"The State of Contemporary Russian Cinema"
(article by David Gurevich)

"New Films from Russia"
(article by David Gurevich)

"Masterworks of Soviet Cinema: Siberiade, Oblomov, The Mirror, and The Color of Pomegranates."
(DVD reviews by David Gurevich)

For the West, especially for the so-called Boomer Generation, the Sixties have by now acquired a near-mythological status, both in politics and the arts. In the movies, above all, we had the French New Wave that changed the face of film. While acknowledging the revolutionary impact of Godard, Truffaut, and others, one should not lose sight of the Bigger Picture. Case in question: Soviet Film of the '60s, where in aesthetic terms the departure from the past was at least as radical as any leap from Autant-Lara to Godard. As for politics, even more so; alas, it has been Russia's curse (some would say blessing): good luck to anyone who would try to divorce Russian art from politics.

A good illustration of the above is the retrospective of Soviet New Wave films, "Soviet Cinema of the Sixties: Revolution in the Revolution," held in November at the Walter Reade Theater in New York City. It will travel to other cities, too: Washington in December, San Francisco in January, and all over the land through the Fall of 2001.

The title of the retrospective is catchy, but it puts a bit of a political spin (Americans like revolutions, so long as they are peaceful). I would rather use the word "rebirth," despite its religious (i.e. non-PC) overtones. Indeed, the Soviet cinema that started out with such pizzazz in the '20s (while using a healthy pre-Revolution film industry) went to sleep for nearly four decades. No need to go through the Eisenstein v. Stalin history, but one thing is undeniable: by the late '50s, what Lenin had ambitiously declared "the most important of the arts" was in a state of deep freeze. By the end of Stalin's rule, the only authorized genre was an official patriotic biography of a Soviet scientist or a statesman. Then came "The Thaw" (the term coined by Ilya Ehrenburg, a prominent author and a popular journalist), which arrived with the speed and lack of subtlety of an American miniseries. Grigory Chukhrai's The Clear Sky featured a final scene of icefloes being crushed on the river as spring was getting under way. Perhaps not the height of sophistication, but the message was as clear as the sky in the title.

Nine Days of One Year
This was followed by Mikhail Kalatozov, whose The Cranes Are Flying (a sensation in Cannes in '57) and The Letter Never Sent are represented in the retrospective -- lyrical melodramas that made a modest attempt to get away from the norm as defined by the Party. But the real breakthrough came from Mikhail Romm, the director of Nine Days of One Year, an enormously popular film that caught the Zeitgeist like no other work. Much about Nine Days was grounded in tradition: e.g. the hero was sacrificing himself for the better of mankind. And, of course, he was a nuclear physicist, perfectly in keeping with the cult of science that got a big shot in the arm from the Soviet space program. At the same time, the word "Party" was not in the script. The word "Soviet" was referred to in passing. The characters derided "idiots," both in the USSR and in the West, and wondered whether they themselves were "positive characters" (i.e. whether they fit into the Procrustean bed of Socialist Realism). They wondered about things, period, which constituted a departure from the supremely confident heroes of yore.

Viewed with a calmer unaffected eye, the film is an oddity, with its cult of (scientific) sacrifice having a distinct Wagnerian flavor. Going one step further, the hero, played by Alexei Batalov of brooding good looks, is an Übermensch who will lead mankind to a brilliant future (referred to as "Communism," but what else could you call the future in the USSR in 1961?), whether mankind likes it or not. His friend/opponent, played with urban suaveness by Innokenty Smoktunovsky (as if in preparation for his Hamlet, made three years later and also presented in the retrospective), wonders if Batalov's worldview lacks in kindness -- and without kindness, do we need this brilliant future? In another twist on the important Russian city v. country conflict, Batalov's hero is close to the land and even comes to visit his farmer father before dying -- but Romm sidesteps the cliche and cuts the visit short. His hero may be rooted in the soil, but by now the rift is unbridgeable.

