Saturday, January 22, 2011

Truth in Grozny

Alexander Sokurov's simple but moving Russian film, Aleksandra, succeeds as a result of the strength of the leading actress, Galina Vishnevskay, who, according to a New York Times' film review, happens to be Rostropovich's wife. Galina Vishnevskay, a former opera star in her own right, joined her dissident husband in opposition to Soviet political and cultural policy and was eventually exiled for her troubles.

Vishnevskay plays a wizened grandmother who visits her officer grandson in Chechnya for ambiguous reasons. Sukorov is subtle enough to allow his leading lady to explore the war zone at her own pace, making human connections to her grandson, anonymous solders, and native Chechens, some of whom hang out listlessly outside of the Grozny military barracks, waiting for something that will surely never come.

The grandmother is strong, haughty, calm, and open to existential enlightenment if not already experienced it. Despite her age, she seems to have a capacity to fully engage everyone and everything she encounters. At one point, she picks up her son's automatic weapon and aims it, betraying not even a trace of diffidence or doubt about its deadly nature. At another point, she befriends Chechen women in the marketplace. Clearly, this is a woman with few illusions about life, a woman who is somehow "beyond good and evil," neither supportive of the war effort nor clearly opposed to it. Is her fatalism a result of her age? Does she hail from a military family? The film offers few answers. As the New York Times film review reminds us, we don't know why she has come to Chechnya. As a Russian, a woman, and an elderly person, she is an outsider in almost every respect. But her status as an outsider doesn't phase her. She is fearless, and elemental. This quality is demonstrated by her willingness to wait in trains or sit in dirt despite the efforts of the young soldiers to accomodate her.

In the end, Sokurov, director of the Russian Ark and many other films, has made a subtle film about a quintessentially Russian woman who fearlessly seeks the truth. While Sokurov doesn't attempt to explain the nature of that truth for his Russian viewers, he seems to be making the important point that this Russian truth can best be located in Grozny, Chechnya. And who can argue with that?

The Promise of Sputnik

Sputnik was one of the major milestones in the long history of the human race. Hovering 560 miles over the planet and moving 18000 miles an hour, this first man-made "moon" was described in the American press as the single most important story of the century, something akin to Christopher Columbus' discovery of the Americas. American ham radio operators everywhere followed the satellite's progress. Americans eagerly watched as the network anchors tracked the geographical progress of the famous satellite. Some went outside to observe the Soviets' handiwork with their own eyes.

But if Sputnik seemed to represent an unprecedented progress for humankind, it also marked the height of Soviet international prestige. It seemed that the future itself belonged to the USSR and communism in general. Soviet propaganda put the matter this way: while American scientists busily improved the aesthetic designs of automobiles according to caprice of bourgeois consumers, Soviet engineers were focused on loftier goals such as space travel. Indeed, the world admired the Soviet Union's scientific prowess even as it wondered why white Americans seemed to be mired in the pre-modern racial strife of Southern integration controversy. And what did it say about the difference between the two countries when, as the Soviets soon cheerfully announced, Sputnik was flying directly over Central High in Little Rock?

The Soviet Union's scientific achievement caught America by surprise, as the History Channel film, Sputnik Mania explains. In the midst of a consumer revolution and the dramatic expansion of suburbia, the Soviet Union had made a spectacular gesture of high adventure and scientific progress. Within days, and in the middle of the general atmosphere of awe and wonder, Americans began to feel a deep sense of anxiety over the impact of this scientific breakthrough on the Cold War. As Johnson recalled, as he looked up over the Texas sky, he felt that "the sky itself had become alien." How would the Russians exploit their innovation? Would they begin to drop bombs from the sky? And what did it say about Russia's ICBM capability if a satellite that apparently weighed 180 pounds had been launched into outer space? This was a second Pearl Harbor in the making.

While Lyndon B. Johnson called for a congressional investigation into America's competitiveness in the looming space race, Eisenhower, concerned as ever to dampen America's growing Cold War hysteria, failed initially to recognize the historical importance of Sputnik. Americans were concerned. For the first time, as the documentary film Sputnik Mania explains, the president's impressive military credentials seemed irrelevant if not obsolete. In an age of potential space battle, space travel, and powerful ICBMs, D-Day seemed like a distant memory.

