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Monday, 17 December 2012

Art Doc Fest 2012 - Reflections on Russia's Main Documentary Festival

Russia’s main documentary film festival closed yesterday after just over a week of screenings in five halls of the Khudozhestvenny cinema in Moscow. The large quantity of films – in Russian but not all by Russian documentary film-makers – meant that many of the films I'd intended to watch will just have to wait for another occasion. The Festival Director, Vitaly Manksy, on his Facebook page and elsewhere gave some indication of those competition and non-competition films to look out for but to be there in the right place at the right time in a festival is not always easy. In spite of having missed out on much of the festival, there is still is a lot to say about it and common themes running through this year’s documentary output. One could clearly perceive a number of tendencies as well as some of the pressures that documentary film-makers work under (very few of these films will get to be shown on Russian television, apart from the small 24 doc station that has a very limited audience).

 The jury chairman, Russian feature film director (Andrei Smirnov) in his closing speech spoke of one of the novelties of this festival, namely the considerable number of films shot in Russia by foreign film directors. Referring to a number of films shot by foreign directors on Russia (from Robin Hessman's film on perestroika to Jake Mobbs' film on street teenagers in Perm) he stated "I would send our nationalists to a movie hall and make them watch films made through the eyes of people from Europe and America". The discomfort that Russians feel when viewing foreign made documentary films referring to often difficult social subjects is sometimes rather palpable and Smirnov's words came as a strong corrective to this anxiety at having one's most difficult secrets revealed which sometimes generates almost a kind of hostility.

 The festival itself which has something of a rather more alternative format than the Moscow Film Festival held in late June although still not departing too radically from the mainstream (though with a more liberal than conservative ethos) is, perhaps, one of the reasons why some hard-hitting films about Russia by foreign film-makers get shown here and would not get shown elsewhere in Russia without considerable difficulty. Some of the foreign documentaries generated a great deal of interest, especially My Perestroika directed by Robin Hessman which looks at the lives of five Russians who live through the late Soviet period experiencing the collapse of the Soviet Union and then learning to live in an entirely new country. It is, genuinely, a fresh look at these years from compared with much else that has been made about the perestroika years (outside of Russia). While the five people whose lives are looked at can't said to be completely representative of Russians as a whole, the portrait of perestroika through the changes that these people went through is one of the most fresh and original captured as yet on a foreign-produced film about the subject. Another film called Флирт по-Русский (Flirt: Russian Style) and produced in Germany also had a generally warm reception from some of those who had watched it.

More hard-hitting looks at Russia dealing with subjects that could produce discomfort in a Russian audience (and that their radical social problems should be captured so well not by Russian but by Western directors) came from a British and a Belgian film. Both Jake Mobbs whose film dealt with a group of teenagers from Perm who live the life of the street through often tragic family situtions involving themselves in drug and substance abuse (A Russian Fairytale) as well as Yasna Krainovich’s Belgium-made film (produced by the Dardenne Borthers film company, DERIVES) called Summer With Anton about religious-military summer camps for youth provoked in some viewers a certain defensive mechanism questioning why it should be foreigners displaying Russia's most painful social realities (instead of questioning why these truths are so rarely captured in Russian documentary films). However, the Jury President Andrei Smirnov explicitly praised these two films and the main prize for the competition films he awarded was also a film directed by foreigners, this time Swedes.

 These foreign views of Russia were complemented by Russian views of abroad. They were clearly different- one film retold the life of a Russian woman who had married a Kurd and spent the rest of her life living in Iraq. It had something of the imprint of Sokurov (whose voice can be heard telling the story). This emphasis on narrating her story as much through voice as well as through visuals set it apart from many documentaries. Some beautifully shot scenes also lended their weight to make this worth reviewing. Another film that managed to inspire was Tatiana Daliyiants’ film on Venice called Venice Afloat. After shooting a film on the Venetian cultural elite, she has here decided to draw her attention to other classes of Venetian society- those that rarely get noticed by either the cultural snobs or the average tourist. The craftsmen and boat makers are the subject of her film rather than the aristocracy, the beauty of the city itself or the tourists. She brings an almost kind of Free Cinema style to her subject at times and like the writer Predrag Matvejevic in his excellent book A Mediterranean Breviary is interested in creating a kind of philology of Venice (and the Mediterranean)- not just fixing the temporal & the ephemeral but rendering the quotidian poetical. It is not a typical Russian glance (and maybe this is because she is of Armenian stock) but it is imbued with a different respect for the life of her subjects following them with the footsteps of a poet (and the film-maker is also a internationally-recognized poet translated into many languages), not simply those of a clumsy dirty realist. A glance that reaches beyond the narrow domains of that eternally futile debate over positive cinema that has exercised so many in the past decade in Russian cinematography.

