Vinni Pukh trilogy: cartoons boast strong characterisation, wit, cheek and a distinctive and charming animation style

Fyodor Khitruk, “Vinni Pukh” (1969) / “Vinni Pukh idyot v gosti” (1972) / “Vinni Pukh i den’ zabot” (1972)

My favourite cartoon featuring Winnie the Pooh as main character is a shortie that comes in several versions on Youtube in which he worships Satan in front of a mirror and comes to be possessed by a daemon while working out (yes, his head turns right around a few times and then some) and then trying to retrieve a pot of dog blood from a cupboard. After that, the next best thing is three Russian-language cartoons about Pooh and his pals directed by animator Fyodor Khitruk in the early 1970s. Featuring quite simple and child-like animation – the backgrounds are often scribbled with coloured pencil and are very minimal and abstract – and with characters that don’t resemble their originals or their Disney equivalents much (Pukh in particular looks like a fat sunburnt panda), these cartoons trot along at a brisk pace and have clever little scenarios in which Pukh, voiced by Yevgeny Leonov, bumbles along officiously, gets into trouble but manages to talk himself out of strife. The plots usually involve some conflict between Pukh and a third party through which Pukh tries to reach his precious pot of honey.

Pukh is a fast-talking and actually quite manipulative little bruin in the three cartoons based on the some of the original stories by A A Milne. In the 1969 cartoon, he and Piglet (voice: Iya Savina) try to get honey down from the top of a tree; in “… idyot v gosti”, they visit Rabbit and eat him almost out of house and home; in “… i den’ zabot”, they try to cheer up Eeyore on his birthday by getting him presents and on the way discover his lost tail. Of the three cartoons, the second one has the most charm as Pukh brings down the snooty Rabbit in the way he finishes off his host’s food and demolishes part of Rabbit’s home. There’s probably a lesson there about how visitors are supposed to behave when visiting friends and how hosts should be friendly and at the same time evict those guests who have overstayed their welcome. Piglet is a major character, equally as fast in conversation as Pukh, and their banter is lively and full of sparkle. The silly songs that Pukh sings reveal his cheeky character which comes out in full up against the frosty know-all Rabbit.

The third cartoon is quite a long one and complex, even dark, in its story and characterisation: Eeyore suffers depression major enough to get viewers all teary and depressed, Piglet endeavours to get a balloon for him but the balloon bursts and Owl is a pompous old bird-brain whom Pukh has to trick into handing over Eeyore’s lost tail. There are moments when you seriously wonder whether Pukh and Piglet can get their act together enough to cheer up Eeyore and recover his tail before he drowns himself in the pond. Plenty of wit and cheek abound on Pukh’s part – the verbal ping-pong between him and Owl that leads to Owl sneezing is inspired – and everything ends well on a carefree and reconciliatory note.

Characterisation and the animation style are the strongest points of the three films: Pukh is sly and bursting with attitude and Piglet as his faithful shadow is eager and up for any adventure and usefulness that comes into Pukh’s head; their friendship is full of spirit and verve. The animation is deliberately simple, colourful with lots of empty sky and backgrounds, and a distinct two-dimensional look with no attempt to make Pukh look fat and bulky in three dimensions. Landscapes and quaint, earthy houses have a feathery or furry look that comes with using coloured pencils to shade or cross-hatch spaces and the characters often look pasted onto the static backgrounds as they walk or run across them. Houses, house interiors and bunches of forest often have a lot of detail and depth that can be missed. The result is not only easy on the eye but is sometimes quite surreal, beautiful and charming in a child-like way.

These shorts are worth watching even if you know the A A Milne stories and have seen the Disney animations as they have an individual style and portray the characters as intelligent, straightforward and lively without any forced sentimentality and emotion. Spirited songs and music and jokes add to the charm of the cartoons.

 

Invention of Love: short film challenges us to rediscover our humanity or allow technology to define us

Andrei Shushkov, “Invention of Love” (2010)

Came across this elegant and melancholy film short by chance while hunting out another film short on Youtube.com and decided this was worth a look. And I’m glad I gave it the time of day (just under 10 minutes to be exact) as its story of a doomed romance is beautifully and economically told in a style that recalls Indonesian shadow puppetry with excellent contrasts of black silhouettes against simple coloured backgrounds of which each colour signifies some aspect of the world the characters live in and highlights the film’s theme. Set in an alternative 19th-century world of steampunk technology, an inventor yearns for love amid his mechanical gadgets and goes in search of it. He finds the girl of his dreams in the country, they marry and he takes her to his home in the city. But she is ill-adapted to life in the city where people’s pets and even vegetation in public parks are all mechanised, and the air is polluted with the wastes of industry, and the wife begins to ail and rapidly fades away.

In some ways this film is a throwback to 1920s silent film: the figures, their settings and backgrounds are all in silhouette so the film has a highly expressionistic style and there’s no dialogue so the plot is straight all-action narrative and expressions of emotion and intention are portrayed completely by the two characters’ movements. Movement is strictly from left to right or right to left and maybe in just a couple of scenes is there movement from front to back or back to front. Significantly, near the end the inventor appears to turn to the viewer (breaking the “fourth wall”) as if to plead for understanding for what he has done. Although the characters and close objects are two-dimensional, Shushkov portrays city landscapes as three-dimensional with a clever use of layers of silhouettes superimposed one over the other and shading the layers with increasingly lighter and more faded tones going into the backgrounds so as to create an illusion of aerial perspective.

The music soundtrack, in part original and in part derived from Frederic Chopin’s work, mostly played on violin, matches the plot well, accentuating characters’ feelings as they travel from joy, happiness and love to homesickness, sadness and despair.

