“American Mirror: Intimations of Immortality”


By Christos Solomos

25 August, 2019, Published in the Journals of the Ierapetra Film Festival of Crete, Greece

An attractive hyperrealist painter of female beauty, who immigrated to America from Armenia, Tigran Tsitoghdzyan. The Hollywood superstar Susan Sarandon, more human and beautiful than ever. Their meeting at his home-atelier and their subsequent digressions during a sitting session of the painting of her portrait, which seems like a descent to the subconscious. Around them, in absolute orchestration, mysterious sensual women like scattered shadows appear and then vanish inside other paintings and into uncharted courses; a mysterious phone that insists to ring; glances over glances; words like meteors; uncompleted thoughts; fragments of memories; semitones of emotions; the creativity, the beauty, the time, the desire, the senses. All surrounded by a brooding and threatening New York that traps the heroes exactly like the Cave of Plato — only here no one will ever manage to escape into reality but only into the dream. Forget the intentionally anarchic world of David Lynch and welcome to the “natural disorder” of the highly designed universe of Arthur Balder, the creator of the film that challenges this year’s major international film festivals, sweeping awards around the planet and at the same time puzzling juries and film critics about its genre classification.

My first reaction when, as member of the Preliminary Jury of the 6th International Documentary Festival of Ierapetra of Crete, Greece, I started to watch the first minutes of the film American Mirror: Intimations of Immortality, was to doubt directly some of the reviews and critics that I had read from the already successful career of the film in precedent international film festivals and which characterised it as a wonderful cinematic “experiment”. But this film does not constitutes at all any experiment. From the introductory scene, the director disclosures his clear and perfectly shaped intention to take us inside the psyche of the protagonist. “What’s missing?”, Susan Sarandon asks the painter as soon as she enters his atelier, looking at her uncompleted portrait. “Everything”, Tigran answers, and under an evocative and highly emotional music score by Mark Petrie that slowly absorbs their words like a vortex, Arthur Balder takes the audience into a journey of human time-space. In a wintry, snow-covered black & white Manhattan, the painter wakes up tired and melancholic inside his also almost black & white stylish apartment, while the camera follows him slowly from his bed through the kitchen and then into the atelier until he turns on a spotlight in front of an empty canvas. Instantly, a chromatic composition of dreamy juxtapositions unfolds, the claustrophobic New York and its people like one living organism. Tigran, lost in his thoughts, starts to paint an eye. Beautiful, evanescent women appear in his mind like waves of memories while he himself looks trapped between the conscious and the subconscious – which both tend to become unseparated through a slowed edited sequence of high precision and aesthetics that gives the audience the impression of an illusion. 

This is exactly the perfectly geometrized leitmotif of Arthur Balder’s film, a leitmotif that will be repeated perpetually during the whole film, haunting the viewers and advancing the script towards an enigmatic dimension between the seeming and the being. And the more this “philosophical symposium” between the actress and the painter progresses (as the painter shoots Balder’s carefully scripted questions to the actress she search for meanings and definitions like beauty, self-image, creativity, art, human contact, compassion, aging, death, time, love, et al.), the more this apparently abstract narrative gets a clear and concrete form. A phone that keeps on ringing at times haunts Tigran painfully (we don’t know if it’s real or just a memory, an unsolved question, a wound that never fades), poses to photographers and signs autographs during the opening of his exhibition, wanders around the crowded night of Manhattan, plays ping pong, meets the sexiest Florence at some nightclub in the Meatpacking District; but once home he is as alone as always, the past resurfaces, the haunting phone call rings again, and he recalls his traumatic early years in Soviet Armenia and the devastating earthquake of 1988, and dreams of attempting again his childhood’s ascent to a ruined Eastern Orthodox monastery of his homeland — in an artfully sequence mixed with powerful historical archives that climaxes on to a sarcastic comment of the director on social media. At the end, the ringing phone call at last ends into a heart-broken sound message from a mysterious woman, and Tigran, traversing an explosive and masterly composition of complexed evanescent visual layers that takes the art of editing onto the highest levels we’ve ever seen, drives his fancy cabriolet beyond an hypnotized by mobile-technology crowd, in an agonized quest for his desires – with a look in his eyes that brings to mind the terrified look in Bill’s eyes while he is driving during the emblematic scene of Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. Like Bill, Tigran will never manage to arrive anywhere – if any real destination ever existed, and will get lost in the harrowing sound of the phone ringing in his mind and into the darkness of the avenues of the nightmarish metropolis, into the “cave” he himself has chosen to live in.  And then, he will wake up again, tired and melancholic again, inside his almost black & white stylish apartment, and again he will turn on the spotlight in front of his still empty canvas. For one more time.  All has been dream, the entire film was just a passing thought, an intimation of immortality.

