Friday, 19 September 2008

Live and Remember (Живи и помни)

The Russian Film Festival opened with Alexander Proshkin’s award-winning Live and Remember, based on the novel by Valentin Rasputin.

Rasputin was born in 1937 in Irkutsk, Siberia, and was a journalist before publishing his first fiction in 1961. He’s associated with ‘country prose’, a genre that began during the Thaw and was characterised by Chekhovian understatedness and slice-of-life stories. Though popular and officially praised (Live and Remember won a State Prize) it presented a sceptical view of modern life and industrialisation, though others felt it was a romanticised Russophilia.

His 1976 story Farewell to Matyora was the basis of the best, and best-known of several film adaptations, though when director Larisa Shepitko was killed in a car crash in 1979 her husband Elem Klimov completed it in 1983. Based on Rasputin’s own childhood, it tells how a village resists the flooding of their valley for the Bratsk hydro-electric dam.* In 1965 the project had inspired a very different artistic response in Yevtushenko’s panoramic epic poem. They, in turn, were different from creatives’ views of the Dnieper dam: Esfir Shub’s K-Sh-E: the Komsomol is the Patron of Electricity (1932) or Fyodor Gladkov’s novel Energy, which, written between 1932 and 1938, was actually in production for longer than the dam itself!

Siberia during the war. While most of the men are away fighting, the women work as loggers, to supply the wood vital for the war effort. When Nastya's soldier-husband, Andrei is stationed near the village, he takes the opportunity to go AWOL. As a deserter, he can't go to the village, so he lives in the woods and Nastya brings occasional supplies, while there are various attempts to find him. Ironically, after four years of childless marriage, she falls pregnant. Andrei sees it as a blessing and insists she bears it but Nastya doesn’t know what to do: unable to reveal that it is Andrei's, she claims it was a passing Red Army Commissar. The village is divided, some, including her mother-in-law, condemning her and some more sympathetic, but when suspicions grow (perhaps fuelled by Andrei's father) she sticks to her story. The war ends but Andrei still doesn't reveal himself. A search party is sent out and Nastya, hoping to warn him, sets off across the lake at night. One of her oars breaks and, realising that she may in fact be leading them to him, she jumps into the lake. At a commemorative meal, Andrei is condemned, though there is an irony when one of Nastya's friends agrees that "he is in hell", while Nastya is elevated to a 'saint'. A tug-boat sails down the river, broadcasting the Red Square victory parade and when the captain sees but doesn't recognise the unresponsive Andrei, he shouts: "Are you alive?"

Throughout Live and Remember, there’s a constant feeling of the hardness of life: the opening scenes riff on shots of and discussions about axes - vital to life in this harsh landscape. When Andrei steals a calf, there’s a montage of their eyes – beseeching? apologetic? hopeless? - before he brings down the axe.

Alexander and Gennadi Karyuk’s wintry cinematography (underlined by constant, snow-squeaking shoes) is slightly warmed by Roman Dormindoshin’s music which, though often gently minimalist, occasionally rises to muted melody.

Though Rasputin (like many writers) tends not to enjoy adaptations of his work, the appropriately named Dariya Moroz, who plays Nastya, helped kick-start the film after starring in a stage production. Book-ended by the actors playing an old Siberian game, that was dropped for the film and a new coda written. Predictably he though the film was OK but disliked the changes.

Playing Andrei, Mikhail Evlanov is something of a feature in the festival. To judge from this and his other roles, he obviously enjoys make-up and in Live and Remember he is gradually transformed from merely unkempt to being a kind of wild-man. Disillusioned, he destroys his medals and attempts suicide, in contrast with the village’s returning hero, Maxim Vologzhin.

Though there might initially be a whiff of The Return of Martin Guerre, we’re soon reassured that Andrei is indeed who he claims, but Nastya’s reminiscences of their happy marriage are brutally cut short by Andrei’s ruthless self-assessment as a wife-beater and a deserter: a double-criminal.

Counterpointing the two younger leads is veteran Sergei Makovetsky as Andrei's hyper-intense father, cannily putting together the clues about Andrei, but struggling to do the best for both his son and the village. His age and gammy leg explain why he isn’t at the front, highlighting suspicions about the young village leader, a drunken bully ironically named Nestor. Several smaller parts are taken by non-professionals. Presumably they were brought in from Irkutsk (it was actually shot around Nizhny Novgorod) to help with the peculiar local accent, which caused the Russian actors (and some Russian audiences) a bit of trouble. Following on from Rasputin, Proshkin and Moroz both wanted to contrast rural and urban outlooks: four country people, practicality – like Nastya binging food to Andrei – is a stronger expression of love than for urbanites.

Unsurprisingly, Live and Remember is a bit reminiscent of Farewell – the overwhelmingly female cast facing intense difficulties, and, in its whiteness and moral contemplations, Shepitko’s The Ascent (1976): the title is a grim reminder of Andrei’s fate, to live on and be tormented by his memories. It also has the sensitivity to rural life that Proshkin showed in The Cold Summer of ’53 (1987). But it’s its own film, and, if it isn’t quite Farewell’s equal, it's certainly an outstanding achievement. Sadly, it was given a fairly limited release in Russia (though it was well-received) but, hopefully, success on the festival circuit will help its profile, while it's also been released on DVD.

