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Reviews, essays, and translations

Entries in Lungin (3)

Monday
May022016

Island (Остров) 

Our consciences remind us that we have all done things to murder the good in this world. Purity and sainthood have little to do with the existence of the average citizen, and those for whom these sacred terms apply will likely elude our ken. The vast majority of these souls are indeed pure: there is almost nothing to be gained from the material world by adopting such a stance except posthumous recognition, and by that point their true reward will have been bestowed. However you feel about such sacrifice − whether you think it a refuge for the weak and untalented or a bastion of hope for us all  life's comforts and pleasures should not be relinquished by those who seek acknowledgement in their community and beyond. The only persons who should enter upon such deprivation are those whose souls give them no other choice, and it is these desperate shades who will always live in implacable suspicion. They will be chastised for always taking the high road, the hard path, the last sip if there is still left a sipful in the chalice. They will be asked why they cannot deign themselves to be as lowly and fallen as the rest of us. Only rarely do we ask them what their motives might be for such a life  an inquiry which brings us to this extraordinary film.

The film is divided in two, with the first part seemingly lasting a few minutes in reality and a lifetime in the soul of one simple man. That man is Anatoly (Petr Mamonov), a stoker on a Soviet tugboat in the White Sea with one shipmate, his captain Tikhon. The year is 1942, the acme of the Axis powers, and the slow revelation of a German ship and the crooked cross in black, red and white produces the same dread that the Jolly Roger used to have on unfortunate mariners. The German forces storm the ship then grimace at the helpless duo as if disappointed that there is so little to destroy. Tikhon faces certain death with a cigarette and a lewd gesture; Anatoly begs for his life. An understandable display, perhaps, but one that turns into a crime of cowardice that cannot be rewarded because he is dealing with the hounds of hell. As the treacherous hounds break their promise and detonate the ship anyway, Anatoly survives and is washed ashore. He survives but has willingly murdered another human being in exchange for his own life, and for that he will have to pay. 

His penitence we witness thirty-four years later. We find him older, grizzled, almost toothless, on the same shoreline which he feared for a few critical minutes he would never see again. He has become a monk but remained a stoker, and his hands and face are almost never washed. He lives alone, sleeping on his coals, barely eating or drinking out of a filthy porringer, and picking up rocks, the pieces of the world he shattered when he killed his only friend. His hod and wheelbarrow suggest perpetual work, the endless toil of Gehenna, and we constantly see what he sees: the waves of eternity that shall never rise or fall but stay on as the moisture of our own days evaporates. Anatoly sings, prays, and mostly keeps to himself, but there is an element of mischief that implies we are dealing with a holy fool. Holy fools have had their share of limelights in art (perhaps most notably in this novel), but the majority of them remain unexplained or relegated to the contemptuous moniker of "imbecile zealot." Yet Anatoly is no fool; he understands that he has been given a second life in order to repent his sins and help others dispense with theirs. He even writes a petition to the Almighty, impales it on a the mast of a miniature raft and casts it off in prayer for his survival of one more winter. His powers of healing and clairvoyance, a burden even for a person unconcerned with how others view him, do not weigh him down as much as inform his austerity. What good are the vanities of modern existence if only God grants true power? At every turn his colleagues, Father Job (Dmitrii Dyuzhev), and the leader of the monastery, Father Filaret (Viktor Sukhorukov) try to undermine Anatoly. Perhaps because they want him to be a monk, not a saint (although Job suggests that's precisely what he might become), and because all of them need to survive and, in these oppressive Soviet times, martyrs are omnipresent. But they do sense his sins, which he mentions repeatedly and frantically as if they gnawed at him day and night. "Why did Cain kill Abel?" he asks Job, who thinks he is being ridiculed and walks away.

