Wednesday, December 14, 2011

In the Shadows of Ancestors, Invented and Forgotten. Two Recent Films from Russia

Ever wondered what happened to Oedipus? Look for the answer in two very different recent films from Russia, Silent Souls (Овсянки, dir. Alexei Fedorchenko) and I Will Remember (Буду помнить, dir. Vitalii Votobyev, 2010). Silent Souls will be screened publicly by the SF Film Society at the end of December 2011.

Silent Souls (Ovsyanki) could have been shot by Fellini if he had been exiled to northern Russia and denied access to Kodak color film but could lay his hands on some desaturated version of Agfa. It felt l was watching some Northern version of Amarcord or La strada. No wonder it received the best cinematography prize (camera work by Mikhail Krichman) at the Venice Film Festival and was among the top three favorites to receive the Lion d'Or that year. Director Aleksei Fedorchenko sets out to tell a story about a tribal identity, almost forgotten and practically invisible (possibly, totally invented),  yet concealing an ethnic difference as unsettling and relentlessly insistent – as a maddening itch between the toes of one’s amputated foot. 

Visually, Ovsaynki, with its mildly infernal leaden color scheme and wan faces of its protagonists, can be classified as   mournful elegy for a lost love,  composed in Hades. No sun shines there and, given the story, it is just as well. Most of the plot is deals with a bereaved husband and his friend driving an SUV, the body of the dead wife in the trunk. Their destination is a woodsy riverbank where the pair spent their honeymoon decades earlier and where now the husband plans to hold his wife's funeral — in accordance with some ancient custom, rooted in the archetypal recesses of his Finno-Ugric tribal memory.

But as you get deeper into the story, you begin to realize that “Silent Souls” is really a puzzle  about identity in the age of globalization. The main characters are two utterly average and average-looking middle-aged Russian guys. There is nothing special about them, except that they also happen to be descendants of an ancient Finnish tribe, by now almost completely forgotten, absorbed by ethnic Russians and their modern urban culture or, if you will, largely “globalized” out of existence. And yet, that ancient pre-modern world has left some of its tiny traces, still sufficient for reminding its descendents of their difference. Osip Mandelstam, writing about his largely secular childhood, observed that the family's Judaism, utterly vestigial, still reigned its odor: like musk oil, a tiny drop of it was sufficient to fill the whole house with its scent. Even less than a drop has survived of those ancient Finnish customs, and yet, we see that even a homeopathic quantity — a mere aura of the forgotten world — is capable of filling the space between the low-hanging, impenetrable cloud cover of the European north and its barren earth blanketed by sickly local flora where it has not yet been replaced by the anonymous twenty-first-century urban sprawl.

This is what makes “Silent Souls,” despite its ethnographic specificity, an allegory for the human condition of our age. The few ancestral traces that are left — names of rivers and odd fertility rites — are enough to create the urge to recover the rest but those who yield to it and  search search to recover some mythic plenitude wind up before a black hole and as happens to the two main characters, get sucked into nothingness. The sparrow-like birds (the Russian ovsyanki of the film’s original title) that “remind me of something that I seem to have forgotten” (the narrator’s words early in the film) turn out to be the harbingers, not of fertility (Aphrodite's sparrows), but death. There is, then, a calculated mythic inevitability about the plot: what the main character has “forgotten” and is trying to recall with the aid of the ritual turns out to be — the death wish itself.

The story unfolds against the alternative world of an endless stream of cars on a superhighway and a “global” Japanese fast food in a shopping mall with its big box  retail outlets. As the two protagonists trek through some deadly large appliances section of a Russian Costco, you begin to feel a chill spread down your spine. No amount of casual sex with the odd-looking girls, who seem to have been sent from the northern branch of Federico Fellini’s central casting, can compensate for the emptiness of the discount shop plenitude.

Fedorchenko seems to be offering us a moral: you can, if you wish, recover your lost identity – but only as you drive off the bridge into the Volga and join the world of the fish. This quiet despair about the human condition in the globalized world is what moved me deeply about this film. Fedorchenko shows people like us — twenty-first century, middle–class, educated — caught between the Scylla and Charybdes — between dissolving our identity in the globalized traffic flows of everything and trying to recover the imagined long-lost fullness of some communal, tribal life. If the movie is to be taken at face value, Odysseus was the last one to be able to steer clear of the two.

* * *

I Will Remember (Буду помнить), although not in the same league, is also about the "lost identity" nostalgia but of a completely different kind: a WWII melodrama that is good for your soul. The setting is Mineral Springs (Mineralnye body), a provincial town, a vacation spot, in the North Caucasus at the beginning of the war. The main protagonist is a an angry teenager, a Russian of Greek descent, who gets drawn against his will into helping a Russian boy of Jewish descent, a visitor form Leningrad, escape the holocaust after the Nazi invade his native town. If the color scheme in Silent Souls tends toward the mind-numbing leaden gray, I Will Remember dazzles with its gold, so warm and gentle that it could easily have been shot in Southern California. The golden glow has something to do with the nostalgic simplicity with which Russian tend to view the uncomplicated, if brutal, life in Stalin’s time. The erstwhile egalitarianism of poverty and the petty vanities of the petty ruling elite look refreshing — the Great Terror notwithstanding — to people used to the evermore rigid stratification and astronomical income inequalities of post-Soviet Russia. In the film, as the Soviet Army retreats from the town of Mineral Springs, Soviet order disintegrates and with it, the fabric of Soviet identities, revealing a society of far greater diversity in terms of class, ethnicity, religion, ethics, attitude towards the regime, and national commitment.

Remarkable for a film that appeals ostensibly to a wide audience (it may have been meant as a television movie), it reshuffles the deck of moral certitudes in such a way that even the evil characters gets to do good (a collaborator saved the protagonist who is about to be executed as a Jew) while the good ones, especially the boy’s father, can display bad judgment when faced with the choice between public weal, pleasing his boss, and the fate of his loved ones who depend on him for their survival.

