Thursday, August 3, 2017

DON AND VLAD. A Play after the Frog and the Scorpion Fable, in Three Scenes, and 425 Words


Donald, a pouty American gent in his mid-sixties with an orange head of hair.
Vladimir, a slightly younger Russian guy, balding, small and trim.

Setting: The Kremlin and the White House, separated by the River of Time.

Scene 1.

Setting: The Kremlin. 2013. An expansive view from the window. The White House is rising across the River of Time. Vladimir and Donald sitting, legs splayed, in easy chairs. Both are still flushed from dropping in, announced, on the girls dressing room at the Ms. Universe Pageant. Both are gazing toward the White House.


Contemplating a run for the White House, Donald?


Yes, Vladimir, thinking about it.


Could I hitch a ride, too? Incognito, of course. Always wanted to see what it's really like inside...


Sure, Vladimir, but just do it so nobody can see you. Ok?


No problem, Donald. I wasn't a KGB colonel for nothing. 

Scene 2.

Setting: 2016. A raft on the River of Time. Trump, aft, his tie loosened, is steering erratically. Putin, in a wet suit but bare­-torso, is lying  on his stomach. His face, in a Joker mask, is hanging over the bow. He is paddling along with his hands, like a surfer on a surf board.


To the right, Vlad, paddle to the right! Vlad! Vlad! are you listening?


Hush Donald, of course I am listening, but (stops paddling and raises his right hand) I may not be the only one who is listening, he-he-he…


We’re almost there, Vlad! I can already see the American carnage. A good place to make land!

(The shore within reach, the two jump into the water, ditch the raft, and wade through the swamp towards the bank.)

Scene 3.

Setting: The stage is split between Putin's Kremlin digs and Trump's Oval Office. Between the two offices runs the River of Time. The year is 2017. Russia has just announced the expulsion of 755 American diplomats.


(on a speaker phone)

What, Vlad, what? You mean 55, not 755?


No, Don, no. I know you can listen, Don. It’s seven hundred and seventy-five. Seven. Five. Five.


Vlad, 755 of our diplomats?! I didn’t know we had so many.


I’ve told you, Don, Rex isn’t doing his job.


But you're killing us, Vlad! Why can't you do something! 


Sorry, Don. Can't help it...


But why, Vladimir, why!?


It's in my nature, Don...

(The sound of water rushing in. Walls crumble. Gargling sounds. Both drown.)


Berkeley, 1 August 2017

Copyright © 2017 by Gregory Freidin

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Gennady Shpalikov's A LONG AND HAPPY LIFE and the Mel Novikoff Award for TOM LUDDY

Tom Luddy

My friend and long-time mentor in film arts Tom Luddy is receiving the coveted Mel Novikoff Award st the SF Film Festival on April 9 at the Castro Theater in San Francisco. Luddy, a co-director of the Telluride Film Festival, has been associated with American Zoetrope since 1979. Join SFFILM Festival for this program (4 PM) featuring a conversation with Tom followed by Tom's choice of two films: a rarely screened Godard short and Gennady Shpalikov's landmark A Long and Happy Life (1966).

Gennady Shpalikov's A Long Happy Life (1966)

Kiril Lavrov and Inna Gulaya in A Long and Happy Life
See the trailer here

In the history of Russian, perhaps, even European auteur cinema, “A Long Happy Life” (1966) is unique. Now a classic, this autumnal drama of love and disenchantment (with strong autobiographical overtones) marks the debut of Gennady Shpalikov’s career as director. It also marks its end. Acclaimed abroad but barely appreciated in Russia, he was never allowed to direct another film, even though he continued to write for the screen until his suicide in 1974 at the age of thirty seven.

Inna Gulaya and Gennady Spalikov

The film begins on a fall Saturday, at dusk at a construction site outside Novosibirsk. A group of young men and women – the beautiful Lena (Inna Gulaya, Shpalikov's wife) among them – are boarding a factory bus at dusk for a long ride to the big city to catch the Moscow Art Theatre production of Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. Half-way there and after night fall, they pick up a hitch-hiker Victor (Kirill Lavrov), who takes the seat next to Lena. A geologist with a roving eye, Victor is in his early thirties and making his way home in European Russia; Lena, in her early twenties, is beautiful, naïve, and dreamy.

Inna Gulaya in A Long and Happy Life

They “click.” Before long, they exchange confidences about their childhoods. Lena remembers her heart break from a crush on a fireman; her flashback is the film’s first homage to Jean Vigo’s “L’Atalante.”

