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Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Sergei Yutkevich - A Soviet Dandy

There is one name in Soviet cinema who is mentioned very rarely it seems even amongst Russian film scholars & it puzzles me as to why. That name is Sergei Yutkevich. As far as I know no monograph on his has been published in English and rare even is the academic article dedicated to this director. Perhaps one can only give one reason but surely this is an unsatisfactory reason- Yutkevich was politically orthodox and was mainly associated with Leniniana films (The Man with a Weapon, Lenin in Poland, Lenin in Paris etc). During a recent Symposium on Paradjanov, Ian Christie suggested that there was a rumour spread at one time that Yutkevich was a colonel in the KGB. A completely absurd rumour Balaian replied and, in fact, it was generally agreed by panelists of the Symposium that it was Yutkevich who saved Paradjanov's 'Sayat Nova' and was its fiercest defender. Yutkevich may have been politically orthodox but he was an aesthetic radical and, perhaps, one of the directors from the twenties who tried to stay truest to the 'formalist' roots of that period. I have only managed to see a small portion of his films but my recent viewings of his 'Mayakovsky Laughs' and 'Lenin in Paris' (not even his most well-known or best considered of films) have convinced me that this is a film director of whom more needs to be known and a major retrospective would be most welcome. His use of animation in Mayakovsky and even his eclecticism in the rather more conventional 'Lenin in Paris' (which nonetheless has echoes of Klimov's 'Sport, Sport, Sport' and even to my mind small glimpses of Paradjanov's 'Sayat Nova')are crying out for a rediscovery and arguably a whole new interpretation of this director.

The only recent article that seems to do him justice is in Russian published in the review Seans: for Russian speakers here is the link Perhaps the conclusion of the authors is the correct one - Yutkevich was that most unimaginable of creatures for the Western mind: A Soviet Dandy. A creature that would overturn all the myths that have been created about Soviet culture and one too difficult to square with the simple narrative that has been told about Soviet cinema during and even after the Cold War. A formalist who survived and whose least known film 'The Youth of our Country' was praised by Matisse as a masterpiece but has been completely buried & forgotten in any history of Soviet cinema. He also made an adaptation of Othello which won a Directors Prize and was nominated for the Palme D'or in the 1995 Cannes Film Festival. He was also awarded a Golden Lion for his career in the 1982 Venice Film Festival.

The drawing is a portrait of Yutkevich by Matisse.

Monday, 22 March 2010

Valeska Gert

In Naum Kleiman's lecture yesterday (summarised in the last blog) he mentioned a meeting of his with the eccentric German Jewish dancer and film actress Valeska Gert (she was to play in Pabst 'Diary of a Lost Girl' and be rediscovered by Fellini who found her a role in his 'Giuletta of the Spirits' she would, then, also act in films by Schlondorf and Fassbinder). She told Kleiman that Eisenstein was one of only five people she had ever loved in her life. Although she played no part in the history of Soviet cinema apart from her liasion with Eisenstein, it is curious to discover how extraneous influences can be significant in trying to understand early Soviet cinema. Kleiman explained that little has been noted of the influence of German eccentric dance on such actors like Igor Ilinsky. He has always been seen as an example of 'americanitis' in 1920s Soviet cinema and yet there seems to be a whole new avenue of research opening up in discovering whether the style of acting that Ilinsky symbolised (one of Meyerhold's greatest student actors who was to play an essential role in Soviet cinema)did not owe a significant debt to German eccentrism.

A short piece on Valeska Gert can be found here on another blog for those who would like to learn a little more about this fascinating character
The wikipedia entry on her is available here
A wonderful series of photographs of Gert by Mark B. Astendig is available to look at here (the smaller photograph under the title is one of these outstanding photographs by Mark B. Astendig)

Naum Kleiman's Talk at the Meyerhold Museum on Ivan the Terrible

One of my favourite places in Moscow is the Meyerhold Museum. It's rather rare to feel at home in the houses of famous writers and artists but for some reason Russia is an exception. Chekhov's houses in Taganrog and Yalta, Tolstoy's estate in Yasnaya Polyana and the Mayakovsky and Meyerhold museums here in Moscow are places which I would happily revisit.

Returning to Moscow last week I realized that I will come to visit the Meyerhold Museum regularly this time. A series of lectures on Meyerhold's actors and film showings with introductory lectures are each held once a month. To my great regret I have missed those lectures held earlier in the year on Lev Sverdlin and the film 'By the Bluest of Seas' by Evgeny Margolit and other lectures by cinema scholars such as Andrey Shemiakin and Irina Grashchenkova (who, however, will return for another lecture next month on the film A Severe Young Man by Abraam Room) but yesterdays lecture on Eisenstein's 'Ivan the Terrible' by Naum Kleiman was so brilliant that I forgot what I had missed and just savoured the opportunity to hear the world's foremost Eisenstein scholar captivate the audience with a talk so wide-ranging that even Podmoscovia's lakes of melted snow, oil and dirt that greeted me on my walk home couldn't dim my spirits.

