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Wednesday, 27 November 2013

On Magic - Gennady Shpalikov's letter to Vigo

A year ago I published a post entitled Gennadi Shpalikov- The Soviet Vigo?. I wrote "it is, perhaps, not too great an exaggeration to call him a kind of Russian Vigo ".
More recently I discovered a text in Shpalikov's volume of writings which includes his scripts, his letters, his poetry, stories and just one off diary pieces. One of these is written as though addressed to Vigo. In this piece (a kind of stream of consciousness piece with only dashes and no full stops) Shpalikov explains his debt to Vigo and poignantly speaks about Vigo's early death (a fate that Shpalikov would, unfortunately, share). This is one of the many small pieces from Shpalikov's writings - writings including some still unaccountably unadapted scenarios. All in all after reading Shpalikov one can only state, that like with Vigo, what a tragedy it was for cinema that his life was cut so short. Here, then is the text - it is, of course, impossible to imitate his style - but hopefully something will come across of the kind of figure that Vigo was for Shpalikov and the reverence that he had for Vigo (and that any contemporary filmmaker should have for the figure of Shpalikov). 

This is dedicated to the memory of Vigo, my teacher in film, and yes even in life, even though I can not imagine him alive.

Once some time ago, it was a very long time ago, when I had just started in film - and not even very much aware of the masters of film, since I was basically drinking in the morning, and falling in love with every girl I met- even those who thwarted my every advance - but - what can be done? - what? - if it's like that - and it was at that time when in someone's conversation I heard - about Atalante, I was afraid to watch it - for a long time I was afraid, because at that point I was writing things in the same vein- maybe worse, maybe better - that's not important - no - it's not important - I wept - later on, at that great picture- yes, and not even because of the film - but because you, Vigo, died so young - and no one made such films anymore, and I - in your memory- shot a long crazy final scene to my first film- in your memory,Vigo, in your memory, Vigo and once again in your memory - it's terrifying me that we are the same age now- yes - and we need each others friendship- but what could I do? - I could only shoot a long - crazily long shots- of a barge crossing the water, water, a girl with a harmonica - what more could I do? - this was my declaration of love to you, Vigo, - where are you now, Vigo? - where are you? - dear Vigo- where are you,Vigo? - I know where you are - but because I know - what anguish I feel!

James Steffen's Book on Parajanov

This year clearly has been a year of Parajanov revival. What with a major biopic on the man acted and directed by Serge Avedikian (and co-directed and scripted by Olena Fetisova) as well as a retrospective of Parajanov films shown at the Odessa Film festival this year along with an exhibition of his collages in both Moscow and Odessa. The topping on the cake seems to the year is the first English-language biography of Parajanov by James Steffen. I've been waiting for the publication of this book  for some time and it's great news that it has finally been published. I'm hoping to read it in the near future and plan to review it for a major online film journal (as well as add a smaller review on this blog). Here in the meantime is James Steffen explaining how his own interest in Parajanov has developed over the years:

“I first learned of Parajanov in 1987, when Alan Stanbrook published an article about The Legend of Suram Fortress for the magazine Sight & Sound. I was intrigued by his description of Parajanov’s films, especially their striking use of color. In 1988, during a course in film analysis at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas taught by Jean Decock, we watched excerpts from the film Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors in class and I was completely stunned; it looked like nothing I had seen before, it opened up an entire world to me. That same semester, Yuri Illienko visited Las Vegas on his way to screen his long-banned film A Well for the Thirsty at the San Francisco Film Festival. He was friends with the composer Virko Baley, who was at time the Artistic Director of the Nevada Symphony Orchestra and composed the score for Illienko’s Swan Lake: the ZoneIllienko spoke to the film analysis class and Baley arranged a for a special screening of A Well for the Thirsty and the first few reels of The Eve of IvanKupalo at a theater in town. Those films likewise left a tremendous impression. Later, I saw Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors in its entirety in a course on Soviet cinema, and I arranged for a special screening of the Armenian release version (the so-called "director's cut") of The Color of Pomegranates with the help of Hart Wegner, the Chair of the Film Department at UNLV. Even though Parajanov was recognized as a major figure in world cinema and obviously lived a colorful and dramatic life, at that time there was almost nothing published about him in English, so I decided to enroll in graduate school and devote myself to studying him and his work. It has been quite an adventure, learning multiple languages over the years, doing research in Armenia, Georgia, Ukraine and Russia, and meeting many fascinating people as a result.”

James Steffen has his own blog at this address:

Saturday, 23 November 2013

Alexei German's Hard to be a God, News from the Cinema Museum and other films.

The Cinema Museum.

