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The history of Soviet film sometimes paralleled that of the State: first, wild youthful experimentation of Eisenstein and Dovzhenko gave way to full-length agriculture commercials and stolid statesmen bios. Then, in a splash commonly labeled as The Thaw, the hibernating talent reached for the forbidden fruit. The Thaw is of interest for purely sociological reasons: Soviet filmmakers could merely hint that things had never been that great (The Cranes Are Flying, The Ballad of a Soldier); isolated from international avant-garde, they failed to come up with memorable artistic product.
Brezhnev’s era is marked by a combination of centrifugal and centripedal forces. On the one hand, the filmmakers, emboldened by nascent international recognition, became more daring; on the other, the Soviet cultural mikados embraced the regime’s stagnation mood with a vengeance and blocked projects right and left. An interesting situation evolved, in a way reminiscent of that in the West: the general distribution grew more mass-oriented (and dumbed-down), but a few movies were made – though hardly shown nationally -- that approached international standards. More importantly, many filmmakers who cut their teeth on Film Committee censorship went on to successful international careers. It would be instructive to pick a handful of these films (all available from Kino International) to see why they are important and why they, in a sense, represent a golden moment in film history that will never come again.
Each of the four films in Kino's "Masterworks of Soviet Cinema" series represents a highly individual, strikingly different artistic vision. They vary wildly in their aesthetics and their commercial appeal. We can toss a coin and settle for the commercial spectrum. Then we can start with Siberiade, as the most commercial of the four, and move down (or up) to The Color of Pomegranates as one guaranteed to have infinitesimal distribution at any time or place.
God and the reader will forgive me for casting aspersions, but, at almost four hours long, Siberiade should have been a miniseries. I cannot get rid of the thought that the creation of the Siberiade (released in 1979) is traceable to Rich Man, Poor Man (shown by ABC in 1976). Director Andrei Konchalovsky’s previous film, Asya the Gimp (Who Almost Got Married, etc.), was a well-drawn social comedy, brutally shelved by the authorities for lack of Socialist-realist cheerfulness, rather than for its aesthetic daring.
Then, that’s what Siberiade is: a solid multi-generational saga of two peasant families, the rich Solomins and the poor Ustyuzhanins. These lusty towheads love and hate each other, intermarry and interkill – basic human instincts that Konchalovsky, as a Russian, had to dress up as Big Social Issues: first Communism, then Ecology (though the latter, absurdly enough, takes the form of preferring oil-drilling to building a giant power station: at least the former would keep the village intact). Historical truth is beside the point here: maneuvering his hulk of a movie past censors, Konchalovsky had to give the Bolsheviks the edge; but at least he humanized them, endowing them with foibles and shortcomings – especially the part of the oil roustabout, an amiable skirt-chaser played to the hilt by his kid brother Nikita Mikhalkov.
All in all, it is a well-played, lushly photographed, extremely entertaining melodrama, best taken in smaller portions. I almost wrote, "shot on the first Soviet megabudget", but then I recalled that megabudgets had been a hallmark of Soviet filmmaking: War and Peace, Liberation of Europe, etc. (In fact, no one will ever know how much those mastodons cost: like Soviet military costs, these budgets were spread throughout the economy, with Soviet soldiers used as free extras.) Let me, then, amend it: the first non-war-film megabudget. Surely someone in Hollywood recognized Konchalovsky’s de Millean talents as he went on to become the only Soviet director to score big-time in America (e.g., The Runaway Train and Tango and Cash). Not many art-film directors are hired to direct Stallone.
In view of the Russians’ awed respect for their classics, Nikita Mikhalkov’s Oblomov was as ambitious an enterprise as Siberiade (both were released in 1979). Although Ivan Goncharov, the book’s author, lacks the world stature of Tolstoy or Chekhov, this is one novel that is definitely a part of Russian cultural heritage. No Russian will deny that Goncharov "got it," and that, for better or worse, the story of a man who wishes to stay in bed is a bull’s-eye shot, key to understanding the national character.
