Friday, 26 February 2010
Last weeks Times Literary Supplement came out with an article praising Kozintsev's Korol Lir (or King Lear) as the adaptation on stage and screen "closest, not just to the radical energies of Shakespeare's play, which interrogates the political uses of land, but also to our own twenty-first century fears and preocupations about what we do to the land - and what it does to us". An interesting article which calls for the reappraisal of this fascinating film that was made on the cusp of the period between the end of the thaw and the setting in of Brezhnevian stagnation.
The article by a trio of authors (Richard Margraf Turley, Howard Thomas and Jayne Elisabeth Archer) argues that the vision of Kozintsev was much closer to Shakespeare than that of Peter Brooks due to its acknowledgment that Shakespeare's play is an arable play. A powerful argument is made by the authors but this is marred by some really silly lapses of judgement and factual howlers. Stating that "situating some of the play in a plain by the Caspian Sea ... (Kozintsev) brings to play his own childhood memories of disease and famine under Stalin" is alas a real howler - Kozintsev was a well-established film director under Stalin and no child! Equally calling Kozintsev a dissident film-maker is giving a whole new meaning to the word dissident which it simply doesn't have. Kozintsev definitely wasn't a mouthpiece for state ideology and managed to carve out his own autonomous space but no, he wasn't a convinced disident a la Solzhenitsyn either. In spite of these qualms it is nice to read an article evaluating a Soviet film so highly as being the closest adaptation of Shakespeare.
A clip from the end of the film is shown. The script of the play is from Pasternak's translation and the soundtrack is Shostakovich's. Can't get much better than that.
Thursday, 25 February 2010
Not a cinematic post but during a visit to an exhibition at the Palazzo Zabarella in Padua I was struck by a painting which would immediately bring to mind a classic Russian painting. The Italian painting L'alzaia (upper painting)is by the Italian 'Macchiaiolo' painter Telemaco Signorini and the classic Russian painting (lower painting) is, of course, by Ilya Repin and one of Russia's most famous paintings 'Barge Haulers on the Volga'. The Italian painting dates back to 1864 and Repin's was carried out between 1870-1873. Telemaco Signorini is considered the most European of the Macchiaiolo school. He also lived some time in the Cinque Terre village of Riomaggiore.
Vladimir Motyl died recently at the age of 83. Known above all for his classic Eastern 'White sun of the desert' (denounced at the time as a counter-revolutionary film) and his bitter war comedy 'Zhenia, Zhenechka and Katiusha' (also running into problems with the censors) he gained a truly popular success. Andrey Shemyakin has written an interesting article on his blog linking Motyl to the eccentric tradition in Russian film (from Barnet to the FEKS circle of Kozintsev and Trauberg) as well as situating him in a trio of directors - Savva Kulish & Gennadi Poloka being the other two - who managed to break out of the sixties reigning aesthetic.
Motyl made a mere ten films in his fourty year career but he is known by the public for those two mentioned above and in more recent years has had little popular success. The youtube clip shows the beginning of his film 'Zhenia, Zhenechka and Katiusha'with English subtitles.
A month in Italy left me with ample time firstly for a visit to a film festival in Trieste, secondly for watching some of my DVDs that I left there and thirdly to read some of my Italian collection of books on Soviet culture and cinema. I have always been curious as to the different approach and different reception that Soviet cinema and culture has had in Italy as compared to Britain. An obviously minor topic but a curious one nonetheless and one which would need an amount of research to draw anything but merely impressionistic conclusions. Yet there are some fascinating stories linking Italy with Russian and Soviet cinema. One of course was the story of Francesco Misiano who I blogged about a few months ago - someone who played a not insignificant part in the very history of Soviet cinema.
One of the people most associated with the discovery of Soviet cinema in Italy was Umberto Barbaro (pictured above) - one of the main figures in Italy's 'Experimental Centre of Cinematography' which existed during fascism but then was to create a whole generation of anti-fascist Neorealist filmmakers and be a refuge for staunch anti-fascists like Barbaro even during the fascist period. Barbaro was to translate the writings of Pudovkin and Eisenstein after the second world war and become the first great film scholar to bring Soviet cinema to the attention of the Italian cinema world. It is curious, though, that even during the 'ventennio' (the period of fascist rule) Soviet cinema entered fascist Italy -for example, at the Venice Film Festival in 1932 & 1934- Ekk's film 'A Voucher for Life' (Putyovka v Zhizn') enjoying particular success. Even specialised reviews devoted considerable space to Soviet cinema so it can't be said that there was a total absence of cinematic links.
