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Monday, 30 November 2009

Andrei Khrzhanovsky 70 today.

The film-maker of mainly, but not only, animated films Andrei Khrzhanovsky is 70 today. His animated trilogy on Pushkin, his short animated film There Once Lived a Man called Kozyavin, and his recent wonderful feature cum documentary cum animated film 'A room and a half ' on the poet Joseph Brodsky which was, perhaps, the best film I saw last year in Russia all prove what a great man he is. His speech at the last 'pseudo' Congress of the Filmmakers Union telling Mikhalkov that no proctologist would save him now (a moment truly to be savoured in that shameful Congress)- all this point to what a unique and shining figure he is in the Russian cinematic and cultural world.

In today's Novaya Gazeta the great actor Sergey Iurskii (who played the role of Brodksy's father in 'A Room and a half' alongside Alisa Freindlikh and who are shown in the photo above)has written a short article on the filmmaker- . Iurskii reminds readers of Khrzhanovsky's work with such people as Alfred Shnitke, Tonino Guerra, Iuri Norstein, Innokenti Smokutunovksy, Natalia Gutman, Iurii Arabov and others.

Andrei Khrzhanovsky is one of Russia's cinematic world most attractive figures and part of that universe of great talents that makes Russia's cultural achievements still undeniably one of the richest that the world has to offer.

For a superb commentary on Khrzhanovsky's film 'A Room amd a Half' here is the link to David MacFadyen's review in the journal 'KinoKultura'.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

The Imperial Trace

This last week I have spent reading Nancy Condee's recent book on recent Russian cinema. A real tour de force in that Russian cinema is seen in the context of larger theoretical concerns but it is done in such a cogent and convincing way that the references to Said, Jameson as well as a host of historians and theorists of nationalism and empire have their 'diegetic' logic. While the first chapter sets the theoretical scene and an account of recent history of the Russian film industry is given in the next chapter, the six chapters on the contemporary giants of Russian film - Mikhalkov, Muratova, Abdrashitov- Mindadze, Sokurov, German and Balabanov - are masterfully done, bringing out both a well-argued view of each director as well as a host of examples and evidence from their films. At times her writing excels and Condee discovers some succint gems to put her points across. Her thesis in the book is how the imperial identification accounts for a great deal in contemporary Russian cinema but this is not argued dogmatically. It illuminates many things that one feels when watching films by these directors. For me her best chapters were on Muratova and German. Her readings of the filmmakers are open-ended and she is one of the few scholars who really is open to the excellent Russian scholarship that is available.

There are perhaps too many points to make about the book - each chapter deserves a summary. I have a feeling that my preferences for Muratova and German in this group of six are more than justified. My scepticism over Sokurov has been confirmed (although tonight watching his 'Mournful Unconcern' if I have a critique it is not a critique of technique and atmosphere), as for Abdrashitov-Mindadze while wishing that they were more available outside Russia I recognize that they lack the universality of the others. Balabanov is, fascinating but Condee's concluding comments in the postscript are a powerful warning as to his right directed neomodernism and Mikhalkov's retro style is all too obviously hiding a deeply false ideology and commits the sin of 'glossy Stalinism'.

Anyway this blog is not able to do justice to the detailed argumentation present in the book but it is, I think, quite a revelation that is still all too rare in writing about Russian and Soviet cinema.

Friday, 20 November 2009

Post-Soviet Montage

Reading accounts of the glasnost era and post-Soviet cinema there seems to be an emphasis on the categories of social fantasy, chernuka, the recent return of the blockbuster and, of course, the triad of auteurs Sokurov, Gherman and Muratova. Yet missing in many accounts are some very interesting films that haven't been given their due. In this category, Oleg Kovalov is a central figure. His is a return to montage (maybe a third return - the second return, arguably, was linked to the thaw camerwork of Urusevsky and, maybe, one could include Peleshian- although I'm still waiting to see his films for myself).

