Sep 172010


The above scene from 1970s film, Mimino, came to mind after reading a Wall Street Journal article about Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer titled “Breyer Makes Case for Justices’ Adherence to Constitution“. The part that brought it to mind was the following paragraph:

His [Breyer’s] concern about public confidence in the high court deepened earlier this year when security consultants persuaded the justices to close its front entrance. The marble steps and brass doors represented “dignified openness and meaningful access to equal justice under law,” Justice Breyer wrote in a dissent. Relegating visitors to a cramped side door, he suggested, sent the opposite message.

I’m impressed that Breyer thinks about the physical symbolism of government buildings. I do too, though I must admit that I never thought of the point he makes.

But I instantly remembered that beat-up side door to the building where our hero, Mimino, is on trial. The man standing in the middle of the scene has just been sentenced to five years in prison. A courtroom worker is calling for our hero’s friend, Khachikyan, to come and testify. He had been told to go away from the courtroom until he was needed, but not to go so far away that he couldn’t be found. In a scene preceding this one, the plaintiffs had entered through this same door, getting into a verbal confrontation with Khachikyan on the way in. While waiting his turn, Khachikyan tried to suborn perjury from anyone who he imagined could be talked into being a potential witness, including, as it turned out, the defense attorney’s father, her husband, and the man who had just been sentenced to five years. In a subsequent scene, the court-appointed defense attorney seems to leave the building by this same entrance, and then does a little skip and dance to celebrate getting her client off with a very light penalty.

So even though it’s an unimposing side door, and lacks the dignity that Justice Breyer spoke of, this one doesn’t seem to hinder openness, at least not in a Soviet comedy.

I don’t know if this building represents a usual sort of court building in Moscow, but it’s definitely not an imposing entrance with Greek columns and a large portico to make visitors seem small and impress them with the power and grandeur of the government, as in many of our court buildings — at least the older ones. In keeping with the architecture, the proceedings are a relatively relaxed affair, though the stakes are high for our hero, considering what would seem to those of us in the U.S. to be a relatively minor accusation against him.

Our own Calhoun County, Michigan courthouse is not one of the grand buildings that we used to have in our country. The new building is not even called a courthouse. It’s called a “justice center,” which is a term that conveys an aura more like that of the Moscow court building above than one with “marble steps and brass doors.” In fact, the interior of the new building, and the interior of the courtrooms, is more in the utilitarian Soviet style than the traditional American style.

In the Calhoun County center there is opportunity for jurors, visitors, witnesses, and lawyers to mingle in the hallways. I am told that some court buildings are designed to keep the participants separated more from jurors. Ours is not. When I’ve been on jury duty we’ve been asked to stay in the jury assembly room except for necessary bathroom breaks, etc., so as not interact with the participants in any way that might taint the trial. And, of course, except for the times when we’re actually called into a court room. Time before last, the jury coordinator turned on a TV in the jury assembly room for people to watch while they waited to be called for jury selection. I can’t stand television, so I took a book out into the hall where I could read in relative peace. To cooperate with the “no mingling” policy, I stood facing a wall so as not to encourage any greetings or discussion with other people passing by. Afterwards, I complained in writing, saying it was above and beyond the call of duty to have to sit in a room with television. Maybe it did some good, because last time I was on jury duty they didn’t turn the beast on.

Next time — the physical symbolism inside courtrooms. Unless some other topic strikes my fancy, that is.

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)

Nov 192007

Tonight we finished watching Mimino, a 1977 Russian movie. (We hardly ever have time enough to watch one of these movies in one sitting.)

It’s a variation on the tale of the Country Mouse and the City Mouse, except that the country mouse is a Georgian aircraft pilot whose nickname is Mimino, the city is Moscow, and the country mouse ends up being friends with an Armenian truck driver.

I see (not from the movie) that Mimino means “sparrow hawk,” which gives me extra reason to like him. The name Macketai-meshe-kiakiak also means sparrow hawk — Black Sparrow Hawk, to be more exact. I’ve spent a lot of time bicycling and researching things related to the Sauk leader Black Hawk in the past 10 years. I’m not sure if a Georgian sparrow hawk is the same as an American sparrow hawk, though. The American one is also known as the American Kestrel (Falco sparverius).

The film was a great one for language learning, so as usual I have an excuse to watch it at least once more. There was also some Georgian spoken, of which I still understand not a syllable even though this is the 2nd movie for us in which that language is spoken.

One fascinating part was the way the judicial system was portrayed. I don’t expect it to represent the real workings of the Soviet system any more than American movies portray the real workings of our own system, but still, it presents a picture of how it was ideally supposed to work.

I say ideally because it’s obvious that this is yet another movie that dares not be critical of the police and judicial authorities, who are all good, virtuous, and competent. All that goodness and competence puts severe limits on the possibilities for comedy and suspense, but the movie manages to work with it.

I gathered that the trial system is more like the French or Roman system than the English/American adversarial one — which is not surprising.

When our protagonist met his court-appointed attorney, I thought I knew what came next. It usually means trouble for the defendant, whether it’s in the English or the Roman system. But this is a young woman who explains it’s her very first case and offers that he can ask for a different attorney. He declines, and puts himself in her hands. She works hard for our hero, doing extra detective work on his behalf, and in the end does a charming little dance upon exiting the court building, excitedly explaining to her waiting family that she got our hero off with just a small fine.

Who wouldn’t want a court system that worked that way, with cute young court-appointed attorneys to play Deus ex Machina and see that justice is done? But unfortunately, one realizes that there is no reward system to reinforce that kind of behavior, not in their system or in ours.

What one reads about now is articles like this one from the WSJ: “Living larger in the new Russia.” Vitaly Sarodubova and his wife support Putin wholeheartedly, even though things like this happen:

Vitaly was mugged walking back from visiting Svetlana in her concierge compartment one evening. He says a young couple he thought was waiting for the bus asked him for a cigarette. As he reached to get one, he was hit from behind.

He wasn’t carrying his cell phone, he says, so all the thieves got was the 800 rubles he had in his pocket. When he stumbled home, he didn’t call the police or a doctor. “The police will just accuse me of something I’m not guilty of,” he says.

They’re obviously not comparing this to an earlier time when the police and judicial authorities worked as portrayed in this movie. But the fact that Russian in the 1970s had the ideal that it ought to work as portrayed in this movie was new information for me.