Thursday, December 22, 2011

Dersu and the Captain

As the temperature plunges down into the red, I find myself thinking about movies like Dersu Uzala, which Akira Kurosawa adapted from Vladimir Arseniev’s account of charting the Russian-Manchurian border in the earlier part of this century.  Dersu is one of those rare movies that transcends time and place with its universal theme of humanity.  Filmed at the height of the Cold War, it reached far beyond the movies of that time that tended to play up the East-West tensions and looked for common bonds. 

Here's the scene with them staring into the face of winter.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Vysotsky: the movie

We were watching a segment the other night on the making of the movie, which was released a couple weeks ago.  The mystery is over.  Sergey Bezrukov had the honors of playing the great screen bard.  Of course, you are taking a big gamble casting anyone for the role, as Vysotsky is still very fresh on many Russians' minds.  His music, movies, and television appearances live on, and he is a tough act to emulate.  But, it seems Bezrukov satisfied viewers.

The film apparently covers the last four days of his life, turning it into a very dramatic chain of events, judging from the trailer.  It has been a huge hit, easily surpassing all other movies this year.  Here's a second trailer.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Remembering Evgeny Leonov

We found ourselves watching Gentlemen of Fortune the other night.  This video comes with subtitles.  Evgeny Leonov is one of the great Russian comic actors, and perhaps the most loved actor.   You might call him the Russian Danny De Vito.  His filmography is a mile long and he has done voices for famous cartoon characters like Vinny Pukh.  He even had a stamp minted in his honor.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Gruppirovka Leningrad goes Lithuania

It is too bad I missed this concert at the Forum Palace recently.  Leningrad reformed last year and has revived its raucous rhythms from the late 90s, which bespoke the turbulent nature of Russia during that time.  They hooked up with the Tiger Lilies at one point, collaborating on an album in 2005, but it pretty much flew under the radar screen.  Not everyone's cup of tea, but these guys and gal (Yuliya Kogan) sure can jam,


Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Pas de deux

It's a black day in Moscow when the Bolshoi loses two of its premier dancers, Ivan Vasilev and Natalia Osipova, to the Mikhailovsky Theatre in St. Petersburg.  

Friday, October 21, 2011

Okno v Parizh

.... which brings to mind this fun movie from 1993, Okno v Parizh, that captured the sense of longing for the West during the waning days of the Soviet Union.  Unfortunately, for poor Nicole all these new house guests prove overwhelming and she soon finds herself on the wrong side of the window, hidden by an old wardrobe.  What makes this film special is how Yuri Mamin  plays both sides of the "window."
Mamin found himself on the outside looking in when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and had a hard time financing this film, but his French backers stuck by him and the movie was a big hit in France and at the Berlin Film Festival that year, and was subsequently picked up by Sony Pictures.

My Paris

Nice to see this classic book in print again, Moi Parizh, a highly impressionistic photo journey through Paris by Ilya Ehrenburg and El Lissitzky.  It was originally published in 1933 and would cost you a small fortune for a first edition.  I love these books as they capture a side of the Russian avant-garde not often seen. 

Friday, October 14, 2011

The Shooting Party

Here's a classic movie based on a classic novel.  Oleg Yankovsky and Galina Belyayeva in Chekhov's The Shooting Party.  Sorry, you will have to search for subtitles.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Remembering Oleg Yankovsky

Oleg Yankovsky passed away in 2009, but his legacy lives on in film.  We were watching Khrani menya, moy talisman (Keep me, my talisman) the other night, in which a young Yankovsky is part of a love triangle with Tatyana Dubrich and Alexandr Abdulov, as they document the Pushkin Poetry Festival in Boldino,

Some marvelous cameos by Bulat Okudzhava and others in the film, which dates from 1986  Yankovsky was one of Russia's favorite actors.  His filmography is mostly known within the country, but he also played in Tarkovsky's Mirror (1974) and Nostalghia (1983).

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Scenes from Paris

Judging by the price Ilya Repin's 1875 masterpiece fetched at a Christie's auction this past summer, Russian art is finally getting its due.  Repin is widely regarded as the master of Russian realism in the late 19th century.  He briefly broke with the Peredvizhinki artistic school to paint scenes of Paris, where he studied from 1873-76.  You can certainly see the influence of Manet in this painting.  Here's another example of his Paris Years

Much of the Russian realism carried with it a strong sense of nationalism.  Repin would return to Russia and nationalist subject matter in such works as Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks to Sultan Mahmoud IV, a work that consumed 10 years of his life and was completed in 1891.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

One Night in Tallinn

It is hard to say when modern jazz began in the Soviet Union, but in 1967 Charles Lloyd toured the Soviet Union and recorded a concert in Tallinn.  The original album contained four cuts and was released on Atlantic.  It showcased Lloyd, along with Keith Jarrett, Ron McClure and Jack DeJohnette, at he peak of his popularity following the highly successful Forest Flower album.  The highlight of the concert was an extended version of "Sweet Georgia Bright."  Soviet "jazz bands" tended to be state produced with music by the Composers' Union, so this was quite a departure from the standard fare.

Slava Ganelin formed the Ganelin Trio with Vladimir Tarasov and Vladimir Chekasin in Vilnius in 1970, which is generally regarded as the first free jazz band in the Soviet Union.  They would achieve international success with the studio album Ancora da Capo and their live recording in East Germany.

