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Sunday, 30 May 2010

Some Film Venues in Moscow

Coming back from my ten week stay in Russia I am beginning to reflect on the ways that the historical memory of Soviet film culture is being kept alive in some form or other. This is a painful subject in many ways. The gutless sale of the Cinema Museum by the Filmmakers Union a few years ago was the single biggest blow to any project of keeping alive the historical memory of Russian and Soviet film culture. I wrote about this place in a former post of mine: and won't repeat my words here. For those who may be interested in the occasional activities that it carries on at a variety of venues may go to their website : Most recently it has been showing an excellent retrospective of Czech films from various historical periods.

Much of the Cinema Museum's hundreds of thousands of exhibits have been stored at the Mosfilm Studios (pictured above). Their site in English is Twice a week it is possible to turn up for an excursion round their site, although few of the Cinema Museum's store of exhibits are available on public view. A tour is given in which many of the motor cars, the sets and the props, makeups and decorations as well as the Old Moscow set that was specifically built for a film by the present Mosfilm director, Karen Shakhnazarov are on view. The excursion, however, gives only a rather superficial look at the 'attractions' of the Studio and is not a serious exploration of the history of the Studios. It would be nice if the Mosfilm Studios would take a more active role in explaining its own fascinating history.

With the disappearance of the Cinema Museum, they are only one or two cinemas that will show old soviet films. Perhaps the most established one is the Iluzion cinema which, however, caters mainly to older and more populist tastes and rarely shows films that have true aesthetic brilliance. In the past two months there was only the odd film that really made a trip to this cinema worthwhile (a showing of Khutsiev's 'July Rain' was the only film standing out in recent showings) with the exception of its films dedicated to the Chekhov film adaptation season that it ran in honour of the recent 150 anniversary celebrations of this classic author. Nonetheless, there is sometimes a rare treat and it is after all the only cinema left of its kind. One other cinema in the centre of Moscow, the Khudozhestveni cinema near the Arbat, does have a weekly showing of old Soviet documentaries normally followed by an audience discussion with the presenter. Also in some of its smaller halls it does occasionally show some Russian and Soviet as well as foreign classics. In one day I managed to watch Bauer's 'Twilight of a Woman's Soul' and Murnau's 'Tabou', though both, alas, were DVD projections and not from 35mm copies.

A more recent venue has sprung in the guise of the Eisenstein Library in Karetny Riad. If one forgives the fact that it, too, shows its films from DVD projections it has some excellent retrospectives. I missed the earlier Chekhov film festival and also the more recent films dedicated to filmmakers born in the year 1945 from Abdrashitov to Fassbiner but saw many of the films of its excellent retrospective of films related to the three German generations which I commented on earlier The presence of actors such as Batalov and Filipenko, directors like the Germans, Abdrashitov and Bobrova as well as many cinema scholars introducing the films themselves make this an excellent venue for those who may want to learn more about Russian cinematic history. The site address is

Another place which has tried to keep alive the historical memory of Russian film is, interestingly, the Meyerhold Museum. An excellent series of lectures and film showings have tried to show the impact that the great theatre director, Vsevolod Meyerhold had on Soviet film. Many film actors begun their careers under Meyerhold and even many directors had very strong links to this cultural giant. The debt that Eisenstein had to him was always acknowledged and impossible to underestimate but the story of Meyerhold and cinema is one that would fill volumes. The site of the Museum in English is available here

One other venue of some interest for cultural lectures is the recently opened Garazh Centre of Contemporary Culture. Lectures there are very regular and on many different subjects relating in some way to culture. Talks on architecture, Soviet fashion and the flappers of the 1920s as well as an excellent talk on the crisis by one of Russia's foremost independent Marxist thinker, Boris Kagarlitsky, were the three events that I managed to attend after having only belatedly found out about the lecture series in this new museum space.

These are a few of the venues which attempt to keep the flame of cultural historical memory alive in Moscow. Not enough given the huge hole that the loss of the Cinema Museum's Krasnopresnenskaya venue has caused. Yet along with the presence of Russia's television Kultura channel these are some of the few places where the looming twin shadows of commercialised pap and Mikhalkovian kitsch don't loom too large and where something, however minor, seems to be pulled from the wreckage that commercialisation and 'patriotisation' is causing.

As far as St Petersburg is concerned I have little knowledge. However, the recent attempt to set up a new festival under the guidance of Alexei German Senior seems to bode well.

