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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.


  1. Nice blog post on Yutkevich - I agree that his films deserve to be more widely seen. Another film by him that's worth a look is "Syuzhet dlya nebol'shogo rasskaza" (1969), which is about Chekhov. It's not as eclectic in style as "Maykovsky Laughs," but it shows his continuing fondness for formal experimentation.

    My own archival research on the production and censorship of "Sayat-Nova"/"The Color of Pomegranates" supports this view of Yutkevich as someone who sincerely liked Paradjanov's film and wanted to "save it," even if some of his changes to the film were misguided. Alexei Romanov personally disliked the film but allowed Goskino of Armenia to release the 77-minute version with Armenian titles within their own republic. The film was not formally "shelved" like "Andrei Rublyov," but Goskino USSR refused to distribute it outside of Armenia. Yutkevich was familiar with the project from the very beginning, since he was an expert reader for the script when it was initially reviewed by Goskino USSR's Script Editorial Board. He sincerely wanted to see it released; the small number of cuts he made and the new Russian titles he created apparently made the film "understandable" enough that Romanov finally allowed limited distribution in the rest of the Soviet Union. Another expert reader on the script was Mikhail Bleiman, who really hated the film and later wrote a memeo behind the scenes suggesting to the authorities that Paradjanov should no longer be allowed to make films. I write about the film's production and censorship in an article I wrote for _The Armenian Review_ several years back; it's part of a longer book I'm currently writing on Paradjanov.

    I'm glad to hear that Roman Balayan was able to attend the Symposium. Did he say anything else of interest that you remember? Who else was there?

  2. Thanks for the note. I am hoping to watch the 'Syuzhet dlia nebolshogo rasskaza' in the next few days as I have discovered it here on dvd. Actually at the moment there is a retrospective of Chekhov adaptations in Moscow as part of the 150th anniversary of his birth- it is a pity that Yutkevich's film was not also shown (though obviously not an adaptation I imagine it would have made a good introductory film to the retrospective).

    I'd be very interested to read your article (indeed the whole special issue of the Armenian Review devoted to Paradjanov)- I have some access to the library at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies in London which I note have a copy (so if I don't find a copy in the Lenin Library here in Moscow I'll certainly read through your articles when I'm back in the UK in May).

    Balayan's speech at the Symposium was mainly about Paradjanov the man and he had some lovely anecdotes to tell about Paradjanov. I mentioned some in my other post.

    The main points that I remember were about Paradjanov's love of embellishing simple everyday situations which then became elaborate stories of what had happened that very morning (and he would often tell these stories to people who had been present that day- when asked why he had invented things Paradjanov would reply that life was boring without stories), his love of company and need for an audience. Balayan insisted that Paradjanov had no books in his house and very rarely went to the cinema although he did go to see a Pasolini film 17 times - I think the film in question was Oedipus Rex but I am not 100% certain (Balayan mentioned Paradjanov's love for the ballet and opera). He also mentioned some stories about Tonino Guerra's visit to Paradjanov. Another thing that Balayan stated was how Paradjanov was what he called a typical 'sovetsky chelovek' - this was the response to someone who used the word dissdient in relation to Paradjanov. He mentioned that Paradjanov's first gift to him (Balayan) was a portrait (possibly a collage) of Lenin while noting at the same time that Paradjanov would shout from his balcony that Communists were Fascists. He mentioned his first meeting with Paradjanov (he was introduced by a common acquaintance - I forget his name). I remember also that there was a small discussion in which Balayan rejected the term 'naif' or primitivism as a description of his art that one of the other speakers used). At the end of the meeting there was a long drawn out discussion about the fact that Paradjanov's date of birth and date of death were both fictitious - someone in the audience spoke at length about his meeting with Paradjanov - unfortunately not displaying the charm that Balayan speeches had.

    The other speakers were Ian Christie, Layla Alexander-Garrett, Patrick Cazals, Yuri Mechitov, John Riley, Daniel Bird and Elizabetta Fabrizi. I can't remember if it was Balayan or Alexander-Garrett who stated that Paradjanov's films had more affinity with films of Fellini than with those of Pasolini.

    The BFI did film the Symposium and mentioned that parts of it would be publicly available (possibly on You Tube- although a quick check doesn't seem to reveal that they have as yet made it available) - however, I imagine, the full filmed version of the Symposium would probably be available to watch on. request.

  3. I'm looking forward to seeing the video of the symposium whenever it becomes available.

    Balayan is right to challenge the notion that Paradjanov was a "naif." He studied in a conservatory and later in the VGIK, where he received a well-rounded education like all the other filmmakers there. It's true he hardly read at all, but he was in regular contact with other Soviet intellectuals and even corresponded with Viktor Shklovsky. He was definitely aware of what was going on around him. In the script for "Kyiv Frescoes" you can see him consciously incorporating elements from European art cinema of the 1960s, especially Fellini's 8 1/2, which made a tremendous impression on him. And it goes without saying that "The Color of Pomegranates" shows tremendous sophistication in its attempt to create a poetic cinema.