 The reaction against chernuka of the 1990s was to be to call for a positive view of Russia. This summer this old chestnut was repeated in the form of an open letter by young cinematographers to the Cinematographic Union, headed by Nikita Mikhalkov. Some read it as a clear attack on certain members of the cinematographic community. One of these presumed targets, Marina Razbezhkina (a powerful force in contemporary Russian documentary as an influential pedagogue), stated at the Moscow Film Festival this summer that she felt the letter was, in part, directed against her among others. The rather hysterical tone of some of the letter was to include an attack on film festivals abroad accused of selecting only 'negative' Russian films feeding what it called the 'necrophagic' tastes of European viewers. Of course, the hyperbole of the letter may not have particularly reflected the real situation in cinematography but it certainly seems clear that official financial channels for any type of social realist cinema is going to be blocked. However, the fact that the last year has been a year of protest was clearly reflected in some of the choices of the festival.

Two of the films from the main competition had as subject matter the recent demonstrations with one of them being a major portrait of one of the major political figures of the protest, Sergei Udaltsov. Other films covered the political satire of a popular television programme which was to be taken off the air, as well as a very intimate portrayal of members of the art group Voina- a film made with $3,000. Otherwise the collective film made by Maria Razbezhkina's students on the protest Зима Уходи (Winter, Go Away) was the final addition to this season of political documentary films. To my mind the quality was variable. The portrait of Voina Завтра (Tomorrow) by Andrei Gryazev - a fascinating document in its own right disappoints by failing to fully illuminate the circumstances of the group. Yulia Byvsheva's film Путин люби нас! (Putin love us!) was a film detailing a group of actors involved in a theatrical production whose relation to the protests was explored through a look at their peripatetic explorations moving from stage to street and then back again. However, perhaps the strongest political documentary was Evgenia Montaña Ibañez's film entitled Марш! Марш! Левой! (March, March with your Left!) which was both a very intimate portrait of the oppositionist Sergei Udaltsov as well as some of his followers during a hunger strike along with footage of the May 6th demonstration in Bolotnaya Square which, for once, gave an authentic picture of what it felt like to be there on that day. One might say that simply for this part of the film alone, it deserves praise as the most accurate portrayal of the true events of that day. The film, of course, was far more accomplished than just that. Aleksandr Arkhangelsky got it right when he stated that this documentary avoided all the traps that a political documentary can fall into. Evgenia Ibañez, from the evidence of this debut film, certainly appears to be one of the brightest hopes of a new generation of Russian documentary filmmakers.

A more determinedly aesthetically-minded approach was taken by established Russian documentarist Victor Kosavkovsky in his Да Здраствуют Антиподы! (Long Live the Antipodes). In his award speech Kosakovsky made a reference to those in the documentary community hostile to his more purely aesthetic approach to documentary cinema (an approach that was described to me by one festival goer/documentarist as without a main idea). Once again this prescriptive marginalisation of alternative approaches is one of the more disappointing aspects of discussions on cinema in Russia today.

Other fine films included Denis Klebeyev´s account in 31 Рейс (Voyage 31) of a small Kamchatkan village isolated from the outside world apart from the arrival of a kind of off-road vehicle laden with all the necessary produce. The way that the film-maker manages to record the life of two of these drivers and the community in this place almost completely cut off from the rest of the world capturing for the camera 'life taken unawares' was a genuine feat. The same could be said for Elena Demidova's Саша, Лена и железный дракон (Sasha, Lena and the Iron Dragon) with the humour of the film coming from the addresses to the camera operator who becomes a kind off-screen presence not an observer but the invisible observed. A tale of two residents from a Khruschevky flat about to be evicted by the iron dragon of a bulldozer this film comes closest to rendering finding moments of humour in deeply dramatic circumstances. The film had a kind of Barnetian lyric sensibility to it.

A film about Russia´s football ultras by Konstantin Smirnov (Не Футбол) and another film on a Russian commune by Anna Moisenko (С.П.А.Р.Т.А. - Территория Счастья) trying to build an island of communism in a country of wild capitalism were descriptions of alternative collective identities that have grown and devleoped in prost-Soviet Russia.

