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Sunday, 16 October 2011

Alexandre Alexeieff - one of the great masters of world animation.

Moscow's Literature Museum have offered Moscovites a real treat with its exhibition presenting the art and animated films of Alexandre Alexeieff- a Russian artist who in spite of spending spent all of his creative life outside Russia can not really be seen as anything other than an artist deeply wedded to a Russian mentality and Russian themes. His illustrated art was concentrated on Russian literature and his animated art was equally Russian-centric - Mussorgsky and Gogol. Alexeieff's invention of a pin screen technique can be seen as a precursor of many contemporary animation techniques using computer software and yet it was Alexeieff's desire to animate his book engraving maintaining its texture and chiaroscuro effects that led him to animation. Moreover, he rejected any commercial techniques that were then in vogue. In fact, his  invention -the pin screen-  certainly brought no commercial benefits. The work on an animated film with this technique was laborious and the first film made by Alexeiff and Clair Parker - A Night on Bare Mountain - would take over a year and a half to make. Alexeieff managed to keep his art pure from commercial constraints by earning his living through advertising work where he would use more conventional animated technqiues. His pin screen films would make nothing (he refused to use them for commercial use) but they would leave an artistic legacy of enormous potential. 

Nikolai Izvolov, in a fascinating essay printed in the catalogue to the exhibition, links Alexeiff's artistic research to a search for the fourth dimension linking his attempts to those of Kibalchich and Tsiolkovsky in their meditation on rocket and space science while imprisoned (Kibalchich) or working as a provincial mathematics teacher (Tsiolkovsky), or to the revolutionary Morozov whose reflections on the fourth dimension were made in a dark cell in Scliesselburg and finally to Eisenstein's notion of harmonic montage as being the fourth dimension of film. Izvolov concludes his essay by stating that Alexeieff strove all his life to stray in a space where consciousness and unconsciousness are on an equal footing. One of the few artists who seems to have travelled on a journey akin to that of Alexeiff is Yuri Norstein, the author of another article in the catalogue. Norstein calls Alexeiff one the great makers of animated film, far superior to that of producers such as Disney and he goes on to state that "Alexeiff was the first animator to place animated film in the context of world culture, to have grapsed the musical essence of the art of animation." The works that he created "are neither caricatures nor cartoons, but works whose dramatic action constitute the very essence of figurative art".

The exhibition in Moscow promotes the work of an artist whose real contribution to animated film has yet to be fully understood. A truly original master.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Recent titles in Russian on Russian and Soviet Film

Returning to Russia may have meant little opportunity to watch any great films here with the closure of the Eisenstein library, the discontinuation of the Meyerhold and cinema lectures and the relative dearth of any supremely interesting modern films (with the partial exception of Zviagintsev's 'Elena' and the expectation of being able to watch Sokurov's hopefully in the near future). However, a visit to Moscow's best bookshop 'Falanster' has made me aware that a lot of significant new writing has been published on Russian film and that this, at least, is a cause for some joy. Hopefully, I'll review some of these books in more depth in following months but here, for the time being, is an indication of the titles and the subjects of these books. One of the first joys was to find a biography of Paradjanov being printed in Molodaya Guardia's series 'The Life of Remarkable People'. I am half way through this title and although at times I would have liked the author to have been more of a film critic in speaking of some of the films and have said more in defence of some of Paradjanov's early films instead of insisting too heavily on the view of a total break at the age of fourty from mere executor of external pressures from the Soviet film bureaucrats to a wilful artist who did everything in his power to give life to his real artistic vision, this book contains nonetheless some fascinating accounts of Paradjanov the man and the artist from someone who knew him during different periods of the artist's life.

Other titles include a new book by the author of the splendid monograph on Kira Muratova, Zara Abdullaeva. Her new book published by НЛО in their Кинотексти series is entitled Постдок (Postdoc) and is devoted to the theme of the border between Narrative and Documentary films- as well as being a reflection on this important theme, Abdullaeva publishes a number of interviews with film-makers and other cultural figures such as Vitaly Mansky, Lev Rubinstein, Sergei Bratkov, Anatoly Vasiliev and Ulrich Zaidl. 

In the same series a monograph on Aleksei German by Anton Dolin. A book which includes interviews and scripts as well as plenty of detail on German's biography at the heart of Leningrad's cultural elite this promises to be a fascianting read. 

Two books of unpublished articles and occasional pieces by Russian film scholars whose untimely deaths were a severe loss to this field have also been published. Rashit Yangirov's great oeuvre on Russian filmmakers abroad in the late 1920s and early 1930s Рабы Немого ( 'The slaves of silence') has been supplemented by a new book of essays entitled Другое Кино ('Another cinema') and includes essays on the history of Russian cinema in the first third of the twentieth century including essays on Khanzhankov and Drankov, Jewish cinema in Russia from 1908-1919, an essay on the history of Kuleshov's 'Mr West...', another on LEF as well as a potentially fascinating essay on the reception of Soviet films by Russian emigre writers. These are only some of the essays of Yangirov and the book promises to be a fascinating read. The other book includes some biographical prose by the great Neya Zorkaya called Как я стала киноведом (How I became a film scholar) and as well as including some of her notes towrads an autobiography, includes her memoirs of other film scholars and directors including those of Ilya Averbach, Viktor Demin and Tolomush Okeyev. A section is also devoted to memories of Zorkaya by such names as Mikhail Ulyanov, Inna Vishnevskaya, Alla Demidova, Aleksei Levinson and Olga Surkova. Further unpublished pieces by Zorkaya are included including a piece on Fellini as are some writings by her younger brothers Andrei and Pyotr. 

Finally, new issues of Киноведческие Записки and Сеанс are out. Сеанс devotes its latest issue to the theme Faust to coincide with Sokurov's new film and КЗ has an interview with Sokurov, some articles to mark Yuri Tsivian's sixtieth birthday and a whole host of articles dedicated to the theme of Cinema and Theatre including one on Chaplin, Biomechanics and Meyerhold. Time to find some spare time and get reading all this.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Necrorealism exhibition at Moscow's Museum of Contemporary Art



Museum of Contemporary Art as part of the 4th Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art is hosting a full-scale exhibition on Necrorealism. Not simply the films of Necrorealism but also the art work. Necrorealism has clearly come of age as far as the Moscow art establishment is concerned and this offering is a more than welcome one. The fact that some of the films are supplemented by texts (on necro dynamics, necro statistics and necro methodology), and some extraordinary art work and installations allows one to see the bigger picture of this movement.

