Julia Loktev, whose The Loneliest Planet just had its New York Film Festival screenings, will be at UnionDocs tomorrow night, where she’ll talk with the L’s senior film critic Nicolas Rapold following a screening of her debut film, the 1998 documentary Moment of Impact.
A retrospective screening followed by a Q&A is probably the ideal way to watch Julia Loktev’s Moment of Impact, a film which raises one question above all others: How does Loktev feel about it now?
The film, Loktev’s first and a Sundance prize-winner in 1998, is a portrait of Loktev’s parents: in 1989, father Leonid was struck by a car crossing the street (from one garage sale to another) near his Colorado home, and rendered incapacitated. Her mother, Larisa, left her job at Hewlett Packard to care for him full-time—they were both in their early 50s and the time of the accident—and much of the film, shot in coolly handsome black and white by Loktev on trips home from New York City, is based on routine: the epic day-to-day grind of her mother’s life, a series of laborious, intimate tasks and stolen moments of reverie.
Lenny’s muscles are mostly locked, and his eyes are imploringly open like a corpse, but he occasionally seems responsive, and forces out enough whispered words through clamped, drool-spilling lips that it’s an open question, to his wife and daughter, just how much of the man they both loved is still there.
This, and other things, discussed by Loktev and mother in pillow-talk interludes—they’re side-by-side in bed, like Julia’s had a bad dream, with the camera overhead, and the filmmaker does something everyone should but few actually do, namely, asking a parent everything she can think of while she’s still there to answer. Larisa is staggeringly frank—almost oracular in the way of the experienced, disappointed, and frank—about sex, obligation and memory; Loktev mostly listens, occasionally giggles along with her mother and occasionally furrows her brow in concern. Built into the film is an understanding that she’ll understand it better, by and by; she’s also frank about the ways in which her own sometimes frustratingly limited perspective weighs on her parents: if the film can be said to climax, it does so as her mother berates her for mediating their time together with a camera, and when her father effortfully forces out an answer to her repeated question: “What do you want in life?” “For you to go away.”
So Moment of Impact is, in a very real way, a film for the future—but it’s also profoundly grounded in the present. Structurally, it’s distinctive, keeping time with recurrent scenes of Larisa’s morning routine: she gets up early, does some aerobics, and then wakes up Lenny: “Good morning. Good…” and then waits for him to wheeze, in Russian (the film is mostly subtitled), “morning.” She changes his socks, puts on his white sneakers, and, once he’s in his wheelchair, maneuvers him out of yesterday’s shirt and gets his arms through today’s.
In a 1998 indiewire interview, Loktev cited Jeanne Dielman as an inspiration for the way she gets into the mundane, tactile routine of caretaking. Her second film, Day Night Day Night, which observes the preparations of a suicide bomber with intense neutrality, also owes something to Jeanne Dielman; meanwhile, her most recent feature, The Loneliest Planet, which just played NYFF, could itself perhaps be titled Moment of Impact (as, come to think of it, Day Night Day Night almost could be as well, but for one key difference). In her first film, Loktev explores the titular event through X-rays and toy reenactments, while also living wide-eyed and self-effacingly in its wake: she may well be our greatest cinematic Newtonian—third law—with a rare sense of proportion to her examinations of single actions, and the lives surrounding it.