Film Criticism

Russian Critics on the Cinema of Glasnost, edited by Michael Brashinsky and Andrew Horton

Russian Critics on the Cinema of Glasnost, edited by Michael Brashinsky and Andrew Horton, is a book in two parts: the first, Films in a Shifting Landscape, is a series of essays analyzing the historical and cultural legacy that shaped three generations of Soviet film criticism; the second, Glasnost’s Top Ten, is a compilation of articles by prominent Russian critics (collectively representing these generations) covering a selection of glasnost-era cinema – followed by editorial commentaries that interweave ideas developed in the first section – that, in their diverse arguments, reflect the sociopolitical turmoil as insightfully as (if not more articulately than) the films themselves. Noting the difference between Soviet film criticism and “traditional” film criticism in the absence of film art discussion, Brashinsky and Horton propose that the divergence is traceable from its origins in early nineteenth century Russian critical tradition (embodied by such literary figures as Alexander Pushkin and Vissarion Belinsky) that sought to transform society through cultural engagement: “To sketch it roughly: It occupies a middle distance between what in the United States is seen as pop journalistic film reviewing and highbrow theoretical academic analysis. Soviet criticism covers a much more spacious area, one that spreads far beyond film, art, and even culture onto life itself.”

In the essay, Cinema Without Cinema, Mikhael Yampolsky further expounds on this tendency towards ideas over images by proposing that the evolution of Soviet cinema itself is essentially logocentric, an outgrowth of a film industry that is neither driven by commercial nor artistic value. It is interesting to note that while Yampolsky does not explicitly refer to propaganda in the notion of industrial film as a precursor to contemporary cinema, his argument that the technological lag between the Soviet film industry and its Western contemporaries has led to a certain heavy-handedness also supports the idea that contemporary cinema is still influenced by its propagandistic past. To this end, Yampolsky cites Roman Balayan’s The Kiss in which the over-amplified sound of buzzing mosquitoes is used to convey summer heat, and Andrei Tarkovsky in his tendency to layer prose over already self-expressive imagery.

Alexander Timofeevsky’s essay, The Last Romantics traces the evolution of Soviet filmmaking (and by extension, criticism) through generational paradigm shifts between the Joseph Stalin-era ritualization that engendered the creation of classicist, heroic images of messianic struggle (that, in turn, reinforced Stalin’s cult of personality); to the sixtiesniks movement under Nikita Khrushchev’s thaw that ushered a period of reform, cultural exchange outside the Soviet sphere of influence, and de-Stalinization; to a protracted stagnation under Leonid Brezhnev that resulted in a thematic movement towards the creation of self-utopias – as exemplified by Andrei Tarkovsky’s Mirror and Vladimir Menshov’s Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears – in the wake of an ideological impasse between individualism and collectivism. This cultural shift away from the state towards the individual is subsequently examined in Marina Drozdova’s essay, Midseasonal Anarchists: Youth Consciousness and Youth Culture in the Cinema of Perestroika in which untraditional images – such as Georgy Gavrilov’s documentary, Confession: The Chronicle of Alienation on drug addiction – help to redefine the notion of cinematic truth and identification.

For the second part of the book, the editors begin with a consideration of Tengiz Abuladze’s Repentence, considered to be the first perestroika film, by opposing critics, Tatyana Khloplyankina and Igor Aleinikov. Khloplyankina’s essay, On the Road that Leads to the Truth follows in the vein of Soviet film criticism’s sociocultural role in the way generalized references to elements in the film are incorporated within an overarching philosophical argument, in this case, the allegorical subtext as an encounter with buried transgressions (especially under Stalin) and a dismantling of the Soviet social experiment. On the other hand, Aleinikov’s essay, Between the Circus and the Zoo, is sarcastic and provocative, arguing that the film is too saturated with ideas to the point of dilution, and the symbolism too facile to be considered groundbreaking. In a sense, Aleinikov’s strategy to open his essay with a false scene reflects the structure of his exposition as well, regarding the film as a missed opportunity in confronting the past:

After all, Repentance satisfies the current social order to a considerable extent, for the film is spectacular and politically sharp. Moreover, the movie reflects on the condition of that social order, the level of our present social consciousness, the erosion of criteria in this consciousness, which is so confused that it reminds one of the bright colors that, once mixed on an artist’s palette, became a gray paste. It is necessary to distinguish those colors by separating the functions of art from those of journalism, political science, and politics.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Aleksandr Sokurov’s The Days of Eclipse has generated a wide range of critical response among the featured glasnost-era films. Of particular note is Mikhail Yampolsky’s brief, but illuminating deconstructive essay entitled The World as a Mirror for the Other World that proposes another layer to the film’s dense, seemingly mystical iconography:

Disintegration of both time and causal relations is clearly connected with the symbol of the eclipse. This universal drama is exposed in advance; it penetrates the life of the leading character by mysterious and unintelligible omens. Every now and again, strange animals show up in the doctor’s house, for no apparent reason. By mail, he receives a gigantic lobster, frozen in jelly (a hint as to his own case). Then his sister appears out of nowhere with a live hare in a shopping bag. Finally, a huge python sneaks into his room, supposedly an escapee from the neighbors. These animals symbolize constellations: cancer (lobster), hare, and serpent. A serpent directly relates to the idea of a cycle, revival and death, the symbol of the eclipse. It also belongs to the realm of shadows. A cancer is linked to the shadows of the dead and is considered a moon animal, as is the hare.

…The universal scale in The Days of Eclipse substantiates Sokurov’s perspective. What seems weird, fantastic, and excessive to both characters and the audience may in fact be the key to existence in Sokurov’s world, the core to those causal relations that are placed vertically (between the lines) instead of horizontally (in line).

Acquarello, 2009 [reprinted]

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