What little cross pollination that occurred during this time was at events like the Tallinn Jazz Festival.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Stalin's Wife

Zhena Stalina is an ambitious four-part television series that attempts to convey the agonizing position Nadezhda Allilueva found herself in when she married Josef Stalin.  The writers took their cue from a 2004 documentary by Slava Tsukerman, drawing on even more archival material to piece together a very intimate account of this marriage.  The series does lack emotional intensity, which Jamie Miller notes in his review for Kinokultura, with Duta Skhirtladze giving a rather subdued performance as Stalin.  But, then this film is principally about Nadezhda, and Olga Budina turns in a powerful performance as Stalin's wife.

I don't know that much about Allilueva, so I can't say how accurate the telling is.  It appears to be more an emotional "truth" that the director is aiming for in justifying the fateful decision she would ultimately make.  We see her provide understanding and love for Stalin's son from a previous marriage, shown in this film clip, and try to guard their two children from his tyrannical outbursts, only to feel the full weight of his anger.  One senses the same love-hate relationship one finds in most abusive marriages but with far more profound consequences, as Nadezhda has her broader family to think about in the wake of her husband's reign of terror. 

The filmmakers decide to treat Stalin's terror on the periphery, with pointed references rather than any attempt to explain his actions.  Instead, the series focuses on Nadezhda's reactions to the growing list of crimes against humanity her husband is perpetrating, and her attempts to reconcile this with the image she stills holds of "Soso" as the idealistic revolutionary she first met in 1917.  As a result, this film becomes very domestic and probably won't appeal to viewers looking for pithy insights into Stalin's character.  It is Olga Budina's strong performance that holds the viewer.

Budina had previously played Aglaya Yepachina in the television series, The Idiot

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Portraits of an Artist as a Young Man

I've really been enjoying Speak, Memory, a fascinating collection of Vladimir Nabokov's remembrances of his youth (1899-1919) in Imperial Russia.  As he notes in his penultimate chapter, it is the first arc of the spiral that made up his life, in which he delves into the some of the formative moments that shaped him.  One can find echoes of Lolita in his "first love" for Collette on a French seashore, where his family vacationed one summer.  And, his first real love for Tamara which ended when his family had to flee Petersburg for Crimea, as the Bolshevik revolution thrust the country into turmoil, and eventually set sail for Greece with Tamara's letters left to drift like butterflies as no forward address was left.  There is even a pause for silence in the death of Tolstoy, which Nabokov notes in his parents one morning.

Brian Boyd wrote the introduction to this Everyman's Library edition, 1999, and here he is on the Centennial of Nabokov's birth that year.  Boyd notes that Nabokov was startling accurate in his accounts, having written and rewritten pieces for magazines before finally publishing the final edition of his autobiography in 1966.

Nabokov briefly touches on the second arc of his life, a "voluntary exile" in Europe, which included Germany, France and England.  He notes the sickly green passports which were issued by the League of Nations to Russian emigres, who no longer found themselves citizens of the Soviet Union.  He writes about his three years at Cambridge trying to set his classmates straight on Bolshevism, eventually to give up and turn to poetry.  He also tells of his time in Paris among the Russian emigres, including a wonderful sketch of Ivan Bunin one night at a restaurant to which Bunin had invited him.

A sixteenth chapter has been added, in which Nabokov writes an amusing appraisal of his autobiography from the point of view of a third person critic.  Nabokov chose not to include it in his earlier edition of the book.

Monday, August 8, 2011


Vladimir Mashkov was featured recently on a segment of "Stop Frame," a Russian film and actor review program on TV 1000.  His film career goes back to the late 1980s, but  my introduction was Thief, where he plays a conniving father looking for the easy score in Stalinist Russia.  He has since become one of my favorite Russian actors. He was excellent as Rogozhin in the Russian television mini-series The Idiot.  He is currently working on a French-Russian production of Rasputin, in which he will play Tsar Nicholas II, with Gerard Depardieu as Rasputin.

Nice to see a full transfer of Thief available on Youtube with English subtitles.  Mashkov has done quite a number of films over the years, including the popular Oligarch, which included an international cast.  I guess you could call it a Russian Scarface.  He seems to play dubious characters for the most part.

Vysotsky in New York

Here's a wonderful interview with Vysotsky and Dan Rather for 60 Minutes in 1976.  It was an "unauthorized" visit, as Vysotsky had only been granted a visa to France to spend time with his wife, Marina Vladi.  The two then flew to Montreal, Canada, and onto New York, where he met up with Brodsky and other expatriated Soviet dissidents.  But, as Vysotsky states in this interview, he didn't consider himself a dissident, and had no intention of seeking asylum.  He soon returned to the Soviet Union.

Friday, August 5, 2011

The Meeting Place Cannot be Changed

We found ourselves watching part of this television series from the late 1970s, which featured Vladimir Vysotsky and Natalya Fateyeva among many others.  It was one of Vysotsky's last films before his tragic death.  He was in very good form as a tough-minded homicide detective following a complicated trail of leads to a vicious gang known as "Black Cat" in 1930s Moscow.  Along the way, he and his young idealistic partner come across Fateyeva on a riverboat restaurant.

It was a very popular five-part series, which you can see in its entirety with English subs on youtube, or order a copy through amazon.  It was distributed as The Age of Mercy, which was the title of the novel by Arkadiy Vayner and Georgiy Vayner, outside the Soviet Union.  So good to see Vystotsky in fine form.  One doesn't have any sense of his own private demons.  Unfortunately, the book is not so easily available.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Twelfth Chair

I was watching the 1971 version of 12 Chairs the other night, with Archil Gomiashvili as Ostap Bender.  Great visual and comic feast.  This is a very nice transfer , unfortunately no English subs.  You can say Russians reclaimed Ilf and Petrov's classic novel after numerous foreign adaptations, including Mel Brooks' 1970 version.  There was also a 1976 Soviet version with Andrei Mironov in the lead.

