Sunday, April 29, 2012

Through the looking glass

Tarkovsky opens Mirror in a very Chekhovian way with a lonely woman waiting for her husband to return to a country house when another man turns off the road and comes to flirt with her.  He is a country doctor and playfully jests with her as one would imagine Astrov with Jelena in Uncle Vanya, but she's having none of it, or so it would seem.

The husband never returns, and the focus of the film switches to her son recounting his youth through the many reflections of a mirror.  We don't find out much about the son, or even see him.  He floats in a state of semi-consciousness brought on by some illness or fatigue, drifting back and forth in time.  The event cuts, as Ryland Walker Knight describes them are distilled images held in a form of suspended animation in the narrator's mind.  But, it is not a cold abstract film.

It is a very emotional and moving film that speaks volumes for the state many Russians found themselves after WWII, reflecting back on those days between the wars, especially the upheaval caused by the civil war that left many families irrevocably split.  But, even with all the allusions to war, the Chinese revolution and the subsequent Soviet-Chinese tensions, the film ultimately deals with how a brother and sister resolve their feelings for their mother.

Margarita Terekhova plays the mother in this film.  Oleg Yankovsky plays only a fleeting role as the absent father, not because of war, but domestic differences.  The mother is forced to bring up her children on her own and her son has come to regret this and offers to take care of his sister's son so that he will have the father figure he so deeply misses.

Terekhova is a force majeure.  She is to the Soviet screen what Meryl Streep is to the American screen.  There is no actress quite like her, and she can draw so much out of such simple scenes.  The scene where she comes to the printing office in the rain to check the proofs of a book once more because of a dream she had is one such scene.  It seems so little.  She frets over one word, but she captures the mood so well, even when her editor chastises her for stopping the presses for one of her petty anxieties, saying this is why your husband left you.  Terekhova retreats to the shower room, only for the hot water to go out on her.

The scenes aren't always so straight, some are like dreams or shards of magical realism, like the scene where  the son remembers his father helping to wash his mother's hair.  It is a lovely evocative scene reminiscent of pre-Raphaelite paintings.  This really is a masterwork, and has been beautifully restored in the Artificial Eye box set.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

The hole we dig for ourselves

It takes a little while to figure out what is going on in Andrey Platonov's The Foundation Pit, but about midstream this seemingly dry story takes an unlikely absurdist turn, when he describes how the horses had begun to under collectivism and were now taking their straw and putting it into a communal pile where they all ate together.  Like Tolstoy and Chekhov, Platonov recognizes the value of conveying his themes through animals as well as people, although in the case of this short novel, it seems all life forms and even the dead have been reduced to the same level of abject poverty as collectivism sweeps the Bolshevik nation.

The original translation feels a bit dry, but Robert Chandler eventually captures the absurd spirit.of the novel, as Platonov skewers the ambitions of the early Soviet state by showing how a small town tries to come together in a collective spirit after purging the notorious Kulaks.  As is noted in this article by Karen Vanuska, Platonov relies heavily on Soviet slogans for his dialog.  One wonders if this is a dig at Mayakovsky, who was perhaps the Soviet Union's greatest slogan writer.  Platonov turns these slogans on their head in illustrating the tenuous grip the persons who inhabit his novel had on reality, and how this grip eventually slips away during the course of the story.

It is symbolized in the orphan child, Nastya, who at first appears as a strong willed girl who recently lost her mother, only to become consumed with fever while the job foreman, Chiklin, tries desperately to keep her warm with the onset of winter.  The whole work crew of the foundation pit has adopted her, but Chiklin claims ultimately authority in the matter as she chooses him to cuddle up next to, while at the same time berating him with typical Soviet slogans of the 20s.

The story takes a great number of twists and turns, and at times seems incredibly disjointed, but somehow Platanov manages to iron it all out in the end, having created what may perhaps be the most damning statement in regard to Bolshevik collectivism and its accompanying ideology.  Not surprisingly, he was never able to get The Foundation Pit published in his time, and somehow miraculously avoided Stalin's purges.  Volkov noted that Vasily Grossman was able to get Platonov a job as a war reporter during WWII, which saw him and his family through those very hard times, but he died shortly afterward.  It was his daughter, Maria, who kept the story alive and eventually had it printed in the late 80s during Gorbacev's Perestroika.  The Harvill Press translation dates to 1996.  A newer one is linked above.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Bulat in America

Bulat Okudzhava was one of the greatest Russian "singing bards" and in 1979 he made a rare trip abroad to America, where he performed to a small audience at the University of California at Irvine and later in concert in New York, which is captured on this CD, presenting a beautiful range of vintage songs with Bulat offering short introductions, in Russian of course.  You can go to grooveshark for a taste of what must have been a wonderful evening.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

The Seven Films of Andrei Tarkovsky

As the story goes, a fortune teller told young Andrei that he would only make seven good films.  This collection puts together the seven feature films of Tarkovsky in a handsome box set for the first time.  But, alas, Tarkovsky had one film up his sleeve, a student film he made while at the State Institute of Cinematography (VGIK), which was an adaptation of Ernest Hemingway's The Killers.