A Long and Happy Life
Jean Vigo, L'Atalante (1934)

What began as a bus ride flirtation ascends to dizzying heights in the theater. Emotions swell against the dialogue of the two last acts of Chekhov’s play and intensify in the intermission, set up as a social mixer, replete with drinks and dancing in the foyer. Unable to resist, the two soon retreat into the dark recesses of the theater house and begin to kiss.

But it is not their embraces but their dialogue after they leave the theater that marks the emotional high point of their relationship: poetic chatter interspersed with mutual declarations of undying love and loyalty. 

The mood changes in the bleak light of day the following morning. Lena, a modest suitcase in hand and an eight-year-old daughter in tow, rouses the hung-over Victor from his bed in a floating guest house. She is ready to begin a “long and happy life” together.

What follows is a painful denouement terminating in a drawn-out coda (another tribute to Vigo’s Le Chaland qui passé, a.k.a., L'Atalante): a barge floating down the great Siberian river Ob. The film's soundtrack (composer Vyacheslav Ovchinnkov) ends on a pure accordion melody, reminiscent of L’Atalante’s closing tune.

Elena Chernaya, A Long and Happy Life

Like all gifted artists, Shpalikov was in a dialogue with his great predecessors and contemporaries. An admirer of Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante he turns Vigo's cinematic fairy tale about simple bargemen who live happily ever after into its opposite—a Chekhovian drama about the solipsism and narcissism of modern characters, amplified in the infinite echo chamber of the Eurasian plain.

A poet, Shpalikov, not unlike like Cocteau or Pasolini, was a master of subtle moods and resonances that fill the soul in moments of erotic intoxication or despair. A consummate master of monochromatic chiaroscuro, cinematographer Dmitry Meskhiev brought this poetry to life, encouraging the director to develop his own script, originally an ordinary melodrama, into a powerful existential cinema.

By grafting Chekhov’s pessimism onto sunny and irreverent Vigo and setting his action in the haunting dusk and darkness of Siberia, Shpalikov seems to have also produced a Russian take on the archetypal road film, Fellini’s La Strada, with his wife Inna Gulaya assuming the role of Gelsomina—in her husband's art, as in life (she is rumored to have died of an overdose in 1990).

Lena's childhood flashback. A Long and Happy Life.

Gelsomina (Giulietta Masina) in La Strada

For many in Russia, A Long and Happy Life marked the closure of the 'Thaw" cinema that flourished in the Soviet Union during the years of reform following Stalin's death.

* * *

Plays with Une bonne à tout faire (Jean-Luc Godard, 8 min, 1981/2006), a rare short filmed at Coppola’s American Zoetrope and revolving around a tableau vivant of a Georges de La Tour painting.
Not to be missed!

— Grisha Freidin

For tickets, click here.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

My Yevgeny Yevtushenko (1932-2017)*

Yevtushenko in V. Khutsiev's film "I am Twenty" (1962-64)

I saw him for the first time at the Kafe Molodezhnoe (Youth café), the only establishment of its kind in the true, Parisian, sense of the word in Moscow circa 1962. If you made it through the door early enough, you could spend the whole evening there listening to jazz while nursing a cup of coffee and/or a bottle of wine… This was my first and only visit there. Yevtushenko appeared late, and there was a palpable stir in the cafe as he briskly walked across the room and settled in at a table already crowned by a circle of beautiful people. After some minutes, he got up and stepped onto the slightly elevated stage. A wave of admiring murmur lapped at his feet. He began reciting his poetry.

I did not really know his work and could not make out a single familiar poem but the recital lasted for awhile. Sixteen or seventeen at the time, I had already been "turned" by the forbidden poetry of Marina Tsvetaeva and Osip Mandelstam, and what I was hearing did not impress me. Yet, I, too, was dazzled by the glow and the vibe that emanated from this man, still young looking, tall and handsome, and dressed to a T with chic informality. Every item of clothing on him came from "over the hill" (из-за бугра) and was the envy of every kid, bitten, like me, by the 1960s bug of Western individualism, youth culture, and craving dignity in appearance. Around that time, someone offered me a ticket to go and see him recite at what was then the newly-minted Luzhniki Stadium. I passed. And why would I go? I preferred the secret private cult of opaque modernist poetry -- the "stolen air," in Mandelstam's phrase -- to the mass craze for the uncomplicated verse of the official Soviet Fronde, the poets who accepted compromise in exchange for permission to publish, make money, and, coveted most of all, travel abroad.