The use of mostly blue and yellow shades to contrast the world of nature with the world of machines, industry and pollution is very effective. The yellow suggests pollution and ultimately poison and death. The white background near the end of the film suggests loss of vitality and surrender to mechanisation. While the tragic end can be predicted – viewers can guess even before the halfway mark that the marriage will end in tears – the film’s ultimate conclusion is unexpected and horrific with the inventor deciding to give his life over completely to the world of machines rather than reconnect with nature and all that gives him his inspiration and creativity. The ending is horrific due to its ambiguity: the inventor turns to the audience but his silhouetted face is blank and viewers must choose either to sympathise with his desperate actions or pity him for his inability to escape, mentally as well as physically, his hi-tech Victorian world.

The film suggests that the world of machines can replicate or copy nature but can never really replace it and while it copies, it will continue to undervalue and destroy the original live creation. Humans have lost sight of what is really valuable and sustains them; they may try to replace it with tricky and clever technologies but the results are pale and sterile substitutes. Like the inventor, we must choose whether we want to remain with our machines and allow ourselves to be defined by them or break away and reconnect with the true source of life, vitality and identity.

“Invention of Love”? The title is very ironic indeed.

 

Russian Ark: visual travelogue through art and culture meditating on identity, history and time

Alexander Sokurov, “Russian Ark” (2002)

At last a film was made with just one take and a well-executed and visually gorgeous film it is too. “Russian Ark” is an affectionate journey through just over 300 years of Russian history, art and culture and a travel guide through the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, taking in a tour of the Winter Palace in particular. An unseen narrator (voiced by director Sokurov himself) has become a ghost through an unknown accident and is fated to haunt the corridors and galleries of the museum throughout its existence starting in the very early 1700s. He meets 19th-century French diplomat the Marquis de Custine (Sergei Dontsov) and together they trawl the museum buildings, seeing, meeting and sometimes interacting with people of the past and present. They are unintentional witnesses to some significant and not-so-significant events of Russian and St Petersburg history including Tsar Nicholas I’s reception of Persian diplomats come to apologise for a mob lynching of a Russian ambassador in Tehran and the siege of Leningrad (1941 – 1944). They watch the daughters of Tsar Nicholas II dance in the Winter Palace corridor and the Marquis himself takes part in a huge and extravagant ball to the music of 19th-century Russian composer Mikhail Glinka.

The film makes some references to the Marquis’s life: he was known to be very religious and was skeptical of Russian attempts to appear European and civilised. The Marquis and the unseen narrator provide a “plot” of sorts in which they comment on what they see and express opinions and feelings about Russian art and culture. Mildly critical comments about Russian people are made: their seeming reverence for the rule of tyrants, their penchant for trying to keep up with the West and copying the West on a grand scale, the notion that big is best where Russia is concerned. The question of what it means to be Russian is raised but as the film progresses the narrator and the Marquis end up carried away by the visual glories they see and the discussion of Russian identity as something distinct from or parallel with European / Western identity, however superficially conducted, melts away.

The roving camera becomes the film’s major character and the narrator is its voice; the film acquires a voyeuristic and even conspiratorial air as the camera glides, often unseen, through the Hermitage and the Winter Palace. The camera and the Marquis don’t try to hide – the Marquis often addresses people directly in spite of the narrator’s pleas not to speak to people – but watch people from behind windows, columns or other spectators. Viewers familiar with Russian and Soviet history may be reminded of the authoritarian, police-state surveillance aspects of past Tsarist and Soviet governments and present post-Soviet governments. The single-take structure of the film with its intrusive Peeping-Tom flow immerses the viewer in whatever the camera lens takes in; the viewer becomes part of the stream of images and ultimately a participant in the film’s proceedings. The Russian Ark, for which the Hermitage Museum is merely the physical bearer, turns out to be the Russian people and their artistic, cultural and historical heritage, worth preserving, remembering and passing down to future generations. By watching the film, viewers share in the responsibility of interpreting and passing on the best of Russian and Western art and culture to the future.

The flowing single-take format does have its disadvantages: its arbitrary route through the Hermitage assumes viewers already are knowledgeable about Russian and Soviet history and can make sense of what they see and why Sokurov chose to focus on some famous historical incidents and personalities and not others. Why Sokurov didn’t focus on some part of the construction of the Hermitage and the Winter Palace or of St Petersburg is a mystery since that could have told us something about the personalities of the Tsars and the power they wielded and about the nature of Russian society during the imperial Romanov period. There are significant events missing from the film: the 1905 Russian Revolution; the revolutions in February and October 1917 that respectively felled the Tsarist government and brought the Bolsheviks to power; the 1918 transfer of the Soviet government to Moscow; and the bombing of the museum during the city siege in World War 2. The format is very subjective: the immersion of viewers into the film sweeps them along and admits no resistance or criticism of Sokurov’s view of Russian history and culture. Even the Marquis near the end of the film is awed and impressed by what he sees and experiences, and admits that Russians are “European” after all. The film even dismisses itself as a historical drama: the Marquis early on talks about Russia being a theatre and Russians as actors, and this idea is picked up at the end of the film when hundreds of people attending the ball leave the building by going down an enormous staircase. People wanting a history lesson will be disappointed – they will know no more about Russian and St Petersburg history at the end of the film than they did at the begininng.

With the single-take structure, there will be untidy moments where edits are needed and errors in timing and pacing become apparent. Apart from one early scene where an actor appears to miss his cue with Dontsov waiting patiently behind a set of double doors, the action and pace are smooth, graceful and leisurely in keeping with the notion of plunging the viewer into Russian and European art and culture. Sokurov and Dontsov keep up their patter without missing a beat so to an extent the single-take form has been successful. The camera’s movements do not jar though it’s possible some viewers might feel nauseous after seeing the effortless way it pans around or circles objects and people.