It is almost impossible to summarise a lecture by Naum Kleiman. It ranged from the importance of the frescoes, the quotes of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel in the Eisenstein film, the difficulties of those actors who were trained by Stanislavsky had in playing in this film shot by Meyerhold's star pupil, the terrible curse that Ivan the Terrible would have on those who tried to turn the story into art (Kleiman suggested that Eisenstein knew that making Ivan the Terrible would become a fateful decision in his life), Eisenstein's use of colour, the siginificance of the gestures and the fact that this film was in many ways Eisenstein's homage to Meyerhold. Eisenstein never forgot his debt to Meyerhold - it was Meyerhold's archive that he took to Alma Ata for safekeeping during the war. Also, everywhere he went he would take a photograph of Meyerhold with him even though he would certainly be arrested had the authorities found about about this. Kleiman argued that Part Three of Ivan the Terrible could have lead to Eisenstein's arrest and possible execution given his determination to portray Ivan the Terrible (and hence Stalin) as a Lucifer-type figure. Unfortunately that which remains of Part Three is a very small segment. The culprit who destroyed those sequences of the third part of Ivan the Terrible is Ivan Pyriev who decided that Eisenstein had shot Ivan the Terrible 'incorrectly' and that Pyriev himself would show the real Ivan the Terrible to the world. (A crime against cinema similar to those of our contemporary, Mikhalkov?)

Kleiman is a scholar who inspires a fresh love for Soviet cinema and a realization that it is part of the universal history of cinema and art. The references in Ivan the Terrible to Michelangelo, the Japanese Kabuki theatre, to the opera Rigoletto show what a universal artist Eisenstein really was (as was his master Meyerhold). When he introduced the talk, Kleiman reminded the audience of a photograph of Eisenstein shot on the day of Meyerhold's murder (February 2nd 1940). Eisenstein in the photograph wears an expression of absolute gloom on his face as though he somehow had some intuition that this was the day in which his beloved master Meyerhold was to be cruelly executed. It is an irony of sorts that the only section that remains of Ivan the Terrible Part Three is a scene in which a German is being interrogated by a crazed Ivan the Terrible and his oprichniky. A scene which obliquely alludes to the Stalinist camps where one of the greatest theatre directors the world has ever known lost his life.

The photograph accompanying this article is one of Meyerhold playing Ivan the Terrible.

Friday, 19 March 2010

Victor Avilov and The Moscow Theatre of the South West

Just back in Moscow I headed for my favourite bookshop in town. Falanster, an anarchist, leftist bookshop with the lowest prices and best variety of books in Moscow. I immediately searched in the cinema section and found a new book of Yuri Tsivian's articles, and nearby I discovered a biography of the actor Victor Avilov. This took me back to 2001-2002 when I spent my first year in Moscow studying Russian at the Moscow State Pedagogical University with a small group of Chinese and South Korean students. This university was located not far from the Theatre Studio of the South-West and although I soon moved to the North West of the City in Kuntsevo there was a collective taxi (marshrutka) which would take me both to the theatre and to university. In spite of knowing little Russian, I went three or four times a week to the theatre and this particular theatre was my particular favourite. There were a number of plays I would watch spellbound even though not understanding much of the nuance of the narrative - sometimes I would return two or three times to the same play (theatre prices were extremely low at that time - two to four UK Pounds). The style of acting was so unlike other theatres in Moscow. Being such a small theatre it had an intimate feel. I now consider myself extremely fortunate to have been able to witness what in retrospect some consider one of the most extraordinary Russian theatre and film actors of the late twentieth century, Victor Avilov.

Unfortunately, little of Avilov's brilliance as an actor comes across in his cinematic roles. Perhaps only the flawed but interesting Gospodin Oformitel' (translated clumsily as Mister Designer) manages to portray the extraordinary qualities of the actor Avilov through which he realized hiimself and his roles in this theatre. The biography of Avilov by Natalia Staroselskaya is an interesting account of how he became such a spellbinding actor. The Theatre Studio of the South-West was a theatre which existed almost outside of the Soviet theatre system. More than Liubimov's Theatre on the Taganka (perhaps the theatre symbol of the generation of the 'shiestdesiatniki' (the sixties generation of the Thaw), it was a theatre of non-professional actors and managed to express (more than most other theatres) the ethos of a later generation in which the illusions of the Thaw had all died.

