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Sunday, 26 August 2012

Marlen Khutsiev and the Unknown New Wave

A recent viewing of Marlen Khutsiev's Застава Ильича (Lenin's Gate) has convinced me once again that the fact that film scholars speak of a French New Wave, a Czech or Polish New Wave, New German Cinema or even of the Yugoslav Black Wave and even that some acknowledgement in recent years has been given to Spain's subversive but operative New Wave under Franco (with a BFI retrospective in London two or three years ago) and yet have still not acknowledged the work of certain Soviet directors in the 1960s and 1970s is a gaping hole. Of course, the Poetic Cinema of Tarkovsky and Paradjanov has justifiably been given a lot of international attention and yet there are still a whole host of directors which have passed many international film critics by. Having to choose the most important names of this other Soviet New Wave I would argue that the names of Marlen Khutsiev, Vasili Shukshin, Elem Klimov and Kira Muratova are paramount. Khutsiev and Shukshin are arguably those who have had least exposure in Western Europe of the four- although at least Shukshin has had some of his literary works translated.

Marlen Khutsiev, a Tbilisi born Soviet (and then Russian) filmmaker, has in many ways been unusually unfortunate in making films in the wrong time and at the wrong place and yet his films are some of the most strikingly original portraits of a generation and Khutsiev also occupied a rather unique position- both intellectually (or ideologically) and cinematographically in the Soviet constellation.

Khutsiev began work with Feliks Mironer first in a diploma film at VGIK in 1950 and then at the Odessa Film Studios with probably what was to be Khutsiev's most popular film Весна на Заречной улице (Spring on Zarechnaya Street, 1956). Khutsiev had worked for some time as an assistant director for a number of directors including the legendary Soviet director Boris Barnet for his ill-fated Лиана (Liana, 1955) alongside another director to become famous in later years - Leonid Gaidai. However, the management at the Odessa Studios still didn't trust Khutsiev to make a film on his own and he had to co-direct with Mironer once again. While the film was subjected to some harsh criticism, it soon became seen as the first real sign of the Khruschevian Thaw. All the same Khutsiev was to remain in Odessa to film his next film Два Фёдора (The Two Fyodors, 1958) which was to introduce to Soviet cinema the acting skills of Vasili Shukshin.

It was Khutsiev's next film Застава Ильича which was to really show Khutsiev's true talents but also to highlight his fundamentally unfortunate and untimely nature. This film which, in many ways, was the film-symbol of the Thaw came at just the wrong moment when Thaw aesthetics and the liberatory potential of the Thaw itself was under attack. Alongside the ill-fated Manezh exhibition of contemporary art and Pasternak's novel 'Doctor Zhivago' this was to be one of the artistic victims of Khruschev's wrath. In fact, Khutsiev and his film had earned a very public lashing in March 1963 with the Communist leader inviting 600 artists and writers to the Kremlin to hear this very denunciation. Khutsiev was accused of promoting : ideas and norms of public and private life that are entirely unacceptable and alien to Soviet people. [...] [The characters] are not the sort of people society can rely upon. They are not fighters, not remakers of the world. They are morally sick people [...] The idea is to impress upon the children that their fathers cannot be their teachers in life, and that there is no point in turning to them for advice. The filmmakers think that young people ought to decide for themselves how to live, without asking their elders for counsel and help.

What seems to have provoked Khruschev's special wrath is the fact that, for the first time, the generation gap is being shown as part of Soviet as well as western bourgeois societies. In some ways a contemporary film viewer would be hard pressed to find some truly radical features of the film and yet this was a film that was, in many ways, truly ahead of many of its western counterparts. It managed to merge one of the most lyrical portraits of Moscow in the Thaw period with something very much more in the spirit of European cinema a la Antonioni. In fact one of the most intelligent (and harshly negative) criticisms of the film was precisely this - its western modernism and the antagonistic relationship between city and alienated protagonist (this was a criticism uttered by Alexander Macheret) captured as Antonioni had captured this in his films like La Notte or L'Eclisse - almost exact contemporaries of the Khutsiev film.

