Tag Archives: Russian

READER RECOMMENDATION: PHILOSOPHY OF A KNIFE (2008)

Reader recommendation by Simon Hyslop

DIRECTED BY: Andrey Iskanov

FEATURING: Tetsuro Sakagami, Yukari Fujimoto, Manoush, Elena Probatova

PLOT: War prisoners are subjected to various horrifying experiments in the Japanese Imperial Army’s infamous Unit 731 facility.

Still from Philosophy of a Knife (2008)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Between the dreamlike cinematography, the unconventional, fractious narrative, and the bizarre attempts to blend a documentary with an arthouse film, this is definitely among the least conventional works of World War II cinema.

COMMENTS: A few short years before the outbreak of World War II, one General Shiro Ishii of the Japanese Imperial Army—a man who possessed a fatal combination of power, patriotism, intelligence and absolutely no regard for human life—oversaw the construction of a military facility in the Chinese province of Manchuria. Officially registered as a water purification plant, this facility—Unit 731, as it would come to be known—housed not only military personnel, but several thousand Chinese and Soviet prisoners, and a team of some of Japan’s top scientists. Over the next few years, these prisoners would be subjected to a series of horrifying, inhumane experiments in the name of helping the Japanese war effort. Prisoners were infected with deadly diseases, exposed to bomb blasts, and amputated and dissected without anesthetic.

And thanks to vested Cold War interests on the part of the USA, most of the perpetrators of these atrocities would walk away unpunished, and go on to enjoy prosperous careers.

This is the story that 2008’s Philosophy of a Knife—from one of modern Russia’s resident oddball directors, Andrey Iskanov—tells. Or, at least, purports to tell.

There’s a lot that needs to be said about Philosophy of a Knife, mostly because there’s so much of it. The film clocks in at over four hours; and while, admittedly, there are instances when it’s acceptable for a film to do that, I’m not convinced that Knife is one of them.

If there’s a key mistake this film makes, it’s in its genre. The film, it seems, is making a bold attempt to blend an art film with a documentary, combining stock footage, interviews and voiceover with heavily stylized reenactments of the experiments conducted at Unit 731. And while this is a debatable issue, I can’t see that blend as other than doomed to failure, since those genres are, in my opinion, irrevocably opposed. After all, any documentary worth its salt is going to try and be objective; while art, in any form—in my opinion— is inherently subjective. At least, until we’ve invented painting robots.

But even a viewer who disagrees with that particular perspective will probably agree that, as a documentary, Philosophy of a Knife‘s efforts are half-hearted at best. The voiceover segments—narrated by what sounds like a castrated Robbie Williams—cover only the most Continue reading READER RECOMMENDATION: PHILOSOPHY OF A KNIFE (2008)

LIST CANDIDATE: HARD TO BE A GOD (2013)

Trudno byt bogom

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Leonid Yarmolnik, Yevgeni Gerchakov, Aleksandr Chutko

PLOT: In Earth’s future, scientists are sent to the planet of Arkanar – a world with a society similar to Earth’s Middle Ages. While their directive is to observe and have only minimal involvement, one scientist wearies of the unremitting squalor and violence and decides to try to change things.

Still from Hard to Be a God (2013)
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Watching Hard to Be a God, the phrase “unremitting nightmare” springs to mind. While this phrase is often both hyperbolic and over-used, here it works nicely as a description. The gray and black images of cramped, filth-strewn hovels and hallways are unceasing, and the accompanying soundtrack of spits, snorts, sniffs, coughs, and groans lead to a very weird and very unpleasant movie.

COMMENTS: With his final movie, Soviet /Russian director Aleksei German grabs the viewer by the throat and shoves him face-first into the putridness of a world that is best left eight centuries in the past. Hard to Be a God follows in the same stylistic vein as his prior film, 1998’s Khrustalyov, My Car! There is no color, just sickly hues of stained white and gray; there is ambient confusion in every scene, as background events play out, sometimes passing right by the camera; and the story is so loosely explained that without the anchoring of the handful of voice-overs, all sense of narrative flow would be lost. This final point is worth noting, as the crippled sense of development in the story neatly conveys the development that occurs (or, doesn’t occur) on this ghastly planet.

