly, Palmer presupposes, quite intelligently, a good deal of knowledge, both historical and aesthetic, on the part of his audience.

AG: It’s interesting you say that, because the degree of this presupposition is in fact my—

MM: Wait, I’m not finished with my praiseology; I’ve only just started, really. Think of how we first encounter Stalin on his way to an eerie visit to Kirov’s coffin, a journey etched in heretofore unplumbed shades of despairing gray, and the film, maturely, assumes we understand who Kirov was, and the historical significance therein.

AG: Kirov the Politburo honcho, killed by Stalin, like all the rest, no?

LT: Kirov was killed by the henchman Leonid Nikolaev, at Joe’s behest . . . hic! . . .

MM: A murder that initiated the Great Terror. Similarly, the movie climaxes with an imaginary visit to the ravine of Babi Yar, followed by a full performance of the first movement of Shostakovich’s Thirteenth Symphony, accompanied by requisite clips of the Holocaust. Yet Palmer must rely on the audience’s foreknowledge of Shostakovich’s philo-Semitism, for the director doesn’t deign to give any context for the symphonic interlude.

AG: I think people probably know more about Shostakovich’s philo-Semitism than they do about Kirov. And I thought the Babi Yar sequence threatens preachiness.

MM: Perhaps; but this supplies the film’s only moment of preachiness. For me, the rhythmical flow of Palmer’s imagery overcomes all of the occasional oversimplifications of the film’s content.

AG: My problem is not oversimplification per se, which is unavoidable even in a film almost three hours long, but that Testimony is beholden to received wisdoms, and seems more like a carnivalesque tour offering platitudinous insights on the artistic compromises of the Fifth Symphony or the damning 1936 Pravda review of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.

MM: Is there anything inherently wrong with the carnivalesque, even if soberly presented, as it is here?

AG: Perhaps that’s a poor choice of adjective . . .

LT: Or perhaps soberly is a poor choice of adverb?

MM: In fact, the best aspects of the carnivalesque are quite apparent in the astounding, single-take steadicam movements of Shostakovich ambling through bustling textile mills and hectic rehearsal studios.

AG: Yes, the film is festooned with scenes of Shostakovich wandering sets and stages — but unlike Jacques in As You Like It, he doesn’t masochistically enjoy being a stage-bound pessimist, though Kingsley’s dry, mocking tone conveys the necessary, life-clinging humor beneath the composer’s alcoholic rage.

MM: The humor is also embedded in the satirical scenography: the warlike Eighth Symphony accompanies the composer mouthing ribaldry about the regime and threading his way through a parade of circus performers — a bit of Fellini, but blessedly free of the maestro’s descents into the psychoanalytic vulgarities of Juliet of the Spirits (1965) or City of Women (1981).

AG: But Palmer mercilessly indulges his own crudities, such as the unsubtle visual metaphor of superimposed red blood oozing across black-and-white images of Shostakovich on a train platform. And that repeated surreal image of a giant, Easter Island-size stone Stalin head tumbling down and chasing Shostakovich down darkened streets like a bowling ball would make Oliver Stone blush.

LT: Ay, there ’tis!

(They look up at the television monitor and witness the bouncing Stalin head.)

MM: True, Palmer is given to bathetic excess, and his material is entrapped in a fairly humdrum political frame — but it’s no more aesthetically limited by these facts than is, for example, Prokofiev’s nationalist opera Semyon Kotko.

AG: For me, Palmer’s insistent stylization cannot overcome or compensate for the “humdrum” politics, whereas Prokofiev’s melodiousness in Kotko does. Further, the melodiousness of Kotko is not a matter of glossed style, but is something organic to the work.

MM: But Testimony‘s anguished black and white, hardly a matter of mere glossed style, is equally organic, just as the formalist abstraction of black and white is inextricable from the existentialism of film noir. Testimony is unconscious or, perhaps, stream-of-consciousness filmmaking. Unlike Fellini, whose overdetermined insistence on psychoanalysis reduces everything to a masterfully controlled common denominator of self-reflexivity, Palmer’s meticulously composed images hide the fact that this film is, in a sense, underdetermined, open to endless speculation; it is uncontrolled, savage, and thus, indeed, sometimes given to uncensored crudity.

LT: Like that goddamn backlit Stalin head rolling after us all . . .

MM: But Palmer’s cinematographic sense brilliantly conceals this lack of structural control — the deeply saturated influence of Eisenstein imbedded in Palmer’s black and white evinces more shades of gray than I ever dreamt were possible, with each shade a building stone in the double edifice of Shostakovich’s inner life and Stalin’s U.S.S.R. For example, think of Shostakovich’s walk in the wood with Tukhachevsky . . .

