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Thursday, 22 April 2010

Burnt by the Sun 2 or Cranberry Soup. An early reaction.

This morning I finally had the chance to watch the sequel to Mikhalkov's 'Burnt by the Sun'. Apparently the relative dearth of reviews of this film in the printed press up until now has something to do with the fact that, according to theatre and film critic Ksenia Larina, a number of illustrious critics out of Nikita Sergeyevich's favour (Victor Matizen, Lidia Maslova, Iurii Bogomolov, Larisa Maliukova, Leonid Pavliuchik)were not invited to the pompous premiere at the Kremlin on the 17th April. Well, there is a lot to be said about the film (but little of it for the film) but after my first viewing there was little doubt that this film is represented perfectly well by the poster above. If Russians love to discover the 'cranberries' (absurd myths and obvious inaccuracies) in foreign films about Russia, here they have the head cranberry sower right in their midst.

This was no 'Great Film about the Great War' (as the pre-film publicity and official poster argued) but a film so full of cringe-inducing moments that Larina was spot on to call it a' great deception'. The budget of $65 million (the highest ever spent on a Russian film) must be seen in the context of a country which sells off its Cinema Museums to strip club and casino owners and denies some excellent art house film producers any hope of state funding.

The three-hour sequel was a morass of episodes without structure. There were salvagable scenes (the battle scene with the young elite corps and the penal battalio was not wholly without merit and the acting of Evgeny Mironov was generally fine)but those moments where one actually wished to follow the events were probably outweighed by moments of outrage. Outrage at the misuse of German and Klimov quotes, outrage at the scenes where one was being overtly indoctrinated with religious twaddle, outrage at historical and narrative inaccuracies which were not subtle but continuous to the point of nausea, outrage at the attempt to copy Spielberg's 'Saving Private Ryan' when it was Spielberg himself who was imitating Klimov's 'Come and See'- the best film about World War Two (and the best film about this subject that will probably ever be made). Outrage that Mikhalkov's film drags Klimov's scene of a burning hut into a sickening (and Trofimenkov is right to use the term) an almost 'pornographic' parody. Well the criticisms that one may make about the film are pretty endless (the very resurrection of the characters in the first place is, of course, a further complaint that one may have about tampering with narrative continuity).

The film fails on many levels: it fails as myth, it fails as historical reconstruction, it fails as sequel, it fails as war film and as some commentators have pointed out it almost only succeeds as a loose string of comic-like episodes but the element of 'lubochnost' is only really there as a sum of the negative connotations of the word in Russian: after all, Mikhalkov is no Medvedkin.

Who indeed has Mikhalkov become? The Mikhalkov of 'An Unfinished Piece ...', of 'Five Evenings'? Mikhalkov has, it seems, progressively become an unhappy melange: Americanitis (or Hollywooditis) without the Kuleshov touch. It justifiably will all end in tears and in this film there is nothing more irritating than the fake tears that Mikhalkov and his daughter endlessly dish up for us. It reaches the point where it is not even bad sentimentalism but a clueless regurgitation of cliches from other works including his own (the gypsy scene is truly awful- what gypsy would start dancing after witnessing her whole family being gunned down?).

It is not just that there is no belief amongst the acting troupe (as Andrey Arkhangelsky notes) but that this film really has been encapsulated perfectly by the critic Mikhail Trofimenkov - this is pornography in the widest sense of the word and of the worst kind. A national patriotic pornography that even Khotinenko couldn't quite manage in his 'Pop' and which is a final insult to the brave veterans of the Soviet army (for reducing the courage of a whole generation to this pulp fiction). In fact the comments of veterans invited to the launch were often damning- one complained that Mikhalkov had spat in their faces with this dire film.

Reviews in Russian:

P.S. (23/4/10) Apart from one's first reaction of sheer horror of what Mikhalkov has done with $65 million and how a war film has been reduced to a film-comic there are probably a whole new series of considerations. It would be interesting to find out what two hours of this film were preserved for the Cannes festival and how Cannes actually accepted it for the main competition. Interesting to see the reaction of some of Mikhalkov's allies like Nikolai Burlyayev (a national patriot like Mikhalkov but the film can hardly be to his taste). But then there have been people speaking up for the film - Tatiana Moskvina has been one of them. She emphasised that Mikhalkov was a 'synthetic' artist and on the day of the showing Shakhnazarov also talked of it being a 'great film' but then he is the one who suggested to Mikhalkov at last years farcical Cinematographers' Congress at Gostinny Dvor to return to the Presidency of the Cinematographers' Union. Another article has appeared in today's Moscow Times suggesting that the reception at the Kremlin showing was pretty muted:
It highlights the Trofimenkov review which really manages to be both funny and a brilliant and well-directed rant.