I go on about the content as opposed to the form because this is what caught the imagination of the young Soviet intelligentsia, trying to get their first gulps of freedom. But the film's minimalist aesthetics were a breath of fresh air, too, after overdone Stalinist dramas -- though expressionist camera shots were still reminiscent of German film, which indirectly bolsters the Wagnerian angle. It is quite possible that Romm had O.D'd on German documentary footage: he was working on a megadocumentary on Nazi Germany, Ordinary Fascism, which was also a big hit, though, once again, not without an uphill battle with censors, who found far too much footage of marching Hitlerjugend boys looking too much like the Soviet Young Pioneers, etc. The film was released after being cut in half.

Mikhail Romm was also a key figure in the revival as a film professor at VGIK, the top Soviet film school. And it was his students -- Andrei Tarkovsky and Vasily Shukshin, among others -- whose works propelled the new Soviet film. Tarkovsky (Andrei Rublev, The Mirror, The Stalker, Solaris) became a major international star, of course, and is represented in the retrospective by his debut, Ivan's Childhood ('62, Golden Lion in Venice), or My Name Is Ivan, as it was dubbed for American distribution. Rich in imagery as it embarks on an emotional journey into the soul of a boy soldier, the film has become an instant classic, to the extent that a new print has been presented by Martin Scorcese. Vasili Shukshin, who died in 1975, remains a less known figure internationally, but one could argue that his work is equally important, and unquestionably "more Russian." Once again, the city v. the country juxtaposition may seem simplistic, but this was the secret of Shukshin's popularity -- and the ease with which he (compared to Tarkovsky) got past the reefs of Soviet censorship. Tarkovsky's work could be shelved as "cosmopolitan" but how could anyone criticize a film that was so much about the people?

A scene from There Lives a Fellow.
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But the simplicity of the best of Shukshin's films is deceptive, as his entry in the retrospective, There Lives a Fellow, demonstrates. Protagonists do not get folksier than Pasha Kolokolnikov, a Soviet-style regular guy, a truck driver who sashays through life as if it were a movable feast, chasing girls and fixing his horse-faced boss with a widow. But behind Pasha's folksy façade are the thoughts and the doubts that are every bit as profound and far-reaching as those behind Romm's gloomy intellectuals. Moreover, Shukshin's film is simply hilarious in depicting Russian country life. At one point, a village in the boondocks gets a taste of modernity from a visiting fashion show. The humor is so pervasive and comprehensive, juxtaposing the ridiculousness of official Soviet "fashion" with villagers' faces agape, as to leave behind an American-made '80s TV commercial that poked fun at drabness of Soviet clothes. This is the real thing, much funnier than Madison Avenue could concoct. But Shukshin's hero doesn't laugh or deride it -- he just leaves. At the end, he commits a heroic deed, driving a truck filled with burning oil drums off the cliff -- but heroism quickly dissolves into yet another girl pursuit, this time of the visiting city reporter (played goggle-eyed by the famous poet Bella Akhmadullina).

If Romm's Nine Days inaugurated the decade, the baton was picked by Marlen Khutsiyev, whose films, I Am Twenty and July Rain, remain the best reflection of urban Soviet life in the '60s. Where Romm was visually influenced by Eisenstein and the Germans, Khutsieyv is pure Nouvelle Vague: long panning shots of city streets in the always lyrical rain, where good-looking young people meet randomly to Francis Ley-like music, and these meetings do not necessarily lead to long and happy lives. Of course, like any honest Soviet filmmaker, Khutsieyv was reaching for more; reportedly, Khruschev took offense at a dream sequence in I Am Twenty, which led to the substantial reshooting and ultimate cutting. Alternately dreamy and gritty, featuring a virtual Who's Who of cultural luminaries, the films provide a valuable film diary of the Sixties: students' parties where rock'n'roll cohabited with intimate guitar singing by famous "bards," raucous poetry evenings at the Polytechnical Museum, the emerging generation gap, the recognized class differences, the exhausting arguments about How We Should Live. Awakened from the Stalinist nightmare, the Soviet youth was beset with doubts as they struggled with a million questions. There is an aura of freshness and purity to this quest, and it was this quest that gave birth to alternative Soviet culture.

