Jan 262008

We finished Siberiade the other night. It had a lot of Nikita Mikhalkov all the way to the end, and while I still wouldn’t call him a great actor, he at least wasn’t annoying all the time.

I doubt it was the intention of the filmmakers to show the defects of an economic system based on central planning, though one never knows. In the movie, the way to save the village of Elan is to find oil underneath, which will keep it from being flooded for a hydroelectric reservoir. Most of the powers that be think it’s a waste of time drilling for oil, but two high government officials with personal roots in Siberia decide to buck the consensus and go for it, because if they fail, they can’t get exiled any farther than Siberia anyway.

Well, I suppose if you don’t have stock options to motivate you to take risks, the possibility of exile to Siberia as a reward for failure will motivate you to be entrepreneurial.

I would have liked to have seen a lot more of Siberia than just the forests and river that led to Elan. It was nice seeing that much, but I’d also like to have seen Siberian cities, and how the rural and wilderness areas transition to the cities.

We’re now watching Dersa Uzala, and it’s giving us some additional views of what I take to be genuine Siberian wilderness (though I don’t know if it was really filmed in Siberia or not).

I’m finding it useful for language learning. Dersa speaks a somewhat ungrammatical Russian, using the wrong forms of pronouns. But thanks to his limited vocabulary, he ends up saying some things that I can actually understand.

It’s disappointing that the army surveying party doesn’t do any actual surveying. They haul a big tripod around with them, but not once thus far have I seen them set it up and get out their chain and do anything that resembles surveying. I’d like to see some of how they actually did surveying in the 1st decade of the 20th century.

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 192008

We’ve been watching the 1979 movie Siberiade, this week. We just started the 2nd DVD of it last night.

Unfortunately, this is one Russian movie that doesn’t have much winter. There is a winter scene at the very beginning, I suppose to set the stage in Siberia, but that’s been all so far. None of the casual, pointless, everyday snow scenes that I’ve enjoyed in so many other Russian movies.

So far I’m irritated by actor Nikita Mikhalkov’s arrival in the 1960s segment. I was really enjoying the movie until now. Mikhalkov is supposed to be this great Russian actor, but all I see is a one-trick pony. He’s playing the same character he did in Vokzal dlya Dvoikh. It was good there, in a minor part. But as the male lead? I expected more. All those same mannerisms don’t make for a fully-developed character. Well, we’ll see how it plays out. We have a ways to go before reaching the end.

He played the same role in the first part of Burnt by the Sun, too. He played Nikita Mikhalkov instead of playing the part of an old-school Russian colonel. He got better toward the end of that one, but there was a bad beginning.

The two young actors who played the young boy who became the adult Alexis did great in Siberiade — anticipating his adult mannerisms somewhat. The youngest of the two did especially well. But it was a letdown to see the adult version finally appear.

I’ve liked Mikhalkov’s work as a director in Oblamov and Unfinished Piece for Player Piano. I’ve liked the documentaries I’ve seen. But seeing him as an actor is getting wearisome. (It doesn’t help that he turned into a Putin supporter, but his biography told us that’s what would happen.)

I was looking forward to seeing Lyudmila Gurchenko again after seeing her role as a female lead in Vokzal dlya Dvoikh. The jury is still out on that one, now that she made her appearance at the same time as Mikhalkov.

Dec 032007

It’s not surprising that Nikita Mikhailkov is a big Putin supporter. He’s long been accused of being a political chameleon. The Arts section of the New York Times reports on what he’s up to:

Mr. Mikhalkov, on the set of his next movie, which is a military base outside Moscow, responded to these predictions with disdain: Listen to whats on television and radio now and tell me, what limitations do you see? He tried not to look exasperated. Artists are perfectly free, he said. My view is simply that the modus operandi of Russia is enlightened conservatism, meaning hierarchical, religion-soaked, tradition-loving.

Artists may be free, but how long is that going to last in a society where reporters and dissidents are shot and poisoned? Mikhalkov points to the freedom artists enjoy now, but the people he’s responding to are talking about what’s going to happen two years from now.

And if Russia is so comfortable with being hierarchical, why is it necessary to shoot dissident reporters? If Mikhalkov is appealing to what Russia is, why not let it be what it is?

And after reading this article, I’m more irritated than ever by that Burnt by the Sun movie Mikhalkov did. Some reviewers liked the symbolism of that sun. But it wasn’t a sun that got people burned. It was people who did it — people who were given too much control over the lives of other people. The movie avoids that issue. And now Mikhalkov is coming down on the side of a man’s ability to have more of that.

Nov 252007

We finished watching Burnt by the Sun last night — did it in two sittings. It wasn’t as good as I had expected it to be, given the awards it received and that I’ve seen what Russians filmmakers can do to portray the Stalin showtrial era.

On the one hand it’s good to show the humanity of the NKVD — that they were real people who could have a talented, artistic side and didn’t come out of the womb determined to do evil. And it takes some guts to portray it that way. Whenever anyone attempts to do a film that way about Hitler and the Nazis, there are some people who will object saying it makes light of evil, when in reality it’s just the opposite.

But even though this film is from 1994, it was not at all about the revolution eating its children, or eating its parents. It could have been from 1960s Soviet Russia with its tired old storyline of implicating the white russians in whatever evil there is.

And to show Colonel Kotov at the end, quickly broken down, his face horribly beaten up, in contrast to the idyllic life he and his family had been living until just moments before, is not as horrifying as the thought that people at the show trials could be made to confess to crimes they never committed without that kind of physical brutality being inflicted on them. Maybe I’ve read too many things like Arthur Koestler’s “Darkness at Noon.” But I think we need to learn more about how such things could happen, and this movie doesn’t help.

Once on RTR Planeta I saw a good part of a different movie about the Stalin show trials. Sorry, I don’t know nearly enough Russian to tell you much about it — there were no subtitles and I could pick out only a few words — fewer even then I would be able to now. But it seemed to follow the Maxim Gorky story in some respects, except the end was more like Darkness at Noon. I’ll bet it was the kind of movie that would help me understand the behavior, if I could understand the language. I’ll probably not see it again, because I doubt Putin would allow such a movie to be aired now.

After watching the movie, I went online looking for reviews. Here is one that’s impressively perceptive. It’s titled “No Soul” and is written by Alan A. Stone of Boston Review.

Sep 202007

From a review at The American Spectator:

The excellent 1981 adaptation of Brideshead Revisited was re-run on my local TV recently. … From the religious point of view, the themes it dealt with included one that few writers in modern times have tackled — the fact that Salvation is offered to all and by Divine Grace the rich may be saved as well as the poor.

I didn’t know there was such a thing as an American or British TV series I could ever stand to watch, but this sounds interesting. How do I break the news to my wife, though, that I’d like to watch some television someday?

The description in that review reminds me somewhat of one of the Russian movies we watched several months ago: Unfinished Piece for Player Piano, based on a Chekov work. At first I considered sending it back to Netflix and trying something else. Why did I want to see a movie about superficial, degenerate aristocrats? But in the end I gave this one a 5. It wasn’t really a religious film, but it was surprising to us to see a respectful, non-superficial treatment of religion in a Soviet-era film. Granted, it wasn’t a pre-WWII Stalin film, but still, where would you have seen something like that in a U.S. made film?

Which reminds me, I wonder what director Nikita Mikhalkov is up to lately. The knock on him is that he is a political chameleon, taking on the coloration of whatever regime is in power. So what is he doing for Putin now? Or is he getting too old for movie-making anymore?