Did not realize the Leningrad Cowboys (their hair in full glory) would be backed by the massive Russian Red Army Chorus and Dance Ensemble, playing to a crowd of 70 thousand. After the first guitar rock song, the Cowboys stand by patiently while the Russians sing a loud, dull vocal number, then we get a Cowboy/Russian duet on “Happy Together” and a huge version of “Delilah.” It’s an expert combination of the solemn and the silly, and one of the all-time great concert films.
Russia in WWII, and a caravan of soldiers and families is getting torn up by German gunfire while the credits are still rolling. While they hide in the woods, wounded and exhausted, Kolya goes for food, bringing along sickly math teacher Sotnikov, but their destination has been burned down so they go further, ending up at a house full of kids. Mom comes home shortly before a German patrol does, and all three are captured.
A guy with a persistent cough hiding in a loft is the biggest source of tension here – once they’re taken alive by nazis, there’s not much mystery as to what will happen next. Switcheroo: the sickly guy stays strong and calm while being burned and tortured, while the capable guy turns into a little bitch and agrees to join the nazi forces if they won’t execute him. Portnov is an especially evil interrogator, a local Belarusian choir teacher gone fully to the other side.
This won best picture in Berlin, alongside The Devil, Probably, Ceddo, Perfumed Nightmare and Padre Padrone. Shepitko had no follow-up film, dying in a car crash, but her husband Elem Klimov started prepping Come and See this same year. The doomed mother appeared in a 2003 film of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, the math teacher was in the all-star Peter the Great miniseries, and the Belarisuan nazi was Tarkovsky’s star of Rublev/Solaris/Stalker.
Michael Koresky for Criterion:
From the filmâ€™s opening images of telephone poles haphazardly jutting out of snowdrifts like bent crosses, Shepitko, with cinematographer Vladimir Chukhnov, plunges us into a nightmarishly blinding whiteness, a physical and moral winter that envelops everything in its pathâ€”except, ultimately, the victimized and beatific Sotnikov, whose slow journey toward death brings a strange enlightenment. Such redempÂtion eludes Rybak, whose ruthless desire for survival puts him at odds with the Christlike martyr Sotnikov, and Shepitko charts their twinned passages to darkness and light with a stunning arsenal of aural and visual experimentation.
Watched this the night before it won the oscar. I was rooting for All That Breathes, not because I’d watched it yet but because it has birds. No birds here, just a Russian man with great popular support, considered the best hope against Putin. The movie follows from his sudden illness on a flight to Siberia, through his recovery in Europe and the investigation into whether he was poisoned, through his triumphant hero’s return to Russia… haha just kidding, he was arrested immediately and will be in prison indefinitely. Pretty good doc, most notable for having footage of Navalny prank-calling his suspected assassins into revealing exactly how they attempted to kill him (underpants poisoning) and cover it up. The director previously made a doc about The Band, but I should really watch The Last Waltz first.
Moomin (Zach Dorn)
Desktop video (cellphone in portrait mode) dude telling story of trying to win a claw-game moomin for his Canadian girlfriend. After they break up he combs through their text messages emphasizing the in-joke importance of the moomin, then fails to win one in an online app. Fine as a short opener, demonstrates the difference between cute and good.
Love at First Byte (Felizitas Hoffmann & Theresa Hoffmann)
Sentient public transit surveillance system falls in love with a passenger. Blurry and repetitive, Katy has tried to forget this ever happened.
Example #35 (LucÃa Malandro & Daniel D. Saucedo)
Cubans love Santiago Alvarez! Reversed and inverted images, okay, but leave your colonoscopy footage at home, please.
No Elements (Barbara VojtaÅ¡Ã¡kovÃ¡)
A broken-up couple had shot lots of film around the city and down by the river, her film project that he’d picked up during their relationship and now wants to take over and complete, while she is ambivalent. Nice reversed-footage tricks.
While The Night Falls (Amir Aether Valen)
You Are Not Here (Nastia Korkia)
Afraid I didn’t take notes on these two, but recall that Katy was concerned about consent in the Russian funeral film. That movie’s director Korkia was returning to T/F after her feature GES-2 played last year.