The technically impressive, artistically monolithic American Mirror: Intimations of Immortality is the epitome of contemporary filmic challenges. Like Sergey Parajanov, Arthur Balder creates his own rules and plays by them. The participants, as much as they are powerful entities (Sarandon’s looks intelligent, hauntingly provocative, defies age and stereotypes, triumphs at that; Tigran is a master of his hands, he knows his craft, he is an attractive young man), are dissolved in the flow of the creator and become part of it, but none rises over the film as a whole, on the contrary, the film contradicts them, comments on them, towers around and over them, finally absorbs them; Arthur Balder is the real Minotaur at the depths of his visual-conceptual labyrinth. The film moves on a yet undefined genre simply because Balder has not created more films, because he has the power to be the owner of a genre, his very own, and that’s why often film theorists fall into the easy trap of calling experimental cinema what clearly is simply genius. It is a documentary film, however, because it portrays real characters. But it is also a fiction film since it develops a fiction script and narrative around them. Hovering on the borders of fiction and reality, it blends masterfully the possible and the impossible, the two main cinematic genres, and at the same time distilles its unique own elements from both – refusing to attach any mainstream label to the final spirit. The very last dialogue of the actress and the painter holds the key to fully comprehend the mind of Arthur Balder, who signs the script, the direction, the cinematography, the editing and the production of this bizarre for some but incredibly charming for everybody film, supported by the overwhelming, eery, almost cosmic music by Mark Petri — the director’s true right hand is neither Sarandon nor Tigran, both solipsistically distant, together yet very far apart, isolated silhouettes of the Metropolis that seem to have met in same time and place by some impossible, casual interconnection in the city’s labyrinth; no: Balder’s real artistic collaborator is the music and its maker, the composer. “Well, you should have another one when you turn the page and see her eyes”, remarks Susan as Tigran is showing to her one of his artworks on a catalog — a completely wrinkled Armenian old lady, survivor from the Armenian Genocide, hiding her eyes and face behind her hands in the painter’s hyperrealistic style. This is exactly what Arthur Balder wants to say. It is all about how we look at ourselves, how they look at us, and how we look at them. It is a matter of perception, in an era over-dominated by visual technology that does not leave too much space for human contact anymore inside the maze of our contemporary metropolises’ environment. And all we have left in order to feel is our memory mechanism, and specifically a memory that could never be recorded by any camera: the sense memory, a concept that acts as the bedrock of Arthur Balder’s personal, elaborated film theory. We recall our senses and feelings and desires all the time, trying to catch them and experience them again, trapped in an endless, futile loop that pursues immortality, when only its fugacious intimation, thanks to sense memories, is possible. Beauty is ephemeral and can be preserved only by love, but our sense memory is the closest we’ll ever be to immortality, immortal and always inside us; at times it only needs a mirror to perceive it. 

American Mirror: Intimations of Immortality invites us to re-discover our lost senses and intends to provoke our sleeping emotions. A brilliant casting, as Susan Sarandon, the most humanized character of the film, functions perfectly as the mirror-reflection of the talented painter Tigran Tsitoghdzyan, who plays himself during the whole film in a state between a pleasant insecurity and an innate narcissism, while actress Florence Faivre, Dionysian and elusive, and top-model Hillary Rhoda, Apollonian and un-attainable, mark two alluring performances as symbols of polarizing eternal desire and beauty. Intelligibly directed and dynamically, masterly edited, the film follows an observational documentary style during the protagonists’ discussion scenes and explodes in a hyperrealistic-surrealistic crescendo of multiple superimpositions during the dreamy scenes of the painter – giving the impression of Carl Jung’s kaleidoscopic visual patterns. Image after image means layer after layer, it means memory after memory, Arthur Balder turns his back to reality and composes a filmic symphony using as materials the universal hidden sentiments of the audience, and the elusive memories and desires we all carry inside us, and in parallel rejects the mainstream cinematic rules of modern documentary, introducing to us a new genre under a new form. A one of a kind visual innovation that unleashes a new master of cinema, which worthily makes him the front runner of the upcoming international film festivals and one of the most promising contemporary American filmmakers.

Christos Solomos is an actor, writer, director, producer, film historical researcher, and translator. He studied theater at Karolos Koun Theatre of Arts Drama School in Athens, at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London (RADA) and was trained in Butoh Theater and Stage Movement by Kazuo Ohno Sensei in Tokyo.