Volkov notes in his book, The Magical Chorus, that Tarkovsky along with Brodsky were part of the "stilyagi" in the mid 50s and Tarkovsky was a big fan of Hemingway, who was being printed for the first time in the Soviet Union.  The film is included in the Criterion collection of The Killers, which features Robert Siodmak's 1946 classic, as well as the later 1964 remake by Don Siegel.

It is best to start at the beginning with Tarkovsky.  Ivan's Childhood is his most accessible film and was very popular in the Soviet Union when released in 1962.  War movies were the staple of the day, but Tarkovsky wasn't content to play in straight, much like his mentor Kalatozov's The Cranes Are Flying.  He apparently wanted Kalatozov's cinematographer, Sergei Urusevsky, to film his movie, but he was working on another film at the time, so Tarkovsky took on Vadim Yusov, who would work with Tarkovsky on Andrei Rublev and Solaris as well.

Andrei Rublev is perhaps his masterwork.  After the success of his first film, Mosfilm wanted Tarkovsky to do a historical film and he dug deep into Russian history to tell this tale of the famous icon painter.  Shades of Eisenstein here in using the past as an allegory of the present, as Tarkovsky explored the role of art in a totalitarian state.  Initially, the film passed the censors, but Volkov noted that when it was ready to be sent to Cannes, the censors had second thoughts and the film was shelved.  This frustrated Tarkovsky to no end, and he began looking for funding outside the Soviet Union.

Solaris features the great acting pair, Natalya Bondarchuk and Donatas Banionis, who was one of a handful of Lithuanian actors to succeed in Moscow.  Critics often like to compare the film to 2001: A Space Odyssey, but it is quite a different story, based on Stanislaw Lem's novel by the same name.  Science fiction had become quite popular in the USSR, but here again Tarkovsky chose to explore the theme in his own individual manner.

Then came The Mirror with the great Margarita Terekhova and Oleg Yankovsky.  The film is kind of a Proustian exploration of the past, weaving together a set of reflections about a dying man.

Stalker was the last of his movies to be filmed in the Soviet Union.  He returns to science fiction in creating what appears to be a post-apocalyptic "zone" in which three men try to navigate the "mine fields" to get to a room, where one's secret hopes come true.  The story itself has a mythological past.

Unable to get the funding he wanted for his projects, Tarkovsky got Italian backing for his sixth film, Nostalghia.  It seems eerily similar to Stalker, but explores the idea of being removed from one's country.  Tarkovsky would stay in Europe, never to return to the Soviet Union.

Tarkovsky didn't consider himself an exile.  His frustrations were mostly over funding and control of his films.  From the beginning one sees a deep religious strain in his films, and no film more deeply explores this than The Sacrifice.  This is not an easy film to watch, as Tarkovsky explores the idea of impending doom.  He had moved to Sweden where he was being treated for cancer.   It also allowed him to be close to Bergman, who had been one of his major influences.

Friday, April 6, 2012

It happened like this ...

Volkov mentions Daniil Kharms and other absurdist writers from the 20s and 30s, who found themselves out of favor on the Bolshevik government.  What Volkov doesn't mention is that Kharms turned to children's stories, when he was no longer able to publish his absurdist sketches and short stories.   He was a member of the Association of Writers of Children's Stories from 1928 until 1941, at which time he was imprisoned by the NKVD in Leningrad, and died during the Nazi blockade of 1942, like so many unwanted writers during Stalin's time.  He had founded OBERIU, a branch of the Russian avant-garde which paralleled the Dadaists,  inciting audiences with his absurd plays, much like Apollinaire in Paris.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Heart of a Poet

Bulgakov and his wife Yelena, 1939

I was beginning to wonder if Volkov would even mention Mikhail Bulgakov, but in his last chapter on the Gorbacev era, he does a little bit of backpedaling in providing some additional history of the Moscow Art Theater (MAT) and Bulgakov's brief reign as stage director, at Stalin's urging. It put him in direct conflict with the great Stanislavsky, who he satirically panned in Black Snow, his unfinished Theatrical Novel.  Stalin had been a big fan of Days of the Turbins, despite the play being sympathetic to White Russians.  Volkov notes that Stalin saw the play 15 times, and felt the ending was just right as it showed that Bolshevism prevailed.