P.P.S Lidia Maslova's (one of the critics banned from the Kremlin showing) is finally out in today's 'Kommersant'. She suggests that the film is a version of the after-life of the characters in hell. Here's the review in Russian:

Mikhalkov in an interview in Izvestia last week stated that the style of the film was hyper-realist. As this denomination usually pertains to the films of Alexei German Snr., this appears to be one of the biggest mistatements of all.

Here is the article in the Independent which rehashes much of the original Moscow Times article:

Monday, 19 April 2010

Schism in the Cinematographers' Union?

The spectacle of the Kremlin showing of the sequel to Mikhlakov's 'Burnt by the Sun' has been dampened by the exit of Russia's most brilliant group of directors, critics and scholars from the organisation that Mikhalkov has reduced to his private fiefdom in the past decade and more (the Cinematographers' Union). In recent weeks a collective letter signed by directors and film critics and scholars such as Eldar Riazanov, Alexei German Senior and Junior, Vladimir Dostal, Vitaly Mansky, Boris Khlebnikov, Andrey Proshkin, Andrey Smirnov, Naum Kleiman, Pavel and Gary Bardin, Daniil Dondurey, Victor Matizen, Otar Ioseliani and many others have finally brought to a head (yet again) the conflict in the Russian film world. Mikhalkov's dictatorial style and his immense ego have had disastrous consequences for the Russian film world. The loss of the excellent Museum of Cinema in the early part of this decade was perhaps the most grave blow and the possible demise of Dom Kino would be another body blow to any who want to preserve the memory of twentieth century Soviet cinema. The details of the conflict are long and rather tedious to go into but some of the effects have been truly shameful. The disgusting treatment of Marlen Khutsiev (in the photo) and the farce of the Mikhalkov-staged 'congress of revanchists' in February last year at the Gostinny Dvor had unpleasant echoes of post-war Zhdanovschina. Mikhlakov's suggestions that his opponents were part of some 'Atlantic' plot was absurd but his recent interview with the fawning Elena Yampolskaya in Izvestia really managed to plumb new depths. The two 'national patriots' managed to work each other up into a spiral of of spleen and fury against the opponents of Nikita Sergeyevich. The mention of Ioseliani's signature drove Mikhalkov into a denunciation of the Gerorgian filmmaker living in France as a russophobe and then Yampolskaya suggested that the whole band of opponents were a group of anti-Russian filmmakers. Suggesting that Riazanov, the Germans, Smirnov et al are all russophobes gives one an indication of how bitter this schism is and yet also to what absurd lengths Mikhalkov will go in battling his opponents.

The pomp of the Kremlin showing of the sequel to 'Burnt by the Sun' is, of course, the main news in the press but it is unlikely that Mikhalkov can gain any respect from the world film community when denouncing the greatest directors of contemporary Russian film as campaigning against Russia. Russian cinema without the Germans, Dostal, Proshkin, Riazanov, Abdrashitov, Khutsiev, Danelia, Smirnov, Sokurov, Bardin, Mansky would be the kind of cinema produced in the last fourties and early fifties (the time of the so-called film famine). This would be the face of Mikhalkov's call for a return to the 'high style'. It is a sign of hope, however, that his opponents are moving and organising collectively.

