Sunday, December 12, 2010

Melanie Griffith in the USSR

The hit 1980 Soviet film, Vladimir Menshov's Moscow Doesn't Believe in Tears, is a tender work of propaganda, a class comedy in post-class Russia. The film revolves around the tension between rural and urban life, but in the hands of Menshov, Moscow, the biggest of all big Russian cities, is a gentle giant. To be sure, the three female protagonists who come to the metropolis understand that city life presents them with a series of challenges, including--ironically for a socialist state--mild but real class distinctions that separate them from doctors, directors, professors, and other urban sophisticates.

And yet this Moscow is the friendliest of all large cities. It's filled with friendship, fun, steady jobs, easy escapes to the idyllic pre-industrial countryside, educated people, a great subway, an excellent health care system (the best in the world, so one character claims, as he points out that an abortion clinic should be easy to locate), and a tranquility and peaceful order that is apparent in the film's opening credits, where Moscow's planned streets and grand but predictable architecture are presented to viewers with a soft, sweet lullaby of a Russian song.

If communist society in this film has a fault, it's a lack of housing--but don't worry, viewer, some of the main characters are actually working on the problem, and two characters actually meet and fall in love as they construct new apartments for those who need a little more space. The film's characters have little to complain about: even at the bottom of Soviet society, they are provided with comfortable rooms in a "worker's dormitory," ample opportunities to advance themselves through hard work and education, and stores that are chocked full of tempting consumer goods and foods.

On the other hand, the film acknowledges at least one trade-off for communist happiness, and that is space. In Moscow at least, the characters live in cramped quarters. When two of the girls gain the chance to see how older, more successful Muscovite lives, it's not a spectacle of overwhelming architectural plenitude. One supposes that Russian audiences would have revolved at the idea of any working class Muscovite girl gaining access to a private bedroom. Even when one of the three women becomes a significant figure in Russian industry and a member of Moscow's city council, she spends her nights in a fold-out sofa. The twenty years that separates the two halves of the film doesn't give anybody much breathing room. But perhaps the film keep its protagonists in tight quarters in order to signal the essential equality of Russian society.

Moscow Doesn't Believe in Tears is a sentimental film, redolent of its American counterpart, Working Girl, crossed with the Way We Were. Like Working Girl, Moscow Doesn't Believe in Tears is about women. The saving grace of the film is its relatively serious treatment of the dilemmas faced by modern Soviet women. Lenin statues, red flags, and posters of Karl Marx, haven't improved men all that much. They can still break hearts, drink too much, and avoid helping around the house. Of course, the real problem in Soviet society, and one that this film wholeheartedly acknowledges, is that World War II and hard drinking have left Moscow with a severe shortage of men.

Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears
is a sweet film. But its sweetness is not only revealed by its admiration for the women who work hard, search for love, and take care of one another when confronted with adversity. Rather, it's full mawkishness is reserved for the film's faith in communism even as the system tattered in the edge of collapse. Socialist values are everywhere. The leading man, a tool-and-die maker, is portrayed as a worker-hero, someone who is at least as important as the scientists who depend on his creativity on the shop floor. He's even given a speech about the dignity of NOT seeking managerial opportunities. The leading woman distinguishes herself for her willingness to do the hardest manufacturing jobs, and her ability to do them intelligently and efficiently. The film's portrayal of communism is relatively static but makes gestures toward dynamism. When the leading woman becomes and engineer and high-profile manufacturing leader, she pushes hard to overcome inertia and circumvent shortages. She is, one character says approvingly, "tough but fair." She wants results rather than excuses. Even twenty years previously, while working as a front-line proletarian, a "fitter," she is celebrated for critiquing pay levels and demonstrating a general sense of initiative.

It's easy to feel smug about a film that clearly overlooked or minimized the fault lines of Soviet society. After all, the USSR was on the brink of implosion. However, the film seems to suggest some of the virtues of an alternative path toward modernity, a path in which work and workers have at least some claim to dignity, and women are encouraged to see themselves of fully capable of transforming themselves and their countries through perseverance, hard work, intelligence, and sisterhood.

No comments:

Post a Comment