The American people had been told repeatedly that the leader of the free world maintained a clear lead in science, technology, and advanced weaponry. To make matters worse, the Soviet Union followed up Sputnik with the successful testing of a new generation of hydrogen bomb. What to do? At first, Eisenhower put the problem of America's response into the hands of civilian leaders, but when our first satellite-rocket launch failed spectacularly, military leaders (and the Nazi scientist who had created the V2 rockets during World War II) took matters in hand.

A year after Sputnik, however far behind we were, America was fully engaged in the space race. Although Eisenhower would warn against the rise of the military industrial complex, and attempted to limit military spending in general, he launched America on the path that would soon overtake the Soviet Union's early successes in space. Soon he was broadcasting around the world via the world's first communications satellite.

Under J.F.K. America landed a man on the moon and, unlike the Soviets who allowed a dog to perish in outer space for lack of oxygen, they got him back safely. In Russia, according to Soviet children author Chukowsky's Diary, the Kremlin quickly changed course in its official communications on the subject of space. In addition to increasing military expenditures, they now declared that space travel was not something that represented the triumph of the human species in general. Rather, it was an instrument of American colonialism or military aggression. In fact, they now said America was demonstrating its callous disregard for humanity by risking human life in an endeavor that simply did not require the direct participation of men.

It's impossible to exaggerate the import of Sputnik which symbolized both the greatest hope and fear of the post-war years. Although the achievement allowed people to see the Earth holistically for the first time through photographs from outer space, it came at a time when, according to the film, Americans believed that war with Russia likely and might actually kill seven in ten of us.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

A Soviet Dr. Seuss

Kornei Chukovsky's Diary: 1901- 1969, reveals the best and worst aspects of intellectual life in the Soviet Union. On the one hand, the celebrated children's poet, literary critic, Anglophile, and translator lived a rich, varied, and productive intellectual life during almost every phase of the communist experiment in government. Notwithstanding the work of the censures, most of Chukovsky's books and articles eventually found their way into print even during the age of Stalin. Chukowsky was not working alone. Throughout his long career he came into contact with brilliant and original thinkers and artists. On every page of the diary, one is reminded of the richness and diversity of Soviet poetry, prose, and literary culture. On the other hand, Chukovsky's Diary testifies to the enormous and sometimes violent pressure Soviet intellectuals felt from Bolshevik rulers who sought to implement an aesthetically dry and ideologically bankrupt literature of uniformity. Socialist realism, the creed of the Bolshevik cultural hierarchy, thwarted true artistry at every turn. And of course, the brutality of the state often led directly to the death of leading authors and poets, including Gumilyov, Mayakovsky, Babel, Mandelstam, and others.

Chukowsky established himself as a leading figure in Russian intelligentsia even before the First World War. He knew Ivan Bunin, Maxim Gorky, Anna Akhmatova, Isaac Babel, Alexander Blok, and most other major cultural and intellectual figures in St. Petersburg prior to the outbreak of war and revolution. In the aftermath of this conflict, Chukowsky maintained an awkward but generally collaborative relationship with the new revolutionary regime. But peaceful coexistence with the Communist Party was not an easy proposition and Chukowsky's journal is filled with doubt and anxiety over the artist's role in socialist society. What was his obligation, if any, to the state and its bureaucracy? To the proletariat class? To the exigencies of art, creativity and individual artistic genius? To the traditions of Russian culture, which sometimes ran counter to the interests of the Soviet Union, especially when the Russian diaspora was involved? To humanity as a whole?

Chukowsky tried to be loyal to the historical mission of the Russian intelligentsia, which seemed at first to be tethered to the health of the world's first socialist state, the USSR. Chukowsky adored Stalin and rhapsodized over the Great Leader and his Five Year Plan, although not even a diary--that intimate expression of personal feeling--can help to clarify whether Chukowsky's ideological stance was dictated by true feeling or a spirit of self-preservation in a violent dictatorship. But sometimes--and perhaps the Ukrainian famine was the first example of this--the intelligentsia's liberal mission seemed to be directly at odds with the state's mandate for grand historical change at any cost.