Victor Avilov was a lorry driver who had known the theatre director Valery Belyakovich's brother in his school years and had no professional training in acting whatsoever. The development of this actor from starring roles in light comedies and farces in the early years of the theatre to some great roles of absurd theatre(such as Ionesco's 'Rhinoceros') to tragic roles (including a splendid performance of Hamlet which was wildly received at the Edinburgh festival and was deemed by Japanese theatre goers to have been the very best Hamlet they had seen performed)is exceptionally well recounted by the author of this biography. Other great roles he was to play included that of Voland in Master and Margerita as well as Caligula in Camus's play of the same title. He, also, arguably helped to create one of the better recent productions of Gorky's 'The Lower Depths'.

Apparently the first mention of this theatre abroad was provoked by a visit to the theatre by a British photo-journalist who was to witness a fight outside the theatre. Former owners of the building were beating the theatre director Valery Belyakovich due to a dispute over the ownership of the building when out stepped two actors in female dress rehearsing for a farce(one of these 'transvestites' was Victor Avilov)and proceded to defend their owner with their fists. Apparently according to Staroselskaya this theatre then gained a small reputation in Britain as the theatre of Moscow's riff-raff.

One of the few mentions I have been able to find in the British press is an article by John Fowler in the Glasgow Herald from August 25th 1987 comparing it to Grotowski's Poor Theatre. Fowler describes the founding of the theatre, Belyakovich's insistence on using non-trained actors who had not moved through the Soviet theatrical schools and the collective and egalitarian ethos of the theatre but he was signally unable to quite understand much more of the principles behind the theatre - he calls Belyakovich a 'terse communicator' and said that Avilov was reluctant to discuss the subject of his transformation from lorry driver to becoming a world-class actor. The theatre found greater success in Japan where they would return to for many repeat tours.

My own memory of Avilov was his ability to completely hynoptise the audience and I remember that on my later trips (when Avilov acted more rarely) I was often disappointed that some of the plays lost their force without his entrancing presence- the Master & Margerita which I saw without him was, alas, a definite flop (although I have heard that most recently their production of this seminal work has improved). His greatest roles were arguably those of Voland, Hamlet, Caligula, and Berenger in Rhinoceros by Ionesco. I myself have memories of his unforgettable performances in Walpurgis Night by Venedikt Yerofeyev and in Dostoyevsky Trip by Vladimir Sorokin. His last cinema role was, apparently, that of Meyerkhold in a film by Semyon Ryabikov called 'Zolotaya golova na plakhe'.

Monday, 8 March 2010

Sergei Paradjanov

The BFI should be warmly congratulated for their excellent Paradjanov (or Paradzhanov) retrospective. Saturday an excellent symposium was held at the NFT with a whole list of guests including the Ukrainian-Armenian director and friend of Paradjanov Roman Balayan, the film historian and curator Ian Christie, the film-maker and producer Patrick Cazals, the Georgian photographer Yuri Mechitov, the writer, lecturer and broadcaster John Riley and others. The Symposium was full of different 'takes on Paradjanov from the scholarly to the often hilarious personal recollections of Roman Balayan. Ian Christie entitled his introductory piece A Fortunate Man which is a rather strange thing to say about a film director who spent years in the prisons of the Soviet Union. He went on, however, to justify his argument by saying how this might be true. Fortunate to belong to a generation of directors and to have such great opportunities at studying under the great masters in the Soviet Union's State Cinematography Institute (in the workshop of Savchenko where Marlen Khutsiev also studied), fortunate in being the recipient of a powerful international solidarity campaign when he was jailed and being eventually granted his release, fortunate in the ability to create such unique masterpieces which in the conditions of the Soviet Union could still be made if left on the shelf (and would probably never get the funding in the West for such esoteric films). Ian Christie explained how he had begun his filmmaking career in the deadening atmosphere of the late Stalin period. VGIK was at that time a refuge for the greats of Soviet cinema who had been left almost unemployed by the film famine years at the end of Stalin's life.

The consensus is that there was two periods in Paradjanov's film career. He himself would have pointed to his viewing of Tarkovsky's 'Ivan's Childhood' as the dividing point. For Christie the earlier film by Kalatozov 'The Cranes are Flying' was also a significant moment. Yet a viewing even of some of his early films suggest that Paradjanov was able to express stunning visual effects in his films with their rather conventional Socialist Realist plot lines (my viewing of Flower on the Stone convinced me of his superb ability to deal even with black and white and his use of chiaroscuro to maximum effect). His Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors had a fantastically wide distribution and success both in the Soviet Union and abroad. Its use of folklore, its stunning use of colour and his unique way of using music and dance (which was his original orientation, Ian Christie reminds us) makes the viewing of this film a rare and unforgettable experience. Yet in 1965 he was to move even further along the route of being a uniquely visual filmmaker and the remaining rushes of Kiev Frescoes (totalling about 13 minutes) indicate that narrative was to be subordinate to the need to make every frame painterly and artistic.