A narrator immediately establishes that “this is not earth, but another planet.” He goes on to explain that a Renaissance had nearly happened on this planet, but was nipped in the bud by reactionary thugs of both the royalist and religious persuasion. As a consequence, a handful of scientists (from the planet Earth) are semi-abandoned in this mud and filth-stained pit of humanity. All the scientists are men of stature within the society they are observing—the main character, Don Rumata, is even purported to be a descendant of one of the old pagan gods—but with the burning of the universities and hanging of the men of learning, they are doomed to watch as the civilization stagnates and stagnates.

Before watching this, I had never so enjoyed the “color” of white. The grit and muck that covers everything (faces, hands, clothes, walls, floors… everything) is pervasive. Every time Don Rumata uses his lily-white handkerchief, or drops it on the ground as a gift to a passing peasant, one of the few strands of beauty the movie contained disappears. The world’s rains, described by the narrator as “short and sticky”, are just that. Everything is wet in a dirty, dirty way. Through the haze of dirt and mist, I was reminded of ; I struggle now to understand how he made nature seem at all beautiful. Even the traces of cultural progress in Hard to be a God are obscured by the rampant sludge; we see an occasional artisinal weapon, or perhaps a painting of great beauty, that has been left to absorb humanity’s filth.

By now I’m sure you can guess that I’ve exhausted my thesaurus of terms for “dirty”. The movie suggests the only hope this world has is if the observers becomes more proactive. Toward the end, Don Rumato snaps—quietly, as he does everything—and before an obliquely conveyed rampage, mutters to no one in particular, “God, if you exist, stop me.” What results remains unclear, but perhaps it is hopeful; at the very least it’s as hopeful a conclusion as one could expect on the planet of Arkanar. As Rumato confesses to one of the scientists before they leave him behind, “If you write about me, and you’ll probably have to, write that it’s hard to be a god.”

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It is grotesque and deranged and Hieronymus Bosch-like, and damn if it isn’t a bona fide vision—but of what, exactly?”–Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, Onion A.V. Club (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: OF FREAKS AND MEN (1998)

Pro urodov i lyudey

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Aleksey Balabanov

FEATURING: Sergey Makovetskiy, Dinar Drukarova, Viktor Sukhorukov

PLOT: The lives of two bourgeois families and a crew of pornographers cross paths in pre-revolutionary Russia.

Stil from Of Freaks and Men (1998)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: With its sepia-tinted, silent movie feel and its clutch of strange denizens—conspiring maids, conjoined twins, and eerie criminals—Of Freaks and Men straddles the line between black comedy and social commentary with a combination of non sequiturs and S&M photography.

COMMENTS: The tone is set early and thoroughly as a series of sepia bondage photos are projected beneath the opening credits. The story begins in a style that would not be unfamiliar to the first movie-goers, as a brief montage displaying the primary characters plays through in black and white (accompanied by the background crackle of a scratchy film projector on the soundtrack). The film switches to sepia, and the theme of connivance is introduced when we see a young woman, obviously a maid, furtively whispering in Johann’s ear. What follows is an unlikely but believable tale of plots, peril, and pornography (known, of course, as “the 3 P’s of cinema”). Through underhanded means Johann, a purveyor of obscene photographs, manages to infiltrate the household of a bourgeois engineer and his daughter. Meanwhile his assistant and hatchet-man, Victor, comes across a surgeon who is the adoptive father of conjoined twins.

Their combined efforts allow them to move their “studio” from the basement of a nearly derelict building (that seems to be more than half a dozen floors underground) to an upscale flat in the heart of the town. The engineer’s daughter Leeza is immediately coerced into posing for their wares, stripping on demand to be lightly whipped by Johann’s grandmother who is carted out of a nearby cupboard for the purpose. The criminal’s cameraman, Putilov, is hopelessly smitten by Leeza, as is one half of the set of conjoined twins.

Things go on this way for “months” (according to a title card), with repetitive photos thrown together, sometimes taken in front of a paying audience. Henchman Victor eploits the twins more benignly, as they both sing and play the piano (and, most amusingly, the accordion, each half held by one of them as they perform a song). All good things must come to an end, though. Nana passes away, prompting Johann to break down and experience a seizure. The captives take this chance to get outta there and try and make it on their own—with limited success.

