Wednesday, February 29, 2012

East of the Caucasus, West of the Moon

Leonid Gaidai has great fun with the classic story, The Prisoner of the Caucasus, in Shurik's New Adventures, a.k.a., Kidnapping, Caucasian Style.  Shurik first was introduced to Soviet audiences in Operation Y.  It is kind of Three Stooges meet Pushkin, or Tolstoy as the case may be, in a ribald comedy very loosely based on the classic works.

The story has been adapted to the screen by others, including Sergei Bodrov, who retold Tolstoy's version in Prisoner of the Mountains (1996), which also starred Oleg Menshikov.  A much more serious telling.

Monday, February 27, 2012


Viy, or Evil Spirit, was a supernatural short story by Gogol.  He liked to revel in folk forms before going after larger literary game in The Revizor and Dead Souls. Viy has been made into a movie countless times, but perhaps the most famous version is from 1967, directed by Georgi Kropachyov.  It reminds one a little bit of The Exorcist.  There is also this stylish new interpretation by Oleg Stepchenko, which seems to be equal parts Gogol and Stoker, with an English cartographer finding himself lost in the dark woods of Ukraina.  It will be re-released in 2012 in 3D no less.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Dark Knight

Timur Bekmambetov has been getting a lot of attention in recent years, having crossed over to Hollywood from his native Kazakhstan.  After the successful Afghan war movie, Peshavar Waltz, he teamed up with Roger Corman on a remake of The Arena, pitting Playboy models as gladiators.  Corman later released a dubbed version of Timur's previous movie, renaming it Escape from Afghanistan.  But, Bekmambetov returned to contemporary Moscow in Night Watch (2004), where he pits the forces of light and dark against each other in an apocalyptic thriller played out by two ancient warriors using "others" to keep each other at bay.

He certainly has all the tools to be a great director, but he doesn't seem to be very discerning in his choices.  Night Watch is perhaps his best film, as it picks up on Russian obsessions with the occult, dark video games and the gangland world.  He plays the film out like a chess match between dark and light lords, who use mediums, or "others," to carry out their actions, prefiguring Jacob and the Man In Black in Lost.  Mercifully, he brings his story to an end, with threads that lead to subsequent movies, Day Watch and the yet to be made Dusk.

I think Timur would be more comfortable with a remake of Gogol's Viy or one of Bulgakov's dark tales rather than Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, but the trailer looks very entertaining.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Story of the Bass Cello

I was putting together a list of movies, The More Refined One Is, the More Unhappy, based on Chekhov stories and plays, and came across a couple of fun shorties drawn from his story, Romance with a Double Bass.  The first stars John Cleese and Connie Booth, a year before they teamed up on Fawlty Towers .  The second is a wonderful Czech animated feature by Jiri Trnka, which dates from 1949.    Oddly enough, I'm not able to find a copy of the story online.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Revizor, or the Inspector-General

I find myself prepping for an upcoming production of the Revizor.  Rimas Tuminas is reviving the production in Lithuania.  He has been directing Moscow's Vakhtangov Theater the past several years, but returns to his home theater from time to time.  Here is a clip from his first production in 2001.  Previews show Sergei Makovetsky cast as the mayor, but will have to wait until the 29th to see!

Vladimir Nabokov noted in his book on Nikolai Gogol that the play languished under heavy-handed productions for decades before Meyerhold got a hold of it in 1926 and set the appropriate tone and sense of humor that Gogol had imagined.  It is this version of the play that has come down to us.  Pretty amazing given that the political climate in the early Soviet Union wasn't much different than it was in Russia in 1842, when the play was first produced, but then Nabokov warned that this delicious story shouldn't be read as political satire, but rather as a pioneering work of art, defying all theatrical conventions, confounding theater directors, critics and censors alike at the time.

The Revizor is considered the epitome of satire, and perhaps Gogol's greatest work.  It seems just about everyone has tried his hand at this play at one time or another, including Danny Kaye in the 1949 Hollywood production.  There is also a little known Egyptian version, which dates from Nasser's time, 1956.  Here is the 1996 Russian screen production, featuring Nikita Mikhalkov as the mayor and Oleg Yankovsky as the judge.   Unfortunately, no subtitles.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

What to make of Chekov?

Speaking of Chek(h)ov, there has been a cyber legend that Pravda questioned the lack of a "Russian" member on the international crew of Star Trek, and so Gene Roddenberry felt compelled to create the character Ensign ChekovSnopes questions the story on several counts.  Nothing has apparently been found in the Pravda archives to verify this claim, and  young Pavel looks suspiciously like Davy Jones (mop heads were quite popular at the time).  But, if you look at young Anton Chekhov and young Pavel Chekov there is some resemblance ; )  It seems Roddenberry was already cultivating myths back in the 60s that would keep Trekkies going for decades afterward.

It struck me that Roddenberry was more drawn to the voyages of Captain Cook than he was the space race in creating the original series.  For whatever reason, he felt compelled to introduce a Russian character, probably in an effort to show that the Cold War really would come to an end some day and the space race would evolve into a joint effort.  Turned out to be quite prescient in this regard, as the famous Apollo-Soyuz joint mission proved in 1975.  A number of collaborative efforts have been carried out in the years since.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Antosha Chekhonte

It was interesting to read that Chekhov initially published his short stories under the pseudonym Antosha Chekhonte, since he viewed his humorous sketches as little more than a means of making money to help feed himself and his extended family.  Nemirovsky noted that the young author didn't think much of these stories until Dmitri Grigorovich, an elder Petersburg novelist, wrote to tell him how much he enjoyed his stories that were being published in a Petersburg journal, Fragments, over the period 1883-85.  Grigorovich singled out The Hunstman as his favorite.  In response, young Anton (then 26) thanked his admirer profusely but admitted that he wrote that particular story while taking a bath and could see nothing special in it.  Nevertheless, he would take his fan's words of advice and devote more time to his writing, as Grigorovich noted it would be a waste to squander such talent. The old novelist also urged Chekhov to publish under his own name.

Here are more of Chekhov's early short stories.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Elusive Mr. Chekhov

It seems Anton Chekhov is a hard man to pin down.  No one has yet to write a definitive account in the English language.  I've been reading Irene Nemirovsky's A Life of Chekhov, published after her death in 1950.  It is a personal story about Chekhov, rather than a study of his work.  The narrative has been made into a BBC radio play.

A book that does receive much praise is Anton Chekhov's Life and Thought, edited and annotated by Simon Karlinsky and translated by Michael Henry Heim.  It is a collection of Chekhov's letters spread throughout his literary career with a lengthy introduction by Karlinsky putting his work into perspective.  Here is a copy of the 1997 reprint by Northwestern University.  It appears to be an expanded copy of the original 1975 edition.  Nemirovsky drew on Chekhov's letters to a large degree in writing her personal account.

Henri Troyat has also written a biography of Chekhov that is generally well regarded.  He is most famous for his magisterial biography of Tolstoy.  Heim also translated this book to English.

The portrait is by Issac Levitan, painted in 1886.  Here's a nice essay, Crossed Destinies: Anton Chekhov and Isaac Levitan