Its appearance during the late Soviet stagnation period (the stagnation was to prefigure the appearance of a future corpse- the Soviet system) and its obsession with death was to lend itself to a certain reading which, although not necessarily mistaken, has arguably failed to account for the repeated significance of this movement. Once dubbed the Lenin of the Punk movement (Russian lead punk singer Svinya was said to have remarked that it was Iufit rather than Johnny Rotten who should be seen as the true leader of the world punk movement), Evgeny Iufit was clearly a much more significant figure than has hitherto been recognised by most contemporary film critics. The necroperformances in which passers by would be horified by the appearance of presumed corpses after a staged fight and the early films made in the early eighties would become part of the Leningrad underground scene.

Iufit's move into 35mm filmmaking was facilitated by Aleksandr Sokurov who allowed him to work within his new Independent Studio in 1988. Iufit made his Knights of Heaven (Рыцари поднебесья) film there but this film was to signal a break between Sokurov and Iufit. Nonetheless the presence of the theme of death (and an unconventional approach to this theme) unites Sokurov's and Iufit's cinematography. Equally there are many references in Necrorealist film to Lang's expressionism as well as to Vertov and Eisenstein and to 1920s eccentricism. Even Andy Warhol's interminable shots seem to be another influence.

The exhibition gives us a chance to see some of the extraordinary works of necrorealist painters - including Iufit's but also that of Sergei Serp, Vladimir Kustov and Andrey Mertvy. In the case of Iufit this chance to see both some of his films as well as his art work offers an opportunity to assert the continuity of his essential vision. In Iufit's own words "the irrational force of nature, the pathology of the human mind, black humour and social grotesque incombination with the traditions of silent film, define the originality and the paradoxical nature of this movement."

That Necrorealism as a movement requires rediscovery outside of Russia has been argued in a splendid essay by Thomas H. Campbell in which he asserts that Iufit's body work represents a thoroughgoing "allegory of the social, political, psychological, artistic, and critical dead ends of the present day". http://www.kinokultura.com/2006/11-campbell.shtml#27 Whether it be true or not that Iufit is the only decent filmmaker working in Russia today as one of his more enthusiastic advocates argued in 2005, it is certainly true that Necrorealism must be considered as one of the most fascinating trends with late Soviet and early post-Soviet cinematography and art and deserving of a major reappraisal by major film and art critics.

Recent news from the Russian film front.

Back in Russia for little over a fortnight it appears that little has changed in Russian film given the fact that the main news story is over Mikhalkov's film Цитадель being sent as Russia's Foreign Language Oscar- hopeful. This fact didn't pass through without a scandal with the chairman of the Russian Oscar Committee, Vladimir Menshov -a former Oscar winner with his Москва, слезам не верит (Moscow doesn't believe in tears) -stating that the film wasn't the right one for the Oscars and that there was no real discussion of the film by the committee. His calls for Mikhalkov's film to be withdrawn were followed by calls for him to be sacked. That Mikhalkov's film is part three of a trilogy and that his second part was very coldly received at Cannes didn't seem to move the Oscar Committee in its promotion of this film. Anyway, it seems that the Mikhalkov saga still has steam in it yet to cover the gossip pages. It seems that there will be little hope of either Putin (in the political sphere) or Mikhalkov (in the cinematic sphere) losing their monopolies for the time being.

One of the few sites in Moscow to promote the very best of Russian and Soviet cinema - the Eisenstein library- (which last year had some excellent retrospectives) has yet to return with a programme for this year. It has been closed for building repairs during the summer and seems only slowly to be coming back to life. The excellent series of lectures and film showings at the Meyerhold Museum which took place during the past two years seems to have been discontinued. A great shame: some of the most interesting scholars of Soviet cinema were to be seen there giving some excellent talks on former Meyerhold students who were to become some of the greatest actors or directors of Soviet cinema. To hear a lecture by such scholars as Naum Kleiman, Evgeny Margolit, Irina Grashchenkova or Vladimir Zabrodin and others by the great animated film director - Andrey Khrzhanovsky- was a true delight. Alas, this year it seems that this consolation has been denied.

As yet, film going in Moscow has only offered two films of any note in this fortnight. Avdotia Smirnova's comedy on relations between the intellighentsia and the power elite was a well-made film starring Fyodor Bondarchuk and Ksenia Rappoport. A well-made film and a well-scripted film but which didn't quite convince. My first impression of Zviagintsev's 'Elena' was far stronger. Zviagintsev has proved not to be Russia's new Tarkovsky but in Elena he has, it seems, made something new. A new artistic vision is certainly present and this was acknowledged at Cannes where Zviagintsev's won the Special Jury Prize in the Un certain regard competition. Some commentators suggested that it would have given Malick's 'The Tree of Life' a run for its money had it been included in the main competition. It is a film that finally talks about class in Russia today- some critics have given it a reactionary slant highlighting a kind of lumpenphobia in its message (and Zviagintsev himself has spoken of wanting to call the film 'The Invasion of the Barbarians') but, nonetheless the film artistically is far beyond what is normally dished out by Russian film-makers and deserves its worldwide distribution.

Other news includes the recent death of Tatyana Lioznova (in the photo). She was best known for the spy series Семнадцать мгновений весны 'Seventeen Moments of Spring' (1973) and her film Три тополя на Плющихе 'Three Poplars at Plyushchikha' (1967). The spy series is probably the ultimate classic of Soviet spy thrillers (along with Barnet's much earlier Подвиг Разведчика ' Exploits of an Intelligence Agent'). Lioznova, like Muratova, studied under Sergei Gerasimov at VGIK and became alongside both Muratova and Shepitko one of the Soviet Union's most notable female film directors (Lioznova would go on to teach at VGIK). However, unlike them Muratova and Shepitko her sucess was one in the field of popular film rather than in that of creatng a whole new aesthetic direction to Russian film.