One could well argue that storyline alone is enough to plant this film firmly on the “weird” side of things, and as you would hope for from a movie given space at this site, it cements its position—and then some. While certainly not the first modern movie to pose as a throwback to silent pictures and sepia tinting, Of Freaks and Men does so with off-key humor and an appreciable lack of pretension. An out-of-the-blue the title card appears reading “Johann readied himself to make a wedding proposal,” and we see the stone-faced criminal, dressed as best as he knows how, on the prow of a small steam boat. His expression then is of a in need of exorcism. When Leeza is first photographed in the nude and when she sleeps with one of the two conjoined twins, the title cards announce, “And so, Leeza became a woman for the first time”, and “And so, Leeza became a woman for the second time”, respectively.

Russians widely viewed the movie as allegorical. The conjoined twins, Kolya and Tolya, symbolize Russia. Kolya, on the right, is intelligent, talented, and spurns the offers of liquor from the various ill-intentioned adults. His twin Tolya, on the left, is buffoonish— talented, yes, but quick to fall under the spell of a licentious maid who shows him some of the Johann’s photos, and then happy to adopt the regimen of alcohol his overseers foist upon him. Kolya represents the Russia that could be; Tolya represents what Russia so often has been (and is likely to continue being). Not knowing their father has been murdered, in the end they head to his hometown, in the East. Pursuing this path, the twins rush toward tragedy.

There is sadness in Of Freaks and Men, but it is coupled with wonderfully black humor. Its weirdness is best seen in its self-assured tone. The world this movie creates is believable, while at the same time flying in the face of expectation. I haven’t even mentioned its other weird accessories: the blind wife of the doctor who “[falls] in love for the first time” with Victor when he forces her to expose herself to him, the recurring train yard scenes, the sinister quality of the two antagonists, and the nebulous ending with its beautiful ice flows. Now that I’ve mentioned them, I can promise the curious amongst you that there are plenty others to be found.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“When I first saw Alexei Balabanov’s Of Freaks and Men at the Edinburgh Film Festival in 1998, I thought it was touch and go whether a film quite so original, provocative, perverse and calculatedly offensive – not to mention weird in the extreme – would get British distribution at all… fans of Borowczyk, Peter Greenaway, Guy Maddin, early David Lynch and Jan Svankmajer’s Conspirators of Pleasure will have a field day, as will broadminded devotees of the more fantastical Russian novelists…”–Michael Brooke, The Digital Fix (DVD)

READER RECOMMENDATION: KHRUSTALYOV, MY CAR! (1998)

Reader recommendation by Giles Edwards

DIRECTED BY: Aleksey German

FEATURING: Yuriy Tsuliro, Nina Ruslanova, Mickhail Dementyev

PLOT: General Klensky, the head of a prestigious Moscow mental hospital in 1950s Soviet Russia, tries to evade KGB agents before he’s captured and forced to help the authorities in their last ditch effort to save a dying Josef Stalin.

Still from Khrustalyov, My Car! (1998)
WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: With each cluttered frame stuffed with inky blacks and smoky whites, the nightmarish reality of Stalin’s last “Terror” makes for uneasy viewing as a nightmarish hellscape seeps ever more into the cruelty of the tragically mundane. This reality is made both more real and more unpleasant by the inclusion of the dissonant sound track.

COMMENTS: It took nearly a decade for Aleksey German to put together this ordeal of a movie about the last of Stalin’s great purges just before the demise of the Soviet Union’s ruthless dictator. The nightmare of pursuit lasts three days for the heavy-handed but sympathetic General Kensky, who rules like a benevolent counterpart to “Uncle Joe,” presiding over his medical facility in a cognac-fueled display of ordered madness. Surrounded by the grotesque (be it in the chaos of his hospital or the sinister order provided by the black-sedan riding apparatchiks), Kensky uncovers a plot to stage his fall from grace before fleeing to the home of a sympathetic former nurse. Disappearing at the hands of Stalin’s henchmen and being spirited away in the back of a “Soviet Champagne” truck, he meets with the bed-ridden, stroke-afflicted leader before his own disappearance is arranged for good.

The entire atmosphere of the film is made of deeply black blacks and sodium-light bright whites. Steam and disorder fill the interiors, while outside the tainted white of snow and dark sheen of the KGB’s cars make for an incongruous combination of the harshest of whites and darkest of blacks. Innocents are randomly round up (one unfortunate, in the wrong place and the wrong time, is unceremoniously dumped into the trunk of one of the ever-present black cars), and a fearful citizenry makes itself complicit with the state sponsored terror, hoping their compliance will direct the authorities’ suspicion and ire elsewhere.