Many years later, already in the U.S., I remember Joseph Brodsky referring to Yevtushenko in disparagement as "poetry's prostitute" while apologizing to the actual practitioners of the world's oldest trade for using their metier as a qualifier for this sullied name. Someone then asked me if I agreed with Joseph. I shrugged. What I knew of Yevtushenko's poetry did not impress me but it belonged to its time and had an impact. As much as it was hard for me to dismiss Yevtushenko, it was hard for me to suppress my distaste for his verse and his public style.

Still, there were two fragments of his poetry that stuck in my memory like a fly in a piece of amber and are probably part of my generation’s urban lore:

1. "He wore slim pants and read Hemingway" (Он брюки узкие носил, читал Хемингуэя) – the phrase pretty much defined me as a type in my teen years, despite the fact that I didn't quite vibrate to Hemingway (that came later).

2. "And what comes next? And what comes next? / You whispered <to me after sex>" (А что потом, а что потом / Ты говорила шепотом). In the Russian original, "sex" is implied but it needs to be there in English to render the post-coital vibe of the verse:  the young woman, a virgin, is asking the young man with whom she had just had sex what will happen next to their relationship (in Russian, past tense singular has a gendered ending). These lines, too, were emblematic of the generation, one before the pill, that was destined to making out under the Damocles' sword of unwanted pregnancy.

Perhaps my last direct encounter with Yevtushenko's verse occurred in 1963 at the Moscow Conservatory — at the premiere of Shostakovich's Thirteenth, "Babii Yar" Symphony, set to Yevtushenko's 1961 poem that had apparently enraged Khrushchev. In my young and heavily Jewish bohemian milieu, the poem, a sharp condemnation of Soviet anti-Semitism, was too straight-forward, almost agit-prop, to rank as serious poetry.

With D. Shostakovich at the premiere of the 13th Symphony

But there I was standing in the foyer of the Grand Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, trembling with excitement: I was about to hear the world premiere of the “Babi Yar” Symphony of my beloved, saintly Shostakovich. Doubt crept into my mind: perhaps, I did not understand something about Yevtushenko? The poem was good enough for Shostakovich who, we all knew then, had withstood enormous pressure from the Kremlin to bring about this first performance. Could Shostakovich have redeemed Yevtushenko?  To my snobbish mind, however, the music completely overshadowed Yevtushenko's verse. I was soon confirmed in my prejudice. In an odious move, Yevtushenko backed down and produced an anodyne version of "Babi Yar" to please Khrushchev's cultural watchdogs. No, I was not surprised...

With Minister of Culture E. Furtseva and Ernst Neizvestny, 1960s

Unless challenged, tastes and opinions acquired early in life stick to your mind like barnacles to the hull of the ship, and I have never had the occasion to reconsider my attitude toward Yevtushenko. To me, his poetry is a form of art that is compromised by its government permit, and it is too late for me now to change my mind. And yet, I must acknowledge, his was a lifelong service to the Russian poetic tradition in which the poet, in Yevtushenko’s own, somewhat tinny, phrase, is “more than just a poet.” And sometimes, I should add, a poet can be less than one, too.

If Brodsky was right, and we should see Yevtushenko as a poet who had his Muse ply the world’s oldest profession throughout his career, we must remember him as a holy prostitute - sacred to the cult of poetry that swept the Soviet Union in the decades after Stalin's death. This cult was as diverse, ambiguous, and full of contradictions as was Russia itself during Yevtushenko’s long lifetime.

The archetypal Soviet "cult" poet, Vladimir Mayakovsky, whose art encompassed many political compromises, committed suicide at Eastertide, 14 April 1930, at the age of 36. Yevtushenko died on April Fool's day at the ripe old age of 83. RIP.

1 April 2017
Berkeley, CA

* First appeared in on 2 April 2017.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Remembering Carl Weber 1925-2016

Carl Weber. Photo: Chris Randle.
Today came the sad news about Carl Weber! He died on Christmas Day in Los Altos at the age of 91. Cynthia Haven put up a notice on her Stanford blog with a reprint of her 2010 piece on Carl. What a big loss it is for all of his friends, students, and colleagues. A giant passed away, and with him, so much mastery, so much rich and unique history is gone forever. I came to know him in 2003. It never occurred to me he was eighty one: he had more verve and and a firmer grasp on art and life than many of my much younger colleagues. I would like to offer here a few words about our one-time friendship and collaboration that touched my own work and life.