    Have a great time in Moscow!

  4. Yes, I'm not sure whether the other speaker (I think it was Fabrizi) actually suggested that Paradjanov was a "naif" artist but that there might have been some influence in his work of "naif" artists like Pirosmanishvili. I think it might just have been that it was how Balayan had interpreted what Fabrizi said. Balayan spoke through an interpreter and he may have heard the word naif and then thought that Fabrizi was referring to Paradjanov as a naif artist when she just meant that naif artists like Pirosmanishvili were just another influence to some aspect of Paradjanov's work. I remember that there was a lot of talk about the importance of frontality in Paradjanov's work - in fact this was by a speaker who I hadn't mentioned but whose name seems to have escaped my mind - she concentrated her speech on the specifically Armenian aspects and motifs in Sayat Nova - I haven't brought the list of speakers that the BFI gave out with me but I'll try to check. I had forgotten to mention her account. I did make some notes but left them in the UK. I tended to remember Balayan's anecdotes the most because they were so colourful. He also mentioned another of Paradjanov's favourite sayings Communism was Soviet Power plus the Paradjanization of the whole country.
    In connection with the discussion of literary influences Layla Alexander-Garrett also spoke of what a wonderful collection of film scripts that Paradjanov had written and expressed the hope that they would be translated into English and published soon.
    If I remember other points that these speakers made in the near future I'll let you know.
    I went to the Symposium not knowing very much about Paradjanov compared to other Soviet directors (though I had watched my copies of Kiev Frescos, Tsvetok na kamne and Teni Zabytikh Predkov beforehand and realized how unique his style really was - the Kiev Fresco rushes in particular made me realize that Paradjanov seemed to be going in a completely new direction in Soviet cinema. I came away from the Symposium even more convinced of this and genuinely deserves equal attention to that given to Tarkovsky in world cinema studies. Balayan's speech gave me the impression that if there is one person one can attach the epithet 'larger than life' to (with an almost 'literal' sense) this is to Paradjanov.

  5. Hi

    As one of the speakers at the Symposium, I'm glad you enjoyed what I thought was a great and gratifyingly well-attended event. What dissemination plans are I don't know. I (and I presume the others) signed a blood-chit (I actually tweaked mine to say that they could share it only after clearing it with me!)

    I suspect the "frontality" was being discussed by Elisabetta Fabrizi in comparing Paradjanov's work to the composition and perspective of icons.

    As far as Yutkevich is concerned, I guess I was unlucky in that the first things I saw were the (still to me, relatively poor) middle period films "Man with a Gun" and "Yakov Sverdlov". This and some claims that I read that he'd somehow butchered Sayat Nova put me rather against him. His books, filled with photographs of him with star western intellectuals ("This is me with Picasso", "This is me with Romain Rolland", This is me with...") hardly helped this impression. So I was amazed when I saw things like "The Golden Mountains" and "The Counterplan", the beautifully shot "Otello" and the later films.

    Definitely someone who needs some reassessment. The literature in English is pretty limited but the chapter in the Schnitzers' book (translated from French) has some value.

  6. Many thanks for the note about the chapter in the Schnitzers- I'll take a look at that when I'm back in the UK. I know that the Schnitzers wrote their own full-length study of Yutkevich (alas available only in French, my French is pretty basic but as I have some other Latin based language knowledge, I'll try to plough through their book at some point, too). I watched "The Counterplan" on a poor VHS copy done for me by Illusion cinema- I was impressed but am hoping I can watch it sometime on the large screen.

    I hope my explanation of things said at the Symposium weren't too inexact. I was working more from memory than from notes made. I was very interested in your contribution about polystylism and the use of found footage and collage. As far as I remember in your talk you used the examples of Romm's 'And nonetheless I believe' as well as Khrzhanovsky's 'The Glass harmonica'. I was hoping to ask you a question about this at the Symposium but didn't manage to before the meeting was 'timed out' after a rather lengthy discussion on Paradjanov's dates of birth and death. I was wondering if you would agree that Klimov's 'Sport, Sport, Sport' was also part of this trend. A friend of mine who teaches 'Sport and Media' at Brighton University believes it to be one of the most interesting poetic documentaries on sport in world cinema and yet somehow there is very little written about this film even (as far as I can tell) in Russia. I know that the filmmaker Alexander Sokurov rates this film very highly but most scholars tend to dismiss this as Klimov's least interesting film or to ignore it altogether. I know up until a short time ago it was almost unavailable on DVD (although it had some popular success at the time of its release) but I am curious to know your thoughts on this film. (I know that Klimov worked on Romm's film 'I vse taki ya veriu' after his death so I presume that there could be some grounds for arguing that Romm's film was an influence of some sort.