Aug 102009

There is an amazing article by Josh Levin at “How is America Going to End? Five steps to totalitarian rule.” It makes a lot of good points, even going to the trouble of pointing out FDR’s authoritarian tendencies and abuses of power during the 1930s.

The truly amazing part is how it managed to put out so many words without once mentioning Barak Obama’s actions in the direction of totalitarianism. It mentions Bush & Cheney quite a bit, and gives a fairly balanced account of what they did and didn’t do in the totalitarian direction. Richard Nixon gets a mention. But there is not a word about Barak Obama’s new detention policies that go farther than Bush’s ever did, or his politicization of the Justice Department, or his takeovers and attempted takeovers of various sectors of our economy, or his intolerance of dissenting viewpoints.

How could anyone who is not a partisan hack write such an otherwise balanced account without mentioning our current President, I wondered.

Then I got to thinking that it’s not so unusual after all. Slate is well known as a leftwing magazine. Young leftwingers are not very tolerant these days. If Levin wants to be able to be allowed to work, breed, and not have others treat him like a pariah, it’s probably not something he dares to talk about directly. He needs to talk in parables and circumlocutions to get his point across.


It’s not unlike in movies made in Soviet Russia. In those I’ve seen there is (to me, at least) a surprising amount of social commentary that would probably not have got past the censors if they had discussed the topics directly. So a comedy like Kin-Dza-Dza could be criticial of a government infested with bribe-takers and abusers of power — if the action took place on another planet.

That movie is probably not the greatest example, because Kin-Dza-Dza was released in 1986 when the Soviet Union was already much more open than it had been previously. But I happen to have the movie handy, including the above part where our heroes have just reached the point when they cannot take it anymore and have decided to fight back, starting by taking down the police officer who is helping himself to bribes.

Tarkovsky’s Solaris is probably a better example. It came out in 1972, a very different time, and it, too, got by with a lot by putting the setting on another planet. That way any messages wouldn’t strike too close to home.


Another example is in the 1973 TV series that Myra and I are currently watching: “Seventeen Moments in Spring”, which takes place in Nazi Germany. The English subtitles for the narrator for Göring’s words at the point of the above screenshot say, “Our concentration camps are humane instruments to save the enemies of national-socialism. If we don’t put them in camps, there will be a mob law. In such way, they’ll be completely reformed and realize our rightness”. Even in 1973 it was probably easier and more effective to talk about that than about the GULAG system of corrective labor from the same World War II period, which had very similar methods and purposes.

I’m not sure if the movie was really intended as social commentary, though. So far what I’ve seen of it is a very patriotic movie that doesn’t seem to be getting in digs at problems that include the producers’ own country. But I wonder if a viewer, perhaps living in the same household with former inmates from the GULAG, could help but think about how their own country once did such things, too.

This sort of indirect system of social commentary is of course not just a feature of Soviet Russia. Authors and producers in other countries have sometimes had to approach issues indirectly, too. And if you consider the type of people who usually read Slate, it’s probably something that happens in our country, too. The Josh Levin article may very well be an example.

Late note:  Also cross-posted to The Reticulator

Aug 182008

The conflict in Georgia got me thinking about Russian movies that feature Georgians. Are there any insights to be gained about Russian attitudes towards the people?

Mimino is a big one. The main character is Georgian. He is played as a good-hearted country bumpkin — he talks loudly on the phone, is quick-tempered, carries on an honorable feud, and is an all-around good guy. But now I wonder how the Georgians feel about this movie. The Georgian characters are treated sympathetically. Or is it condescension? It can be hard to tell the two apart in my own culture, so I wouldn’t dare to say how it comes across to someone else. Regardless, I thought it was a great movie.

There are a lot of other movies that deal with the Caucasus, but I don’t know if the Caucasians in them are Georgians. For example, there is “Kidnapping, Caucasion Style.” Those people in it — are they Georgians? And are the filmmakers having fun by stereotyping them? They wear some of the same style hats, if I remember correctly. Again, what do the ethnic groups being portrayed think of the movie? (Not that everyone should have the same opinion.)

“Depuis qu’Otar est partir” features Georgians and Russians, but that one is not a Russian film.


But in keeping with this blog’s mission to deal with the most trivial aspects of movies, I have to wonder about a Georgian references in Kin-dza-dza. One of the two main characters from planet earth is supposed to be Georgian, but what are we to make of that scene toward the end where Uef of planet Pluk says he had a Georgian mother? The two worlds are so different from each other, and had known nothing about each other. All of a sudden Uef says comes out with that line, but it generates no big surprise. I suspect an inside joke.

(Late edit – changed the title to make it more grammatical)

Aug 112008

This segment of Black Bim White Ear reminds me that I’ve been somewhat surprised by the portrayal of people’s interactions with police in movies from the Soviet era.

I wasn’t surprised that in Moskva slezam ne verit, Katerina tells her daughter that they shouldn’t call the police about some bullies who have been harassing her boyfriend, that they should handle the situation themselves. That’s kind of what I would expect in a police state. Even in the U.S. people sometimes have the idea that you should never talk to the police — which is not quite the same thing, but it’s not completely different, either.