At times, Chukowsky's battle to reconcile his faith in Russian socialism with his humanistic tendencies and personal friendships is heart-wrenching. Take, for example, his description of his friendship with one of the Grand Old Men of Bolshevism, Zinoviev, who had been politically ostracized and was therefore now writing academic treatises on literary matters. One minute Chukowsky was a close friend and admirer of Zinoviev, the next minute he was being asked by state propaganda to believe that his erstwhile friend was a foreign spy who was engaged in a time-consuming plot to overthrown the government. The Diary suggests that Chukowsky, like many of his peers, veered between belief, unbelief, and fear for his own safety in the event that he looked too closely at the matter. Did Chukowsky write his Diary in the belief that the Cheka might oneday read its contents? It seems likely that he did, at least during the late 1930s and 1940s.

Although Chukowsky compromised with political reality on many different occasions, and probably could not have done otherwise if he expected to survive as a published author, the Soviet Union's answer to Doctor Seuss struggled mightily against the forces of repression and obscurantism in communist Russia. Again and again the Diary reveals the obstacles that Chukowsky confronted into order to limit censorship and maintain some level of integrity in the fight to keep faith with humanism, Russian cultural tradition, and literary freedom.

The forces of Soviet immorality waxed and wained. Chukowsky's biggest shock in this regard came as a result of Khrushchev's Secret Speech of 1956. In a moment, country's former ideological idol was overthrown and, at least for some, the dictator quickly became the very open symbol of intolerance, brutality, and ineptitude for the children's author and literary critic. In this new age of relative openness--which was not to last indefinitely--Chukowsky more allied himself more closely with the intelligentsia in opposition to official Soviet culture. While Chukowsky's daughter, Lydia, who lost a husband to Stalin's cruelty, pursued this fight much more aggressively than her father, Chukowsky became increasingly opposed to Soviet artistic strictures as he grew older. With little left to fear, and the state abandoning most of Stalin's worst tools of repression, Chukowsky became an advocate for persecuted artists such as Brodsky, Pasternak, and Solzhenitsyn. And as the children's author became increasingly more skeptical about the government's role in the arts, his Diary becomes increasingly obsessed with the dark corners of Soviet history, including the Gulag, the purges, the deportations, the post-revolutionary famine, War Communism, World War II, and the official literary campaigns against Akhmatova and Zoshchenko.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Zhirinovsky Unplugged

In the early 1990s, Zhirinovsky became the spokesperson for the Liberal-Democratic Party and a large portion of the wounded Russian populace, especially pensioners. He advocated Slavic nationalism and a bizarre mixture of policies that veered erratically and dangerously between communism, capitalism, and fascism. Absolute Zhirinovsky: A Transparent View of the Distinguished Russian Statesman, written by Graham Frazer and George Lancelle, two concerned journalists who expertise in Russian affairs, traces the history of extreme Russian nationalism while quoting generously from Zhininovsky's printed speeches and interviews on all manner of subjects, especially economic and foreign policy.

Although comparisons with Hitler during the Wiemar period should not be overstated, it's difficult to avoid all such analogies. After all, Zhirinovsky seemed as voluble and articulate as the NAZI leader, and early post-Soviet Russia was almost as unstable as Germany had been during the inter-war years. Zhirinovsky's rhetoric is unapologetically irredentist. Just as Hitler had hoped to unite ethnic Germans into a Grosse Deutchland, Zhirinovsky claims to represent the twenty million or so ethnic Russians who found themselves living outside of Russia after the collapse of the U.S.S.R. Like Hitler, the Russian political leader also tended to appeal to a diverse set of emotions in his audience, including self-pity, vanity, and self-righteous indignation of the loss of superpower status. He also habitually employed anti-Semitic rhetoric to score political points against the rivals he occasionally threatened with physical violence.

Zhirinovsky's political philosophy is unsystematic, but this incoherence could also be interpreted as a form of political realism or ideological flexibility. In the end, much of the man's appeal came from his ability to identify with the suffering of large segments of the Russian population, as well as his capacity for insulting the putative enemies of the poor and disenfranchised. These enemies included "cosmopolitans"--i.e., Jews, Boris Yeltsin and the economic reformers who championed Western economic policies and Western political ideals, Muslims, criminals, and, most importantly perhaps, a wide variety of foreign nation-states.