What makes this movie weird is how it manages to capture society at its most grotesque. There are other movies that have individual images that are more troubling, but this film’s continuous streak of casual violence, cruel misfortune, and unsettling monotony of sadism in a fearful society grinds on for well over two hours of hyper-realism.

The soundtrack consists of oblique conversations continually interspersed with the sound of spitting, sneezing, blowing noses, grunts and all manner of human-noise unpleasantness. While no doubt this is realistic, the constant reminder of people’s bodily sounds makes the soundtrack seem more of a heightened reality: we see (and, more so, hear) humanity in all its discourteous glory.

German was a contemporary of (of Andrei Rublev and Stalker fame). But whereas Tarkovsky saw the grittiness of reality and transformed it into a primordial poetry that bordered on spiritual, German takes the opposite route and ground his films so thoroughly in the depths of the hellishly mundane, it is almost as if one is seeing and hearing Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights”, but without the “Delight” (or even, for that matter, the “Garden”).

This movie was finished just before the Putin era began: made between the early and late ’90s, along with a number of other introspective post-Soviet Films. One becomes weary in the soul watching the hell this doctor and patriarch goes through in the name of the grisly interpretation of Soviet idealism that was Joseph Stalin’s Russia. The ostensibly uplifting movement of Soviet Realism in film is given a punch to the gut in this vision of nightmare turned into real-life.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“One of the most disturbing Russian films of all time, Khrustalyov, mashuni (Khrustalyov, My Car!, 1998) provides the audience with a firsthand experience of the madness, paranoia and absurdity that pervaded Moscow during the final days of Stalin’s regime.”–Greg Dolgopolov, Senses of Cinema

RUSTAM KHAMDAMOV: IMPOSSIBLE TO BE GREAT – POSTSCRIPT – DIAMONDS AND ANNA KARAMAZOFF

Four years has passed since we published “Rustam Khamdamov: Impossible to Be Great…” What has happened to  since then? A new short film has appeared, Brilianty (Diamonds) [AKA Diamonds. Theft], the first film in a proposed “Jewelry” trilogy. It was presented at the 67th Venice International Film Festival in September 2010. The festival program describes the movie:

“This is a poetic film set in the times of Lenin’s NEP. A ballet dancer steals a brooch and gives it as a present to another dancer. This is a crime of passion. A mysterious black ball is after the heroine. She runs away from it and manages to give the brooch in an exquisite pirouette movement, as shiny as diamond facets. What gives a stone its dazzling luster are its polished facets. But the real gem is love, and it’s much harder to get than any diamond in the world.”[1]

The Russian premiere of Diamonds was held on 15 July 2011 at the International Film Festival in St. Petersburg.

Still from Diamonds. Theft.  (2010)The film is inspired by the ballet La Bayadère by Marius Petipa. This picture is intended as part of a series of three shorts with the common title “The Jewels,” which the director wants to shoot with Anna Mikhalkov (“Emeralds. Murder”) and Tatiana Doronina (“Rubies. No Price”)[2].

In one of his interviews, Khamdamov said that the third movie will be dedicated to Russian piano genius Maria Yudina: “There was a woman named Yudina, a completely crazy woman, a great pianist who did not have either a piano or an apartment. She lived with cats and dogs on the street. She was homeless, a clochard.” Tatiana Doronina is to play the  role. The action takes place in Tashkent, the director’s native city.

Here are Diamonds’ art director Dmitri Alekseev thoughts on the movie: “In general, the film consists of the personal experiences of Rustam about all that he has ever seen in his life. In the episode with Renata Litvinova, which opens the film, the decoration consists entirely of angles: a rectangular table covered with a white cloth, and on it the radio set, resembling the Empire State Building. Renata makes a nose out of a paper cup, it pierces the radio set, and ‘La Bayadere’ plays. Litvinova is immersed in the music, and the story with [actress Diana] Vishnevaya, the ballet dancer, begins. Renata brings together the entire movie, but she will have her own story. Hers we will also shoot in St. Petersburg, but it’s unclear when.”

Ballet critic Julia Yakovleva points out numerous ballet references[3]: for example, the name “Diamonds” is also the name of George Balanchine’s homage to Tchaikovsky, the third part of his triptych “Jewels,” and Vishnevaya’s character is reminiscent of Olga Spesivtseva – “a hungry diva of Petrograd, dilapidated, dangerous city of the 1920s, from which Balanchine fled to Europe.”