One motif of the film is a handshake between the good and bad characters. Again and again, after a momentary hesitation, the hands are joined, as if in an allegory of an imperfect and ambiguous moral universe. The film clearly belongs to the age in which the necessity for moral compromise, at least a tactical one, is widely acknowledged. Such ethical sophistication is a far cry from the Russia of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, let alone the Manichean ethics of the Soviet era. Not to belabor this point too much, though, in the film itself, justice triumphs, if imperfectly,  and the  family with the right moral instinct gets to have a future.

The two boys meet again in the epilogue, this time, as men in their seventies. If in Ovsyanki, the ordinary looking Russian men and women turn out to be, because of their ancestry,  anything but ordinary, in I will Remember, the difference between Jews and Christians, originally so stark, is completely erased. The film opens with a fight between the two boys, each infuriated with an insult to his ethnicity, but in  the epilogue, the Greek and the Jew, both in their hale seventies, meet again — one a well-known Russian author, the other an Israeli General — as if they were fraternal twins accidentally separated at a younger age.

* * *

No story about men and boys  can remain neutral when it comes to the reenactment of the the myth of Oedipus. These two films are no exception, each tracing  its own Oedipal “paternal lineage.” In Ovsyanki, the Oedipal tension is barely noticeable: narrator, though baffled by his father’s literary ambitions (his old typewriter) ethnographic eccentricities and alcoholism (he died in a fiery car crash), carries on his late father’s ethnographic project and fulfills his father’s most cherished wish, death by drowning, considered a good death in the local tribal tradition. This is the kind of a resolution to the Oedipal drama that forecloses the future.

By contrast, I Will Remember, is the conventional Oedipus squared. The main protagonist has to deal with two father figures, his real mercurial father, who had spent time in the Gulag, and the surrogate one, who by hook or by crook, tries to win the affections of the boy’s mother. Both are killed by the boy: the natural father inadvertently and unintentionally, the surrogate one in what could have been a murder suicide but turned out to be just a murder. I Will Remember doubly reaffirms the natural order of generational succession and for that reason offers its viewers a promising future, even if a melodramatic one. Ovsyanky, by contrast, drowns the history of the Finnish tribe in the upper Volga in the riverrun of time, along with the narrator and his friend. Fedorchenko thus disposes of the last survivors of the endangered species still in thrall to their archetypal roots. As the Volga waters close over their heads, the endless stream of the highway traffic above keeps flowing on, and on...

Berkeley, October 2010 - December 2011
Copyright © 2011 by Grisha Freidin (

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Target: Film Screening and Discussion at Stanford University. Nov. 10, 6PM

Ever since posting my review of Target in March, I have been asked by readers where they could see the film. Here, at last, is the opportunity.

Screening of Target (2010), directed by Alexander Zeldovich, script by Vladimir Sorokin and Alexander Zeldovich.
Discussants: Alexander Zeldovich, Vladimir Sorokin, Gregory Freidin (Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures, Stanford), Tom Luddy (Director, Telluride Film Festival) 

Date: Thursday, November 10, 6 PM.
Building 320 (Braun Corner), Room 105, in on the Main Quad of Stanford.

If you are closer to London than Stanford, you can catch Target at the BFI London Film Festival on October 25 and 26.

In the meantime, the film was recently screened at the Telluride Film Festival where it created quite a stir. The NYT critic A.O. Scott called it "an astonishing piece of visionary futurism" that left him in a state of a "sublime puzzlement" (NYT 9/5/2011). I hope this billing will elicit in some American distributors an equally sublime desire to show Target in the US.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Михаил Прохоров: Любитель против профессионалов

Сегодня в Газете.ру:

Позже журналистам Прохоров сказал, что намерен сообщить о происшедшем президенту Дмитрию Медведеву и премьер-министру Владимиру Путину, сопроводив рассказ соответствующими документами. Сурков ведет самостоятельную игру, полагал Прохоров. Впрочем, ближе к вечеру пресс-секретарь премьера Дмитрий Песков заявил информагентствам, что встречи Путина и Прохорова не будет, потому что она не запланирована

Прохоров теперь обещает пойти - с битой-то мордой - жаловаться Путину и Медведеву на Суркова!!!??? 

Это - любопытно, но выглядит жалко. Особенно после того, как у него под носом увели партию. 

Вообще-то характерно для политики. В США сверх-богатые, как правило проигрывают, несмотря на то, что ухают в это дело сотни миллионов. Пример - Рокфеллер против Никсона в 1960 г., последние выборы в Коннектикуте, где МакМэйхон проиграла Блюменталю, и в Калифорнии, где Майкл Xаффингтон проиграл Файнстайн, а в 2010 г. Карли Фиорина - Барбаре Боксер, а Мег Уитман - Джерри Брауну. Выиграли выносливые политики-профессионалы. Но это выборы...

А в России такие вот профессионалы сидят в Кремле и не собираются подвергать себя проверке на вшивость в избирательной кампании против по-настоящему независимых, таких как Ходорковский и Прохоров. Ходорковский, правда, спринтером не был и копал глубже, за что его до сих пор гноят в тюрьме, а от Прохорова, который по гламурной наивности и гламурной же изолированности от мира, решил, что его спринт на Олимп никто не остановит, пока отделались щелчком...

Выглядит он сейчас очень слабо, а от слабых бегут. Нужно быть гениальным, чтобы в такой ситуации суметь показать себя сильным. И везучим. Первый акт - Крушевель. Ему тогда повезло. Второй - партия. Пока это - нокаут. Третий акт?


Thursday, August 18, 2011


Tomorrow is August 19 and the 20th anniversary of the coup d'état in Moscow. Speak of the law of unanticipated consequences! The Communist Party and government officials who staged the coup  wished to prevent the transformation of the USSR into a looser federated state. Instead, their efforts provided the tipping point for  dispatching the Soviet state and communism to the dustbin of history. In three days, between the morning of the 19th and the morning of the 21st of August, the world turned on its axis. I was there and experienced this revolutionary moment with full force.  To mark those days, I am posting the piece about "being there" I dashed off to The New Republic, while still intoxicated by witnessing and participating in these events. Here it is in full and unchanged, except for the few of my photos (except the first one) that I took that day.

