In my previous post, Beyond Hollywood -Tuning In To International Cinema, I referred to the contrast between the pacing of Hollywood-style movies (fast fast fast) and those of non-Anglo cultures (slow… s-l-o-w…… s–l–o–w………). As always in these sorts of comparison discussions, such observations are – at best – general. I think it is true, though, that only in non-Anglo cinema are filmmakers free to crawl along in first gear without changing up if they decide that is in their artistic interests. Which is when?
When the main game is not action, spectacle and entertaining the masses with a rattling narrative, but subtle exploration of character and/or culture – as was the case with most of the movies featured in the recent Russian Resurrection Film Festival.
I had the good fortune to win a Gold Pass from Cinema Paradiso, which granted my partner and I free entry to the entire festival. We determined to make the most of it, and saw 13 movies over 6 days. I’ve been to plenty of festival films over the years, but have never immersed myself like this. It was a unique experience, rewarding and illuminating.
I went into the festival knowing little of Russia, cultural or otherwise. As mentioned in my previous post, I’ve read some Russian literature. And I’ve seen Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin and a couple of depressing contemporary Russian movies on SBS, but that’s about it. To be honest, I was caught up in the stereotype, anticipating 6 days of long, slow, bleak and ponderous viewing.
I emerged from the festival deconditioned, with a fresh appreciation of Russian cinema and a new openness to non-Anglo film generally. What do I mean by deconditioned?
Hollywood movies tend to be the cinematic equivalent of fast food, high in salt, flavour enhancers and sugar. The case could be made that Hollywood and its audiences are suffering from a cinematic strain of ADD. Almost all the BIG movies – the box office smashes – are BIG on spectacle, BIG on FX, BIG on action, hyper-paced. As with contemporary sound engineering, in which everything is recorded UP with vol levels maxed out, light and shade and dynamic range (where real emotion and humanity reside) are the casualties.
Since profit is the name of the game more than ever before in Hollywood, hitting the jackpot at the box office has become the primary objective – a value that pervades most filmmaking in the West. The more subdued films, and those that depart from the formulaic, are seen as risky by investors – and in financial terms, so they are! Audiences are conditioned to expect the fast food diet they have been served up for so long now.
Not that all Anglo movies are superficial, or pacey, of course. Two of my favourites spring immediately to mind as obvious exceptions: Remains Of The Day and this year’s wonderful The Visitor. And all of Woody Allen’s films. And there are many more, mostly indie but some mainstream, that make this pacing assertion of mine rather dodgy.
It is very possible that mainstream Russian movies are not much different from the standard Hollywood fare – I know nothing of commercial Russian cinema, so I’m not in a position to have an opinion on this. I can say, though, that in the case of most of the Russian Resurrection festival movies (and some Asian ones I’ve caught up with recently), my impression was that the pace was dictated by the nature of the film itself, not by awareness of commercial factors, such as audience response. You get the sense that this is purer art, made on its own terms. The flipside, though, is directorial indulgence, which can end up being tedious for the viewer, however deconditioned and slowed down to non-Anglo film time you are!
On to the Russian Resurrection festival films, then.
My purpose here is not to review in any depth the films we saw. There is not much point in that, since the festival has finished and I was told by Cinema Paradiso staff that there will probably not be future commercial screenings in Australia of most of the movies featured. On the off-chance that some find their way to an arthouse cinema near you, or will be available on DVD, here’s a brief summary of my assessments in rough order of merit. Ignore or take note, as you see fit.
Graffiti (Igor Apasian, 2006)
The standout of the festival for me. Highly original (way, way beyond Hollywood), funny, tragic, moving, off-beat, this is a poignant reminder that the ongoing human cost of war endures long after the final shot. And demonstrating that art resists the sorts of neat categorisations and generalisations I have spent the opening paragraphs of this post asserting, Graffiti opens with the best chase sequence I have seen – featuring skateboards and bicycles, no less. Yes, that includes Bullitt and The French Connection. If you get a chance to see it, just go.
Captive (Alexei Uchitel, 2008)
Only 77 minutes long, this is gripping, gruelling war drama at its best. Two Russian soldiers capture a local to lead them to safety through Chechnyan lines. The Chechnyan landscape is as hostile as the soldiers that occupy it. This is unforgiving, merciless realism that confronts you with the stupid and perverse inhumanity of war. The climax is a moment of dramatic perfection, terrible, unavoidable, unforgettable.
Plus One (Oxana Bichlova, 2008)
A romantic comedy of substance (now that’s rare!). A plain, bookish Russian translator is resuscitated from her numbed, somewhat embittered state of being by an eccentric English puppeteer. The big difference between this quirky little tale and romantic comedy Hollywood style is the absence of corn, and a conclusion that is neither neat nor happy-ever-after, yet is realistic, satisfying and life-affirming. Nice.
Travelling With Pets (Vera Storozheva, 2007)
A young woman who lives in a rough cabin by the side of a railway station in the middle of nowhere emancipates herself from a joyless, oppressed existence when her brutish husband provides an escape route by carking suddenly. One of several of the festival films set in bleak, rural surrounds, and one of two that ends with the main character happily adrift in a dinghy in the middle of a lake. Is there something about this Russian lake symbolism I should know? Elucidation from Russian readers gratefully accepted.