Friday, 16 April 2010

Melody for a barrel organ - Kira Muratova

My mind can't help turning to Fernando de Rojas when I think of Kira Muratova. A nagging but a risky parallel of two 'radical pessimists' who are practitioners of two of the most thoroughgoing critiques of 'human nature'. De Rojas's vision in the 'Celestina' - probably the greatest product of Spanish literature in the period after the Reconquista- demolishes Catholic purism which is ruthlessly undermined by the mentality and the life of the eponymous procuress. The imposition of the Catholic Reconquest and 'purification' of Spanish civilisation is here defeated and demolished if only in a work of literature. Muratova accomplishes this feat of forging a radically new and similar sensibility five centuries later in some of her seminal films. If 'Asthenic Syndrome' was one of her major opuses in the demolition of the stifling conservatism of the late Soviet period, this feat is repeated once again in her most recent film ' Melody for a Barrel Organ'. Muratova's vision dates back to the Thaw period and her rare films back then already underlie the grievious challenge that her vision and sensibility would throw up against the conventions and stylistics of Soviet cinema. She was to be one of the few directors to have been expelled almost entirely from the Soviet cinema system ( and it is interesting that another of these expelees- Vitaly Kanevsky- would echo the theme of Muratova's latest film, of runaway children in his masterpiece 'Freeze, Die, Come back to Life'). Jane Taubmann in her seminal study of Muratova describes how Muratova was about to accept the position of cleaning lady in one of the Soviet studios.

Many of Muratova's films have apparently unwieldy forms: her dialogues are often exercises in formalistic 'absurdism', lengthy scenes owe their skill to a sense of parallel boredom of the characters in the scenes and the hypothetical spectator in the cinema (in both Chekhov Motifs and The Asthenic Syndrome), the 'in your face' mannerism of the acting and yet somehow this too is a parallel with de Rojas's 'Celestina'. The play, ironically, is both unstageable in Spanish and yet a classic piece of literature that has survived for five centuries. Both are a triumph of sensibility over style and roundedness. Muratova's achievement is ground-breaking and Ian Christie is surely correct to argue (in March's 'Sight and Sound') that Muratova is the best women film director in the world today and there are moments when one feels the need to say that the word woman is superfluous in this sentence. Her films are often as great as those of Lars von Trier although she is more uneven than him.

For all this 'uneveness' there are films that must surely remain as part of world cinema history for decades to come. Her previous film 'Two in One' may not come into that category but her last one definitely does. 'Melody for a barrel organ' (finally out on general release in Russia after its first showing at the Moscow International Film festival) is arguably one of her greatest films since The Asthenic Syndrome. The unique moments of the latter film - the scenes from the dog compound, the woman's volley of swear words on the metro, the widow who brings back a tramp home and then insults him and sends him away, the hounding of the English teacher played by Popov and so on)- are matched in Muratova's recent film- the scene in the elektrichka, the circle of adults talking into their mobile phones ignoring the orphans request to change their money, the arranged shoplifting by the guilded youth led by Jan Daniel as well as Litvinova's fairy tale costume.

This and The Asthenic Syndrome is no comformist 'chernuka' nor does it lapse into the apocalyptic vision of Lopushansky or Aristakisian. Instead Muratova's game is another one and here she subverts the genre of the fairy tale just as Hans Christian Anderson (and here in the film the quotation of Anderson's 'The Little Match Girl' is made explicit in the most famous and stylised scene of the film) had in the nineteenth century. Yet Muratova can't leave things at that and her Andersonian sad fairy tale is subverted by the recurrent hiccoughing of a gastarbeiter. In her inimitable finale Muratova manages to extrange us even from our sadness and tragic comfort. This is not the faux radical pessimism of Lukas Moodysson of his 'Lilya 4-ever' but courage indeed. A courage resembling the courage of Pasolini's 'Salo'', a less hysterical but, arguably, a more thoroughgoing courage.

In this film, Muratova's hallmarks - her doubles and twins, her insistence on actors performing in an estranged, manneristic way, her repetitions - are more tightly integrated into this film than most of the others of the past two decade in her film-making career. Her sudden use of silence in some scenes- especially the scene of Alyona looking in at the curly-haired angelic figure (the scene where the reference to Anderson becomes manifest) stuns us almost as much as the swearing woman on the metro. Muratova's regulars- Nina Ruslanova, Georgiy Deliev, Renata Litvinova, Jan Daniel, Natalia Buzko as well as possibly Russia's most established theatre director Oleg Tabakov (who played in Muratova's Three Stories) are all present in this film and create some brilliant episodic jewels.

