Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Soviet Children's Cinema 1: A Childish Film

Over the course of the next few days, I'm hoping to watch as many Soviet children's films as possible.

The shower sequence in a video still taken from a Kultura broadcast of The Foundling (1939)

Was The Foundling made by a child? Or maybe edited by one? The film is childish in the most beautiful sense of the word. It's like a grade schooler retelling a joke: details are stretched out, punchlines are mangled.
It's a reversal of the adult rules of comic order. A broken shower head commands our attention more than the mess it causes all over the bathroom walls or the people it worries; a traffic cop is shown repeatedly stopping a man from crossing the street in a rambling take. Scenes are played as if the previous ones have already been forgotten. It's small but ungainly, compact yet in over its head. Shot lengths, speeds and reaction shots seem out of scale. There are physical discrepancies within the frame, too: a short, pudgy woman argues with a lanky man; a tiny girl stands beside a balloon vendor with stilt-like legs; a long, narrow carpet runs treacherously through the hallway of a communal apartment (an early shot features a boy instinctively untangling it with his foot); a young soldier, whose gigantic hands and jutting chin bring together everything that can seem awkward about the human body, crouches wordlessly beside two young girls.
The children in the film speak too slow and too fast, repeat themselves and fidget. They tug at clothes, stand together uncomfortably in the frame and speak with an earnest seriousness amongst themselves. They act like children without consciously attempting to channel "childishness."

Barely over an hour long and ending with a lullaby, The Foundling can be found unsubtitled here.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Russian Notebook 2: Television Continued, Kultura

I'm currently in my father's home town, Rostov-on-the-Don, a hilly city built along the banks of a river in the South of Russia.

I watch television here on the Panasonic in the living room. It has a rabbit ear antenna. Usually I sit on the couch, which at night folds out into a bed. The apartment is on the fourth floor and the living room windows look out on one of the busiest intersections in the city. Across the street, there's an office whose windows are level with ours. I've recently noticed that a young woman who works in the office watches me when I play the living room piano. We keep the windows closed, so she can't tell that the piano is badly out of tune and that I can't play it very well.
In all, the television recieves 11 channels, though many of them are repeats. It recieves several I can't get in Moscow, including regional stations and MTV, whose modest local offices are a block up the street from our apartment.
The Panasonic does not get Kultura (Культура), which broadcasts Soviet films in the day time and symphonic concerts and foreign films in the evening (in the my first week, I saw an Oshima, a Moretti and a Jancso). The Soviet films are the real treasure--many of them pre-war, all of them in original aspect ratios, not just well-known pictures (next week brings The Mirror and Cranes Are Flying) but obscure and underrated ones as well. Musicals, lavish period films and war pictures are all shown without repeats and with minimal commercial interruptions. Silent films are not shown.
It's a challenge figuring out what the movies are at times without a steady Internet connection. There're plenty of television listings in the right-wing weeklies, but I'm little too embarassed to buy them or even be seen paging through one at a newstand. I keep a little red notebook into which I jot showtimes as they're advertised. I've turned into a serious television viewer, setting aside evening hours, looking forward to marathons, double-checking my daily Kultura itinerary.

Russian Notebook 1: Crime Television

I'm living the month of August in Russia. One of my intentions was to try and document as much about Russian film culture as I could, but very early on I got sick and ended up bed-ridden for a while. During that time, I found myself watching a lot of Russian television.
  1. "Crime" shows dominate Russian television; they've been on top for quite a while, a decade maybe--enough for people to be long tired of them. But they're cheap to make and easy to advertise, so it's unlikely they'll leave airwaves anytime soon. In fact, their prevalence and interchangeability make them the defining genre of Russian television; it's often difficult to figure out which show you're watching--switching between channels seems more like intercutting than. The remote control becomes a method for home editing: from car chase to assassination to a busy street corner to car chase again without ever breaking continuity.
  2. "Crime" shows are both documentary and fiction-based (in Russian, fiction films are refered to as artistic films), though there's very little difference in content and presentation between the two. "True crime" shows often center around sensationalistic "investigative journalism" peppered with shots of real-life deaths, dramatic re-enactments and flashy graphics that resemble the credits and intertitles of the "fictional" crime shows (or is it the other way around?). The host of one show, which focues almost exclusively on bloody traffic accidents in Moscow, carries a small Handycam as a prop, pointing it at the proceedings; we never see what he's recording and can assume that the prop camera is never turned on.
  3. Despite being shot exlusively on video (shooting on film is very rare in Russia, where theatrical features are almost exclusively shot on HD), almost all fictional crime shows use post-synced dialogue. There is something fascinating about handheld, often rough images combined with calm, crisp sounds. On television, Moscow is the quietest city in the world, and the wind is never blowing in the country side. Foreign films and programs, which make up a sizeable portion of Russian television, are always shown dubbed, so this forms an odd aesthetic continuity.