One film which genuinely deserves a whole post of its own is Liubov' Arkus's Антон Тут Рядом (Anton's Right Here)- a look at an autistic child and his incredibly difficult fate, the film is as much a reflection on the power of the camera and cinema itself as well as a look at the emotional autism of society as a whole. The film for me, in many ways, was the film of the festival and, likely to be one of the great documentaries that will mark this coming decade in Russian cinema. Reflecting on this diversity and richness of these films one can only feel optimism about the future of documentary in Russia and yet reflecting that hardly any of these are likely to be shown on Russian television one feels a certain despair at how much talent seems to have been wasted.

The beginning of the festival was also marked by a very grave reminder of both the power and the vulnerability of documentary film. A police raid at the home of Pavel Kostomarov, the documentary film-maker of the film Срок (The Term) - a look at Putin's third term - and the confiscation of master copies of this film was a striking blow against the freedom of expression and documentation and a challenge to the whole documentary film community. 

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Elektrichky in Russian and Soviet film.

In a number of recent films scenes in Russian and Ukrainian электрички (or local electric trains) have been fairly fundamental to the development of the plot. The function of these scenes in these films differ but they are often settings either of considerable violence as in Vasili Sigarev's film Жить (Living) where a murder takes place of the groom after a wedding:-
The elektrichka also sets the scene for another very Muratova's sad fairy tale of two children who run away from an orphanage in search of the father of one of these children. The journey in the train is interrupted by a seller of Christmas postcards, one of which portrays the massacre of the innocents (the theme of Muratova's Мелодия для Шарманки - Melody for a barrel organ, 2009). The two children have to leave to avoid the ticket collector (for they haven't paid for the ticket) -having left they are then robbed by other children in a derelict factory and make their way on foot to the main railway station where human indifference is detailed in grotesque detail.

Many believed the most shocking scenes of Pavel Bardin's Россия 88 (Russia 88, 2009) where the documentary scenes in the elektrichka where passengers were interviewed about their beliefs regarding the idea of Russia for the Russians - nearly all passengers seemed to agree with what were neo-fascist arguments. The played scenes were shocking but exaggerated but the scenes in the elektrichka due to their documentary nature seemed to confirm the worst suspicions of the liberal intelligentsia.

Another film in which scenes in the elektrichka were of fundamental significance was in Zviagintsev's Елена (Elena, 2011) where the main protaganist travels between two worlds - that of her affluent husband and that of her lumpen-proletarian family who appear, in the film, as parasitical on her goodwill. The journey between central Moscovian luxury and peripheral dereliction is repeated a number of times in the world precisely through this journey:

Other directors to have recently used the journey in the elektrichka to set the scene of a story has been Aleksei Fedorchenko who in his short film Chronoeye in the film almanac The Fourth Dimension has the bedraggled award winning scientist cum tramp almost persecuted by fellow passengers, ticket collector and finally a policeman in the forlorn small station for either looking in the wrong direction or simply not producing the correct train ticket (although he has bought the ticket- he simply refuses to care about linear time). Loznitsa wonderfully cinematographic documentary Полустанок (set in a small station at which only the local elektrichkas are likely to stop at is film that portrays the world of the waiting room at night.

One of the few documentaries to be made on the elektrichka was made by a Polish director Maciej Cuske in 2005. It portrays the microcosm of the local train in some detail- the seller, the sleepers, the beggars and the musicians, the beer drinkers- but steers clear of the drunks and the fights in the corridors between wagons known as тамборы in Russian, all too-common in the elektrichkas I travel in.

It's rather strange now to look back at Soviet era trains like the 1963 Утренние поезда (Early morning trains) which sang an elegy of the elektrichka would surely be out of place in contemporary Russia. A character in a film talking of their joy of travelling by elektrichka is unthinkable nowadays. The optimism and sociability of this film plays no part in early twenty-first century Russia.

 Nor would the hopelessly out of date and unrealistic lyrics by Andrei Petrov in the film Здесь наш дом (Here is our home) from 1973. The idea that nine friendly hands holding out a match as soon as you take out a cigarette from your packet would happen on elektrichkas today is rather laughable.

Rather people are rather more like the character played by Anna Sten whose angry reaction to the boots of the worker from the provinces in Barnet's Девушка с коробкой (Girl with a hatbox, 1927)
is fully in keeping with the irritation and indifference that most passengers have for each other.

Interestingly at least two of the clips of the ongoing documentary film about Putin's third term as Russian President  Срок (The Term) have taking place in an elektrichka - the protagonists being Sergey Shoigoi and Ksenia Sochak. (Shoigu and Sobchak).

