Oct 022008

I’m finally getting back to watching and blogging movies some more. I started this TV movie back in August, and just now watched segments up to the end of part 3.

It’s quite good, and it’s making me take back some of what I said about portrayals of the police in Soviet-era cops ‘n robbers shows. I’ve often explained how, in Brilliantovaya Ruka and others, the police are portrayed as omniscient and virtuous. Vokzal dlya dvoikh is a slight exception, but that one isn’t a cops ‘n robbers show.

Mesto Vstreachi is interesting in that it shows conflicts, corruption, befuddlement and interesting personalities within a criminal investigating unit. And there was one segment where the two main characters were disagreeing about due process — whether it was right for the police to commit crimes to trap the bad guys.

I’m eager to see how that turns out.

There’s a lot more to the movie than that, but that’s all I’ll mention, at least for now.

[slight edits to fix brain vs typing finger mismatches]

Jan 212008

As a public service, I should make a database that categorizes Russian movies in useful and important ways:

Proto-bolshevik revolutionary — In pre-revolutionary Russia, there is the odd character who tinkers with explosives, befriends a youngster, is arrested and beaten by the police, and perhaps has some noble words about truth for the youngster to remember as he is hauled away.

  • The Childhood of Maxim Gorky
  • Siberiade
  • (One movie recently seen on RTR-Planeta that had three of them who conducted some caper on behalf of the motherland and were then hauled away to be executed by the ungrateful czarist government.)
  • Andrei Rublev — The setting is somewhere around 1400. In this case it’s Rolan Bykov as a dangerous jester rather than an explosive maker. He gets beat up by the police, like the others, but his words of wisdom are in his jokes.

Revolutionary man scorns woman — Beautiful young woman tries to seduce/charm a man who ignores her so as not to get distracted from his revolutionary mission.

  • In one movie I saw on RTR-Planeta, the guy politely ignored the advances of the young woman who somehow ended up in the camp of revolutionaries, but took interest when it turned out she was an excellent shot with a handgun.
  • In the RTR-Planeta movie with the three-musketeer types, one of the three resists the advances of a beautiful woman who undresses in his hideaway before realizing he is there, too. She wants to be kissed; his facial expression says no; he goes on to complete his mission.

Indoor chairs used outdoors

  • Moscow does not believe in tears
  • Unfinished piece for player piano
  • Vodka Lemon (not a Russian movie, but some Russian is spoken)

Nikita Mikhalkov in a tanktop – (He seems to favor horizontal stripes)

  • Railway Station for Two
  • Burnt by the Sun
  • Siberiade

Tonight as we were watching Siberiade , Mikhalkov appeared once again in that tanktop with horizontal stripes. That’s what motivated me to finally start compiling this list.

Jan 172008

It’s at least two years ago that I started watching Russian Internet TV — mostly RTR Planeta. I watch it in spurts. There are weeks or months at a time when I just don’t have time or there is too much network congestion.

It seems there have been some changes since I started. The female news anchors/program hosts smile now. Back then, I remarked on how they seemed to be all business — though just as they signed off they might give a very quick, almost shy smile.

I remember reading some time ago about how Russians just didn’t smile as much as Americans. In fact one American business that went to Russia had to teach the employees how to smile at customers. It wasn’t natural for them.

But now it seems natural enough for them. The males, too, are more smiley than I remember back then. Some of the female hosts are flirty and sometimes even giggly now.

So where did this change come from? Or is it just my imagination? (It seems there are fewer instances of female hosts wearing dresses with shoulder pads now, too.)

One thing that hasn’t changed is the ubiquitous notebook computers. Every program host/anchor seems to have a notebook computer in front of him/her (and a little to one side) though I’m not sure what for.

It would seem to me that there is a lot less to smile about in Russia these days (if you don’t count the material prosperity) but maybe that has nothing to do with it.

Dec 242007

Several months ago I was asking about bicycle touring in Russia. Someone on the phred bicycle touring list said drivers there tend to be careful because nobody has insurance.

It’s an interesting idea. Here’s another one along those lines, posted over at Cafe Hayek:

My George Mason University colleague Gordon Tullock famously remarked that the best way for government to reduce the number of traffic fatalities is for it to mandate that a sharp steel dagger be mounted on the steering column of each vehicle and pointed directly at each driver’s heart. Forget about all other regulations and mandates; that dagger will ensure safe driving.