After watching three Kossakovsky features, I love when he applies grand visual ideas to ordinary topics, so it’s disappointing that this one looks like an unrestored Sokurov video in brownscale SD.
Enjoyed the two minutes of hedgehog-related drama, not the half hour of a family arguing at the dinner table. Nice pre-Gunda spotlight on farm animals, some sweet long takes, some good rants. A Tarr-worthy final shot justifies the effort – the wife listens to tapes, laughing, crying, then dancing, the camera getting up and dancing with her, her belligerent brother passed out in a corner of the room having fallen on his head from the table.
“Abracadabra. Potatoes, dig yourselves up!”
Hedgehog being protected from very upset dog:
Woman in the countryside travels to confront the government about an irregularity, and the government laughs and destroys her. Although it’s not entirely the people in power – her fellow members of the public are awful, and she’s insulted by everybody. Tempting to watch it as a document and think “wow Russia is a terrible country,” but after a scene of beautiful cranes on rooftops, it felt more like sci-fi horror, as something that could befall any country.
Her coworker at home: “My man never went to prison, so I never had a chance to see the world.” Everyone certainly talks a lot, but Vasilina Makovtseva’s performance shines whenever there’s a short break from reading subtitles. She ends up in a town outside the prison where her husband is possibly being held (she never finds out), a corrupt little mini-society feeding on visitors like herself, nobody ever giving straight answers, or help without strings attached.
She dreams of being taken by guards to a fancy reception where all the people who’ve given her shit along her journey take turns explaining their points of view and applauding each other, after which she’s raped in a prison van, then awakens and is led away by another surely untrustworthy guide.
Upon realizing this is a Dostoevsky story, I realized I could repeat my White Nights Fest from last year. Then I read the story (written 30 years after White Nights) and realized this is more of an “inspired by” situation, since the book follows an unhappy marriage ending in her suicide. Seems like Loznitsa just liked the title – Makovtseva is surely a gentle creature, but more determined than she ever appears.
Superman (1941 Dave Fleischer)
Wait, everyone on Krypton had superpowers, and Superman was raised on Earth in an orphanage? Mr. White is the newspaper boss. Lois flies a plane, is the only person investigating the letter they got saying an electrothanasia ray would cause devastation at midnight, the villain a mohawked creep, vaguely popeye-voiced, with a pet vulture. “This looks like a job for Superman,” Kent says casually the next day, after Lois is kidnapped and many people are dead, goes out and punches the electric ray into submission (and unforgivably, saves the girl and the villain but not the vulture). A silly story, but check out these colors.
The Mechanical Monsters (1941 Dave Fleischer)
These have a catchy theme song. Another rich mad scientist, this one in a purple suit and twirlable mustache, has developed drone technology – radio-controlled bank-robbing robots. Haha, when Lois and Clark are present at the next robbery, Clark steps into a booth to “phone this in” and… he phones it in! He just calls the newspaper office… it doesn’t occur to him to use the booth to become Superman until later. Lois is of course kidnapped, dangled over a smelter. I suppose all of these stories end the same way, with rescued Lois’s cover story in the paper the next day while Clark winks at the camera.
Everyone on Krypton also sports a Magic Cape:
Let’s Sing with Popeye (1934 Dave Fleischer)
Oh no, this was a two-minute short where Popeye punches some of his own stuff aboard a boat, then sings his theme song in a low, disinterested voice with follow-the-bouncing-ball lyrics.
Betty Boop’s Crazy Inventions (1933 Dave Fleischer)
Opens with fireworks with live cats inside, so it’s gonna be good. Betty and friends are at a giant trade show under a circus tent, showing off different impractical inventions. She and Bimbo escape after a haywire sewing machine goes on a rampage, presumably hundreds of people are dead.
In the Future (2019 Phil Mulloy)
Absurd shadow-characters discuss the future. Very short, and a quarter of the runtime is a guy peeing. Phil has been out there since the 1970’s, making a pile of shorts and some features.