Khutsiev's extraordinarily lyrical film nonetheless posited him in a strange relationship to the Soviet intelligentsia. In many ways Khutsiev's position seems to be similar to the the main protagonist of the film, Sergei. His alienation from the tusovka at the party towards the end of the film marks, it seems, something of Khutsiev's gravitas. Khutsiev was no dissident and never turned into a liberal. He could never quite find an appropriate place in the polarization between mainly liberal intelligentsia and a power elite which increasingly betrayed any socially progressive ethos. His protagonists in Lenin's Gate, remained of proletarian origin and, as even his subsequent Ию́льский дождь (July Rain, 1967) shows, Khutsiev remained a filmmaker rather obsessed with the meaning and the lasting presence of the theme of the Great Patriotic War (or World War Two) in Soviet society. The presence of the ghost of Sergei's father was a scene that particularly grated on Khruschev and yet it was surely what he most clearly misunderstood. The even more Antonionian July Rain further closes with a memorable scene of war veterans meeting up at Victory Day celebrations and this scene is surely key to the film. Khutsiev for all him fixing his gaze on the alienation of the young thaw generation never questioned the fundamental values of Soviet society.

The war and generational question were crucial respectively to two subsequent films of Khutsiev: Был месяц май (It Was in May, 1970) and Послесловие (Postscript, 1983). The discovery by Soviet soldiers who are stationed in Germany at the end of the war in May 1945 of a nearby Nazi concentration camp makes this film quite unique in uncovering this rarely mentioned subject but also in taking Soviet films about the war in a very different direction to which they normally lead. I remember watching this film at Moscow's Dom Kino seven years ago on Victory Day and thinking to myself what a radical choice the programme co-ordinator had made by choosing this film rather than any others that day. Radical because Khutsiev would never shy away from asking harsher questions than others and because he never takes refuge in any type or form of cynicism which those who believed less sincerely found it far easier to do.

Khutsiev's ability to cut through all the rhetoric has hardly ever made him a popular film director (only his debut film made him a household name). Films like 'July Rain' and 'It was in May' and his 1991 film Бесконечность (Infinity) can only too easily be denounced as boring and they often were so denounced even by rather intelligent critics, although years later they appear as some of the most truly authentic filmic documents of their time. They have always, it seems, pointed to hidden truths that few others had the courage to utter at that time. 'July Rain' became the one great document of the transformation from Thaw to Stagnation as 'Lenin's Gate' has since become to be seen as the very best portrait of a generation which lived through the heady times of transformation. Khutsiev's filmography is very limited in quantity and he almost fell silent after the Thaw. He seems to be a once a decade filmmaker. For all this the imprint of the times has rarely been so brilliantly captured and the gravity of message rarely so sincerely uttered as by one of Russian (and Soviet) cinema's most significant figures.

Khutsiev remains unfortunate and even now not a 'timely figure'- the truly shabby treatment he received in recent years at the behest of Mikhalkov and his band of 'national-patriotic' thugs will surely go down in Russian cinematic history as one of the most shameful episodes of recent times. Khutsiev's untimeliness nonetheless will surely make sure that his contribution to Russian cinema will become one of the most long-lasting and his films will remain while others will be forgotten.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

The Return of Film Censorship to Russia?

         The long campaign for 'moral' cinema seems to be bearing fruits with the decision not to allow the Serbian film 'Clip' any film license in Russia. While the film has already been shown at both the Moscow and Odessa Film festivals it seems that it could be the first real target of outright censorship of a film in contemporary Russia. The head of the Film Union, Andrei Proshkin, has called on the Ministry of Culture to give it a film license albeit with understandable age limits. The Rotterdam Festival-awarded film has been blocked due to a law protecting children from information causing harm to their health and development, although this seems absurd in the light of differential age limits for cinema goers. According to Andrei Proshkin this decision by the Minister of Culture violates the Russian Constitution. It seems pretty clear that this decision must be understood in terms of the context of a battle for a so-called 'moralization' of cinema. This has been going on for some years now and the recent open letter of a group of anonymous young cinematographers published at the start of this years Moscow Film Festival attacking what they deemed to be 'negative' films was a further sign of this conservative campaign. The targets of negative films are rather varied - although the moralizers seem to enjoy attacking films that appeal to any large European film festivals. Stanislav Govorukhin has been on record stating his dislike for Sigarev's Жить (Living)- also shown at this years Rotterdam Festival. (It has finally been released in Moscow but is only showing at a single cinema in the city at 10pm proving once again how the most talented filmmakers In Russia today are also the most marginalized figures in Russia today). A further fillip to the 'Moral Majority' type-campaign was given by President Putin last November when he talked about the opportunity of bringing a Hays Code to Russia stating "I believe it's a good idea to use this positive experience and create a similar code of internal ethical standards for the Russian film industry". Now it seems to be clear where all this talk has been heading.