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.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Odessa and Film




To most people's minds to mention Odessa and cinema an image of the massacre at the Potemkin Steps in Eisenstein's 'Battleship Potemkin' comes to mind. Yet the history of cinema in Odessa is a long and fascinating one. In fact some Odessans like to claim that it was Josif Timchenko who shot the first cinematic film at Odessa's Hippodrome. His "Jumping Horseman" was shown on January 24th 1895 during a medical congress (weeks before the Lumiere brothers patented their cinematic machine in France). Whether Odessa is the real birthplace of world cinema or not, it is surely a city that has played a significant but often unacknowledged role in Russian and Soviet cinema history.

One of the few books available on this subject is Vadim Kostromenko's two-volume anecdotal history of the Odessa Film studios. In it he recounts his own memories of the studio after the Second World War and, in less detail, some of the original figures who developed cinema in Odessa including such figures as Peter Chardynin and the great silent move actress Vera Kholodnaya who died young in 1919 of the Spanish influenza and was buried accompanied by a huge crowd of Odessans. The films scripted by Odessa's literary legend Isaac Babel include the magnificent Benya Krik. Mayakovsky was also to write scripts for the Odessa Film Studio- seven in total (of which two were actually shot). Another name linked briefly to Odessa and cinema was Nikolai Erdman (one of the Soviet Union's greatest satirists). Among those who rebuilt cinema in Odessa in the post-revolutionary period of the 1920s was the legendary Mikhail Kapchinsky who, though arrested three times during various waves of repression, was to survive into the 1980s. It was Kapchinsky who brought Eisenstein's film 'Battleship Potemkin' to Odessa from Leningrad in order to save it from the autumnal climate of Leningrad which was making filming impossible and it was this fact that meant that the film would concentrate on the Odessa episode of the 1905 revolution and the fate of the Battleship Potemkin. In the 1920s profits from Italian films starring Lina Cavvallieri and Francesco Bertini would help restore film production in Odessa (rather than the American films popular elsewhere in the Soviet Union at that time).

A film about the Soviet-Polish War shot in Odessa was to star the legendary historical personage Kotovsky who agreed to play himself. This Robin Hood bandit figure turned Bolshevik unfortunately was not to live to become a film star. He was assassinated just before the film was about to go into production and so future generations have been denied this historical curiosity of watching the real Kotovsky act out his own life.

Alexander Dovzhenko was to begin his cinematic career in Odessa and although it was certainly not a successful beginning, it was here that he would develop his style of film-making to become one of the leading directors in the world.

Film-making in Odessa was to enter an uncertain period after 1929 which was to continue into the late Stalin period. In fact between 1929 and 1941 and between 1944 and 1952 the director of the Odessa Film Studios would be replaced almost annually. Many who worked here were to suffer repression and even execution (including many of Dovzhenko's former scriptwriters, co-directors and cameramen). The main task in the immediate post-war years  in Odessa was to restore the film studio to its previous glory given the destruction and theft carried out by the Roumanian occupying forces during the war years.

Cinema in Odessa in post-war years got off to a slow start and it was only with the advent of Alexander Gorsky as head of the film studio that in 1953 film production would be reset on an upward course. Under his direction and that of his successor Gennady Zbandit, Odessa would return to quality film-making. In 1956 one of the most important films of the early Thaw period was to be made in Odessa - Marlen Khutsiev's (and Feliks Mironer's) Весна на Заречной Улице (Spring on Zarechnaya Street). A young cameraman would work with the two directors and would go on to have a long association with Odessa: Peter Todorovsky. The actor (and subsequently one of the Soviet Union's most important post-war directors) Vasily Shukshin would also debut in Odessa in Khutsiev's second film 'The two Fyodor's'.

One of film's most promising but unsuccessful figures Genrikh Gabay (in the photo above) was to have a career dogged by misfortune. His masterpiece Зеленвый Фургон (The Green Truck) shot in Odessa was to be mauled by Kiev officials and made unrecognisable. After shooting films from completely unsuitable scripts, he was to emigrate to Israel invited by Golda Meir. Yet even here he was to be given roles and films that he could not accept - he turned down Golda Meir's offer of post as Minister for Cineamtography as he wanted to shoot films. Then he was given the script of a national patriotic film to shoot- he turned this offer down in disgust affirming that he had too much of fighting in war to incite his then countrymen to fight against their Arab enemies. Gabay would then leave for the United States and find himself equally marginalized. It was not in his nature to shoot commercial cinema. Invited by a priest to shoot a long documentary on the life of Christ his Jewish roots and atheist leanings caused further problems with his producers. Maybe little remains to prove Gabay's talent but his journey through the cinema of three countries surely deserves to be told belonging to the history of cinema's would-have-beens as well as serving as an exemplary tale of one of cinema's more admirable refuseniks.

Another of life's refuseniks - Joseph Brodsky - was to star in the unlikely role of an Odessa party secretary in Vadim Lysenko's Поезд в далекий август (Train for a distant August) in 1970. Lysenko's assistant Leonid Mak noted Brodksy's similarity to Naum Gurevich and given Brodsky's need to find work the future Nobel Laureate jumped at the chance. Unfortunately Brodsky's role in the film came to the notice of party officials in Kiev and all shots of Brodsky were ordered cut from the film. However, unknown to the authorities only the close-ups were reshot and medium and long shots of the character are still those acted by Brodsky himself.

Odessa's major contemporary name is, of course, Kira Muratova who has remained faithful to the city and still uses the studio. Another long-term association with Odessa and the studio was kept by Stanislav Govorukhin who shot many films here. The legendary Vladimir Vysotksy acted in Govorukhin's most popular film series Место Втречи изменить нельзя (the Meeting Place can not be changed) but also in other films shot in or about Odessa. a lesser-known but by no means minor director - Georgy Yungvald-Khilkevich - shot a number of films here including the film 'The art of living in Odessa' based on Isaac Babel's short stories about Odessa.

In short, the history of film in Odessa is in no way a negligible one. If the Odessa Film Studios were not one of the Soviet Union's major film studios, cinematic history in Odessa is, nonetheless, a fascinating and inspirational one and deserving of a major historical work.

