Tag Archives: Russian

RUSTAM KHAMDAMOV: IMPOSSIBLE TO BE GREAT…

Ed. note:  The movies of Rustam Khamdamov are impossible to find in the West, and for the most part in his native Russia as well. Read this article (to our knowledge the most extensive retrospective of Khamdamov to be found on the Internet in English) to discover how this legendary, and very weird, director has managed to fall through the cracks in world culture.

By Irina Goncharova, edited and additional material by Greg Smalley.  Original research and Russian translations by Irina Goncharova.

Rustam Khamdamov– What is your father’s occupation?

– My father writes poetry. That’s all he does. He is one of the greatest unknown poets of the world.

– And when does he get money?

– Never. It’s impossible to be great and be paid for it.

The quote above is an exchange from Rustam Khamdamov’s V gorakh moyo serdtse [My Heart’s in the Highlands] (1967).  When he was a third year student of the All-Union Institute for Cinematography (VGIK in Moscow, USSR) Khamdamov shot this movie that was called “the work of a master” and was included in lists of the best Soviet movies. The film swept the VGIK internal festivals. Although Khamdamov is mentioned in the credits only once, along with other students, everybody knew he was the one and only author of the movie—not just its director, but the one who wrote the original screenplay (after William Saroyan’s play), who penned the absurd dialogue, who made all streamers and costumes with his own hands, who selected the best actors when doing the casting. The response to the film was polarized and conflicting. The VGIK Communist Party Committee—just imagine, at that time the Communists decided the destiny of everything and everyone in the country—introduced ideological censorship on the works of the VGIK students straight away.

Really, it’s not easy to write for an American audience about a director such as Rustam Khamdamov.  I believe there are very few people in the USA who have ever heard his name, although it may be found by Googling or searching the Internet Movie Database.  Still, this search would hardly clarify the situation.  The list of his movies is incredibly short, and practically each one has a very sad production history, but those critics who mention his name do so with much respect and even a kind of devotion, often calling him “legendary.”

What makes this director so legendary?

Rustam Khamdamov is of Uzbek descent and took his film production course from the renown Russian film director Grigori Chukhrai 1.  As mentioned above, his first movie was the student work (some critics say it was his graduate project) My Heart’s in the Highlands (1967), a short, approximately 30 minute black and white film. This was the first film where viewers saw the beautiful Elena Solovey, a future Soviet movie star.

Elena Solovey

Elena Solovey in Raba Lyubvi, 1975.

My Heart’s In The Highlands (1939), initially a play by William Saroyan, was a comedy Continue reading RUSTAM KHAMDAMOV: IMPOSSIBLE TO BE GREAT…

34. STALKER (1979)

“My dear, our world is hopelessly boring.  Therefore, there can be no telepathy, or apparitions, or flying saucers, nothing like that.  The world is ruled by cast-iron laws, and it’s insufferably boring.  Alas, those laws are never violated.  They don’t know how to be violated…. To live in the Middle Ages was interesting.  Every home had its house-spirit, and every church had its God.”–Writer, Stalker

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Aleksandr Kaidanovsky, , Nikolai Grinko, Alisa Freindlich

PLOT:  A mysterious phenomenon known as the Zone arises in a small, unnamed country.  The military sent soldiers in and the troops never returned; they cordon off the Zone with barbed wire and armed guards, but rumors persist within the populace that inside the Zone is a room that will grant the innermost wish of anyone who enters it.  A Stalker, a man capable of evading both the police and the traps formed by the Zone itself, leads a writer and a scientist into the Zone in search of the mystical room.