Although Zhirinovsky had many enemies, he seems to have gained the most traction with his attacks on Islam. For Zhirinovsky, and presumably many of his supporters, Russia's very existence was being undermined by a wide circle of Islamic and Turkic nation-states and cultures. Outlandishly, the demagogue even proposed that it was Russia's historic mission to move once more toward the Indian Ocean. But Zhirinovsky's anger was diverted into many channels and at one time or another he made deeply offensive, historically insensitive, and threatening verbal attacks against the Baltic republics, America, Japan, Great Britain, Poland, Kazakhstan, Georgia, and dozens of other countries.

Since Zhirinovsky appealed to the lowest common denominator in Russian politics, his popularity foundered on the rocks of political and economic realism. Eventually he lost the nomination of his own political party. However, his strange and flamboyant career remains historically significant insofar as it outlined Russia's longstanding grievances against the West as well as Islam, and showcased Russia's inevitable response to unrestrained economic and social dislocation. Against a backdrop of runaway inflation and unemployment, Zhirinovsky's untutored strictures against both unregulated capitalism or traditional communism seemed valid to many Russians. They may also lend at least some credence to the notion that Putin isn't the worst of all possible Russian responses to perceived internal chaos and external diplomatic and cultural pressure.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Kennedy and Nixon on Communism

This blog generally analyzes internal Russian affairs in the Soviet, and especially early Soviet, period. However, as this blog's opinions necessarily reflect the American biases of its principle author, from time to time we shall endeavor to interrogate the historical perceptions of Americans toward the USSR. The fiftieth anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's inauguration, celebrated by a variety of special programs on Comcast's "on demand" offerings, is a perfect opportunity for such an exploration.

What, for instance, do the first two Nixon-Kennedy presidential debates reveal about America's relationship to the Soviet Union in 1960? In the first place, the two men agreed that Communist Russia represented a clear and present danger to the United States. While not specifically referencing Russia's nuclear arsenal, Nixon and Kennedy each explained to their potential audience of 180 million Americans, that Communism was a tyrannical, fanatical philosophy of un-freedom espoused by a determined enemy of the United States. Khrushchev, the leader of this morally bankrupt regime, had just threatened to "bury" his capitalist opponents and banged on the table at the United Nations. Nixon, unimpressed, called the man a "butcher of thousands," in a gross understatement of the historical record, and said that he would raise taxes "without hesitation" to combat the international threat of Communism. Kennedy, eager to show his own impeccable credentials as a leader in the fight against the encroachments of the Soviet Union, said that he and other Democratic leaders in the Congress had tried to spend more than Eisenhower had put forth in his military budget.

The two men also agreed that the domestic situation in the United States was directly related to the international contest with Russia and its allies. If African-Americans were disenfranchised, or the economy stagnated, Russia would be the direct beneficiary, both in terms of its relative power and its reputation abroad.

The two men disagreed on one essential aspect of the Cold War: which side was winning? Nixon, understandably, claimed that the Eisenhower administration had stabilized the situation after Truman had lost China. The economy of the USSR, he said, represented only forty-four percent of the United States' GNP.

Kennedy demurred with Nixon's optimistic assessment, arguing that the tide of history threatened to change course and that Eisenhower had failed to keep the Communist menace at bay. Why hadn't the previous administration done more to win hearts and minds in Africa, Asia, and, most importantly, Latin America? Why hadn't Eisenhower sent more students and specialists overseas? Why had Nixon failed to criticize the dictator, Batista, in order to avert a radical as opposed to a democratic revolution in the country? Why had America been forced to lie about the downing of its U2 spy plane in Russian air space?

Kennedy asserted that the country had great cause to be dissatisfied with the government's "vigor." Even if the USSR's economy lagged behind that of America's, it was gaining ground quickly. It was educating more scientists and engineers than America. It was discovering and exploiting new natural resources faster than we were.

Who was right? Was America winning or losing the Cold War in 1960? In hide-sight, it's hard to credit Kennedy's assertion that America was on the verge of losing out to Khrushchev's Russia, which would soon enter into a long period of stagnation before eventually collapsing under the weight of its own military spending and economic inefficiency. After all, many Russians were already noticing very real flaws in their country's economic and intellectual life. On the the other hand, the world was in flux. In the last few years, Americans had watched as China became communist and gained diplomatic recognition, the Russians invaded Hungary, Khrushchev behaved more and more erratically by cancelling summits and issuing threats, the Soviet Union scored important scientific victories in the space race, Berlin grew more vulnerable, and a complex and ever-shifting post-colonial landscape emerged in three different continents.