Layla Alexander-Garrett who was the initiator and organiser of this festival and who had worked with Tarkovsky, contrasted the two artists who had become such close friends. It was, according both to her and Ian Christie, a meeting of opposites. Tarkovsky personified almost absolute restraint and Paradjanov a heady exhuberance. What some believe to be Paradjanov's masterpiece - Sayat Nova (aka The Colour of Pomegranates) was to be made in the most difficult period to work in- the late sixties when so many films were banned. Ian Christie stated that it is a mystery how he actually came to make a film like this at all. The answer, it seems, is that it was made in Armenia (the more distant from the centre one was, the less the iron-grip of control by film bureaucrats) and although it was reedited by Yutkevich most participants agreed that Yutkevich simply wished to preserve the film and was a strong champion of the film (who was according to one speaker the film's only champion at the time). Ian Christie spent some time talking about the international campaign in Paradjanov's defence (after being jailed on a veritable cocktail of charges) by filmmakers and argued that a lot of the campaign came through western Communist Parties and Louis Aragon's intervention with Brezhnev as well as the involvement of those film-makers such as Fellini and Bunuel who played a significant part in his final release from prison. The world cinema tradition that speakers placed Paradjanov in were alongside film-makers such as Pasolini and Jarman in terms of a queer sensibility, but Fellini was also mentioned.

Nouritza Matossian argued powerfully to place Paradjanov within an Armenian perspective (and she posited similarities with Arshile Gorky). His belonging to the Armenian community of Tbilisi also influenced him as did the naif art of Pirosmani (although it was hotly disputed whether one could call Paradjanov a naif or primitive artist). She also emphasised how his idea of epic narrative was what distinguished his style from any remnant of socialist realism. She argued that there were always elements of surrealism in medieval Armenian art and that the major aspect of Armenian art that distinguished Paradjanov from other film directors was his frontality (something that also linked him to Cezanne as well as the reliefs of the Armenian churches). He also used a double language of symbols and builds up a kind of ark of symbols in his work which makes his films so rich in meaning.

For Yuri Mechitov Paradjanov was the first successful post-modernist. Roman Balayan was a great racconteur of Paradjanov tales. Balayan as he said wanted to prove that a genius was also a human being. He explained Paradjanov's love of inventing stories (believing that the truth was too boring), his absolute need for spectators and suggested that he would have made a wonderful circus clown. He told the story of how when Tonino Guerra visited Paradjanov and told him that he was a genius, Paradjanov replied that there was no need to tell him because he already knew and that Tonino Guerra should shout out loud in Italian to his neighbours from the balcony that Paradjanov was a genius. Paradjanov was not satisfied with Tonino Guerra's first attempt and told him to shout louder which poor Tonino Guerra consented to do. Balayan emphasised Paradjanov's love of company. He stated that Paradjanov had not a book in his house but loved going to the opera and although he never generally watched films he went to see a film by Pasolini (Oedipus Rex, I believe) 17 times. Yet Paradjanov's lack of books ignored the fact that he had written 20 wonderful scripts that it was hoped would be translated into English one day.

Elisabetta Fabrizi noted that Paradjanov's central goal was to achieve in film what visual artists had achieved with the flat surface of canvas. She points out his links to both Pasolini and Fellini and argued that Paradjanov was the most complete example of art giving shape in filmic language. She also explained how he created a different kind of temporality in his films and his use of the visual allowed him to transcend reality. She also tried to place the influence of the Russian icon on the film. How icon art was about abstraction and frontal and not like Renaissance Art an imitation of life. In Paradjanov's films each object brings its own reality to the film and is a protagonist for what it represents. She also tried to show how it reflected Persian miniatures in his construction of space in the film. Actors in his films represent type and not real characters. It was emphasised how Paradjanov worked consistently with Sofiko Chiaureli who might play up to six roles in the same film.

John Riley showed Paradjanov in the context of the collage art of Dadaism, Surrealism and Pop Art and the use of found materials. He also relates this to musical influences (of a mainly western orientation) but emphasises the notion of polystylism which was, for Riley, a part of the aesthetic style of the time. He gives the examples of collage films like Romm's 'And nevertheless I believe' with its found footage as well as Khrzhanovsky's 'Glass Harmonica'. He then talks about how Paradjanov uses the idea of asynchronicity that was first trumpeted in the joint statement on sound by Pudovkin, Eisenstein and others. The influence of Eisenstein the participants argued was a very important but undocumented influence.

Other interventions by Patrick Cazals on the bestiary of Paradjanov and Daniel Bird on the state of copies of Paradjanov's films. Alas, Bird's contribution highlighted some worrying facts about how badly preserved these copies are and how little cooperation there has been between film archives and studios in different parts of the former Soviet Union. Paradjanov's dispersal was illustrated in the form of a joke about why he was imprisoned. He stated that he was an Armenian born in Georgian who was jailed by the Russians for being a Ukrainian nationalist!