Three stock situations are presented to Anatoly the healer and mystic, and his treatment of the afflicted displays his understanding of what his compunction is supposed to achieve. He is first approached by a woman who is pregnant, a fact which, of course, he knows beforehand. She wants his blessing for a selfish choice, but he advises her to keep the baby, because "no one will want you without the child," so she might as well take comfort in her offspring. He also chases her halfway down the pier back to the mainland with no small ferocity that indicates he is not a willing saint but a conduit. A widow informs him that her husband, also a victim of the Great Patriotic War, has been appearing in her sleep. His blithe response is that her husband never died in Russia but is now dying in France, where he recommends that she travel. His treatment of a mother of a lamed child called Ivan (a tip of the cap to this film by this director of genius) has much the same flavor, a miracle bereft of beatitude, a resplendent exhibition of unfettered will. Anatoly bends off the screen while reciting his prayers for Ivan, and his prayers are neither the maniacal chants of a fanatic nor the rote memorization of someone who has long since lost interest or belief in his rituals. Instead, they are the pleadings of an average man who has an enormous burden on his conscience and is almost embarrassed to ask for a small favor. With the child now walking with a limp, he castigates the mother for leaving immediately for work and recommends that they stay the night for Filaret to bless the boy, adding that, "there is no point to go to work; a pipe has broken and everyone is getting three days' unpaid leave." All these mystical insights are said casually, as one would understate any plain fact, because Anatoly is not a saint but is a vehicle of divine inspiration, as open and legible as the scriptures themselves. Then one final visitor comes to ask for his aid and he knows that this may be the last person he will ever see.

The time period selected was not the most felicitous for the Russian Orthodox Church, but it just so happens to be the heyday of Tarkovsky's masterpieces. Like in Tarkovsky's films, nature here reflects the intricacies of the human soul; God reverts to being the coherent sum of all natural forces, of time, space, and eternity; winter is the discontent of the universe and summer its passion. We look out onto the island and see Anatoly in placid isolation; we are constantly asked to monitor the water as if there one might discern the hideous details of his crime; and the monks who doubt Anatoly also fear the purity that he has embraced. One notices where Anatoly's eyes are directed as Filaret expresses his gratitude for having saved him from his blanket and boots, man's comfort during night and day ("Most sins," quips Anatoly, "nest in bishops' boot tops"). Those eyes are reliving another horror, not the small scare that Filaret received from the smoke-filled hut. And so when Filaret confesses he "was afraid to face death unrepented," we see Anatoly's face glaring straight on at the death he cheated thirty-four years ago. Yet the most important and effective aspect of Island is the personalization of Anatoly's struggle. His is not a tale of glory, nor even of redemption, it is one of mission, of sensing that he was put or allowed to remain on this earth to change it one small step at a time. And while the name choices of Job and Filaret may be ironic in their symbolism, Anatoly's is not. His is the Greek East, the sun that has risen on Christianity, the sun that will never set, the sun that will burn him with the gravity of his crime until he makes amends. And in his wretched life he has probably made more amends than all of us combined.

Saturday
Jan022010

Taxi Blues

It has been almost nine years since my last visit to this fabulous city – an extended absence I plan on rectifying late this summer – and somehow, as they say, things do not seem to have changed.  The nostalgia one feels for places loved is always magnified by the cinema, partially because most films do their best to romanticize the scenery, partially because when we glimpse a city at twilight, at dawn, on a rainy fall afternoon, we become flush with emotions and thoughts that simply cannot occur under the dry desert sun.  Moscow certainly boasts all the drawbacks that congregate in major metropolises, but its history and culture have few peers in Europe or beyond.  And traces of this great and often troubling labyrinth are evident in this film.

Our protagonists are designed to be perfect foils, and their differences are so flagrant as to make us wonder whether two people who live in the same city and speak the same language have ever been so different.  The first is Ivan Shlykov (Petr Zaichenko), a strapping proletarian and, in the salad days of New Russia, a taxi driver.  He occupies an area in a communal apartment somewhat bigger than the standard allotted ninety-six square feet, has a girlfriend who works at a meat-packing plant, lifts weights with grim obligation, downs his vodka unhesitatingly, and is cruel and unusual to those called in Russian "white hands," that segment of the population which has never had to do manual labor.  He is also prone to fits of anger that may have less to do with what he thinks of New Russia and more with what he once thought of Old Russia.  As our film opens, his cab is stuffed with three rowdy couples who have as their ringleader the flamboyant and rather annoying saxophonist Aleksei Seliverstov (Petr Mamonov).  Seliverstov is malnourished, toothless, feminine, uncontrolled, loquacious and completely insincere; Shlykov is brawny, ferociously macho, laconic, almost of military bearing, and too straight a shooter for his own good.  Such people are often labeled gullible; and unlike Shlykov, most of them do not have the muscle to disarrange that presumption.  The taxi party, which initially had the makings of an orgy, dissipates as Seliverstov – a hard-core alcoholic even by Russian standards – stops one time too many to satisfy his urges.  To pile insult upon injury, it is Shlykov's secret stash that he acquires by flashing a fistful of rubles large enough to quell any thoughts of a setup.  He ends up alone, asks the cabbie to take him home then loiter outside for the fare and, to no one's surprise except Shlykov's, never comes back down.  And the fact that Shlykov waits until dawn to convince himself of this disastrous truth says much more about his personality than the musician's.       