Lidia Maslova (from the journal “Kommersant”) described the film as “very mannered and drenched with symbolism,” in which “all members of the Continue reading RUSTAM KHAMDAMOV: IMPOSSIBLE TO BE GREAT – POSTSCRIPT – DIAMONDS AND ANNA KARAMAZOFF

  1. http://www.labiennale.org/en/cinema/archive/67th-festival/lineup/off-sel/orizzonti/brilianty.html []
  2. http://renatalitvinova.ru/%D0%B1%D1%80%D0%B8%D0%BB%D0%BB%D0%B8%D0%B0%D0%BD%D1%82%D1%8B-2011/ [in Russian] []
  3. http://seance.ru/blog/dance/ [in Russian] []

LIST CANDIDATE: RUSSIAN ARK (2002)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Aleksandr Sokurov

FEATURING: Sergey Dreyden, Aleksandr Sokurov

PLOT: In one take, a ghostlike figure wanders through the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, watching re-enactments of Russian history and debating art and culture with a French aristocrat.

Still from Russian Ark (2002)
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: As the longest unbroken take in the history of cinema, Russian Ark is somewhat experimental in form, and with its intermingling of various eras of Russian history inside the Hermitage museum, it is somewhat surreal in content. Viewed simply as tour de force filmmaking, it’s worth seeing for the curious and cultured, and a must-see for film school types. The film’s only drawback is that its high art, highly Russophilic preoccupations make it unavoidably stuffy at times, and risk limiting its appeal to the tea-and-crumpets (er, samovar-and-beluga?) crowd.

COMMENTS: Who is the main character of Russian Ark? Ghost? Amnesiac time traveler? Dreamer? Or just a metaphorical representative of the Russian spirit? The speaker through whose eyes we watch Russian Ark remembers some vague accident, but opens his eyes to see women in furs and feathered headdresses emerging from a carriage; accompanied by men in formal scarlet military uniforms, he judges their fashions to be from the 1800s. He’s swept along with the guests from a snowy courtyard through a wooden door; he eventually deduces he is the Winter Palace section of the Hermitage, the ancient home of the Czars that was turned into the world’s largest art museum. No can see or hear him until he encounters an older man in black, who is equally lost in time and space; this is the Marquis, who will be his companion through the rest of his odyssey through the Hermitage.

That journey involves the pair passing through the various rooms of the museum, some of which are occupied by today’s art patrons, and some by ghosts from prior ages, including Peter the Great, Anastasia, and Catherine the Great (who is looking for a chamberpot). Curiously, there is little focus on the individual works of art; the camera rarely gives the paintings and statuary more than a passing glance, instead maintaining a constant wide-angle view of each sprawling, packed chamber. We watch courtly episodes from history and eavesdrop on some conversations, but the meat of the movie are the conversations between the European Marquis and the modern Russian through whose eyes we see the museum. Some of their dialogue is absurd, but much of it is self-reflective hand-wringing over the state of Russian culture. Russians come off as having a bit of an inferiority complex towards Europe. The Marquis sneers that Russians are great copyists in the fine arts, but produce nothing original; all the great works in the museum come from the French, the Italians, or others. He is disdainful towards the Russian people, yet he is slowly won over by the final scene, a massive Czarist ball where he joins in a mazurka with the ghosts of past maidens. Overcome with nostalgia for the lovely aristocratic past, the Marquis decides to stay behind at the phantasmagorical ballet. His decision validates the Ark’s role in preserving Western culture, but the Russian chooses to go on without him, headed towards an unknown destiny. Although we get a few clues as to the man behind the point-of-view’s identity, it isn’t really important. Russian Ark‘s main character is actually the Hermitage.

Russian Ark was shot in a single 87-minute take with a digital camera that followed the characters through thirty-three rooms of the Winter Palace. The cast included over 2,000 extras, and a full orchestra, all of whom had to be costumed and choreographed. Rehearsals lasted for months before the shot was attempted. Depending on which source you believe, the take was flawlessly executed on either the third or the fourth attempt. (To make things slightly easier, the sound was recorded later). Only one day was allocated to actual filming.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“If cinema is sometimes dreamlike, then every edit is an awakening. ‘Russian Ark’ spins a daydream made of centuries.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Jenn, who insightfully suggested that it was “perhaps artsy instead of weird” but added “[i]t is super pretty and certainly unusual and dreamy.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: IVAN’S CHILDHOOD (1962)

Ivanovo Detstvo

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Nikolay Burlyaev, Evgeniy Zharikov, Valentin Zubkov, Valentina Malyavina

PLOT: A twelve-year old war orphan serves as a scout for the Russian army, repeatedly sneaking over the border to report on German troop positions.