Endgame (2015 Phil Mulloy)
Two guys leave the city for some weekend war games and get more war than they bargained for. Stick figure art, the roughly drawn backgrounds include random-seeming numbers and figures. I was with it until the gang-rape joke.
Peter & the Wolf (2006 Suzie Templeton)
Great birds in this: an emotional support duck and a crow tied to a balloon, and terrific camera perspectives and stop motion work. Peter just wants to play in the backyard with his friends, help the crow with bad wings pretend to fly, and skate on the frozen pond, but grandpa wants him to stay indoors because there’s a wolf out there. The boy traps the wolf after it eats his comfort-duck, but frees the wolf at the end rather than hand it over to the ruffian townies. No dialogue, so it premiered with live orchestra accompaniment, and won the oscar, obviously.
My Love (2006 Aleksandr Petrov)
Another half-hour movie based on a Russian story featuring ducks, a cat in a tree, and some good birds. 16-year-old gives a crystal duck to a girl he likes, is figuring out what love is. He dreams of marrying his family’s poor maid, also starts worshipping a hot neighbor, but he is finally weird to the neighbor and when he becomes sick with brain fever the maid leaves to become a nun. My DVD copy isn’t high-res enough to get the full effect, but this is lovely – painted frames, smearing the backgrounds as the characters move past, exploding into fantasy scenes in the kid’s imagination. Feels too wordy, watching so soon after Peter & the Wolf. Petrov’s followup to his great Old Man and the Sea.
The Pied Piper of Hamelin (1981 Mark Hall)
It took a minute to even realize this was stop-motion; my copy’s contrast is off. The opposite of the Petrov in that the wordless animation moments are alright but it comes to life when the narrator is going off – he is Robert Hardy of the 1970’s version of The Green Knight, reading the original poem. Obviously not a movie to explore unless you’re ready to see hundreds of stop-motion rats. Jiri Barta also made a version, which would be worth digging up. A good effort for England, who still had ten years to wait until Wallace & Gromit. Hall was a British TV veteran, working on Danger Mouse among others.
Who Would Comfort Toffle? (1980 Johan Hagelback)
Toffle is alone and scared with nobody to talk to when the night monsters come, so he ditches his house and wanders to find somewhere new. Limited storybook animation with a rock musical soundtrack. The Hemulens are giant things outside that are maybe moomins? Real kids stuff, cute – you don’t see a lot of Swedish mythology cartoons.
The Chimney Thief (1944 Paul Grimault)
A thief who steals lightning rods and uses them to pole-vault across the rooftops is a pretty great idea. What ever happened to lightning rods anyway? You don’t see them around much. The scene where he distracts a guard dog with a wind-up mechanical bone is simply odd, all the character animation timing wonky. Their stretchy rubber-band bodies seem Boop-inspired. Nothing more to it than a rod thief outsmarting two identical cops chasing after him, some typical chase scene bits, but remarkably good use of 3D space. Grimault worked with Jacques Demy and made some other widely-acclaimed works that I’ve meant to find.
Birds/Ptakhy (2012 Mykyta Liksov)
Unlike the Blackbird short, this movie called Birds is about birds – this is all I ask for. The birds dance through the air, form couples and nests on the last above-water structures of a flooded Earth, except for one who swims underwater in search of a fallen spouse and finds a glowing egg in the irradiated wreckage of human civilization. I was already enjoying this before its all-timer end-credits sequence.
The Baby Birds of Norman McLaren (2014 Mirai Mizue)
Aha, someone is into maximalist mutations, colorful patterns, and bright pop music. Someone watched the entire McLaren DVD set and took away all the correct lessons, turning in a fun, short, snappy piece with tributes to Norman’s different animation and sound sync styles.
The Big Snit (1985 Richard Condie)
Squiggle-vision cartoon about a domestic squabble over a scrabble game while nuclear war is beginning outside. Between the two Ukraine-related shorts and this one, I hadn’t meant to get so topical tonight. The couple reconciles just in time to be vaporized, a happy ending. This and Condie’s La Salla are maybe over-acclaimed, but I like his very random sense of humor, and he also produced The Cat Came Back.