Still from Stalker (1979)

BACKGROUND:

  • For information on director Tarkovsky, see the background section of the entry for Nostalghia.
  • Stalker is very loosely based on a science fiction novel with a title translating to “Roadside Picnic” written by two brothers, Boris and Arkady Strugatsky.
  • After shooting the outdoor scenes for over a year on an experimental film stock, the entire footage was lost when the film laboratory improperly developed the negatives.  All the scenes had to be re-shot using a different Director of Photography.  Tarkovsky and Georgy Rerberg, the first cinematographer, had feuded on the set, and Rerberg deserted the project after the disaster with the negatives.
  • Tarkovsky, his wife and assistant director Larisa, and another crew member all died of lung cancer.  Vladimir Sharun, who worked in the sound department, believed that the deaths were related to toxic waste the crew breathed in while filming downstream from a chemical plant.  He reported that the river was filled with a floating white foam that also floated through the air and gave several crew members allergic reactions.  A shot of the floating foam, which looks like snow falling in spring or summer, can be seen in the film.
  • The Chernobyl nuclear disaster happened seven years after the film was released.  The quarantined area around the disaster site is sometimes referred to by locals as “The Zone,” and guides who illegally and unwisely take tourists there as “Stalkers.”
  • A popular Russian video game named “S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl” involves the player penetrating a “Zone” and evokes a similar visual sense as the movie.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  Like most of Tarkovsky’s works, Stalker is a movie full of awe-inspiring visual poetry and splendor, making it hard to pick a single sequence.  One key scene that stands out is Stalker’s dream.  The film stock changes from color to sepia—but a very warm brown, almost golden—as the camera pans over a crystal clear stream.  A female voice whispers an apocalyptic verse and the mystical electronic flute theme plays as the camera roams over various objects lying under the water: abstract rock formations, tiles, springs, gears, a mirror clearly reflecting upside down trees, a gun, an Orthodox icon, a fishbowl with goldfish swimming in it.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Stalker is an ambiguous, but despairing, existential parable containing narrative non-sequiturs wrapped inside of strange and gorgeous visuals.


Scene from Stalker

COMMENTS: It’s not fair to the potential viewer unfamiliar with Tarkovsky to start a Continue reading 34. STALKER (1979)

25. NOSTALGHIA (1983)

“I wanted the film to be about the fatal attachment of Russians to their national roots, an attachment which they will carry with them for their entire lives, regardless of where destiny may fling them.  How could I have imagined as I was making Nostalghia that the stifling sense of longing that fills the screen space of that film was to become my lot for the rest of my life; that from now until the end of my days I would bear the painful malady within myself?” –Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Andrei Tarkovsky

FEATURING: Oleg Yankovskiy, Domiziana Giordano, Erland Josephson

PLOT: Andrei is a Russian poet is traveling around Italy in the company of a fetching translator, researching a biography of a Russian composer who studied in Italy before returning to Russia only to drink and kill himself.  Andrei becomes homesick and bored with the project, and with life in general, until he becomes fascinated by a insane man living in a small town famous for its natural mineral baths.  The madman gives him a simple symbolic task to perform—which Andrei procrastinates in completing— then leaves for Rome on a mission of his own.

Still from Nostalghia (1983)
BACKGROUND:

  • Tarkovsky was considered one of the finest filmmakers in the Soviet Union; he frequently ran into difficulty with the Soviet censors, however, particularly for his Christian viewpoints.  Although his films won acclaim at international film festivals, they were often shown to limited audiences in edited versions in his own country.  Work on the historical epic Tarkovsky was helming prior to Nostalghia had been halted by the Soviet censorship board because of scenes seen as critical of the state’s policy of official atheism.
  • Nostalghia was the first film Tarkovsky made outside the Soviet Union.  Originally intended to be a Soviet/Italian co-production, the state-owned USSR film production Mosfilm withdrew financial support for the project without comment after filming had already begun.
  • The film competed for the Palme d’Or at Cannes, but was awarded a special jury prize instead.  Tarkovsky claimed that the Soviet contingent applied pressure to assure that the film would not be awarded the grand prize.
  • Tarkovsky defected to the West soon after Nostalghia was completed, leaving his wife and son behind.  They were eventually allowed to leave the country when he was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1986.  Rumors persist that Tarkovsky did not die of natural causes, but was actually poisoned by the KGB in retaliation for his defection.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  There are many fine candidates.  The scene of Andrei attempting to carry a lit candle cupped in his hand across a drained spa may stick with the viewer, if not for its symbolism, then because it audaciously continues for over eight minutes.  But the final, static, picture postcard-like composition of a Russian homestead nestled inside an Italian cathedral perhaps captures Tarkovsky’s theme the best, and is shockingly beautiful, as well.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  The fluidity between the conscious and subconscious worlds. Although it’s almost always clear whether the events depicted actually occur or are imagined, Tarkovsky is much more interested in what is going on inside the heads of his alienated Russian poet and the Italian madman than in what is happening in the “real” world. He uses strong, sometimes obscure visual symbolism and dreams to convey an affecting mood of existential loneliness.