Kovalov's film The Guardians of Scorpio is a montage of a 1950s spy story with documentary and feature films including large sections from an educational film about the effects of alcoholism. The film's deconstruction of the 1950s lakirovka (and that of Soviet narrative cliches) is masterful. It also, I think, suggested a new direction in which post-Soviet cinema could have taken. Maybe a successor to this is Aleksei Fedorchenko's First on the Moon - a mockumentary. (Lutsik's Outskirts also relies in another way on Soviet classics of the 1930s to comment on the 1990s). The retelling of Soviet history regrettably, though, has produced a new layer of lakirovka in films like Burnt by the Sun, The Thief, Father. Sokurov's Russian Ark and its retelling of history, though relying on artistic experimentation and dialogic tropes still appears the culmination of this new mythologization of Russian history.

The voice of Kovalov and others, though obviously unlikely to garner popular enthusiasm, should have more critical attention directed to their further experiments in montage and demythologization of history. It is also regrettable that more critical attention hasn't been paid to Gherman's Khrustalev, mashinu which, undoubtedly, matches and surpasses (to my mind) the aesthetic novelty of Sokurov's films.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

The Soviet Sport Film (some hidden gems)

I have been reading a new history of Russian cinema written by Birgit Beumers (probably the most active writer on Russian cinema in the UK today, along with Julian Graffy). Well her book is one of the few which try to look at the whole history of Russian (and to some extent Soviet film from its inception). An unenviable task as the years to the death of Stalin are unforgettably and brilliantly captured in the classic account 'Kino' by Jay Leyda. Single periods and genres are also brilliantly written about and a whole host of new readings are available. The immense scholarship behind the Russian 'Kinovedcheskie Zapiski' journal including giants like Evgeny Margolit, Naum Kleiman and the late Neya Zorkaya means that a new version covering the whole of Russian cinematic history is long overdue. Well I expect to expand on the virtues and shortcomings of this new history in weeks to come but my first impressions are coloured by films that Beumers hasn't mentioned. My first gripe is that she has completely neglected a few classics of Stalinist cinema - Room's 'A Strict Youth', Kuleshov's 'The Great Consoler' and Barnet's 'By the Bluest of Seas' are not given a single mention between them.

Moreover, her account of Klimov's films neglects his 'Sport, Sport, Sport'. Since I spent a month or two last year watching the film about ten times to translate the film and then help to insert the subtitles I think that this is one of the most neglected and more fascinating films that need to be rehabilitated. The film director, Aleksander Sokurov, has spoken of how he feels this to have some truly unique features that surprise him more than Klimov's much better known 'Come and See'. As last year I spent some time trying to research Soviet sports films I feel that there are a few more gems to come in this completely under-reserached region of Soviet film (even in Russia it is genuinely difficult to unearth scholarship about this genre of film). Anyway apart from 'Sport, Sport, Sport' there are potentially some fascinating films from the 1920s dedicated to fizkultura and one dedicated to the 1929 Spartakiad. Yutkevich made a film in 1946 that was fulsomely praised by Matisse (but is simply ignored by scholarhsip). Many films were shot in the 1970s (to be honest amidst a lot of dross especially by Victor Sadovsky all of whose films were sports films and, alas, rather poor and conventional ones) but there were some really curious films like 'Girl with a pony-tail' and 'The new girl' which deserve some scholarly attention.

However, it is Klimov's film which stands as one of the very central films in this genre. A documentary film with fantastic elements it is as much an experiment in style and pivotal in Klimov's move from comedy to tragedy. Sport seen like in this film has rarely been seen before or since. Maybe a flawed masterpiece (Klimov was highly critical of it) yet it has enough of a unique vision for it to merit mention in a history of Russian cinema.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

The latest saga of Mikhalkovshchina

According to the blog of film critic Andrei Shemyakin ( a new purge in the Russian cinematic world has taken place. Filmmakers like Aleksandr Sokurov and Vadim Abdrashitov, the producer Aleksandr Rodnyansky and the editor of Russia's foremost monthly cinema journal 'Iskusstvo Kino' Danil Dondurei have all been removed from the State Cinema Council. The story of Russia cinema's travails in the past few years is a long and tedious one but there seems a number of constants: an attempt to build a vertical of power under Nikita Mikhalkov and an attempt to push a 'national-patriotic' agenda. In the past year these trends have led to a full-scale conflict (bursting into the public arena in the struggle over the rival Cinematographers Union congresses) and now a purging of critical voices. The campaign against Marlen Khutsiev was taken to sickening lengths this spring even excluding him from posts he held at VGIK (the State Cinema School). Now it appears that this is going further with the removal of others who have been critical of the present reign of Mikhalkovshchina. Shemayakin denominates the new elite around Mikhalkov (mainly a group of lesser figures in the cinema world and of bureaucrats close to the political elite) as a cinemenklatura. This, unfortunately, is likely to be a story that will run and run.