It is often thought comedy gets lost in translation.  Mark Twain commented on this in his essay, The Awful German Language.  While it is hard to find fault with Twain, I think comedy is visually specific as well.  Ilf and Petrov relied on a number of "word images" that simply don't carry the same resonance in any other language than Russian.  The films help restore some of that humor.

The 1971 film was wonderfully inventive with amusing cartoon sketches mixed in, similar to the Monty Python Circus.  Of course, the great Andrei Mironov was fantastic to watch in the 1976 television mini-series.

The monument is located at Deribassovskaya Street, Odessa.  You have to love Bender's hat and suitcase in the picture.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Waiting for the Sun

I watched part of Dom Solntsa the other night on Russian TV 1000.  The theme and production values are very similar to Valeri Todorovski's Stilyagi, but the time frame is the 1970s and the rise of the Soviet hippie culture.  The director, Garik Sukachev, is steeped in this era.  He published a book in 2007, which served as the script for the movie.   He pays tribute to pioneer rock band, Mashina Vremeni, in a very amusing scene where the band takes over a Soviet concert with a stature of Lenin behind them.

As in Hipsters, we see a young person turn her back on the party line and join a counter culture group.  In this case, Sasha chooses to turn her back on her parents and join this band of misfits, led by Solntsa, a golden haired version of Jim Morrison. They flee the confines of Moscow for the coastline of Crimea.  This seaside resort area has been featured in a number of Russian movies as of late.  Unfortunately, it is hard to track down a copy of The House of Sun (2010), so I hope to catch it next time around on TV1000.

Here is a film clip.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Bathhouse and Other Stories

Recently came across a wonderful collection of short stories by Mikhail Zoshchenko, a witty satirist from the 1920s.  The title story is about his experience at a public bathhouse and is a wonderful quick read.  Captures all the humor and pathos of life in the old USSR.  Needless to say, he often ran afoul of authorities.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

From Mermaid to Moon Girl

I didn't know what to expect in Rusalka, the second film by Anna Melikian.  I think she drew more from the mythological creature that has long been part of Slavic mythology  than she did Hans Christian Anderson's classic fairy tale, which Chip Crane notes in his review in Kinokultura .  Alisa embodied many ghost-like qualities, although she found herself having a hard time casting her charms on those around her.

It is a fractured fairy tale of a girl born of an incident by the sea where her mother makes love to a sailor on the Crimean shoreline near the end of the Soviet era.  Young Alisa has a hard time reconciling her lowly place in life, her thwarted dreams and the fantasy she holds of her father returning one day to lift her out of the seaside hovel she lives in with her mother and grandmother.  When a sailor does come one day, her spirits are temporarily lifted, only to sadly find out he is looking for room and board.  An eclipse literally leaves her speechless, after which she is placed in a school for disabled children, here she learns to tap into her hidden powers thanks to an autistic boy who chalks up the apples he makes fall from trees.  Summoning up all her newly discovered powers, she calls on the sea to lay waste to the village, and the family is forced to move to Moscow.

This doesn't initially impact her lowly station in life.  Still mute, she picks up odd jobs around the city while her mother works in a large supermarket.  She finds herself drawn up in the glamour of Moscow life when a large canvas advertisement is hoisted over the facade of their building.  She cuts an opening out of the eye of the cosmetic beauty on her eighteenth birthday.  Steeped in symbolism, the "mermaid" becomes urban myth, as she still finds herself able to alter events if she puts her mind to it.  But, ultimately she finds herself thwarted from her ambitions, which she takes from the billboards around town, and is ready to leap off one of the bridges when a young man appears out of the blue and plunges into the Moskva River.  She dives in, rescuing him from the river and wakes up the next morning in his lavish apartment.

But, Melikian is not content to make this a happy story.  Sasha doesn't show much interested in Alisa, mistaking her for the cleaning lady.  Sasha is a purveyor of fantasies, selling land plots on the moon to Moscovites who need an escape from the rough and tumble city.  Sadly, this doesn't seem to give Sasha much satisfaction beyond the lavish lifestyle he is able to afford, making him prone to bouts of depression which lead him to attempt suicide.  He has an attractive girlfriend in Rita but becomes increasingly curious in Alisa, who has dyed her green in an effort to change her life.  Not much of a "love triangle," but it provides the necessary tension for the powerful closing scene.

The film offers a bittersweet view of contemporary Moscow, where the cost of living is so far out of reach to the majority of its denizens, that it might as well be the city in Luc Besson's The Fifth Element.  It was Leeloo that gave Alisa the inspiration to transform her life.  All of it comes crashing to an end like a fairy tale tragically cut short.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Deconstructing Yuri Zhivago

It was interesting to read Yuri Slezkine's impressions of Boris Pasternak and the growing number of Soviet Jewish dissidents in the 1950s, as a result of Stalin's purges.  I had seen Zhivago's "nihilism" as anachronistic, referring back to the 19th century nihilists which tended to characterize Russian novels, such as Turgenev's Bazarov.  But, the way Slezkine describes the growing despondency among Soviet Jews in the 1950s as Stalin's purges struck to the heart of a people that had contributed heavily to the Bolshevik Revolution, I get the sense that Zhivago more expressed Pasternak's views at the time of his writing, than they did views in the 1920s, which saw so many Russian Jews embrace the Bolshevik Revolution as expressed in Isaac Babel's Red Cavalry.