The New Republic, September 10, 1991
As she stuck her hand through a police barrier, a heavy-set middle-aged woman whispered to a pimply young sentry guarding a bevy of mean-looking armored personnel carriers lined up near the Red Square: "Sonny, hey sonny, here's a candy bar, go ahead, take it, please." "Against regulations," he muttered shaking his head, hands gripping a Kalashnikov, and added almost inaudibly: "Stick it in my pocket, fast." The hand lunged forward -- and a tiny chocolate bar disappeared into the pants' pocket of the soldier's fatigues. Further on more of the same: chocolates, cigarettes, sandwiches sliding into the pockets of the young soldiers stand- ing guard before their APC's, as their officers look the other way, both embarrassed by the soldiers mendicancy and moved by the crowd's consideration and warmth. An occasional late-comer to the revolution, anxious to show his militant resolve, elbows his way to the barrier and begins to berate the soldiers, exhorting them to come over to the people's side, to join Yeltsin and Russia. The soldiers, mostly Slavic-looking, winked and smiled at him from under their rain hoods. On Monday morning, having deposed and, possibly, disposed of the country's President, the self-appointed Emergency Committee declared an all-out war on the opposition. It was hard to imagine at 8:30 am that there was another power in the Soviet Union which could accept the challenge of those that had taken over the omnipotent central state. Yet the recently installed mechanism of the separation of powers was already working. By late morning of Yeltsin was climbing a tank -- a big tank dispatched to bring this big man to his knees -- to thunder away at the junta and to pronounce its actions illegal. The lone member of the Union Cabinet, Minister for the Environment, Nikolai Vorontsov, a deputy of Russia's Supreme Soviet, joined Yeltsin on the tank to the cheer, as he told me later that day, of a hundred or so people. For a space the size of the Capitol steps this was a sparse crowd.
 No more than an hour earlier, on my way to the writers' enclave in Peredelkino, I asked my taxi to circle once around the White House, the seat of Russia's parliament: all was calm and ordinary as befits a government building on a sleepy Monday morning in August (inside Yeltsin, Khasbulatov, and Silaev were denouncing the Committee as unconstitutional to the Moscow press corps). As we drove West through the outskirts of the city, a column of tanks, APCs, and trucks full of armed soldiers was rumbling in the opposite direction. By the time we turned off the main highway half an hour later, I had counted a hundred and fifty tanks and APC's.
"This is my fourth coup d'etat," confided the ninety-two- years-old writer I went to Peredelkino to visit. I inscribed for her volume of my Russian translation of The Federalist Papers, published a few months ago in the United States: "To Tamara Ivanova, on the day of her fourth coup d'etat." Starved for news, we turned on the TV only to be treated to a splendiferous Bolshoi production of Swan Lake. The sole channel that was broadcasting over most of the country was teasing the viewers, at the brink of a civil war, with a preserved vestige of Russia's imperial adornment. The news blackout lasted all throughout the coup, but on the second day an inventive soul in programming ran a concert hall production of Boris Godunov -- an operatic blast at regicides, silent majorities, and pretenders. "Now, come to think of it, I have lived through six coups d'etat," Ivanova corrected herself as we were parting. I amended my inscription accordingly. The book now seemed no more than a cruel reminder of yet another chance that Russia had missed.

