May 112010


Well, that was a waste. Last October I quit watching Voditel dlya Vera at this point, where the tension was too much to take any more. I was waiting to get up enough nerve to watch the rest of it.

Myra and I just now watched the whole thing, all the way to the end.

What a letdown. It’s a great movie up until this point. But it’s as if the filmmaker (Pavel Chukhraj) lost his nerve at this point, too, and tacked on an ending that’s out of character with what had happened to this point. I wish I could ask him what happened. His other movie that I’ve seen (Vor) didn’t suffer from a weak ending, so I know it’s not due to a lack of ability. After seeing Voditel dlya Vera and Vor I would gladly watch (and probably rewatch) anything else he’s made. But he lost his way here, or something.

BTW, one of the best movie endings ever is the one in Vozvrashcheniye. IMO.

Dec 052009


Last week I tried washing our kitchen floor the way I’ve seen it done in Russian movies. It’s a way to do a good job of it, but it’s not that easy. I haven’t done enough of it to decide whether the method should help Russian women stay young and agile, or if it would age them prematurely.

Last fall I took a one-night-a-week class in conversational Russian at MSU. In a session when our teacher, a young woman from Ukraine, was teaching us how to describe some household activities, I asked her if Russian woman really washed floors the way it’s shown in the movies. She said they did. I never got around to blogging about it until now, though.

The scene above is from Proshu slova, which I just finished watching. Below is one from Vor. There is also a floor-washing scene in Komissar, in which Klavdia Vavilova, played by Nonna Mordukova, in the brief domestic phase in her life is down on the floor washing it with rags. But she is down on her knees, which is not quite the same thing. IMO it’s a lot easier that way. I would guess that the reason women would do it in in a squatting position is not because they’re trying to save their knees but because they’re trying to save their clothes. Also, they can move around a lot faster and get the job done more quickly, even though it requires more effort.


So now I have made a start on another category of scenes to collect: Floor washing scenes.

But I think the scene from Proshu Slova also fits another category that’s found in quite a few Russian movies. I’m not quite sure what to call it, but I’ll try to describe it in another post. There is a scene in Semnadcat’ mgnovenii vesny that I hope to find for the sake of comparison.

Oct 062009


So far I’ve watched up through part 5, and so far it’s great–one of the best I’ve seen. I wouldn’t have known how good it is based on the Wikipedia article about it, though:

The film received mixed reviews from critics. The entertainment magazine Variety referred to the film as “more off-putting than enthralling” and noted that while the film has been compared to the Academy Award–winning Burnt by the Sun, it lacked a main character that a viewer could identify with. Variety commented that Viktor’s personal struggles “[seemed] irrelevant” and criticized Petrenko’s “limited emotional repertoire”, as well as the poor acting of the remaining cast of characters.

I went to the Variety review that’s referred to and didn’t get any further enlightenment. I think the reviewer is nuts. The “off-putting” comment comes in this sentence:

For Western auds, however, pic’s oddly disjointed wedding of operatic emotionalism and cool aesthetic distance may prove more off-putting than enthralling.

The reviewer is perceptive in noting the contrast between “cool aesthetic distance” and emotionalism; however, so far I don’t see anything operatic about it. Maybe it gets operatic later. In any case, I happen to be one who finds the contrast enthralling. I’ve already gone back and watched some of the scenes over and over, even though I haven’t finished watching the whole thing yet.

I don’t know why it matters that there is not a main character to identify it, because there are several characters we quickly learn to care about: The General, Viktor, Vera — even Lida and the KGB guys. And there are other minor characters who are interesting, too. That’s what matters.

To mention Burnt by the Sun by way of comparison is goofy. Burnt doesn’t measure up to this one at all. It does have a central character — or should I say a central actor — Nikita Mikhalkov. But in his role as a retired military officer, I got no sense at all of why he would be admired and respected by the men who had fought under him. As usual, Mikhalkov played Mikhalkov. He just couldn’t pull off the character he’s supposed to play.

But here I am, contaminating a note about a good film with talk about an inferior one.

And poor acting? So far I haven’t seen any poor acting in this film. The screenshot above shows some great acting. The bad guy is a clean-cut young KGB officer who smiles easily, but who is doing some dastardly business in his interrogation of the General. Very realistic, IMO. Very seldom, i.e. almost never, do you see a movie that has guts enough to do that. Usually movies have to give the bad guys bad haircuts, bad complexions, and sinister mannerisms so you know they’re bad. But that’s not how the world works. The other KGB officer — the one who plays the General’s adjutant — has a little of the usual, but still it’s very subtly done.

