This letter is part of "Behind the Celluloid Curtain," a series of correspondences between Scout Tafoya and Veronika Ferdman on the topic of Soviet cinema, with each series organized around a theme. This particular series focuses on love in a time of discontent.
I’m so glad we picked these movies. I wanted a glimpse into normal Russian life and here are the children of the USSR listening to vinyl! They’re singing and talking about stuff. Boring stuff, in some cases! “Do you know how many people will die in traffic accidents this year?” I sure don’t! Russians! They’re just like us! July Rain is a most excellent example not only of people just trying to make sense of the minutia of being alive, but of a filmmaker finding his way through a glut of world cinema influences and coming away with something unique. There’s Godard, there’s Antonioni, as you pointed out, and there’s Kalatozov, the great poet of Russian cinema (Tarkovsky’s the great novelist of Russian cinema, before you correct me). But there’s still the sense that Marlen Khutsiev is a director worth paying attention to for reasons that have nothing to do with the fact that he’s a relatively undocumented figure in Russian cinema. There’s his focus on a woman’s boredom, for one, rare in any country. There’s his welcoming attitude towards sound, with silence and popular music appearing contrapuntally to keep the audience on its toes. A splendid, varied work with so much to say about how Russian twenty-somethings lived while America was busy making up its own version of that story.
It’s insanely encouraging that the few Russian films I’ve seen about life divorced of military significance or post-apocalyptic imperatives are about women. I wonder if that’s socialism? What do you think, Veronika? Do you get the sense that the sexes are equal in Soviet art or am I giving a complicated place the benefit of the doubt? I tend to always give Russian and socialist artists leeway. I want to believe someone who shares my political beliefs goes “all the way” so to speak. That equality colours everything they touch. And yet it’s hard to ignore the signs that Larisa Shepitko was dissatisfied with the shape life took in Soviet Russia.
Shepitko and her husband Elem Klimov were towering figures in Russian cinema, but perhaps only in hindsight. Americans look back at the history of the medium over there and their names happen to stand tall, but we’re only getting an eighth of the full story. I find myself constantly wanting to ask you questions about “what it was like” and then remember you of course have no idea. Shepitko looms large over Russian cinema for me because she’s one of the few women whose work you can find on DVD, and one of the few people whose keepers had a sense of her legacy. So many people were allowed to vanish when they stopped directing, but not Shepitko. After her death in a car accident while filming her final feature, Klimov made a short film in tribute to her, and it’s probably the most shattering work of art I’ve ever subjected myself to. She deserved nothing less.
You And I was either her third or fourth feature (information on something called Blind Cook is maddeningly scarce, which means it could be a feature or a short for all I know) after Heat, a Kalatazov-inspired tale of life on the steppe, and Wings, an achingly sad paean to a woman stripped of the power that made her feel like she could fly. Shepitko’s concerns were always no more than human, but she could raise the stakes like a seasoned card sharp. You and I concerns a doctor named Peter (Leonid Dyachkov) and the wife (Alla Demidova) he leaves behind. He leaves Moscow for Siberia in order to feel important. She contemplates an affair with one of his colleagues in his absence. Both feel unsatisfied with the hand dealt them. Both fight like hell to figure out how to make themselves feel alive in a culture that begs them to be satisfied and move with the current. Like the heroes of July Rain, they don’t stem the tide with much vigour, they just wonder whether any version of their lives ends with them happy.
Shepitko’s rhythm and pacing are not dissimilar to Khutsiev’s, and they both open their mise en scène to allow the sea of life to surround their heroes in order to highlight their ennui. Peter goes to work in Siberia because he knows they need him out there, a feeling he doesn’t get from his marriage. Shepitko makes us believe that this isn’t her fault, that she too had needs that weren’t being met, making this a most peculiar break-up movie. She doesn’t want him and he can’t square his feelings for her with the longing in his heart to do something that matters. Though that isn’t all that makes it strange…the first scene is so odd you wonder if someone changed reels on you. Peter is visited by his colleague (Yuri Vizbor) and the two engage in a mock gunfight set to the James Bond theme. It’s the first clue that Shepitko’s version of life in Russia drips with menacing irony. Life really does have no purpose, so these men play act that it might. But even in their playing they’re violent and kill each other, because that would make life interesting. But the goofiness is still a force to be reckoned with. This movie isn’t a comedy, but the very understandable urge to be silly still finds its way inside. Have you ever seen anything like it in Russian cinema? Least of all in something that ends so brutally?
You asked me a very detailed and lovely question in your last letter, Veronika. Boiled down, do I ever find myself inside the folds of celluloid even when I’m watching on my laptop. Do I ever suffer from benign Stendahl Syndrome? Oh boy do I. I’ll tell you what starts it. It’s that Alfred Schnittke music. I know Schnittke from one chord on an old piano, from the mournful note on a violin. He’s my favourite film composer and his music is the soul of Russian film. The silent screaming of a thousand forgotten cogs in a gigantic, unfeeling machine. Shepitko wanted to show life in all its depressing intricacies and Schnittke turns every sigh into a shout. He turns ordinary life and gesture into something unearthly, mythic, operatic. When I hear his music, coupled with Shepitko’s images, so full of life and motion, I can squint and imagine myself on those frozen landscapes, those busy train platforms and bustling airport hangers. I’m there with Leonid Dyachkov because I too have made those mistakes. Walked away from people I love, friends and lovers, for the sake of sanity. A purpose greater than intimacy has compelled me to time and again to break friendships, to refuse to heal them, because that’s what seemed best for me. Or anyway, easiest. I’ve walked those same rail yards, atonal chords reverberating in my ear, sewing doubt and unease and regret into my own narrative fabric. Shepitko frequently destroyed the barrier between her audience and the raw emotion her characters experienced. I’ve thrown myself into the arms of other people (though none of them ever looked as bewitching and godlike as Natalya Bondarchuk) the way that Peter does and wondered whether I deserve the respite that such a thing can offer. Shepitko’s narratives seem to me perfectly, uniquely and representatively Russian in that they ask whether perfection is ever possible. They make us look over our shoulders and question the path not taken. They explore the nagging feeling that you’ve ruined your life somewhere along the line and won’t realize it until it’s far too late to do anything about it. That sounds heavy, and indeed it often was, but there is such life-force behind her images, such colour and exuberance that I couldn’t see living in a world without her work. She saw beauty in imperfection, and she found it no matter the landscape around her.
I have a question for you, now, Ronee. What environment, what cinematic world would you love to occupy and where do you think it came from? What shaped your aesthetic predilections? What does cinematic paradise look like to you? I’d love to know.