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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.