Wednesday, August 30, 2017

RUSSIAN MOVIES

The Russians are in the news with some frightening activities (Ukraine, Syria, Trump campaign, Magnitsky).  Dictators with egotistical power dreams can disrupt the world in very unhealthy ways.  This blog post is not meant to glorify the political powers, but to remind the rest of us that Russia has given the world a lot of top notch artists. well worth watching.

Russians seem to have a gloomy outlook on life, perhaps because of relatively short daylight and harsh climate.  They must have patience as their movies tend to be longer and bleaker.  They also seem more intellectual than others.  The quality of some of their movies is very high, but unfortunately it is difficult to gain access to them.  Over the years I have seen a few but am aware that for the most part they are not so easily available.

Lev Kulshev was involved in some early films, including covering the Russian Civil War 1918-20.  He turned to editing and was the first to theorize about how altering before and after a closeup shot of a person could alter our perception of the scene and his Kuleshuv effect has an ongoing presence.  He helped found the Moscow Film School in 1918.

Political supervision must effect the movies.  Often one is not aware of politicized movies in the western world, but every writer, director, producer has their own bias.  For the most part the Russian stories and characters are human with the usual foibles and heroisms we look for in cinema.

"Battleship Potemkin" (1925) is a silent film and was subject to censorship.  It had been edited extensively to satisfy censors in Germany.  Music had to be adapted after restoration and some violence deleted. Earlier film about  "Strike" (1925) before the Revolution. Eisenstein was born in Latvia and arrived in Russia in time to be involved in film on the Russian Civil War 1918-20.  He was educated an architect and was first used for set designs.  Both are well done and even innovative for the time.

"Alexander Nevsky" (1938)  also by Eisenstein was a propaganda film, but trying to demonstrate that Russians could stand against the Germans.  They fought against Teuton Knights, very formidable for their time, but in 1938 Sergei wanted to assure Russians they could stand up against the Germans--in subtitles at least the references are to Germans.  Sergei Prokofiev composed the music.  In 1939 it was withdrawn from distribution after the signing of the German-Soviet Pact.

Sergei Eisenstein traveled to Japan to pursue an interest in Kabuki theatre.  He was given a lot of freedom as he pleased Joseph Stalin in the beginning and worked in both the  U.S. and Mexico.  At other times he displeased Stalin.   "Alexander Nevsky" was an effort to placate Stalin.  In his early career he experimented with what came to be called a montage effect achieved by editing a series of short shots in a sequence to condense space, time and information.

"The Cranes Are Flying" (1957) is a story where lovers are split by war allowing a non combatant marrying the woman.  Won Cannes award for Mikhail Kaletazov, who directed, wrote and produced.  He had been a Soviet diplomat in Los Angeles and admired KingVidor and Vincent Minelli.  Mikhail also directed "Letter never sent" (1960) was a story set in Siberia with four geologists who meet a disastrous fire.

"Ballad of a Soldier" (1959) earned an Oscar best original script nomination for director Gregoriy Chukhray.  Westerners do not realize the Soviet Union suffered 30 million soldiers/citizen deaths during World War II.  This movie tells of a single soldier who we are told will not make it through the war and we cannot help but admire and like him as well as a girl he meets on the way back to see his mother.  It is considered one of the most effective anti-war films and is devoid of obvious Soviet propaganda.  It received an Oscar nomination for best script and did win a BAFTA award for best film from any source.  Gregoriy also directed "The Forty First" which won a special award at Cannes in 1957.

Andrei Tarkovsky can be introduced with a quote  "An artist never works under idea conditions.  If they existed, his work would not exist for the artist doesn't exist in a vacuum.  Some sort of pressure must exist.  The artist exists because the world is not perfect.  Art would be useless if the world was perfect as man would not look for harmony, but would simply live in it.  Art is born out of our ill designed world."