Speculation is rife about where this will new thirst for censorship will lead. The next test case may be another Serbian film Парад (Parade) which could well fall under the banning of so-called 'homosexual propaganda' in St. Petersburg. This would be a truly absurd case as the film is a light comedy and garnered a huge amount of public enthusiasm at the recent Odessa Film Festival. One can only marvel at the irony that Russia is returning to censorship by banning not American films but Serbian ones- one of the countries that it always sees as closest politically and culturally to itself.

In terms of the rhetoric that is coming from cultural conservatives in Russia at the present time, it would be sufficient to quote from an opinion column by the main editor of Культура (which was once the mouthpiece of the progressive Russian intelligentsia). Elena Yampolskaya, the most vociferous cheerleader for Nikita Mikhalkov in his former struggles with the Cinematographers' Union, had this to say about the open letter of Russian cultural figures calling for leniency in the sentence on Pussy Riot:

Всякий, кого втягивают в войну против Церкви, должен осознавать, на что идет. Если культура начинает бороться с верой ...кому нужна такая культура? Не оставить ли ее в PRоклятом PRошлом?  

(All those who engage in a war against the Church should recognize where this is leading them. If culture begins to struggle against faith ... who will need this culture? Won't it be left in the accursed past).

Yampolskaya's article as a whole can only remind one of Stalinist rhetoric at its very worst and her list of enemies include even those like Evgeny Mironov and Chulpan Khamatova who months ago were supporters of Mr Putin's Presidential bid. The thirst of today's мракобесы seems unlikely to be satiated by single acts of censorship. Rather any culture which does not portray 'Orthodox values' are likely to come under ever more heavy artillery fire from the cultural commissars of the Church.

P.S. 27/08/2012  The daily Коммерсант has just published a rather detailed article by Andrei Plakhov on the situation around Clip giving some more general information about the history of censorship in Russia and abroad. Plakhov gives a full explanation of why the censorship has no legal or cinematographic justification and then moves on to discussing cases of censorship in film history. He talks about the Hayes Code and also gives the examples of three Italian films - Fellini's La Dolce Vita, Pasolini's Salo' and Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris. He then goes on to talk about the attempt to censor an unsuccessful attempt to censor a  Romanian film in Italy Francesco by Bobby Paunescu which was said to offend both the city of Verona (calling it a shit city) and the granddaughter of Benito Mussolini (calling her a whore). The lawsuit was thrown out of court.

The only recent cases where films where censorship attempts were made in Russia were to do two films which had scenes which irritated the Presidential administration. In Ilya Khrzhanovsky's film 4 reference is made to the drinking habits of the President's wife, whereas in Pavel Bardin's film Россия 88 (Russia 88) a portrait of Putin is turned round to show a portrait of Hitler. Both films struggled for some time to receive any license.

Plakhov, however, links this censorship with another scandal in recent Russian history when the Russian Orthodox Church in 1997 cried scandal when Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ was shown on Russian television at Easter. The situation around Clip appears to be a harbinger of a new cultural politics whereby the Ministry of Culture will have as its main partner, the Russian Orthodox Church. This taken to the absurd logic would end up censoring the whole of the present Russian New Wave and half of the masterpieces of contemporary cinema concludes Plakhov. The article in Russian entitled The last temptation of Mincult can be found here:

P.P.S. 28/08 - A further article by Yuri Gladilshchikov in the 'New Times' has been published - I've given an English-language summary of it on the GiuVivRussianFilm Facebook page here

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Moscow's Central Studios of Documentary Film At Risk.

