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Monday, 31 January 2011

Otar Ioseliani, Inkizhnikov and the schism of emigration

The place of the emmigrant in Russian/ Soviet cinema (and Russian culture as a whole) is one of these painful subjects that seems rarely to go away. The schism between those who left and those who stayed is one that seems to repeat itself each generation. Perhaps one illustration of this is Ioseliani's recent critique of the state of Russian cinema published in Noviye Izsvetiye The showing of his latest film Chantrapas was the occasion for him to suggest that there is little point in working in Russian cinema nowadays. His critique of Russia's filmakers included both Konchalovsky and Sokurov (who he deemed commercialistic) as well as criticising the late Sergei Bondarchuk. He remarked that intellectuals had given up going to the cinema.Fortunately Ioseliani (in photo above) is one of those directors who has managed to reinvent himself and become an even more universal author after emigration (something that,arguably, Konchalovsky hasn't suceeded in).
Ioseliani's melancholic description of contemporary Russian cinema doesn't seem too far from the truth at times. The greats of late Soviet cinema like Norstein and German and others like Abdrashitov have been almost reduced to silence and it is a rare thing indeed to find a film that convinces one that Russian cinema is renewing itself.

Another visit to the excellent series of lectures at the Meyerhold Museum convinced me that this theme of emigration is no minor one for an understanding of Russian cinema. The lecture was not devoted to this but the presence of members of Valeri Inkizhnikov's family let in a new light on what emigration signified for Soviet cinema. The history of Soviet cinema can hardly be understood without a history of those who either emigrated or were exiled in the camps. The slow rediscovery of Fedor Otsep (and I really recommend an excellent post on the site NitrateVille about this director) is one of many stories to be told. Inkizhnikov is another- Inkizhinov was to star in one of Otsep's film 'Amok' and any accounts of their collaboration would, I'm sure, be a fascinating tale to hear. Mikhail Romm was to suggest that the emigration of Inkizhnikov was to mark his death as an actor- alas, this too suggests the inadequacy of vision that the subject of emigration caused even for attentive commentators like Romm.

Recognition of all the many talents that were lost to emigration (Anna Sten is another name that immediately springs to mind as well as that of Mozzhukin) and those exiled in labour camps (like Koval'-Samborsky and Zhzhenov) has been given some consideration in recent years in a number of studies. However, these studies are yet to have any full-English language accounts in their number.

The subject of emigration and immigration is one treated relatively little in Soviet cinema. Panfilov's 'Tema' comes to mind as being a rare exception. The 90s saw a return of the theme. However, contemporary Russia also has the new theme of immigration to deal with - a film like Gastarbeiter showing us that the social film in contemporary Russia is not altogether absent.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

A segment of Larisa Shepitko's TV programme 'In the Thirteenth Hour of Night'

I thought I would post this curious sequence that Larisa Shepitko made for television as it is rarely mentioned in her works and yet it holds some interest of its own.

Mikhail Romm

The place of Mikhail Romm in Soviet cinema is hard to exaggerate and yet neither he nor any of his films have found quite the reception that they deserve outside of Russia. The day of the recent Domededovo bombing (24th January) marked the 110th anniversary of his birth and this year also marks the 40th anniversary of his death. Romm's reputation has perhaps been damaged by David Caute's deeply negative portrayal of him in his study of Cold War and intellectuals 'The Dancer Defects'. Even though most of Romm's films were made during the Stalinist period (and even during the period of late Stalinism's 'film famine' he was not inactive) it would be not just wrong but wholly injust to write him off as 'fundamentally Stalinist'. This depiction by Caute of his Thaw period film 'Ordinary Fascism' highlights a terrible blindness that Western critics have been not uncommonly guilty of in their descriptions of Soviet film art. (Interestingly Maya Turovskaya author of one of the best studies of Tarkovsky came to a diametrically opposite conclusion stating that Romm's film was, in essence, an anti-Stalinist film).

A retrospective of Romm's films may indeed show up many flaws- his two Lenin films (in the late Thirties) and Cold War tracts (in the late Forties) were made during periods when dissidence proved unthinkable. Yet his Lenin films didn't sink the moral depths that Chiaureli does with his Stalin films. By presenting a human, almost anonymous Lenin, Romm spares us monumentalism and mummification: the habitual Stalinist projection of Soviet power. His films in the early to mid Fifties may also prove to be rather unsalvageable - his artistic low point was reached by his 'Admiral Ushakov' and its sequel 'Ships storm the Bastions'. That which is left, however, is not inconsiderable. His debut- an early adaptation of Maupassant's 'Boule de Suif' is a fascinating piece of late silent filmmaking whereas his 'remake' of John Ford's 'The Lost Patrol' was the first example of the Soviet Eastern later to be developed by Motyl in his 'White sun of the Desert' and then to become a Soviet genre in its own right. Whether Babluani's recent classic going by the same name was inspired by Romm's film is a matter for speculation, Romm's film certainly deserves a showing. Some believe his 1940 film 'Mechta' (Dream) to be the apogee of his work. The influential Russian film producer Armen Medvedev has named it as his favourite film on one occasion.

Romm's post-Stalinist period was marked by his interest in historical documentary films as well as his 'Nine Days of One Year' (a tale of nuclear physicists) which the senior film critic of the Village Voice J. Hoberman called a 'revelation'. The film proved that Romm, unlike others who were associated with the Stalinist period, had the power to reinvent himself. Perhaps Kalatozov was the other main director who although having worked within the Stalinist paradigm managed not to be broken by it and re-emerged during the Thaw with renewed energy (Boris Barnet was, perhaps, too peripheral a figure during Stalinism to have been forced into the compromises that Romm was - if Barnet was called upon to direct a propgandistic film such as the Stakhanovite 'Night in September' he would subvert it through apathy).