Still from Ivan's Childhood (1962)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: In his debut film, Andrei Tarkovky’s work isn’t yet confidently weird enough, although his decision to wrap this Soviet war drama in dreamy melancholic flashbacks (in stark contrast to the aesthetics of Socialist realism ) was a strong signal of the pioneering direction he would be taking.

COMMENTS: In many ways Ivan’s Childhood is Andrei Tarkovky’s most conventional work; it’s in a recognizable genre (the war drama) without obscure philosophizing, it’s of a “normal” length (compared to his epic works), and, since the director had not yet begun his experiments with minimalism and ultra-long takes, the pacing is comfortable. There are four dream sequences, but they are all idyllic and tasteful, nothing that would alienate the average moviegoer. So, if you have a friend who is intimidated by slow-paced, three-plus hour philosophical epics like Stalker or Solaris, or if you yourself just want to start in the kiddie end of the Tarkovsky pool, Ivan is the go-to movie. Although it’s stylistically gentler than his later movies, that’s not to say that this debut film is intellectually shallow or atypical of the maestro’s output: all of Tarkovsky’s intelligence and poetry is already on display here. Themes from future masterpieces—the preeminence of the dream, the symbolism of water, careful use of ambiguity—all make their first appearance in Ivan. Anchored by a gritty performance by young Nikolay Burlyaev, who straggles into a base camp half-starved and starts ordering a lieutenant around with the arrogance only a kid can muster but has the right touches of tearful vulnerability at key moments, the story has an easy-to-locate moral and emotional center. Ivan’s childhood has been taken from him by the war. For the most part the wartime scenes are dingy and dark, set in trenches or dirty bunkers. Even the river, the boundary of Russian and German territory Ivan sneaks across the border under cover of darkness, is shot mostly at night, turning it into a cemeterial swamp lined by dead trees. Ivan’s dreams of lost childhood, by contrast, are bright and airy, full of spiderwebs and butterflies and stars that shine from out of wells. Even a ride on a horse-drawn apple cart during a thunderstorm is shot in a negative image so that the shadowy forest glows around the boy. The film’s rhythm of pleasant dream interrupted by gunfire and the call to duty is effective. A relationship between the nurse Masha and Kholin, one of the three officers who together serve as Ivan’s surrogate fathers, interrupts the boy’s story, but is an interesting aside. When the older man catches the dark beauty alone in a copse of white birches, and it isn’t entirely clear whether the dance the two characters engage in is a prelude to seduction or rape. Masha, the only female in the army with a platoon of potential suitors, seems frightened by his commanding demeanor and probing questions; their relationship is never resolved, but the scene develops a great, nervous erotic tension that provides us perspective on an adult world beyond what Ivan knows. His boyhood is inevitably destroyed by the war, but Tarkovsky finds a way to send Ivan off to a heaven thinly disguised as a dream. The ending is one of the enigmatic, just-oblique-enough to pass the censors spiritual moments for which Tarkovsky became famous. Vadim Yusov’s brilliant, fluid black and white camerawork adds immensely to the successful debut of a great cinema talent.

Tarkovsky was given the chance to complete this movie, based on a short story by Vladimir Bogomolov, after another director had failed. Tarkovsky rewrote the script from scratch, adding the dream sequences over the Bogomolov’s objections. Valentina Malyavina, the actress who played Masha, would later serve nine years in prison for murdering a fellow actor.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Unlike Tarkovsky’s subsequent films, which began to rely more and more heavily on a minimalist approach and a reliance on long takes, Ivan’s Childhood has an eye-grabbing visual aesthetic that makes excellent use of elaborate camera movement, canted angles, and almost surreal compositions.”–James Kendick, QNetwork (DVD)

CAPSULE: THE FOURTH DIMENSION (2012)

DIRECTED BY: , Aleksei Fedorchenko, Jan Kwiecinski

FEATURING: , Igor Sergeev,

PLOT: An anthology of three stories: a lecture by an American motivational speaker; a man invents a time machine but can only watch events through someone else’s eyes; and four Poles party in a town that’s been evacuated ahead of a flood.

Still from The Fourth Dimension (2012)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The three tales are only mildly weird, and only mildly interesting.