Guy coughing in a packed bus admits to having the flu while a loud racist spouts off – pretty much the worst nightmare of 2021. He’s removed from the bus and given a rifle to execute some well-dressed people, returned to the bus, removed again by a bald cop in a hearse. A guy talking dirty to a child gets his teeth knocked out. A black-haired librarian (the Former Mrs. Petrov) goes Hellraiser-eyed and destroys a violent poet. I think it’s floating in and out of fantasy, displaying the worst parts of society – a dipshit Hard to be a God.
Some good single-take camera tricks, but I did not have the patience for this. After an hour I skipped rapidly through the rest – saw UFOs, Sonic the Hedgehog, and a long stretch in black and white.
*I have rules about this sort of thing – if I only watched half a movie, I don’t mark it “seen” on the database, don’t log it on letterboxd, don’t write a blog post, etc… usually I’ll just mention it at the bottom of whatever I watched next, or in a round-up post. But I feel I should mark that hour I watched of Petrov’s Flu, since I never intend to finish it, and file it away somehow. Not gonna start watching the first halves of movies in order to get more posts in, also not gonna pretend this never happened. Setting a precedent, but who cares?
Russia turned upside down:
On to the early Soviet Revolutionary chapter in the Vogel book, characterized in form by “an
aggressive rejection of conventional methods and systems and a profound concern with the theory and language of film.” He writes on Eisenstein’s Strike and montage theory, the aesthetic poetry of Dovzhenko’s Earth, the avant-documentary of Vertov’s Man With The Movie Camera, and this Pudovkin. VP is described as “more sensuous and less cerebral than Eisenstein or Vertov” – I’d seen his wonderful Mother and Chess Fever, but not this one.
Master Mongol fur hunter is sick, sending his son to the bazaar. Much is made of the lovely fur he’s gonna sell which will feed them for months, so you know something’s gonna happen, and pretty soon a monk praying for the old man’s healing attempts to grab it as payment until the son kicks his ass and takes it back. The music is all light flutes for 15 minutes until a low bass kicks in when the suit-wearing whites appear “who guard the interest of capitalism.”
There’s a panic in town when the son punches a capitalist for offering too little, everyone flees while the white guy comically falls down getting lost in his own coat. “AVENGE THE WHITE MAN’S BLOOD” say the titles after he knifes an enforcer in self defense, never a phrase you want to see, and son goes on the run.
The white man’s blood:
It’s an exciting and plotty movie, incidentally with lots of sword dancing and some cat tossing. Our guy runs into pro-soviet partisans fighting in the mountains, rescues their chief by tossing an enemy machine gunner off a cliff, and joins the struggle until captured and executed by the whites. But as he rolls down a cliff, they discover the amulet he’d recovered from the ass-kicked monk back at dad’s house, and believe him to be a descendant of Genghis Khan, rushing to save his life in order to install him as a puppet ruler.
Son in the mountains:
The whites dress him in their clothes, never noticing the simmering rage on his face. He’s reunited with his enemy and property, snatching his fox fur from the evil furrier’s girl, prompting her to get the vapors and the white trader to go on a racist tirade, while in a back room the other whites draw up papers to steal the country. After a prisoner is shot right in front of the son he finally speaks up, and as he rages, the picture and intertitles begin to strobe. Finally, he grabs a sword and rides away, a literal storm blowing away the whites who give chase.
Other strong images and episodes had … a powerful, radicalizing impact
on audiences: the Mongol about to be executed, heedlessly walking through a mud puddle which his “civilized” British executioner studiously avoids … a dignified Lama priest and a ridiculous British general’s wife cross cut while dressing for a formal occasion … Altogether, the film is an object lesson in visual political cinema, glowing with revolutionary fervor and hatred for oppression.
ValÃ©ry Inkijinoff the Son would continue acting, appearing in late Fritz Lang movies, a non-Lang Mabuse, and an Eddie Constantine action flick. The furrier was in Pudovkin’s previous film The End of St. Petersburg. Pudovkin himself acted in films by the other major filmmakers mentioned above.