Part of the tank column I had run into earlier was already parked on the center lane on the Kalinin bridge right opposite the White House. A cop was blocking the traffic, but in such a dazed and half-hearted way that my taxi driver jumped the curb under his very nose and sped without looking back to the other end of the bridge. There something strange was going on. The column of tanks stopped short of a flimsy barrier made of sections of a wire mesh fencing behind which a dozen or so people were silently pushing an empty trolley bus. "It must've stalled," I said to myself and wondered why they were pushing it at the right angle to the line of traffic. Next to the trolley bus, a small crowd consisting of two respectable-looking women and several men in business suits and with attache cases, were pursuing a weaving milk truck. One of the men managed to jump onto the step of the cabin but was immediately pushed off by the irate and foul-mouthed driver: "You mother-fuckers, I am the one who'll be paying for it, not you..." They were trying to commandeer the truck. Only then did it dawn on me that I was witnessing was the construction of a barricade.
Further up, where the bridge formed a thoroughfare with the road leading to the embankment and the White House, half a dozen tanks had already taken up a positions, their gun barrels trained quizzically onto an empty patch of overcast sky between the Russia House and the famous ghost tower of the new American Embassy. The leading tank peaked out dinosaur-like from behind a barricade consisting solely of a ten-feet-long garden bench. Up close you could see the insignia of one of Moscow's two elite tank divisions. A helmeted soldier sitting on top of the gun turret displayed that intensely sullen and distant look which one readily associates with the actual Soviet man engaged in actual socialist construction. Before long, neighborhood kids were crawling all over the armor, their presence transforming the tank, if not into ploughshares, than a heavy-duty tenement jungle gym. Taking in this scene, my eye paused to register a few inch- thick metal bars, used for reinforcing concrete, sticking out of the wheels of the tank treads. The bars disabled the vehicle, but the soldiers were in no hurry to take them out.
A young man in his twenties was now climbing on top of the tank. Leaning against the gun barrel and without any regard for the soldier, he began waving Russia's non-communist tricolor flag. "Folks in the 'White House' say you ought to stick another flag into the gun barrel," an unassuming elderly woman whispered loudly to the flag-waver. "Tell'em I can't do it: the gun is sheathed," he hissed back, his face showing that he was at the limit of his pluck, and with added fervor went on making figure eights with his giant tricolor. Did the people holed up in the "White House," for whose benefit the flag was being waved, find in this sight the needed encouragement?
The news spread that tanks were coming along Kalininsky Prospekt from the direction of the city center. By 3 pm the crowd, which had swelled to a few hundred, rushed to the end of the avenue which opened onto the "White House." Men and women, mostly well-dressed types in their thirties and forties, scurried around in search of the barricade building debris. As barricade building goes, Moscow is Europe's most efficient city. You don't have to overturn cars or newspaper booths, or tear up roads for the sake of the archetypal cobble stones, because the city's construction bosses had unwittingly positioned stores of debris within everybody's easy reach. Unfinished buildings, torn-up roads, and mounds of fragments of reinforced concrete are as plentiful in Moscow as outdoor cafes are in Paris. Past me marched a team of several men shouldering a heavy pipe, their shopping bags and attache cases swaying in unison.
A column of light tanks and heavy APC's was rumbling along the Kalininsky Prospekt. The fortification, supposed to block their passage, consisted of see-through wire mesh screens strung across the street, held erect by some sort of telepathy or magic. To shield this contraption from the caterpillar treads, men and women joined hands to form a chain across the breadth of the avenue. The approaching column, headed by a tank-like thing but without a turret, slowed to a crawl. It halted a few feet before the human chain, filling the air with the noise and stench of idling diesel engines. People rushed around the leading vehicle, some shouting heart-rending pleas not to shoot, other hurling insults at the helmeted head of the convoy commander which was sticking forlornly out of the vehicle's top hatch. "Shame!" "Don't shoot at your own people!" "Yeltsin is your President!" "Junta's lackeys!" "Murderers!" "Be with the people!"
The commander climbed half way out of the hatch. This exhausted wiry man of about forty was wearing a paratrooper's uniform with the two stars of a lieutenant colonel. Crouching behind him was a junior officer, a beefy young man with an anxious smile, cradling in his enormous arms a handy little automatic rifle. Red-eyed, his face the color of dust covered asphalt, the commander had the tormented look of a rudely awakened man who was ordered to choose between his duty as army officer and killing his own mother. The worst was still to come. Waving his half-empty string bag at the commander, a grizzled diminutive man -- a lifetime of labor stamped indelibly into his demeanor -- elbowed his way to the side of the tank. He was shaking with rage. Almost bursting to make himself heard over the engine noise, he shouted: "I've worked all my life, you see, all my life I've paid for this army, and now you've turned against me, you're shooting at me!" "Shame, shame!" the crowd was egging him on. Several people were pressing into the officer's hands Xerox copies of Russia's government first appeal, issued at 9:00 am, calling the Emergency Committee "unconstitutional," its members, "putschists," and declaring an "indeterminate general strike." Many were yelling: "You did vote for Yeltsin, didn't you, you yourself voted for Yeltsin, and now you've got your guns pointing at him." The officer would not take the bait, but his gold-toothed smile made it clear that he did not mind being counted among Yeltsin supporters.
A young man in blue jeans climbed on top of the tank, helping onto the armor two very good-looking, stylish young women. Like many in the crowds around the "White House," all three had about them the secure air of people who "owned the place." Nonchalantly, they took a brief surveys of the tank's top, located a comfortable spot, and without much ado settled down, park-bench style, for a chat and a smoke. But before their charm could begin to melt the armor, a corpulent matron, her graying hair in a tight bun, wrestled her way to the front of the tank and began to bellow at the officers. Gesticulating forcefully, as if unaware that her hands were ensnared by a brace of string bags, she pointed to her breast and roared: "I've nurtured you, bastards, and now you will be shooting me in this breast!" A vein on the commander's temple, which had been pulsating visibly all throughout the encounter, swelled enormously, his dust covered face grew ruddy, jaws clenched, but the eyes were clearly pleading to spare him this unbearable ordeal. His aide let go of the rifle, and it disappeared down the hatch. "Cut off the engine, commander, save your fuel for the crops!" The engine was stopped, and minutes later every vehicle in the convoy followed suit. No, he will not obey if ordered to shoot at the people, he said to the French reporter in reply to the question on everybody's mind.
The family reunion was now in full swing. The paratroopers had not eaten for twenty four hours and had been on the march since leaving their base in Ryazan for two days. The contents of the barricade builders' shopping bags -- those unprepossessing horns of plenty stuffed with sausage, bread, candy, cartons of milk -- flowed freely into the open hatches of the paratroopers' tanks and APCs. An hour or so later, an order came for the convoy to leave. The street grew empty, exposing to all the vicissitudes of a revolution the still flimsy barricade and the wearied, vulnerable men and women who had the determination to built it. 
There were the people, there was their government which the people had gathered to defend, and there was the enemy, epitomized by the old communist state. 
There was a nation in the making.

ПС. А вот ролик с пресс-конференцией (на 29 минуте - вопрос убийственные вопросы  и мина Тани Малкиной).

Monday, July 25, 2011

Russia’s Two Souls: On Andrei Zvyagintsev’s Film “Elena” (2011)

Awarded the Jury’s Special Prize at the Cannes Film Festival this year, Andrei Zvyagintsev’s “Elena” is a powerful cinematic feat, as distinct and subtle as his 2003 prize-winning “The Return,” but one whose story carries a greater resonance and depth. A small masterpiece, it will be appreciated by a thinking audience, one that prefers, on occasion, a bit of a work-out for the little grey cells, rather than have their eyeballs massaged by purveyors of eye candy. Like raw oysters, or Anton Chelhov’s “comedies,”  and unlike MacDonald's Big Mac, Zvyagintsev’s “Elena” calls for an acquired taste, and those who have it will come away feeling satisfied and rewarded.

On the surface, it is a typical human interest story about a conflict between a middle-aged couple, each on his and her second round, who disagree on ways to provide for their children. As in Chekhov, most of the elements of the story are eminently portable and could located in any modern society, and yet, as in Chekhov, they are all eminently Russian, and their particular coordinates of time and space are Russia today.