Back in July, I reported on the situation around Musei Kino and Naum Kleiman. It seemed at that point that the whole project of restoring risked sinking. A few days ago this situation seems to have move in a slightly more positive direction. At least, a steering committee, a real building and some hope that quicker progress will be made than has been true in the past decade. The Cinema Scientific Research Institute (NII) is said to be the new home of the Cinema Museum for the first five years while a new building will be built for it. Naum Kleiman will be the President of the Museum although there will be someone else taking care of more practocal tasks. The steering committe of around 20 people will include directors such as Karen Shakhnazariv, Alexei German Jr, Vitaly Mansky, Stanislav Govorukhin, Renata Litvinova and film scholars such as Kirill Razlogov. Good news? Maybe, but anyone who remembers the destruction of the Musei Kino in the early years of this decades will remain sceptical to the end. As they say in Rome fidarsi e' bene, non fidarsi e' meglio  (It's good to trust but better not to).

The World Premiere of the late Alexei Germana's Hard to be a God.

This, of course, is the event of the year for enthusiasts of Russian film. Apart from Deborah Young's article in the Hollywood Reporter , assured that this film will only be shown at the special events of festivals like Rome's (maybe true owing the plain stupidity of cinema programming these days), she complains about its frustrating incomprehensibility and that it would have been cutting edge in the 1980s but now longer feels so avant garde. The film was shown in April (but not in its final version and an account by Ksenia Chudinova for Snob magazine suggested that the reaction was non too positive. Some of her review was translated thus in a blog for Russian Science Fiction:

Meanwhile, on screen an ambitious and primarily physiological bacchanal unwound: close-ups of mud, animal and human excrement, blood, guts, a donkey’s penis, a woman’s vagina, crumpled clothing, horses, dirty fingernails, animal corpses. The characters are constantly defecating, spitting, scratching themselves, beating each other, cutting stomachs and throats, copulating or killing each other. Without speaking’.

From April to November things have changed and most of the press in Italy and Russia have given wildly positive readings. The first review was, of course, written by Umberto Eco before the premiere. His small essay was printed in Novaya Gazeta and an admittedly rather poor English translation has appeared here. In a fine piece for the Calvert Journal, Andrei Kartashov states that Hard to be a Good goes further in the complexity of his earlier Khrustalev, My car!:

It would seem impossible to exceed Khrustalyov’s visual and aural complexity, but Hard to Be a God does just that, proving that 15 years in production weren’t spent in vain (the inordinate length of production time stems partly from financial difficulties, but the director’s perfectionism also played a role). Having achieved ultimate sophistication in resurrecting a world of memory, German took on the task of creating his own universe from scratch.

An article for gives some extracts from Italian critics response to the film. Many of the critics talked about this film being an entirely new chapter in cinema- contradicting the view of the journalist from Hollywood Reporter. Of the other reviews to read there are those by Larisa Maliukova for Novaya Gazeta , Andrei Plakhov's for Kommersant and there is also Anton Dolin on the radio talking about the film (above).

Other Russian Films at Rome.

Two other Russians made waves at the Rome Film Festival. One was the documentary by Alyona Polunina, Nepal Forever which will be shown again at the Art Doc Fest which I hope to report on. The other film was Birmingham Ornament-2, directed and produced by the head of Cine Fantom, Andrei Silvestrov. Some of the press reaction regarding this film has been reported here for the Kinote site.

A New Pussy Riot Film showing at IDFA in Amsterdam.

The Amsterdam documentary film festival IDFA is showing two films one of which is the Pussy versus Putin filmed from inside the Pussy Riot story (rather than the more 'objective' film by Michael Lerner and Maksim Pozdorovkin). The Gogol Wives group are an anonymous collective and there is, as yet, little hope of any public showing of this film in Russia so far.

An Independent article has some information on this and the other film showing at Amsterdam.

Other news and things to look out for are the Art Doc Fest (Moscow's main documentary film festival starting in less than a weeks time), a retrospective of Elem Klimov and Larisa Shepitko's films also shown in Moscow in the same period. That's not mentioning the popular end of Russian film: Fyodor Bondarchuk's Stalingrad as well as Veledinsky's winner at Kinotavr The Geographer Drunk the Globe away.  The comedy Gorko!  and a horror film Shopping Tour by Mikhail Brashinsky should also be covered.

The long-standing uncertainty about Russia's only LGBT film festival was eventually settled in the festivals favour. One will have to see how the festival goes (homophobes are unlikely to completely let it go on in total peace). The main news reported is that Gus von Sant will be attending to show his support. The festival will feature among other films Diederk Ebbinger's Matterhorn which was shown at the Moscow International Film Festival in late June and Xavier Dolan's Tom at the Farm (which was shown at the Zavtra/2morrow festival more recently).

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

The 7th Russian Film Festival in London. Some recommendations.

Tomorrow the 7th Russian Film Festival will open in London. It is one of those showcase festivals aiming to show a representative sample of national cinema and includes a small selection of documentaries and animated films as well as feature films. Most of these films have been shown at different Russian and international film festivals in the past year or even longer and a number have been on general release. Looking at the films on show it appears that the selectors have tried to had a criteria of mixing popular Russian films while not excluding art house films altogether. The film festival has, thankfully, avoided showing the patriotic blockbusters including those which have gained some minimal critical acclaim such as Legend No. 17. Whether this choice of concentrating on popular middle brow films will satisfy a film buff looking for the next Tarkovsky is open to question, but at least it does give some indication of the range of films that are likely to appear in Russian cinemas (with the odd exception). 

Of the competition films, the film that most exemplifies this popular but middle-brow taste and what many Russian ex-pats in particularly may have long been looking for is Aleksander Veledinsky's The Geographer Drank Away His Globe. An adaptation of a work of literature which was originally set in the 1990s, Veledinsky's film is the kind of well-made 1970s lyric comedy mixed with a hint of drama. The film that it comes closest to in subject matter is Roman Balayan's 1984 film Flights in Dreams and Reality. Other critics have mentioned the Ryazanov or Danelija type of comedy as a reference. Yet it also may be compared to a kind of film more well-known in the west as the 'inspiring teacher' drama (a la Dead Poets Society) with the difference that the Russian doesn't come up with the inspirational tone but remains the tale of a loser, or of the typical 'useless man' of Russian letters. Whether it is far too steeped in Russian and Soviet tradition to reach a wider public is yet to be seen but it will surely please Russians who believe that the last golden age of Russian cinema were the 1970s and early 1980s and who believe that everything that has been made since is a lapse into bad taste and chernuka.

Natalia Merkulova and Alexei Chupov's Intimate Parts should be a treat in the terms that it is a truly novel film in a hitherto unheard of genre in Russia- the sex comedy genre. Causing quite a storm at Kinotavr, it had a more subdued reaction on general release. The character of a government bureaucrat played superlatively by Julia Aug seems to have an all too obvious counterpart in the Russian parliament today in the guise of the architect of the anti gay laws. Attacking middle class glamour (it was billed in the Kinotavr programme as an ironical melodrama about the contemporary Moscow middle class) and been compared to the work of Todd Solondz and John Cameron Mitchell. It is certainly one of the films that most deserves a viewing at the festival and I would put in the top three or four films shown this year at Kinotavr. Whether it will delight a general audience remains to be seen. 

Of the films that are more likely to play to the sentimental crowd, I'd put Ivan, son of Amir Maxim Panfilov's Soviet-style paean to tolerance. It really felt too forced when I watched it at Kinotavr and, if anything, the very weakest of the films that were shown there. It is really quite hard to gauge how the festival chose this film rather than others which have been left out.

Equally, the festivals opening film was not one that really lived up to the expectations placed in the director Taisia Igumentseva after she won an award at Cannes for her short film The Road to... Filmed in a naif style, a group of bucolic eccentrics await the end of the world. However, it is an apocalyptic comedy which makes one almost start to plead for the end of the film (and the over-egged gags). Igumentseva will have ample opportunity to prove herself in the future but it is a regret that it was this film which has been so hyoed as her entry into the full-length feature film. 

A Winter Path is the film that Kinotavr which to its shame seems not to have shown for fear of the political reaction of showing a film that may have fallen foul of its new anti-gay law. Not a gay film as such but with a character who is gay, it seems to have delighted those critics who have seen it and have won awards at smaller film festivals in Russia. The Kommersant critic, Lydia Maslova, was quoted as stating that it would "look great at any European festival" in an article by Anna Malpas on the film and the scandal surrounding it.

For me, the best choice of the festival is Yusup Razykov's Shame. This film about a community of families of submariners awaiting tragic news about their husbands will clearly take many people’s minds back to the Kursk submarine tragedy. It is not so much the relevance of the subject matter which strikes one but the extraordinary inner journey of the protagonist inside her personal shame and in her relation as outsider to the community as a whole. The extraordinarily ability to fix a landscape in this film as well as to explore the main characters inner world (and the actors performance has an almost haunting character to it) means that Razykov is one of the few contemporary directors able to generate a new cinematic language not tied to the Soviet past but still carrying on a significant dialogue with this past. Shame is a quiet rejection of much post-Soviet cinema and for the genuine film buff who wishes to see the very best of Russian cinema in terms of artistic excellence this would be the film I'd most recommend viewers to watch here. Unfortunately, it seems to have had a difficult post-festival destiny in Russia itself, in spite of gaining a number of prestigious awards at important European festivals such as Karlovy Vary.