But there are movies like Black Bim where people are quick to call the police (who seem to be always nearby, unlike in the U.S. where you can call 911 and sometimes wait a long time before anyone comes). And they are quick to berate the police for not doing their jobs.

Officer: “Who shouted?”

Man: “Why don’t you watch? Dogs at a street crossing of a regional center.”

I might think this was taking place in a Potemkin village, except the same sort of thing happens on planet Pluk in Kin-Dza-Dza.

There are of course people in the U.S. who will mouth off to the police. (I remember seeing the bumper sticker on a car that would tend to attract police attention even without it, “Bad cop. No Donut.”) But there are Russian movies in which “respectable” people do it, as happens on the street and at the police station in Belyy Bim.

So I wonder if that sort of thing was portrayed realistically, or if the sort of relationship in Moscow Has No Room for Tears was more realistic, or if both were realistic, depending on time and place.

Feb 072008

Ha. I wouldn’t have guessed that on my own. Yury Yakovlev, who plays Bi in “Kin-Dza-Dza” is the same person who played Ippolit in Ryazanov’s “The Irony of Fate.” I had immediately recognized Yevgeny Leonov, the actor who plays Uef, as the same guy who had played the old retired military officer who rescues our hero in Mimino. But I hadn’t recognized his sidekick at all. Goes to show he has a bit of range to his talents. Contrast that to someone like Nikita Mikhalkov, who plays the same character no matter what movie he’s in.

I had earlier commented on how I couldn’t tell what had made the movie difficult to get past the Soviet censors. Well, duh, I should have known because I’ve talked about this several times. Usually in Soviet movies, the law enforcement and legal authorities are portrayed as wise, kindly, omniscient characters (e.g. in Brilliantovaya Ruka, Mimino) unless, of course, they are pre-revolutionary characters (e.g. in Siberiade). In Kin-Dza-Dza, nobody on planet Pluk is a nice guy. They are all back-stabbing, manipulative, selfish, ordinary people that are your everyday companions and colleagues. But the ecilops (police) are especially easy to dislike — smarmy characters like some bullies we all knew in school.

Maybe the trick was to get the censors to think of these as pre-revolutionary characters. (It’s just a guess, though.)

Feb 032008

I wasn’t sure what in the movie Kin-dza-dza would have made it a difficult one to get past the Soviet censors. Maybe this scene near the end would have been seen as subversive. It certainly would be subversive of a lot of what we’re getting from the most fascist elements (i.e. the leading elements) in our own political parties now.

Our protagonists are trying to get back to earth, but don’t want to abandon to a terrible fate the two characters from Pluk who’ve been with them for most of the movie. The sensitive, compassionate head honcho on planet Alpha tells our heros not to worry about those two: “To continue their lives in the form of plants would be a blessing for them.”


And by this time our protagonist cares about more than just taking advantage of the situation for his own ends. He asks, “Can we send for them and ask them what would be a blessing for them and what not?”


How about that? It’s a pro-choice message.

Here’s the YouTube segment these scenes are taken from. It’s the 13th of 14 parts.

Feb 022008


Here’s a movie that goes Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris one better. Solaris itself was somewhat of a reaction against Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. 2001 featured gleaming high-tech on a massive scale. In Solaris, the space vehicle is somewhat run down and the protagonist goes around in a soiled shirt.

But that’s nothing compared to Kin-dza-dza, which came out in Russia in 1986. Two of the interplanetary space travelers are pictured above. (It’s a photo of the VHS cover. I cobbed it from Wikipedia.)


And here is their spacecraft. (Photo cobbed from the same source as the above one.) It’s a creaky rattle-trap rustbucket, but it does work.

This movie isn’t on Netflix. There is no official English-language subtitled version. But it’s on YouTube, with subtitles, in 14 parts. I happened upon it last night. I haven’t nearly finished watching.

I’m not a big science fiction fan, but small doses like this are great. It’s had me laughing. Wikipedia says it’s somewhat of an allegory of Soviet society, but somehow made it past the censors anyway. I don’t know about that — maybe it applies to tourist behavior and social relationships in general. Whatever it is, it’s fun to watch.

Here, for my convenience and that of anyone else who cares, are links to all 14 of the segments. It can be somewhat of a nuisance to find them in order using YouTube’s search.

  1. Part 1 (1 of 7)
  2. Part 1 (2 of 7)
  3. Part 1 (3 of 7)
  4. Part 1 (4 of 7)
  5. Part 1 (5 of 7)
  6. Part 1 (6 of 7)
  7. Part 1 (7 of 7)
  8. Part 2 (1 of 7)
  9. Part 2 (2 of 7)
  10. Part 2 (3 of 7)
  11. Part 2 (4 of 7)
  12. Part 2 (5 of 7)
  13. Part 2 (6 of 7)
  14. Part 2 (7 of 7)