The reviewer almost may have had a point about Igor Petrenko’s “limited emotional repertoire.” However, keep in mind that he’s a very young man. He’s playing the part of a young man very well, and there is more subtle variety to his behavior than you’re likely to get from a young Brad Pitt.

I wish I had the recording of Nature Boy that’s used in part 4 of the film. I wasn’t familiar with the song so had to google for information about it. I like the one on the film better than any version I’ve found on YouTube — even better than the Nat King Cole version I found there, though that one is pretty good. Who is singing in the film? The orchestration sounds like it comes from the late 40s or early 50s.

I see that Pavel Chukhraj, who directed the film, is also the person who made Vor. I’ll have to start paying attention to that name.

Jul 192009

Best find of the month: “Communal Living in Russia: A Virtual Museum of Soviet Everyday Life.” I learned about it at English Russia.

There are video clips of Ilya, who no longer lives in a kommunalka, but who takes his two young children back to see where he once lived. The English voice-over is good in that it doesn’t completely obliterate the Russian speaking. Sometimes it follows the Russian, and sometimes precedes it. Very good for language learning. There are also bilingual, side-by-side transcripts in Russian and in English translation.

There is also a page with clips from feature films that show kommunalka life. Two of these films I’ve already seen: The Pokrovsky Gate and A Dog’s Heart. I thought Pokrovsky Gate was especially good in giving an idea of what kommunalka life might have been like. I don’t know how true to life the movie is, but it makes one think about what it would be like to live in such intimate association with other families, and what it would do to the intimacy of the life of the nuclear family. It was a film that sparked some of my interest in the topic. I suggested to the web contact that another good film to add would be Vor (Thief). There are no young children in The Pokrovsky Gate, but there is one in Vor.

I would not care to live in a kommunalka, but it’s not as simple as communal apartments bad, private residences good. I found it interesting that in the book, “The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia” (Orlando Figes, 2007) that not all people thought these apartments were a thing from which to escape. He quotes one old woman:

Life under Stalin was spiritually richer–we lived more peacefully and happily. Because we were all equally poor, we didn’t place much emphasis on material values but had a lot of fun–everything was open, everything was shared, between friends and families. People helped each other. We lived in each other’s rooms and celebrated holidays with everyone together on the street. Today every family lives only for itself.

That book, btw, would be a good one to add to the list of those on the web site. In the book there are diagrams showing how some of the apartments were laid out. There are lots of stories of how life was in them — mostly of how difficult it was. The woman quoted above is an exception to the general rule, though not the only exception.

A few other things I think about in connection with this topic:

  1. In his book “The Great Divorce,” C.S. Lewis portrayed hell (metaphorically) as a place where, when there are conflicts between neighbors, instead of reconciling, the people just move farther apart from each other. It’s a lonely place. If there is any doubt that Lewis’s portrayal is a parable we can note that when families are forced to live close together, that too can be hell.
  2. At The Spokesrider I blog about my visits to sites of old Indian villages in the U.S. I sometimes think about what it would be like to live in such a village, where when you wake up in the morning and get ready for the day, you’re in the midst of other families doing the same thing – men, women, and children. There would have been very little privacy. One can sometimes get a little bit of that on a camping outing, but what if that is the way you live all the time? It’s worth noting that European-American captives often came to prefer that life style by the time they had a chance to choose. I personally doubt it was the more communal life in close proximity that they preferred, though that may have been a part of it.
  3. My mother tells about how during WW-II, she and her father went out to North Dakota to help his brother out on his ranch-farm, while his son was away in the Pacific. Electricity had not yet reached that part of the U.S., and she says at night they’d all sit around the table by kerosene lantern light, talking, making music on a guitar or piano, and singing. There wasn’t good enough light for the people in the household to go their separate ways to separate rooms. It was a togetherness that was partly forced on them by technology, or lack thereof. I once described this to one of the leftier persons on a political e-mail list. He said it sounded to him like hell. But I think those who took part and are still alive have fond memories of the time.

By mentioning these things I’m not drawing any conclusions or making any grand summaries. I’m just trying to give an idea of why I find these communal apartments to be fascinating. I’m glad for the opportunity to learn about them safely, from a distance.