Literature, song and poetry have also been full of references to the elektrichka. The most obvious being Venedikt Yerofeev's alcoholic classic Москва-Петушки but also Victor Tsoy's song on the subject:

as well as the Russian chanson singer Mikhail Krug's song

The romanticism of the train and losing the last elektrichka was present in Vladimir Makarov's Последняя электричка:

 However, Andrei Voznesensky's poem of the same name was a much more serious and heavyweight work. Surely, the image of the elektrichka will continue to evolve in Russian film, poetry and literature in coming films, poems, songs and years.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Gennadi Shpalikov- The Soviet Vigo?

Among the many names of the 1960s New Wave in Soviet films only rarely is the name of Gennadi Shpalikov mentioned. Perhaps for the good reason that he only ever actually directed one film of his own Долгая счастливая жизнь (A long, happy life) but also for the negative reason that in the last years of his life he is said to destroyed his talent through alcohol. A third reason was that Shpalikov was not a director as such but a scriptwriter. His name is there on the credits of some of the most significant films of this Thaw period. Apart from his work on Khutsiev’s Заста́ва Ильича́ (Ilich’s Gate) as well as on Danelia’s Я шага́ю по Москве́ (I stroll through Moscow) he also wrote the scripts of some of Khrzhanovsky’s animated films including the truly great masterpiece Стекля́нная гармо́ника (A Glass Harmonica, 1968) and one of Shepitko’s extraordinary small crop of films Ты и я (You and I, 1971). Apart from this Shpalikov was an extraordinary poet in his own right. So in effect in his short life he accomplished some truly outstanding tasks and his suicide at the age of 37 in 1974 was a tremendous blow to Soviet cinema even if the blows to Shpalikov had made that act almost inevitable. Dimitry Bykov has argued, in a small piece, dedicated to the 75th anniversary of his birth this week that Shpalikov died of the fact that it was awkward for him to live and if the main theme of Dovlatov was irritation and if Chekhov was the poet of disgust or fastidious (брезгливость), then Shpalikov’s was an excellent chronicler of awkwardness.

The only film that he directed is yet one more of those not altogether rare exemplars in Soviet cinema that betrayed a real link to French Poetic Realism. And it is, perhaps, not too great an exaggeration to call him a kind of Russian Vigo as well as someone whose links to The Silver Age of Russian literature are also present. His fine sensibility towards details and intuition of emotional states make his single film one of those many films which need to be rediscovered alongside the films of the more prolific and well-known directors of the period. Alongside the rare films of Mikhail Bogin and Mikhail Kalik, Gennadi Shpalikov is another of those who forged a Soviet poetic realism- worthy successors of the Vigo’s and Rene Clair’s of the French school.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

FEKS, Trauberg and G.K. Chesterton

In my last post I wrote about the prevalence of chemical warfare paranoia movies in the 1920s Soviet Sci-Fi genre. This genre is rather broader than that. One can locate some of the paranoia films also in another sub genre. For example, Barnet and Otsep's Мисс Менд (Miss Mend) in particular could be seen as exemplifying Red Pinkertonism. This was partly an answer to a call by Nikolai Bukharin  in late 1921 to use the 'street (or vulgar) genres' (Бульварные жанры) for agitational purposes. One of the many currents of 1920s Soviet cinema exploited these ideas to the full, That current was, of course, that of the FEKS (or the Factory of the Eccentric Actor). They stated in their manifesto: "The boulevard brings revolution into art. Today our street dirt consists of the circus, cinema, the music hall and Pinkerton". In many ways the paranoic chemical warfare films should be seen as ironic paranoia films.

Nevertheless, the depth of the 'death ray' genre in literature as well as in film in the 1920s is a fascinating story and did actually stem from an actual news story. A British inventor/charlatan Harry Grindell Matthews made claims between 1923 and 1924 that he had invented such a device. (In 1921 he had also claimed to have invented the world's first talking picture in an interview with Ernest Shackleton). Writers such as Valentin Kataev in his Повелитель железа (Lord of Iron, 1925), Nikolai Karpov Луч Смерти (Death Ray, 1925) as w ell as Anatolii Shishko in his Аппетит микробов (Appetite of the Microbes, 1927) and Viktor Shklovsky and Vsevolod Ivanov's novel Иприт (Mustard Gas, 1925) all took on this theme in some way or another. The latter novel was to influence one of the lost films of FEKS Мишки против Юденича (Mishka against Yudenich, 1925).