Watching this film, it’s hard not to feel nostalgic and sad for the loss of Imperial Russia, especially when one considers the upheavals, the chaos, genocide, suffering and tragedies that followed in the Soviet period. A strong sense of time passing and erasing, diminishing or changing the meaning of events and artefacts from various historical periods can be felt. This is reinforced by the way the camera travels through the physical museum and history, backwards and forwards, in what’s meant to be a cyclical journey through space and time; some viewers may find the film repetitive in parts. Audiences need to know that the real Tsarist Russia, for all its wealth, flamboyance and exaggerated grandeur, was a harsh world for the majority of its subjects and had its share of invasion, famine, tragedy and mass killings. We need look no further than St Petersburg itself which was built on the labour of conscripted Russian peasants and Swedish and Finnish prisoners of war in the early 1700s. Perhaps Imperial Russia is best appreciated as a place to be visited in novels and stories by Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Turgenev and Gogol, nicely sanitised according to individual preference, and never to be actually visited except by ghosts.

 

 

Man with a Movie Camera: experimental film documentary with the camera as central character

Dziga Vertov, “Man with a Movie Camera” / “Chelovek s Kino-apparatom” / “Liudyna z Kinoaparatom” (1929)

No plot, no obvious characters or a point of view to identify with, no apparent direction or narrative – how can a film be made without a story structure or something similar to stop it from being a mess? A directionless mess is how “Man with a Movie Camera” may present to most audiences as it must have when first released in 1929. The reality is that director Dziga Vertov made the film as a documentary in three parallel parts: a documentary of one day in the life of people in three cities (Moscow, Kiev, Odessa), showing them at work and at leisure and emphasising their interactions with technology and machines in particular; a documentary about the process of making a film; and a documentary of people watching the first documentary. The film is continuously self-referential and aware of its being observed and filmed as it observes and films: throughout the film there are references to the camera itself and its association with human eyes and film techniques such as splitting the screen in half, rotating the film, running two scenes in a continuous repeating back-and-forth montage, jiggling the camera and tracking call viewers’ attention to the act and process of observation.

There actually is a “plot” and there are “characters”: the plot is a snapshot of modern life in the Soviet Union in the late 1920s, detailing the variety of work people do and what they get up to in their free time and the complexity and pace of the lives they lead. The impression viewers will get from all the jumpy edits and the use of unusual filming methods is that people are swept along by a force originally of their own making and now with a life and energy of its own. Cities wake up in the early morning and already there are people out and about cleaning the streets and preparing to open shops. Drivers and conductors board trams and take them out into the streets to pick up commuters. Gradually people get up from bed, wash themselves and get ready to go to work. Machines whir and wheeze in factories and trams and buses zip along the roads while pedestrians dart in and out among them. Along the way, Vertov chips in images of people attending weddings and funerals and of a woman giving birth, capturing the entire human life cycle in a matter of minutes. Later in the film people exercise, relax at a beach and play sport and games. “Characters” in the plot are the people at work and play as a collective character, the various cameramen who might also be considered one collective character and the cinema audience shown at the beginning and at the end of the film.

Above all, the camera has the starring role and Vertov acknowledges this by including a stop-motion animation scene of the camera, its case and tripod performing an awkward bow to the cinema audience near the end. At critical points in the film, interlays and montages of the camera lens and the human eye emphasise the camera’s role as an active observer and reporter of human activities. The intention on Vertov’s part is innocent enough but in the context of what was to develop in Soviet society later, the camera as an intelligent and perhaps not impartial observer can be a sinister metaphor for a surveillance state. The cameramen become mere hired help who perform dangerous jobs on the camera’s behalf: one man climbs a perilous ladder up a chimney, his equipment slung over his shoulder; another perches on the top of the edge of a door on an open-top car breezily flying down a street; and a third is carried in a basket over the thundering waters of a dam. There’s one heart-stopping scene in which a man, maybe or maybe not a camera operator, appears to be run over by a train. Who or what is the machine taking orders here, the cameraman or the camera?

Numerous filming and editing tricks including filming from different heights and angles, freeze frames, images laid one over another, speeding up or slowing down the film, and montages of repeating images from one to the next and back (so that the images are commenting on each other) relay Vertov’s view of society as progressive and reliant on the interdependence of human labour and technology. The pace is breathless and often dizzying and the camera itself sympathises with viewers by going dizzy itself. There are no class differences – everyone is a partner together in a world of work and leisure – and there are few differences between men and women at work. Women are shown performing labour and doing desk jobs: there is one marvellous montage sequence showing women telephone switchboard operators plugging wires into boards to connect callers and a woman working on a train carriage. Everyone has a role to fulfil and society’s progress and wealth depend on everyone doing his / her fair share of the work and toil. There’s room for humour too: the camera indulges in a playful overlay of a cameraman setting up his tripod and camera in a glass of beer!

Some viewers may find the machine-like portrayal of society and the people a little creepy: the whole society operates too smoothly and efficiently. It’s very easy to get the impression that the people going about their activities are little ants operating on autopilot, never stopping to think about what they’re doing and whether they could be doing something else or the same thing in a different way. There are references to Vladimir Lenin and yes, the film does portray society as serving Communist ideals and goals and building Communist society with combined proletarian effort. Unfortunately it was France not the USSR that had a Jacques Tati doing his bit to interrupt the machine flow of society and introduce some untidy human chaos, and that much later than when Vertov made his documentary.

The joke about “Man with a Movie Camera” (or should that really be “Movie Camera with Hired Help”?) is that the people in the cinema watching the documentary and the cameraman (men?) making a documentary never see what he (they?) captures on film and neither do viewers like you and me. The humour, energy and zest that inform “Man with a Movie Camera” make it fresh more than eighty years after it was made. Clearly Vertov is celebrating Soviet society of 1929 as technological, forward-looking and thinking, prosperous, egalitarian and buoyant: the film is a cheery and exuberant advert for the society it depicts. Considering the terror that was to come with agricultural collectivisation and the resulting famine in Ukraine, Stalin’s purges of the Communist Party and the Soviet armed forces later, and his restrictions on artistic freedom which the film also celebrates, all in the 1930s, viewers might find themselves watching “Man with a Movie Camera” with a skeptical eye and a sad heart.