Zvyagintsev chose to make his film visually spare, muting its color palette to that of the arid late fall in the European North, and shooting most of the film with a  stationary camera, partial to the split focus effect. The overall ambience can best be described as a cross between a subtle Japanese water color and a glossy catalogue photo of a sterile Scandinavian furniture show room. There is a sound track to match. The opening scene in an upscale condo occurs in a sonic vacuum, punctuated by discrete quotidian noises of the morning rituals soon to be drowned in the chilling cheer of morning TV. Before long, this infernal auditory néant morphs into an itch-inducing, quiet-desperation score by Philip Glass. It is not so much against this minimalist buzz, as along with it, that Zvyagintsev unfolds before us his sophisticated moral – and sociological – picture puzzle.

What are the pieces? A good-looking, if a bit heavy-set, tall Russian woman Elena (Nadezhda Markina), in her fifties, a former medical nurse, now married to her ex-patient, a vigorous and apparently successful older businessman, Vladimir (Andrei Smirnov). Well-dressed, if conservatively and a bit on the matronly side, she emanates the aura of a fading Russian beauty: slow and glacial exterior belying, one imagines, the incendiary mix on the inside waiting for a spark. Her husband cuts a figure of a commanding stature: a self-made, no-nonsense top executive, with a taste for Danish furniture design, German motors, membership in a top-notch health club, a roving eye, and a medical cabinet well-stocked with Viagra.

Both have children from their previous lives. Elena has a no-good son Seryozha (Aleksei Rozin), who likes to spit from the high-rise balcony of his non-descript outer suburb housing project, a good-of-nothing high-school senior grandson, who looks up to the “hood’s” petty criminals, another one-year-old to follow in his bother’s footsteps, and yet another  on the way in the fertile belly of her daughter-in-law, a woman in her own image: pragmatic, indulgent,  down-to-earth and, as it turns out, with few moral scruples.

Vladimir’s daughter Katya (Elena Lyadova) is no good either, except that she is harmless. A thoroughly urban, upper-middle-class young woman, she arrives on the scene casually well-dressed and attractive, if a bit fatigued by her strict regimen of “food, sex, drugs, and alcohol only on weekends.” Like Seryozha, who lives off his mother’s pension and other hand-outs, Katya is not gainfully employed, but her indolence, we are led to understand, is the result of self-reflection and moral disgust with the emptiness of her world whereas Seryozha’s is habitual, non-reflective, even vegetative kind of idleness – the torpor of a creature with minimal social skills who cannot exist without his beer-bottle pacifier in his mouth.

Zvyagintsev could not have drawn a starker class line than the one between Vladimir and Elena: one the one side are the cosmopolitan, sophisticated father and daughter, on the other, the Russian meshchanstvo (petty bourgeoisie), a kind of lumpen
bourgeoisie, the blue- or white-color milieu, intensely materialistic and, despite the urban setting, still rooted in the traditional rural culture, with its unquestioned patriarchy, focus on fertility, and limited horizons. Indeed the “intrigue” of the plot revolves precisely around the difference in what economists and sociologists call time horizons of the husband and wife.

Vladimir’s world implies planning ahead and awareness of the cause-and-effect relationship between actions and consequences. Elena’s is the chaotic world in which needs and dangers – as in the case of the military draft for which every Russian eighteen-year-old is eligible – emerge unexpectedly and must be impulsively met and satisfied. Those who wish to avoid or delay the draft can do so by entering an institution of higher learning – either based on their transcript and exams, which requires a long time-horizon, discipline and  planning, or a miracle in the form of a lump sum, sufficiently rounded, to underwrite a bribe.  Where a peasant fearing drought would pray to a patron saint of rain, his latter-day urban descendant, a Seryozha or Elena, scheme for a one-time subsidy from the well-provisioned Vladimir.

Without giving away the story, the film ends with Elena’s family moving into Vladimir’s up-market spacious condo and planning to subdivide it in the same manner that the stately apartments of yore were converted into communal warrens of the Soviet era. The film’s parting shot through the window of the condo replicates the opening shot, amplifying the circular time of the film: “And the wind returneth to its circuits.” The “communal apartment” mentality, perhaps going back to the famous Russian peasant commune, mir, reasserts itself, whether under “socialism” or Russia’s twenty-first century oil-driven “capitalism.” What may otherwise bee seen as a human-interest story begins to resonate as an allegorical tale with particular sociological implications: the deep structure of the Russian tradition turns out to be more powerful than any new-fangled modernities, be they communism or capitalism.

As if to emphasize the allegorical turn of the film narrative, Zvyagintsev sets the film in “Any Metropilis” (anyplace vs. the utopian noplace) of today’s Russia, one with a leafy neighborhood for million-dollar condominiums and the infinite urban sprawl of the housing projects for the less fortunate Russians whose outer reaches require travel by rail. All topographical details that might determine the particular setting have been excised. Zvyagintsev is laying a claim to a myth which can serve as a template for any region of his country. With its pieces fit into place the picture puzzle becomes an allegory, one with a considerable historical depth.

In Russia, to unpack Zvyagintsev’s allegory, the great reforms, whether of Peter the Great, Catherine, Alexander I, Lenin, Stalin, Gorbachev or Yeltsin, sooner or later run out of steam, and the traditional, semi-rural culture of Russia absorbs and swallow up, like a predatory plant or a swamp, whatever “foreign” agency has once disturbed its surface. Elena stands for the traditional, semi-rural, semi-urban  Russia – her taste for kerchiefs and scheming (khitrost) are the tell-tale signs of her peasant wiles. This is the fate that awaits the film’s protagonist Vladimir and his restless off-spring Katya. The victory is Elena’s and her son’s.

With the puzzle complete, the film’s pedigree in Russian literature and its discourse on Russian culture and history becomes more obvious. The film echoes Denis Fonvizin’s classic comedy The Minor (1798), in which the mother’s protective love for her son and her inability to enforce discipline destroys his career prospects, to Goncharov’s novel Oblomov (1859) in which the Westernized Russian protagonist ultimately regresses into the embrace of an indulgent “Elena,” to Isaac Babel’s “Tale About a Peasant Wench” (1917) in which the ever-fertile peasant whore Arina smothers the angel Alfredik who had been sent by the Almighty to redeem her sins.

