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.