Dead Man’s Letters: post-apocalyptic dystopia is depressive in style and tone but holds out hope for humanity

Konstantin Lopushansky, “Dead Man’s Letters” / “Pisma myortvogo cheloveka” (1986)

Depressive in tone but with a hopeful optimism at its end, this film explores how human beings might survive the immediate aftermath of a nuclear bomb explosion that wipes out entire cities and all life above ground and renders the physical environment sterile and toxic. In such a setting people live without hope and watch one another disintegrate emotionally and mentally as well as physicially. The bare and patchy plot centres around a physicist huddled with a few other survivors in a bunker beneath a museum after such a wipe-out. The physicist tends to his wife, dying from radiation sickness, and composes letters to their young son who was separated from them during the explosion and the chaos that followed, and is now missing. One day while searching for the boy and other survivors, the physicist meets a group of orphaned children, all traumatised by the explosion, and arranges for them all to go to a so-called Central Bunker where they might be cared for by government doctors. Martial law and a strict curfew have been imposed across the country and the physicist risks his life to get medicine for his wife; while he’s gone, the wife dies. The remaining survivors in the museum bunker ponder their circumstances and try to cope with various rationalisation strategies. Eventually they’re all ordered to go to the Central Bunker but the physicist elects to remain and moreover takes in the orphans when the Central Bunker rejects them for being sick.

The plot depends heavily on the actors and their environment to convey its message and ideas. The actors have worn, sometimes craggy faces which portray hope, despair, anger and resignation in turns. The interior settings are dark and look cramped with primitive living conditions; exterior settings are dominated by roaring winds, the wreckage of buildings, cars and machines, puddles of toxic water and undecayed bodies. An air of oppression reinforced by helicopter and tank patrols and periodic megaphone announcements adds to the overall feeling of despair and hopelessness. Use of sepia tones in the filmstock emphasises the desolation and wretchedness of life and accentuates the strains of care and surviving on the actors’ faces. Viewers see the details of soil texture, of water that looks like mercury and, in a flooded university library, of the wet pulp of paper and sodden towers of books. One scene in the film appears in shades of blue that highlight the secret and possibly illegal or dangerous work being done by two characters.

The cinematography captures perfectly the small scale of human life in an extraordinary and extreme environment.  It reaches its peak of morose and pessimistic expression in a Christmas scene in which the physicist and his orphans build a Christmas tree out of wire and industrial scrap and light candles on the tree. The camera draws back to show the scene in full: stark in its loneliness but beautiful all the same. It’s like a small beacon of light in a never-ending black night. Viewers sense that the plot has reached its lowest point and from here on, hope may arise; it harks back to the pagan origin of Christmas as a mid-winter festival in which people celebrated the death of the old year and the birth of the new year. What happens to the physicist and the children next underlines this passing-of-the-torch motif.

There are other moments of great beauty in the film: the nuclear disaster itself with its montage of cities on fire and being blown down by huge winds, over which a soprano sings and a child babbles in the background, is a memorable sight; and the orphaned children venturing out into the barren landscape and over the horizon beneath an overcast sky through which thin rays of sun shine is a very beautiful and moving scene. Even the sepia tones themselves lend a kind of golden aura over the actors and the sets as they bring out the harshness and desolation of the lives the characters lead.

A few survivors declaim on the purpose and nature of humanity on Earth and where and how humanity went wrong somewhere so that the nuclear calamity was made possible. People were ambitious and greedy, they reached out and made things they didn’t fully understand, they tried to know too much but lacked the wisdom and insight to control their knowledge and what they did with it … the physicist himself realises the calamity occurred accidentally in a way that’s no-one’s fault. Here is a message about the absurdity and fragility of existence and how one seemingly trivial yet universal event can set off a chain reaction that results in a nation-wide if not global tragedy. One survivor expounds his view that a new dog-eat-dog world without compassion will be built on the remains of the old one. Another survivor praises the achievements of the human species and then commits suicide. At one point in the film, the physicist expresses guilt that his work might have contributed to the nuclear disaster.

In the end, hope is all the physicist has to sustain him: hope that his son is still alive, hope that his wife might survive long enough to see their son, hope that the orphaned children will also survive and help create a new world with new values that won’t end in nuclear catastrophe. The children carry his hope as they trudge away from the museum bunker.

Viewers familar with Andrei Tarkovsky’s film “Stalker” will recognise many plot, theme, character and technical elements from that film in “Dead Man’s Letters” – Lopushanski assisted on the filming of “Stalker” and the film must have made quite an impression 0n him. Both films can be very depressing to watch but express hope and optimism through children who appear harmed by the catastrophes that cause devastation and suffering to their elders but may have an inner strength and resilience.”Stalker” seems the weightier and more worthy film perhaps because of its deeply immersive nature, the ambiguities that exist within its plot, characters and setting, and the way the plot plays out with characters failing to achieve their goal and losing their faith and hope along the way. In “Dead Man’s Letters”, the plot is barely developed enough to explain in part how characters behave in the way they do. Even so, it’s a thoughtful film with scenes of great beauty and sadness.

