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Friday, 17 November 2017

From Moscow's Central Cultural Venue to Mausoleum: The Sad Decline of its Cinema Museum.

Just after it was opened one evening I took a trip to the VDNKh exhibition centre in Moscow to then make my way to the Cinema Museum. Informed by the information desk that this would involve a forty minute walk I set out in the vague direction they told me. Given my melancholic mood full of  nostalgic memories of what the old Cinema Museum in Krasnopresnenskaya used to be like, this October evening walk in this hyper Stalinist environment gave me the sense that I was walking through the set of a horror film. The walk was shorter than expected and after about twenty minutes I found myself at the entrance of the building pictured above.

Russia's Culture Ministry had long starved the previous museum team of any resources for the construction of what, given Russia's cinematic history and the immense archives that it holds, surely had the potential of being one of the greatest cinema museums in the world. One of the chief culprits in this horror movie of a story, is Vladimir Medinsky, with his dodgy PhD, who, after marginalising an equipe full of talent and with an excellent global reputation, ensured that a team headed by those who could be counted on to reflect his strategy of 'patriotic revanche' in the area of culture was in place before construction would begin on the new building of the Cinema Museum.

Although the news of the re-opening of the Museum this Autumn had been broadcast on a number of national television channels and much was made of it, the amount of people walking around the museum while I was there (the day after the official opening) was never more than four or five. Partly a reflection of the inconvenient location of the building but undoubtedly, too, a reflection of the sheer lack of excitement that this re-opening has been greeted by Russia's cine enthusiasts. There's no doubt that considerable money was put into this venture along with major institutional support once the 'right people' were in charge. The guests at the official opening (Culture Minister Medinsky, Moscow Mayor Sobianin and directors Mikhalkov and Khotinenko) meant that this was meant to be their moment, the moment of this conservative clique of exorcists and demolition men. They had wrested their hands on an institution that in the 1990s and the first five years of the 21st Century daily brought many hundreds to trudge up various flights of stairs and watch and often discuss films for hours afterwards. An institution that had once trul been at the very centre of cultural life in Moscow. Alas in October 2017, however, in spite of a brand new custom-built building, one couldn't help having the feeling that one was walking through a mausoleum, if not a morgue, rather than any vital cultural venue.

A distorted narrative bandied about by the new team, for example, that the old Cinema Museum hadn't exhibited any of its massive archive in the building in Krasnopresnenskaya (a falsehood once again repeated in a recent interview by Solonitsyna on the TV station Moskva 24) or that the conception of the museum was for a 'small group of film scholars and not for the people' was contrived by them to justify their ludicrous usurpation of this Museum. The idea that the old Cinema Museum never exhibited is risible and belied by the video below of the visit by Quentin Tarantino to the Museum during the Moscow Film Festival in the early 2000s (an exhibition by the way which was open to all that summer at the Cinema Museum):

Given the lavish financial riches that the authorities have clearly given to Solonitsyna, one finally has the chance to see what she has done with this new venue.The space afforded now would surely, in theory, permit world class exhibitions and impress a national and international public given just how rich the material in their possession actually is. Unfortunately, even this large space given Solonitsyna et al has been very poorly handled. One large space was given over to hanging portraits of Soviet actors as though they were members of a 1970s Politbureau. Two dozen or so large photos confront the museum goer as he or she walks through nonplussed as what all this is supposed to bring to their museum experience. This plethora of portraits is fine, say, at the Iluzion Cinema where one could gaze at the photos on the wall of actors throughout the epochs and (unlike in Solonitsyna's Cinema Museum) from all parts of the world while sitting in the cafe. But this eerily absurd room in a Cinema Museum is simply not a tangible museum experience bringing much of value to the museum-goer.

Another room was filled with costumes of Sergei Soloviev's adaptation of Anna Karenina. The problem, though, is that Soloviev is hardly anymore at the pinnacle of Russian cinema and his adaptation of Anna Karenina can hardly be considered much of a masterpiece to enthuse many cinephiles (I watched it in Odessa sitting in the same row of seats as Kira Muratova and dearly wished throughout the film that I could have watched Kira Georgievna's variation on Anna Karenina rather than Soloviev's distinctly mediocre effort). Soloviev may indeed be just the kind of figure one would expect to profit from the mediocre and retrograde conception of a Cinema Museum favoured by Larisa Solonitsyna and her ilk but wasting such a large amount of space on displaying the costumes of this rather forgettable film (however lovingly this exhibits are displayed) seems to be one of the few tasks that only Larisa Ottovna is capable of.