Yet perhaps one of the most curious influences on FEKS was outlined in an article by M.E. Malikova entitled НЭП, ФЭКС и "Человек, который был Четвертом" (NEP, FEKS and the Man who was Thursday). She argues that Leonid Trauberg's preface to an abbreviated translation of G.K.Chesterton's The Man who was Thursday in 1923 can be seen as a central text in the development of FEKS (and adds the tantalizing suggestion that Trauberg himself could well have been the translator of this text). The translation itself (not the first translation of the novel which was printed in Russia during the First World War) is not merely an abbreviated form of the novel but even has a different ending in which the fat character Sunday instead of answering all the questions during his interrogation jumps out of the window. That this translation was printed at about the same time of the formation of FEKS offers us a new reading of the phenomenon of eccentricity in Soviet cinema. Chesterton would later become a highly popular author in the Soviet 1920s but he was still relatively unknown in the early 1920s. In any case the Chestertonian influences on Soviet eccentricism is one of those fascinating stories that make a study of the Soviet 1920s so exhilarating. A latter-day Walter Benjamin looking for some equivalent to the Arcades Project would surely choose the Soviet 1920s as his overriding obsession.

A few months ago the Lacanian Marxist Slavoj Zizek came in Moscow to give two lectures: his lecture on Hegel in particular was full of references to G.K.Chesterton's theology. One can only regret that Zizek himself wasn't around in the Soviet 1920s- he surely would have made a perfect actor and script-writer for Trauberg and Kozintsev's FEKS.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Soviet Science Fiction (1)- Not just space travel...1920's sci-fi paranoia films.

The story of Soviet science fiction cinema has got considerably more attention in popular circles than it has in academic circles and one finds occasional blog pieces on films which have been almost totally ignored in histories of Soviet cinema. It has been a genre left to the enthusiasts rather than the scholars. Of course there are the films by the likes of Tarkovsky and Lopushanksy as well as the earlier Protazanov Soviet science fiction debut Аэлита (Aelita, 1924), the Stalin era Космический рейс (The Space Voyage, 1936) and the cult Daneliya film Кин-дза-дза (Kin-Dza-Dza) which have been commented on and analyzed by film buffs and scholars alike but the scope of Soviet science fiction hasn't had its comprehensive monograph. Again science fiction can surely not be relegated to space travel as most accounts and recent retrospectives seem to have done. For each Aelita or Межпланетная революция (Interplanetary revolution, 1924) - incidentally, also based on Aleksei Tolstoy's novel there were other science fiction fantasies.

Flights to space were accompanied with fears of new weapons of warfare- especially chemical warfare. Therefore, Kuleshov's 1918 Проект инженера Прайта (The Project of Engineer Prite) should surely be seen as being the original film of Soviet science fiction. His later Луч смерти (Death Ray, 1925) was a continuation of this theme in Kuleshov's filmography:

The mid 1920s seem to be a prolific time for this theme of chemical warfare- Semyon Timoshchenko's film about an imperialist chemical warfare attack on Наполеон-газ (Napoleon Gas, 1925) Leningrad was almost replicated in Barnet and Otsep's Мисс Менд (Miss Mend, 1926) in which three American reporters try to stop a biological attack on the Soviet Union by powerful American businessmen:

It was only later that space travel overtook chemical warfare paranoia's as the dominant theme in Soviet science fiction.

Among the Soviet science fiction films of the 1920s that have been lost are the following :

Nikolai Petrov's Аэро НТ-54 (Aero NT-54) about the development of a powerful aeroplane engine around which a furious struggle took place (between capitalist countries and the Soviet Union?)- the film was made in 1925 but withdrawn in 1928 (it's uncertain whether due to questions of quality or ideology). The scriptwriter Nikolai Surovtsev based it on a thriller of his own.

Another 1925 film by Yakov Morin called Коммунит (and also Русский газ) and was based on the idea of the invention yet again of a paralyzing gas this time to be used to defend Soviet Russia from imperialist invaders.

Before the 1920s, in 1919 film fragments of a science fiction version of Jack London's Iron Heel based on a script by Lunacharsky were shown during a theatrical show. Existing reviews of this were quite positive, although none of the fragments have survived. The fragments were filmed by a number of directors including Vladimir gardin and Olga Preobrazhenskaya.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Two Films of Mikhail Bogin - One of Russia's Poetic Realists.