Slezkine provides a fascinating psychological analysis and history of the Jewish influence on the Bolshevik Revolution in The Jewish Century.  He argues that the generation born of the revolution turned its backs on its Jewish fathers and embraced the new Soviet society that emerged after the Russian Civil War.  Of course, I imagine there were a few dissidents, which could have served as a model for Yuri Zhivago, but the overwhelming amount of  Russian literature at the time praised the Red Army, with many Jews taking their service as a right of passage into the Soviet Union.  Many young Jews completely renounced their heritage, assuming Russian hybrids and acronyms of Soviet leaders, and wanting nothing to do with their Yiddish past.

Pasternak's dissidence seems to have greatly affected the way he chose to characterize Zhivago's "profound ambivalence."  Pasternak had not been the most agreeable Soviet citizen, often coming up against the literary censors, but from what I've read Pasternak embraced the modernism that suffused the early Soviet Union.  It wasn't until Stalin imposed his sense of neo-realism that writers like Pasternak, Mandelstam and Akhmatova found themnselves on the outside looking in.  Stalin and his successors wanted the Soviet Union described, painted, sculpted and built in heroic terms, and it was obvious that Yuri Zhivago didn't fit the definition of a "model citizen" anymore than Pasternak did himself, which is why Doctor Zhivago was first published in Italy, and became an international sensation, having been rebuffed by Soviet censors.

This kind of reflectivity came to characterize the Russian dissident of the 50s and 60s.  Writers like Pasternak and Achmatova were a major influence on Joseph Brodsky and "the magic chorus" that arose at this time, which no longer saw the Soviet Union as a socialist paradise.  Still, Slezkine notes, Soviet Jews couldn't dispel their love for Russian culture, particularly their love for Pushkin, and found it difficult to fully embrace the new State of Israel or the capitalist panacea that the United States represented.  Those who did emigrate to America and Israel had a very hard time reconciling their feelings, as Khrzhanovsky depicted Brodsky in Room and a Half.

Sunday, May 29, 2011


A friend tuned me into Stiliagi, or Hipsters, as it was called in its all too brief American release.  The movie would have seemed to have great cross-over appeal with its rousing 1950s musical theme, portraying a "gang" of hipsters bucking the repressive conformity of Soviet Moscow by staging underground Swing bars, while evading Komsomol kids.  But, it seems the movie got very limited play beyond Russia.

The film is loosely based on a real movement at the time, as noted in Volha Isakava's review.  These stylish kids mostly came from the elite ranks of the Communist Party, and were therefor immune from overt censorship, which would help explain why they flaunted their American style so openly.  Still, they found themselves coming up against the Komsomol, receiving harsh reprimands and sometimes being expelled from university, as was depicted in this riveting scene.  Isakava also notes the interesting juxtaposition of 50s theme with 80s Russian rock, showing that this defiance spanned post-war generations.

However, the director, Valeriy Todorovskiy, maintains a breezy style, choosing to not delve too deeply into harsh realities, even turning life in communal housing into an engaging musical number, as the young Mels (an acronym of Marx Engels Lenin Stalin) wrestles with his new found attraction to this subculture.  Mels becomes the star of the movie.  A former Komsomol kid smitten by the engaging "Polly."  He drops the "S" to become more "American," which leads to his expulsion from school and his full embrace of swing music, looking like a young Chet Baker.

Eventually, the kids need to make some tough choices and the movie veers toward reality, while avoiding any head on collision.  Mel and Polly are forced to grapple with parenthood, with an interesting twist; and the leader of the group, Fred, follows in his father's footsteps and becomes a diplomat.  Fred's father is played by the great Oleg Yankovskiy.

I suppose it may have seemed a bit too much like Swing Kids for some audiences, but it is a fun movie that deserves more international exposure.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Magical Chorus

Very nice essay on Joseph Brodsky, by Keith Gessen, in this month's New Yorker, which recaps his life both in his own words and those of others like his great friend, Lev Loseff, whose biography has recently been published in English.  Loved Brodsky's description of his first meeting with Auden, which he wrote to Loseff,

W. H. Auden drinks his first martini dry at 7:30 in the morning, after which he sorts his mail and reads the paper, marking the occasion with a mix of sherry and scotch. After this he has breakfast, which can consist of anything so long as it’s accompanied by the local dry pink and white, I don’t remember in which order. At this point he sets to work. Probably because he uses a ballpoint pen, he keeps on the desk next to him, instead of an inkwell, a bottle or can of Guinness, which is a black Irish beer that disappears in the course of the creative process. At around 1 o’clock he has lunch. Depending on the menu, this lunch is decorated by this or that rooster’s tail, or cocktail. After lunch, a nap, which is, I think, the only dry point of the day.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Of Love and War

Maybe it is just me, but I found an intriguing resonance between Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago and Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms.  Doesn't seem much has been written on this possible connection, but the "love stories" are very similar and they are both set during World War I.

Hemingway's book preceded Pasternak's book by more than two decades, but no doubt Pasternak had long envisioned Zhivago.  Yury, like Hemingway's Frederic Henry, was a very strong part of himself.  You can read alot about the authors in both works.  Both opt for a very visceral style of writing, as they bring the reader into the war and force him to gain an understanding of the consequences.  Both were expatriates in their own ways.  Zhivago saw the Russia he knew reduced to ruin with the never-ending scramble for firewood to keep the stove going.

Frederic Henry, or Tenente, is an American expatriate who finds himself enveloped in WWI on the Western Front.  Although he comes from much more simple means, Henry has adopted a similar cynical view of war, no longer capable of understanding the reasons, and ever more appalled by the death toll.  At first he seeks comfort and then love in Catherine Barkley, a British volunteer nurse, with a much fuller realization of their romance in the second half of the novel.

