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PITY THE poor immigrant: Russian movies have a tough time of it here in America. The usual schema involves the film being released in a few selected "liberal" cities like New York or Chicago or San Francisco, whereupon Vincent Canby reviews it, throwing in a lot of references to Chekov and the Russian dramatic tradition. Then it either slinks back to Novsibirsk or else Pauline Kael then takes a look at it from the loftiness of The New Yorker and proceeds to chat about Eisenstein and the "true" cinematic revolutionaries like Godard. If it's lucky, Stanley Kauffman will give it three stars in the New Republic and slip in a little treatise on censorship. The film is craftily analyzed for corniness; (Hollywood has invariably done it before; these Russians, of course, have had very little art since Stalin's time), foreigness (Moscow's architecture, clothing and venacular are checked for honest-to-God Communist values. Beware the film that dares show too Western, or not Western enough, a facade), and treachery (namely propaganda. Movie reviewers are sharp on the lookout for subtle messages from the Kremlin--whether they be Lenninist or dissident.)
The films are then sometimes--as happened with A Slave of Love, the last Soviet film to make it big in the United States--installed in an "art house" like the Welles, where they often play for quite a long time.
Then they slink back to Novasibirsk. In the meanwhile, they are again put through the critical wringer, Soviet films fascinate us: they are treated with all the pathological and slavish prurience of contraband. It's a wonder they all don't just buy a tract of land in Vermont and hide away forever behind a hundred yards of barbed wire fence.
THE PROBLEM, of course, is that these are not foreign movies, they are Russian movies. They are Soviet movies. They are, in the end. Communist movies. Since most of our knowledge of Russian artistic life left off with socialist realism, we are notoriously nervous about watching these works. Socialist realism has about as much to do with Soviet Life as television has to do with Western life. Yes, it reflects social values. And yes, it is official. Only a fool would deny, too, that socialist realism, in some ways, presents role models. But why is it taken with such high-toned seriousness? We laugh at McCluhan, and rightfully so, for the simple reason that he didn't seem to understand that television's sort of art can reflect life while at the same time being entirely removed from it. It just doesn't translate. Such "art" occupies a small and meaningless universe all its own, with an internal logic that, while it may look like ours, fundamentally has nothing to do with ours. Why, one wonders is Bladkov's Cement--the quintessential work of socialist realism (which contains such gastronomical metaphors as: "The sea was like boiling milk")--taken more seriously than a bunch of grabby kids having breakfast and scteasming "Leggo my Eggo" from the television? It's the same sort of fanciful persiflage.
IN YEREVAN, the capital city of Armenia, there is a huge people's park in the middle of the city. Atop a small hill, there stands a granite statue of a woman with a sword. The stones were originally intentioned for a statue of Stalin, but after his death, the Armenians defied that idea since the dictator had already butchered tow-thirds of the population. Around the base of the statue are Russian tanks--reminders of World War Two. Throughout the park are huge posters of the socialist realist school: lines of square-jawed sailors striding in unison into the future; happy collective farmers; and all manner of red flags and red kerchiefs and red messages. On any given Sunday, a good quarter of the city is up there picnicking. The kids are throwing food and the tacitly married are trying to have some semblance of a familial good time. which is no paean to "people are people" and all the mindless meanderings of secular humanism. Rather. it's that nobody bothers with all the posters and the statues and the tanks because who needs to think about them? When you get right down to it, they all represent the same thing, another drunken dream that got hopelessly fucked-up.
It's embarrassing then, to read in the Phoenix an esegesis on who or who isn't a capitalist when it comes to this movie. Or to read about what economic values any given character represents. They look just like us. you see (only cheesier), but do they think like us? There is a very strange, and very dumb defensiveness going on here. At the ideological heart of the whole Us vs. Them, communist vs. capitalists (both nice 19th century words) or Art vs. Propaganda, lies the same quandary--namely, who are you out for--yourself or the guy sitting next to you on the train? We all talk a good game, but generally the answer's going to be found in the first person. Not always, though. It's a regular crapshoot, and that's what makes life unpredictable. It depends a lot whether it's sunny and whether you've talked to your lover lately and whether you have five bucks to get a beer. On some days, sociobiology can go to hell, and you end up being a regular State Farm kind of guy. These are the days when you fantasize about being an artist (even Munch and Poe wanted to tell it to somebody) or dream about Mitterand, solidarity and the Spanish Civil War. Other days you end up tipping ten percent and thinking about law school in a fit of unmollified greed. These are the days when you're no sucker. Us against Them is really Us against Us. If there were honest-to-God Capitalists and honest-to-God Communists out there, things would be a hell of a lot easier. No one would have a lousy nights sleep. We'd be greedy and rich and happy, and they'd be sturdy and brotherly and poor and happy. We wouldn't give to Oxfam and they wouldn't have a black market.