A hundred years ago, as Russia entered WWI, Maxim Gorky elaborated this view of Russian history in his controversial essay “Two Souls” (1915). "We, Russians, have two souls," he wrote, "one descends from the Mongol nomad, a dreamer, a mystic, indolent and convinced that it is impossible to challenge fate; and right next to this impotent soul, lives the soul of a Slav; it may ignite a beautiful bright flame but it burns itself out quickly, and it is helpless against the poisons sapping its strength." However dated Gorky's "Two Souls" may bethe film maker Zvyagintsev challenges our understanding of today’s Russia by reviving Gorky’s harsh take on some of Russia's ingrained cultural patterns. 

Choosing to call his film “Elena,” not “Vladimir,” Zvyagintsev accents his vision of the county, telling us which one of  the “two souls” is on the ascendant in Russia today. 

Copyright © by 2011

Monday, April 18, 2011

Target, the Movie (Alexander Zeldovich and Vladimir Sorokin)

March 25. Berkeley

I saw The Target (Мишень) two nights ago (dir. Alxander Zeldovich, script by Alexander Zeldovich and Vladimir Sorokin. Ren Film, 2011). My friend Tom Luddy was kind enough to lend me a copy after he returned from the Berlin Film Festival where the The Target premiered.

The Target may be strong stuff for some but, I am not among them. For me, this is a visually grating (on purpose, of course) art-house film. Thought provoking? Yes, by the ton, and here is what it has provoked me into thinking.

I understand Vladimir Sorokin's thing, which Zeldovich chose to explore cinematically. It is to puncture the romantic illusion, whether the "good, true, and beautiful" of the 19th-cetury intelligentsia ideology or its later incarnations in socialist realism, and post-Stalin critical art and fiction (say, Solzhenitsyn). But if what you aim at is art, you cannot actually destroy illusion, because in art, illusion is indispensable. What ultimately happens when you try to do away with illusion is that you either stop producing art and have an analytical critique instead, or you simply replace one illusion with another, most likely, the opposite of your original target (pun intended). 

Let's consider the first possibility: The Target is a kind of an allegorical analysis of the human condition in the hydrocarbon-dependent and criminally corrupt Russia of the not-so-distant future. Those deluxe Russians, who have risen to the top of the pyramid and who think they are smart, beautiful and (this is the sci-fi twist, the dystopian part) entitled to eternal youth, are, in fact, ugly, stupid, and have a remarkable short life-expectancy. The sex scenes are abundant, in-your-face graphic, and telling - less fun to watch than a barn yard romance. 
They are Sorokin's version of an old school Russian literature teacher's question to an eighth-grade cretin.

The dialogue goes something like this: 
Tell me, Volodya, did Onegin really love Tatyana? 
Like, teach, I haven't like finished the book yet but I think he like just wanna hump her, you know, like a dog, like from behind...

What these Russian creatures call love, Sorokin and Zeldovich seem to be saying to us, is nothing but an animal urge, not even to procreate, though the central couple (an oil minister "Karenin" and his bored wife "Anna") are trying to conceive - need I say, unsuccessfully - but to dominate, to crush your partner. 

OK. We get the allegory: Putin's or Putin-Medvedev's Russia is nothing but a criminally corrupt enterprise that has no future or, rather, one like the present only slicker and bleaker than today. One of the male characters, played by Vitaly Kishchenko is a sex maniac mafioso and a biker (a "Vronsky" stud type), who looks suspiciously like Putin, especially as he rides his futuristic cruising bike or is transported to his death after his criminal enterprise crashes. 
Kishchenko and Zeldovich
To add a bit of complexity, the framing message is that USA is nowhere to be seen and the dominant cultural and everything else power is - you guessed it - China. There is an occasional Chinese face but, for the most part, the them is felt through Leonid Desyatnikov's minimalist score, with a bit of a Chinese musical lilt grafted onto it. A lot of people hold similar views, and as they watch this film, I imagine while checking email on their iphones, they may nod approvingly to having their thinking confirmed by the flickering screen.

But if we consider the second possibility, namely, that Zeldovich and Sorokin tried to make an art film (emphasis on art), then the result is a bust. What Target offers is an inverted romantic illusion. In our post-everything age, this means they are preaching to the converted. Indeed, it would be easier to find a snow ball in Hollywood than a potential member of the Target audience who considers the romantic illusion to be true (in a way that, say "money makes the world go round" is true).

My educated guess is that most people, nevertheless, find romance and romantic illusion pleasing. We like romance in the same way that the people who do not believe in Santa find Christmas trees pleasing. Ditto sex. We all know that sex, when seen by an uninvolved spectator, looks ugly - ugly enough, as Freud pointed out at length in The Wolfman, to traumatize a child for life (a Russian child no less!). But most would agree, our voyeuristic inclinations aside, that "doing it" is another matter. This is why the film's dis-illusion,  its attempt at disenchanting the magic of romance, makes for an unsuccessful artistic illusion. We already know: (1) "sex is ugly" and (2) life is ugly, too, not to mention brutish, short, and solitary. The author of Anna Karenina thought so following Hobbes, except unlike Hobbs, he thought that it was the state, not nature, that "made us do it." 
The art historian Ernst Gombrich once quipped that in engaging with art one can either immerse oneself in an the illusion induced by a work of art or subject it to a rational analysis; but it was impossible to "watch oneself having an illusion." The film Target by Zeldovich and Sorokin invite us to watch ourselves being disabused of the illusion that we do not have. 