Who won the first two presidential debates? Historians tells us that audience members who heard the debates on the radio thought that Nixon had carried the day. Certainly he appeared to be a moderate, civilized, experienced, and thoughtful champion of conservative values such as limited government and entrepreneurialism. But historians also say that people who saw the debates on television believed that the charismatic Kennedy had triumphed.

In the end, the relatively inexperienced Kennedy has to be seen as the victor. He stood toe-to-toe with a much more experienced man, and managed to present himself as more opposed to communism than a man with much better established anti-communist bona fides. The rhetorical strength of Kennedy's approach to change and reform was to link his ideas about Civil Rights progress, education, and anti-poverty, to an overall concern for America's competitiveness in the Cold War.

Thursday, January 13, 2011


If there was a Michael Jackson of the late Tsarist and early Soviet period it was certainly the internationally famous and nationally adored opera star, Chaliapin, who famously played such roles as Boris Godunov, Don Quixote, and Mephistopheles. According to music historians, Chaliapin was one of the best actors (as well as singers) the opera has ever seen. Adopting a style of acting that was perfectly attuned to Stanislavsky's revolutionary new theory of acting, Chaliapin transformed himself into each new part he played, down to the tiniest mannerism, facial expression, and dab of personally applied makeup.

In fact, photos of his various performances, and indeed early films of other performances, demonstrate the power of these metamorphoses. The acclaimed opera star never looked the same twice: each new character was exceedingly original, as unlike any previous role as he was unlike Chaliapin, the man. He was, in other words, Marlon Brando avante la lettre, and he behaved as such, firing directors, debating performance ideas with Toscanini, and famously telling one of them: "Here on the stage, the actors are in charge." And no Chaliapin villain emerged without the capacity to inspire human empathy, even admiration, as well as pity, fear, or loathing.

Elisabeth Kapnist's documentary, Chaliapin: The Enchanter, traces Chaliapin's career from an impoverished, farming childhood in Kazan, when an abusive father drank heavily but failed to overcome Chaliapin's natural resilience, to early contact with the street theater at eight, to his triumphs in St. Petersburg (the Marinsky) and Moscow (the Bolshoi) and Paris (with Nijinsky, in Diaghilev's renowned Russian Seasons) and eventually abroad as an exile from Bolshevism. This story is a one of increasing aesthetic sophistication and self-assertion. It's also the story of the Russian avant garde, both in and outside of Russia, for Chaliapin maintained close ties to nearly all of Russia's cultural taste-makers, including Gorky, Bunin, Rachmaninoff, and many others. As the film reminds us, early twentieth century Russia and its diaspora was a rich cauldron of artistic experimentation. Theater, literature, and opera enriched one another throughout the years of Chaliapin's career, although Bolshevism eventually curtailed this synergy and artistic achievement in general.

Notwithstanding the great Bolshevik revolution, which divides Chaliapin's career into two distinct parts and sent Chaliapin abroad under looming threats to his very life on account of his irrepressible spirit--Soviet culture minister Lunacharsky told him "they will kill you: you are too independent--" Chaliapin had become the embodiment of Russian culture by the time of his enormous public funeral at a Parisian Russian Orthodox Church in 1938.

In Kapnist's film, Chaliapin's aged daughter describes her father as a "demi-god," someone larger than life, a citizen of the world who somehow managed to remain the epitome of Russia, that country that Chaliapin once said was "so absurd and so wonderful." To listen to the man was, said one music critic, like "having ants all over your body." It was impossible to remain unmoved.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Poetry of Akhmatova

Below are a few snippets from Anna Akhmatova'a collected works. Akhmatova was one of the greatest Russian poets of the twentieth century. Her poetry is lyrical, intensely personal, and devoted, above all, to theme of love.

I love you like forty fond sisters.

Never mind that you are insolent and evil,
Never mind that you love others.
Before me is the golden lectern,
And beside me is the gray-eyed bridegroom.