Nonetheless Romm's legacy should not be searched for solely in his films. Romm's significance for Soviet cinema arguably should be sought in another sphere: in his pedagogy. While Eisenstein may have been VGIK's most prestigious teacher it was arguably Romm who inspired a whole generation (arguably two generations) of some of the greatest film directors of the 1960s. 1970s and beyond. Without Romm's teaching we may well never have known of Andrey Tarkovsky, Elem Klimov, Vasily Shukshin, Gleb Panfilov, Andrey Konchalovsky, Grigori Chukhrai, Aleksandr Mitte, Sergei Soloviev, Tenghiz Abuladze, Nikita Mikhalkov and Vadim Abdrashitov amongst others. It is, perhaps here, that Romm's role will never be challenged and the words of many of his former students have shown how much they felt that they owed to Mikhail Romm. Mikhail Romm was not merely an individual film-maker of considerable talent: his place in Soviet cinematic history can hardly ever be over-estimated. A whole constellation of talents and geniuses who have made world cinematic history owe Romm a great deal. Without Mikhail Romm Russian and Soviet cinema in the past five decades would have been much poorer.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Four months without cinema, the trials and tribulations of cinema going in the Russian provinces and Neya Zorkaya's essays

I've been such a long time tied up in (or should I say tied down to, given an almost pre-Emancipation labour code) a rather surreal school so that I've remained rather silent for months on end at this blog. Four months in Russia haven't meant four months of film-going and I haven't managed to keep abreast with much of Russia's cinematic news. The odd film here and there and a promise to myself that I'll return to this subject as soon as I can. My experience has been the realia of everyday life in a small town outside Moscow called Zheleznodorozhny. It has no cinema - students of mine told me that one was planned five or six years ago and a crane stands in the spot where the cinema has been proposed to be built but no sign of building work is visible (and what films would the cinema show anyway apart from Hollywood blockbusters with an equal splash of mind-numbing national-patriotic tosh). My attempt to start up a film club in this English-language school in the town was equally doomed to failure- a proposed showing of British and American films was to begin with Lindsay Anderson's 'If....'. During the morning while preparing the introduction to the film, the town was hit by electricity cuts. I walked to work in the hope that the electricity would be back by the time the film was scheduled to begin. It was- fifteen minutes before the film was scheduled. Alas apart from a fellow teacher the film had an audience of one (and the secretary's young child who had to be told that this wasn't quite a suitable film for him). However although I had insisted that the film should be shown with English subtitles it was set by the engineer to Russian dubbing mode (and I being hopeless with technical equipment couldn't find a way to change to subtitles). The spectator then suggested I change the film to 'Polar Express' with Tom Hanks. Well that was the end of my dream of bringing good quality cinema to the provincial town of Moscow Region where in fiction Anna Karenina threw herself under a train but nothing else of real note seems to have happened. A morose picture of cultural life in the provinces. I have kept a rather nice poster of this non-event which I hope to keep as a souvenir of this four-month debacle.

The absence of cinema in this town however pales besides the background of what happened in Novosibirsk . There cinema going was to prove a dangerous act requiring some considerable courage. In Novosibirsk in early November a group of 15-20 students gathered to watch Valery Balayan's film about the murdered journalist and anti-fascist Anastasia Baburova when they were attacked by a group of 20-30 Nazis shouting "who doesn't love fascism here? Who loves watching cinema?" and began to attack them. While most of the cinema goers managed to escape one was injured in the face while leaving the university building. The film had been scheduled to show at a number of festivals in Moscow but organisers were afraid of attacks on spectators and cancelled the showings. An earlier version of the film is available on youtube (only in Russian) for anyone interested:

My few visits to cinema in Moscow have been to see Fedorchenko's Ovsyanki (Silent Souls), Balabanov's 'Kochegar' (The Stoker), Dvortsevoy's 'Tulpan' and Aleksandr Kott's 'Bretskaya krepost' (The Brest Fortress) as well as less felicitously Andrei Konchalovsky's 'Shchelkunchik' (The Nutcracker). I'm not sure if the Balabanov 'Kochegar' reached the heights (or the depths) of some of his more recent films. Dvortsevoy's film was a delight, Fedorchenko was even after two visits something of an enigma (but at times a fascinating one)and Kott's war film was not as bad as some patriotically inclined films. I'll have to give some more detialed account of these films at another time. At least the Ovsyanki merits some more detailed account of its strange poetic realism opening as the critic Andrei Plakhov put it "a small window in the claustrophobia of (Russian), enclosed by a limited orbit of themes and subjects".

Regarding new publications, a collection of the late Neya Zorkaya's essays has been published by Agraf publishers. Not devoted solely to cinema it has some fascinating sounding essays on the anonynmous and authorial character in the system of culture, period stylistics in art, cinematography in literary work including what promises to be a fascinating account of cinematography in the work of Mandelshtam. Other essays and section are devoted to the 'New Man' in Soviet cinema and to authours such as Shukshin, Abuladze as well as Muratova. The book ends with essays on Akunin, Pasternak and Blok. I remember Neya Zorkaya at a couple of festivals devoted to cinema from former Soviet satellite states. Her battles with the okhranik to let simple film buffs without passes like myself into what was a government building showed the dedication she had in insisting on the right of all to enjoy films. One could never be too grateful to a person like her- a genuine heroine who would go to battle with officialdom for the sake of an unknown spectator. The diaries of Rolan Bykov have also recently been printed and they will surely prove to be a fascinating insight into the life and times of one of Soviet cinema's greatest actors (but there were so many greats).

Hopefully having worn off the madness of Zhelezky and its rapacious capitalist English language school directors I'll be posting about these and other subjects more regularly.