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Eisenstein's Immoral Memories

Have just finished Eisenstein's Immoral Memories. I believe that this is not the full edition of his memoirs but there are nonetheless some wonderful sequences. Herbert Marshall's introduction and some of his notes do tend to reflect a Cold War prism of thinking but it is a delight to read Eisenstein whose style of writing obeys a personal logic and is nowhere pervaded by the logic of public Socialist Realist rhetoric.

Eisenstein returns again and again to his memories of Meyerhold in these memoirs and these were written at the height of the Stalin period when no rehabilitation of Meyerhold was in site. The writing style is impish, fresh and delightfully eclectic.

His account of many of his meetings are gems in themselves and for me the meeting with Joyce held a great interest. His realization only at the end of the evening that he had met with someone who was more or less blind. His accounts of his time in France and his problems with the French authorities who wanted to extradite him are also often very amusing.
He describes many of his ideas about montage, intellectual cinema and the use of colour. Reading this account of his life it is astounding too how many film projects that Eisenstein worked on throughout (projects that were never completed). They runs in their tens - Sutter's Gold, An American Tragedy, a film on Pushkin (based on the book by Tynyanov, a film on Toussaint L'Ouverture and so on). Truly a renaissance man in all his multiple passions and interests. I realize that I have only begun to glimpse the depths of the world of Eisenstein. (Recently I read Bordwell's 'The Cinema of Eisenstein- an excellent introduction, probably the best in English, which it is necessary to return to again and again). Too few of Naum Kleiman's writings on Eisenstein are available in translation. A real pity for Kleiman is the very best of Eisenstein scholars.

Friday, 6 November 2009

Kira Muratova - 75 yesterday.

One day late but Ukraine's greatest living director had her 75th birthday yesterday. For those who managed to catch her new film 'Melody for a street organ' (or for those who can go and watch the film at London's Apollo cinema tomorrow) they will understand the greatness of this film director. Her film 'The Asthenic Syndrome' is the film of the glasnost period and 'Melody of a Street Organ', I believe, equals this film in its impact on the viewer. She is the great formalist director of contemporary Russian film (well, yes Ukraine's greatest living director who is better described as a Russian film maker- a bit complicated, I suppose). Her films merit the characterisation of a powerful Kino Fist that Eisenstein gave to his idea of cinema (maybe Gherman's 'Khrustalev, mashinu' comes into this category, too). A retrospective of her films in the UK and elsewhere is surely merited.

Musei Kino

How can one write about Russian or Soviet film without mentioning the name of Naum Kleiman and remembering the days when the Cinema Museum (Musei Kino) had its own building near Krasnopresenskaya metro? The story of its closure (although it is running a small operation at the Central House of Artists) is, perhaps, one of the saddest indications of the sickening maneouvres by 'cultural' representatives of the 'national-patriotic' elite like Nikita Mikhalkov. (However, I do not intend to write a blog on the machinations of this rather unsavoury character: undoubtedly a talented director but a deeply unpleasant person when it comes to the story of the Cinema Museum and as well as his recent machinations at the Union of Cinematographers and clash with Marlen Khutsiev).

Musei Kino's director, Naum Kleiman, has been compared to Henri Langlois, the man at the head of Cinemateque Francaise for many years. In many ways justly. I remember spending sometimes six days a week at the Musei Kino and the four screens showed films from the entire history of world cinema. It was a film education greater than I could get anywhere else. I spent the first year watching all the world classics that I had not managed to see and then concentrated on Soviet cinema. I remember falling in love with Soviet film after a viewing of 'The Extraordinary of Mr West in the Land of the Bolsheviks'. Without Musei Kino I would have known nothing of Otar Ioseliani, Boris Barnet, Vasili Shukshin, Kira Muratova, Abram Room, Aleksandr Medvedkin, Marlen Khutsiev, Elem Klimov, Mikhail Kalatozov, FEKS... well, the list is endless. I would also have missed out on the Master Class of the Dardenne Brothers, Istvan Szabo, not have met Shavkat Abdusalamov and not have watched on a large screen the full opus of Fassbinder, Bertolucci, Godard or Bresson.