Monday, 17 May 2010

Abram Room - A Strict Young Man (Strogy Yunosha)

Among the many films that merit rescuing from near oblivion, Abram Room's 'Strogy Yunosha' (A Strict Young Man) is surely one of the most fascinating examples of what was still being made (if not shown) in the 1930s. This is a film that was not shown publicly until the seventies at a cinema dedicated to the reshowing of earlier films (Kino povtornogo filma) in Moscow but was to astound the likes of Alain Resnais and Michelangelo Antonioni who were to discover in Room's film of 1935 something that they were trying to acheive more than three decades later.

This is a fantastic example of Soviet Neo-Classicism the like of which was not seen again. The aesthetic might lead one to make references to Leni Riefenstahl, yet this is only true to some extent. This film is not just one of Room's best (argaubly as interesting in its own way as his earlier 'Tretia Meshchanskaya' or 'Bed and Sofa' which has been justifiably championed in an excellent book by Julian Graffy) but it also shows an attempt to put into film the themes of Yuri Olesha's novel 'Zavist' (Envy) who was the scriptwriter. The music for the film is composed by Gavril Popov whose talent some have compared to that of Shostakovich and there are fantastic performances by Yuri Yuriev,Maxim Straukh, Room's wife Olga Zizhneva and a young and brunette Valentina Serova. There is a unique atmosphere in the film in which the wife of an older and successful doctor is sought after by a young and poor Komsomolets. The 'liubov v troem' theme is played out once again but in this case there is a barrier and the idea of envy and unequalness is explored. This film in which Room arguably explored real philosphical issues surrounding equality in the new Soviet system is a film set. nonetheless, in a strange dream-like reality with a hint of the fantastic. Equally present in the film are Olympian ideals and ancient Greek myths. The notion lurking is that the present had somehow brought to life this ideal. Perhaps, the most surprising shot in the film is the first one in which the naked heroine comes out of the water (this is, probably, the only erotically shot nude - although no close up and from the back - in Stalinist cinema).

The Olympian ideal, the philosophical text, the dream-like and out of time atmosphere, the Neo-Classical architecture and style of the film makes it something unique in Soviet cinema. Having the aspect of a dream within a dream, it has hints of an early 'Last Year in Marienbad'. Its disco-throwing scene of custard pies is one of two or three moments in which it has a definitely Bunuelesque feel. Yet, just as Olesha's 'Envy' was a book which had no follow-up in Soviet literature, so Room's film is a unique moment in Soviet film history. A path that was not taken but an extraordinary example of a unique masterpiece that would only decades later be fully appreciated by some of the world's most masterful film directors.

Monday, 10 May 2010

Great Films about a Great War

Given the slogan that Mikhalkov wanted to 'sell' his sequel to 'Burnt by the Sun' "a great film about a great war", I have been thinking about the really great films that have been made in Russia and the former Soviet Union. Soviet film really is full of such films and I think it would not be an exaggeration to say that a number of them would be included in the list of the greatest war films of all time. Klimov's 'Come and See' is, without doubt, one of the most powerful and haunting war films made in the history of cinema. It marked Klimov's final transition from satirist (in his early films) to a filmmaker who would describe the absolute horror of war. It was, alas, Klimov's last film to be made - the late Klimov was never to make his long planned 'Master and Margherita' which may have shown us an absolutely new Klimov. Klimov's wife, Larisa Shepitko, was also to mae great films about the war.Her 'Ascension' was, in part, a polemical response to Alexei German's 'Proverka na dorogakh' (A Check-up on the road'). The point of contention between the two great filmmakers was the question of choice, betrayal and atonement. For Shepitko betrayal was a final betrayal and she couldn't bring herself to accept a character like Lazarev who had betrayed and then atoned for his betrayal. Shepitko's portrayal of the female air pilot in 'Krylia' (Wings) is a memorable portrayal of the generation gap between those who fought in the Second World War and those who grew up in the Thaw period. A film of lesser artistic quality but with a scene that never fails to bring one to tears- Belorussky Vokzal (Belorussia Station)- by Andrei Smirnov also attempts to talk about the fading reality of the war and the problems of the war generation in the early stagnation period. Both Smirnov and Shepitko were to contribute short films to the trilogy of 'Nachalo Nevedemogo Veka' (the beginnings of an Unknown Era) in 1967 with short films based on the Civil War period.