Friday, 22 July 2011

Russian Film festivals & a report on Odessa's Film Festival



The season of major Russian film festivals- Sochi, Moscow and the new Saint-Petersburg International Cinema Forum is coming to an end. In a recent article for Moscow News Yuri Gladilshchikov argues that the St Petersburg festival is overtaking that of Moscow in terms of quality and significance. The Moscow Film festival seems to be a victim of Mikhalkov's overbearing need to live on the rhetoric of challenging Cannes and Venice without being able to match its prestige. The absurd inflation of self-importance attributed to it by the Russian cinema elite ignores the fact that it doesn't attract the international attention that other major European festivals do. At the same time it also manages to alientae its own local audience by its excessive ticket prices. The modest beginnings of St Petersburg's international film forum (now in its second edition) nonetheless has been based on a solid foundation- Alexei German shadows (or even overshadows) Nikita Mikhalkov while film critic Andrei Plakhov is chief selector of film - a heavyweight counterpart to Moscow's Kirill Razlogov. Moreover, the St petersburg festival with red carpet guests including Natasha Kinski and Ornella Muti is based on a more solid relationship to the public of St Petersburg given that ticket prices are half the price of those of Moscow.

This week another Russian-language festival of significance has taken place. Smaller in scale to St Petersburg and Moscow's film festivals, the Odessa International Film festival has nonetheless attracted the likes of John Malkovich to the red carpet and visiting directors include Valery Todorovsky, Otar Ioselliani, Sergei Soloviev and the, alas, rather ubiquitous Nikita Mikhalkov. Kira Muratova- an Odessan herself was also present both at the screening of her own film as well as among the audience of Soloviev's Anna Karenina at the Odessa Film Studios. One of the more spectacular events of the festival was the most well-attended as well as free. A large screen projected Fritz Lang's 'Metropolis' with a live orchestra at the botoom of the Potemkin Steps to a crowd of thousands. At the first festival last year Battleship Potemkin was itself projected with live orchestra - a fascinating idea that brings back the magic of great silent cinema to a whole city. Each evening of the festival films are projected on to a screen on the other steps called Lanzheron Steps (not far from the Potemkin steps) for free thus giving at least a democratic veneer to this festival. Ticket prices are also not exhorbitant - at the Rodina cinema they are between $3 and $5, at the Odessa film studios between $1 and $3 - far below the Moscow prices of up to $15. The opening ceremony was preceded by the walk along the red carpet towards Odessa's opera house. Odessans are less star-struck than others and people turned up simply out of curiosity - even the stars such as John Malkovich were met with restrined applause at most. A number of single demonstrators turned up to shout 'Down with the Oligarchs' and hold placards but soon they left to have a laugh with the Odessan policemen (maybe their British policing colleagues should be sent to the Ukarine to learn restraint and good- humour).

For me the highlights of the festival have been the screenings of Ioselliani's 'Chantrapas', Kaurismaki's 'Le Havre', Loznitsa's 'My Joy' and of course Kira Muratova's 'Melody for a Barrel Organ'. Soloviev's Ukranian premiere of 'Anna Karenina' was equally significant (but for me somewhat a delusion) and an interesting tale of a mid-life crisis of three band members (a doctor, a policeman and a taxi driver) using Inarritu's narrative trio style to describe Russian realia. Another Ukrainian film called Dvoe (the Two) set in World War Two provided a reflection about friend and enemy not too far apart from Rogozhkin's Кукушка 'Cuckoo'. It also explored the inner dynamics of two groups of two people- one pair pursuing (two Germans one male and one female as well as an army dog and another pair pursued: a Soviet soldier and his captured German soldier who appears willing to change sides). Loznitsa's film was by far one of the darkest films of the festival about a man who finds himself lost in a territory from which there is no escape but death. This film had some critical acclaim at Cannes and Trieste. At one point the possibility that it might win a major award at Cannes Film Festival brought a howl of alarm by the Mikhalkovian national patriots who were to ready to argue that the film would have won because it denigrated Russia and painted it in overly black terms.

Soloviev's 'Anna Karenina' was its first Ukrainian premiere and well-attended by the Odessan public: yet for me it suffered too much from many drawbacks and in spite of some superb acting by the likes of Drubich, Yankovsky, Abdullov and Garmash, it was rather a deluding film even though it attempted to do something new in the genre of literary adaptations. A good piece of criticism has been written by Anindita Banerjee in Kino Kultura here: http://www.kinokultura.com/2009/26r-karenina.shtml
Watching Anna Karenina at the Odessa Film studios was Odessa's director Kira Muratova. Her short question and answer session after the showing of her film 'Melody for a barrel organ' was welcome but far too short. However, it was interesting to know that the war veteran excluded from the de luxe waiting room was actualy reciting his own personal history. In an answer to the question as to whether she thought there may be light at the end of the tunnel she cut the questioner short by saying that the light had completely gone out. She then defined herself as a happy pessimist and described the work of a film director to that of a surgeon. Although the surgeon cuts open the human body s/he still thinks of his/her own profession as something of beauty. Muratova insisted on the joy of her own profession defending the necessity of such films. In fact this dialectic between the sheer aesthetic beauty of the film and the absolute horror of the actual subject- a kind of contemporary fairy tale about the Slaughter of the Innocents in which the male orphan freezes to death with a handful of balloons in his hands (a nod to Fritz Lang's 'M') while a group of gastarbeiter's stand around in Gogolian awe while one of their member hiccoughs uncontrollably. The unbearableness of the ending, the sheer beauty of the film, the fairy tale form make this film Muratova's most shocking statement but perhaps also one of her most accessible. Yet she brings us to a point of aesthetic joy and utter madness that Mayakovsky reached with his line about loving watching children die. It is not as first appears a film about our indifference and cruelty to children but something far more uncanny and terrible than that. Its radical scope in going beyond what most directors are capable of made this film the most significant one of the festival. A shame that the film festival organisers cowardly failed to show this film at last year's festival. They, in the words of Muratova, were too concerned at its dark vision and too afraid of its pessimism. European and US distributors probably won't touch it with a barge pole which means that one of the truly great films of the past decade will go unseen until some rediscovery is made some years along the line. During the showing someone had brought their child along with them to watch the film, the child repeated a number of times during the seance "как красиво, как красиво" (how beautiful).