I don’t know if the Russian example is true, though. There are plenty of Russian traffic accident videos on youtube, and I see traffic accident coverage when I watch the news on RTR Planeta. And then there is the 1982 movie, Vokzal dlya Dvoikh, in which we learn that the penalty for accidentally running over a pedestrian on a dark night was three years in a nice Siberian gulag. It doesn’t make it sound like traffic accidents are unheard of.

Still, I think the main danger would be getting Putinized. I’d still very much like to go touring there, though.

Dec 182007

Here’s a BBC article about “Russia’s deep suspicions of the west“.

The author, Rupert Wingfield Hayes, seemed to find that the Cyrillic highway signs made Russia unfriendly for foreign tourists. I’m not quite sure what he expects. If I ever got to do the bicycle tour in Russia that I’d like to do, I really wouldn’t care to have English language signs as a crutch. If I want to read highway signs in English, I can do that at home. I don’t need foreign travel for that.

He also makes some other points that make it sound like Russia still is as inward-looking as it was before the time of Peter the Great, or at least that it is turning back to those days. He talks about the hostility to foreign investment and the shutting down of the British Council centres in Russia.

I can’t say I like this hostility. Sometimes on weekend evenings I watch the standup comedians on RTR Planeta. I can understand hardly anything of what they’re saying, much less “get” the jokes, but one thing I do note is that an inordinate amount of time is spent making fun of America and Americans.

Russian comedy skits about Americans? Yes. When’s the last time you saw an American comedy skit making fun of the foibles of Russians?

And as far as Russia being inward-directed, it should be noted that an ubiquitous symbol is still the Foreign Ministry building in Moscow. You’ll see it on every Mosfilm DVD and you see it as a background on the news programs. Seems to me Russia has more than itself on its mind.

Dec 092007

Every once in a while I try to watch whatever is on RTR-Planeta to get a dose of Russian. Every once in an even greater while the internet is uncongested enough that I can watch a non-news program.

After one one of those rare occasions a few weeks ago I told my wife I had seen a show that looked like our old TV westerns. It started with a young family traveling by horse-drawn wagon across a dry wilderness, the man with gun walking alongside the wagon until he was captured by some of the natives. We joked that it should probably be called an “eastern” instead of a western.

It turns out that that’s exactly what they’re called. Over at Arts & Letters Daily I found this article from the New Statesman about Soviet cowboy movies.

What Brezhnev and the rest of the Politburo really wanted, however, was a home-grown product. So the Committee of Cinematography ordered screenwriters to create Soviet supermen who would gallop faster and pull the trigger quicker than the hero of any western. White Sun (1969) was the first big hit, paving the way for a genre of “easterns”. In some films, the backdrop is the steppes or Siberia. The Ural Mountains stand in for Monument Valley, the Volga replaces the Rio Grande and the heroes sport civil war-style budyonovka hats or fur-lined shapkas instead of Stetsons.

And I didn’t know until now that that type of cap, like the one worn by the officers guarding Gary Kasparov at his showtrial, was called a shapka (or ushanka). My father had one in the 50s when we lived in North Dakota. In fact, my brother and I had caps somewhat like that when we were kiddies, though I think they had a small brim rather than the fur on the front — and just fake fur on the earflaps, probably. Once parkas came into fashion we didn’t wear caps like that anymore.

The ones worn by the gulag prisoners in the movie Vokzal dlya Dvoikh are not nearly as thick and luxurious looking as the ones worn by the officers. And theirs are worn with the flaps down.

Sep 042007

Interesting closing paragraph to a WSJ article about the new Museum of the Soviet Occupation in Georgia:

The story goes that Vladimir Putin considered the display highly provocative and asked President Saakashvili why Georgia would do such a thing. After all, the most prominent butchers were themselves Georgian, such as Stalin and Beria. Mr. Saakashvili responded that the Russians were free to open a museum about how Georgia had oppressed them. The Georgian no doubt knew well that such an exhibition would offend his menacing northern neighbor with a former KGB officer at its helm, but he went ahead anyway. Perhaps he calculated that it was the best way to stop any of it from happening again.

Which reminds me, well over a year ago I used to see some interesting movies on RTR Planeta about the bad old days of Stalin and his executions. I seldom get to watch that station on the internet anymore, but sometimes I do. I wonder if Putin still allows that kind of thing to be shown any more.