The early Thaw period also can be said to be full of masterpieces exploring the Great Patriotic War. Tarkovsky's 'Ivan's Childhood' was, perhaps, one of the first films to fully explore the experience of a child in wartime and clearly it has themes that would be reworked by Klimov a quarter of a century later. Some still continue to believe Kalatozov's and Urusevsky's 'Letiat Zhuravli' ('The Cranes are Flying') as the best war film. It is as much Urusevsky's camerawork that works on us as the dramaturgy and the new attitude to betrayal which german would rework in his 'Proverka...'. The humanist theme is continued by Chukhrai's 'Ballad of a Soldier' which also gained a very positive reception when it was made. Another director whose work explores war - sometimes directly, sometimes obliquely -is Marlen Khutsiev. It was the scene of the visit of the ghost of a dead soldier to the main character (his father) in 'I am Twenty' that was to draw Khruschev's ire (for the young soldier replies to his son that he can not tell him how to live and Khruschev found this an outrageous supposition) but also the scene at the party (and the toast to potatoes that Sergei proposes and the discovery by his mother of lost ration vouchers) is significant in exploring the shadow that war still throws upon the Thaw generation. Khutsiev was to more directly explore the Great Patriotic War in his films 'The Two Fyodors' and in his much underrated 'In the Month of May' (this was a film made for television but it touched on questions that had been rarely touched upon in Soviet films about the war, including the discovery of the concentration camps).

Recently I have managed to rewatch Alov and Naumov's 'Peace to him who enters' (Mir Vkhodyashchemu) - a superb humanistic portrayal of a trip by Soviet soldiers with a pregnant German woman to a hospital at the end of the war. The theme of muteness (a thread in sixties Soviet cinema) is encapsulated by the dumb soldier who has been shell-shocked by the horrors of the war but who provides the moral leadership of the group. Other powerful explorations of the Soviet experience of war is the Gerogian director Rezo Chkheizde's 'Father of a Soldier'- a film about a father searching for his son during the war.

Films made during the war itself are many and although there were many technical deficiencies, this period was marked by a relaxation of tight censorship. Films like 'Nashestvie' (Invasion) by Abram Room were even to give an ex-prisoner (quite clearly a political prisoner) the status of a hero. Another significant film is Barnet's 'Odnazhdi Nochiu' (Once at Night) which depicts the films heroine in a unique way reminiscent of the Lilian Gish heroines in D.W. Griffiths films and quite unlike the Donskoy heroine of 'Rainbow'. One may see in Barnet's film a precursor of the Samoilova character in 'Letiat Zhuiravli'.

The late Stalinist period rewriting of the war with Stalin as a demi-god like figure directing all operations from his office in films by Savchenko and Ermler and almost religious-like saviour descending from the skies in Chiaureli's 'The Fall of Berlin' was, arguably, only saved by Barnet's excellent Hitchcockian spy-thriller 'Podvig Radvedchika' (Exploits of a Scout)- a genre that would then become immortalised in the Stagnation period in the television series 'Semnadtsat Mgnovenie Vesni' (Seventeen Moments of Spring) and the less well-known but excellent 'Myortvy Sezon' by Savva Kulish and starring Donatis Bannionis (of Solaris fame) and Rolan Bykov.

These are only a few of the masterpieces on World War Two. The list would go on for a very long time.

Khrzhanovsky's 'A Room and a Half' in the UK

There have been two short reviews in the Guardian by Peter Bradshaw and in the Observer by Philip French of 'A room and a half' in connection with the excellent news that the film is coming to UK screens. The Philip French review can be quoted in full (as it is a very small review):

This touching and amusing movie is a biography, both imaginative and imaginary, of Joseph Brodsky (1940-1996), the self-taught poet, critic and translator, raised in Leningrad, the son of a Soviet naval photographer, and persecuted by the state for his independence of mind. In 1972 he was driven into American exile where he achieved intellectual eminence, and he received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1987. Brodsky never returned to Russia and apparently once said that "such a journey could only take place anonymously". Khrzhanovsky takes Brodsky on a journey back to Leningrad, dreaming about his youth, upbringing and early life as he takes the ferry from Helsinki to Leningrad before being reunited with his elderly parents. The director uses animated sequences to elegant effect, and his affectionate, nostalgic movie brings to mind the autobiographical works of those other exiles, Vladimir Nabokov and Andrei Tarkovsky.

This hardly gives a full picture of the brilliance of this film. I added my commentary to the review which I reproduce here:

This is a truly wonderful film and it really deserves immense praise. The way that Andrey Khrzhanovsky handles the mixture of animated, narrative, quasi-documentary footage is superb. I watched the film over a year ago in Moscow and was immediatley captivated by it and have since watched it on DVD- it is the kind of film that can only improve after each viewing because there is so much in the film.
Yursky and Friendlikh (Brodsky's parents in the film) are two of Russia's most superb actors. Khrzhanovsky is undoubtedly one of the most splendid animated film directors not just in Russia but in world cinema and the animated sequences are absolutely splendid.

This is a portrait of Brodsky which doesn't set him up on a pedestal as some sort of martyred genius. Moreover there are no idle speculations on the Jewish theme. No, instead this is one of the best films about the sense of time and exile available. Khrzhanovsky uses an assortment of filmic devices but in such a way that one feels that nothing is forced.

This is one of the films that I wished that people would judge Russian cinema by because it puts on show exactly what Russian cinema is capable of (Khrzhanovsky shows that Russian cinema is truly capable of miracles even nowadays).

Alas, when I saw the film it was being put on at only one cinema in central Moscow and even after being awarded three Nikas (the major Russian film awards) this spring, it still is only being repeated in one cinema (the same one that showed the film last year). A real shame- Russia showers the mediocre likes of Mikhalkov, Khotinenko and Fedor Bondarchuk with millions to film trash and ignores the fact that real contemporary geniuses live in its midst.

A few points about the short reviews by Philip French and Peter Bradshaw: saying that Yursky has the look of a Pasternak is a rather comical overexaggeration - I read this to a Russian and they burst out laughing (Pasternak had such a striking and unique appearance that it is an exaggeration to compare just about anyone to him) and while, in this respect, the Tarkovsky and Nabokov comaprisons by French may not be quite so far out, I still don't think they are not necessarily the best references to make for this film. This film reflects a polystylism that is, arguably, closer in some ways to Paradjanov than to Tarkovsky (although again Paradjanov wouldn't be the major reference to make)- I think, if one were to search influences on the style of Khrzhanovsky the barely known film Cain XVIII may be said to have a large but indirect influence on Khrzhanovsky. It would be wonderful if the BFI could put on a retrospective of Khrzhanovsky's animated films- then we would know that Khrzhanovsky is not someone who can be compared to others but that he is a truly great master - maybe one day we'll be talking about him in the same breath as we talk about Fellini (by the way his animated film 'Long Voyage' based on Fellini's is superb).

Alas, newspaper reviewers are very rarely great conoisseurs of Russian film and the attempt to compare new Russian films constantly with Tarkovsky is something that gets carried to the point of absurdity. Nonetheless, thanks for small mercies (I suppose) that the film was actually reviewed at all.

Monday, 3 May 2010

A Look at Contemporary Russian Theatre by Anna Vislova

The fact that little of that much interest seems to be showing at the cinemas in the past week and not having any real desire to watch Mikhalkov's film a second time, I've been reading a little. One of the books that caught my eye was the book by theatre critic Anna Vislova on contemporary Russian theatre since the fall of the Soviet Union. An author of books on the legendary Soviet actor Andrey Mironov and on the Silver Age, she has recently published her take on more contemporary drama.

The position that she takes is that theatre in contemporary Russia has taken a wrong turning and instead of returning to a modernist path in which theatre could be a force looking at contemporary society, it has become trapped in a neoliberal worldview and has simply allowed itself to be trapped in a vicious circle of post-modernist irony and black humour. Her relationship to Soviet theatre is not uncritical and her book is not a nostalgic look at what was but a hard look at the wasted opportunities of the possibilities that theatre could have been used for in a free and more democratic space. Vislova notes some of the aspects of how theatre has failed its role in contemporary Russia by being the cynical voice of the moneyed elite. Her complaints include those of it relying too much on 'styob' and completely losing any tragic voice (relying instead on a cynical black comedy), of simply echoing western trends and not forging theatre from its own strong traditions of Stanislavsky and Meyerhold. Meyerhold for her has been misunderstood by those trying to mimic his original view of the theatre.

Vislova's book is a powerfully argued and detailed exposition of trends in contemporary theatre and although it is polemical it gives a good account of many theatrical productions explaining why they fail in being a significant voice in intellectual life and playing a critical role in contemporary Russian society. The strong points of her book includes her description of the social context of theatre and although her positions emphasise the negative aspect of contemporary theatre her viewpoint never lapses either into rose-tinted nostalgia for the past or into facile criticism of contemporary trends.

Her account is one of the few which take a broad look at trends in contemporary Russian theatre and one can only hope for a similar book to be written on contemporary Russian cinema from a Russian viewpoint. One may argue that the situation in Russian cinema is not as black as Vislova suggests with regard to theatre but her overview of the recent two decades of cultural life has much to recommend it.