Trailer for Nostalghia

COMMENTSNostalghia can’t be approached without a word of warning: this movie is Continue reading 25. NOSTALGHIA (1983)

CAPSULE: VIY [Вий] (1967)

Must See

AKA Viy, Spirit of Evil; Vij

DIRECTED BY:  Georgi Kropachyov & Konstantin Yershov

FEATURING: Leonid Kuravlyov, Natalya Varley

PLOT:  In medieval Ukraine, a seminarian must spend three nights praying over the

viy

corpse of a witch.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  This faithful adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s 1835 short story is a classic of world horror, deserving a place alongside the quintessential Universal fright films.  Like the works of Gogol’s contemporary, Edgar Allen Poe, Viy may have been regarded as a “weird” tale on its original publication, but today it seems a relatively straightforward ghost story, demonstrating how what was once weird may be subsumed into the mainstream over time.  It’s still unconditionally recommended, especially for fans of sublime supernatural horror storytelling that relies on atmosphere and foreboding rather than blood and guts.

COMMENTS: Viy is an unusual and exotic experience for Western viewers, for whom witches are not the prototypical supernatural villain, but most will quickly feel comfortable inside the film’s recognizable folk tale structure.  The story is impeccably told; Kuravlyov’s seminarian, who begins with a mischievous frat-boy brashness but ends up bullied and harried by both Cossacks and witches, is an eminently fallible but very likable comic-turned-tragic hero.  Varley’s nameless and mostly mute witch is eerily pretty, and manages to create a tremendous sense of menace simply by grasping blindly at the seminarian while he’s hidden from her view inside the holy circle he has drawn on the chapel floor with chalk.  The special effects aren’t always seamless (although you may wonder how some were achieved), but they are always artful and elegant, and their artificiality is an asset, creating a universe that’s far more otherworldly than it otherwise might be.  (Think of the difference between Willis O’Brien’s dreamlike and iconic stop-motion animated King Kong and Peter Jackson’s photorealistic but forgettable ape).  The gibbering gray demons that threaten to swarm over the hero in the exhilarating climax are as unforgettable an assortment of ogres as you are likely to see on film.

Mario Bava’s classic Black Sunday [La Maschera del Demonio] [1960] was also inspired by Viy, but that story veers so far from Gogol’s tale it can hardly be considered an adaptation.  Foolishly, a Russian remake of Viy is currently in the works.  The original was done perfectly, and CGI graphics cannot improve upon the stylish charm of the 1967 production.  The Russico DVD contains abundant extras, including lengthy excerpts from three silent Russian horror films: Queen of Spades, Satan Exultant, and The Portrait.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Basically a folk tale at heart, this adaptation by Konstantin Yershov and Georgi Kropachyov follows the main story beats, but it’s completely schizophrenic in balancing satire, low humour, and horror… Karen Khachaturyan’s score is equally uneven, although he may have been following the filmmakers’ weird blend of comedy and horror.”–KQEK.com

(This movie was nominated for review by reader “Natalia.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)