One more film that should be mentioned was Iurii Kara's 'Hamlet of the twenty-first century' - an eclectic film setting the story amongst car races and night club- Hamlet and his rivals between twenty-somethings. The emphasis that Kara gives to the figure of the Osric (played by Sukhorukov) as the venemous benefactor of the chaos and the brilliant acting of Diuzhev, the spectacular Crimea setting of the film (filming was done at the Vorontsov palace, the Sparrows Nest palace and near Balaclava)make it a visually unusual film. However, arguably the stylization goes too far and the eclecticism is too extreme with many roles apart from those of Diuzhev's and Sukhorukov's being less than memorable.

A number of Ukrainian comedies were also shown at the festival including Paradzanov's 'First Lad' and 'The art of living in Odessa' based on Babel's Odessa stories (and included the actor Viktor Avilov). A sparsely attended event but an interesting one nonetheless. Given that Dovzhenko began his career as a director of comedies in Odessa (Love's Berry), the Ukrainian film comedy section merited its place at the film festival.

All in all, a festival which hopefully will grow in future years. A small festival but one which has learnt to balance its obligations to the locals with an attempt to put this festival on the map.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Sokurov on Eisenstein, Literature and Cinema







At Turin's 'Salone del Libro' (Book Fair) the one guest from Russia representing cinema was Aleksandr Sokurov who presented a book of essays which haven't been published in Russian. In fact, as far as I know, the only edition yet to come out is the Italian edition. The title of the collection is 'In the centre of the Ocean' (Nel Centro dell'Oceano). The essays are varied- from the film script of his film on the war in Chechnya 'Alexandra', to various work diaries and a selection of his Japanese diaries, from an essay on philosophy and Martin Heidegger to what for me was the most interesting text in the collection: a re-evaluation of the role of Sergei Eisenstein in cinema. An essay that needs to be read more than once given that it is very rich in observations. Sokurov, like Tarkovsky before him, have both tried to find an escape route from the influence that Eisenstein undoubtedly has in Russian and world cinema. Sokurov's placing of sailors in his film 'Russian Ark' was no casual choice: they were undoubtedly an allusion to Eisenstein's 'Battleship Potemkin' and not an allusion that had much of the positive about it. Sokurov's call is a call for a return to a pre-revolutionary ethos and whatever his respect for Eisenstein his is a call for pressing the delete button. Yet he knows, too, that this attitude is impossible. This, for Sokurov, is the dialectic of his dilemma.

Like Tarkovsky, Sokurov champions Dovzhenko over Eisenstein. The Dovzhenko who acknowledged the importance of atmosphere in the construction of a frame and who knew how to render human suffering and pain on the screen bringing cinema closer than anyone else to art and literature. Yet in the essay this is all he has to say about Dovzhenko. It is, nonetheless, Eisenstein with whom Sokurov wants to confront himself with, to clash with.

Sokurov's speech at the 'Salone del Libro' took the form almost of an anti-cinema diatribe. He stated that if humankind were left without electricity and there were no possibility of watching films any longer nothing much would happen, but if humankind were to be left without the book that, for Sokurov, would signify the end of the world. An extreme position but a fundamental one to understand Sokurov's place in cinema. For Sokurov, cinema is an imperfect and much too young art that doesn't have the weight of literature (and for Sokurov Nineteenth Century literature is central to civilisation as is Faust which he is filming for his tetralogy on Power (Moloch, Taurus and Sun being the three others taking a look at Hitler, Lenin and Hirohito).

What Sokurov sees as Eisenstein's negative influence is his extreme masculinity, his destructive energy (leading to a lapse into a cinema of unheard of cruelty- the child suspended from the staircase in Strike), that cinema has transformed the mysetry of death into a visual commodity and he even comes to the conclusion that this trend in cinema has led to the clash of civilisations.

Sokurov's critique (one might almost call it an attempted demolition) of Eisenstein is based on the premise that Eisenstein set cinema on the wrong track and that it is necessary to return and start on entirely new foundations. For Sokurov the return is to Nineteenth Century literature. He often exhibits a kind of nihilistic despair over the possibility of cinema. In Turin he stated that "cinema is where I work" but he had no fundamental interest in discussing this area. In his essay the only suggestion that cinema might find a new path is in a note explaining Mikhail Romm's return to a kind of Pushkinian montage. Sokurov suggests that Eisenstein could only really explore his artistic freedom in his drawings which illuminated both his thirst for freedom and his solitude. In spite of the enormous artistic resources of Eisenstein's cinema, Sokurov concludes that one discovers in Eisesntein the footnotes th the bottom of a page in which nothing is written.

Sokurov is one of the few to have put into words this total denial of Eisenstein which is common both to him and Tarkovsky. His is almost a Dantesque judgement- mixing compassion with condemnation and certainly is a judgement full of nuance. Both one of the most negative judgements on Eisenstein but also one of the most pregnant with insights into Eisenstein.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Italians in Soviet Cinema : Gino de Marchi.



One of the lesser known stories , as far as I know, is the presence of many foreigners in the history of Soviet cinema. Of course, the Herbert Marshall's, the Jay Leyda's and the Willy Munzenberg's have had their tales told. In Italy a number of books have come out on the life of Francesco Misiano- a character I mentioned in a previous blog. Another book recounts the tragic life of an Italian documentary filmmaker - Gino de Marchi - as well as the struggle of his daughter to fight for his memory. The account by Gabriele Nassim is written in the context of a tale about the behaviour of Italian communist emigres towards each other. It damns many of them but holds up the moral stature of Antonio Gramsci who was one of the few to help De Marchi out of genuine difficulties upon his arrival in the Soviet Union. There developed a close tie between De Marchi and the Gramsci family from generation to generation. De Marchi's subsequent fate in the Soviet Union was to prove a bitter one: in Italy in a moment of weakness he had confessed to the existence (and pointed out the whereabouts) of a cache of arms to be used for the revolutionary struggle against fascism (he did so to save his own mother from arrest). He was sent by his comrades to the Soviet Union as much as a punishment as to save him from a three and a half year jail sentence. In fact he was to begin his Soviet odyssey in prison (and it was Gramsci who was to save him from this initial fate). He then was to work on collective farms. It was to be Francesco Misiano who would employ him at Mezhrabpom and Gino would eventually become director of a number of documentary films, mainly on the Kolkhoz and Stakhanovite themes. De Marchi himself would gain the reputation of a Stakhanovite director, managing to organize a work method allowing him to cut production times.