In yesterday's copy of  the newspaper Вечерняя Москва the main headline was about the terrible state that the 'Central Studio of Documentary Films' has found itself in. While in the 1990s the archives, phonoteques and soundteques of the studios managed to be salvaged by the studios staff, this priceless archive has come under a sustained assault in the past few years from which seem to be a number of anonymous organizations involved in raider capitalist practices. The newspaper reports how the studios original premises in Likhovy Pereulok were turned over to the Russian Orthodox Church in 2005. They then were situated at the RIA Novosti offices and in 2009 were given a new building in 2009. However, they were not the owners of this building and since then matters have gone from bad to worse.  The owners of the building - a Car Repair Centre of the Ministry of State Property- seem to have let out the building to some shady organizations which have hassled and made the work of the studio impossible. The situation has got so fraught that it almost turned violent  at one point. The unique archives which include, for example, a copy of the Oscar winning documentary film Разгром немецких войск под Москвой (Moscow Strikes Back) are under threat of being destroyed. According to Vitaly Mansky, the documentary filmmaker, the tragedy happened in 2005 when the studio was thrrown out of its premises in Likhovy Pereulok where a large documentary centre could have been built, inviting other documentary studios there and where a documentary film festival could have taken place. Mansky calls what happened a crime and that the fact that the studio is still somehow alive today is for him a miracle. Although commercial interests seem intent on dealing the final blow while the bureaucrats vilely utter their formulas. A sad tale of how church cupidity has added one more blow to the world of culture.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

My Bright Lights Review on the Moscow and Odessa Film Festivals.

My Bright Lights Review on the Moscow and Odessa Film Festivals has gone live on the internet so here it is
The editor of Bright Lights film Gary Morris introduces it thus:

Festivals get their due this go-round with a vibrant review of this year's Moscow and Odessa Film Festivals, written by Giuliano Vivaldi with an eye on both Russia's rich past and its dubious present. 

Plenty more to read there - including the fascinating story of Gore Vidal's banned Variety interview - Gore Vidal's misgivings about the Party of God seem pretty contemporary warnings sitting in Russia August 2012.  

Thursday, 9 August 2012

The film scripts of Nikolai Erdman.

In spite of his doomed theatrical career cut short by repression and censorship, Nikolai Erdman must surely be the greatest Soviet playwright. His two major plays - Самоубийца ( The Suicide) and Мандат (The Warrant) - were, in retrospect, genuine miracles. It is a cause for considerable mourning that Erdman's theatrical career was cut short by political repression and his subsequent marginlisation. Yet there is one area which greatly benefitted from Erdman's misfortune and that is that of film. Erdman was to become one of Soviet cinema's greatest scriptwriters and now finally Erast Garin's wish that Erdman's film scripts be collected and published is coming to fruition. The St Petersburg magazine and publishing house Seance are to be congratulated for this. Even though this volume doesn't include every single script, a small bu significant selection of them allows us to appreciate the genius of this great playwright.

The collection begins with Митя (Mitya)- a film script written at the same time as Erdman's play Самоубийца. While they are very different in many ways they are both attempts to create a new form of Soviet tragicomedy (with the film leaning closer to comedy and the play veering to tragedy). The fact that no copy of the film is extant is truly regrettable offering us another of those tantalising lost masterpieces that litter the history of Russian & Soviet cinema. Initially the director of the film was to be the great theatre director Vsevolod Meyerhold and Erdman was to play in the main role - so as well as tantalising us with the existence of a lost masterpiece one is tormented by trying to imagine how Meyerhold would have created yet another great film and how Erdman would have been captured for posterity. Later though it was Nikolai Okhlopkov - a Meyerhold renegade (or at least this is how Meyerhold saw him) who was to take both the role of both director and main actor.

After Митя, Erdman was one of the many great writers who were to work on Boris Barnet's Дом на Трубной (The House on Trubnaya Square). It is hard to say what exact part Erdman played in the making of the script for this masterpiece - it was a script worked on by some of the most talented writers of the early Soviet period including Viktor Shklovsky, Vadim Shershenevich and Anatolii Mariengof. However, it seems that Erdman was the first to work on the script along with the author of the original script Bela Zorich. Mariengof and Erdman were to work on another script together, namely that of Проданный аппетит (The Sale of an appetite) based on a pamphlet by Paul Laforgue.