The main exhibition space went under the name of 'The Labyrinth of History'. Certainly there are single exhibits which may individually delight. It's interesting to see a copy of Medvedkin's camera gun and there is space devoted to a variety of figures in Soviet cinema, although certainly not all. Curiously Barnet is absent but at least Parajanov is present. But then Parajanov's information plate while noting that he didn't make films for a decade and a half after Sayat Nova does not even bother to mention that he spent a certain part of this period incarcerated in prison camps. An uninformed visitor would be led to assume from the information available here that it was simply the aesthetic dissonance of his vision that caused his absence from cinematography in the 70s and much of the 80s. Texts in the museum are very extensive (I didn't manage to read many of them as my visit was a relatively short one) but it would have been preferable to have an audio guide to rest one's eyes for the exhibits themselves. Yet one more sphere where one can call this museum fully retroguardist. Their 'historical couplings' often veer into the uncannily weird. One section wants to convince us that Bondarchuk's War and Peace can somehow be profitably understood by being set alongside Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev and that the visitor can draw significant conclusions from these 'parallel' films.

Then there's the 'international' dimension. Or rather the complete lack of it. Well, with the exception of one aspect. Foreign awards presented to Soviet 'successes' are widely exhibited and one can sense that paroxysm of pride among the national patriots like Mikhalkov's and Solonitsyna's of this world when recalling the Oscar won during World War Two (with a long-winded account of the story of the Oscar statue's journey back from the US to the USSR). The Oscar aside the museum neglects to tell us anything about cinema as an international art and thus so much of interest is utterly squandered. The wax on Medinsky's moribund autarkic historical fantasies is applied liberally while Eisenstein's multicultural, cosmopolitan perspective breathes its last in this atmosphere where the pettily parochial mindset of the present 'authorities' is so firmly stamped.

Soviet cinema may have been at the vanguard of world cinema once but, alas, you don't get much of a whiff of cinephilic excitement of that period when Soviet cinema really did lead the world in this venue. No amount of graffiti-like portraits of Eisenstein on the walls of the Cinema Museum is going to inspire genuine cinephilia. (Moreover, any casual film buff from foreign shores on a trip to Moscow and who happens upon the museum will find that firstly all the information is solely in Russian and, secondly, while nearly every other museum in Moscow has abandoned the two-tier pricing system for Russians and foreigners, the Cinema Museum has brought it back in- and so charging a foreigner an extra 200 roubles for their ticket. What a contrast to the previous museum where the exhibition in the video above was free of charge and apart from the many free screenings ticket prices were amere 50 roubles).

From the various interviews in which Larisa Solonitsyna has spoken of her 'conception' of the Cinema Museum you don't really understand whether any intelligent film buff will ever be encouraged to come to the place she describes in her own words (yet alone the actual Museum). Unenthusiastic about including a cinemateque in the concept of a Cinema Museum (Larisa Ottovna seems to think that youtube does away with any idea of the collective viewing of cinematic classics and since you can see masterclasses by major filmmakers on your computer screen why bother inviting any major filmmaker to Moscow either), it's rather hard to imagine how this 'promotion' of the museum is ever going to create the kind of love of film that the old building in Krasnopresnenskaya (and the team behind it) certainly did. Certainly no Godard will ever present a Dolby system to Solonitsyna and clearly the Szabo's, Tarantino's, Dardenne's, Guediguian, Ioseliani's etc etc etc are not going to come en masse here to ВДНХ as they did to the old Cinema Museum. The Museum may have a stand proudly linking the Cinema Museum to all the other major Cinema Museum's throughout the world but given who is in charge here there is little chance of any international cooperation with any of these globally-oriented cinema museums.

In spite of its relative vicinity to VGIK as well being part of the massive complex of ВДНХ, the Cinema Museum has managed just over 2,000 visitors in four weeks (well under 100 a day). For anyone who can remember the affluence of cinemagoers to the pre-2005 Cinema Museum these are genuinely ridiculous figures. I myself remember watching Fellini's 8 1/2  almost inches away from the huge screen because in the largest hall in Krasnopresnenskaya almost every single inch of available space (not just the seats and rows near the seats but literally every space imaginable) had been occupied by avid filmgoers. Kleiman's Cinema Museum surely attracted well over 2,000 in a weekend (rather than in close to a month as is the case here).

