Tarkovski revisited


I was only a teenager when — by suggestion of a friend under the intelectual fever that, in the early 80’s, stroke some middle-class sectors in Spain — I went to an unlikely cineclub in a not so advisable district of Madrid, rather distant from home, for watching a so-called “independent” movie titled Stalker, supposedly of the science-fiction genre and directed by some exotic and unknown (for us) Russian filmmaker called Tarkovski.

Needless to say that, used as I was to the livelier -when not frantic- action pace of USAmerican or European films that (then exactly like today — nothing has changed in this respect) almost exclusively filled our billboards and TV channels, I found it desperatingly slow, mostly boring and virtually incomprehensible. Besides, since I was expecting a “proper” sci-fi work, I was rather disappointed.

However, there was something indefinably interesting about it that outstood; not just the fact that it was different from any other movie I had watched before, but something else that I could not quite grasp; and despite my uneducated taste of those times and my little knowledge of the world — let alone the Russian soul, I had the feeling that it contained some message worth apprehending, and that some kind of art was involved worth being understood.

But years passed, decades went by and, though I always kept in mind the idea of someday watching it again, the only thing I could eventually remember about Stalker was its obscure, disquieting nature, and its excruciating slowness.

Only one month ago, lead by my (of late) immersion in the Rusian language and culture, I downloaded it for that lustrums-procrastrinated second try; and this time my watching experience was quite different. More familiar with the “Soviet way of doing cinema”, as  well as with the Eastern-European social reality, and more mature myself (at least, I can certify I’ve left adolescence behind), I got a better understanding of what was taking place on the screen and of the language with which Tarkovski was trying to talk to his public. Among other things, I realized that Stalker is not so much science fiction as it’s psychology or perhaps philosophy, and that, despite its pretentiousness, contains at least the seed for its own discredit, which is in itself creditable: the characters themselves discuss the possibility that the whole  mistery about the Zone and the Room may just be a farce created by the stalkers to exploit and make business out of the self-delusion of the selected visitants.

Anyhow, it’s not a review of that movie what I’m attempting here, but to account for some sort of coincidence that happened a few days back, while spending a week in that peculiar, ambiguous and two-sided city of Odessa.

In the company of three locals and friends the non-ordinary type — rather the type that might probably befit a Tarkovski film; we jumped onto some unlikely mashrutki –those Russian-style minibuses that provide for most of the local public transportation– and, at the terminus stop, arrived to an even more unlikely place, and forlorn, in the outskirts of town — za gorodom as they say here. As soon as I stepped off the bus, I could feel the eeriness of the place. Nearby the shore of a salty shallow bay with allegedly medicinal mud flats there stood, to one side, on the empty ground taken by weed, three scattered and run down tall towers of appartments totally deserted, and to the other there was the long low building of an old, abandoned balneary and the forsaken statue of its founder; yonder, the silver dome of an orthodox little church could be spotted in the middle of nowhere; and the rusty ex-yellow stroke of an above-the-ground gas pipe seemed to underline, with a surrealistic note, the strange nature of the whole scene; a scene that had acquired an oneiric dimension in the ssunny and dreamy afternoon.

Under the shadow of a tree by the decaying balneary, a flight of stairs led up to a doorles hollow in the wall, into whose darkness I saw my friends disappear; and I followed them suit. No sooner had I stepped inside, I felt myself as a stalker smuggling into the Zone and heading for the Room. It was a despoiled place, full or rubble, debris and torn partition walls that once divided the many compartments of the building. Deserted and lifeless, perfectly still except for our own footsteps, I could feel the place as strongly as if it were still imbued by the thousand voices of all those who once used those facilities; as if I could see their lives, their comings and goings, their joys and sorrows. There, in that quiet place now only inhabited by silence, suddenly the movie Stalker made perfect sense, and became so easy to understand that I was astounded. No interpretations were anymore necessary, but everything simply fit into place like falling cubes of a well-solved Tetris game: I had just experienced and apprehended Tarkovski.

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17 moments of spring

seventeen-moments-of-springThere are so many TV series out there, one can’t watch them all; not even just the ‘best’ ones (supposing ‘best’ makes any sense when it comes to tastes). Unlike films, series are very much time consuming, and often addictive (actually, for the consumerism cultures we’re totally immerse in, such addictiveness is the ultimate goal of producers, and it is much preferred over quality), and unless you’re as sickly overcritical as I am, or have thrice my free time, you’ll be simply overflowed with the offer and just pick whichever serial is made the easiest for you to watch, or the ones more aggressively distributed and publicized.

And this is how, hadn’t you come across this post, you would miss one of the most and true unforgettable TV series ever: 17 moments of spring (Semnadtsat mgnoveniy vesny); an excellent twelve-chapter Soviet production from the 70’s directed by Tatyana Lioznova that relates, in a WWII historical background,  the vicissitudes of fictional character Colonel Maksim Maksimovich Isayev, a Soviet undercover agent infiltrated as an officer into Hitler’s SD under the name of Max Stirlitz. The plot covers seventeen moments spread throughout February and March 1945 (not really spring, but well), narrating how Stirlitz struggles to carry out a mission he’s received from Moscow: to ascertain whether some high-rank German officers are trying to secretly negotiate a separate peace deal with the allies in the Western front (that would allow the Germans to concentrate their forces in the East) and, in case affirmative, to try to foil any such agreement. Continue »

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Winter in Finland

After a last tantrum of unusual warm days for the season, this long autumn, child of burnt hydrocarbons, has finally given way to winter. Bright white days. Twenty five below.

