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.