But save my letters
So that our descendants can decide,
So that you, courageous and wide,
Will be seen by them with greater clarity.
Perhaps we may leave some gaps
In your glorious biography?
Too sweet is earthly drink,
Too tight the nets of love.
Sometime let the children read
My name in their lesson book,
And on learning the sad story,
Let them smile slyly...
Since you've given me neither love nor peace,
Grant me bitter glory.

He spoke of the summer, and he also said
That for a woman to be a poet was--absurd.

If you are placed at my feet,
Sweetheart, just lie there.

The boy said to me: "How this hurts!"
And I pitied the boy so...
Just a short time ago he was content
And had only heard about sorrow.
But now he knows everything, the same
As you who are older and wise.
It seems as if the pupils of his dazzled eyes
Have contracted and dimmed.

I thought: it's impossible to love a loose woman
As if she were a bride.

When the cold came,
You trailed me impassively,
Always and everywhere,
As if amassing the tokens
Of my indifference. Forgive me!

I've learned to live simply, wisely,
To look at the sky and pray to God,
And to take long walks before evening
To wear out this useless anxiety.

The quiet is cut, occasionally,
By the cry of a stork landing on the roof.
And if you were to knock at my door,
It seems to me I wouldn't even hear.

My silent house is empty and unfriendly,
Through one window it peers at the woods.
In it someone was cut from a noose
And afterwards the body was cursed.
Whether he was melancholy or secretly happy,
There remains only death--the great victory.
On the worn, red plush of the armchairs
His shadow flickers occasionally.

Insomnia, you are with me again, again!
I recognize your fixed countenance.
What is it, my outlaw, what is it, my pretty one,
Do I sing so badly to you?

He made a charcoal mark on the left side,
The place he would shoot
To release the bird, my anguish,
Once more into the empty night.

How the night of ecstasy exhausted me,
How the morning of breathed ice.

Darling, don't crumple my letter,
Read it through, my friend, to the end.

Only children love like this,
And then only the first time.

The longing is impure,
the devil's snare.
Whiter than anything on earth
Was her hand.

When you have spent the pennies of delight
With your sweetheart
And your surfeited soul
Feels sudden disgust--
Don't come to me in my triumphant night.
I won't know you.
And how could I help you?
I don't cure anyone of unhappiness.

He will get a whole lifetime of poems,
The prayer of my arrogant lips.

The gloating mockery of disciples,
And the indifference of the crowd.

My lucky, rich inheritor,
Welcome to my legacy.

And how could I forgive her
The delight of your enamoured praise...
You see, for her, so fashionably nude,
It's fun to be sad.

The everlasting is rosy and dry. There are clouds
Crudely sculpted in the cooling sky.

The Mother of Gd will spread her white mantle
Over this enormous grief.

Lets go into a church--we will watch
A funeral, christenings, a marriage service,
Without looking at each other, we will leave...
What's wrong with us?
Or let's sit on the trampled snow
Of the graveyard, sighing lightly,
And with your walking stick you'll outline palaces
Where we will be together always.

A mother's fate--glorious anguish,
I was not worthy of it.

And so it happened: imprisonment
Became my second home,
As for the first, I don't dare
To remember it, even in prayer.

It's good that you forgive,
You weren't always so kind.

I know you won't be able
To remember much about me, little one:
I didn't scold you, I didn't hold you,
I didn't take you to Communion.

You say--my country is sinful,
And I say--your country is godless.
If the blame were ours--
Everything could be redeemed and repaired.

Like a burden henceforth unnecessary,
The shadows of passion and songs vanished from
my memory.
The Most High ordered it--emptied--
To become a grim book of calamity.

And the body no longer commemorates
the anniversary of its grief.

Forgive me that I ignored the sun
And that I lived in sorrow.
Forgive, forgive, that I
Mistook too many others for you.

Some idler invented the idea
That there's something in the world called love.

Only heaven's blue is inexhaustible,
And the mercy of God.

You are like a sinner turning his eyes,
Before death, to the sweetest dream of paradise...

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Drunks Aren't Always Drunk

Maxim Gorky's 1901 play, The Lower Depths, was an international success. Jean Renoir's 1936 film of the same name is one expression of the play's enduring power to inspire Leftist sentiment. Although Renoir's version of The Lower Depths transports scenes of misery from the banks of the Volga to the banks of a French river, and, according to the IMBD, turns an ensemble production into a star vehicle for its leading man, it's easy to see why socialists and socialist sympathizers were energized by the play's storyline, or at least its rich cast of characters.