After working with Pyriev on his Посторонняя женщина ( A Strange Woman) - another satirical tour-de-force which would have been unthinkable in the later Stalin years, Erdman a few years later set to work on Весёлые ребя́та (Jolly fellows). This first exercise in musical comedy has earned a significant place in Soviet comedy both in terms of popular taste and in terms of being a landmark film in Soviet film history. While it was harshly criticised by the then film critics, it was saved from their wrath by Stalin and Shumiatsky. The film veers between the anarchic and the carnivalistic, However, while the film met with phenomenal success, Erdman and his co-writer Vladimir Mass were arrested and sent into exile- though whether this was due to their politically sharp fables or Erdman's play The Suicide seems uncertain. Their names, however, were withdrawn from the titles of the film and it has only been relatively recently that the story of their collaboration in the film has fully been told.

Boris Barnet - a director who was not for the first and only time to work with previously marginalised figures would again work with Erdman on his ill-starred Старый Наездник (The Old Jockey). Barnet was, as was his wont, to deliver a film that had only an indirect link to the script, although he stated that the script was one of the most enjoyable that he had ever read. However he quipped that he found it easier to work with bad scripts rather than with good ones since it was the interplay of visual and literary gags which was his real forte. 

After the war Erdman worked on a number of scripts for the director Konstantin Iudin including one of his most celebrated films Смелые Люди (Audacious People) and also wrote some scripts for some truly great animated films including Лягушка-Путешественника (The Travelling Frog). One of the very best satirical films ever made in Soviet times Каин XVIII was also an Erdman script based on an original unfinished variant by that other truly great playwright Evgeny Shvarts who died before he had the chance to finish it. Erdman is said to have completely rewritten the script and much of the praise must go to him. (Erdman and Shvarts in many ways represented two very differing wings of Soviet satire). The film didn't get a very good reception at the time but looking back after decades the satire of its script seems so sharp and brilliant that it shines through any inadequacies of the film due to inadequate directorial decisions. 

The fact that finally a good selection of Erdman's scripts are publicly available gives us an insight into the notable role that Nikolai Erdman played in Soviet cinema. A role occasioned by the negative facts of political repression and exclusion from the established theatre which is certainly a great tragedy but nonetheless what was theatre's loss seems to have become cinema's gain.  


Sunday, 5 August 2012

The Odessa Film Studios in danger.

After the end of the Odessa Film Festival I paid a visit to the Odessa Film Studios. The grounds of the film studios where many great films have been shot have recently been reduced to a state of almost absolute penury. This fact felt especially obscene the day after the Film Festival's Closing Ceremony. The attempt to attract Hollywood Stars and worldwide film celebrities whether Geraldine Chaplin or Claudia Cardinale and to add glamour to a film festival presided over by the wife of the Vice-President of the Ukraine made the Odessa Film Festival by far the most expensive in Ukraine. And yet here in the heart of cinematic Odessa was a once great film studio falling apart, the victim of a de facto raider capitalist swoop on the grounds of this priceless piece of cinematic history. The studio is the one place in Odessa where unique exhibits and archives on the history of film of the city are kept and is testimony to the unique cinematic history of this multinational city. I tried in a blog post last year to give a short account of some of the moments of this history:  

That all this history risks being lost due to the criminal style privatisation process in place in which seven hectares of land is at risk of being appropriated by raider capitalists would be an unbearable end to this story. If phony red carpets and the ersatz glitz of a pet project of an oligarchs wife can open the coffers of the Ukrainian state, surely the much more modest expenditure involved in bringing a part of Odessa's film history back to life and saving this precious location from destruction and real estate development is of even greater urgence. The city of Josif Timchenko, Vera Kholodnaya, Isaac Babel, the city where Dovzhenko shot his first four films, of Genrikh Gabai, the studios where Marlen Khutsiev shot his first two films, the film studio of choice of Kira Muratova and Stanislav Govorukhin and where many films with the legendary Vladimir Vysotsky were filmed. Where even the Nobel Prize for literature Joseph Brodsky was to act in a small role. The idea that these film studios and this history should be slowly left to ruin and end up in the hands of raider capitalists is an obscenity which would scar the reputation of the city of Odessa beyond all measure. Some campaign of solidarity with those who battle every day to preserve this precious and irreplaceable heritage is surely in order.