The Vanished Empire (Karen Shakhnazarov, 2008)
This is supposed to be the jewel in the crown of celebrated director Shakhnazarov. A high energy portrayal of youth culture in early 70s Moscow, I found the first two thirds highly entertaining. It was fascinating to view 70s Moscow through the peephole of Shakhnazarov’s reconstruction of the era, and to discover that Russian youth were much like their peers in the West, throwing themselves about at rock gigs, getting drunk (and the more reckless, high), waiting breathless on the next release from the Stones, or Deep Purple, or Pink Floyd – the difference being that rock music was contraband only attainable at extravagant prices on the black market, and heavy-looking cops and state security goons were always hovering around ready to stamp out any real wildness. Really, though, this movie occupies similar territory to a lot of American coming of age movies, and for me it lost momentum as it progressed. The ending was abrupt and less than filling.
12 (Nikita Mikhalkov, 2007)
I can’t give a valid assessment of this one. It was the third movie we saw in succession on the day – a mistake I won’t be making again. I was unable to retain concentration and was fighting sleep all the way through. I sensed this was a good film, and my partner, who somehow managed to stay alert, thought it was one of the best of the festival. Hollywood habitually plunders Continental and Asian cinema and turns out remakes (mostly inferior to the originals), but the process is reversed here: 12 is Mikhalkov’s remake of the 1957 Sidney Lumet classic, 12 Angry Men. This probably deserves another viewing in a wakeful state, but I think I’d rather check out the Lumet original.
Amphibian Man (Vladimir Chebotaryov, 1962)
A “cult” movie about a bloke in a silly glittery suit who can breath underwater. Like most old cult movies, cute and unintentionally funny. Novelty value only, for mine.
Vice (Valery Todorovsky, 2007)
I’m over ultra-violence chic. You know the sort of thing – lots of fast cuts and jerky hand-held biffo sequences, nasty drug underworld types throwing their weight around, a pulsing techno soundtrack… This could have come out of Hollywood, or Europe, or any big-city culture. Tarantino’s got a bit to answer for, but at least he injects his movies with some comic relief. Vice is unrelentlingly nasty, dark and bleak, and ultimately a bore.
Courier ((Karen Shakhnazarov, 1987)
Shakhnazarov based this on his novel of the same name. Hope the novel was better than the movie, which centres on the dilemmas of a young high school graduate working as a courier, who manages to charm his way through his days making socially inappropriate comments that somehow endear him to those he initially outrages. This movie is a love story that never gets off the ground, a social commentary that doesn’t say much, a coming of age story that doesn’t really get anywhere. There are some humorous moments that raise a chuckle, and some serious ones that mostly miss the mark, but in the end it’s all a bit pointless. For me, there was a sense of desperate hip about this – and the same might be said of most of the other Shakhnazarov movies that featured in the festival. I had the sense that he’s stuck on trying to prove he’s up with Western youth culture: to wit, the gratuitous breakdancing scene at the close of Courier. I have to say, I am not impressed by Shakhnazarov’s work, which I find undiscliplined and unfocused.
The Assassin Of The Tsar (Karen Shakhnazarov, 1993)
For some reason – and no good one, as far as I’m concerned – this is in English. Maybe Shakhnazarov was trying to pull off a crossover film that would put bums in seats in the West. Whatever, he didn’t succeed, and neither he should have. This is a garbled account of the 1918 assassination of Tzar Nikolay II and his family, told through the recollections of a mental patient who claims to be a reincarnation of the assassin. There are two narratives running in parallel – the story of the assassination, and that of the mental patient and his doctor. Neither works, and both are compromised by the parallel structure. In the end, you don’t care about either.
Zero City (Karen Shakhnazarov, 1988)
Despite an intriguing premise and some nice surreal touches, half way through this movie ends up at a dead end (literally and figuratively), and descends into unfunny, absurdist nonsense with silly rocknroll references. An irritating waste of time.
The Banishment (Andrei Zvyagintev, 2007)
I had high expectations of this one, based on some raves about an earlier Zvyagintev film, The Return. Unfortunately, The Banishment fell far short. I found this tediously slow and long, ponderous and indulgent – indeed, here we have an instance of the flip side of directorial freedom to which I referred earlier in this post. Hmm, if only it was an instance, rather than a drawn out 155 minutes.
Simple Things (Aleksei Popogrebsky, 2007)
A tedious account of a doctor going through a mid-life crisis. The only remarkable aspect of this film was its time-warp effect – the 110 minute running time seemed more like 300.
Some hits, some misses, but I’m very glad I had the opportunity to get up close and personal with Russian cinema.
A few concluding observations. Looking back over the festival films, more had urban than rural settings, but curiously for a bunch of contemporary films, the imagery that endures for me is of bleak countryside and rough rundown dwellings – and trains and railway stations, mostly outer-rural. Small peasant communities tended to be sympathetically, perhaps even nostalgically, depicted and characters in these settings were given colourful treatment, while urban life was portrayed as grey and cheerless. There were no shots of Moscow’s fabulous onion dome Byzantine architecture, and the urban scapes that were featured were generally souless, de-romanticised. It’s almost as if a Marxist spectre – albeit a benign one – still haunts Russian artistic consciousness. But that’s a long bow to draw from a baker’s dozen of Russian festival movies, I know.
A few things that are not contentious, though, that I learnt from these movies: Russians skull vodka straight, like tequila, but in much bigger glasses. They spoon down a hell of a lot of borscht. And every second female’s named Masha!
Other reviews and movie-related articles by Rolan Stein: