Jan 282008

We’re currently near the end of Dersu Uzala, I think.

I had remarked in a previous post that I wished Siberiade would have shown us more of Siberia. Well, this one does. There are great scenery shots of frozen lakes, spring breakup, deep forests. But so far there is not much of Siberian settlements and cities. For that, I guess I’ll have to settle for the news programs on RTR Planeta. They sometimes give clips from snowy winter streets in Siberian towns. But I’d like to see how the countryside transitions to town, and what kind of buildings one finds out on the edge, etc.

In Siberiade I had seen something I’ve never seen in the U.S. — people in the woods putting a towel under their hats and letting it flap around their ears and neck. Given the setting, I’m guessing it’s more to shoo mosquitos away than to provide shade from the hot sun. When Nikita Mikhalkov’s oil-drilling crew comes to Elan, several of the men are wearing these things. But later, in a scene in which Mikhalkov is wading through a deep swamp, he takes the thing off, and they are never seen again on anyone. I would think the swamp would be a place where he’d need it like in no other place, but I suppose it’s hard to get good camera shots of the actors’ heads with those things in the way.

Those things made an appearance on Dersu Uzala, too, underneath the soldiers’ military visor hats. But again, it seems they mostly went away, probably to make it easier to photograph faces.

I don’t know if there’s a word for it, so until I learn better I’ll just call them towel heads.

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.

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 252007

“Come and See” isn’t what I would pick for a Christmas movie, but it’s what we had at home from Netflix that still needed watching.

I didn’t expect much from it other than “war is horrible” and “the germans were evil” and that’s pretty much what we get. In showing terrible brutality and suffering, it avoids dealing with the really scary aspects of war such as one gets from an exhibit like the one labelled “A Monstrous Mediocrity” over at Suicide of the West. However, one thing the movie shares with that exhibit is a Nazi soldier taking some snapshots with a personal camera.

I also re-watched some of the interviews on the Commissar bonus materials DVD. One thing I had somehow missed was that Alexandr Aksoldov was kicked out of the Communist party twice. The second time was under Perestroika, when most other banned films were being released. His was not. The reaction to the proposal was to instead kick him out of the party again and bring up old charges against him.

Raisa Nedashkovskaya’s interview made me put Commissar back in my Netflix queue for viewing sooner rather than later. I remember the scene she was talking about, but I didn’t realize it featured an interweaving of Russian and Jewish lullabies. She sings both of them nicely, but I want to see (hear) again how it was done in the film.

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 242007

We finished watching The Childhood of Maxim Gorky tonight.

This one will not get a second watching, at least not just now. For learning Russian, it wasn’t the most useful to me. The characters didn’t speak as distinctly as in some of the more modern movies — or maybe it’s the old sound recording technique and technology that muddied it up. It wasn’t impossible to make words out, though, and I did catch some usages that were new to me.

I have sometimes wondered how it is that Russia produces so many wonderful child actors. This film didn’t make me ask that — but maybe it’s because it was a 1938 film.

The “extra” footage from 1918, “Moscow: Clad in Snow” lived up to the raves I’ve seen.

I understand this was only the 1st of a trilogy of films about Maxim Gorky’s life. I would be interested enough to watch the others if they ever come to Netflix.

Dec 182007

We watched Komissar several months ago; now I’m watching (and re-watching) the interviews on the “Bonus Material” DVD from Netflix.

The most puzzling one was actress Nonna Mordukova being harshly critical of Aleksandr Askoldov for not making any more films.

This, after learning on that same DVD how the Soviet cultural authorities had not only banned Askoldov’s film, but destroyed it (except for the one copy that somehow got filed away), forbade him to make any more films, forbade him to assist in the making of any more, got him kicked out of the Communist Party, prosecuted him as a social parasite, and may have done worse to him if not for Mordukova and actor Rolan Bykov coming to his defense at his trial. (Well, that last part I learned from Wikipedia, not the DVD.) Under those conditions it would have been hard for him to make any more films, no?

Mordukova doesn’t say so, but the only way Askoldov could have avoided all these banishments would have been to compromise on the making of Komissar. He could have omitted the scene of the vision of the Holocaust, and then the film could have been released back in 1967. But he refused to do that.

We learn that Askoldov was a stubbornly principled man. In her long career Mordukova played some roles that make me wonder whether she, too, tested the limits of the censors. I’ve wondered if there are any stories about that. But she apparently made enough peace with the ruling regimes to have a long career as a popular actress, and to receive awards from the likes of Vladimir Putin. Was she resentful of Askoldov for doing the right thing in the face of opposition, like some of us who never served in the military might be resentful of those who put their life on the line for their country?

I’m not sure when her interview was made. That part is in black-and-white and in it she doesn’t look very old, so I presume it was not as recent as the others. It seems to be part of a program like I’ve often seen on RTR Planeta, where an actor or actress takes questions from the audience and where film clips are shown. Maybe it, too, was her way of making peace with the regime.

I still like her work and look forward to watching other films in which she appeared (if any of them ever make their way to Netflix). I can understand that not everybody is going to buck the system to the extent that Askoldov did. It’s too bad Mordukova had to be critical of Askoldov for it, though. Or, maybe she was just faking her criticism. It’s hard to understand what’s happening in an environment where people can’t be honest with each other.

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.