* Given the project’s birth pangs, it’s ironic that the name derives from the Russian for ‘Brother’

Live and Remember (Живи и помни; Zhivi i pomni, 2008)
Farewell to Matyora (Прощание с Матёрой; Proshchai s Matyoroi, 1983)
K-Sh-E: the Komsomol is the Patron of Electricity (КШЭ: Комсомол – шеф электрификации; Komsomol – shef elektrifikatsii, 1932)
The Ascent (Восхождение; Voskozhdenie, 1976)
The Cold Summer of ’53 (Холодное лето пятьдесят третьего; Kholodnoe leto piatdesiat tretevo, 1987)

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

The manifest destiny of fair comment?

The news that composer Keith Burstein has been bankrupted by his libel action against the Evening Standard raises mixed feelings. On the one hand, a ‘little guy’ has been squashed by the corporate suits (and Associated Newspapers at that). On the other hand it seems like an attempt to rein in critical comment has failed. On the other(?!) hand, what are the limits of a critic's responsibilities?

The backstory: reviewing Burstein’s opera Manifest Destiny, Veronica Lee said it was ‘trite’, ‘horribly leaden’ and ‘unmusical’. And that was just Dic Edwards’ libretto: Burstein’s music was dismissed simply as ‘uninspiring’.

Hey-ho: we all get bad reviews and learn to conquer the urge to fire off an email, explaining just why the perceived ‘faults’ are actually our meisterwerk’s crowning glories, or saying that we agree but that some sheister producer/publisher/singer/fill-in-the-job-title completely shafted us and that only a critic who has no conception of what it is to be creative could fail to recognize the travails of being an artist.

Burstein began life as a conductor of modernist works but as his interest in composition grew, so he became a neo-tonalist, writing stuff like this. He co-formed The Hecklers to argue against the disproportionate public subsidy given to unpopular music, incidentally winning a libel suit against News International, which claimed he disrupted the Royal Opera's production of Gawain. He quickly left the Hecklers and has since come to see his association with the group as a bit of an albatross.

Unluckily, Manifest Destiny, which centres on a suicide bomber, premiered five weeks after 7/7, possibly setting up unintended parallels. Chris Cleave’s suicide-bomber novel Incendiary was ‘lucky’ enough to predate the attacks and, four years later, as the film adaptation is about to be released, it all seems a little distant.

For reference, here’s the Standard's review:

How horribly prescient; Keith Burstein’s opera about suicide bombers receives its world premiere a few weeks after 7/7. What a pity it’s such a trite affair. The heroine, Palestinian poet Leila (Bernadette Lord), leaves Daniel, a Jewish composer, to return to her homeland to become a suicide bomber. Her cell leader Mohammed falls in love with her, sees the error of his ways and, in order to save her, hands Leila over to the Americans. But it’s all too much for her so she tops herself anyway.

The libretto by Dic Edwards is horribly leaden and unmusical and the music uninspiring, save for the odd duet, and full marks to the talented cast of four for carrying it off. But I found the tone depressingly anti-American [there’s a synopsis here], and the idea that there is anything heroic about suicide bombers is, frankly, a grievous insult.

Burstein, who had previously written about the opera in The Guardian, took this to imply that he found suicide bombers heroic. The Evening Standard argued that it was ‘fair comment’.

Burstein felt there was nothing to do but go to law. He won the right to sue for defamation – to be heard before a jury – and was awarded £8,000. But the Court of Appeal overturned that, judging the original review to be fair comment. And ordered Burstein to return the 8k and stump up the rest of the Standard’s costs. Not having 67 grand to hand, (in the Alice in Wonderland world of law, that almost seems quite reasonable) he was bankrupted.

Burstein has vowed to fight on (with what, I don’t know), and will go to the European Court of Human Rights to argue that the denial of a trial before a jury and the fact that he had to pay the Standard’s costs before all legal options were exhausted was a travesty of justice.

The importance of trial by jury (preferably not by Gilbert and Sullivan) is a whole different topic, so let’s not go there. But it's worth returning to the review and the crucial last line. There's nothing wrong (or actionable) in saying a work of art is rubbish (and hopefully Burstein isn't complaining about that). The BBC review and a passing comment by the Telegraph probably didn't have crowds hammering down the door but artists inevitably expose themselves to that.

But Burstein is saying that if that creation is seen as a manifestation of the artist, then to say that the work supports suicide bombers is, to some degree to say that the man does. How is the critic to unhitch the two?

In a later twist, the new Terrorism Bill outlaws anything that the publisher might reasonably believe will be understood as a direct or indirect encouragement or inducement to the commission, preparation or instigation of terrorist acts. Whether that makes Burstein's work unperformable is a moot (but interesting) point, relying on the producers' (or courts') assessment of whether there are any potential terrorists in the audience who may be fired up by the opera.