In a way, this is the film's key and climactic scene.  Seliverstov has no intention of paying anyone who has not fulfilled the tacit agreement of getting him the physical satisfaction that, as "a genius who talks to God," he feels he wholly deserves.  That is to say, a taxi driver taking Seliverstov and a girl home cannot be reasonably compensated unless that girl gives the saxophonist what he has desired all night in the same way that no restaurant could expect payment if vomiting or diarrhea ensued.  This twisted logic has always appealed to children, but also to that spoiled demographic that Shlykov has mistrusted his whole life: the intellectual elite.  Shlykov is not an educated man, yet he knows enough about history to sense what has occurred in New Russia as well as why.  "You write music and books and tell us how to live," he says at one point to Seliverstov, who cannot respond because the statement describes philosophers and artists in all centuries at all times.  It is then no wonder that this climactic scene takes place at the beginning of the film because, like socialism, it is bound to fail, a system that was never created for the proletariat but for a less ostentatious type of demagogue.  Shlykov finds the musician and confiscates his most prized possession, his saxophone.  Modest appraisals from his fellow cabbies do not convince him, however, so when a pawnbroker acquaintance offers him four thousand rubles – almost sixty times the unpaid fare – for the instrument, he decides that Seliverstov's claims to indigence are as nonsensical as the Soviet promise of rule by society's lowest stratum.  He pursues Seliverstov to all ends of Moscow, enduring humiliation, fisticuffs, and water damage to three floors of his apartment building, yet Seliverstov's arrears keep mounting.  Even when Shlykov can inflict unduly harsh retribution and have his adversary locked up for five years for assault, he ultimately retracts his testimony to make Seliverstov work off his debt the old-fashioned way – on his hands and knees.  

What ensues is chaotic, almost unscriptable, but correct, including a ridiculous vignette with a legendary jazz musician, and what I assume is Shlykov's worst-ever birthday celebration, although given the abject lack of fun in his life, one can never be sure.  Those reviewers who love topical issues will find enough symbolism about New Russia to caption each scene in smug whispers, and we will leave them to their task, yet one issue needs to be addressed.  In almost every blurb on the film, much is made about the fact that Seliverstov is Jewish and Shlykov, in turn, a hidebound anti-Semite. The basis of this pronouncement may be Shlykov's vaguely insane flatmate whom we first see ranting about the "conspiracies of global Zionism" (that should tell you all you need to know), as well as the urgency of maintaining the two men as polar opposites.  Shlykov does emit a few slurs during the film, and not only against Jews; but what he does with far greater frequency and passion is trumpet the dignity of the Soviet working class.  It is the simple man forced to make love to his girlfriend in the machine room of a meat-packing plant that will resent the easy melodrama and make-up sex in Seliverstov's luxury apartment (apart from vodka bottles, bathtubs are the film's most used prop).  In fact, while Seliverstov has some anagrammatic affinity with the traditional name for New Year's Eve, the name Shlykov – a creditor in more ways than one – may ironically remind you of this title character.  So what are we to make of the scene in which Seliverstov's enraged landlord shreds and stomps on a poster of the musician whose face Shlykov then faithfully reassembles?  Perhaps that nary a lender can exist without a borrower.           