The big difference between the two novels is the scope of the respective works.  Pasternak is much more complex.  He takes on the full width and breadth of Russia during the tumultuous civil war that followed, where Hemingway increasingly turns inward, treating Europe more as "battle fronts," with the romance between Frederic and Catherine taking center stage.  Yet, both end on very similar notes, leaving both characters with an abject emptiness.  Frederic's is made more poignant by the death of Catherine, whereas Zhivago consciously gives Lara up.

Hard to say whether Hemingway would have had any influence on Pasternak.  He was probably more drawn to the stories of Isaac Babel and other Russian writers who chronicled World War I.  But, it is fascinating how two well known writers could come up with similar stories of "The Great War."

Sunday, May 1, 2011

1 мая

May Day actually dates back to the labor movement in America and began being celebrated in the late 19th century in memory of the "anarchists" who were hung for organizing the Haymarket Square Riot in Chicago, 1886.  These figures were lauded by Marxists around the world and May Day was appropriated by the Second International, eventually to become one of the major celebrations of the Soviet Union, starting in 1918.  Not as much resonance these days, but the holiday is still marked on the Russian and other national calendars.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

A Room and a Half

“Of course, we all shared one toilet, one bathroom, and one kitchen. But the kitchen was fairly spacious, the toilet very decent and cozy. As for the bathroom, Russian hygienic habits are such that eleven people would seldom overlap when either taking a bath or doing their basic laundry. The latter hung in the two corridors that connected the rooms to the kitchen, and one knew the underwear of one's neighbors by heart…”
You don't hear much about Joseph Brodsky these days, which is why it is nice to see Andrei Khrzhanovski's A Room and a Half garnering so much attention.  In the movie, Khrzhanovski re-imagines the great poet's youth in the form of a heartfelt retrospective.  Best known as an animator, the director fuses a number of images together into a series of 45 "photographs" in which Brodsky attempts to rebuild his "nest."

It really is marvelous to watch as Khrzhanovski moves seamlessly between sepia tones, B&W, nostalgic color and animation in piecing together these "memories."  He draws as much on Proust as he does Brodsky in this cinematic telling, as if it is all seen through the "magic lamp" of time.  I didn't recognize Alisa Frejndlikh at first, but my wife reminded me she played Kalugina in Office Romance (1977).  Great to see her again, playing Brodsky's mother.

Here's the trailer.

Monday, April 25, 2011


My wife and I watched Duska the other night, followed by a Russian round table discussion from 2010, which featured the late Lyudmila Gurchenko.  The title is the mistaken namesake of the Russian character in this Dutch film, implying little soul or heart.  As Sergei Makovetski noted, the name referred to the malformed baby in a scene he and the movie critic (Gene Bervoets) were watching.

The movie critic meets Duska at a film festival in Russia, played to great comic effect, and finds he can't shake his new friend no matter how hard he tries. When Duska shows up on Bob's doorstep back in Holland, this crimps Bob's designs on a cashier at the local cinema, resulting in a number of amusing situations.  Jos Stelling forces the humor at times, but Bervoets and Makovetski play off each other extremely well.

Bob has essentially become bored with life, unable to even be fully stimulated by the nubile Sylvia Hoeks, when she literally falls into his arms following a dispute with her motorcycle suited boyfriend in front of the theater.  You aren't quite sure whether Bob is imagining these relationships or if they are real, given the ever growing surrealistic tone of the movie.

The comments from the Russian critics was as amusing as the movie, as they found themselves deeply at odds over Duska.  Makovetski offered numerous defenses, while Jos Stelling felt he had undergone an inquisition afterward. It was a rather harsh tone that developed, with a lot of discussion of the meaning of the "Russian Soul" with Gurchenko pleading for Ukranians to have a greater accord with Russia.  Other critics saw the movie as a Western longing for the depth of the Russian soul, pointing out the movie critic's emptiness.  One critic felt they were making too much out of the movie, as it was pretty simple and offered no profound statement on the Russian soul.  He found the references to Pushkin empty and the music insufferable.

You can read into the movie pretty much what you like.  Stelling leaves it open ended.  There is a Gogolian quality to the story, like an "overcoat" that takes on a life of its own, but it isn't the type of movie that is going to stay with you.

Friday, April 15, 2011

The Red Cavalry Stories

Here's another view of The Red Cavalry, as seen by Isaac Babel.  He was assigned to Field Marshal Semyon Budyonny's 1st Cavalry Army in 1920, witnessing the Polish-Soviet War, from which these stories spring.  This cycle of short stories was first translated into English by John Harland in 1929,  providing one of the first accounts of the civil war.   This translation is by Peter Constantine.

Boris Pasternak offers searing portraits of life in the Red Army camps in Doctor Zhivago, but the book was published much later.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed

Nice twist on CCCP.  Taschen seems to have outdone themselves again with this photographic tour of some of the more Brutalist examples of Soviet architecture over the years.  The heydey of these monumental structures was in the 1960s, as Stalin was no fan of modern architecture.  He preferred neo-classical buildings encrusted with Soviet symbolism, as exemplified in his choice for the Palace of the Soviets.  Fortunately, it never was built, but he left a gaping hole in Moscow after tearing down the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour to make room for it.  Nevertheless, he massively reshaped Moscow in the 1930s as shown in this film clip from Novaya Moskva.

