The Forgotten: Red Tape

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After a screening of Boris Barnet's By the Bluest of Seas, (somewhat marred by a drug-addled psychopath's running monologue from the seat behind me) a friend remarked that the actors in Soviet-era comedies always look terribly anxious, like they're going to get shipped to Siberia if they're not funny enough. The idea stuck with me, and I'm still in search of the perfect Russian comedy of the communist years, the one that actually makes me laugh. Laugh happily.

My Grandmother (Chemi Bebia) isn't quite the one, but it's gloriously inventive and freewheeling, and deserves to better known. Confirming the idea that any halfway funny film made in a dictatorship would immediately get banned, it was made in 1929 but suppressed until 1976, at which point it was restored and rereleased, the abuses it satirizes having become by then so endemic that the state itself no longer saw the point in denying them.

Spoiler alert: there is no grandmother in this film! In fact, the term has a slang meaning here, implying "sponsor" or "advocate." The protagonist, a lazy pen-pusher, gets the sack for his bureaucratic idleness, and learns that the way back into the job market depends on getting a letter of recommendation from such a "grandmother." This involves being a Bugs Bunny style pest, invading the guy's office until out of sheer exasperation he writes a flattering note just to get some peace.

It's a very moral story, especially as the sneaky scheme doesn't work in the end: the fury of the senior official who learns the truth is so intense, it turns the hero into a Hiroshima heat shadow on the office wall. So the movie would seem unthreatening to the status quo, a fawning jester poking harmless fun, the better to reassure us that we live, after all, in the best of all possible worlds. But obviously something about the film upset the censor when it was made. But what?

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Figuring out the workings of a censor's so-called mind is always tricky, maybe impossible, but if I had to guess I'd say the actual style of the movie, a sort of Eisenstein-Caligari-Loony Toons mash-up, was probably so radical as to suggest bourgeois decadence. Georgian director Kote Miqaberidze, who isn't as well known as Pudovkin because his name is Kote Miqaberidze, brings together the frenzy of Soviet montage with graphic, stylized expressionist, or maybe constructivist, sets, speeded-up action, reverse motion, animation (the anti-hero's hair does a double-take, his glasses slide all over his face in amazement) and wonkily extreme angles. Everything is so crazily overdone, the movie becomes as much a satire of cinema, society and humanity as it does of its more specific target. The cry of "Death to bureaucrats!" with which it ends might seem like a dangerous piece of social criticism, but it's actually intended to support the smooth functioning of the state, so I doubt that the message alarmed the men at the top. It's the fact that neither the message nor anything else in this goofy movie can be taken seriously that would have caused displeasure.

Speaking of censorship, another moment requires some attention. In one throwaway gag, a bronze statue in the lobby of a government office comes to life in order to act as bouncer. Said bronze statue is a male nude, and for a brief moment it appears we're being subjected to full frontal male nudity in a 1929 movie, something that might cause even Stalin's heavy eyebrows to rise. In fact, the actor in question, painted all over in metallic paint à la Goldfinger, is wearing a replica set of statue-parts pasted over his own genital cluster. Which raises all kinds of frankly hilarious questions about representation: it's not OK to show a real penis, but you can have a fake one attached over the top of the place where we can assume there's a real one? And if the actor just happened to have a set of immobile genitals that only looked like they were made of bronze, would that be OK too? As long as we never knew they were real?

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The actors certainly do have that jittery, desperate-to-please quality identified by my friend as symptomatic of Soviet knockabout, but it suits the movie perfectly, since the whole artistic approach is so stroboscopically neurasthenic. Imagine the film as a big pair of hands, nervously ripping the screen to shreds: that's the overall feeling of this Keystone Eisenstein.

In a censorious dictatorship, creativity alone can get you in trouble. Sort of like Hollywood, only with salt mines. Fortunately, Miqaberidze's exuberance did not get him in too deep trouble, and he was able to work again, although whether he attained such loony heights again I can't say. I rather doubt it, though.

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The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.

Responses

7 responses to this post.  Join the discussion

  • greg x

    David, how do you feel about Medvedkin’s Happiness (Schastye)?

    I’m not sure exactly what you mean by laugh happily, do you mean a comedy without more serious or political overtones? Or where you aren’t thinking about what’s going on screen? Or am I just missing the point…

  • David Cairns

    I guess “laugh happily” would mean without an underlying gnawing sense of malaise and terror. I think My Grandmother uses this quality quite well. I get the impression that there are other Barnet films I’ll like, and I’m afraid I’m not too up on Soviet cinema generally and haven’t seen the Medvedkin. The title sounds jolly, though!

  • greg x

    Ah, yes, I meant to have that one sentence read going on beyond the screen rather than as it does, so I think I get your drift.

    Happiness is surprisingly imaginative and funny. I hadn’t heard of it when I watched it so I was caught off guard by its charm. I would also recommend Vasilisa the Beautiful directed by Alexander Rou. It’s more of a fantasy/adventure/comedy kinda deal, but it too surprised me with its cleverness and charm. I like it better than the most of the Hollywood fantasies of the same era.

    If you are interested, you can sneak a peek at it here;

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ri-8rq8Ko4A

  • David Cairns

    Hey, that looks impressive. Of the Russian fantasy I’ve seen, Ptushko is certainly nice, and The Snow Queen was lovely. My favourite, although slightly removed from conventional fantasy of conventional anything, is the amazing animation of Yuri Norstein.

  • greg x

    I agree completely about the Norstein, but I’ve only managed to see The Scarlet Sails from Ptushko, which is a somewhat strange film in that it is an action adventure yarn without action, or a fairy tale without the fantastic. I liked it quite a bit for that and it looks great. Rou’s film also tend to look great, and are a little more out there in plot and style than I would have imagined. A lot of costume and theatrical style tricks make up for the minimal amount of special effects.

    Oh, and one other Soviet film I found amusing, was Ivan Vasilievich: Back to the Future. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0070233/
    A sort of time travel comedy that isn’t like the Hollywood film, but was chucklesome if not outright laugh generating.

  • David Cairns

    Sounds interesting. Seems like even though the nuances of language are key to a lot of the jokes, there’s enough comedy for us to enjoy even in translation.

  • SAYONARA BUNKA!! (Formerly Corbeau)

    I saw Chemi Bebia the other day. There doesn’t seem to be much like it. It’s absolute genius.

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