Russian screenwriter/diretor Gennady Shpalikov.
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In the Soviet cultural lore, Khuziyev is the ultimate Shestidesyatnik -- the Man of the Sixties, the generation alternately worshipped and derided in today's Russia. But artistically he was perhaps eclipsed by his sometime screenwriter Gennady Shpalikov. Rather, he could have been eclipsed, for Shpalikov committed suicide in 1974. Just like Pushkin, the ur-Russian poet, Shpalikov was only 37, a beloved poetic prodigy, who had earlier remarked that "it was unbecoming for a poet to live past that age." His death became an ironic and eloquent footnote to the only film he had ever directed, A Long and Happy Life.

This film, represented at the retrospective, is stunning in its in-your-face simplicity. (Oddly, I could not help thinking of Agnes Varda's Le Bonheur, though aesthetically the two are poles apart.) A bus carrying a group of people back from an outing in the country picks up a solitary hitchhiker, a handsome geologist (in '60s Russia, a hero had to be a geologist in the same way as he had to be an architect in '90s Hollywood). He was played by Kirill Lavrov, who resembles George Clooney in a deep funk. An available seat turns out to be next to the heroine, played by Inna Gulaya -- all wide eyes and a charmingly asymmetrical face. Love strikes. The dialogue is so plain, so lacking in artifice, that it hurts. And then there's the morning after; whether you accept the ending or not (I, for one, felt cheated by the last three minutes), there is no denying its shock effect.

A curious picture emerges: on the one hand, you have films that left behind heavy-handed monumentalist Stalinist nonsense and Potemkin villages of boy-meet-tractor comedies. None of them is directly political. You can do a search, and I dare you to find the word Communist in any of these scripts. On the other hand, a search for Gulag will be just as futile. Of course, the filmmakers knew all about it, and some were cherishing a flickering hope -- maybe in the next one… but that was not to be. For example, Mikhail Kalik (Goodbye, Boys, a lyrical memoir of the last days before the war) emigrated to Israel and only then made an autobiographical film, And The Wind Returns, with blood-curdling Gulag sequences. Thus, while straying away from official socialist dogma socially and aesthetically, the Soviet filmmakers could never arrive at the Big Picture -- the economic nature of film makes a cinematic equivalent of Samizdat impossible.

By 1968, the Thaw was over, buried by the Soviet tanks in Prague and the first dissident trial of Daniel-Sinyavsky. What is now referred to as the "stagnation" period started. It was not that the Soviet cinema completely reverted to the lumber of the Stalinist years. The film production went up, and the regime got the idea that the masses needed to be entertained, especially since foreign films appeared more often behind the closed doors and sometimes even in open distribution. None of the '60s stars survived intact. Shukshin died after years of heavy drinking, Tarkovsky went into exile, Khutziyev fell silent. Yet their oeuvre provided a solid foundation: even pure entertainment grew occasionally bolder and more realistic. In the '80s, one such melodrama, Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears, won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Picture.

A scene from The Envy of Gods.
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Twenty years later, Vladimir Menshov, the director of Moscow, brought his latest oeuvre, The Envy of Gods, to the New York Festival of Russian Films that took place in October. The film is no great improvement over the original melodrama: this time, the heroine (played by the same actress, Vera Alentova, who has not aged a day) is a perfect Moscow married woman who falls in love with a handsome French reporter -- a romance doomed to end in disaster. The primary interest of the film lies in well-observed minutiae of Soviet life under Andropov, which turns out to be much harsher than Western well-wishers imagined. (Remember: "Andropov is a man who loves Frank Sinatra, American detective stories…" Right.)