Eventually, new ideas would come. The pioneering ideas of El Lissitzky and other modern designers from the 1920s didn't go to waste.  But, by the 1950s these ideas had been massively reformed, as it was no longer so much about the proletariat as it was about making a monument to Socialism.  Krushchev even imagined building a new Palace for the Soviets but settled for a huge swimming pool instead.  Ryszard Kapuściński has a wonderful chapter in Imperium on the fate of the Palace. 

Ironically, a replica of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour was built after the fall of the Soviet Union. The new cathedral was finished in 2000 and towers to the former height of that commissioned by Tsar Alexander I in 1812, after the defeat of Napoleon.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Carnival in Moscow

For Lyudmila Gurchenko, her big break came with Карнавальная ночь, or Carnival Night, in 1956.  Unfortunately, the full length version is no longer available, but here's a clip on youtube, although no subtitles.  You don't really need them to enjoy this movie.  Such a positive spirit.  It was also Eldar Ryazanov's first film.   She would appear in his films time and again, including the wonderful A Railway Station for Two.  

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Goodbye Lyudmila

It is very sad to hear Lyudmila Gurchenko passed away yesterday.  She leaves a great cinematic legacy behind her.  Truly one of the great screen actresses.  Her list of films is long and varied.  Equally at home in comedy as well as drama.  My favorites were Siberiade (1979), A Railway Station for Two (1983) and Starye klyachi (2000)  Here's a wonderful video of her, from 2004, as the object of Moiseev's affections.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011


A few year ago, Bertrand Normand made a lavish documentary, Ballerina, which focused on five dancers from the famed Mariinsky Theatre.  Unlike Black Swan, this film truly goes behind the scenes to reveal what it takes to become a prima ballerina in one of Russia's most revered theaters.

You can purchase the documentary individually or part of this fabulous box set.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

My Perestroika

Interesting to see an American making a documentary entitled My Perestroika, but according to the production notes Robin Hessman spent 8 years in Moscow and earned a graduate degree in film directing from the prestigious VGIK, with a "red diploma" of honors.  So, she would have been quite aware with the events swirling around the capitol during that time.

Hessman follows five persons who came of age during the Perestroika era, interspersing their recollections and thoughts with archival footage and home movies.  It is sure to strike a soft spot in most viewers, judging from this teaser.  Hard to get much sense of the film from the homepage, but it seems to capture a feeling of "Paradise Lost," as events since the second social revolution haven't exactly lived up to many Russians' expectations.

Re-imagining the Black Swan

Watching Black Swan the other night made me wonder what really were the roots of Tchaikovsky's most famous ballet, Swan Lake, and if it really did carry with it some of the dark roots Aronofsky attempted to uncover in his recent movie.

Seems like much of the early controversy surrounded the prima ballerina, Anna Sobeshchanskaya, who was not satisfied with the production, bringing in Marius Petipa and Ludwig Minkus to redo the choreography and the music.  Needless to say, this incensed Tchaikovsky who felt he alone had the right to revise the music.  After some fighting back and forth a compromise was reached and the prima ballerina seemed pleased with rewrite and first performed the ballet in 1877.

As for sources to the libretto, numerous theories abound.  Apparently, Tchaikovsky left few notes in regard to his inspiration, other than he had initially fantasized a "Lake of Swans."  Some of the possible sources are explored in BalletNotes.  The ballet we have come to know was largely composed after his death.  Of course what we do remember most is the music, which was quite a departure from the traditional ballets of the day and why Sobeshchanskaya probably had such a difficult time coming to terms with it, and called on Petipa and Minkus to clean it up a bit.

The idea of the white and black swans is principally about dualities, and allowed the prima ballerina to explore two sides of her character.  Some directors have actually split the role into two parts with two dancers.  In the recent movie, Aronofsky chooses to internalize this conflict, turning the classic ballet into an effective psychological thriller.  However, this film doesn't capture much of the dance aspect of the role.  In fact, we see very little dance in the movie, rather a splitting of the soul in Nina, as she becomes torn by conflicting emotions.  Natalie Portman flaps her arms uselessly as Nina, conveying little of her character in the dance sequences.  Of course Portman is not a ballerina, but still it would have been nice to see a little more care given to this aspect of the story.  Here is the lovely Zenaida Yanowsky, well known for her daring roles, demonstrating how to convey the rival swans in this video clip.  You can see her in a reprise of Swan Lake at the Royal Opera House through April 8.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Remembering Alexandra Kollontai

It was interesting to learn that Alexandra Kollontai urged Lenin to make International Women's Day a national holiday in the Soviet Union.   A fully committed Marxist, her involvement in the socialist movement dated back to the late 19th century.  She helped to organize women workers in Russia following the 1905 Strike, before being forced into exile in Germany.  She became a major catalyst in recognizing International Women's Day throughout the Socialist world.  She later wrote Love of Worker Bees and other stories depicting modern women in Soviet Russia.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Molotov's Magic Lantern

Always on the lookout for a new book on Russian history and culture, I was surprised to come across this article, in which Orlando Figes apologizes for having anonymously savaged Rachel Polonsky's new book, Molotov's Magic Lantern: A Journey in Russian History, in an effort to steer readers toward his books at  Sad, because I have always liked Figes, particularly Natasha's Dance, which provides an engaging and very insightful review of Russia's vast cultural legacy. Doesn't seem to me that he needs to resort to such tactics to attract readers.  Now, it appears he will lose many readers.