We became close during the big Babel events that I organized and participated in in 2003-04 (a conference, and exhibition, and play production). Carl, who had started his theater career under the tutelage of Berthold Brecht in the Berliner Ensemble (he headed it after Brecht’s death in 1956), had his eye on Babel’s play Maria (1933) since the 1960s, when Babel's posthumous career took of in Russia and the West. The play is full of young people, and this, as he explained, made it perfect for a university casting. Until then, I had not put much stock in Maria; I preferring the earlier Sunset (1926), based on Babel’s famous Odessa Tales. Maria seemed to me then like an outlier in Babel’s oeuvre. It is set, not in his beloved mythical Odessa, but in the dark and cold Petrograd of 1919; its characters resemble more those in Uncle Vanya than Babel’s own colorful Jewish gangsters or Red Cossacks. But Carl convinced me that casting Sunset at Stanford would be a real problem, and I, a babe in the woods, agreed to undertake with him the production of Maria (1933). Another condition: he wanted me to be there with him all the way and serve as the dramaturge (I had to look up the word).

The U.S. premiere of Isaac Babel play Maria at Stanford (2004)
Tom Freeland, left, as General Mukovnin, Audrey Hannah as Lyudmila and 
Zack, who only goes by one name, as Dymshits. Photo courtesy MANDANA KHOSHNEVISAN
 I was not a theater man and I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I do not mean the resources I had to marshal to have the play staged, including a big chunk of cash that Dean Keith Baker helped me raise for a revolving stage, “an absolute must” to do justice to the cinematic structure of Babel’s play in eight scenes. Carl did not want some modest affair. His idea was to mount a full-scale production, with an original set designed from scratch, real costumes, with music, visual projections, fancy curtain, in short, all the trimmings, as if we were on Broadway. But getting hold of the resources and taking care of the technicalities – these were a small part of my job compared to the kind of treatment that Carl, as director, subjected the play to, and me along with it.

Beginning early fall, we met two or three times a week for lunch or coffee to read the play together. Carl did not know Russian,  and as we read into the play, he queried literally every word (I realized then that the award-winning translation had a lot of howlers and had to redo whole sections of it). Carl intuition was fierce: I was often surprised to see myself circle back and discover a hidden pearl exactly where Carl suspected it to be but where I, the Babel scholar, had seen nothing. In effect, Carl forced me to take apart the whole play, disassemble it into its smallest particles, elaborate all the hidden subtexts, resonances, and implications, produce extensive cultural “dossiers” on all the characters, contextualize the action and background events, and finally, put it all back together as a play by author and man Isaac Babel. It was in the course of this dramatic directorial treatment that I came to see the play, not as an outlier, but as a brilliant work, central to the Babel’s oeuvre, and a work of great civic courage. The “ugly duckling” concealed an authorial cri de coeur, the play itself, a powerful autobiographical subtext. A precursor of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (the eponymous Maria Mukovnin never appears on stage), the play was a deeply personal testament meant for Babel's future audience. My collabortion with Carl was a lark but it enriched and deepened my understanding of Isaac Babel, and with it, the conundrum of Russian-Jewish authorship in the twentieth century.

The play was a success and ran to full house at the Pigott Theater for four performances. In attendance was Babel’s older daughter Nathalie Babel, his second wife Antonina Nikolaevna Pirozhkova and her, and Babel’s, younger daughter Lydia. 

Antonina Pirozhkova (right) with daughter Lydia Malaeva (Babel)
After the final curtain, we asked Pirozhkova, who sat riveted throught the performance, if she liked the play. She replied, holding back tears: “I know this is how Babel would have liked to see it done.” Precious words from one who spent her lifetime safeguarding Babel’s legacy, for many years at the risk to her own life. Fortunately, I was able to video-record the dress rehearsal of the play. I later turned into a DVD, and can now be seen in full on YouTube (it plays well on my Mac using Google Chrome).

Afterwards Carl and I kept seeing each other, we fantasized about some other future production. But none of this came to pass. He and his wife came to have dinner at our house in Berkeley. Alas, soon after, his wife took ill and died. Widowed, Carl spent long periods of time in France where he had a house in the country. Our dates in Paris never worked. We still met for lunch or coffee occasionally when he was on campus but contact attenuated. My own circumstances made socializing at Stanford increasingly difficult, driving to Berkeley was a problem for him. Eventually, we lost touch.

Fortunately, Carl left a record of our Maria  adventure. He contributed an essay on staging Maria at Stanford for the a volume of essays on Babel that I edited, based on the Stanford conference and the Exhibition we mounted at the Hoover concurrently with the play (The Enigma of Isaac Babel, Stanford UP, 2009). It was called “Staging Babel’s Maria – for Young American Audiences, Seventy Years After.” Like his contribution, my own long essay, “Two Babel’s – Two Aphrodites: Autobiography in Maria and Babel’s Petersburg Myth,” is the fruit of this blessed collaboration. If it ever get republished, I will dedicate it to Carl. 

Berkeley, January 7, 2017