By 1979, Mikhalkov had already made his name as a top-ranked filmmaker, both as an actor and as a director. To the dacha born (his father had penned the lyrics to the Soviet state anthem), he had never had to struggle hard for acceptance. Mikhalkov’s success does not mean that he obediently toed the line; rather, his disagreement with the regime took a different tack. After 1991, Mikhalkov has been spouting endlessly about his noble lineage, posing in front of a richly appointed collage of his genealogical tree. Well, to each his own, and by the ‘70s the nationalist sentiment in the Soviet Union had reached a level that voicing such ambitions and, in a sense, thumbing one’s nose at the arrivisme of Bolsheviks, was less risky than in the internationalist ‘20s. I could go on about how, if taken to extremes, Mikhalkov’s nationalism could reveal a less noble side – but, to the best of my knowledge, he has not been overheard making bold anti-Semitic statements, so I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.
One needs to have this context to appreciate Mikhalkov’s all-out effort to present his hero, beautifully played by Oleg Tabakov, one of Russia’s top stage directors, in the most sympathetic light imaginable. Yes, Oblomov is a sloth par excellence; but how sensitive, how lovable, how all-too-human!… And how much more adorable than his best friend Andrei Stoltz, the disciplined, business-like forerunner of a California executive (down to his vegetarian diet and obsession with exercise). But of course! Oblomov is Russian, after all; Stoltz, though Russified, is still German. There you go.
Perhaps Goncharov lived too early (mid-19th century) to create characters like Dostoyevsky’s merchants, both crazy-Russian and Western-practical, or Chekhov’s Lopakhin (The Cherry Orchard), a perfect capitalist and completely Russian. Or perhaps Goncharov was just not good enough.
Mikhalkov preserved all of this from the novel. He was smart enough to keep the broad comedy, like the inimitable comic exchanges between Oblomov and his servant Zakhar; and he did not shy away from incisive satire in the scenes from dormant village life. But he also dressed the Russian past in a rich golden glow and, in a way, made it into his own Childhood Land. I could bet that the summer house, the realm of sun and dust and verdant vistas where little Ilya Oblomov roams barefoot in the film’s dream sequences, is the same one where Mikhalkov’s recent Oscar-winning Burnt by the Sun was shot. I got the feeling that whatever Mikhalkov does, he wants to retire into his silver-spoon childhood, and stories like Oblomov’s or General Kotov’s (in Burnt) are a mere pretext.
Both Siberiade and Oblomov are relatively straight films, and it would take a tenure-starved graduate student to view them as texts. The situation is less clear with The Mirror (1974), made by the late Andrei Tarkovsky, who is considered by some to be the best Soviet postwar director – certainly the one with the highest name recognition in the international film community.
No matter how Tarkovsky fights accusations of surrealism, none of his films, from Ivan’s Childhood to Sacrifice, is an easy popcorn-and-Coke romp. Resolutely un-linear, striking to look at, replete with multi-layered meanings, they demand utmost concentration from the viewer. So tightly packed they are with metaphors, both verbal and visual, that I always thought of them as poetry realized by filmic means.
In that sense, The Mirror can be regarded as quintessential Tarkovsky, since it is directly based on his father Arseny’s poetry, read in a voiceover. It shares some territory with Oblomov in that it visits the author’s childhood; Tarkovsky’s is less idealized than Mikhalkov’s, but far more intense and haunting. Again, it is not easy to read: the protagonist delivers most of his lines off-screen and appears only episodically, and Tarkovsky cast the same actress, Margarita Terekhova, as the hero’s mother and wife (though, as if to help the viewer, the screenplay makes a big deal of their resemblance). But the poetry merges organically with the sometimes bleak, sometimes lush, but always rainy, landscape, familiar to fans of The Stalker, his well-known dystopia.