This building was truly a second home for me in Moscow and I still mourn its loss. Hopefully one day a new Cinema Museum will open and Naum Kleiman will be there to direct it. A vain hope? Let's hope not.

For those who read Russian here is the website address ( )dedicated to this most venerable of institutions. A rebuilt Cinema Museum with Naum Kleiman at its helm would signify that one could breathe more freely in contemporary Russia.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Irakli Kvirikvadze & the battle of the Fellinists and the Antonionists

The great racconteur of Georgian cinema is, of course, Irakli Kvirikvadze who made The Swimmer and a Georgian version of Pirandello's The Jar. He is famous for his extremely tall stories. The only attitude to a Kvirikadze story is 'Se non e' vero, e' ben trovato...' (Even if it's not true, it's a great story). Well reading last spring his interview with Larisa Maliukova last summer on a dirty elektrichka from Zhelezka to Moscow was a supreme delight. I just loved his tale of the champagne fight at VGIK one New Year between Fellinists and Antonionists. Here is my (poor) translation and the original in Russian below:

I was in love with Fellini. At that time our cinema gods were Fellini and Antonioni. In VGIK there was a sharp dividing line between Fellinists and Antonionists. My close friend Soso Chkheidze was an Antonionist. On the fifth floor of the halls of residence one New Year there began one hell of a battle at 3 o' clock in the morning. Champagne bottles flew everywhere. To my mind the Fellinists came out on top.

Я был влюблен в Феллини. В ту пору нашими кинобогами были Феллини и Антониони. Во ВГИКе возник жесткий водораздел между феллинистами и антонионистами. Мой близкий друг Сосо Чхеидзе был антонионистом. В Новый год в общежитии на пятом этаже часа в три ночи началось эпохальное сражение. Бутылки от шампанского летели во все стороны. По-моему, феллинисты победили.

Which Russia is Real? (A Discussion)

Yesterday (November 4th) as part of the 3rd Russian Film Festival in London there was a discussion with the title 'Which Russia is Real?' in which the directors Pavel Bardin(left) Vitali Mansky and the film critic Andrei Plakhov (right) were present as were a number of other British documentarists and media personalities including Teresa Cherfas who produced the Jonathan Dimbleby Russia series and the former BBC correspondent Bridget Kendall. Well, the discussion was a bit of a mish-mash. What were they looking at? Documentary film, the vision of Russia in the West, the view of Russia in Russia, the view of Britain for a Russian film critic, which are the best documentary films of Russia, should films give a positive image of Russia (the Positive Hero replaced by the Positive Image?) as well as some discussion of the film Russia 88 and of the vicissitudes of it and Mansky's film 'The Revolution that Wasn't' in Russia itself. Oh, and the question of censorship and freedom. In short themes that could have taken a whole evening to get through. The proliferation of themes meant that none were discussed and thrashed out till they produced some completely new thinking but I left the meeting feeling that enough hints were given in new directions that one could start thinking about this subject in some new way and yes it was great to see and hear some words from critics like Plakhov and directors like Mansky and Bardin. Some of the British speakers left me less impressed although there was an interesting account by the director of a documentary school of an exchange programme between VGIK documentary studios and his school, and how the students were able to find new images of the respective countries that they visited.