The book by Nissim says little about his actual films- just that they were "documentary films dedicated to the 'great successes' of Stalinist agricultural collectivisation" (p 184)- alas, he gives little more detail. The book also concentrates little on the detail of his cinematic work - the few details he gives are to delineate the just (some of his cameramen) from the unjust (a certain Britikov who would denounce De Marchi and go on to make a successful career in the Soviet cinema world as well as to block the career of De Marchi's daughter as actress). Nonetheless, she (Luciana De Marchi) was to work with Giuseppe de Santis on his film about Italian soldiers in the Soviet Union during the Second World War, entitled 'Italiani brava gente'. Nissim also speaks of a Russian film scripted by Lev Roshal on the life of De Marchi made in 1992. Another Italian in cinema who was to share De Marchi's eventual fate (that of execution) was Aldo Gorelli who was better known as Gheffi Torre and would work as a sound technician from 1932 at Soyuzdetfilm. Whether there were other Italians working in the Soviet cinematic studios is a field that deserves some research.

Friday, 18 March 2011

Lattuada's Overcoat and Visconti's White Nights and Italian-Russian Cinematographic ( & Cultural) Influences



A recent viewing of Alberto Lattuada's 'Il Cappotto' (The Overcoat) and Luchino Visconti's 'Le notti bianche' (White Nights)- two films owing their plots to Gogol's and Dostoyevsky's well-known short stories have convinced me of a number of things: that the 'adaptation' of Russian classics is not a hopeless enterprise (the failures of Lean's 'Doctor Zhivago', Fiennes's Onegin or the Taviani brothers 'Resurrection' which, nonetheless, was to win the 2002 Moscow Film Festivals main prize to the utter astonishment of many, nothwithstanding). However, the strength of Lattuada's and Visconti's films have, perhaps, a lot to do with the fact that they do not attempt to be adaptations and transpose the action not to an imagined Russia but to a phantasmagoric Italy (Visconti keeps the female character as slavic but not Russian). The fact that they do not attempt to be faithful to the originals and both sprung from stylistic developments inherent to Italian cinema at the time make these films successful fusions of two cultures (the same one may say of Kurosawa's frequent tranpsoitions of Russian and Western literary classics or Kozintsev's superlative trio of Shakespeare- King Lear and Hamlet- and Cervantes' Don Quijote.

Lattuada's film was certainly significant in its attempt to break free from the grasp that a narrow conception of neorealism was holding Italian cinema at the time- a neorealism that wanted simply to record everyday reality in its most minimal details, to trail or shadow (pedinare) human reality as Cesare Zavattini put it. The transformation of Akaky Akakievich into Carmine de Carmine and nineteenth century Saint Petersburg into 1930s Pavia brought something new to Post-War Italian cinema instilling a certain fantastic, quasi-surreal tone to the film which was to be one of a bunch of great films from 1951-2 (including Antonioni's 'Cronaca di un amore', De Sica's 'Umberto D', Fellini's ''Lo sceicco bianco', Lizzani's 'Achtung Banditi' and Rossellini's 'Europa '51' to name but a few).

Visconti's adaptation of the Dostoyevsky tale five years later already having left neorealism far behind is fascinating in its search for a kind of theatricalised cinema (and was a tale that Robert Bresson would try to transpose to cinema years later).

Lattuada was to return to Russian literature in later films - to Pushkin in 'La Tempesta' (a reworking of Pushkin's 'The captain's Daughter'), to Chekhov in 'La Steppa' and to Bulgakov in 'La cuore d'un cane' (The Heart of a Dog). None of these films obtained the critical acclaim of his 'Cappotto' however.

The cinematographic trace of Russia in Italian cinema (as well as of Russian literature and art thoughout Italian culture) and vice versa is one of those subjects that require years of investigation. What would appear a reasonable supposition - that this mutual influence was to be partially closed in the 1920s and 1930s - is certainly fales. The success of Soviet films in the Italian ventennio, especially, for example (but not only) Ekk's 'Putyovka k zhizhn' (Road to Life) at the first Venice Film Festival is one of the many interactions that occurred during this period. The post-war years are so full of contacts and mutual influences that hopefully at one point this area will be fully explored in a monograph.

The influence of Soviet montage cinema on Italy's interwar director Alessandro Blasetti, the quasi-subversive expounding of Soviet montage theory in Italy's 'Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia' by the Marxist critic Umberto Barbaro, the critical and theoretical work of Guido Aristrarco, Glauco Viazzi, Giovanni Buttafava (three oustanding Italian critics of Soviet cinema), the influence of Italian neorealims in turn on a whole generation of Soviet directors of the Thaw, fascinating individual stories of exiles - whether Italian exiles in Soviet Russia like that of Francesco Misiano or the story of Shaliapin's daughter (Marina) and her role in Italian cinema under fascism, the filming of Russian-themed films such as La Principessa Tarakanova directed by the Russian exile Fyodor Otsep and Mario Soldati and the numerous Soviet films with Italian themes (and vice versa), the Italian-Soviet co-productions from the light-hearted Ryazanov comedy to the Tarkovsky 'Nostalghia' and the many festivals of Italian cinema in the Soviet Union and Soviet cinema in Itay during the Cold War period point to numerous links.