As for Polonsky, it looks as though she too has written a very engaging book, judging by Alexander Nazaryan's review in The New Republic,

But still this is an audacious effort, one that tries to capture an entire literary legacy, and the collective tragedy of a beleaguered people, in fewer than four hundred pages. And it is, at least to my limited knowledge, the only history of Russia to use a Bob Dylan lyric as its epigraph: “I can’t feel you anymore, I can’t even touch the books you’ve read.” I imagine that Figes was, at bottom, stung by the thought that Polonsky had written a book more clever and current than his: there she was, drinking Jack Daniels at 3 Romanov while he poured over Stalin’s archives. And so he went online, and at a time when people are reading less, tried to turn away a potential audience away from a book that is worth their attention. Molotov would have been proud.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Other Woman

As is so often the case, fact is more interesting than fiction.  The other woman during Stravinsky's years in Paris was Vera de Bosset, not Coco Channel.  The two engaged in an illicit affair while he produced short compositions for the French piano manufacturer Pleyel.  Eventually, Vera would become a major part of Igor's life, traveling with him throughout the 20s and 30s, with the two eventually getting married after Stravinsky's first wife, Katerina, died in 1939.  They settled in the United States.

Of course, one can still speculate that Igor and Coco may have been more than casual acquaintances in Paris, but Vera was a woman closer to Igor's heart and soul.  One who did understand his music, and wasn't just a "shopkeeper" ; )
The portrait is by Sergei Soudeikin, depicting Vera as she would have appeared in 1920.  You can view the painting at the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Rite of Spring

In many ways Stravinsky's Rite of Spring is the gift that keeps on giving, even if Parisians in 1913 had no way of knowing this when the audience broke out into riot over the premiere of what would become Stravinsky's signature work.  I thought Jan Kounen captured the riotous atmosphere quite well in the opening sequence of his movie.  Here is a link to the production by the Joffrey Ballet in 1987, which presented the ballet as it was seen in 1913.  And, here is a copy of the musical score.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Coco After Chanel

It seems that Coco & Igor is more a beautifully imagined story than it is a biography.  The movie is based on a novel that presumed a relationship between them during his time in Paris in 1920.  The only problem is that Igor Stravinsky seems like little more than a "boy toy" played between Coco and his deeply jealous wife, Katerina.  The women in this movie are by far the most captivating to watch, while Mads Mikkelsen pretty much plays Stravinsky like a rube, at least when it comes to affairs of the heart.

I won't hold this against Mads, because I have enjoyed him in other movies, but he seems clearly miscast as Stravinsky, right down to his heavy Russian accent.  If you are going to invite Yelena Morozova to play Katerina, why not invite Oleg Menshikov or Vladimir Mashkov to play Stravinsky. Much better for a Russian actor to speak with a heavy French accent than it is to have a Danish actor struggle with two languages.

As a film, Coco & Igor is beautiful to watch.  It plays out like a sonata, with sparse dialog, conveying much less than do the impeccable sets, lighting and clothing that take you back to 1920. This is after Coco became Chanel and had established her House and was scrutinizing what would become her famous perfume.  The camera soaks up every detail right down to the art deco etchings on Stravinsky's brandy snifter as he works out the final revisions to his Rite of Spring, which had been so badly received before the war. That he owed any debt of gratitude to Coco Chanel for this is highly unlikely, but it would be nice to think so.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

La Bayadère

My wife and I went to a production of La Bayadère last night at the Lithuanian National Opera and Ballet Theatre.  The LNOBT director has come under fire for the major investment made into the stage and backdrops, but it seems like money well spent judging by the lavish production we saw last night.  No live elephants or tigers, as in the original 1877 Moscow production, but the luscious palms and ancient temple of the first scene transported you back in time.

It was a very traditional interpretation of the classical 3-act ballet by Altynai Asylmuratova and Liudmila Kovaliova.  The scenes were presented more as showcases for the dancers than creating an emotional resonance between dancers.  The little idol, glazed in sparkling gold paint, is the star of the wedding scene, even with Solor brought in on a huge brightly painted elephant.  You get very little feeling for the love between Solor and the temple dancer Nikiya until her solo dance in the second act before the Rajah, the warrior and his prized bride, Gamzatti.  Little does lovely Nikiya know that Gamzatti planted a deadly cobra in the bowl of roses that were offered her in the name of Solor.

Similarly, one doesn't really sense the love the High Brahmin harbors for Nikiya when he offers to restore her life with an antidote for the poison.  She tosses the vial away refusing to accept his offer, choosing to die in the arms of Solor.  The poor warrior falls into a deep sorrow that only a snake charmer can rescue him from by transporting Solor into a kingdom of shadows where he is reunited with his true love.  While this "dream sequence" starts off on an excellent note with a hypnotizing troupe of dancers streaming down from the Himalayas, the love between Solor and Nikiya is barely felt.  Instead, we are treated to a lovely array of dances, much like the wedding scene in the second act.  One very much wants to see Solor and Nikiya come together emotionally, not just physically.

No doubt the play was a big hit in its day.  There are some wonderfully choreographed scenes that faithfully retain the original sequences of Marius Petipa.  He staged a number of classic productions in the 19th century, including Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty.  The music doesn't fair so well.  The composition by Ludwig Minkus is rather repetitive and clunky.  There have been a number of revivals over the years.  Perhaps the most famous being that of the great Nureyev, when he restored the full length ballet at the Paris Opera in 1991.

