Saturday, 2 January 2016

Dziga Vertov: How a Soviet avant-garde filmmaker became a world classic

'Man with a Movie Camera' poster. Source: DPA/Vostock-Photo
Dziga Vertov was the first to consider film not as a theatrical performance or a historical document but as an independent artifact. "I am the cinema eye. I am a mechanical eye. I am a machine showing you the world in the way only I can see it," he would declare in his early manifestos. 
For Vertov the effectiveness of film's impression on the viewer is not related to the actors acting out an entertaining story in front of the camera, or to the camera being placed in some specific place, for example a meeting where Lenin was to speak. Its primary effect is caused by the interchanging of full shots, medium shots and close-ups, by the rhythm with which the shots alternate and how fast and slow motion are used.

Even official events whose filming he directed (between 1922 and 1925 he managed the department of newsreels at the All-Union Film Association, then State Cinema, which produced films in the USSR and engaged in censorship) were filmed from unexpected points and angles with a hidden camera: from a moving car, a factory pipe, the wheels of a train.

The plots of Vertov's earlier films have secondary meaning. His most famous and radical films, Cinema Eye (1924) and Man with a Movie Camera (1929), are large-scale film frescoes whose plots can be summed up with short phrases: "Life in a big city" and "The old and the new," while their artistry is generated by the parallelism of shots and the impetuous rhythm of the editing.

However, the first film received a medal and a diploma from the World Exhibition in Paris (1924) and the second was elected as one of the 10 best films of all time and the best documentary film by British film critics in 2012.

Of course, the development of the cinematographic language in the 1910-20s was developing in various countries, in both narrative and documentary films, and later in sound films. But Vertov indeed anticipated many of the works made by David Griffith, Fritz Lang and Leni Riefenstahl, whose Olympia (1938) is considered a model for documentary film.

However, like any avant-garde artist, though himself unaware of it, Vertov was very close to long-established traditions. The late articles of the great Russian writer Leo Tolstoy contain a categorical refusal of the conventions of traditional theater (Shakespeare's plays and classical opera), but also the idea that anticipated the concept of film editing: that art is born not with the description of vivid characters and their vicissitudes, but only with their "connection," that is, editing.

Vertov's real name was David Kaufman, which unambiguously points to his Jewish origin. But the desire of the talented youth from Bialystok (at the time part of the Russian Empire, today Poland) to change his surname upon arrival in Moscow was unlikely to have been due to anti-Semitism – in the 1920s it was not as developed as in the 1950s. Vertov, like many avant-garde artists, probably just chose a new name to herald "a new life."

In Ukrainian dziga means whirligig, spinning top, whilevertov comes from the verb vertet (to spin). The two form something like "the spinning whirligig," a name that was entirely fitting for the man who bore it.

Dziga's brother Boris Kaufman, who was 10 years younger, emigrated from Russia after the revolution, graduated from the Sorbonne in Paris, moved to America and became a famous director of photography, working with Sydney Lumet and Elia Kazan. In fact, Kazan's On the Waterfront brought Boris an Oscar in 1953.

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Monday, 30 November 2015

Prominent Russian film director Eldar Ryazanov dies aged 88

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An iconic figure in Russian cinema, movie director Eldar Ryazanov, loved by millions for his timeless classics, has died in Moscow age 88, his family has revealed.

Over the past year, Ryazanov was repeatedly hospitalized with reported heart problems. On November 21, the director once again ended up at a Moscow clinic. Doctors noted that the star developed shortness of breath. Medics also found fluid in his lungs and diagnosed him with the pulmonary and cardiac failure. He was placed on artificial ventilation.

“He is no more,” Ryazanov’s grandson Dmitry Troyanovsky told RIA Novosti early Monday.

The People’s Artist of the USSR, Eldar Ryazanov, was a Soviet film director, screenwriter and actor, most well known for his satirical comedies – “Old Men – Robbers,” “Unbelievable Adventures of Italians in Russia,” “Office Romance,” “Station for Two,” “Garage” and many others.

Born in Samara in November 1927, he graduated with honors from the Soviet State Institute of Cinematography (VGIK) in 1950 as a film director.

Ryazanov made documentaries for five years, before taking up employment at Mosfilm Studios in 1955. His first feature film “Karnavalnaya Noch” (Carnival in Moscow, 1956) made him a legend overnight.

Ryazanov created his own style of comedy which cleverly satirized Soviet life. His main hit was the extremely popular 1975 TV-movie “Ironiya sidby, ili s lyogkim parom!” (The Irony of Fate, or enjoy your bath) which became a cult piece. It is still shown every New Year’s Eve as a tradition in the countries of the former Soviet Union.