Another curiosity is sex: a subplot revolves around a pirated tape of Last Tango in Paris. Indeed, the absence of sex (and violence) in any form or shape is one thing that is common for the '60s retrospective. Like Gulag, sex and violence were a no-starter for Soviet films. After the Fall of the Wall, these caesuras came back with a vengeance, as the post-Soviet screens filled with what Russians call chernukha, films filled with gore, both visual and emotional. On the one hand, it was a futile attempt to hold their own against Hollywood; on the other, they were filling the gaps as best as they could. The passion for chernukha, however, never caught on: most people simply did not want to be reminded of this side of life. Especially since, for most of the population, the post-Soviet reality has not been that cheerful either.

A scene from The Wedding.
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The best film in the program was Pavel Lungin's The Wedding, which was received well in Cannes earlier this year. Mr. Lungin, who previously directed successful urban dramas such as Taxi Blues and the less successful Luna Park, this time went to the heart of Russia, a small mining town, and hit the jackpot. The main story is simple: a local girl who made good in Moscow as a top model comes back to marry her school sweetheart. Immediately the entire town is set on its ear, as the preparations for The Wedding get under way. The film is like a Formula One racing car that went astray; Lungin charges up the numerous subplots with energy and joie de vivre. Of course, there are gaps in logic and clumsily built sub-subplots, but at no time can you take your eyes off the screen. The entire Russia -- cruel and generous, sentimental and stingy -- takes a whirl in front of the camera. These people are perfectly capable of betraying their neighbors for a shot of vodka and then giving the shirts off their backs to bail the same neighbors out. It's all heart and not a hint of law and order. And it's hilarious, too. No wonder at Cannes they had to give it a special prize for Ensemble Acting. A must for students of Russian Culture 101.

stills from
Brother 2

[click photos for larger versions]

Lungin's Russia will not be to everybody's liking back home; this is not exactly the model of patriotism and how Russians would like to see themselves. For that, we have to go to this year's Russian box-office hit, Brother 2 by Alexei Balabanov. It's a sequel to Brother, a moody thriller that played art theaters in this country last year. In the original, Danila, played by Sergei Bodrov Jr. (The Prisoner of the Mountains and East-West), he of sensual lips and Brezhnev-thick eyelashes, played a war vet who comes to St. Petersburg to help out his killer brother. This time Danila has to go as far as Chicago to avenge his best friend's killing.

Balabanov is a shrewd director who knows how to play both ends against the middle. On the one hand, Danila spouts prejudice (against Jews and Americans in Part One and against blacks in Part Two); on the other hand, his ignorance of its targets is made so obvious and infantile that you want to put him in sensitivity training (Russian-style, with a bottle of vodka), rather than call NAACP or Anti-Defamation League. While some Russian critics attacked Balabanov for chauvinism, violence, etc., one can just easily make an argument that his hero is a burnt-out victim of the war. War is all he knows. (Imagine Rambo played by Tom Cruise.) On Chicago's South Side, he manages to find a Russian-born hooker and, in the best Raskolnikov tradition, forces her to come back to Russia. "Why do you bother with me?" the poor girl asks. "I'm Russian," he says. "We don't leave our own on the battlefield." Later, he would recite a children's ditty about Motherland before gunning down the girl's pimp.

The film is formulaic and often coy, but it brims with as much energy as The Wedding, it has an all-star rock'n'roll soundtrack, and it is chock-full of hilarious cross-cultural scenes. Most importantly, it is a genuine Patriotic Thriller, as it serves to reassure the Masses, tired of the ten years of humiliations, from Chechnya to the Kursk submarine: Russia is not on her knees. Russia will go its own way. And that's what people in multipleksy want to hear.

David Gurevich is a freelance writer. His work has appeared in The NY Times, The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, and The New Criterion.