In the film, a "comme-il-faut" aristocrat gambles his money away, but retains his serene dignity--demonstrating a stoic capacity to accept the results of that ultimate game of chance, life--even as he joins the ranks of the ruined denizens of a flophouse. Simultaneously, a professional thief encounters the baron in the very act of attempting to steal from the recently bankrupt gambler, and that encounter leads to mutual understanding and respect when the baron, bereft of butler and home, winds up living at the flophouse. Lower Depths is appealing for two reasons. First, the play gives sympathetic voice to a wide variety of men and women from the previously neglected social underclass, including beaten and overworked women, thieves, gamblers, workers, and drunks. Second, it offers an avenue for personal as well as social redemption, but without becoming Manichean or unrealistic, and without utterly dehumanizing all representatives of the upper classes.

While Natasha, the heroine of the play, is victimized by a cruel and tyrannical adoptive father who exploits his lodgers lodgers, and the police and government inspector are clearly propping up an unjust social structure, Gorky's characters are complex: the landlord's cruel wife has redeeming values, and the social outcasts who are, ostensibly, the play's protagonists, have obvious and varied flaws and sins.

So how do the poor and disenfranchised achieve redemption? The answer isn't simple. Papel, the professional thief, is redeemed by the love of an innocent Natasha, by his violent defense of Natasha's honor and safety, and ultimately by physical escape from the city with Natasha by his side and the biblically significant forty coins in his pocket. The flophouse residents find it by participating in their first act of resistance against the social order, i.e., their participation in Papel's murderous attack on the landlord, and their willingness to publicly claim ownership of the avenging murder when the gendarmes arrives on the scene. The baron finds it by realizing real solidarity with people from lower social orders. Life is a game of chance after all, and it's only a strange twist of fate that leads some people to live lives of wealth and privilege, and others to live in squalid poverty and moral turpitude.

More darkly, the alcoholic actor achieves a more tragic form of redemption through suicide. Considering Hamlet's dilemma, this actor has set out at least to explore the "undiscovered country." But, as one character sadly observes in reference to the death of another flophouse resident: "Death is kind to the poor."

Redemption is also offered to the viewer or audience member. According to Gorky, liberation starts with sympathy for those who live in the "lower depths." "How," one character asks, "can we pity the dead when we don't even pity the living?" How indeed. One senses a profound humanizing tendency in Gorky's artistic vision. People are neither good nor evil; they are both, depending on the circumstances in which they find themselves. For even drunks "aren't always drunks," and even thieves "aren't always in prison."

Monday, January 10, 2011

Vertov's Perspective

Dziga Vertov was the quintessential Soviet artist, or would have been if the Communist Party didn't morph into the very antithesis of artistic expression when Stalin consolidated his grip on political power in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera, released in 1929, is an international masterpiece, much better, perhaps even much more important, than Eisenstein's more famous Battleship Potemkin example.

Man with a Movie Camera is relentlessly creative and equally intelligent. The film, edited by Vertov's wife according to the film historian who narrates Criterion's edition of the film, is the result of a marriage between sophisticated artistic theory and extremely capable technical experimentation. According to the director's introductory "inter-titles," Man with a Movie Camera is a film produced in opposition to theatrical aesthetics. As such, it purports to contain no plot, no set, and no actors.

Like Berlin Symphony, which borrowed from Vertov's earlier films in the same vein, Man with a Move Camera tells the story of the beehive as opposed to that of the bee. In other words, Vertov takes his viewer on a non-linear but spectacularly revealing tour of wide of swaths of Russian life in the late 1920s. With the insertion of a brilliant modern soundtrack--that Wikipedia says was added in 1996--the film is always engaging, dynamic, and provocative.

Movie Camera's only protagonist, apart of urban modernity, is the artist, the cinematographer. This "man with a movie camera" appears sporatically but repeatedly, and in dozens of unexpected contexts. At one moment he's in a mine shaft filming workers, at another he's on top of a building or a bridge, at another he's setting up shop at the bottom of a glass of beer--with the aid of one of Vertov's many ingenius camera tricks.