 

The Space Voyage: space adventure propaganda piece for kids is a little subversive

Vasily Zhuravlov, “The Space Voyage” / “Kosmicheskiy reys: Fantasticheskaya Novella” (1936)

In the 1930s, the youth branch of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, usually known by its abbreviation Komsomol, suggested that a film be made to encourage interest in space exploration among young people and this film, which  features as a main character a boy who is a Komsomol member, was the result. Director Zhuravlov had been itching to make this film since the mid-1920s anyway though possibly without the child character. Shot as a silent film with not very many title cards, the film is fairly easy to follow even though on Youtube.com it has no English-language subtitles. An aged scientist, Professor Sedykh (S Komarov), and his assistant Marina (K Moskalenko) decide to blast off into space in their rocket along with a teenage passenger, Andriusha (V Gaponenko) after Sedykh has been in trouble with fellow scientist and bureaucrat Professor Karin (V Kovrigin), the latter having been irate over finding a sleeping rabbit in a small rocket. The unlikely trio fly straight to the moon where they don spacesuits and happily leap about in close to zero-gravity conditions, taking in the sights and exploring the caves they find. Sedykh nearly gets crushed by a rock but apart from that mishap, the three have a good time and send a signal to Earth that they have landed on the moon. That basically is all there is in the way of a plot.

The glory of the film is in its sets and some aspects of the script: Zhuravlov consulted the then-famous rocket scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky on the script and other aspects of the film’s production. The scenes in the film in which Sedykh, Marina and Andriusha float and fly about in the spaceship were probably inspired by a suggestion that once a spaceship escapes the pull of Earth’s gravity, its occupants might experience weightlessness. The camera shows the threesome bouncing off walls and windows, and even adopts a first-person viewpoint of flying with quick edits of swaying and swinging aerial shots: hmm, those three need a fair bit of practice to stop crashing into sensitive levers and steering wheels. The scenes on the moon in which the astronauts jump from rock to rock are all animated (with stop-motion animation) to a high quality and look very realistic for the period in which the film was made. Spacesuits have oxygen tubes and tanks attached to them, indicating the level of research and care Zhuravlov took in making the film appear authentic.

The sets themselves will take viewers’ breath away: even the cameraman must have been in awe at the size and clean streamling of the spaceship, around which workers scurry and little trucks drive, and there’s an excellent “virtual tour” shot in which the camera pans slowly around the ship itself while in the hangar. The ship’s interiors look cramped and are filled with panels of levers, steering wheels and gauges. Moscow itself is portrayed as a futuristic planned city dominated by a few skyscrapers here and there and a long rollercoaster-like bridge that reaches for the sky itself. The lunar landscapes, all painted on background boards, almost have the appearance of abstract avantgarde oil paintings with huge white block-shaped boulders draped over by dark shadows, over which the Earth can be seen rising.

Interestingly during take-off, the astronauts are shown wearing special costumes and sitting in liquid-filled chambers. Presumably the liquid absorbs the changes in pressure and any shocks that occur while the ship escapes the Earth’s atmosphere so that, once in space, the astronauts suffer no ill effects. Tsiolkovsky and Zhuravlov sure did think of everything that could have gone wrong and how to solve any potential problems!

As a film aimed at children, “The Space Voyage” includes considerable humour: Karin is prevented by a group of Komsomol children from stopping Sedykh’s flight and has to pretend that he authorised the flight all along; and Sedykh’s wife, in helping her husband to pack his luggage for the trip, realises he has forgotten to take his warm boots so she hurries to the spaceflight centre with them. The prime humorous aspect is that the flight crew includes no young able-bodied adult males whom viewers would expect to perform the action-hero parts; when Sedykh gets into trouble, Marina and Andriusha are the ones who bail him out. A young military man who is Marina’s boyfriend would have gone on board but Marina throws him out after he throws his support behind Karin’s orders.

Though intended as a propaganda piece masquerading as a children’s space adventure, the film’s choice of main characters and the way the first part of its plot plays out are in their own way subversive of official Communist propaganda: Sedykh and Marina defy a bureaucrat’s orders and Andriusha sneaks away from home and boards the spaceship as a stowaway. Sedykh and Marina initially treat Andriusha as just a kid but after he declares that he and his friends stopped Karin from grounding the rocket, the two allow him to explore the moon’s caves with them. None of them is what NASA or its Soviet equivalent would call “qualified” to be space explorers. When they get back home, they find they are forgiven for their disobedience. Ah, if only real life had been as kind to the film as the fictional bureaucrats were to the trio … “The Space Voyage” was pulled from cinemas in 1936 as the animated scenes of jumping astronauts were judged by government censors to be frivolous and was neglected for a long time afterwards.

 

 

Aerograd: great visuals of wilderness and flying planes in Soviet war propaganda film

Alexander Dovzhenko, “Aerograd” (1935)

It’s a well-made film with stunning shots of wilderness and planes flying in the sky but where would a Dovzhenko film be without the requisite pro-Soviet propaganda? “Aerograd” leads the way in staking the Stalinist government’s claim to ownership of the Far East territories, those areas from the border with Manchuria running up through Sakhalin island to the Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy and Chukotski peninsulas (the latter separated from Alaska by the Bering strait). The film constantly emphasises the frontier nature of the country in these areas: the forests of huge trees and mossy undergrowth stretch for miles, the rivers are wild and the seas vast, and the ice also stretches on and on over the horizon forever. Pity in a way that “Aerograd” had to be shot in black-and-white as colour film could have focussed on the majesty and richness of the forests and on the cold blue and wild white of the rivers, seas and ice floes.

Unfortunately the version of the film I saw on Youtube.com didn’t have English subtitles so much of the plot went way over my head. The plot is not very clear and has several parallel strands to it though there are definite lead characters (the sharpshooter, a pilot and a Rasputin-like Old Believer demagogue) and a head Japanese villain. There is an airfield being built in a remote part of the Soviet Far East near where a colony of Old Believers (Russian Orthodox Christians whose ancestors rejected the reforms of Patriarch Nikon in the 1600’s and who were persecuted and forced to flee to remote parts as a result) has lived for a long time. The Old Believers don’t support the Communist government and this stand brings them into conflict with recent Russian settlers building the airfield. In the meantime a few Japanese spies have snuck into the area and see the spat going on so they try to stir up the Old Believers into rejecting Soviet authority and the airfield. One local Russian man is friendly with a spy but is caught and condemned to be executed as a traitor; the man’s friend who appears to be a sharpshooter is given the task of executing him.