As an actor, he worked for many years in theater (“Yerma” by Federico Garcia Lorca  – directed by Stavros Tsakiris, “The Opera of Shadows” by Nikos Mamagakis – directed by Yiannis Smaragdis, “The Misanthrope” by Moliere – directed by Angela Brouskou, “The Fastest Clock In The Universe” by Philip Ridley   –  directed by Michalis Ginos, “Tuko!Tuko! The Princess of The Lizard Moon” – written and directed by Anton Juan, “A Respectable Wedding” by Bertolt Brecht  – directed by Takis Tzamargias, “The Golden Boy” by Clifford Odets – directed by Vernon Hinkle, et al.), in Television (“Vice Squad” directed by Manousos Manousakis, “Anatomy of a Crime” directed by Panos Kokkinopoulos, et al.) and in Cinema (“Charioteer” directed by Alexis Damianos, “Monaxia Μou Οla” directed by Dimitris Panayiotatos, “Midsummer’s Night Dream” directed by Dimitris Athanitis, et al.).

By 1995 he turned his attention to filmmaking and founded Petra Film, an independent production company focusing on the genre of creative documentary. His first production, the feature-length cinematic documentary Meri Amen: A Quest for the Lost Tomb of Alexander (directed by Thomas Moschopoulos), a poetic and mythical quest for the remaining traces of Hellenism in the Orient, was based on his extensive historical research in Egypt and was honoured with the Hellenic National Award Best Documentary, was screened in many International Film Festivals and on TV channels both in Greece and abroad and won numerous international awards and distinctions. Since then, he has contributed as researcher, script writer, director or co-producer in Greek and European documentary productions or co-productions.

In 2000 he co-produced the feature-length fiction film Black Out (directed by Menelaos Karamangiolis) which received 5 Hellenic National Awards of Quality, 7 awards in international film festivals and was screened in numerous countries around the globe.

In 2003 he contributed as Researcher and Production Organizer in the BBC documentary series Talk Greek, on the Greek civilization and language and which was filmed all over Greece.

In 2006 he directed the video-art Sumo Kiss, for the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum, a look into westernized Japan through the ancient sport of Sumo.

In 2005 he directed for Syn Productions the documentary film Keratsini, on the historical and cultural identity of the area of Keratsini, Attica.

From 2007 to 2009, he travelled to 7 megacities (Sao Paolo, Moscow, New York, Tokyo, Mumbai, Mexico City, Cairo) filming and collecting archive material for his ongoing research The Days, on the human nature in the most-populated metropolitan centers of the planet.

In 2010 he travelled to the North African countries, recording for Unesco the customs and rituals of the nomadic tribes of the Sahara Desert.

In 2012 he directed the documentary Island of Saints for the series “Pilgrimages” of Greek National Television 3, focused on the Early-Christian culture in the Mediterranean area.

In 2013, in collaboration with the Cypriot archaeologist Stelios Perdikis, he recorded and documented the lootings and vandalisms made by the Turkish soldiers and archaeologists on the Ancient Greek and Byzantine monuments of occupied Cyprus during the Operation Attila in 1974, a recording which contributed to the international exposure and legal documentation at the United Nations of the organized antiquity-smuggling plan of the pseudostate. 

In 2015 he worked as Researcher and Production Organizer for Google SMB Films and for the British production companies BrightsideTV and Across the Pond.

From 2016 to 2018, together with a daring team of Greek and German historians, he recorded in interviews the oral history of the last remaining in-life Greek martyrs of Nazi’s war crimes during the Occupation Period, for the digital library program of the Free University Berlin Memories of Occupation in Greece. The program was materialized in cooperation with the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens and was funded by the Foreign Office of the Federal Republic of Germany, the Memory Responsibility and Future Foundation and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation.

In 2018 he adapted into fiction screenplay the novel of the Israeli writer Shulamit Shapir Nevo Under the Stars of Andromeda, which is planned to be made a movie by 2023.

In 2019 he completed the writing of his theater play Operation Kalavryta 1943, a theatrical dramatization of the infamous Wehrmacht’s operation which led to the holocaust of Kalavryta city during the December of 1943.  

In the winter of 2019, the documentary-theater play Martyrs of Athens opened in Athens in Theater Stathmos (directed by Manos Karatzogiannis), based on his research on the emotive history of Athens of the Occupation Period, as he has recorded it in his personal archive through numerous interviews and testimonies of Greek and German army members, survivors, victims’ relatives, witnesses, partisans.

At the same time, he started the filming of his new documentary Shalom Bouzouki, a Greek-Israeli production on the phenomenon of the Greek music in Israel, based on the research of the distinguished anthropologists Vassiliki Yiakoumaki and Sissie Theodosiou and supported by Greek Film Center.

Since 2014 to date, he has been Member of the Preliminary Jury, Public Relations Manager and Presenter of the International Documentary Festival of Ierapetra, the international film festival which is held annually at Crete under the Artistic Direction of Eleni Vlassi. 

As a narrator, he has worked in many Greek and foreign documentary productions and as a translator he has translated numerous theatrical plays from English into Greek.