This particular 'road movie' cum comfortless Christmas fairy tale moves from 'elektrichka' (local electric train) to Kiev's main station to casino to supermarket to its final denouement in a renovated loft furnishing us with a tale of two rounded but not particularly pleasant or angelic orphans (and here Muratova spares us even the minimal drops of sentimentalism that even an extremely talented director would have trouble in avoiding). Yet as Nancy Condee argues in her article for Kino Kultura these are fully cohesive human beings and are stunningly acted by Olena Kostiuk and Roma Burlaka- something that was rarely a hallmark in Muratova's more recent post-Soviet films. Condee argues convincingly that is a new development:

It is customary in Muratova's work for these "simulated humans," as one scholar has aptly dubbed them (Berry), to dominate the screen, leaving the viewer no diegetic respite, no recognizable human coherence. Here, by contrast, the two young siblings hold their own in the center of the film, operating as a sense-making instrument through which to watch the sequential, performative episodes. The young pair organizes the film's structure both as a linear mission (the search for the fathers) and as a comprehensive registry of delusional behavior.

Finally it is a point of note that Muratova forges a vision that is radically necessary in today's post-Soviet space. With the flood of religious sentimentalism (Khotinenko's truly awful 'Pop' exemplifying how far this has gone) in Russian-language cinema, Muratova's vision is one truly averse to this trend as was her cinema in Soviet times truly averse to the stifling conformism of its day.

I hope to comment on other recent films on release here but, alas, none of them have quite the punch of Muratova's offering from Odessa and I don't feel they are worthy of being mentioned in the same post dedicated to this masterpiece.

The full text of Nancy Condee's article on the film is available at this address:

P.S (added 21/4/10). That there will always be more to discover in this film as one returns to it is given. A fascinating new reading of the film is given by Nikita Eliseev in Seance magazine in an article entitled 'Red Christmas'. Beginning from the stance that there the closest 'twin' of Muratova in Russian-language cinematography today is Balabanov although they are diamecticrally opposed ideologically. (Balabanov for Eliseev is the conservative revolutionary and military 'pochvennik' and Muratova is the communist, the red). Eliseev speaks about the absence of redemption (iskuplenie) in both their films, contrasting the ending of Muratova's film with that of Fellini's 'Night of Cabiria'. Eliseev sees Muratova as the anti-Hollywood director in the same way that Kafka was the anti-fairy tale teller (their attitude to both was one of hatred) arguing, rather curiously, that Muratova is closer to Gorky than anyone else. Her 'manifesto piece' for art is the smelly tramp in the Kiev railway waiting room singing wonderfully a Ukrainian song. The author of the piece also highlights the atheistic core of the film's ideology pointing out the significance of the picture sold in the local train of the 'Slaughter of the Innocents' but giving it a radically anti-religious meaning during the final scene. The hiccoughing scene, as Eliseev points out, is where Muratova beats the viewer to near senselessness. The article in Russian is available here:

Thursday, 8 April 2010

Three generations of the German family- Yuri and the two Alexei's

At Moscow's 'Eisenstein Library' a retrospective of films by three generations of the German family or linked to them is being shown. The first German was Yuri German, a novelist and script writer for a number of classic films like 'Dorogoy moj chelovek' directed by Kheifits, 'Doctor Kaliuzhny' one of Erast Garin's (see previous post) only experiments in film direction and Kozintsev's 'Pirogov'. Yuri German was also the author of the novel on which arguably Aleksei German's best film was based upon 'My Friend Ivan Lapshin'. Aleksei German Sr. has made few films in his career and few of these had an easy fate: his 'Proverka na dorogakh' was shelved for over a decade). The film had a hard time not just amongst the cinema bureaucrats but also part of the Soviet intellighentsia took a dislike to this film- in fact, Larisa Shepitko's 'Voskhozhdenie' (Ascension) was shot in a polemical response to this film. Shepitko and German had a very different attitude to the themes of betrayal and atonement but this was a polemic of the highest order.

German's last film 'Khrustalev, my Car!' requires several viewings but each viewing strengthens the view that German is an absolute master of detail. Martin Scorsese who was presiding in the jury at Cannes when the film was shown was said to have remarked that German obviously deserved the Palme d'Or but how could Scorsese give the main prize to a film that he simply couldn't make head or tail of himself.