Although, as I mentioned, The Mirror may take an effort, it is an ultimately rewarding experience. Part of the reason is that, unlike some internationally acclaimed "artsy" filmmakers, Tarkovsky is always cognizant of his audience and anchors the film in reality by cleverly interlaying dreamy sequences with crushingly realistic ones. In one, the hero’s mother, a proofreader at a printing house, rushes through the night and the rain to her office, afraid she had overlooked a typo. Oof… no typo… now, one would expect the character to kick back and relax. But, always surprising, Tarkovsky follows up with a verbally violent, seemingly baseless row between the heroine and a co-worker. This reveals tensions and stress you can’t shake off with a simple "attitude adjustment". Although the typo itself is never revealed, the raw emotional power of the scene leaves the viewer with a more profound insight into understanding of life under Stalin than many historical volumes ever will.
Neither Siberiade nor Oblomov played widely in Russia, but at least they were not banned. Tarkovsky had a much stormier relationship with "the bosses". The adorable feature of a totalitarian regime lies in denying a serious artist the right to stay out of politics. (One can argue if liberal Hollywood has fared any better.) Although Tarkovsky was never a political dissident, neither was he a propagandist or an easy-pleasing commercial filmmaker: the obtuse Party secretaries had no idea what his movies were about, and how could they possibly allow something they did not understand?
Had it not been for Tarkovsky’s international reputation and the Communists’ yearning to be considered a cultural superpower, it is doubtful he would have been allowed to make films at all. Only his first movie, Ivan’s Childhood, gained a decent national distribution; from Andrei Rublev on, his films were withheld from broad Soviet audiences.
On the other hand, there is no indication that the audiences would have gone berserk over something so difficult. Once the walls came down, they voted for Hollywood with their wallets. But compared to Sergei Paradjanov, a maverick Armenian-born director of The Color of Pomegranates, the biography of medieval Armenian poet Sayat-Nova, Tarkovsky was sheer Spielberg in terms of accessibility.
The same goes for his off-screen life: Tarkovsky got a red-carpet treatment from the authorities, compared to Paradjanov. I have no idea why the poor man was positively haunted by the Communists. They went out of their way to prevent him from making movies, going as far as jailing him for "immoral acts" (read: homosexuality) and such trumped-up charges as dealing in icons and even "incitement to suicide". Once again, without the international community’s pressure he might have rotted away in jail. As it were, he died broke and unable to complete most of his projects. Perhaps what I said above concerning the Communists’ inability to allow something they could not understand applied to his work hundredfold. I would have dearly loved to have been a fly on the wall when this colorful work was presented to the State Film Committee for their stamp of approval.
Paradjanov made zero concessions to the audience. The Color of Pomegranates is, strictly speaking, not a feature film at all; it is a wild, vibrant celebration of Armenian culture -- dance, music, art, architecture, all highly stylized. It is what we nowadays call a multimedia work, a dialogue-less, plotless meditation inspired by Sayat-Nova’s poetry, recited off-screen. And insofar as it was a celebration of Armenian culture, it was anathema to the Soviets. For them, nationalism was one of greatest bugaboos, never mind that Paradjanov was as passionate about Georgian culture, with which he had grown up, or Ukrainian – the homage to the latter, The Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, won great international acclaim and put Paradjanov on the map.
There we have it: four films that represent some of the best cinema of the so-called "stagnation" period. Of the four directors, only two are alive. Nikita Mikhalkov (Oblomov) has fared the best, with a best Foreign Film Oscar for Burnt by the Sun, and a new epic, The Barber of Siberia, soon to open. His elder brother, Andrei Konchalovsky (Siberiade), has not done too badly, both commercially (made-for-TV Odyssey) and artistically (Chicken Ryaba, too Russian to be distributed in the US).
Like their Western counterparts, modern-day young Russian directors come from computer games and jeans commercials, and the opposition they encounter comes from marketing directors, who wear better-cut suits than Party Secretaries. Critics will argue forever which agon is more conducive to creating art. But there is no answer. All we know is that these four films were made in the strangest of times, which will never happen again.
Oblomov, The Color of Pomegranates, The Mirror, and Siberiade are now available from Kino on Video. Suggested retail price: $29.95 each. For additional information, check out the Kino On Video Web site.