Tag Archives: soviet union

Gypsies Are Found Near Heaven

Even in 2017 there still remains a relative void of criticism surrounding latter day Soviet Cinema available in English. For the most part critical discussions of Russian cinema during the late Soviet period tend to center upon the Gosinko’s repressive policies or the election of Elem Klimov to the position of First Secretary of the Filmmaker’s Union in May 1986 (roughly corresponding with the Glasnost). In auteurist terms, the discourse surrounding Soviet cinema during this period is predominantly concerned with two filmmakers; Andrei Arsenyevich Tarkovsky and Sergei Parajanov. This limited view of Soviet cinema hampers the discourse of either subject since a concise and detailed context remains elusive.

Rada

It is these conditions that prevent me from going in depth with tracing the production history of Emil Loteanu’s lyrical 1975 film Gypsies Are Found Near Heaven. I can however provide a minimum of context by simplifying some aesthetic trends in the Soviet Cinema. Auteurist discourse and the capitalist machine that has come to be an intrinsic part of it would stipulate that Soviet cinema could be divided into three separate schools (by “schools” I mean spheres and/or origins of influence). There is the Dziga Vertov school, the Alexander Dovzhenko school, and of course the Sergei Eisenstein school of filmmaking. By looking at the heritage of Soviet cinema in such broad strokes, categorization of a film becomes relatively simple. If Gypsies Are Found Near Heaven has any relation at all to these three “schools” then it is surely to that of Dovzhenko. Like Dovzhenko, and later Parajanov, Loteanu’s cinema is preoccupied with insular cultures trapped within the USSR. All three filmmakers employ expressionistic camera angles and moves to convey a mysticism that while always remaining ambiguous never loses its inherent familiarity, like reiterations of motifs from almost forgotten fairytales. Loteanu is not as gifted an image maker as Dovzhenko though, nor is he an avant gardist innovator like Parajanov. Emil Loteanu opts to negate controversy and to derive much of the power of his films from his long collaboration with the composer Eugen Doga.

Those familiar with Loteanu’s much more popular international co-production Anna Pavlova (1983) may be surprised that most of the filmmaker’s career was as defined by his literary adaptations as by their music. Gypsies Are Found Near Heaven is a musical; produced during the height of Loteanu’s collaboration with Eugen Doga. In adapting Maxim Gorky’s short stories Makar Chudra and Old Izergil for the screen, Loteanu conjures images of gypsies that look shockingly like those images we have come to associate with European Westerns. This is not entirely surprising when one considers the social and political parallels between outlaws, bandits and gypsies within the two seemingly disparate cultures. Gypsies serve many of the same functions in Russian folklore as Westerns do in American and Western European traditions in terms of providing a romantic depiction of a societal “outsider” and the moral code that both isolates the “outsider” while also drawing the “outsider” into the fabric of our shared moral understandings which, at times, differ from the laws of our society.

Gypsies Are Found Near Heaven

The romantic depictions of gypsy outlaws and their Robin Hood existence are all designed so that within a sequence a musical climax is reached, erupting from fable to musical ecstasy and flamboyance. The economy of images in Gypsies Are Found Near Heaven privileges wide shots that ground characters either within the context of a mass (the gypsy communities) or of a location (urban versus pastoral). Balancing this aesthetic program is Loteanu’s use of POV close-ups. The close-ups in Gypsies Are Found Near Heaven are sensual and emotional, using a shallow depth of field to isolate subjects in the center of frame, confrontationally communicating emotion in a manner that is almost direct address. The spatial discrepancies between wide shots and POV close ups make up a rhythm that coincides with the rising and falling of Doga’s music in the soundtrack. Often the film will, as a scene progresses, speed up the rate of cutting in anticipation of the music and then, once the song has begun, cut to the beat of the music. This dialogue between the auditory and the visual in the film, its ebb and flow, is well suited to the gypsy folk style of music, imbuing the film with an overall sense of folkloric fantasy and the sort of revelry one associates with such spectacles.

Gypsies Are Found Near Heaven finds its most entrancing and memorable images in the scenes between the ill fated lovers Rada (Svetlana Toma) and Zobar (Grigore Grigoriu). The scene where Rada appears almost like a phantom out of a thicket to tend Zobar’s wounds contains the most expressionistic of shots in the film. As Rada approaches Zobar with her hand out, the camera takes a position twenty degrees to her right, with a shallow focus that is sharp only on her hand. This eerie emergence gives way to their sensual exchange as Rada tends Zobar’s wounds, conveying to us, in visual terms, that it is Rada who is seducing Zobar (an interesting role reversal).

Gypsies Are Found Near Heaven

One of the reasons that Gypsies Are Found Near Heaven is not better known in the West today may in fact be due largely to its relative “low-brow” stature and wide commercial appeal. The year Loteanu made Gypsies Are Found Near Heaven also saw the release of Tarkovsky’s The Mirror (1975). Though Gypsies Are Found Near Heaven may hold the record for the widest release of a Russian film in all of time (and made an international star out of Svetlana Toma), it doesn’t have the intellectual merits of a film by Tarkovsky, which is to say that it can never find its stride with a contemporary Western audience whose motive in seeing most foreign films is predicated by the notion that a foreign film should affirm one’s intelligence and cultural literacy.

