Thursday, June 28, 2012

Coming out from the Cold

My wife has been reading Marina's Thirtieth Love, one of Vladimir Sorokin's early novels, which she says is crazy mix of sex and mayhem.  Sorokin was part of the came of age in the mid 70s, defying authorities and publishing his books in undeground magazines like Spring and Mitya's Journal.  This book comes from that period.   It doesn't seem as though it has been translated into English, but another book from that period is The Queue

I recently ordered the Ice Trilogy, which has received rave reviews.  Sorokin takes in a grand sweep in these three novels, covering the Soviet experiment and its collapse in a "band of brothers" who,

seek out their kin and re-unite them. Perfect impersonators of meat-machine ways, they employ a sort of magic-ice hammer. When pounded on the chest of a fellow-angel, it releases blissful feelings of content and so awakens the victim to their special status. For the initiates, once enlightened, "the absolute majority of people on this earth are walking dead". Their only role is to serve the flaxen-haired elite and so hasten the longed-for apocalypse.

In that sense, he seems to carry forward the grand tradition of Soviet science fiction, through which many writers projected their feelings and criticisms in regard to the Soviet Union.  Oddly enough, Sorokin ran afoul of the law in 2002 on charges of pornography, in response to his book Blue Bacon Fat, in which he implied Stalin was gay.  Since then he has become an international celebrity.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

... as the walls come crumbling down

Viktor Pelevin has long liked to combine elements of the ancient past, present and future in his stories.  My favorite is Life of Insects, in which insects literally morph into humans, although they retain their entomological instincts.  In Generenation π, the story revolves around a young independent Russia, being weaned on Pepsi and trying to come to terms with the American lifestyle invading their country.  The book was published in 1999, before Putin rose to power, giving it a first hand feel of the situation.  The English translation is called Babylon.  Pelevin sets a black market atmosphere, which characterized much of Eastern Europe at the time, but told with wit and irony.

Russians have long saw themselves as Eurasians.  One of the favorite quotes I hear is "scratch the surface of a Russian and you will find an Asian," so Pelevin plays heavily on Mesopotamian themes, in which a young advertising copy writer tries to unlock the secrets of the pell mell world of crime, corrupt politics and Chechan terrorism with a little help from an old acquaintance who turns him onto mushrooms.

The film is fast and furious in its approach, not much unlike Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but is well rooted in Russian modern culture.  Victor Ginzburg does a great job of fusing images and creating hallucinogenic other worlds which Babylen Tartasky (Vladimir Epifantsev) finds himself having to navigate if he wants to stay alive.  Some viewers will recognize Vladimir Menshov from Day Watch and Night Watch. He was Geser, and plays a very similar role in this film.  Eventually, Babylen works himself right into the oligarchic hierarchy of New Russia with great comic effect.  A world that appears on the edge of collapse, until a computer generated image of a leader all too similar to Putin is created to bring a sense of stability.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

A Long Day's Journey Into Night

Sokurov's elegy didn't make as deep an impression on me as it did on Nick Cave, but I was moved.  A mother and son appear to be in a self-imposed exile.  There are sounds from beyond Sokurov's distorted close-ups, but you don't see the children playing or the seagulls that lend a seaside appearance to the film.  Sokurov only chooses to show a train and a ship at sea to imply a distant connection.

Gary Morris describes the painterly quality to the film, Sokurov's sense of German Romanticism, with dream-like landscapes that evoke Caspar David Friedrich.  The long narrow shots, especially of the mother in bed made me think of Egon Schiele.  Whatever your impression, the film draws you into its claustrophobic world, eliciting deep emotions.

The house appears as it may have served as the mother's school house before.  It is bare and institutional looking, and she and her son allude to her earlier days in gentle conversation.   She lies in a bed, which resembles a masonry crib fit into the niche of a window with a view out onto a springtime field.  However, we are made well aware that these are her final moments and that her grown son must come to terms with her death so that he can move on with his life.

The son appears to have served her all these years and when she asks him to take her for a walk, he literally carries her along a country road, pausing at various points for rest and reflection.  He is so tender toward her.   She talks little.  Her breath appears to slowly ebb away.

Back at the desolate house, ensconced in her bed again, with the crackling sound of a fire in the stone hearth, life flows back into her for a brief moment as she shares a few memories with her son.  He gently pleads with her to stay strong, saying we can live like this as long as you want, but she no longer wants to live like this, which brings with it the sense of disconsolate longing which made Nick Cave weep.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Fear and Loathing in Bukhara

Vysotsky was many things to many people, so it is not surprising to see a wide range of opinions on Thank You for Living, a recent biopic by Petr Buslov that captures 4 tumultuous days of Vysotsky's life when he was touring Uzbekistan in 1979.   The story comes from the pen of Nikita Vysotsky, paying the supreme tribute to his late father.  Apparently Marina Vladi was not impressed, calling the film a terrible sin.  More like a sin of omission, since she figured very little into the movie.  What few flashbacks we get are to Vystosky's first wife and children, notably in an out-of-body experience when he suffered a heart attack.

I thought Buslov did a great job in capturing the era, especially the remoteness and desolate beauty of Bukhara, a desert city far from Tashkent.  Vystosky was apparently drug to Uzbekistan against his wishes to stage a concert that would receive close KGB scrutiny.  By this point, he was strung out on drugs and was suffering badly without his fix.  The drama essentially revolves around Tatiana coming out to Bukhara to give him his badly needed supply.

Buslov's biggest challenge was coming up with a strong likeness to Vysotsky, assuming the audience would expect nothing less than a carbon copy.  He succeeded thanks to a death mask which Nikita provided, from which they made a silicon mold to capture every nook and cranny of Vysotsky's memorable face.  At times the CGI seems to skip, so that the actor's face appears to break down, but Sergei Bezrukov also gives Vysotsky a resonant voice.

Oksina Anishina really shines as Tatiana.  Vysotsky and Vladi had split up by this point and he was living with young Tatiana in Moscow.  It is through her that we feel much of the emotional weight of the film, as Vysotsky appears to be battling with his own demons, fortifying himself to go on stage before an Uzbek audience for a second time, when Tatiana arrives with the badly needed drugs to get him through the evening.

All the performances are strong, but you are left scratching your head at times as to how Vysotsky could get himself into such a fix.  The story isn't played for laughs, although the "doctor" that comes along for the ride provides some comic relief.  How true the story is anyone's guess, as the KGB agent conveniently destroys all the tapes and transcripts in the end, which gave the film its verisimilitude.