Andrei Tarkovsky's best movie "Andrei Rublev" (1969) was based on the the 15th century that included Tartar invasions and the development of theGreek Orthodox Church.  It was heavily censored dropping from the director cut of 205 minutes with an initial cut of 15 minutes and finally down to 145 minutes and finally restored many years later.  Originally Tarkovsky was given a lot of leeway under the leadership of Nikita Khrushev, but when he was replaced by Breznev the censorship increased.  It had been committed to the Cannes Festival, but to avoid attention it was aired at 4 am in the morning, nevertheless it won an award.  It is considered a master piece by many.

"Solarius" (1972) 167 min also had censorship problems.  It represented a diffeent approach to science fiction with less emphasis on on special effects and was more intellectual  It is considered one of the best science fiction movies of its time.  Natalya Bodnarchuk, daughter of Sergey Bodnarchuk, played the leading lady.

"The Mirror (1975) also ran into censor problems.  It is remembered partly because it was considered autobiographical of Tarkovskiy, considered one of the most important Soviet film makers.

"War and Peace" (1966) a little over 7 hours based on  a very intimidating book which most people think of with a complicated plot, but you should dig deeper as Leo Tolstoy was a philosopher using the depicted events to help explain his view of life and existence.  At a later date Tolstoy became a pacifist and influenced Gandhi.  Sergey Bondarchuk--director, lead actor and helped write the script  A leading lady was Lyudmila Saveleva also played in an Italian-Russian production with Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni..  War and Peace won the best foreign film Oscar and was also nominated for set design.

"Tchaikovsky" (1970), the biography of a musical legend involved Dmitri Tiomkin, well known American music composer. who served as executive producer.  He was nominated for the Oscar for best music scoring adaptation and original song score.   At 2 hours 37 minutes  the events of his life were covered, but only a few subtle hints that his homosexuality was a constant torment for him.

"Sibiriade" (1979) took on a mammoth task to cover the development of Siberia in 3 hours and 26 minutes.  Most of us outsiders, but also most Russians considered Siberia the backwoods where many are sent as punishment.  The movie carries through three generations using many of the same actors for the different generations.  The salvation of Siberia has been oil.  Farley Mowat wrote a book comparing Russian northern development to Canadian--"Sibir"  Siberiade was rewarded with the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes.


Andrey Konchalovskiy went on to direct several American films including two with Oscar nominees.  He wrote as well as directed including "Tango and Cash," and "Runaway Train."  While in the United States he also won and Emmy awardHe returned to Russia in the 1990's.  
In 2014 he won a best director award at the Venice International Film Festival.  He had also worked with Andrei Tarkovsky.  His "Dryado Vanya" is considered one of the best Russian films.  1979 lost film The First One

His brother Nikita Mikhailov was the lead actor in Sibiriade  In his own right Nikita was
an accomplished director, writer and producer.  A movie that he wrote, directed, produced and acted in, "Burnt Skin" (1994) won Oscar as best foreign film.  He won other awards at Cannes and Venice.  "12" was another Oscar nomination that Nikita wrote, directed, produced and acted in.  One twist on this movie loosely based on "Twelve Angry Men" was that the accused was a Chechen Muslim who generated some prejudice.

"Russian Ark" (2002) might be described as an artistic film as it goes through the Hermitage in St Petersburg with an amazing range of art treasures and creates little historical vignettes.  What is really unique about this film is for over 90 minutes it is just one take.  A German cinematographer, Tilman Buttner was hired for the daunting task.

"The Return" (2003) "Elena" (2011) and "Leviathan" (2014) were all directed and written by Andrey Zvyagintsev who won a Cannes Jury prize and an award at the Sundance Festival as well as Oscar nomination for "Leviathan."  Leviathan had one scene where one actor was to play a drunk, but ironically he was the only one sober in the scene.  The director felt he preferred real drunks to acting.

"How I ended this summer" (2010) filmed on a remote Arctic island--two men--young vs older--beauty of the Arctic.  It is very psychological with sparse dialogue and with stunning cinematography.  The two principle actors, Grigoriy Dobrygin and Sergey Puskepat? shared best acting award at the Berlin Film Festibal.  Gregoriy has been in a few English movies, including "A Most Wanted Man" where he played a Checken on the run from terrorists.  The cinematographer, Pavel Kostonarov, for this film was awarded Most Artistic Achievement at the Berlin Film Festival and has also written, directed and produced short films.  Aleksey Popogrebskiy wrote and directed this movie that is well worth seeing.