All in all one, one gets the sense that one is visiting a Mausoleum where the spirit of cinema has been coated with lacquer to give it a shiny feel to it and like the Lenin lying in Red Square there is little sense that the exhibits bear any relation to living, breathing entities. The endless display of festival awards and the room of portraits, further, make one feel that after exiting the Cinema Museum that one has just come out of a funeral (the almost funereal politbureau format of the portrait room makes one begin to question why Snow Lake wasn't playing as one walked from portrait to portrait).

There's a sense that the blanking out of history going on generally with regard to cinema is somehow particularly indicative of the past decade. Whether it's ascribing Parajanov's fifteen year absence from filmmaking purely to his asethetic dissonance with the Soviet style of cinematography or whether it's abandoning the idea that cinema can ever again become a collective experience of engagement and revelation as it was in the old Cinema Museum of Krasnopresnenskaya, there's little chance of this new venue seducing a new generation of cinephiles to savour the real riches of cinematic history. Sadly, the paternalistic, authoritarian style of Solonitsyna et al, and the association of the museum with filmic morticians such as Mikhalkov and Khotinenko who have, in recent years, become little more than cinematic trash merchants makes one aware that as long as their narrow nationalist mindset is the dominant one, it is something of a pipe dream to believe that the cinematic imagination will have much life breathed into it from this institution.

The grinding repression in the cultural sphere in Russia that is evidently increasing and evidenced, for example, by the trial and imprisonment of Oleg Sentsov, through to the legal persecution of Kirill Serebrennikov and others associated with him, the possible blacklisting of senior cultural figures and apparent blocking of accreditation for critical journalists at the St Petersburg Cultural Forum as well as the persistent harassment of another theatre director, Konstantin Raikin, is reinforced by the imposition of barely competent officials such as Larisa Solonitsyna, ideologically faithful to the conservative turn of Medinsky and Mikhalkov. Figures able only to suck the life out of the institutions they are called upon to lead and to alienate any potential interest in their sphere. One can only hope that this generation of cultural undertakers appointed by a figure who can justifiably be described as Russia's worst Culture Minister in living memory will at some point in the future be swept away to be replaced by the immense talent that undoubtedly exists in Russia's authentic cinematic community.

In the meantime one can best avoid any extra tramps to this sad Mausoleum-like external structure and its morgue-like feel within situated in this ultra-Stalinist entertainment park and make one's way to the Tretyakov Gallery where members from the previous team of the Cinema Museum with far fewer resources at their disposal manage to show some excellent programmes as well as new recent releases, hoping one day that the conservative turn in Russian society will be ultimately reversed.

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

News Regarding The Boris Barnet Project.

Just over two years ago I posted on this blog about a project dedicated to the figure of Boris Barnet. A project regarding a filmmaker who left very little in terms of documents, essays, articles to posterity. Only his films, a handful of letters to his fifth and final wife and the sketch miraculously surviving in spite of Barnet's tendency to discard nearly everything in his possession. And yet there are many possible leads. People still alive who knew him (for example his daughter, Olga Barnet; the filmmaker Marlen Khutsiev who worked with him on the film Liana and others who worked with him towards the end of his career). At the presetnt time I am collecting and presenting some material on another blog 

Here is a short description of the Boris Barnet project

The Boris Barnet project aims to be a project starting off as a blog and then will move to a website domain and eventually lead to a book to be printed by Cygnnet Books (who have produced excellent books on Andrey Tarkovsky and Andrei Zvyagintsev). We aim to produce a selection of images and printed material on this blog much of which is either not publicly available or has been available only in Russian or has been locked up in archives (or published in books and journals long out of print). A series of translations and summaries of articles from Russian will also be gradually published in the months to come. Hopefully this will be a site that both film lovers as well as students of film can turn to in order to discover more about the life and work of one of Russia’s (and the world’s) most interesting film directors.
Blogposts (and material on the site) will include the following:
Photographs and portraits of Boris Barnet
Accounts of Barnet’s films
Aspects of Barnet’s cinematographic practice
Themes in Barnet’s films
Historical background to the films
Synopses of the films
Attempts to describe the locations where the films were shot
Accounts of actors who starred in Barnet films
Film sequences of Barnet films
Video essays
Contemporary reviews of Barnet films
Accounts of Barnet’s filmmaking process
Memoirs of Barnet from those who knew him
Transcripts from interviews with film scholars and acquaintances of Barnet
Biographical and other information on the actors in Barnet films
Information on other members of the film crew (scriptwriters, Directors of Photography, Artistic Directors etc)
Gifs of Barnet scenes
Screenshots of particular moments in Barnet films