Feb 222009


In this scene from Osenniy Marafon, the character played by Yevgeny Leonov (on the right) walks in on Buzykin (Oleg Basilashvili) and his guest, Bill Hansen. Leonov’s character doesn’t even notice Bill until he says two words in Russian (not his first language). Then there is a long silence while Leonov looks at him suspiciously, followed by an introduction (shown above).


Leonov then asks, “Does he understand Russian?”

Well, I thought it was funny. Bill knows more Russian than I do, but there was something about the way he sounded when he opened his mouth that made clear right from the start that he didn’t know the language very well. Was it the pronunciation? The way he spoke slowly and deliberately? Or was it the choice of words? I recognize the first word he said, but not the second, and can’t find it in any online dictionary or translator.

Whatever the case, I could see giving myself away that quickly, too, if I were ever to visit Russia and open my mouth to talk.

Speaking of a visit to Russia, I’ve been reading a wonderful travelogue on Crazyguyonabike.com. It’s “A Honeymoon to Remember” by Erin Arnold Barkley and Sam Barkley, who rode their bikes through a bit of Russia between Kazakhstan and Mongolia on a tour that’s still in progress several months later. Erin describes the arrival at Srotski:

We rode all afternoon, making it to near Srotski, birthplace of a guy I’d never heard of, Vasily Shukshin, but it seems like he was a big deal around the village: virtually every building had a sign like “Shukshin’s primary school” or “Shukshin’s mom’s house.” Anyway, Wikipedia tells me he was a famous Soviet playwright and director, and his monument on a hill sure provides stunning views of the surrounding countryside.

The name Vasily Shukshin didn’t ring a bell for me, either, so I looked him up and saw that I’ve already seen one movie in which he appeared in a minor role: Komissar.

An article about him at russia-ic.com had this intriguing information:

The film Kalina Krasnaya (aka The Red Snowball Tree) released in 1974 came as a mind-blow: there had been nothing of the kind in domestic cinema before. The story of a former prisoner who decides to break with the criminal world and live a peaceful country life holds a firm place in the gold Russian cinematography, as well as the majority of movies with Shukshin’s participation.

Vasili Shukshin died on October 2, 1974 during the filming of “Oni Srazhalis Za Rodinu” (aka They Fought for Their Country) of a heart attack. There are some suspicions he was poisoned.

Memocast has the film Kalina Krasnaya, but as far as I can tell nobody has produced any English subtitles for it. So it will probably have to wait until I learn more Russian. I haven’t yet found out whether there are English subtitles for any of Shukshin’s other films.

That travelogue on crazyguyonabike.com has some great photos, btw. Highly recommended.

Mar 182008

Anne Applebaum talks about the gulag criminals’ slang, saying it was “so distinct from ordinary Russian that it almost qualifies as a separate language.”

I wonder if an echo of that jargon is in the movie Dzhentlmeny udachi (Gentlemen of Fortune, 1971). Applebaum’s book emphasises the 30s, 40s, and early 50s. The gulags were definitely gentler by 1971. But I wonder how much of that movie had gulag connotations for Russian viewers.

In Gentlemen of Fortune, the main character (played by Yevgeny Leonov) is a kindhearted kindergarten teacher who is recruited to impersonate a murderous criminal to whom he bears a physical resemblance. It’s so he can help the police find out where the stolen gold was hidden.

It’s a comedy, and it can be seen on YouTube, with English subtitles. Although he impersonates the tough guy complete with tattoos and scars, he can’t help but try to teach his criminal gang some good manners and getting them to straighten up their lives.

Like at one point in the movie (segment 4 of 9) he breaks up a fight and then tells the guys they shouldn’t use jargon. Is he referring to this same kind of talk that Anne Applebaum is referring to? I don’t know enough Russian to recognize it myself.

But there are other gulag references. At one point in one of the later segments, he has the gang playing word games on New Year’s Eve. One of them says Vorkuta, and he asks why Vorkuta. He had served a term there. Even before reading Applebaum’s book, I recognized Vorkuta as the far-north site of one of the nastier gulags.

As I’ve been thinking about it, I’ve come to realize that there are quite a few gulag references in the Russian movies I’ve watched. One of them I’ll save for later, but there is a scene in another comedy, Brilliantovaya Ruka (The Diamond Arm) in which the bad guys are at a restaurant table, and a passing stranger at the table with them says they ought to come visit him in Siberia. He meant it innocently, but they almost shudder at the idea, as criminals would have good reason to do.

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.)