LT: Another temulent, tremulant liquidation . . .

MM: . . . Palmer does not so much discard the landscape’s beauty as replace it with an incredibly nuanced series of black-and-white shadings, using minute degrees of variation in overexposure and focal length to not only integrate the speaking characters scenographically but also lend the land a virtual voice of its own. Favorable comparisons with the ice vistas of Alexander Nevsky (1938) are unavoidable.

AG: Eisenstein? When I think of Eisenstein, I think only in terms of the starkest, most shocking, least ambiguous black and white, with no shades of gray, either visually or metaphorically. Detailed shadings reflect individual psychology, not the undifferentiated and communitarian struggles, marches, and victories of Potemkin (1925).

MM: Yet some of the stock footage from Testimony‘s 1917 revolution montage is cribbed directly from Eisenstein’s October (1928). While I don’t think Palmer is trying to go Eisenstein one better, he does take that graphical world as the starting point for his narrative, just as he takes Shostakovich’s musical language as the basis for the story of an inner and outer life.

AG: But Palmer also goes out of his way to have Kingsley’s Shostakovich mouth criticisms about Eisenstein staging Wagner in the late 1930s.

MM: That’s irrelevant — you can have mixed feelings about someone and still be influenced by him. Still, the gratuitous, decidedly unintegral nature of the snipe makes me suspect Volkov’s hand here.

AG: Then there are two narrative dualities here, perhaps running parallel to each other: in addition to the “inner,” psychologized Shostakovich versus the “outer,” oppressive Stalin, we also must contend with the “inner,” artistic Tony Palmer versus the “outer,” narratively unreliable Solomon Volkov. That’s four variables altogether.

MM: Or think of differently hermeneutic “inners” and “outers” like this: Palmer’s the “outer” — the interpretive representation — and Volkov’s the “inner” — the text.

AG: Well, more than Eisenstein, the deep-focus black and white seems Wellesian. The long tracking shots of Kingsley’s Shostakovich stalking through Kafkaesque interiors is reminiscent of Anthony Perkins’s twitching Joseph K. in Welles’s The Trial (1963) — a bundle of alcoholic nerves incredulously wandering through an unremittingly menacing landscape. But the nod to Kafka is too easily arrived at.

LT: It’s a movie . . . everything is too easily arrived at.

MM: Why do you say that?

LT: It has . . . hic! . . . a clear beginning, and a clearer, unrevolutionary end.

MM: But Palmer’s use of music, which lives above and beyond the tempus of the film, avoids unambiguous bounds. Crudely put, you could run Welles’s Trial without sound and still have the essence of it. I don’t think that could be said of Testimony.

AG: If the integration of (musical) sound and image is as fundamental as you’re suggesting, Testimony, and nearly the whole of Palmer’s work, should transcend, say, the mere biographism of Ken Russell, moving beyond illustrative versions of familiar life histories to present an “outer” critique of the familiar — in this case, Volkov’s “inner” text. But putting Palmer’s style aside—

MM: How can you put the style aside? The film is the style.

AG: Or all that remains is style, if one actively denies the content. Even so, putting the style “aside,” the film’s political commentary is clichéd, even if its presentation is remarkable, or at least remarkably fancy, if less fanciful than Russell.

MM: If Testimony‘s strongest stylistic affiliations are to Russell, its narrative lineage is less clear, albeit leaning toward Eisenstein. What you’re calling the clichéd politics is the film’s clear attempt at a moral stance. With this film, as with his epic miniseries Wagner (1983), Palmer wants to state a passionate position, but evade or surmount mere finger-wagging.

LT: Let it wag.

AG: I’m not really referring to the film’s political morality, which is an inevitability — we already know who are the heroes and villains, with or without finger-wagging. It seems the point of the film is not to teach us something new about Shostakovich, but to apotheosize our preexisting fantasies through an intense, and thus heartfelt, cinematic experience. But I can’t confuse intensity with enlightenment, or even originality, no matter how heartfelt it is.

MM: Yes, heat is not the same as light. But surely this film attempts something far more radical and important than bringing Solomon Volkov’s crabbed vision to the screen?

AG: It would have to — Palmer should have rejected the inheritance of Volkov’s title.

MM: The broader artistic aim is to erect a concordant structure of politics, visual imagery, and musical sound; here again, invoking Eisenstein is fair.

AG: If so, the film succeeds more in its details than its grandly Eisensteinian gestures. There’s a funny scene where Shostakovich must endure judging a piano competition filled with the gladiatorial schmaltz of Liszt and Balakirev.