Andrei Plakhov in answering the question 'Which Russia is Real?' tried to question about 'Which Britain is Real?'. Being a film critic prior to coming to the UK he had an image of Britain and London as rather like a Ken Loach / Mike Leigh film - he mentioned the film Naked and recounted how this image changed after visits here. Then mention was made of the fact that films which had success abroad in Russia inevitably come under the charge of films being made for export. Of course, there then comes the call for the Positive Image of Russia which one member of the audience made (although in a slightly different context). Naturally, the Positive Image being manufactured on Russia's state channels or on Russia Today was heavily criticised especially by the two documentary filmmakers (both critical intellectuals who have been on Ekho Moskvy a number of times). Pavel Bardin made the comment that people in Russia were in danger of having their view of reality over-determined by State Television so they will one day start actually believing the television image rather than their own eyes. Mansky then told the audience of his watching Turkmeni television and described how this kind of lakirovka is only possible in a country with concentration camps. To the question of having a more positive image of Russia they replied that making an excellently made film even if it is about prostitution is a way of creating a positive image by showing foreign audiences that Russia can make great films (and Plakhov cited the case of how Aki Kaurismaki was criticised at first for making a bad image of Finland but then became a kind of national hero for making Finland so well known). Well, I suppose the context is all important and that what these directors were saying would be said by all critical filmmakers.

An interesting point was made about the different traditions of socially critical filmmaking in Russia and Britain. Maybe the question was erroneously made to Bridget Kendall but it was, I feel, one of the questions that pointed to a way out of a vicious circle and over labouring the point of justifying the right of challenging false images. Here was a new idea that Russia and Britain may have different cultural traditions of social criticism in filmmaking and a lot could have been said about this, although there was, alas, no one to talk about this for none had their lives so steeply emmerged in both cultures (maybe one should have tried to cajole an argument out from the excellent translator of the meeting).

A question from the floor as to why Pavel Bardin chose the genre of mockumentary for his film 'Russia 88' could also have led to some new explorations of the genre. Bardin explained that it was a genre that he had long contemplated using (even before deciding about the subject of his film) and explained that he thought there were merits in reaching a wider public (were it not for the fact that his film hadn't been given a certficate but is doing fine on the internet and is selling many pirated copies). In retrospect it is hard to call Russia 88 a mockumentary- it is a kind of fusion. Maybe the most authentic mockumentary made in recent years in Russia was 'First on the Moon' - a very interesting film that would have led to some fascinating viewpoints on history and myth.

Pavel Bardin mentioned the many problems his film has had with bureaucracy and doesn't think it will ever be shown on Russian TV but the film has been shown at meetings which involved widely differing audiences (from decision-makers 100 meters from the Kremlin to antifa and National Bolshevik activists in Barnaul) and their reaction to the film according to Bardin has been completely 'adequate'. My memory of this spring/summer when his film came out in pirated editions in the streets of Moscow is that the film was definitely being pushed by the sellers (although not sure if their reaction to the film can be seen as completely 'adequate').

Vitali Mansky in describing the censorship situation used the example of how his film had not been shown even at the Documentary Film festival. A portrait of Russia's opposition his film was not so much the victim of censorship but of self-censorship in which festival directors and TV programmers are not even willing to try and get the agreement from some bureaucrat but are trying to grasp what their reaction might be. The bureaucrats or potential censors are actually more liberal than these frightened little lesser bureaucrats.

Someone from the floor asked whether freedom in this country was any greater than that in Russia to which Teresa Cherfas suggested that this was a deeply pernicious way of seeing things. Well, this question always arises in some form or another and this slightly moralistic reply also arises (allusions to murdered journalists). The problem is that this discussion - whose freedom is greater? - is, it seems, very much a red herring theme. The more interesting problem is to discover what is the real, everyday situation of censorship and the unsaid. What are the taboos? (Mansky suggested that Putin's daughter is one such taboo in Russia detailing how he spent a very long time just trying to get a shot of them from behind in a documentary he made on Putin). There are obviously both parallels and differences and, perhaps, it would be more productive to tease out what these are in a more calm, unhysterical and less polemical way. Yet this obviously is not a way that people are encouraged to discuss this question.

Alas, although Jeremy Hicks was present there was no significant discussion of the history of Rusian and Soviet documentary film. A missed opportunity. All in all though, it was a discusion that led to some unanswered but highly interesting pointers to possible new angles on documentary films and the image of a country. The meeting was very well attended for an event of this kind with most seats being occupied and the discussion didn't lag. A good chance to get to reflect on this question from many new angles.