The point? Perhaps Vertov wanted to demonstrate that the artist's job is to be everywhere, film everything. Perhaps Vertov's point is that the artist is omnipotent, capable of recording every aspect of modern human endeavor, no matter how complex, how subtle, how secretive.

Of course, with the benefit of historical perspective, the visual metaphor of the man with a movie camera seems to indite modern authoritarianism as well. For the modern viewer isn't only amazed to see that the cameraman is able to capture live births, bloody accidents, and grooming women. He or she also realizes that the camera's eye eliminates the very possibility of privacy in the modern nation-date. Thus Vertov's tour de horizon depicts the poetry of everyday life, including the visual magic of tall buildings, massing crowds, moving trolleys, and speeding trains and ambulances. But it also lays bare the panopticon of modern life, in which every citizen is a part of a whole, for better or worse.

In many ways, Vertov's cinematic language fits perfectly with a socialist paradise. By eliminating sequence and plot, Vertov reveals the collective soul of society, as well its natural ties to the inorganic components of modern life, including, above all, productive machines. Man with a Movie Camera does displace the bourgeois mythology of individualism. In its wake, we see a massive social organism made up of thousands upon thousands of small, beautiful but inconsequential, moving parts--both human and mechanical.

There is no cast of characters in this film; there is a people on the move, inspired by Marx, Lenin, and the first five-year plan. The camera captures everything, and is especially interested in how the parts of the whole move. Accordingly, the camera notes how people shave, get manicures, get washed, shine shoes, wash clothes, sew, dress, recline, work (on assembly lines), jump, run, swim, play basketball, shoot (at Nazi targets), take trolleys, et cetera and so on.

Vertov's aesthetic vision, a vision that may have reflected the best of the Soviet Union's social theory, is, paradoxically, both supremely empathetic and supremely cold and detached. On the one hand, Man with a Movie Camera is profoundly interested in almost every intimate detail of the life of the people. On the other hand, the camera sees everything, marriage and divorce, health and sickness, without prejudice.

Monday, January 3, 2011

The Future in 1934

Dziga Vertov's 1934 non-narrative film, Three Songs About Lenin, is a cinematic triptych that glorifies the life of Lenin as well as the state he fathered. The film, which splits into three discrete popular songs about Lenin, tells the story of the founding father of Bolshevism through montage. As is to be expected from the maker of the highly innovative Kino Eye, Three Songs About Lenin provides the viewer with innovative propaganda and a non-linear description of the Soviet Union's accomplishments.

The first film makes the mostly visual assertion that Lenin's example and creed had a profound impact on people throughout the USSR, and indeed the world. It makes this argument by focusing on communism's allegedly beneficial influence on a rural, Islamic culture. Although the camera "demonstrates" that Muslim peasants are clearly allowed to maintain their ethnic dignity, especially in terms of their traditional dress, it also suggests that Lenin's creed has brought modernity to every nook and cranny of a vast empire. Muslim women, in particular, seem to be benefiting from contact with Leninism. They are going to school, studying the works of the great man, and getting jobs in the new economic order, i.e., the factory. They are, apparently, also freeing themselves from religion.

The second film portrays the dead Lenin in all his majesty. The preserved body is clearly the epicenter of Soviet secular idolatry. Stalin and countless other faces mourn the loss of the great man.

In the third film, Lenin's vision of a powerful, modern, highly organized society is carefully articulated. Stalin has fulfilled his mentor's dreams. The director takes his viewers on a frenzied tour of the future that includes the magnificent Russian capital, the Dnieper hydro-electrical damn, oil and coal production facilities, modern locomotives, mammoth steel works, the Volga Canal, modern agricultural machinery, an impressive air force, the nation's powerful armed forces, and other masterworks of Stalin's highly-touted five year plans, including Magnitovsk. As the film maintains through the words of "ordinary" Russians: Lenin himself would be impressed by the country's progress.

Of course, Russia's triumph is the product of a mobilized citizenry. Accordingly, dozens of frames demonstrate that Russian workers are on the move. They sing, wave flags, celebrate the famous month of October, tell stories of progress, venerate the memory of Lenin, work, drill, and mobilize to bring the future ever closer to the present.