The fact that each generation of Soviet filmmakers contained a broad constellation of directors whose names are far too many to mention (or even to remember) is true not only of the truly revolutionary 1920s (and my recent post on Chervyakov mentioned just one of the hidden greats still to be fully rediscovered) but also of other decades. The directors who worked in the late Thaw/ early Stagnation period is certainly no exception. Of course, all will know of Tarkovsky and Paradjanov and many of the readers of this blog will know of Muratova, Klimov, Shepitko, Danelija, Askoldov and maybe Panfilov, some others may know or have heard of Alov and Naumov, Gaidai, Motyl, Ozerov, Bondarchuk, Rostotsky, Khamraev, Averbakh etc. Yet there are also other names in Soviet film of this period- among them are the makers of only two or three films, and also among them are a number who later were to become emigre filmmakers- leaving either for Israel, the United States or some other country . Mikhail Kalik may be the most well known of these filmmakers but there was another filmmaker two of whose Soviet-era films were shown tonight at what is now the main location for a reborn Museum of Cinema in Moscow, the Mossovet- this filmmaker is Mikhail Bogin.

The two films on show tonight introduced both by the director himself as well as by the director of the Cinema Museum, Naum Kleiman - were his short 1965 film Двое (The two, but also known as The Ballad of Love ) as well as his later 1971 film О любви (About Love). Unfortunately only the first film was viewable- the quality of the DVD projection of the second film was so bad as to impair any genuine aesthetic reception of the film - even if the atmosphere and tone of the film was so powerful that at least this one aspect was transmitted very well. Nonetheless, in spite of this, what seemed clear was that here was another candidate for reappraisal and rediscovery. The first film Двое was well noted at the time - it in fact won one of the two FIPRESCI prizes at the Moscow International Film Festival and the New York Times review in early 1966 was extremely fulsome in its praise. The critic Howard Thompson wrote about the film the following:-

See "A Ballad of Love," whatever you do. It was made at the Riga Studios in Latvia, under a young director of uncommon skill and insight named Mikhail Bogin, who wrote the screenplay with Yuri Chulyukin. Ever so simply and sweetly, minus one drop of saccharine, the picture conveys the growing love of the spirited oboist and the beautiful girl in her silent world who studies at a pantomime theater for deaf mutes.
"What is music like?" she scribbles. There is a moment of freezing beauty with the boy watching the girl as the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet is pantomimed on the stage. The picture is most effective when the sound track goes silent, as at the climax when the deaf girl attends a concert.
The film clips off abruptly. If only it could have gone on and on.

And yes there is much to say about this short film and its strange melodramatic tale of love between the two main characters of the film. Naum Kleiman was surely right to connect Bogin's place in Soviet cinema to the trend of Poetic Realism which has Boris Barnet at its centre. And this film surely signalled something of a unique experiment with its discourse between the worlds of silence and noise. Bogin's next film, although as I stated shown in a truly deplorable condition, was equally entrancing. The same actress- Viktoria Fyodorova - who died recently and whose incredibly tragic destiny is known to many Russians and Americans (a daughter of a famous Stalin era actress who was born to an American diplomatic attache' and who, like the director, emigrated later to the US) - managed to create in both films an atmosphere which mixed a melodramatic love story with a melancholic poignancy that seemed so deeply imbued with some difficult to pinpoint late thaw mood- a particular doleful note  that can almost be dated to the late 60s and 1970s (present, for example, in Shepitko's Крылья [Wings] of 1966).

These two films by Bogin seem to show how, like the great Barnet himself, he was a great actors director - the second film certainly proves how he was to work with many actors who would only later be known as great actors. They also point to how the existence of a Russian Poetic Realism is a subject still yet to be fully explored by film scholars.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Food, drink and restaurants in Russian and Soviet Film (1)

If Khlebnikov's new film didn't quite do justice to the theme of restaurants in contemporary Moscow one can, however, reflect as to how food and restaurants have been used in previous films both from the Soviet through the post- Soviet period (as well as in the pre-Soviet period).

The end of the Khlebnikov's film involving the restaurant fight of course had its predecessor (and surely much more of the film) in Ryazanov's Дайте жалобную книгу (Give me the complaints book) 


Ryazanov's film from the Thaw is replete with scenes that had their replica in the Khlebnikov film- the surly waiters, the annoying or pretentious music etc. However, there is surely no greater small scene from Soviet cinema capturing the awfulness of  restaurant atmosphere and their clients than Danelia's Афоня (Afoniya) in ths small sequence of Kuravlev's drunk dance in front of one of film's least inspiring restaurant bands:


The food scene in Eisenstein's great film Брононосец Потемкин (Battleship Potemkin, 1925) is, of course, essential. Doctor Smirnov's certification of rotten meat full of maggots sets off the whole mutiny in the first place. 

