Aug 022008

In keeping with my policy of making superficial comments in this blog, I need to ask, why this movie convention of portraying a babe in arms as some stiff-as-a-board object covered up in baby blankets? The above scene is from the wonderful musical film, Obyknovennoye chudo, but I can’t think of a Russian movie that doesn’t portray babies this way. There may have been an attempt in Komissar to depart briefly from this convention. But even there, the mother is holding some lightweight object that certainly doesn’t have the heft of an actual baby, nor does it have the flexibility and fragility of one.

There is a scene in Brilliantovaya Ruka that parodied this convention, so I don’t think it’s only outsiders who notice.

What do they actually wrap up in those blankets? A stick of styrofoam? Balsa wood?

Aside from the babies, it’s too bad that the subtitles go away for a while in this YouTube segment, just at a point where there seems to be an important explanation that would help make such sense of it as can be made. I can understand a few words of what is being said, but not enough to catch the meaning.

Even without that, I am coming to view Obyknovennoye chudo as one of the great movies. There are stories within stories and well-done acting and musical touches that make it good for repeated watching. There is more to learn and appreciate each time.

Jul 252008

I haven’t found any good obituaries in U.S. newspapers for Nonna Mordukova, who died earlier this month. The one in the Washington Post pointed out that she appeared in some government propaganda films: “Throughout a career that spanned half a century, Ms. Mordyukova appeared in dozens of films, including some textbook examples of Soviet propaganda.”

Well, everyone knows that there were a lot of Soviet propaganda films. But what was surprising to me when I started watching Russian movies was the parts that were subversive of Soviet propaganda, including three roles I can think of that were played by Nonna Mordyukova. If the Post wanted to talk about the political aspects of her work, it should have made that point. These are in three films that are readily available to U.S. viewers via Netflix.

In Vokzal dlya Dvoikh she played the part of an “uncle” who gave an entertaining little lecture on the virtues of private property and free enterprise. I’ve never seen anything like that in a popular U.S. film. In Brilliantovaya Ruka she played the part of a meddlesome building superintendent — in a way that provided social commentary which I suspect was not comforting to all the authorities. And the biggest role was of course as the Commissar in Komissar — a film that was suppressed for 20 years and which even under glasnost was released with extreme reluctance, seeing the light of day only thanks to outside pressure. In an interview, the director Alexandr Askoldov pointed out that even today it is rarely seen in Russia. Nonna Mordukova was one of the actors who interceded on his behalf at the time when the film was suppressed, when Askoldev was facing the possibility of a fate worse than that of being kicked out of the Party and of being prohibited from directing more films (which is what did happen to him).

It’s not that Mordyukova was a political dissident. As far as I know she wasn’t anything of the kind. She even seems to have preferred that Askoldov give in to the censors on the parts of the film that he refused to edit out. (You can see this on the Komissar DVD that contains “extra” material.) But she played a role in conflicts that we would do well to know about.

Here is a page about Mordyukova that gives better information about her work:

Komissar is an interesting case. Most web pages that talk about her work mention her big role in Komissar. But I have found Russian sites that tell about her career without mentioning that film. Same for Rolan Bykov, who played the male lead (see clip below). There are Russian web sites that tell all about his work, except for their silence about that movie.

And now I’ve learned that Komissar is still censored, even at Netflix. The clip below includes several minutes that were not on the one we got from Netflix. I am suspicious of why they were removed, because it seems they are important in leading up to the famous Holocaust scene that got Askoldov in such big trouble. Maybe the producers didn’t want to touch the Turkey-Armenia genocide issue, which is mentioned in this clip. But there are also parts that seem important in developing the character played by Mordyukova — in which she explains some of her views on war service and the political aspects of the wars.

25-Jul Slight edits to remove awarkdness, I hope

Mar 182008

Anne Applebaum talks about the gulag criminals’ slang, saying it was “so distinct from ordinary Russian that it almost qualifies as a separate language.”

I wonder if an echo of that jargon is in the movie Dzhentlmeny udachi (Gentlemen of Fortune, 1971). Applebaum’s book emphasises the 30s, 40s, and early 50s. The gulags were definitely gentler by 1971. But I wonder how much of that movie had gulag connotations for Russian viewers.