Lattuada and Visconti (Tarkovsky and Ryazanov) are only two pointers to contact between Italian and Russian cultural worlds and sensitivities - one can add bernardo Bertolucci's 'Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man', Bellocchio's Il Gabbiano (The Seagull), Mikhalkov's (Oci Chyornie) as less convincing but, nonetheless, curious transpositions. In the world of animation the trio of Federico Fellini, Tonino Guerra and Andrei Khrzhanovsky have produced a fascinating film based on Fellini's erotic drawings 'Il lungo viaggio' (The Long Voyage) and deserving of a whole article of its own. The link between Russian and Italian culture in general is, of course, not limited to film- the reception of Russian literature has been mediated by figures who made a significant contribution to culture in their own right - such as the poet Slavist Angelo Maria Ripellino or one of the greatest twentieth century Italian writers Tommaso Landolfi who translated Pushkin and Lermontov. What would Russian art be without the image and presence of Italy (it would be almost as easy to list the Russian artists who hadn't been to Italy than those who had). The heroic attempt of the recently departed Boris Tishchenko to create symphonies based on Dante's Divine Comedy makes it clear that in Russian music, too, is a sphere in which Italian themes abound. The subject is clearly infinite.

Monday, 31 January 2011

Otar Ioseliani, Inkizhnikov and the schism of emigration



The place of the emmigrant in Russian/ Soviet cinema (and Russian culture as a whole) is one of these painful subjects that seems rarely to go away. The schism between those who left and those who stayed is one that seems to repeat itself each generation. Perhaps one illustration of this is Ioseliani's recent critique of the state of Russian cinema published in Noviye Izsvetiye http://www.newizv.ru/news/2011-02-01/140199/ The showing of his latest film Chantrapas was the occasion for him to suggest that there is little point in working in Russian cinema nowadays. His critique of Russia's filmakers included both Konchalovsky and Sokurov (who he deemed commercialistic) as well as criticising the late Sergei Bondarchuk. He remarked that intellectuals had given up going to the cinema.Fortunately Ioseliani (in photo above) is one of those directors who has managed to reinvent himself and become an even more universal author after emigration (something that,arguably, Konchalovsky hasn't suceeded in).
Ioseliani's melancholic description of contemporary Russian cinema doesn't seem too far from the truth at times. The greats of late Soviet cinema like Norstein and German and others like Abdrashitov have been almost reduced to silence and it is a rare thing indeed to find a film that convinces one that Russian cinema is renewing itself.

Another visit to the excellent series of lectures at the Meyerhold Museum convinced me that this theme of emigration is no minor one for an understanding of Russian cinema. The lecture was not devoted to this but the presence of members of Valeri Inkizhnikov's family let in a new light on what emigration signified for Soviet cinema. The history of Soviet cinema can hardly be understood without a history of those who either emigrated or were exiled in the camps. The slow rediscovery of Fedor Otsep (and I really recommend an excellent post on the site NitrateVille http://www.nitrateville.com/viewtopic.php?t=7438 about this director) is one of many stories to be told. Inkizhnikov is another- Inkizhinov was to star in one of Otsep's film 'Amok' and any accounts of their collaboration would, I'm sure, be a fascinating tale to hear. Mikhail Romm was to suggest that the emigration of Inkizhnikov was to mark his death as an actor- alas, this too suggests the inadequacy of vision that the subject of emigration caused even for attentive commentators like Romm.

Recognition of all the many talents that were lost to emigration (Anna Sten is another name that immediately springs to mind as well as that of Mozzhukin) and those exiled in labour camps (like Koval'-Samborsky and Zhzhenov) has been given some consideration in recent years in a number of studies. However, these studies are yet to have any full-English language accounts in their number.

The subject of emigration and immigration is one treated relatively little in Soviet cinema. Panfilov's 'Tema' comes to mind as being a rare exception. The 90s saw a return of the theme. However, contemporary Russia also has the new theme of immigration to deal with - a film like Gastarbeiter showing us that the social film in contemporary Russia is not altogether absent.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

A segment of Larisa Shepitko's TV programme 'In the Thirteenth Hour of Night'




I thought I would post this curious sequence that Larisa Shepitko made for television as it is rarely mentioned in her works and yet it holds some interest of its own.

Mikhail Romm



The place of Mikhail Romm in Soviet cinema is hard to exaggerate and yet neither he nor any of his films have found quite the reception that they deserve outside of Russia. The day of the recent Domededovo bombing (24th January) marked the 110th anniversary of his birth and this year also marks the 40th anniversary of his death. Romm's reputation has perhaps been damaged by David Caute's deeply negative portrayal of him in his study of Cold War and intellectuals 'The Dancer Defects'. Even though most of Romm's films were made during the Stalinist period (and even during the period of late Stalinism's 'film famine' he was not inactive) it would be not just wrong but wholly injust to write him off as 'fundamentally Stalinist'. This depiction by Caute of his Thaw period film 'Ordinary Fascism' highlights a terrible blindness that Western critics have been not uncommonly guilty of in their descriptions of Soviet film art. (Interestingly Maya Turovskaya author of one of the best studies of Tarkovsky came to a diametrically opposite conclusion stating that Romm's film was, in essence, an anti-Stalinist film).

A retrospective of Romm's films may indeed show up many flaws- his two Lenin films (in the late Thirties) and Cold War tracts (in the late Forties) were made during periods when dissidence proved unthinkable. Yet his Lenin films didn't sink the moral depths that Chiaureli does with his Stalin films. By presenting a human, almost anonymous Lenin, Romm spares us monumentalism and mummification: the habitual Stalinist projection of Soviet power. His films in the early to mid Fifties may also prove to be rather unsalvageable - his artistic low point was reached by his 'Admiral Ushakov' and its sequel 'Ships storm the Bastions'. That which is left, however, is not inconsiderable. His debut- an early adaptation of Maupassant's 'Boule de Suif' is a fascinating piece of late silent filmmaking whereas his 'remake' of John Ford's 'The Lost Patrol' was the first example of the Soviet Eastern later to be developed by Motyl in his 'White sun of the Desert' and then to become a Soviet genre in its own right. Whether Babluani's recent classic going by the same name was inspired by Romm's film is a matter for speculation, Romm's film certainly deserves a showing. Some believe his 1940 film 'Mechta' (Dream) to be the apogee of his work. The influential Russian film producer Armen Medvedev has named it as his favourite film on one occasion.