The film clearly urges support for the Stalinist government by showing the Old Believers as naive, superstitious and backward in their ways, the Japanese as sinister and duplicitous swordsmen, and other Russians as progressive and rational. One scene in which the Old Believers are at worship portrays them as a bit fanatical. Dovzhenko strives not to appear racist: the handsome pilot, one of the heroes, has a young Asian wife; and a young Siberian hunter declares his support for the Russians. The sharpshooter who must execute his friend seems upset but knows he must carry out his duty.

For Western viewers, the best parts of “Aerograd” are the silent scenes at the beginning and near the end of the film: at the start there are several minutes during which the sharpshooter pursues two Japanese spies through the forests, and near the end a huge flotilla of planes from all over the Soviet Union fly to the Aerograd airfield to help defend the area from Japanese invasion. The forests dwarf the humans running through them; even the undergrowth threatens to swallow them up. During the film’s climax when Aerograd is in danger, planes in strict formation roar through the sky and each succeeding shot, spliced in-between with title cards showing the planes’ cities and regions of origin,  includes more planes until the skies are thundering with their presence and authority.  The music during this part is rousing and dramatic. A very stirring highlight indeed.

Acting varies from natural to over-acting, even histrionic in one scene where the fiery-eyed Rasputin guy fires up a crowd so much that women start sobbing and collapsing.

As it is, “Aerograd” looks very good and if it had English and other language subtitles I would recommend it to history and film students for its value as a propaganda piece urging support for Stalin and collective action, and resistance to Japan. If “Aerograd” were considered for a remake for general viewing, it would probably be in the form of a “Western” as plot, location and character elements ripe for that genre already exist: wild frontier territory near Manchuria; a sharpshooter and a hero pilot who find in each other a natural ally; an isolated community whose political loyalties are vague and have to be prodded in the “right” direction; enemies sent from another country with territorial ambitions; and an aerial version of the US Sixth Cavalry to come to the rescue.

The Sky Calls: visually striking film that’s low on excitement and high on propaganda with a surprise twist

Mikhail Karyukhov and Alexander Kozyr, “The Sky Calls” / “Nebo Zovyot” (1959)

A visually stunning film about space exploration, “The Sky Calls” was the first in a wave of science fiction movies from the Soviet Union and eastern Europe that deal with space travel in a more or less “hard science”, realist way. Unusually perhaps for a film of its kind, the plot is contained within a framing device of a fantasy conceived by a news reporter, Troyan (S Filimonov), after he meets and interviews rocket scientist Kornev (I Pereverzev) about his work and the possibility of space travel in the near future. In the fantasy Troyan accompanies Kornev and various other scientists on a trip to a space station where Kornev meets among others two visiting Americans, pilot Klark (K Bartsevich) and news reporter Verst (G Tonunts) , who plan to fly to the moon. Kornev later declares he and another man will fly to Mars. The visiting Americans report back to NASA who advise them to change their plans and fly to Mars to beat the Russians. The Americans do so, injuring Kornev’s original pilot, so another man Gordienko (A Shvorin) accompanies Kornev instead on the ship Rodina. On the way there, the Russians receive an SOS: the Americans in their ship Typhoon have been hit by a meteor shower which has forced the craft into a trajectory into the sun. The Rodina crew rescues the Typhoon men but the Russians are unable to continue their Mars mission due to a fuel shortage so they must land on an asteroid, Icarus, and wait for an unmanned refuelling vehicle to arrive from Earth.

Emphasising realism and the work that astronauts might be expected to do in space, the plot disdains action-man heroics and one-upmanship in favour of a moral about how friendship and co-operation triumph over nationalistic rivalry and competition, and that the ultimate purpose of space exploration is to encourage and advance knowledge about the cosmos and benefit human society. Any drama arises from the consequences of the American crew’s haste in flying away from the space station at NASA’s orders. Early in the film Klark admits he once crash-landed a craft – his face has the dints to prove his point – so viewers are aware he’s someone who might take unnecessary risks. Generally the Americans come across as slightly neurotic, impulsive and childish, seeking excitement for its own sake; the Russians are depicted as reliable, calm and level-headed. The differences between the Americans and the Russians extend to their societies as well: American society is about acquisitiveness and seeking cheap sensations to a boppy jazz soundtrack while Russian society is solid and grounded in nature against a soothing and anodyne classical music background. The stereotyping leads to rather wooden acting – even the gung-ho air jockey Klark is hard to take seriously as rash, so stolid is he – and precludes any interesting tension and suspense that would result from character clashes and misunderstandings.

The film’s chief glory is in its exterior and interior sets, particularly the scenes set in space and on Icarus. The Icarus landscapes with their contrasts of red light and black shadows show influences that might have come from 1920’s-era Russian abstract art movements like Rayonism and Constructivism. A shot of the rocket that takes Troyan into outer space might comfortingly remind some Western viewers of the old British marionette series Thunderbirds in its solid detail. Cinematography can be quite good too: there is a wonderful early transition from the lights of night-time Moscow car traffic to winking stars in space to the rocket separating from its launch structures. The science is not exact: there is early mention of “winds” in space and there are scenes of people in spacesuits walking or standing on space station platforms or on the surface of rockets while the craft are clearly moving quickly and one wonders how these structures, massive though they are, can generate a gravitational field sufficiently strong enough to keep a crowd of people from floating away; but apart from these and possibly other slips, the attention to visual detail in the sets, the special effects used and the spooky organ tunes, sort of melodic in an eccentric way that emphasises the organ tone, in a number of scenes are excellent.