MM: And allied to such attentive details are moments of great narrative concision and economy, such as the montage in which posters for Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto are cold-bloodedly replaced by those for Khrennikov’s Tone Poem of the Tractor Workers’ Cooperative.

LT: Don’t knock it ’til you’ve heard it.

AG: Perhaps the film’s most successful “detail” is its handling of the character of Prokofiev. At first I was dispirited that Prokofiev, like Khachaturian, is totally silent throughout the film, sans a single line of dialogue, such that, essentially, Prokofiev is reduced to an irritating detail easily silenced by Shostakovich’s suffocating subjectivity.

MM: Analogously, Kingsley’s Shostakovich speaks Stalin’s dialogue in superimposed voice-over — Stalin is both quieted and internalized. Such is the double nature of paranoia.

AG: But what Palmer does with the very brief scene with Prokofiev is a stroke of near-genius. In the much-awaited scene of the 1948 public condemnation by Zhdanov, we see Prokofiev silently looking over his shoulder and turning uncomfortably in his chair, as audience members desert both Prokofiev and Shostakovich when their names are publicly vilified. Seeing Prokofiev in this moment of uncomfortable silence — just for two or three seconds — speaks volumes.

MM: But which volumes are spoken — those of knowledge or of mystification?

AG: Admittedly, those of mystification, yet it’s still an unexpectedly humane moment in a film that’s otherwise gleefully unkind to Prokofiev.

MM: That is part of the victimhood rhetoric of Volkov’s Testimony — Prokofiev’s tragic end was insufficient, for his resistance to Stalin was less obvious than Shostakovich’s. Shostakovich’s music — even his bad music — continues to accrue aura from the resistance fetish, from a calculus of good intentions.

LT: One must continually resist, lest resistance become acquiescence and we passive collaborators in the hell that is other people.

AG: Shut up. Gimme another Rusty Nail.

MM: There were some who criticized Shostakovich before his political resistance became the subject of wish-fulfillment fetish. As early as 1945, Virgil Thomson lambasted what he saw as the bloated “masterpiece cult” of Shostakovich.

LT: (looking up at the television monitor) Here come more expected scenes . . . I’m starting to get a headache . . . right here (points to his forehead).

AG: Shostakovich is now lying in bed, hearing his neighbors dragged away in the dead of night, and whispering of Meyerhold’s wife, “They’re cutting out her eyes with knives.” Later he will nervously quip, “Is that you, Karl Marx?” But this joke is written too easily, and betrays a failure of the imagination.

MM: As does Palmer’s moving, arguably logical, but nevertheless trite decision to put Shostakovich at Stalin’s deathbed, as well as the whole montage sequence about the Seventh Symphony . . .

AG: The lynchpin of the masterpiece cult.

MM: . . . done in the style of a parodic 1940s newsreel — it’s too cute, nearly sophomoric. As with Eisenstein, the ultimate genre of the film is allegory, with its attendant limitations. Yet choosing the Mozart A Major Concerto to accompany Stalin’s death is a stroke of genius. After more than an hour of nothing but Shostakovich, suddenly turning to one of the 18th century’s most affecting laments is powerfully bracing. It’s possible that this music was played on the radio when “the cockroach with whiskers” shuffled off his mortal coil. Regardless, the effect here is to fuse the passion of Shostakovich’s inner life with the terrible struggle with Stalin. Offering up this sublime music for the dictator’s passing is ironic in a deep sense, and in context lends great pathos to Shostakovich rather than Stalin himself.

AG: I can’t disagree. Yet what sticks in my memory are the sophomoric moments and Palmer’s expressionistic failures, such as the brief scenes in the beginning where a young Shostakovich must bow to a predictably bellicose Glazunov sitting about Brobdignagian alphabet blocks, a clumsy satire of the “elementariness” of the Conservatoire classroom. Glazunov is a grumbling, bloated, bumbling caricature, even more grotesque than Ken Russell’s Semitic parody of Anton Rubinstein in The Music Lovers (1971).

MM: I’ll give you thirteen dollars of my money if you’ll stop talking about Ken Russell.