Perhaps the central strand that one can find in German's is his persistent and stubborn search for historical truth. Something of German Sr's reconstruction of historical truth is to be found in his son's work which was shown on Sunday along with a Master Class. German Jr has made some fascinating films reconstructing different periods of twentieth century history (his 'Last Train' was set during World war Two, his 'Garpastum' on the eve of World War One and, most recently, his 'Paper Soldier' which is set at the time of the space exploration programmes). A discussion of this film at the London Film Festival is visble on youtube- )

The retrospective of films also includes some Lenfilm classics as well as films made by filmmakers who had worked with Aleksei german (including Barabanov, Bobrova, Sergei Popov).

Friday, 2 April 2010

Erast Garin & recent news on Russian Film

It is hard not to start a blog from Moscow not mentioning the recent explosions in the Moscow metro- it seems to colour everything one does for days after. Strangely enough on Monday morning the image of Lubianka was already in my mind. On Sunday I had been to a lecture by the filmmaker Andrei Khrzhanovsky on the actor Erast Garin. Garin was probably one of the greatest actors in the history of Soviet cinema and like Ilinsky was sometimes referred to as a 'Soviet Chaplin'. Like Illinsky, Garin was an actor who had been trained by Vsevolod Meyerhold. Garin was probably the most devoted of all Meyerhold's actors and even when he had left Meyerhold he would never work under any other theatre director. Khrzhanovsky recalled how in the last years of his life Garin would constantly ask people 'Tell me, why they did kill the old man (starik)'?. As Khrzhanovsky stated it is impossible to read Meyerhold's written testament of his beatings in the Lubianka without tears swelling up in your eyes(and Garin was probably fortunate not to have lived to have read them himself).

Khrzhanovsky in his talk gave a picture of Garin the man - a man who while very tacitrun was also extremely brave. He was one of the only friends of Erdmann to risk making a visit to the exiled writer in the Enisei (leaving after fourty minutes because he saw that Erdman had a pen and paper at his desk and did not wish to bother him) as well as being the first to dedicate a theatrical production to the name of Meyerhold in the early Thaw. During Khrzhanovsky's talk some clips of films were shown (from 'Poruchik Kizhe' and from Cain XVII - a political satire based on the script of Evgenii Shvarts and Nikolai Erdman) as well as hearing a recording of the voice of Garin reciting a piece from Erdman's 'Mandat' (The Warrant).

Khrzhanovsky was also in the news this week after winning the main NIKA prize for best film (the film received also prizes for best director and best script). An excellent choice as far as I'm concerned- Khrzhanovsky's film should be considered one of the very best films to come from Russia in recent years. It will be premiered in the UK in early May & Andrei Khrzhanovsky will be coming to present the film.

There is plenty to write about as far as cinematic events are concerned. A retrospective of Chekhov adaptations is showing at Illusion cinema and a festival of films linked with three generations of the German family (Yuri, Alexei and Alexei Junior) is showing at the Eisenstein Library with introductions to the films by film scholars as well as by actors and a master class by Alexei German himself.

The concentration of state funding to five large producers threatens, according to some commentators and directors like Konstantin Lopushansky, the existence of art house cinema in Russia and is arguably another sign of the ill-effects of the dominant 'Mikhalkovshchina' paradigm. Meanwhile Nikita Mikhalkov is involved in a new scandal over his sequel to 'Burnt by the Sun' set in World War Two. His poster has been the object of some hilarious 'photozhaby' (creative 'photoshopping') on the internet in which Mikhalkov appears not in the most heroic of lights. He seems to have taken this rather too personally and is reported to be taking these 'wisecrackers' to court. This year marks the 85th birthday of his rival for the post of head of the Cinematographers Union, Marlen Khutsiev and Illusion will be showing his excellent 'July Rain' later this month. Finally, a possible sign of a mini thaw is evident in the decision of the TV channel, Kultura, to finally show Andrej Wajda's 'Katyn'. However, this was tempered by the news that after the film a discussion will be arranged with the overwhelming (overbearing?) presence of who else but the principal 'national patriot' after God, Gospodin Mikhalkov himself. Plus ca change...

Here are links to the latest Mikhalkov scandal as well as a link where you can still see the Photoshopping work that Artem Lebedev has done to the original film poster: