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Saturday, 6 August 2011

Some Russian/Soviet cinematic favourites

Given that I've been rather a long time without having had the opportunity of watching Russian and Soviet films or even reading much on the subject I thought I'd write a slightly superficial blog. A kind of list of those films which have given me the most joy. I'm not sure if I can define joy- it is not entertainment, not (just) aesthetic pleasure but an almost erotic pleasure of stepping out of accepted boundaries. If for me the most joyful experiences of film is Jean Vigo's 'Atalante' then these are some Russian or Soviet moments of joy.

У самого синего моря (By the bluest of seas). A French critic is reported to have spoke of getting an erection watching the first ten minutes of the film (surely no British critic would be so directly and honestly personal in describing such a film!). For me the film represents one of those films which are closest in spirit to a Vigo spirit. Shipwrecked engineers who arrive at a fishing kolkhoz and do nothing but pine after the kolchoz chairwoman Mashenka. Their jealous rivalries and constant failures to seduce her (for she loves a third sailor present only in a photograph) take up all their productive energies. As this is 1936 in any other film these characters would be unmasked as saboteurs. Here they are free roaming troubadours- a miracle in the desert of the impoverished Stalinist imagination. Moreover, their official papers have been blanched and they come and go from the kolchoz as they please (suspicious characters indeed but not in this film). The scene of Masha's resurrection is as joyful and as moving as the moment where Atalante's sailor sees the image of his beloved under water.

Barnet, of course, was a tender and erotic filmmaker who freed himself from the imprisoning and lifeless ideology imposed at the time. If any of his films were to be ideological he made them so badly they would be useless (Ночь в сентябре 'A Night in September' springs to mind). Nonetheless there are many other joyous films, especially his Дом на Трубной (A House on Trubnaya Square) and Девушка с коробкой (A Girl with a hat-box) and his absolute masterpiece Окраина (The Outskirts).

Lutsik's Окраина is another of my great joys. About a quest for justice this post-soviet film drew all the best from the ideals of fighting for justice to make a film about a harsh revolt to reclaim land. Leaving out all the superfluous jargon and certainty of ultimate victory, Lutsik celebrates the momentary joy of an anarchic and hopeless revolt. An anti-capitalist film without the execrable thanatos-like grip of Soviet Marxist teleology, certainty and rhetoric.

Ioseliani's 'Listopad' (Falling Leaves) was one of those other films which utterly enchants. Just like Barnet's engineers Ioseliani's enologist behaves in a completely inconceivable way in his surroundings. If they ignore the order of the kolkhoz, Ioseliani's character subverts Soviet production by a revolt elevating the principle of true creativity. His revolt consists of pouring glue into a barrel of wine rather than letting it be bottled at the wrong time. His quasi insane sincerity when this is discovered makes him a joyous outsider. He also avoids the tricks that other men fall for escaping (unlike them) from the grips of a flirtatious woman winning, perhaps, her astonishment if not respect or love. A film showing the way to free oneself from the rhetoric and ways of the system, the tyranny of certain feminine whims or wiles and pointing towards an ideal of creation and autonomy. Ioseliani is a poet of joy and would have other films to add to this list. His most recent film Chantrapas returns to the Georgian language and the idea of autonomous creativity. In fact only a Chantrapas character would be able to create this joyful cinema (and Lutsik, Barnet and Ioseliani could all be defined as Chantrapas types).

Kanevsky's Замри, умри, воскресни! (Freeze, Die, Come to Life) would hardly be called by many a joyous film and yet it is an extraordinary tale of childhood love and friendship between the two characters Galia and Valerka (as much as anything else) in the harshest of environments. Their survival is miraculous in its way given the horrendous environment in which they find themselves but this was a strange joy to watch.

Other joyous jewels include Medvedkin's Счастье (Happiness), Kuleshov's Необычайные приключения мистера Веста в стране большевиков (The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr West in the land of the Bolsheviks)- the first film I saw at Moscow's legendary Musei Kino and which drew me to Soviet film. Elem Klimov's early comedies/ satires Добро пожаловать, или Посторонним вход воспрещен (Welcome, or no unauthorised entry)- almost a Soviet Zero de Conduite and his Похождения зубного врача (Adventures of a Dentist). Danelia's 'Mimino' (a Don Quijote based tale of a Georgian and an Armenian in Moscow) is incomparable as is his tale of a Soviet alcoholic plumber 'Afonija'. There is also joy in Папиросница от Моссельпрома (The Cigarette Girl from Mosselprom) and Komarov's excellent Поцелуй Мэри Пикфорд (The Kiss of Mary Pickford)- pure reflective joy looking at cinema making and cinema stardom.