Romm's post-Stalinist period was marked by his interest in historical documentary films as well as his 'Nine Days of One Year' (a tale of nuclear physicists) which the senior film critic of the Village Voice J. Hoberman called a 'revelation'. The film proved that Romm, unlike others who were associated with the Stalinist period, had the power to reinvent himself. Perhaps Kalatozov was the other main director who although having worked within the Stalinist paradigm managed not to be broken by it and re-emerged during the Thaw with renewed energy (Boris Barnet was, perhaps, too peripheral a figure during Stalinism to have been forced into the compromises that Romm was - if Barnet was called upon to direct a propgandistic film such as the Stakhanovite 'Night in September' he would subvert it through apathy).

Nonetheless Romm's legacy should not be searched for solely in his films. Romm's significance for Soviet cinema arguably should be sought in another sphere: in his pedagogy. While Eisenstein may have been VGIK's most prestigious teacher it was arguably Romm who inspired a whole generation (arguably two generations) of some of the greatest film directors of the 1960s. 1970s and beyond. Without Romm's teaching we may well never have known of Andrey Tarkovsky, Elem Klimov, Vasily Shukshin, Gleb Panfilov, Andrey Konchalovsky, Grigori Chukhrai, Aleksandr Mitte, Sergei Soloviev, Tenghiz Abuladze, Nikita Mikhalkov and Vadim Abdrashitov amongst others. It is, perhaps here, that Romm's role will never be challenged and the words of many of his former students have shown how much they felt that they owed to Mikhail Romm. Mikhail Romm was not merely an individual film-maker of considerable talent: his place in Soviet cinematic history can hardly ever be over-estimated. A whole constellation of talents and geniuses who have made world cinematic history owe Romm a great deal. Without Mikhail Romm Russian and Soviet cinema in the past five decades would have been much poorer.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Four months without cinema, the trials and tribulations of cinema going in the Russian provinces and Neya Zorkaya's essays




I've been such a long time tied up in (or should I say tied down to, given an almost pre-Emancipation labour code) a rather surreal school so that I've remained rather silent for months on end at this blog. Four months in Russia haven't meant four months of film-going and I haven't managed to keep abreast with much of Russia's cinematic news. The odd film here and there and a promise to myself that I'll return to this subject as soon as I can. My experience has been the realia of everyday life in a small town outside Moscow called Zheleznodorozhny. It has no cinema - students of mine told me that one was planned five or six years ago and a crane stands in the spot where the cinema has been proposed to be built but no sign of building work is visible (and what films would the cinema show anyway apart from Hollywood blockbusters with an equal splash of mind-numbing national-patriotic tosh). My attempt to start up a film club in this English-language school in the town was equally doomed to failure- a proposed showing of British and American films was to begin with Lindsay Anderson's 'If....'. During the morning while preparing the introduction to the film, the town was hit by electricity cuts. I walked to work in the hope that the electricity would be back by the time the film was scheduled to begin. It was- fifteen minutes before the film was scheduled. Alas apart from a fellow teacher the film had an audience of one (and the secretary's young child who had to be told that this wasn't quite a suitable film for him). However although I had insisted that the film should be shown with English subtitles it was set by the engineer to Russian dubbing mode (and I being hopeless with technical equipment couldn't find a way to change to subtitles). The spectator then suggested I change the film to 'Polar Express' with Tom Hanks. Well that was the end of my dream of bringing good quality cinema to the provincial town of Moscow Region where in fiction Anna Karenina threw herself under a train but nothing else of real note seems to have happened. A morose picture of cultural life in the provinces. I have kept a rather nice poster of this non-event which I hope to keep as a souvenir of this four-month debacle.

The absence of cinema in this town however pales besides the background of what happened in Novosibirsk . There cinema going was to prove a dangerous act requiring some considerable courage. In Novosibirsk in early November a group of 15-20 students gathered to watch Valery Balayan's film about the murdered journalist and anti-fascist Anastasia Baburova when they were attacked by a group of 20-30 Nazis shouting "who doesn't love fascism here? Who loves watching cinema?" and began to attack them. While most of the cinema goers managed to escape one was injured in the face while leaving the university building. The film had been scheduled to show at a number of festivals in Moscow but organisers were afraid of attacks on spectators and cancelled the showings. An earlier version of the film is available on youtube (only in Russian) for anyone interested:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PWOwkpfl6wI

My few visits to cinema in Moscow have been to see Fedorchenko's Ovsyanki (Silent Souls), Balabanov's 'Kochegar' (The Stoker), Dvortsevoy's 'Tulpan' and Aleksandr Kott's 'Bretskaya krepost' (The Brest Fortress) as well as less felicitously Andrei Konchalovsky's 'Shchelkunchik' (The Nutcracker). I'm not sure if the Balabanov 'Kochegar' reached the heights (or the depths) of some of his more recent films. Dvortsevoy's film was a delight, Fedorchenko was even after two visits something of an enigma (but at times a fascinating one)and Kott's war film was not as bad as some patriotically inclined films. I'll have to give some more detialed account of these films at another time. At least the Ovsyanki merits some more detailed account of its strange poetic realism opening as the critic Andrei Plakhov put it "a small window in the claustrophobia of (Russian), enclosed by a limited orbit of themes and subjects".

Regarding new publications, a collection of the late Neya Zorkaya's essays has been published by Agraf publishers. Not devoted solely to cinema it has some fascinating sounding essays on the anonynmous and authorial character in the system of culture, period stylistics in art, cinematography in literary work including what promises to be a fascinating account of cinematography in the work of Mandelshtam. Other essays and section are devoted to the 'New Man' in Soviet cinema and to authours such as Shukshin, Abuladze as well as Muratova. The book ends with essays on Akunin, Pasternak and Blok. I remember Neya Zorkaya at a couple of festivals devoted to cinema from former Soviet satellite states. Her battles with the okhranik to let simple film buffs without passes like myself into what was a government building showed the dedication she had in insisting on the right of all to enjoy films. One could never be too grateful to a person like her- a genuine heroine who would go to battle with officialdom for the sake of an unknown spectator. The diaries of Rolan Bykov have also recently been printed and they will surely prove to be a fascinating insight into the life and times of one of Soviet cinema's greatest actors (but there were so many greats).

Hopefully having worn off the madness of Zhelezky and its rapacious capitalist English language school directors I'll be posting about these and other subjects more regularly.