WHICH IS TO say, yes Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears has a corny premise that's been done in Hollywood since 1930, and yes, the characters look almost like us, and yes, we obviously do it better, but it is also to say that, unless you have an awful lot to prove when you go to see this movie, you'll notice that it manages to transcend its premise and do ten times more than any of its Hollywood antecedents. And remember: We don't treat French movies like this.
The story is unremarkable, much the way the story of Breathless is unremarkable. The film chronicles the lives of three country girls, Antonina, Liudmilla and Katerina--all of whom are living in Moscow. Russia's version of Las Vegas, or maybe Marin County, a center of power where anything can happen. Not surprisingly, these honest but low-rent outsiders have dreams of playing this crapshoot for keeps--they want to marry and be able to live the Big Life for good. Antonina is shy and not terribly ambitious. A country house, a car, a nice hubby and fresh vegetables are all she really wants; and not surprisingly, she gets these fairly easily and becomes something of a Soviet Hoosier, quickly peripheral to the film. Liudmilla is going for all the marbles--a half-cocked Lucille Ball-type with fantasies as outrageous as they are unlikely. Naturally, too, hers don't work out. She snags, through an elaborate and rather funny charade, a beefy hockey player, and he, naturally turns into a ne'er-do-well, leaving her on the skids, trying to snag a better catch. She turns into another pant-suited, overly made-up loser with a hopeless streak of fantasy. You can see what you like in this. Maybe Menshov really is saying that if you gamble with killer mammon you'll end up paying the price. Maybe he really is a Communist Bob Barker. Not that you can't see plenty of her type in Milwaukee, though. It seems more likely that these characters are simply options, points on the line--the one-dimensional engines of the movie. They're there to fill in the gaps and to help with the humor and the pathos.
They're there, too, because Menshov is interested in Katerina. Their flatness leaves him room to explore her complicated character, and that's what the film is really about. It's rare to see anyone in a film, especially a woman, explored with the devotion-Menshov gives to Katerina. At the film's opening it is 1958, and we watch as the three girls bubble through Moscow, looking for love. On the second half of the film though, it is 20 years later and the movie focuses entirely on Katerina. Burned by her earlier affairs, abandoned with a child, she has ended up being one of those hydro-electric wonders--a career woman in charge of a huge plant, a mother and an occasional lover of some very occasional men. She is doing all this while still dealing with the utter cynicism of Moscow which talks about Leninism and wants, so badly, the same nice life as anyone else. Vera Alentova plays Katerina with a feel for all this schizophrenia. A strange beauty (but only if you look closely)--she ages with extraordinary carefulness. The last thing overboard is the bouncy, optimism that brought her to Moscow as a girl,--but her wariness has more and more taken it over. Her work is precious because it makes life bearable when that optimism looks like nothing more than naivete. And yet, the optimism remains. And this is what Menshov adores.
THIS IS A very long movie, and it has that odd, wistful note of so many foreign films. As Katerina's flashes of girlishness become more precious, more subdued, and more rare, one slowly feels the complexity of maturity with all it's dreadful compromises. It is not until the last fortyfive minutes or so that Menshov even bothers to give you a hint that such naivete might be fulfilled. It will come, of course, embodied in a lover who can be one with all the personas Katerina has created--a knowing idealist, a lover and an admirer of her work. And, impossibly, he does come. His name is Gosha (Alexei Batalov) and he is as too-good-to-be-true and as utterly captivating as Bogart ever was. He is a fascinating character and a joy to watch. He is a man with a subtle sense of humor and an extraordinary sense of confidant cool. His romance with Katerina, their trials and their reuniting, makes up the last part of the film and it is here that the movie transcends all of its Hollywood precedents.
Because here, an awful lot of care has been taken. All the time Menshov has spent trying to show, not simplify Katerina, makes it possible to show, not simplify her romance. And why? Because their affair is so clarly not Hollywood, and yet it's as close as you're ever likely to come. He refuses to make it easy and slick and dumb. It's a love affair against all odds, and though it will certainly lose in the end, it is as good as things can get without being celluloid.
This care Menshov takes with Katerina is a step most directors will not try. Moscow could never end anywhere after an hour and a half and still be satisfying and relatively memorable. But there is a remarkable ambition here, one that, granted, strays on occasion a bit too far in certain directions, and one which is technically not always up to the state of the art, (the shooting technique is rather workmanlike, and sometimes the directorial flourishes are, well, hackneyed), but this, after all, is not the point. and it's not much of a problem. Menshov is concerned with his actors and with his characters and here he has managed to make Moscow far more than the sum of its parts. In the end he has pulled off a remarkably true movie. And that is something that few directors. either in Hollywood or in the Ministry of Culture, can ever even try to attain.
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