The rights to the bankrupt Burstein's works have been taken by the receiver and future royalties will be used to pay m’learned friends. Quite how long this will take I don’t know: there aren’t many composers charging three figures an hour.

In the meantime, Burstein’s website, which included soundclips of his work – and perhaps even of Manifest Destiny - has been taken down. If it’s a result of the judgment, then surely that's an unintended and unfortunate effect.

However, you can (for how long?) see extensive chunks on Youtube.

I’ll risk a critical comment: I’m glad he wrote it. I’m glad I’ve seen it. I’m glad I won’t be seeing it again. Please - don't sue me!

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

LFF Preview (Experimenta)

Again, not an exhaustive list: just those that catch my eye.

James Benning's genre might be called the "tableau film", in which a static camera watches events pass before its eye. Apparently, the titles of Ten Skies and Thirteen Lakes (both from 2004) pretty much sum up the content, but of course no description can ever encompass a film. Benning doesn't have a monopoly on the idea. Fliegauf's Milky Way (Tejút), which has had a couple of outings in London - and hopefully elsewhere in the UK, is a series of ten shots, though each contained a human narrative of some sort. Kiarostami's Five Dedicated to Ozu, immediately gave away the number of shots it contained (though the ducks were a pleasant surprise). The first 30 minutes of Sokurov's Spiritual Voices (Духовные голоса) watches dusk descend over a landscape, whilst a narrator contemplates art. Compared to these, Benning's latest film RR seems positively action packed, with no fewer than 43 (count 'em!) 43 shots. Each lasts just as long as it takes for a train to cross the frame. This is one of the festival films I'm really looking forward to.

Perhaps in the same vein is a Nathaniel Dorsky programme that promises to 'transcend daily reality and open a space for introspective thought'.

Naturally, the musical theme of The Silence Before Bach (Die Stille vor Bach) means I'll be there. An epigrammatic mosaic-study of Bach in the modern world, it sounds like 32 Short Films about Glenn Gould may be echoing in the background, but it would be no worse for that.

I may well give the Guy Debord double bill a go, if only in the faint hope that, suitably prepared, I'll actually finally make it all the way through The Society of the Spectacle.

From the LFF write-up, the Alina Rudnitskaya programme doesn't sound incredibly experimental: here we get three short docs about Russian women, not including her portrait of Russian faux-lesbian pop-poppets Tatu. I'm always slightly puzzled that the LFF doesn't have a documentary section per se (perhaps some inter-Festival 'respecting-categories' politics) and some seem to end up shunted into the Experimenta section for dubious reasons. Don't get me started on last year's Seven Easy Pieces!

Finally, a suite of shorts under the title A Sense of Place. Included is Rebecca Baron and Douglas Goodwin's ironically entitled Lossless No 2, a latterday parallel of Bill Morrison's Decasia, which uses failed digital files of Hammid and Deren's classic Meshes of the Afternoon.

Monday, 15 September 2008

Russian Film Festival

Squeezing in just before the London Film Festival is the Russian Film Festival, running from 18 to 28 September at the Apollo West End.

I'll be blogging as it goes along but here are a few tasters of what I know (or think) will be worth going for). It's not an exhaustive list.

I suppose most interest will surround Mikhalkov's Oscar-nominated 12 [above], a remake of Lumet's 12 Angry Men. The trailer implies that it's been opened up quite considerably (the original 96 minutes has become 153) and, unsurprisingly, it's another of Mikhalkov's contemplations of the nature of Russian-ness.

Live to Remember (Живи и помни - literally Live and Remember) [left] opens the fest, another historical drama directed by Alexander Proshkin (best-known for The Cold Summer of '53), while Alexander Melnik's Terra Nova (Новая земля) is a sort of Lord of the Flies, but with adult convicts. Melnik is a first-time feature director, like Marina Liubakova, whose Cruelty (Жестокост) features the wonderful Renata Litvinova.

Women directors aren't as uncommon in Russia as in the West and the fest includes Svetlana Proskurina's Best of Times (Лучшее время года). Tarkovsky and Sokurov loom large in her filmography (she's made a couple of docs about the latter), so it will be interesting to see what her own fiction looks like.

The 2003 film Roads to Koktebel also had an occasional Tarkovskian feel and one of its co-directors, Alexei Popogrebsky, has now struck out on his own with the excellent Simple Things (Простые вещи): surely here's a director to watch.

20 Cigarettes (20 сигарет) [left] looks like it could be stylish fun (perhaps it's the first Russian film to feature Slade on the soundtrack?) but these things can be taken too far. The last thing I'm pointing up is Yuri's Day (Юрьев день). It's about an opera singer and is described as "a complex tapestry of mysticism, spiritualism and hyperrealism", making me fear that it's a cross between Diva and the barely watchable 4 (Четыре).

That's not all that's in the fest, but it's enough for now...