-Robert Curry

Leave a comment

Filed under international films

The Singing Ringing Tree

The following is an excerpt from the upcoming book Cinema Homosexualis by Thomas Lampion.  Part Hollywood Babylon, part Movie Journal, Lampion’s anthology of well researched essays offer a unique glimpse at some of the cinema’s most obscure and misunderstood films.  What unifies these essays as well as these films is their adherence to fantasy; the fantastic.

The Singing Ringing Tree (1957) is one of the most important fairy tale films, second only to Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast as one of the crown jewels of Europe’s legacy to Fairy Tale Cinema. It is a film that rivals, or perhaps matches the psychological pathos of even The Wizard of Oz. What makes The Singing Ringing Tree so original in comparison to its more famous cousins are its very conflicted but intriguing roots. The Singing Ringing Tree is from the world of the Brothers Grimm, the decadent, technicolor product of a rigid Communist Film Industry, the ghosts of German Expressionism and the most primitive but enchanting theatricality.

The Singing Ringing Tree

Walt Disney’s contribution to the genre of fantasy was all prevalent after the silent era had closed, practically inventing the world of fairy tales in a cinematic environment that was inevitably leaning to the guiles of technological advancement in color and sound. After the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves in 1937, a question was aroused, could a fantasy be fully evoked and depicted in live action, incorporating color and sound to the fullest possible extent? Could it be just as endearing and engaging as Disney’s cartoons which seemed to have been made from the most potent of magic? Whatever attempt to gage Fairyland were done in response or retaliation to the set norms that Disney had invented and perfected. The Wizard of Oz in 1939 is certainly the first challenge to rise to the occasion, but outside of the Hollywood Studio System, the question still pertained, particularly in the East.

How the communists loathed Walt Disney, with his decadence, his instilling of American Morals in the most European of Folklore. The cinematic factories of the Soviet Union and Communist East Germany could only retaliate by controlling film distribution, only the most advanced in the cogs of Soviet Russia could win a chance at seeing Disney’s films, the Soviets had their own factories rival Disney’s output. With a bevy of their own intrinsic folklore, they were able to churn out hundreds of both animated and live action fairy tale films that seeped into the communist sub-conscious. Some imitated Disney’s inclinations, but the films that survived and endured evolved from a nationalist identity and a left field originality. East Germans perhaps had an easier time travelling beyond the wall to see Disney, but the problems were still the same. The East Germans had inherited the land of the Brothers Grimm, a world filled with its own morals and symbolism, ones that even the most left leaning could hardly gage or agree with, making The Singing Ringing Tree’s existence even more astonishing.

The Singing Ringing Tree steps beyond being merely a product of its time, like so many German films of the 1950’s. According to Quinna Shen’s fantastic book The Politics of Magic, The Singing Ringing Tree was a deeply troubled production. The East German Film Industry had since its invention after the war, relied considerably on West German artists input, however, this notion became hotly contested among the powers that be at DEFA Studios once Francesco Stefani had been hired as a guest director. While the West Germans aesthetic tendencies meant appeal beyond the walls and into the international scene, by 1957, a real concern over the West German input’s lack of political ideology and what they perceived to be capitalist influence was beginning to bristle hairs. The production crew refused to accept any credit or responsibility for the finished product by the time it was released. Many on the film board were less than thrilled with the concept of a Princess as a protagonist, its old fashioned morals of kindness and inner beauty not meeting the changing standards of the studio’s political system.

Many East German Fairy Tale films were done in a droll, literal style, especially if closely supervised by the higher political powers. One aspect that likely crossed hairs was the films very real camp aesthetic, not from the influence of cartoons, but of two centuries of traditional children’s book illustration. While many Fairy tale films of the era evoked a pragmatic naturalism, The Singing Ringing Tree insists on a fantastic world contained in sets, matte paintings and miniatures. This world makes no apologies or concessions’, it is implemented with its own symbolism, setting the stage for emotions of love, jealousy, anger and deception, amplifying it to delirious heights, rivaling even the most American of fantasies. Visually, the film takes almost no real nods to Disney, but in fact, seems to invent its own alarming visual language. No Fairies or mushrooms, no wicked witches or evil step-parents. Maybe what is so alarming about The Singing Ringing Tree is how structurally unorthodox its characters are in comparison to other fairy tale films. One is often taught to believe that to keep a fairy tale film on the right path one must have relatable, endearing characters to engage an audience. This film does the very opposite. Nearly every character until the end is remarkably unlikeable, even despicable. The plot centers round the behavior of a wicked, selfish Princess and an initially fool-hardy Prince Charming. The Princess refuses to marry him, only under the condition that he brings back the Singing Ringing Tree. The tree not surprisingly, is in custody of a wicked dwarf, who turns the Prince into a bear, and the Princess into a hideous hag. We are endeared to these characters over-time, not by song and dance or by cuddly cartoon creatures, but by the very real, and often negative emotions we all feel as children and adults.