Serebrennikov's Betrayal seems to have come late to London but it is certainly a film of significant power and for those yet to watch it, it should also be there amidst the must sees. Marina Migunova's biopic on Marina Tsvetaeva will also delight a certain type of Anglo-Saxon russophile as well as those less conversant with her complicated and intriguing biography. Competently made, the film wasn't over warmly received at the Moscow Film Festival but I, for one, would be curious to watch it once again. 

In terms of documentary films the most awaited film is surely Vitaly Mansky's Pipelines. Shown at a great number of film festivals throughout Europe already, it is certainly a documentary of great power. Documenting both absurdity and poverty as well as affluence along the pipeline from Siberia to Western Europe, Mansky has managed to create a documentary road movie of great force. He, in many ways, deliberately avoided the overtly political (even reportedly excising a scene in this regard) but provided a defiantly satirical portrait. Mansky also has a retrospective of films shown at the Russian Film Festival, a festival which has highlighted his films a number of years and which Mansky has been associated with in the past. Whether the Russian Film festival has offered the best of Russian documentary in the past remains arguable, especially given its ignoring the (in many ways) far more unique portraits offered by Rastorguev, Kossakovsky and rarely showing much of Loznitsa's work.  

Other documentary films on offer this year are more directly political films (at least with a political theme). A very revealing portrait of the leader of the left wing of the non-systemic opposition, Sergei Udaltsov, is perhaps one of the most interesting political documentaries to come from Russia in recent years. Evgenia Montaña Ibañez's March, March With Your Left! managed to avoid the usual traps of a political documentary and as well as portraying unusually honest moments that most political leaders would avoid, portrayed events that have since become sadly seminal -such as the Bolotnaya demonstration of May 6th- in turning Russia from being a mildly repressive regime to something more sinister. This film will remain an important document. 

The other semi political film describes a period where Russia seemed to be thawing whereby critical poems by one of Russia's leading writers and one of Russia's leading actors teemed up to rewrite (and then recite) poems by Russia's leading literary figures throughout history and turn them into satirical broadsides against the regime. Tolerated initially on television they then were played to live audiences. The film records this but it doesn't seem to do much more than this and to my mind is far more an imperfect film than the one on Udaltsova. 

Other documentary films to watch are Route 31 by Denis Klebeev recording the rather isolated life of a village in Kamchatka. Able to capture life unawares in many more ways the average documentary this film was justifiably very well-received at last year's Art Doc Fest and is well worth a viewing. As is the film Graffiti about what happens when a street artist with a great gift for painting religious images with no imaginable blasphemous content plies her art in a small provincial town. Valery Ostavnykh manages to highlight the real story about 'blasphemous art'  in contemporary Russia in this small tale.

The odd special event and a selection of animated films chosen by Novaya Gazeta's cinema correspondent and animation expert Larisa Malyukova will complete the festival. In terms of my own tastes the festival doesn't live up to an exploration of the best of Russian cinema. Of the finest films from this years Kinotavr only Shame, Intimate Parts & Geographer...(with Mansky's Pipeline as documentary) are represented. On the other hand, Fedorchenko's poetic, documentary fairy-tale Celestial Wives of the Meadow Mari and Stempkovski's European-style New Wave film Delivery Man have not been included. Even worse, Kira Muratova's Eternal Homecoming is not being shown. One could have argued that this is not a Russian film but then her film Melody for a Barrel Organ was shown at the festival. Lopushansky's film Role is also absent. There is no underground/ alternative Russian cinema represented here either and films represented at Berlin such as Khlebnikov's A Long and Happy Life (far, far better than his Till Night Us Do Part which was shown at last year's Russian Film festival in London) as well as Svetlana Baskova's For Marx also failed to be shown. In this sense the Russian Film Festival has failed to live up to any promise that it may show the best of Russian film. In years to come surely many Russian films that will remain in film history will not have been shown here. All the same, this seems not to be its remit and one must be thankful that there are some gems to watch.

The Unmissables:
Shame - Yusup Razykov
Intimate Parts- Natalia Merkulova and Alexei Chupov
Pipeline - Vitaly Mansky (and as much of his retrospective as one can see would be highly advisable)
A Winter Path- Sergei Laramaev, Ljubov Lvova

The Highly Advisables:
The Geographer Drunk Away His Globe- Aleksander Veledinsky
Route 31, Graffiti, and March! March! To your Left! in the documentary section.
Betrayal - Kirill Serebrennikov.