And yet, the film is worth seeing. I was taken by a few scenes  that experts with a taste for Sots-Art, the post-modern legacy of the Stalinist aesthetic, may find amusing enough to endure the rest of the feature. The shots of the over-the-top affluence of the nouveau Russian country estates evokes the canvases extolling the abundance of Stalin's collective farms and the corresponding Stalinist celluloids. And the village that specializes in selling rejuvenation and life eternal looks suspiciously like Brat's native realm. So, there are a few worthy nuggets in dem da hills, even if it takes a bit of sweating and digging to get to them. A juxtaposition of another political heavy hitter, Balabanov's Cargo 200, and Target would make for an interesting essay (Balabanov's Putin-like biker Alexey Poluyan v Zeldovich's Putin-like biker Kishchenko)... As would juxtapositions of the film adaptations of the greatest nihilistic novel of all times, Oprah's favorite "Anna Karenina." I may actually show Target in class next year when I teach the novel.

PS. 9/5/11. Target has just been screened at the Telluride Film Festival. The NYT critic A.O. Scott called it "an astonishing piece of visionary futurism" and one that caused him to experience "sublime puzzlement." I hope this billing will elicit in some American distributors an equally sublime desire to show Target in the US. 

PPS. September 27, 2011. The film will be shown at Stanford, with a round table discussion to follow on November 10 at 6 pm (venue TBD). Discussants: Alexander Zeldovich, Vladimir Sorokin, Gregory Freidin (Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures, Stanford), and Tom Luddy (Director, Telluride Film Festival).

Friday, April 15, 2011


I am writing a book about a Russian Jewish writer, Isaac Babel, who thought that art could serve as the solid inner core of one’s identity, that the power of art is sufficient to redeem violence, revolution, and all possible human transgressions against morality, faith, loyalty, and plain human empathy.
This attitude was rather typical for the generation of avant-garde artists to which he belonged, men and women who had gained renown as poets, writers, painters before the 1917 Revolution but whose career matured in the Soviet era. Although in a less extreme form, intellectuals both in Russia and the West, myself included, carry the vestiges of this attitude or, rather, faith.

My self-imposed biographer’s immersion in this mind-set made it all the more interesting for me to see, if only for the late-night relaxation, the latest HBO mini-series, “Mildred Pierce,” a high-class soap about an American woman in the 1930’s Los Angeles, modeled to a degree on the 1945 eponymous film with Joan Crawford in the lead role.  Although it uses the trappings of the Great Depression America, Director Todd Haynes’ “Mildred Pierce” tells us a story about the American dream as it tumbled down from the summit irrational exuberance to its low in the Great Recession, walking-wounded, self-medicating U.S.A. of our own day.
Played by Kate Winslet, Mildred is a strong woman from Glendale and a “straight shooter” in all matters, except two things that thicken the plot: her guilt-ridden relationship with her daughter and her occasional indulgence in good sex, per HBO conventions, with Monty, a playboy character of Guy Pearce. After her double-timing husband of eleven years walks out on her, this suburban housewife picks up the pieces and eventually succeeds by turning her home-spun passion for pies into a lucrative chain of pie shops and restaurants.

In the soap opera tradition, things get really bad, then they get really good only to get really-really bad before a reversal so spectacular that it could only be followed by an all-out crash which, in deference to the conventions of a melodrama, touched by a refreshing brush of the noir, leads to a partial and not entirely satisfactory rescue.

Melodramas are a bourgeois genre, one that arose at the time when the bourgeoisie was vying for supremacy with the aristocracy. The secret of success of those who belonged to this rising class lay in their ability to take advantage of a chance opportunity offered the dynamic society and economy of their time, and melodrama, the TV series of its time, was meant to teach a moral lesson. Melodramas are different from tragedies in that they promise a good life if the characters mend their ways – something that tragedies, and their cinematic noir equivalents do not. To give an example, “Law and Order,” a deeply noir TV series, begin with a wolf’s  howl and ends its story on a note of a howling poetic injustice, as in a tragedy, with the final shot of a black screen with the two monosyllables of the series producer’s name, Dick Wolf. Subliminally they rhyme with the archetypal monosyllabic coupling of “fuck you,” each word pronounced emphatically, a condensed and effective diagnosis of the human condition seen through a tragic or film noir prism.

“Mildred Pierce,” its two extra syllables notwithstanding, resonates with the noir genre but only up to a point. On the whole, it stays within the boundaries of the melodrama, and as such, delivers a moral message. It is the singularity of this moral message, suggestive perhaps of a change in the cultural Zeitgheist,  that has prompted me to put these few thoughts on paper.

The first such message is that good – beach-house throw-all-caution-to-the-wind – sex  and sex and sex is not only overrated but is well-nigh lethal, especially, for a mother of a small girl. While Mildred is enjoying herself with Monty, her younger daughter is suddenly hospitalized with pneumonia and dies soon after her sexually sated mom arrives at the hospital. Good sex, including cunnilingus performed by Monty later on as the two resume their relationship, is also bad for business as it clouds Mildred’s judgment condemning her eventually to a financial and emotional doom.

The second moral message should give pause to the ambitious middle-class parents who instill in their children a desire to transcend the boundary of their class. Herself upwardly mobile off-spring of a garage mechanic, Mildred programs her daughter – with music lessons, concerts, inspirational tunes, and constant subliminal messaging – to aspire to an upper-class status. The result is a young woman who has no respect for the ingenuity and effort her mother invested in the well-being of her family and utter contempt for the middle-class virtues of modesty, chastity, thrift, work ethic, and the like.

Finally, saving best for last, the series deals a shattering blow to the middle-class faith in the redemptive power of art. Vida Pierce, Mildred’s wayward and estranged daughter, is suddenly discovered to possess the rare gift of a coloratura soprano and without, it seems, much effort makes a spectacular singing career (there is no hint of this story line in the 1945 film). Vida’s coach and conductor, an Italian maestro from the old world, tries to disabuse the naïve American Mildred of her belief that Vida’s great artistry has redeemed her daughter’s meanness and would make it possible for them to reconcile. As the maestro puts it in his Hollywood Italian accent, Vida is an attractively colored “poisonous snake,” a creature to be admired as an exhibit in a zoo but under no circumstances to be taken home.