Food and radical social critique (or at least outraged sensibility) is also not absent in Kira Muratova's films. One of the most radical scenes in recent post-Soviet cinema is the shoplifting scene where rich jeunesse doree shoplift immense quantities of food and drink as entertainment (with the complicity of the supermarket management) while a starving orphan who shoplifts some bread to stay alive is arrested and persecuted. This scene not found on YouTube is complemented by another in the film where the two starving children are left to look at an idyllic Christmas scene through a window - the food on the other side of the window a reminder of their obscene hunger:

The splendid semi-animated sequence in Andrei Khrzhanovsky's film Полторы комнаты или сентиментальное путешествие на родину (A Room and a Half or a Sentimental Journey to the Homeland) based on the Stalin era Soviet cookbook named 'The Book on Tasty and Healthy Food' (Книга О Вкусной И Здоровой Пище) in which Joseph Stalin appears as cook who shows the young Brodsky all the delights of Soviet cuisine reminding him that they are not for him is another kind of using food as critique (this time of Stalinist anti-semitism):

Khlebnikov's film is, of course, a comedy and food as comic pretext is present again and again in Soviet films (from Alexandrov's early musicals through to Danelia and Ryazanov's sad comedies- whether through the New Year feast in Ирония судьбы (The Irony of Fate) or the restaurant scene of Мимино (Mimino). 

Monday, 15 October 2012

Boris Khlebnikov's Пока ночь не разлучит (Till Night do us part)

On another blog today radical food film scenes I was trying to choose what I found were the most radical food themed scenes and films and then I left home to watch this new film by Boris Khlebnikov which was set in a restaurant and based on material collected by journalists of Moscow's Большой город at one of Moscow's central deluxe restaurants. A lot was to be expected from Khlebnikov who is one of Russia's new wave directors and there was some fine work after his joint film with Alexey Popogrebsky Коктебель (Roads to Koktebel, 2003)- his film Свободное Плавание (Free Floating, 2006) showed extraordinary promise and even his Сумасшедшая помощь (Help Gone Mad, 2009) had one scholar comparing his work to that of Balabanov, Muratova and German Jr. Marcia Landy . However, with this film after recalling all the films by Ferreri, Bunuel, Chytilova, Pasolini, Olmi et al which managed to turn food into philosophy radicalism, Khlebnikov's contribution this time seemed very slight indeed. And yet, the ideas were (or could have been) there- the class divisions, the hierarchy and the snobbery, the kitchen as social microcosm, - but somehow too much seemed to get in the way. The invitation of Leningrad musician Sergei Shnurova in the film lead to one diversion, and the obsession with the mobile conversations lead to another, the kitchen personnel problem was solved by yet more phone calls from the chef. The final denouement also seemed based on a rather strange pretext of a rather absurd (and artificial) conflict between the waiters- and the restaurant fight seemed much less apocalyptic and rather too wearily filmed (Shnurova gesture too seemed predictable long before it finally came). This, of course, was comedy but not the comedy of Riazanov or Danelia - but rather a much more dispersed and fragmentary comedy- a comedy that relied on many dispersed conversations and situations that didn't quite hold within them the philosophy or vision of a whole. If this really is the better offering of the 'new quiet ones' ( a denomination used by Khlebnikov himself to denote the Russian New Wave), this phenomenon seems to be at risk of ending with a whimper rather than a bang.

Friday, 12 October 2012

Evgeny Chervyakov and the rediscovery of his masterpiece Мой сын (My Son, 1928)

While most film buffs know of the extraordinary rediscovery of extra reels of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis in Buenos Aires’s Cinema Museum in 2008 another rediscovery by Fernando Martín Peña of the same year at the same location has gone relatively unreported. Yet this rediscovery has been justifiably called by Russian film scholar Pyotr Bagrov “the biggest archival find in the history of Russian film for the last fifty years” and comparing its significance with the time when the second part of Eisenstein’s Ivan Grozny was finally released in 1958. In 2008 five reels of a 16mm copy of Evgenii Chervyakov’s Мой сын (My Son, 1928) was discovered with an attributed title El Hijo del otro (Another’s Son).  This discovery has led film scholars like Pyotr Bagrov to claim that this rediscovery in many ways rewrites the history of early Soviet cinema. The loss of Cherviakov’s films from the 1920s meant that he was considered as a rather insignificant figure in Soviet cinema and rarely written about. Bagrov goes as far as saying that one almost regrets that his later films remained as they give an altogether false view of the great stature of this filmmaker. The films of the late 1930s which have been preserved were, sadly, propaganda films about wreckers, collective farms and, in the case of his Заключённые (Prisoners, 1936) a film about the ‘moral regeneration’ of Gulag internees based on Pogodin’s book Aristocrats. While it may have some slight cinematographic interest (for example, it was the first film in which the great actor Mark Bernes was to play a role) none of these later films can be said to give Chervyakov any significant role in Soviet cinematic history. Bagrov was to state that Cherkyakov was to work under a state of severe depression in this period and it seems it would be most unfair to portray Chervyakov’s place according to these extant films.