Monday
Mar032008

Tycoon

For many among us, outlaws will always be heroes.  Not only because most people do not benefit from laws, regardless of the society in which these laws were created, but also because most people during their lifetime do not become fantastically rich, famous, or infamous.  There is little glamour to the quiet, average (and often very good) life which many brave souls are content to pass but which few find inspiring.  Throughout history we have hailed renegades, from Simon Magus to Robin Hood to Jesse James, to the gangsters and goons worshiped by current generations, as the triumph of the simple man over the elite, the rebellion of the downtrodden that halted the unending reign of supremely divine tyrants.  Yet there is nothing bold or revolutionary about the luxurious wealth or hedonistic pursuits which this outlaw eventually flaunts.  Once power has been attained, you will never find a more bourgeois, money-grubbing, rule-oriented manager, since now the laws protect him from, well, other potential revolutionaries.  He is self–serving to the point of justifying his actions by claiming he alone was strong enough to stand up to the authorities and bring them to their knees.  And he will use every legal stipulation and wile to keep his property and influence from the hungry masses whom he invariably shuns.  Since the last twenty years in Russia have seen the mercurial rise of more than one such individual it may be a fine time, on the occasion of the Russian elections, to review this film.
 
The film is based on a novel by Yuri Dubov, who was once the confidant of this billionaire in exile and public enemy of the Russian government denounced as having robbed his fellow citizens blind, deaf, and dumb.*  Whether such thievery actually occurred is less important than whether this life, romanticized as it surely must have been for the screen, could possibly provoke any aesthetic interest in us whatsoever.  The answer is yes, but not for the reasons one might think.  In this version, Berezovsky is given the first name of a philosopher, Platon (Vladimir Mashkov, above) and a last name that is almost that of a rather tremendous but troubled artist, Makovsky.  A little research would tell you that this shift in nomenclature, while elegant, is also not coincidental: in 2004 Berezovsky officially changed his name to Platon Elenin (again a letter shy of a poet’s name).  And all this shifting and guising has much to do with the subject matter, a traditional game of oneupmanship during the years in which the smart exploited what the law neglected, and found a way to circumvent the few stipulations it did contain.  So perhaps we should not be surprised that the novelty of unlimited capitalistic profit in post–glasnost Russia did not yield a new way of spinning an old greedy tale of young (and old) greedy men and the women who love them.  And in the same way, each action by Platon and his gang of cronies, a harmless bunch of smart but ostracized men, is given added weight by the revolution around them.  

The fictional Platon is a master of disguise, mood, and manipulation, as would be, we surmise, anyone moving in such dark and dangerous circles.  He emerges from this maelstrom in one piece thanks in no small part to his charisma, played up fabulously by Mashkov, a handsome and talented actor who exudes what one reviewer calls “reptilian charm” (there is no better description).  Detailing the plot might dissuade you from seeing the film, so I’ll just say that events do not unravel chronologically and, despite some half-hearted attempts, Platon’s love life remains secondary to his financial profile.  Nevertheless, the political implications of his rise to prominence and its rather minor subplots are not nearly as interesting as Platon’s own maneuvering, inevitable betrayal, and apotheosis – a story which, in the end, should sound extremely familiar.  Are the characters three-dimensional?  No, and for a very good reason: although one-man shows sometimes feature guest performers, these sidekicks only get billing far from the center and in very small print.  Tycoon is a upsized, occasionally preposterous tribute to one and only one of those magnates; everyone else is only important insofar as they help him achieve his goal.  
  

Unfortunately, nothing co-opts the spry and creative mind more than monetary success.  Even the wildest of imaginations considers, at least for a few moments, the life of material wealth and the ease and comfort such a life brings.  There is nothing wrong with ambition, nor with money per se; but when the goal of life and work and all your hours and minutes becomes a relentless hunt after greater and greater fortune, perspective on life’s best offerings is soon lost.  What Platon’s perspective is on the matter may be hard to say, because one gets the distinct impression that he really thinks of himself as some kind of artist.  And what you think of this tycoon, an oligarch in the original Russian, may reflect what you think of the new Russian revolution.  But then you may think of other riches – a live filled with goodness, love, laughter, curiosity, learning, and selflessness – and smile.  And you may gladly cede those outlaw desires to the Platon Makovskys and Charles Foster Kanes of the world.

* Note: Berezovsky ostensibly took his own life on March 23, 2013.