In Gentlemen of Fortune, the main character (played by Yevgeny Leonov) is a kindhearted kindergarten teacher who is recruited to impersonate a murderous criminal to whom he bears a physical resemblance. It’s so he can help the police find out where the stolen gold was hidden.

It’s a comedy, and it can be seen on YouTube, with English subtitles. Although he impersonates the tough guy complete with tattoos and scars, he can’t help but try to teach his criminal gang some good manners and getting them to straighten up their lives.

Like at one point in the movie (segment 4 of 9) he breaks up a fight and then tells the guys they shouldn’t use jargon. Is he referring to this same kind of talk that Anne Applebaum is referring to? I don’t know enough Russian to recognize it myself.

But there are other gulag references. At one point in one of the later segments, he has the gang playing word games on New Year’s Eve. One of them says Vorkuta, and he asks why Vorkuta. He had served a term there. Even before reading Applebaum’s book, I recognized Vorkuta as the far-north site of one of the nastier gulags.

As I’ve been thinking about it, I’ve come to realize that there are quite a few gulag references in the Russian movies I’ve watched. One of them I’ll save for later, but there is a scene in another comedy, Brilliantovaya Ruka (The Diamond Arm) in which the bad guys are at a restaurant table, and a passing stranger at the table with them says they ought to come visit him in Siberia. He meant it innocently, but they almost shudder at the idea, as criminals would have good reason to do.

Aug 312007

Maybe I didn’t give Brilliantovaya ruka quite enough credit. I only gave it a Netflix rating of 3, but there is an interesting part played by Nonna Modryukova.

It took me a while to remember where I had seen her before. She was the Komissar in the movie Komissar, and did a great job in that film. Some googling informed me that she had also been in the film Vokzal dlya Dvoikh. Of course. Now I remember. She was the “Uncle” who gave that subversive little talk about the virtues of private property and private enterprise.

In this film she plays a “house manager”, where she is a busybody pest who minds other peoples’ business, looks out for residents who are living beyond their means, and puts up public denunciations of people who don’t live properly (in the form of signs posted in front of the buildings where they live). Is she a parody of a type of character who was extant in Russia in 1968? I don’t know, but wish I understood more of how that worked.

I previously said the movie managed to show the police and other authorities as noble, virtuous people — very competent at what they were doing, and almost omniscient. It’s kind of hard to make a comedy/James Bond-type movie if you have to play the cops that way. But if this house manager was an authority figure, then we can say that not all authority figures were portrayed sympathetically. (Her response to the statement that a dog is a man’s best friend. “Man’s best friend is the superintendent.” I presume that’s another term for her character’s job.)

Was this part of the movie a bit subversive for 1968? I don’t know. But it’s fun trying to learn about things like that. I do know that I’ve enjoyed watching Nonna Mordyukova every time I’ve seen her so far.

I’m not sure if she is still alive or not. I saw one news item from a couple of years ago that suggested she was in bad health then.

Aug 262007

Tonight we finished watching the 1968 film, The Diamond Arm.

So how does one make a comedy film about a diamond smuggling ring, complete with slapstick, but in which the police and other authorities all are competent, virtuous and likable people? Believe it or not, it can be done! If you were a filmmaker in Soviet Russia in 1968, you could find a way to do it.

Netflix has this description:

One of the most beloved Russian comedies, this eccentric farce from celebrated director Leonid Gaidai — based on a true story he read in the newspaper — concerns a criminal operation that smuggles gold and diamonds inside a plaster arm cast. Modest economist Semyon Gorbunkov and a swindler named The Count embark on a wild series of smuggling adventures peppered with comic dialogue that spawned several popular catchphrases.

I don’t think it will be one the most beloved comedies for my wife and me, but it was interesting to watch, just the same. One reason was to see how they could manage humor without hitting any sacred cows.

It was also a good movie for sometimes giving me the impression that my Russian is coming along nicely. There were places where I could anticipate what was being said, or where I could tell that the subtitles were definitely not a literal translation. But I missed a lot, too. There were plenty of places where I understood nothing.

One Netflix reviewer, possibly someone from Russia, said:

This is one of the best russian musical comedies. Gaidai is at his best poking fun at soviet propaganda, that was fed to people going to foreign country.

I don’t think I caught much of that poking of fun. So maybe my Russian learning has a long ways to go. I guess I know where a little of that fun was, but for social commentary this was definitely nothing like Eldar Ryasanov’s films.