COMMENTS: “Lotus Community Workshop,” the much-anticipated team-up between actor Val Kilmer and director Harmony Korine, is obviously the main draw in this triptych of timely tales, but unfortunately (and perhaps predictably, given the hype) it disappoints. Kilmer plays a motivational speaker whose nonsensical rhetoric nonetheless thrills a motley crowd of ordinary people at a neon-washed roller rink. In between inspirational snippets we see him contentedly riding a bicycle, piping on a flute, and playing a videogame with a girlfriend played by  (who would be too young for the fiftyish Kilmer even at her real age of 26—she looks and acts like a teenager here). Kilmer, who goes as gonzo as the limited space allows, gives some absurd and mildly amusing advice—he tells the assemblage about the time he encountered the mothership, advises them to stop riding horses and to bury gold under their bathtubs, and describes his vision of a world like cotton candy—but the satire seems more pointless than pointed, and the quiet scenes add nothing. This is Harmony Korine with all the shock value removed, and what remains is uninspiring. Putting Korine first gave film festival poseurs a chance to sneak out early, which is sad because the succeeding films are at least as interesting and might even be slight improvements. The second installment, “Chronoeye,” is the only short here that addresses the concept of “the fourth dimension” head on. It concerns a Russian genius who has built a time machine, but it only allows him to see events through someone else’s eyes, and he can’t pick his vantage point; so, for example, he goes back in time to view the execution of scientific martyr Giordano Bruno, but sees it through the eyes of a little girl who’s focusing on a ladybug. Meanwhile, a tax collector is trying to carve a pound of flesh out of him, while his upstairs neighbor is a beautiful dancer who keeps annoying him as she pounds on the floor practicing for an upcoming recital. The joke about focusing on insignificant details of major historical events is repetitive, but Igor Sergeev sells it with an expression of increasing frustration with every new failure. We in the audience become as frustrated as he is, because we see events from his past whose significance will never be clear to us. An abrupt but mysterious ending mixes up past, present and future. The finale “Fawns” follows a group of opportunistic young hipsters as they treat a town that’s been evacuated ahead of a flood as their own private playground. At close to forty minutes it’s longer than the other two offerings, but much of the opening is spent just watching the youngsters roam around the deserted suburbs whooping, playing on swings and looting soda shops. Eventually, a plot develops as one of the quartet wanders away without explanation and the remaining trio must decide whether to search for him or flee as the blare of sirens and rumble of helicopters, heralds of the encroaching floodwaters, increase in their insistency. Then, a chance encounter throws a moral monkey wrench into their plans for a clean escape. It ends, as expected, on an ambiguous note. Each of these offerings raise a mild degree of interest, but none of them truly succeed as standalone efforts, nor do they mesh well together. The “fourth dimension” theme is used as a joke by Korine and treated obviously by Fedorchenko, while Kwiecinski merely name-checks the concept. The Fourth Dimension doesn’t meet its lofty goal of “challenging our ideas of 4th dimensions,” unless, of course, your idea of the fourth dimension is that it’s inherently fascinating, in which case you can consider that notion shot down.

The idea for The Fourth Dimension was co-sponsored by Grolsch beer and Vice Magazine. Each of the three filmmakers were given a set of rules to follow; those we see quoted in the film include that each director’s segment “must contain more real life than anything else you have ever made” and “must blur the line between what is real and what is fake.” Other dogmas, reportedly, were that each director must direct one scene blindfolded. At the time of this writing, the film is exclusively available to watch (for free) on Vice‘s YouTube channel.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a tour de force of what seems to be improvisational lunacy from the behatted, bicycling Kilmer, whose performance has fewer concrete things to say about Los Angeles, con jobs or mass therapy than it does about the merits of watching a gifted actor walk a high wire.”–John Anderson, Variety (contemporaneous)

.

.

CAPSULE: MAN WITH THE MOVIE CAMERA (1929)

Chelovek s kino-apparatom; AKA Living Russia, or the Man With the Movie Camera

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Dziga Vertov

FEATURING: Mikhail Kaufman (cameraman)

PLOT: A plotless record of twenty four hours of life in the Soviet Union of 1929, exhibited

Still from Man with a Movie Camera (1929)

through series of experimental camera tricks.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Man with the Movie Camera is a visually inventive, historically important and formally deep movie that reveals more secrets with each viewing; but, the only quality in it that might be called “weird” are the surreal camera tricks it occasionally employs. It’s a movie that demands space on the shelf of anyone seriously interested in editing techniques or film theory, but as far as weirdness goes, it’s purely supplemental viewing.

