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 have wanted to discuss Soviet cinema with someone for so very, very long. Despite being born in the former Soviet Union (and spending the greater part of my childhood in the United States) it took me a long time to turn my eyes to Soviet films. You asked what I was told about that country (or, really, idea) while growing up, but perhaps out of some subconscious desire to assimilate as quickly as possible I spent much of my childhood and adolescence skirting around the issue of my heritage—I didn't read the literature, watch the films, or want anything to do with that part of myself. (Ask me about my past opinions on herring and vodka sometime.) To me, the Soviet Union has always been at once small and personal (my mom telling me about the one time she was on vacation as a little girl when her aunt's German Shepherd got hold of her knit sweater and unraveled the sleeve) and impossibly huge: a land with a tortured socio-political narrative whose story I somehow had to master and position myself toward or against.
It is through cinema that I have finally really started grappling with the Eastern bloc and all of the history and memory, both personal and public that it holds. I now see visions not just of my former country's past selves, but those of my own. The richest place to mine for images of my (imagined, possible, parallel) past self are the works that came out of the 60s and 70s. Their stories and images and rhythms however disparate in tone and style, some fraction of them have been buried in my subconscious all this time. Now when I see the films of Kira Muratova or Marlen Khutsiev among so many others I experience that uncanny catharsis that comes from a wave of nostalgia for something I never really knew but could have possibly known if my life had taken a slightly different turn. In one of the articles that preceded the release of Sufjan Stevens' new album he talked about how his niece pointing out someone's polka-dotted tights on a playground would make him unexpectedly suffer "cosmic anguish." My triggers for cosmic anguish are birch trees (especially when light dapples through them), folk songs (especially when someone takes out a guitar and starts singing off the cuff and for a minute that song and those words make everything in the world clear and aligned but tinged with a sadness nonetheless), and rain (especially when it makes the streets slick and reflective). And by God, are all three things a staple of Soviet cinema. And God, do they hurt me so much.
In your letter you wondered what normal life would look like later in the 1960s. I can respond that, as evidenced by Marlen Khutsiev's July Rain (1967), normal life was numbing not for those that went against the grain like the couple in The Lady with the Little Dog, but even for those that tried to go along with it: to be engaged politically, socially, and morally.
July Rain was Khutsiev's fourth feature, released a few years into Brezhnev's 19-year long tenure as General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party.
The growing metaphysical despondency of this era is evidenced cinematically in that the once subtle influence on Kheifits by Antonioni is now, 7 years later, aggressive expressed in Khutsiev’s work. That soul-sick ennui is everywhere in the film; from flesh to street. The desperately searching camera intermittently cuts away from the narrative to briefly study the sometimes empty, sometimes crowded streets of Moscow. It pans or tracks along for a while in a hollow gaze that is at once pronouncedly beautiful and empty as it catches on nothing in particular. I don't know if Olivier Assayas ever saw July Rain—he's a cinephile so it's certainly possible. But regardless, there's an emotional and thematic complicity between this work and Assayas's own wandering through the territory of lost (though much younger, high-school aged) youth in Cold Water (1994). They share a similar keen reliance on the physical elements—earth, fire, water—to wonderingly relay a moment of existential turmoil.
It's hard for me to not romanticize the physical landscape of July Rain, to graph my own longings for a different past onto the screen. Even when Lena (Evgeniya Uralova) walks alone down the sidewalk days after her father has passed away, the blackness of the rain slicked streets at night and the orbs of the street lights shining through scraggly trees lining the sidewalk is somehow romantic, nostalgic. The crispness of the air after a rainfall is almost palpable where I sit watching the movie on a laptop in my room; I'm transported not just into this on-screen moment but to a myriad of half-imagined, half-remembered, and half-hoped realities of my own. Does this ever happen to you, too, Scout?
Lena is self-aware not in the millennial sense of the word in which we are all constantly narrativizing our existential crises, but in the angles and edges of her face that are made even sharper by that undercurrent of discontentment that's lies almost imperceptibly beneath bone and flesh and yet still add a sharper hardness to her appearance. And it's in the way she lashes out at one of her friends during a camping trip, bitingly asking what it is he thinks he's doing with his life. And in a particularly Antonioni-like moment she vanishes from the campsite as the group worriedly call her name into the pitch darkness of the woods. Lena emerges a minute later, irritated, telling them to stop shouting.
The bulk of the film is taken up with Lena's story, which is about her relationship with her boyfriend and her developing relationship with a stranger who lends her his jacket at the beginning of the film and only appears afterwards as the sound of his voice over the telephone. While The Lady with the Little Dog is set in the late 1800s, and is a period piece, part of July Rain's urgent modernism comes from the feeling that Khutsiev and his cameraman walked out onto the streets of Moscow and turned the camera on to catch regular people on the sidewalks (some of whom seem to be pointedly aware of the camera, looking straight into it). There's that real life caught in the moment documentary quality to this film that gives it the duality of specificity and universality. Khutsiev happened to choose this woman at this moment in her life, this ordinary girl, one of hundred of thousands in the city, rather arbitrarily. And from her existence, her specific moment in time we are given a glimpse into a dazed searching, confusion, sadness, and love that is so much larger than that temporality. The search is not unique to the young people who were alive in the Soviet Union in 1967, but as with anything modern, is True of all moments in time.