AG: I’ll do it for eleven. My point is that Glazunov is too easy a target for a film as sophisticated as this — has anyone ever said anything good about him? And this comes back to my main problem: the film is intractably caught between the received wisdoms of Volkov’s history — and our own received ideas about the contestability of those wisdoms — and Palmer’s flights of expressionism, which try to leave Volkov in the dust. At the risk of sounding reductively Kracauerian, this internal tension stems from Testimony‘s attempt to reconcile and synthesize what have usually been two disparate elements in Palmer’s work: on the one hand, the realist humanism represented by his biographical documentaries A Time There Was — A Profile of Benjamin Britten (1980), At the Haunted End of the Day, A Profile of Sir William Walton (1981), and the superb, sadly neglected Once, at a Border: Aspects of Stravinsky (1986); and, on the other hand, the abstract expressionism of his 200 Motels (1971), which he co-directed with a properly coked Frank Zappa. Testimony wants to tip stylistically in the direction of high expressionism — like Hans Jürgen Syberberg’s Parsifal (1982) — but its thematic content is constantly held in check by the moldy-bread clichés of Volkov’s history.

MM: Certainly, the decision to put Volkov at Palmer’s hand was dubious, and also accounts for the film’s numerous, gratuitous, and juvenile slams of Prokofiev, such as the early scene where Shostakovich remarks to Tukhachevsky: “Prokofiev orchestrates from a piano score — I write for the orchestra.” But in the film this comment is made at the premiere of Shostakovich’s own First Symphony, at which point he was only nineteen and would be unfamiliar with the working methods of Prokofiev, who was still in France and still most likely a stranger.

AG: I can forgive the composite anachronism, which may be for the sake of convenience; it’s the sense of cliché that disturbs me more, perpetuating the Shostakovich-versus-Prokofiev enmity myth. The film also preserves that bit of Shostakovichian dialogue — taken verbatim from Volkov’s text — about Prokofiev winding up “like a chicken in a pot” upon his allegedly clueless return to the motherland. In the film, Kingsley’s Shostakovich says this while wandering the sets of Alexander Nevsky, all the while bemoaning what Palmer presents as Prokofiev’s crypto-nationalism.

MM: There are quite a number of such little acts of stupid spite throughout. The gesture rings massively false for Shostakovich, but disturbingly true for Volkov, whatever might be the Gordian-knot half-truths of Testimony.

AG: When Palmer’s film was first released, the musicologist Richard Taruskin raised the same issues, lambasting the film not only for its unrepentant sanctimoniousness but for legitimizing Volkov’s “fraud.” But still, why bother at all with the conservatism of Volkov if Palmer really wanted to make a semi-avant-garde film about Shostakovich? How much more avant-garde would Testimony have been if its décor were not painted in predictably oppressive grays but in shockingly incongruous pastels, if Zhdanov were not the hectoring bully with whom we are already too familiar but a mousy maniac sporting a Rimsky-Korsakov T-shirt, and if the selections on the soundtrack featured odder works such as The Nose or the Songs from Japanese Poetry instead of the obligatory, “greatest hits” selections from the Seventh Symphony and the Second Piano Concerto? Palmer only uses the pieces he expects audiences will be familiar with, and we never get to see, for example, the spirited, pre-alcoholic, jesting Shostakovich of The Nose. I’d rather see that than this familiar sturm und drang, which is what we are given to “expect” in any film about Shostakovich.

MM: Well, these other works are addressed in the film, though, again, they are reduced — if that is the correct word — to details. There is the haunting scene, immediately after the double-death of Stalin and Prokofiev, where Shostakovich rifles though his secret drawer of buried works and sweatily flips through the manuscripts of the Fourth Symphony and Songs on Jewish Poetry. But I don’t see this issue in terms of originality versus expectations, or familiarity, but of an incompletely realized vision. Had Palmer been able to get to the heart of Shostakovich’s musical soul, I don’t think he would have chosen the pieces he did. The many successful moments here compete with less gracious choices.

Though I believe the film’s use of the Fourteenth Symphony was almost too astute — music saturated with the anticipation of death, close to the end of the story — I partly agree with your criticism. Palmer should have used the Fourth Symphony — whose final pages are still sufficiently shocking to make plain why Shostakovich might have lost his head — to climax the film. If Palmer is willing to presume our familiarities with Zhdanov and Kirov, he might as well go a slight step further and assume we can handle a passage from the Fourth, whose violences would be even more startling had they been contrasted elsewhere in the film with Quiet Flows the Don or the State pomposity of The Sun Shines Over the Motherland. But now I’m remaking his movie entirely.

AG: Well, you should remake it — criticism is, in a sense, an interpretive reconstruction, though hopefully one as objective as possible. Still, I don’t think the choice of music is perverse enough, or at least expressionistic enough to complement the expressionism of the visuals. On the other hand, the greatest perversity — or avant-gardism — would be to make a composer biography with no music soundtrack at all, or to fill the soundtrack with the works of another composer. Everything is about our expectations.