Acting is unremarkable: even the Americans are underplayed though Klark is supposedly a maverick pilot and Verst lacks space-flight experience and understandably panics when the Typhoon veers towards the sun. Pereverzev as Kornev gets the best lines pontificating on the superiority of co-operation over competition and whatever character development exists is invested wholly in Klark’s realisation that Kornev is right and that his natural soul brothers are people like Kornev and Gordienko who have in common with him training, experience and faith in space exploration. It’s to be noted also that all lead and major secondary roles are given to male actors while female actors are relegated to support roles of mothers, wives, medical doctors and space-flight technicians.

Funnily the film doesn’t look dated though the attitudes and values that power the plot and the characterisation are often very traditional even by 1950’s-period standards. The film suggests that the Russian space crew members are morally grounded due to their almost spiritual devotion to their country (note the name of the rocket “Rodina” which is Russian for “Motherland”) and their political and economic system. Friendship and co-operation are favoured as long as people involved defer to the Russians as leaders among them. At least the film is even-handed in the way it treats Klark and Verst as victims of their political and social conditioning and even Kornev, the obvious leader, is a bit fallible in admiring Klark when the latter admits to his early foolhardy action. Klark achieves moral redemption near the film’s end so at least Kornev’s mission, though it has failed to reach Mars, has done something very significant. The goal of the trip ultimately isn’t that important; the journey itself, the struggles along the way, the unexpected reward of seeing a rising Mars from the surface of Icarus and the lessons learned demonstrate that space travel in itself is a wonder and anyone who becomes an astronaut is very privileged indeed.

The framing device of a reporter’s fantasy suggests mild oblique criticism on the film-makers’ part about the role of the media as a propaganda tool in fanning international or other rivalries that strike against the interests of scientists in working together and sharing knowledge and skills. The character of Verst in particular could be viewed as Troyan’s dark twin, trying to pre-empt or hurry the patient and often tiring work of scientists and forcing them into doing dangerous things they would otherwise avoid. There is the suggestion in Troyan’s fantasy and its eventual manifestation as a novel that scientists should be allowed to work at their own pace and that the proper role for journalists in reporting scientific articles is to inspire interest, wonder and support for scientists in the general public.

The Sampo: good-looking film with a moral let down by watered-down story and wooden acting

Risto Orko and Alexander Ptushko, “The Sampo” (1959)

A joint Finnish-Soviet fantasy production aimed at a family audience, “The Sampo” is a very loose retelling of some of the tales in the Finnish national epic Kalevala. In the original stories, the aged bard and poet Väinämöinen is the major character but here becomes a support character with scattered screen time here and there. The film’s focus falls on the fortunes of the hunter Lemminkäinen (Andris Oshin) and the blacksmith Ilmarinen (Ivan Voronov) as they battle the evil witch Louhi of the North Country (Pohjola). The trouble starts when Louhi (Anna Oroshko), greedy for personal wealth, decides she wants a sampo made. The only person in the world with the knowledge and skill to make a sampo, a magical object that can dispense endless riches, is Ilmarinen so Louhi contrives a scheme to force him to come to her. She kidnaps his beautiful young sister Annikki (Eve Kivi) and holds her prisoner; the news soon reaches Ilmarinen. Lemminkäinen has been wooing Annikki so he and Ilmarinen leave their community Kaleva and travel together to Pohjola to rescue Annikki. Louhi demands ransom in the form of the sampo and another arduous task from both men so they oblige and eventually Annikki is released to go back home with them.

Sounds all very straightforward but some complications arise: Lemminkäinen decides Louhi can’t be allowed to keep the sampo all to herself so he swims back to the witch’s cave hideout while Ilmarinen and Annikki continue home. Lemminkäine ‘s rash actions endanger himself and his entire community in Kaleva as Louhi swears vengeance on him and tries to destroy his people by stealing the sun. Väinämöinen (Urho Somersalmi), portrayed as the community’s leader, leads his people in a cooperative effort to fight Louhi and her army of sorcerers. Unfortunately for everyone, the sampo itself ends up destroyed, its parts scattered throughout the world, and Lemminkainen is only able to retrieve a small part for Kaleva.

Viewers may quibble that a TV series with hour-long episodes would have better suited Kalevala with its different stories and their subplots: the great Indian epics the Mahabharata and the Ramayana were successfully televised as ongoing TV series by India’s public broadcaster Doordarshan in the 1980’s at a time when that country was much less wealthy than it is now and the special effects needed for both shows must have been a massive and hugely expensive undertaking. As it is, “The Sampo” is a series of little episodes in an overarching story about ambition and greed and the disasters they cause along with the value of cooperative effort in overcoming a great enemy. There is some redemption as well. At least the moral messages that appear compensate for the patchy good-versus-evil plot which doesn’t do justice to the epic’s complexity and dark characters. Some original Kalevala stories are worked into the movie but in a way that drains them of their power and prevents them from enriching the plot and its characters: to take one example, the subplot in which Lemminkäinen’s mother (Ada Voitsik) rescues her son and brings him back to life is so whitewashed from its original that a lesson about effort and sacrifice is precluded and so the subplot becomes unnecessary. One story that unfortunately didn’t find its way into the film is Louhi’s all-out showdown with Väinämöinen, Lemminkäinen and Ilmarinen in the boat carrying the sampo; the script-writers substituted two weak episodes separating the fight and the sampo’s destruction.

The film’s main asset is its special effects: they may look cheap and some are cheesy but they’re right for the job and aren’t excessive for their scenes. (Now that would be cheesy!) Ilmarinen’s separate creations of a horse and boat from fire and metal are suitably awe-inspiring and his sampo, a slightly hokey creation of coloured crystal, actually gains credibility as a wealth generator and then as a good luck charm once in pieces. Scenes in which Kaleva is cursed with everlasting blizzard and winter and in which some unfortunate people are covered over with snow are commendable. On the other hand some effects are quite comic and probably unnecessary: the twirling bear shot merely looks weird and creepy and the scenes with a talking birch tree are laughable.