"The Vanished Empire" (2008) depicts young adults chasing after Western culture and get entangled in a love triangle.  Directed and produced by Karen Shakhnavarov.

Anton Chekhov wrote a number of stories that have been adapted for the theatre and film around the world such as "Uncle Vanya" which had several versions, but I was only able to watch an English tv version with Anthony Hopkins.  "The Lady with a Dog" (1960 was concerned with a frustrated couple committing adultery because of unhappy marriages.

"Ward no 6" (2009) based on Chekov short story in which a psychiatrist becomes inmate in his previous ward.  He has philosophical talks with intelligent inmate.  Produced by Karen Shakhnavarov

Another great writer who has contributed to world cinema was Nikolai Gogol, who was actually Ukrainian and died in 1898.  Forbidden to write in his native tongue he was a well accepted in Russian.  Many of his books and short stories have been the basis for movies.  Some English language examples are "Inspector General" with Danny Kaye and "Taras Bulba" with Tony Curtis that I saw as a young boy.  Two other noteworthy movies in different languages were "the Overcoat" and "The Forty First."  "The Namesake" was an American-Bollywood film that referred to Gogol in the title.  The parent of the protagonist once survived a train crash holding onto a book by Gogal and decided to name his first born Gogol.  A very enjoyable movie.

"Silent Souls" (2010) is  a love story after the death of the wife with flashbacks, but also reverence given for death rituals. The two lovers were not glamorous emphasizing the beauty of true love.   Won some awards at the Venice Film Festival.

No comedies found in my search.  The closest was "Bury me behind the baseboard" (2009) based on a biographical novel by Pavel Sanaev who himself is noted as a script writer, and director .    The book apparently had lots of humour and not having read the book I thought the film did in fact have some humour using exaggerations (of apparently real events).

"Crime and Punishment" (2007 )was one of the difficult reads for me, but mind boggling, the way Fyodor Doestoevski could get inside the mind.  The only Russian version I could get was a tv mini series (416 minutes spread over 8 episodes).  One of the most classic cat and mouse games with a police inspector angling to get a confession from the protagonist.  Well done.

"My Joy" (2010) belied its title as a story of corruption and violence.  Missed a line where one character is killed for suggesting Ukraine might have been better off if Christian Nazis had won.  What did catch my eye is the director/Writer, Sergei Loznitsa directed "Maidan" about the Ukrainian revolt of 2013/14 from peaceful protest to violence.  Sergei was born and raised in Ukraine, graduating as a scientist/mathematician with an interest in artificial intelligence.  He subsequently studied film in Russia and had been involved in a number of Russian movies.

"Stalingrad" (2013) critized as not really being the story of the famous battle.  It really is a segment in the middle.  Tries to show Germans as humans.  A romance (really two), but mainly demonstrating Russian resilience, something Americans overlook in their assumption they won the war.

"Pussy Riot:  a Punk Prayer" (2013) really gets into modern protests.  It was produced and directed by Mike Lerner, a documentary maker who has worked with BBC and PBS and Maxim Pozdorovkin, Russian born, Harvard educated.  It astonishing how much access they were allowed, including the three members of the Pussy Riot and their parents, Vladiimir Putin, and the prosecuting attorney. --Not a secret, but I had been unaware that Putin is aligning himself with the Russian Orthodox church.  The film follows from the obscenity charge up to an appeal with flashbacks.  There is some explicit sex acts depicted as part of an art exhibit.


Russia has always felt a bit of an outsider in Europe, but has indeed contributed to European culture and even world culture.  If we could only get along better with them they would contribute even more.  Unfortunately Russia has fallen back into a dictatorship and have tried to influence European and American elections for their own greedy desperate ends.  But we can appreciate their technical skills and psychological understanding.

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