MM: Even when the choice of music is banal, this may not merely be the banality of compromised expectations but the banality of Shostakovich’s own thoughts melded to the banality of the politically hyperbolic reception of Shostakovich’s music in the West. I think the film may pull a punch here, conspicuously omitting music like Song of the Forests. Unlike Prokofiev, I think, Shostakovich did end up churning out a good deal of genuinely banal music under Stalin’s weight. Again following Volkov, most likely, Palmer’s most direct address to this problem is a long excerpt from the Fifth Symphony, a piece which, though overplayed, is hardly banal. And it has become “Exhibit A” for the case that all of Shostakovich’s music after the Lady Macbeth disaster was music of inner resistance. I can’t call the choice of the Fifth mistaken or outright dishonest, but I would say that it’s both a euphemism for and an obeisance to the world of political cliché that you rightly find so bothersome.

AG: Actually, I think the film addresses this problem more successfully dialogically rather than musically, probably thanks to Kingsley’s tightly focused vocal delivery. One of the film’s strongest scenes portrays Shostakovich’s trip to America, where he must explain away his coerced assents to Stalinism to bullying American journalists who chastise him for writing mediocre film scores. Yet again, no one else in this news-conference scene is allowed to speak, and Khachaturian must remain silent, emasculated, lurking in Shostakovich’s shadow.

MM: I suppose Palmer would justify this in terms of dramatic focus. The particular integration of sound and image he’s after tolerates only one inner life, and only one essential conflict.

AG: That’s exactly my problem — one essential conflict is not enough to fill such a vast political fresco as this, and Palmer’s chosen the one inner life whose clichés we’re already most familiar with. But who in the West knows anything about Khachaturian’s inner life, let alone Popov’s or Mosolov’s or all the rest?

MM: Well, to be sure, Palmer breaks his own rule by giving both Tukhachevsky and Stalin some meaty bits of text. Shostakovich’s fellow musicians, however, must remain supporting players, prop-like glimpses of the extent of the disaster. For how could Palmer bring Khachaturian or Prokofiev on stage, without invoking their music, too?

AG: Indeed, Shostakovich-Volkov-Palmer’s monolithic position must remain unchallenged, and thus all other musical voices are silenced. Ironically, it’s a very Stalinist tactic.

MM: But your exceptions to Palmer’s narrow choice of music might also be a dilemma distinct from audience expectation; if you embark on a narrative of Shostakovich’s inner life, as Palmer so bravely did here, and said inner life embraces sounds as wildly and richly varied as the Tahiti Trot, the Second Symphony, and the final quartets, how do you choose?

AG: Perhaps follow my suggestion, and shock the audience by using no music at all?

MM: No, that’s just perversity for its own sake.

AG: That’s the best kind of perversity. Besides, that’s exactly the kind of perversity Palmer employed seventeen years prior in 200 Motels — that we are now obligated to don our tragic masks as we morbidly turn to Testimony is a conventional move for a film artist who has shown a desire to be unconventional. A wild burlesque should be made from this material, like the devastating anti-Stalin satires the Czech filmmakers made in the 1960s. But instead what we have is a very dreary comic book whose attempts at humor are, I now think, too feeble — like that tame newsreel parody about the Seventh Symphony.

MM: Palmer seems well aware of the dilemma, and chooses the implosive solution, very much in keeping with Shostakovich’s agitated, uptight character. In the extraordinary scene of Shostakovich walking along with circus performers, two of them trading anti-Stalinist quips, the hero is shown as knowing but reticent. Very much like Prokofiev, Shostakovich as a public figure expressed himself through his music, and only through his music. To his credit, I think, Palmer deliberately eschews any visible grand gesture on the part of the main character, and honestly dares to let the music (choices) tell the real story of the hero’s conflicts.

That said, the choice of music is difficult enough that Palmer doesn’t get off scot-free: I suspect he chose to end the film with the Thirteenth Symphony because the symphony’s profound intentions are a close approximation of what we imagine Shostakovich’s inner life probably sounded like — but this assumption also, to use your phrase, betrays a lack of imagination. Palmer (or Palmer-Volkov) wants to resolve the grays in favor of morally unambiguous praise for the blameless, victimized Shostakovich. I think they sell themselves, their subject, and all of us too short. The grays of ambiguity are what make the movie great, not a plot discrepancy to tie up in a bow. The film’s triumph, starkly in spite of itself, is to show that the grays of ambiguity saturate our inner as well as our outer lives, and that a great beauty can thereto adhere.