Surprisingly, Volkov pretty much dismisses The Master and Margarita, despite it being a runaway best seller when it was finally published between 1966 and 1967.  It remains one of the favorite books among Russians, and not so long was made into a television mini-series by Vladimir Bortko, who had done such a fine job with Heart of a Dog.  Bulgakov first offered a private reading of his masterwork in 1939, and was determined to have the book published, but like with so many of his more biting works, he was thwarted by the censors.

Young Soso
Volkov does mention Batum, a play specifically commissioned on Stalin's childhood, but apparently the Premier didn't want to see his childhood presented on stage and nixed the play, which Volkov said left Bulgakov heartbroken.  Volkov believes that the relation between Woland and the Master was to a large degree based on that between Stalin and Bulgakov.  The Premier didn't respond to Bulgakov's letters, but would call him out of the blue to comment on one of his plays or theater in general.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Let them eat corn!

While he didn't quite express it that way, Khrushchev's grand plan to make corn the official grain of the Soviet Union became the brunt of many jokes, and served as one of the many gags in Elem Klimov's debut feature film, Welcome, or No Trespassing (1964) in which he turns a pioneer camp into a satirical parable of the Soviet Union.  Fortunately for Klimov, Khrushchev missed the many ribald references.  As you can see from this clip, Klimov exhibits many of the hallmarks that would make him one of the great film directors behind the iron curtain, although he wouldn't be allowed to let loose until 1985 when he created the haunting Come and See, a surrealistic vision of World War II.

Here's the film in its entirety.  Sorry, no subs.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

What's in a Nobel?

The battle over the Nobel didn't end with Bunin and Gorky.  Volkov describes four subsequent battles, the most famous perhaps that of Pasternak, who was awarded the Nobel prize for literature in 1958 but was forced by Krushchev to decline.  Pasternak died two short years later, but left a rich legacy, which Alexandr Sholzhenitsyn took to heart.

Meanwhile, the Soviet Union got its first official winner in Michail Sholokhov, best known for Quiet Flows the Don.  Sholokhov had been a favorite of Stalin but it wasn't until 1965 that he became a Nobel laureate.  Volkov feels that this was more or less a concession to the Soviet Union, after the Soviet premier through over Pasternak, who probably would have never been recognized if it wasn't for all the drama that surrounded the smuggling of Doctor Zhivago out of the Soviet Union in 1957, a book Pasternak couldn't get by the censors.  The Don Flows and Doctor Zhivago are generally recognized as the two best Russian novels of World War I, more or less in the tradition of War and Peace.  Zhivago wasn't printed in the Soviet Union until Gorbacev's Perestroika.  Quiet Flows the Don was made into a memorable film by Sergei Gerasimov in 1957, and remade by Sergei Bondarchuk in 2006 with an international cast.

The next big battle came in 1970 when the Nobel committee awarded the dissident writer Solzhenitsyn, who was surprisingly allowed to accept the award.  He later stole a page from Pasternak and smuggled The Gulag Archipelago out of the Soviet Union, which was subsequently printed in France, England and the United States.  Solzhenitsyn had spent time in the infamous Lubyanka Prison and imagined a series of books describing his experiences in a similar vein as Chekhov's Sakahlin Island, calling attention to the penal colonies spread around the Soviet Union. He smuggled much of the handwritten manuscript out of the country through the family of an Estonian lawyer, he had met while in prison.  It created a huge furor and the Soviet Union planned to ship Solzhenitsyn off to the far reaches of Siberia but Western powers interceded and arranged for a transfer, which eventually led to the dissident writer being settled in Vermont with his family, who had fled the country years before.  There is a relatively recent documentary on the story behind his most famous book, which you can watch at blinkx in its entirety.

By comparison, Josef Brodsky's Nobel prize in 1987 seemed anticlimactic, but he underwent quite a show trial in 1964, which led to his deportation in 1972, and settling in New York.  Volkov met up with him in Manhattan and in time published their conversations between 1978-1992.  There was a wonderful movie, A Room and a Half, made in 2010 on Brodsky.