It was, of course, only after the second world war that Soviet cinema could, however, be more openly available to a larger public. This was, perhaps, not the most propitious time for this to happen. Late Stalinist cinema was suffering its film famine and, alas, producing some of its least appealing "lacquered" films and those like The Vow (Kliatva) and The Fall of Berlin (Padenie Berlina) in which Stalin appears as a demi god-like figure. Yet culture in immediate post-war Italy was a highly politicised sphere and the Cold War played a more significant role in Italy than elsewhere. There is, apparently, a review by Italo Calvino defending these films. The role of cinema clubs is another interesting story and again one in which politics played its part and the Cold War determined to a large degree how Soviet cinema was received. Another film scholar, Guido Aristarco, will appear on the horizon and will develop a Marxist approach to film criticism and will be as much a champion of Eisenstein as Barbaro was for Pudovkin (he was also referred to by Luchino Visconti as the "most Viscontian of critics").
The greatest interpreter of Russian & Soviet cinema in Italy was Giovanni Buttafava whose knowledge of Soviet cinema was phenomenal (the great Russian critic Naum Kleiman painted a wonderful portrait of Gianni Buttafava in his introduction to his interviews with Bernard Eisenschitz). Almost as fascinating were characters like Gastone Predieri who Enrico Ghezzi characterised as "the man with the projector". Predieri made sure that the Association Italy-USSR would have one of the largest stores of Soviet films in Western Europe. In fact even today searching on youtube, clips of rare Soviet films regularly appear with Italian subtitles. Enrico Ghezzi's role as conductor of Italy's mythical 'Fuori Orario' (a late night TV programme that runs from 2 am to 6am and which shows all the films that are nowhere to be seen or found elsewhere- among which hundreds of hidden Soviet classics have been shown on Italian television).
These are some of the names of Italian scholars and film professionals who have brought Soviet cinema to Italy. 'Film professionals', though, is a misleading characterisation of these characters- there is a passion mixed with 'fanaticism' in these characters that is rarely seen in the Anglo-Saxon world - or rather Italian history has shaped a less academic and more 'passionate' relationship between the world of Soviet cinema and Italian interpreters of this world. The reception of Italian cinema was both more politicised but also more possible outside a purely academic sphere because the greater amount of possible links during the Cold War through the Italian Communist Party. Yet discovering more in this realm is a subject for further research.
Wednesday, 24 February 2010
Staying in Liguria usually means a weekly visit to Genova (or Genoa as it is written in English). I love the description given of the city by one of Chekhov's characters in the last act of The Seagull who when asked (as someone who has travelled everywhere in the world) which city is the best city in the world to live in replies Genoa because it is only there that one feels the presence of a world soul. Chekhov only very briefly visited Genoa so I am not sure if this was his genuine feeling about the city. My own love for the city grows each time I visit.
This visit was rewarded with a very special treat. Genoa has a splendid record of Russian themed exhibitions - significant ones have been a large exhibition in 2001 on major Russian artists who have lived & painted in Liguria, another one on Soviet avant-garde arists and this time an exhibition of Henri Cartier Bresson's photographs of the Soviet Union during two trips there in 1954 and 1972/3. The exhibition included photographs from Moscow, Irkutsk, Georgia, Kyryzstan and Baku. For me the real revelation was those photographs he took in 1954.
My favourite was of a street scene near a tram stop (it is the photo rather badly reproduced here). In the right-hand background there is a tram and some passengers alighting, in the left background a seller of kvas. In the foreground are two 'milliotsionery' smiling and glancing in different directions - one appears to be looking at the two young women at the very front of the photograph. One of these women has her back to the camera but her head is turned so that her expression is clearly visible, the other woman is looking elsewhere. There is a sense that they are pausing for thought. The woman whose front is towards the camera is holding a small case and they are both wearing sandals. Cartier Bresson has managed to capture something special in this photograph and in many others of Moscow and elsewehere in the Soviet Union. A moment of life, something which it is nearly impossible to discover in Soviet cinema of 1954. For me the best scenes of street life can only be found in Khutsiev's 1967 movie 'July Rain' at the very end when he is filming a veterans meeting on Vitory Day (May 9th) or perhaps some of Romm's closing street scenes at the end of his documentary 'Ordinary Fascism' even though to me they don't generate the charm that Cartier Bresson or Khutsiev captures.
In the exhibition were some other splendid photographs. A wonderful street scene in Baku with children, a scene near Kazansky Train Station with a line of taxis, flower sellers and an elegantly dressed womansurprised by the camera. Cartier Bresson manages to capture some wonderful facial expressions. Other splendid photos are of the Metropol Hotel canteen for workers with its 'doska pochyota' portraits of Lenin and Stalin(this was 1954) and the various workers; another photograph that was amongst the best was of a shop assistant demonstrating a single bag to six or seven female customers- the eyes of these customers all fixed on this single handbag. A fascinating portrait of the human face.
All in all a real documentary of the Soviet Union of 1954 (and also of the early seventies) rarely fixed in Soviet film of that time. Genoa's excellent exhibitions of Russian and Soviet culture has made it an excellent showcase as to what can be done to promote real cultural ties with Russia.