Ryazanov leaves behind his wife, a daughter and a grandson from his second marriage.

Saturday, 28 November 2015

Aleksei German Jr.: Under Electric Clouds - Под электрическими облаками (2015)

Under the electric clouds (2015)

Director: Aleksei German Jr.
Cast: Louis Franck, Merab Ninidze, Viktoria Korotkova, Chulpan Khamatova, Viktor Bugakov, Karim Pakachakov, Konstantin Zeliger, Anastasiia Melnikova, Piotr Gasowski

Awards : Silver Bear Berlin International Film Festival : Berlinale, Berlin (Germany), 2015

Aleksei German Jr.’s Under Electric Clouds is a highly impressionistic existentialist drama on the theme of the “superfluous men” inhabiting the futuristic Russia of 2017. As German points out in interviews, the choice of such an emblematic year (i.e. the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution) was somewhat accidental, since originally the intention was to capture the image of contemporary life in Russia from the distance of a near future. “In order to speak about time,” the director explains, “one has to look at it from a little distance, because everything is changing” (Kostin 2015). The film’s production, launched in 2010, was initially scheduled for completion in 2012. But because of a series of delays due to financial problems as well as Aleksei Iu. German’s death which required the director to complete his father’s Hard to Be a God (Trudno byt’ bogom), the production extended to 2015, thus making the year 2017 a futuristic vantage point for exploring Russia’s present condition. As many critics were quick to notice, German’s Russia is not a place where one would want to live: a foggy, vast, barren, post-apocalyptic wasteland frozen in melancholic inertia and traversed by somnambulically wandering people amidst damaged gigantic statues and abandoned construction sites. The gloomy sky, heavily laden with dark clouds, serves as the surface for the projection of electronic advertisements. As a voice-over narrator tells us in the beginning, “everyone seems to be waiting for a great war, globalization failed to unify the world.” The anxious anticipation of a war permeates the entire atmosphere of the film, whether through impersonal voices speculating about a coming catastrophe or the dim drone of passing military trucks at night. Given that Under Electric Clouds is a Russian-Ukrainian-Polish co-production conceived long before the current Russia-Ukraine conflict, the film’s prophetic forecast seems particularly uncanny.


Under the electric clouds (2015)

The film consists of seven interconnected chapters centered around an unfinished skyscraper, whose ghostly helix-shaped skeleton looms in the foggy distance above a desolate winter landscape. This spectacular architectural wonder was commissioned by a now disgraced oligarch whose recent death has caused a halt in its construction. Each of the protagonists in German’s carefully designed tableau is, in one way or another, related to the obscure destiny of this building. The film opens with the story about Karim, a Kyrgyz migrant worker (Karim Pakachakov), who used to work at the skyscraper construction site but now wanders around in search for a place to rest. Unable to speak a word in Russian, he cannot communicate with others yet desperately tries to get directions for an electronic repair store to fix the broken boom-box which he carries around. Eventually he lays himself on a windblown beach, covering up with a large plastic tarp to protect himself from cold, yet is awaken soon by a violent man brutally stabbing a woman (earlier in the film the viewer may learn from the barely distinct, impersonal chatter that there is a serial killer terrorizing the neighborhood). Karim overpowers the murderer, crushing his scull against the frozen ground, yet is too late to save the bleeding victim, with whom he lies down afterwards and holds her hand to soothe her agony. The novella ends with Karim painfully managing to pronounce his first words in Russian (“How can I get to an electronics repair store?“), with the help of some passerby who happens to be kind enough to understand the supplications of a poor immigrant, which symbolically dramatizes his social inclusion into the foreign environment.

The next chapter introduces the two adult children of the deceased oligarch, Sasha (Viktoria Korotkova) and Dania (Viktor Bugakov), who have come from abroad to deal with their father’s heritage. With just a few details, German provides a rather succinct characterization of both siblings: Dania is a soft airheaded hipster fantasizing about establishing a literary fellowship for young writers, while Sasha, with a hearing aid behind her ear and occasional nose bleeding, is emphatically sensitive and fragile yet spiritually strong and wise. Pressured by an FSB officer investigating the oligarch’s criminal past, and their uncle Boria, anxiously persuading her to sell the estate, Sasha nevertheless decides to stay in Russia and take care of her father’s legacy, including the abandoned skyscraper, with which she strangely falls in love by comparing its twisted structure with human lives, “also broken yet standing.”