COMMENTS: Reviews of Man with a Movie Camera often spend as much, if not more, time discussing the history and philosophy of the production and its influence on future films than they do describing what’s actually in the movie. That’s because the challenge the movie sets for itself—to create a “truly international absolute language of cinema based on its total separation from the language of theater and literature”—is more fascinating than the film’s subject matter (the daily lives of Soviet citizens in 1929). On a technical level, Movie Camera is a catalog of editing techniques and camera tricks, many of which were pioneered in this film but are commonplace or obsolete now. Be on the lookout for double exposures, tricks of perspective, slowing down or speeding up the camera speed, freeze-frames, reversed footage, split screens, and even crude stop-motion animation. One of the most interesting techniques is the amphetaminic editing of Movie Camera‘s climax, which moves almost too fast for the eye or mind to follow (a technique Guy Maddin would fall in love with and use to ultra-weird effect in the Constructivist/Surrealist hybrid The Heart of the World). Structurally, the film flows along as a series of counterpoints, alternating between two sets of scenes to create ironic contrasts (cross-cutting a funeral procession and the birth of a baby), metaphors (scenes of soot-covered workers Continue reading CAPSULE: MAN WITH THE MOVIE CAMERA (1929)

CAPSULE: ELENA (2011)

Heart of a Dog[1]

The Russian Revolution of 1917 and Michail Bulgakov gave birth to a new biological species: the “dog-man” Sharikov[2].  The Internet revolution of the 21st century gave birth to the “Anonymous Man.”  The Anonymous Man is a crafty creature who is almost as clever as a dog.  The Anonymous Man has neither fortune, nor any features.  Yet for all that, when herding together, Anonymous Men become omnipotent and invincible.  In ancient times the Anonymous Men used to have another name: “the People.”

The Anonymous Men throng the Internet step by step.  Then they crawl to the Tahrir and Manezhnaya Squares like zombies from a horror movie.  Africa’s colonels are trembling in fear.  The Persian Gulf’s sheiks are hiding out in corners.  The faces of the former masters of Europe are painfully pummeled by statuettes.

In Russia, Alexey Navalny[3] raises the Anonymous Men against the power of the “Thieves and Swindlers.”[4]

On the other hand, the fate of the present idols, the “people’s protectors”, is not much better.  As soon as you raise your head a little above the crowd of Anonymous Men and become a bit wealthier, smarter or luckier, you are punished.  You, Navalny, and you, Shevchuk[5]: once you’ve struck a pose—get a whack!  The anger of the Russian Anonymous Man finds its allegorical counterpart in left-wing and liberal cinema – the so-called Russian “New Wave”. Almost all important Russian movies of 2006-2010—Help Gone Mad, Wolfy, Wild Field, Yuri’s Day, School, Russia 88, The Revolution That Wasn’t and the quasi-national My Joy—look at reality from the little man’s position.  (Ilya Demichev’s Kakraki is a rare exception).  In Russia, a war between the power and the people, the aristocracy and the plebs, is looming.

And now, against the background of the egalitarian left-wing cinema, Andrei Zvyagintsev makes Elena, the most anti-populist film in 20 years.  In the context of current political life, this picture may become the Elite’s banner in its war against the underprivileged of all sorts.  We have seen nothing of the kind since Vladimir Bortko’s film adaptation of Heart of a Dog.

Still from Elena (2011)

If we discard the metaphors, the plot of Elena can be vulgarly described as a battle between relatives for a posh apartment in the center of Moscow: a typical sort of topic for the popular TV show “Time of Court.”  The “new aristocrats,” youngish pensioner Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov) and his heiress she-devil Katya (Yelena Lyadova), confront the “grassroots people.”  The Continue reading CAPSULE: ELENA (2011)

  1. The title of a 1925 novel by Mikhail Bulgakov, a biting satire of the New Soviet man. []
  2. The hero of “Heart of a Dog,” made by crossing a dog with a proletarian man []
  3. A Russian political and social activist who in recent years gained great prominence amongst Russian bloggers and mass media due to his social campaigning activity []
  4. A humorous nickname for the ruling party in Russia led by Prime-Minister Putin. []
  5. Yuri Shevchuk is a Russian singer/songwriter who leads the rock band DDT.  Shevchuk is highly critical of the undemocratic society that has developed in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. []