The Singing Ringing Tree

The film was a success on both sides of the wall and even around the world. Perhaps the film’s most notorious reputation was in Great Britain. Tired of American Programming involving Bugs Bunny and Westerns, the BBC’s Children’s Programming Division decided to buy the rights to a handful of East German Fairy Tale films as a sort of antidote in the late 50’s and 60’s. The films were so cheaply presented, that they were in fact not even dubbed or subtitled, but merely laid with a voice-over track, narrating the original audio, as if wicked dwarves and paper mache goldfish weren’t quite creepy enough, its well feared, and loved by a generation of British Baby-boomers much in the way The Wizard of Oz was in America.

-Thomas Lampion

Leave a comment

Filed under international films

The Power Of Image In Chris Marker’s The Last Bolshevik

            Chris Marker’s The Last Bolshevik (1992) presents itself as a film about Soviet filmmaker Alexander Medvedkin (best known for the feature film Happiness), but if one goes beyond its promotional materials and synopses The Last Bolshevik is, in reality, a cine-essay concerned not just with a single film director but the political environment that dictated the construction and composition of that director’s, as well as his peers’, images.  Chris Marker’s career was dedicated to the investigation of images, their circumstance, context, politics, content, composition, poetry, etc.  And what better subject is there to quell Marker’s appetite than a film dealing with the career of one of the most obscure yet iconoclastic filmmakers working in Stalinist Russia?

1222028827_7

            Critic Jonathan Rosenbaum is right in pointing out in his book Movies As Politics that Marker’s relationship and understanding of Medyedkin’s career is dependent on Marker’s radical left-bank activities in Paris during the summer of 1968 when the two filmmakers first met.  As evidenced by William Klein’s film Mr. Freedom (1969), the radicals of the left bank were obsessive in their investigation and perverted appropriation of communist slogans and other forms of propaganda.  But the desired ends for the revolutions of October and May were not entirely the same, other than a similarly idealistic hope for positive reform.  Yet, if one assumes a perspective subjective to that of Chris Marker and his film’s subject one is immediately struck by just how close the two ideologies are to becoming identical.  Both Marker and Alexander Medvedkin believe in Utopia and, through their affected approach to montage, launch investigations as to why Utopia has not yet been achieved.  From this standpoint The Last Bolshevik must be read as a personal inquisition on Marker’s part as to what mechanisms, both political and uniquely filmic, allow for revolution to become so quickly derailed by the revolutionaries themselves.  Of course there is no answer to Marker’s inquisition, only the refining of his questions and an achieved understanding that, given it is afforded only through second hand testimony, is not totally reliable but absolutely as subjective as it is illustrative.

The majority of The Last Bolshevik is composed of the testimonials of persons who either knew or studied Alexander Medvedkin.  The subjects who have only academic experience with Medvedkin are as dependent on the testimony of the persons who knew Medvedkin as Marker is, and their remembrances can be, at times, as contradictory as the testimonials in Warren Beatty’s Reds (1981).  For Chris Marker these inconsistencies and minor continuity errors in memory are of little importance because he is able to supplement their errors with images.

            Upon watching The Last Bolshevik one is immediately struck by how long Marker must have sifted through the many archives that survive in Russia to assemble his footage.  Then one is struck again by how carefully he has observed it, at one time freezing on a frame of an aerial view of a reenactment of the storming of The Winter Palace and citing that a photograph exists from standard eye level that is often passed-off as being contemporary to the real event being re-made for the camera in the air.  The obsessive approach Marker has taken is further evidence of his aesthetic link to the Soviet directors of the twenties and thirties.  In one instance, during The Last Bolshevik, Marker quotes Alexander Medvedkin’s retelling of how he wept the first time he cut two images together for one of his newsreels, that he (Alexander Medvedkin) was overwhelmed by the power those two images possessed when coupled together.  This exemplifies the connection between Marker and his subject while at the same time revealing how far more dependent The Last Bolshevik is on its images rather than the remembrances that play on its soundtrack.

            It is therefore important to contextualize The Last Bolshevik within the moment of its production in 1992 (five years after Alexander Medvedkin’s death at the age of 89).  Documentary film and historical cine-essays had adopted the Errol Morris aesthetic popularized by his film The Thin Blue Line (1988) where the content of the film would not exist without the soundtrack of testimonials and remembrances.  The Last Bolshevik, and arguably Peter Watkins’ The Freethinker of the same year, calls for a return to an image based communication in non-fiction filmmaking.

1222028826_2

            However, unlike most non-fiction films, The Last Bolshevik is as determined to display and investigate the relationship between juxtaposed images as it is to bringing factual information to its audience.  With elaborate montages Chris Marker shows his audience as much about Alexander Medvedkin and his socio-political environment as his subjects tell the audience.  This strategy, even if it had failed, would have at the very least demonstrated the aesthetic theory behind the works of Soviet Cinema that the film is all about.

-Robert Curry

Leave a comment

Filed under international films