Under the electric clouds (2015)

The third episode centers on Marat, a real estate lawyer (Konstantin Zeliger), who helped the oligarch obtain the land for the skyscraper. He is haunted by a recurrent dream which transports us to the final days of the Soviet Union before its collapse, suggested by Gorbachev’s resignation speech on television (26 December 1991). Marat wanders about the oneiric city of his childhood, where he meets the ghost of his best friend who was murdered for no reason in 1995. The ghost is grateful to Marat for his nostalgic dreams since he is the only one who still remembers him. This story strongly resonates with German’s short From Tokyo (2011) about a former rescue worker returning home from Tokyo on a plane and having a conversation with the ghost of his wife who died long ago. Given that both characters are exceptionally righteous men, it would be safe to suggest that memory, represented as the melancholic attachment to the beloved of the past, plays a definitively ethical role in German’s films: to live a life as a morally upright person one has to exist both in the present and the past at the same time. According to German, it is precisely by preserving memories of the past in our present lives that we can adhere to what can be called a moral code. Such a moral standard based on memory could also be applicable to the director himself, since all his previous features are essentially about the past.

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Thursday, 19 November 2015

Stanislav Govorukhin: The End of a beautiful epoch - Конец прекрасной эпохи (2015)

The end of a great era (2015)

Director: Stanislav Govorukhin
Writers: Sergei Dovlatov (story), Stanislav Govorukhin (screenplay)
Stars: Ivan Kolesnikov, Svetlana Khodchenkova, Fyodor Dobronravov

The end of a great era (2015)

With the term “beautiful epoch”, the author means those ten eventful years following the death of the Leader. The word “beautiful” is meant ironically, because this decade, of course, saw both good and bad things. Nevertheless, what a time it was! How many hopes there were!.. What a sense of an approaching festivity!... How many events! Remember!.. The Twentieth Party Congress... The first satellite!.. Man in space!.. With Pushkin’s words: “How the Russian heart throbbed at the word ‘Fatherland’.” And the miracle of art! Wherever you look, suddenly... and the tremendous literature!.. A brilliant galaxy of poets!.. New theatres... The great cinema!...



Thursday, 12 November 2015

Pyotr Chardynin: Mirages - Миражи (1915)

Director: Pyotr Chardynin
Writers: Lidiya Charskaya, Ekaterina Tissova
Stars: Arseniy Bibikov, Tamara Gedevanova, Andrej Gromov,Vera Kholodnaya


Black and white, silent, fiction

 

Monday, 2 November 2015

Sergey Bondarchuk: They Fought for Their Country - Они сражались за Родину (1975)

They Fought for Their Country (1975)

Director: Sergey Bondarchuk
Writers: Sergey Bondarchuk, Mikhail Sholokhov (novel)
Stars: Vasiliy Shukshin, Vyacheslav Tikhonov, Sergey Bondarchuk

Awards :
Nominated, Cannes Film Festival, 1975
Special Prize, International Film Festival, Karlovy Vary,1976
National Prize of Russia, 1977
Prize Brothers Vasilyev for Vadim Yusov (cinematography), 1977

They Fought for Their Country (1975)

It is July 1942, the army is retreating and a small group of exhausted soldiers, the last of their regiment, are defending a plot of land. Tank tracks and wilted grass are all a part of the surrounding scenery, making the struggle even more depressing for the soldiers. From Oscar winning director Sergei Bondarchuk (War and Peace) this is a powerful Biblical tale, portraying an absurd clash between the earth and the inhuman war machine, a metaphor of confrontation, eternal life and evil forces.

Ella Manzheeva: The Gulls - Чайки (2015)

Seagulls (2015)

Director: Ella Manzheeva
Cast: Evgeniy Sangadzhiev

 Awards : Best first film Open Russian Film Festival Kinotavr, Sochi (Russia), 2015

Seagulls (2015)

The Gulls tells the story of Elza, who lives in a small town in the Republic of Kalmykia on the Caspian Sea. Another year comes to an end, it’s cold and the steppe is covered in a thin layer of snow. When her husband, who makes a living from illegal fishing, asks her one night what she did during the day, she lies. She wasn’t at her mother’s, but at the bus stop. She thought of leaving – to find out what it might be to escape the infinite expanse of her dreary small world. But she didn’t dare; instead she stays and withdraws into herself, unconcerned by who might see. One day, her husband doesn’t return from a dangerous boat trip. It is said that a fisherman only returns if he has a woman waiting for him and that seagulls are the souls of the missing.