La Bayadère, or Bajaderė as it is called in Lithuanian, was first shown in 2007 with Nerijus Juška and Miki Hamanaka in the lead roles.  Last night we saw Romas Ceizaris and Nailia Adigamova in the leads.  Both were excellent and Nailia Adigamova very lovely in the fatal wedding scene dance.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Remembering Vysotsky

Vladimir Vysotsky is probably known more as a singer than an actor, but for years he dominated the Soviet stage and screen with his commanding presence.  His first performance was in Sverstnitsy (1959), or Teenagers.  His last production was Little Tragedies, a television mini-series based on stories by Pushkin.  This week, Russian television showed a retrospective of his career and his relationship with Marina Vladi, one of Godard's favorite muses.  Vysotsky and Vladi only appeared in one movie together, The Two of Them.  He was born on January 25, but alas he cut his life short with vodka and morphine.  He died of heart failure in Moscow in 1980.
Photograph by James Andanson, March 1980, courtesy of Corbis 

Monday, January 17, 2011

Black Snow

I am enjoying Bulgakov's Black Snow, which is more or less a biographical account of the process of making his early book, The White Guard, into a play.  But, he spends most of the time satirizing the Moscow Art Theatre, which he dubs the International Theatre (IT) in this book.  His prime target appears to be Stanislavsky, who Michael Glenny notes in his forward Bulgakov characterized as an "old bitch."  Seems Bulgakov and Stanislavsky came to odds over his story Moliere, which Stanislavsky drastically revised into a play.  But, in this story Bulgakov focuses mostly on his first foray into playwriting and the personages he faced at the IT.

Bulgakov has great fun with Stanislavsky in the second half of the book, as the old man takes a cleaver to his play.  The scene where Maxudov visits Ivan Vasilievich (Stanislavsky) in his home is hilarious, especially as Bombardov had described in detail exactly what would happen, but Maxudov chose to ignore the actor just the same.  Seems that Stanislavsky had a great fear of gunshots (probably for good reason) and so when Maxudov insists on keeping the suicide on the bridge in his play, Stanislavsky has little interest in the budding playwright.  Bombardov tells Maxudov later that you have agree with everything he says, but you don't necessarily have to do it.

While fascinating to read, it isn't one of his better books.  The writing is uneven and the satire falls flat so many years after Bulgakov's stint with the Moscow Art Theatre.  It is interesting more from a historical point of view as the book provides a glimpse into the machanizations of 1920s Soviet theatre.  Bulgakov was successfully able to turn The White Guard into a play.  The Days of the Turbins was one of the most successful early Soviet plays despite its positive portrayal of White Russians during the civil war.

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Theme-Catcher

No question about it, Krzhizhanovsky is a fabulous storyteller.  In "The Bookmark," he tells the story of a theme-catcher, a man who can make up a story on the spot on any theme you give him.  The narrator of the story meets the theme-catcher on a crowded park bench, able to capture anyone's attention with the stories he tells.  He points to a spot on a distant ledge and immediately falls into a story of a tomcat trapped on the ledge facing the indifference of tenants who won't let it back in through their windows.  Left to suffer his fate over two grueling nights and days, which the theme-catcher meticulously describes, creating a fabulous sense of suspense in the process, an ill-wind eventually lifts the shivering cat off the ledge and drops it to its sad end.

Eventually, the narrator learns more about the theme-catcher, a man not much unlike Krzhizhanovsky who came to Moscow in 1922 and has struggled to get himself into print these past 5 years.  He tells stories of his encounters with editors and the many rejections he faced, finally giving up on the process and keeping a mental log of his many themes.

Turnbull noted that the story is a thinly veiled criticism of the social realism that came to pervade Russian literature.  The theme-catcher feels that the art of storytelling has been lost, as does the narrator who can no longer find a book worthy of his finely woven silk bookmark.  But, while the narrator seems to harbor a sense of nostalgia, the theme-catcher is only willing to look into the future, holding out hope it seems that the art will one day be revived.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Memories of the Future

I currently find myself reading Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky.  Don't ask me how to pronounce his name.   Joanne Turnbull notes in her introduction to the collection of short stories, Memories of the Future, that Krzhizhanovsky originally came from Kiev, mastered a number of languages and traveled around Europe, and eventually settled in Moscow in 1922 in a small dark flat rented to him by a former Countess in exchange for English lessons.  Thanks to an undemanding job he was able to devote the next 20 years to his dark, otherworldly prose that evoked Gogol in such stories as "The Runaway Fingers," in which a concert pianist's hand literally runs away from him in a major recital.  Unfortunately, these stories languished for decades in the State Archives, only to be retrieved in recent years and find their way into print.  Vadim Perelmuter has since compiled and edited a five-volume collection of Krzhizhanovsky's work, and in Memories of the Future Turnbull translates seven of his short stories, including the title story.

The first was "Quadraturin," a magic tube of paste that when applied to walls and ceilings can make even the most cramp Soviet apartment grow and metamorphosize into a spacious room.  The protagonist, Sutulin, is given a tube, which doesn't look much unlike a tube of artist's paint, by a mysterious man, and applies to his room, which measures a little less than 9 square meters.  Unfortunately, he drops the tube before he can apply any of the quick drying paste to the ceiling.

The next morning he awakes to find that has room has indeed grown outward in all directions, but it has taken on more polygonal proportions.  This unnerves him but for the first time he finds he can actually pace in his room and this pleases him.  He rearranges the furniture to better suit his new space.  But, fear again grows as he hears a knock at the door and worries that the landlady will see his greatly enlarged room and call the authorities.  He manages to keep his apartment secret for several days, but now grows more and more perplexed by the proportions his room has taken, growing ever deeper in lengths to the point his single light can no longer illuminate all of it.  The window appears as a distant portal into another dimension.  I won't give away the ending, as it has a wonderful Gogolian twist.

Here is a review of the book from The Nation.