That is why the loss of his 1920 films were such a tragic affair. The statements from his contemporaries prove that he was one of the true giants of 1920s Soviet cinema. He was to work as much as an actor in the early years and was, for example, to play Pushkin in Vladimir Gardin’s Поэт и царь (Poet and Tsar, 1927) as well as a soldier of the National Guard in Kozintsev and Trauberg’s classic film on the Paris Commune Новый Вавилон (New Babylon, 1929). Yet it was his reputation as director that truly impressed his contemporaries. Contemporaries like Sergei Yutkevich, Mikhail Bleiman and Leonid Trauberg. Perhaps the most significant comment was by the great Aleksander Dovzhenko. Dovzhenko exceedingly rarely praised any other film director and was never known to have admit of any influence by any other director. With the sole exception that is of Evgenii Chervyakov. Dovzhenkos words, therefore, that Этот человек может сделать много хорошего. Он первый создал у нас лирический жанр, и я многое у него воспринял” ( [Chervyakov] is able to do great things. It was he who first created the lyrical genre in our cinematography and I learned a lot from him) signify high praise indeed from Dovzhenko. Indeed, Chervyakov seems to have been a major influence according to Bagrov in his work with the close up. Bagrov goes on to speculate as to how it may have influenced Pudovkin’s experimental work Простой случай (A Simple Case, 1931) and the idea of the ‘emotional scenario’ that was to become significant in the early 1930s.
Apart from this major influence on Dovzhenko (arguably the only real influence on Dovzhenko given how individual a director Dovzhenko was), Chervyakov could be said to play an absolutely unique role in the Soviet twenties- his was a style that strayed from the montage, fast cutting techniques of others (the Eisenstein, Kuleshov, Vertov etc) but was also unlike those who didn’t make montage their god. Bagrov contrasts Chervyakov with those directors, like Abram Room or Boris Barnet, who were interested in contemporary social morals, manners, mores rendered by the Russian word быт. As contemporaries remarked, Chervyakov’s films had nothing that showed that they took place in the Soviet Union. They could as easily been a film about any other society (something which is clearly not true of, say, Room’s Третья Мещанская -better known in English as Bed and Sofa, 1927). Bagrov looking for films which could have influenced Chervyakov casts his glance away from early German cinema to that of French cinema and sees only one film that seems to have played a major role in influencing him- that of Jean Epstein’s 1923 drama Cœur fidèle (or Faithful Heart). As for contemporary comparisons of Chervyakov’s rediscovered film, Bagrov suggests that there are immense similarities with Dreyer’s La Passion de Jean D’Arc (The Passion of Joan of Arc) as to how they build their dramaturgy with the close up and it is curious that these two films were shot almost simultaneously. Another name that Bagrov uses in conjunction with Chervyakov is that of Dmitry Kirsanov, one of the most fascinating émigré filmmakers most well-known for his avant-garde film made in France Ménilmontant (1926).

Even in the 1920s Soviet commentators were stating (often while severely criticising him) how Chervyakov was ahead (rather than behind) his time and it is something that seems to have been borne out. Bagrov suggests that Chervyakov’s work can be said to have been the first sign of existential cinema and points to the many scenes where the director highlights a lack of communication between the protagonists. For example, in the film a long conversation may be rendered by a two word intertitle as though specifically to highlight that however much the characters talk little is actually being communicated. This existential cinema was to be much later (three to four decades later in fact) championed by the likes of Antonioni and Resnais as well arguably, in Soviet cinema, by Marlen Khutsiev. Another witness to the significance of Chervyakov as director was the actress Anna Sten who had played in Barnet’s comedy Девушка с Коробкой (Girl with a Hatbox, 1926) and went to act in the films of such directors as King Vidor, Raoul Walsh and Rouben Mamoulian who stated that Chervyakov was probably the greatest director she had ever worked for.
It can only be hoped that soon Chervyakov’s rediscovered masterpiece will one day soon be available to more wide audiences than the odd screening at film festivals and retrospectives. One can only mourn the louder for those other films made by him in the 1920s that seem to have been forever irretrievable. One must not forget either the work of his cameraman Svatoslav Belyaev who worked with him on this and on his other lost 1920s films and whose reputation should be compared with that of the great Andrey Moskvin. Both Chervyakov and Belyaev would die in the fighting for defence of their city, Leningrad in the same year, 1942.