Monday, 13 September 2010

Lev Kuleshov: The Great Consoler - Великий утешитель (1933)

Великий утешитель (1933)

Director: Lev Kuleshov
Cast: Galina Kravchenko, V. Lopatin, O. Raevskaya, Konstantin Hohlov, Ivan Novosel

The film takes place in America in 1899, and in its principal plot depicts Bill Porter, who is the great consoler of the title, in prison. His writing skills earn him privileges from the governor and he is spared the inhumane treatment meted out to other prisoners. Porter is very much aware of the brutality around him but, mindful of his better conditions, refuses to write about prison life. He prefers to console his less-well-treated friends, and indeed all his readers, with excessively romantic fantasies in which good invariably triumphs.

One of these stories, "The Metamorphosis of James Valentine," creates an alter-ego for a wrongly imprisoned convict friend, who suffers the worst injustices of the prison and is dying of tuberculosis. The story flatters Valentine with an unrealistic degree of attractiveness, charm and intelligence. With his endless optimism, Porter tries to make this story come true by brokering a deal between the governor and Valentine, which will give the latter a pardon. The governor, however, deceives Valentine, who dies in prison. Furious, Valentine's friend, Al, starts a riot and the film closes with Porter's admission that his artistic philosophy has failed.

The film is nominally based on three text sources: a biography of the American author O Henry by his fellow prisoner, Al Jennings, Beating Back: Through the Shadows with O Henry, and two works by O Henry himself, "A Retrieved Reformation" and "An Unfinished Story." O Henry was the nom de plume of William Porter and there is a character who appears under both names in the film.[13] Al Jennings also plays a role in the character of Al.

There is a significant difference between O Henry/Porter, the real-life author and his fictional counterpart in the film.[14] Porter was indeed jailed, as in the film, although the real-life Porter could hardly claim to be totally innocent of the crime, as is claimed in the film's opening titles. Wrongly charged with embezzlement from the bank he worked at, Porter rejected the opportunity to clear his name at a trial and instead left the country in the company of a group of outlaws, including Jennings. He was arrested, tried and sentenced to five years in prison when he returned to visit his seriously ill wife.

It was in Ohio State Penitentiary that his writing career was transformed from that of a humorous newspaper columnist to a mature writer of short stories. He is still noted, if not famous, for his ability as a raconteur of ordinary tales of New York people, told in a simple street-wise style. Despite his mechanically simple plots, modern critics of American literature can still credit him with being "a master of the surprise ending."[15] In Russia, his works were widely read in the 1920s[16] and such eminent Russians as the formalist critic Boris Eikhenbaum[17] and the writer Evgeni Zamiatin[18] wrote on O Henry's works. By the 1930s, when the film was made, his popularity everywhere was in decline, and in Russia he was heavily criticised.[19]

The real O Henry, whilst hardly a towering pillar of morality and social justice in modern literature, has nevertheless survived with a reputation that exceeds that of Kuleshov's fictionalisation of him. He certainly has a good deal more rogueish a personality than the film character. O Henry in the film is portrayed as a spineless coward whose stories, although popular, are of negligible artistic merit.

The film is essentially just as concerned with what the real O Henry did not write about as with what he did write about. Eikhenbaum, in discussing the work of the real-life author O Henry, quotes two examples of where O Henry refused to write about the reality of a situation.[20] The first is where O Henry chose to represent James Valentine in his story as having opened a safe with a set of tools when the real-life Valentine opened it using the gruesome method of filing his fingernails off. In the second case, O Henry refused to write about a girl who shot a banker who had seduced her. Asked by Al Jennings why he would not use the story when it had "a great throb to it," O Henry yawned that "the pulse beats too loud [...] it's very commonplace."[21]

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