No real notes of interest before this week’s screening log, but I’m very glad I sort of on a whim decided to attend Film Society’s Aleksei Guerman retrospective, whose films are completely unavailable on DVD (even though My Friend Ivan Lapshin was a dud after the first half hour and never really improved). Also of note, I was able to see Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia on 35mm at Film Society, and it is shocking how even not a particularly nice print can be better than any DVD (as in comparison to the embarrassing DVD of Stalker I saw last week). But before this becomes my latest rant against digital projection, let’s get to the films:
-Nostalghia, 1983. Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. 35mm Projection at Film Society of Lincoln Center.
-Khrustalyov, My Car!, 1998. Directed by Aleksei Guerman. 35mm Projection at Film Society of Lincoln Center.
-Trial on the Road, 1971. Directed by Aleksei Guerman. 35mm Projection at Film Society of Lincoln Center.
-My Friend Ivan Lapshin, 1984. Directed by Aleksei Guerman. 35mm Projection at Film Society of Lincoln Center.
It’s really interesting to write about Guerman’s Khrustalyov, My Car!, a whirlwind trip through all 9 layers of hell during the end of Stalin in the USSR, because it’s the type of film in which I’m not sure its viewers should have all the context or none whatsoever. What I mean is Khrustalyov, My Car! doesn’t particularly play perfectly for those who aren’t extremely familiar with the history of Russian culture. However, not knowing any of these details still made the film a vivid and inspiring masterpiece in my eyes, perhaps the best film I’ve seen in at least a month (and I’ve seen some real classics).
Khrustalyov, My Car! begins during a single cold night in the Soviet Union as we follow a surgeon who is also a general and the crazy day he has. The general, played marvelously and will 100% conviction in mind and spirit by Yurly Zamanskiy, is somewhat of a tyrant to all around him, abusive and angry toward all who may even consider defying him. Looking like a cross between Stalin and Roger Livesey at the end of Col. Blimp, the general prances through his hometown, controlling his odd and zany family, visiting his fed up mistress, and constantly drinking (though everyone refers to it as tea).
Guerman gives the first half of the film a madcap energy not that far out of a Looney Tunes short, and Zamanskiy certainly feels like he belongs in a frame with Bugs Bunny. The film’s hospital sequence is a bizarre odyssey of totalitariasm mixed with slapstick comedy. While Guerman rarely explains what is going to audiences, it’s hard not to be glued to the adventures of the general (one of the reasons the similarly non-contextualized Ivan Lapshin doesn’t work; the main character is minor and obtuse). So much of Khrustalyov goes unexplained—the only reason one would know that one character is a foreigner is if they knew that no one in the Soviet Union uses an umbrella during winter—but it slowly reveals details, all of which paint not only a history of the country, but a reminder of prejudices and control that continue to today in the country.
In the second half, things get even weirder, as the general is arrested (apparently in the infamous Doctors’ plot) and sent off to the Gulag, and brutally raped in the van transporting him (which is ironically a van marked for Soviet Champaigne). I’m sure this rape sequence is why so many critics panned the film at both the Cannes and New York Film Festivals in 1998, as it is played dead serious, it certainly has that same odd madcap energy as the film’s funnier sequences. And the film finally ends with an intense, though again curiously funny moment, as the general is brought to Stalin’s deathbed in a last minute effort to save him. When the general fails and is yelled at by the right hand many, Zamanskiy raises both his shoulders almost as high as his bald head in utter confusion, as if he had the answers to how the country will proceed.
Stylistically, Guerman follows a similar pattern of his European Eastern counterpart Bela Tarr, focusing on long takes while changing the focus of his shots constantly and zooming in every which direction. This added to my constant fascination with Khrustalyov, My Car!, as the long takes were more similar to those used by PT Anderson in Boogie Nights, though the subject matter and tone so original in style. And while the film has so much I didn’t understand, and hope to read on in the future, I can’t say I’ve ever seen any film like Guerman’s masterpiece. It’s truly an original voice, and one I hope more audiences can see in the future (Dear God, Criterion Collection, get on this).