Speaking of trees, yours truly finds the main characters Ilmarinen and Lemminkäinen as solid, expressive and unyielding as wood: they don’t so much talk to each other and to others as declaim their sentences. Lemminkäinen dares just about anything and everything to knock him over – his face is frozen into expressions of resolution of varying degrees – and even death doesn’t wipe that mask off his visage. Annikki is just a McGuffin figure to get Lemminkäinen and Ilmarinen up and running to Pohjola to meet the witch. The only worthy acting (maybe over-acting) comes from Oroshko who clearly relishes playing Louhi. Believe it or not, Oroshko is female in spite of her character’s very mannish appearance with overgrown eyebrows. Some of Louhi’s sorcerers offer performances to match Oroshko in overdone drama, especially when they think of the sampo and say in wonder: “…. sampo! …” and get that dazed faraway look in their eyes, but the camera doesn’t pay much attention to these individuals.

The film looks very beautiful and colourful in a way that might remind viewers of a certain age of Walt Disney nature documentaries of the 1950s – 60s; wherever the opportunity beckons, the camera lavishes its gaze on the silvery forests, the lakes and rivers, and general Finnish countryside scenery. The impression is of serenity and tranquillity in the dark and still birch trees. Opening scenes in the movie show rural people at work cutting down trees to clear the land for planting crops. Once the focus is on Lemminkainen and Ilmarinen journeying to Pohjala to save Annikki, the film pays no more attention to portraying rural Finnish life other than showing how men and women dress and how the interiors of their houses might appear. Unfortunately being a good-looking fantasy film isn’t enough: a strong plot, lots of adventure, memorable characters tested and matured by adversity, and interactions with conflict – and the original Kalevala has plenty of these! – are just lacking here.

Arsenal: as Soviet propaganda, film is surprisingly pacifist and innovative in use of montage

Alexander Dovzhenko, “Arsenal” (1928)

Notable for its skilful use of montages of images to create and build tension, excitement, urgency and other moods, “Arsenal” revolves around an incident during the Russian Civil War: a group of workers at an arsenal factory in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine then as now, rebelled in late January 1918 against the revolutionary parliament of Ukraine that had just declared the country’s independence from the Russian empire. The workers declared a strike and joined a group of invading Bolshevik soldiers to fight the Ukrainian forces. Under the leadership of politician Symon Petlyura, the Ukrainians crushed the factory workers’ rebellion, killing many people, and drove out the Bolsheviks on 4 February 1918. A few days later Bolshevik forces returned and captured Kiev.

“Arsenal” isn’t clear on the actual historical details and it ends when the workers’ revolt is suppressed violently and with much bloodshed; leader of the revolt, ex-soldier Timosh (Semyon Svashenko) bravely faces off against three armed men trying to kill him. Whatever plot exists – the story of the factory revolt actually begins 30 minutes into the film – is very sketchy and is carried mainly by Dovzhenko’s montage arrangements into which inter-titles carrying dialogue are inserted. The overwhelming impression I have is that, regardless of who is right and who is wrong, the use of violence can’t be justified however necessary it seems t people at the time and there appears to be a pacifist thread throughout the film. Violence and bloodshed lead to too many personal tragedies: families are torn apart, widows and orphans face hardship, starvation and poverty.

The film’s main assets are the editing, montage that combines several parallel strands of plot or sub-plot, and cinematography which often features impressive montages of images, many of which are shot at unusual angles or with characters and objects silhouetted against the sky. Particularly memorable are close-ups of factory machines at work, giving the film a near-abstract / futuristic edge in parts. There are some scenes in which the camera tracks along as though riding a train, taking in scenery through a window. The first 30 minutes of the film feature some very riveting set pieces: one series of montages set in the country, demonstrates with searing intensity the poverty and hardships endured by depressed peasants in a village and the sudden bursts of violence two of the villagers engage in against small children and a horse. A war episode follows in which a soldier inhales laughing gas and laughs uncontrollably; the film flicks back and forth between this man and another soldier, silhouetted against the sky, preparing to shoot him, then throwing away his rifle. For this act, he is punished by his senior officer. A third set piece, using quick editing to flash back and forth among images, close-ups and parallel viewpoints of the same incident, chronicles the last trip of a speeding train packed with soldiers returning from war in central Europe; one of the soldiers entertains his pals by playing his accordion. The passengers realise the train is about to crash and soldiers escape while they can. The crash is very severe and the accordion is flung off the train without its owner.

The acting can be florid and overdone and some scenes, such as the Mexican stand-off between a worker and a faltering capitalist in the last quarter of the film, are milked for what they’re worth for tension and emotion.

First-time viewers should familiarise themselves with some of the history of Ukraine between 1917 and 1921 when the country enjoyed a very brief independence before being forcibly absorbed into the Soviet Union, so they can make sense of the film. They don’t have to know all the details of the Arsenal factory revolt – Timosh and several other characters appear to be fictional – but just enough about when it happened, the groups involved, who put down the rebellion and what consequences it had for the future of Kiev and Ukraine generally. As a native Ukrainian and wanting to appear loyal to Communism, director Dovzhenko must have trodden a fine line indeed between supporting his country’s aspirations for freedom and being in the Stalinist government’s good books so as to continue his directing career without too much political interference. As a story “Arsenal” can be haphazard with different incidents occurring at once and the film ducking from one line of events to another and back again so viewers should just concentrate on the imagery and see how editing and montage can be used to suggest or generate tension and passion. The pro-Communist stand is very strong, so strong that an element of fantasy creeps in when Timosh resists being shot; it’s an awkward and wryly laughable moment coming after numerous scenes of brutality and death but the obvious alternative might have put Dovzhenko in trouble.