Alas, this old-world, European wisdom, falls on deaf ears (as it did in Europe among those who could not believe that the heirs to Goethe and Beethoven would preside over mass exterminations). A reconciliation between mother and daughter follows soon thereafter. It crests in the LA Philharmonic, all gold, brocade and red velvet, the bourgeois equivalent of a royal court, that the bourgeoisie so much dreams about. Gilding the lily, Vida delivers a performance of a lifetime, including singing her mother’s lullaby as an encore. Mildred is smitten and proceeds to take the poisonous snake home.

Now Mildred is set up to lose it all, and she proceeds to do so with dispatch. Soon after her investors confront her and threatened with bankruptcy unless she recovers the  corporate money she had showered on Vida. She rushes to her home, no longer in the prosaic Glendale but in the high-flying Pasadena of her new husband Monty, and discovers Vida, yes, in Monty’s bed.
Melodramas cannot end on a tragic note, and in the final segment Mildred picks up the pieces again, not all of them by a long shot, but enough to stand on her feet, remarry her first husband, and yet again send her daughter packing. The last frame shows her and her husband, disenchanted at last, self-medicating their pain with hard drink.
That love, even mother’s love, not to mention sex, turns out to be a dangerous illusion and a trap is a melodramatic message even older than Jane Austen. But to be using the same brush to tar both the aspirations for upward mobility and high art turns a new page in the annals of bourgeois drama. The director Michael Curtiz, it seems, tells his viewers to forget about upward mobility and not worry much about the lack of support for the arts as they do not contribute to the moral betterment of society, perhaps, even lead to the opposite result.

He is right, of course, in decoupling beauty from truth and justice but I would rather stay with Isaac Babel and be wrong than be right in Director Curtiz’s conventional middle-class Glendale box without even an illusion of an exit, except through the neck of a liquor bottle.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Bee's Knees: Retirement, Leo Tolstoy, and the Consolation of Social Physiology

Leon Gerome Ferris. The Mayflower compact. 1899
A stirring passage about bees has been buzzing in my brain since I gleaned it at breakfast on Tuesday. The source is May Berenbaum’s review of two books about the social organization of ants and bees (TLS, 1.28.2011). Apparently, the big deal in the world of bees and, by analogy, among us, humans,  is when an over­populated hive spawns a colonizing  swarm of bees. The swarm is formed by the bees who have decided to strike out on their own; they leave as a swarm in search of a site to establish their new bee colony (think Mayflower).

As this swarm dangles form some tree limb, its special scout bees check out the adjacent territory. When they return, they communicate their finding to the swarm in a special dance. Here’s the passage that has been "buzzing" in my head since morning:

One point Seeley makes in his book is that scouts never blindly copy each other; each scout dances only to promote a site that she has inspected herself. Moreover, the intensity of promoting the site naturally decays over time – and individual scout will advocate for a site only for a limited amount of time and then will retire and rest. Both of these behaviours minimize the perpetuation of errors.

A swarm has left from a beehive and was standing on the branch of a tree.
What stung me was the precision with which this pattern fits what I know about the creative types among us humans. Pindar once likened the poet, who gathers inspiration from other poets, to a bee collecting pollen from different flowers to make his own honey ("Persephone's bees" of Osip Mandelstam). Leo Tolstoy, too, knew a thing or two about bees,. There is an ironic, down-to-earth echo of the Pindaric simile in Tolstoy's put-down of scholars: people who copy passages from many books by other authors into one notebook and then publish it as their own volume of scholarship. Apparently what Pindar admired Tolstoy put down in his always riveting, if nihilistic, dance. Of course, his own dance would have been impossible without his predecessors, and he knew it. Just think of his combining the French adultory novel and its opposite, English family novel into one Anna Karenina.

L.N. Tolstoy. Self-portrait. Photo. 1862. Collage by the author. 2011.
This impressive pedigree of the analogy between the bees and the humans notwithstanding, Seeley’s description rings louder and deeper still.

How many scout bees do you know among your friends, how many times have you seen them dance their unique dance to promote a new site for our hive thought to colonize that they discovered in their imagination? How much you admire their intensity only to register with sadness that it lasted “only for a limited amount of time” - before they, too, shuffled off to “retire and rest.” Apparently, not everything is lost! What a comfort it is to realize that there is a higher purpose to all of this odd and, in the light of common, practical wisdom, thankless behavior!

So next time your inspiration makes you think of yourself as bee's knees and you throw yourself into a dance, do not despair if your immediate audience is not moved. Even as your inner conviction decays over time and you "retire and rest" in fatigue and disappointment, be assured: you have made a contribution by putting a small dent in our species' perpetuation of errors

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Girls on Tanks or Twenty Years later

Twenty years ago in Moscow, especially at night, when the city's daytime roar turned to a steady rumble, I thought I could sense the earth's axis turning. Yes, yes, I know what was happening in Russia was not an isolated event. Solidarity had already triumphed in Poland, the Berlin Wall had been breached, and the US had won the cold war. Still, it was the fall of communism in Moscow -- the capital of the country where the "real twentieth century" began back in 1917 -- that carried enough political and symbolic weight to tilt the world's axis towards the new century. And so they began to sway and tumble down - the entrenched authoritarian modernizing regimes, the "old regimes" of the waning century. Not all of them and certainly not all at once, but by now, the trend is palpable.

Notwithstanding the differences, there is, then, a kinship between what is going on in Cairo today and happened in Moscow in August 1991. With the hindsight of Russia's experience over the last two decades, we can expect more similarities in the future. But for the moment, one can rejoice at the anticipated fall of Egypt's last Pharaoh.

Nothing suggests the deep similarity between the two revolutions better than the photos my daughter Anna emailed to me today, with the subject heading "When you know a regime has fallen..." One of the two, with little Anna on the tank, was taken by me on 21 August 1991 in Moscow, the other, of an Egyptian girl, by someone in Cairo today or yesterday. Guess which is which...

Do you sense the tilt, as the world keeps tumbling into the future?