Even before coming into contact with the air, my breath freezes inside my nostrils, causing an unpleasant feeling of dried up boogers. Eventually, a chance tear congeals in the corner of my eye as a rheum, or if I blink, it welds my eyelashes and I can’t then open my eyelids. Under the soles of the footwear and under the rubber of the tyres, the snow cries its loud creak of trampled grave. At night, the air humidity sublimates on the thinnest tree branches, coating them in a perfect, uniform frost layer like in the Christmas cards. At noon, after the weak warming up of a sunny day, that same frost thaws and falls from the branches in a myriad microscopic ice crystals sprinkled from above in a soft snowfall of sparkling diamond dust. The flowing water in the canal or by the wharf, that never freezes, constantly smokes a ghostly mist of boiling cauldron that vanishes into thin air only a few feet above the surface, evoking a fabulous landscape of enchanted swamps. And at dusk, the bluish white of snow and the whitish blue of sky blend together in a borderless horizon.

The lake, now lethargic, has finally silenced its otherworldly moans.

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That very Münchhausen

totsamyyThis Russian version of the renowned Munchhausen adventures is, by far, the best of them all, both in print and on stage — though perhaps ‘the best’ doesn’t mean much in this case, since a one-eyed person can always be the king in the blinds’ realm. No: The very same Münchhausen is far above other attempts to bring Raspe’s literary work to screen, and the script by Grigoriy Gorin is also far above the book.

Baron Karl Hyeronymous von Münchhausen was an interesting, real-life German personage from 18th century who, as history has it, used to entertain his audience with the exaggerated tale — nay, with blatantly impossible stories about his travels and adventures, though these were told in such matter-of-factly way that it would be quite unfair to designate him as a mere liar. Out of this baron and his tales, another no less interesting character surnamed Raspe, an ‘impudent scoundrel’, wrote and sent to print a number of editions of a book (whose authorship he wouldn’t acknowledge) under titles like Outrageous adventures of baron Munchausen that, in years to come, would became a classic in the genre of marvelous travels, in par with Gulliver or Crusoe.

munchausen One century and a half later, Raspe’s book was taken to stage, and throughout the following decades several films were made, the most relevant of which are a 1943 German production, a Czech animated version in 1961, this Russian movie for TV (Tot samyj Mjunkhgauzen), dated 1979, and an obscure Hollywood production from 1988 (Uma Thurman and Robin Williams in the cast). But, as I say, the Russian beats them all by a landslide, in every possible way: direction (by Mark Zakharov), scenography, interpretation and, most of all, the script: while the others, targeted to a children’s audience, barely reproduce some of the baron’s adventures, without aiming any further or deeper, Gorin’s script tells us a nicer, linear story meant for adults, and takes a more ambitious approach — though thankfully not pretentious, brilliantly playing with absurd or paradoxical ideas, more or less mindblowing, hilarious or dramatic, ultimately aimed to offer us a series of moral dilemmas. Continue »

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Konttori was the most celebrated nightclub in town,‭ ‬though certainly not the best, on top of overly priced:‭ ‬its long admission queue led the customers, past the bully bouncers, to a local ‬densely permeated by cigarette smoke,‭ ‬puddled with beer and carpeted in glass debris,‭ ‬with a narrow and stifling dance floor and the worst-tempered staff imaginable.‭ ‬However,‭ ‬inexplicably though it seemed to me,‭ ‬it was the chicks‭’ ‬favourite pick,‭ ‬and therefore also the guys’.‭ ‬After all,‭ ‬its reputation wasn’t altogether unjustified –‭ ‬or at least I used to get lucky there, my expectations were seldom disappointed.

That was my last night in Konttori. It was in fact my last night in town, as a few days later I was bound to leave the country for good.

‭Posted in one of the strategic corners,‭ ‬stout in hand,‭ ‬I was keeping a watch on the entrance door, checking on the  convex-gendered newcomers and on the chicks around, like a vulture in check for a prey. Continue »

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Capricho musical

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Moscow does not believe in tears

cartelTranscending any genre cage, Moskva slezam ne verit is probably the first Soviet movie I see that does not end tragically. But it is not the less ‘Russian’ for that – not the less touching. On the contrary, it is one of the most captivating stories I’ve ever seen, about a humble woman in pursuit for happiness. It gives a glimpse into life in the USSR on a very human level and from a women’s point of view; and is also a tribute to the Soviet era some people in the ex-USSR still consider to be the best years of their lives.

In 1958’s Moscow, three provincial women in their twenties who share a room in a workers’ dormitory (typical for the time and place) strive for making a living in the metropoli and for pursuing their goals. In a close and endearing way, some of the popular clichés about Russia are depicted, like the unstylish dresses, the worker’s paradise that isn’t, the sharp contrast between the city and the peasants who live outside… And the three different personalities have been carefully chosen in a way that virtually any of us can feel identified with one of them: modest Antonina, bold Lyudmila and responsible Katerina. They are believable, easy to understand, and by the end of the story we have grown quite fond of them, getting a feeling of familiarity, as if they were our personal acquaintances. Continue »

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La dialéctica en Pablo Iglesias

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