Senior Lecturer in Critical and Historical Studies in Filmmaking
|KHROUSTALIOV, MA VOITURE!
|The Gleaners and I
|Nothing but a Man
|Something Better to Come
|Hytti nro 6
In Balabanov’s ‘Morphine’, a young doctor can bring the sick back from the dead, only if he himself sinks more and more deeply into his own narcotic hell: this proves to be one of the most morally ambiguous films ever made. It is crowned by our heroic but utterly compromised protagonist committing suicide as he enjoys himself in a cinema. While perhaps quite problematic in places, or perhaps these are just signs of drug induced paranoia, Balabanov has certainly produced a unique masterpiece.
Since the rejuvenated culture of documentary cinema this century has yielded so many – often understated – masterpieces, so it is very hard to take a pick. However, Alina Rudnitskaya’s ‘Blood’ packs a wholesome punch, which works wonders on so many levels. Firstly, the film is made by a woman who observes a group of women performing a very peculiar job, travelling the backwaters of Russia harvesting blood in exchange for a fee. Shot in pristine black and white, the film exposes so many of humanity’s current delusions, while never forgetting to remain empathic. A true gem coming from places far away.
I often think of Balagov’s debut ‘Closeness’ as this century’s ‘Citizen Kane’, not as an epigone, or even a deftly updated version, but mostly as a congruent but amplified explosion of raw energy which can only come from a very young filmmaker. The story, set in the director’s own small Russian town, brutally exposes the ethnic and religious intolerance still corroding the human condition. Uncompromising and coruscating, I would not dare to see it again.
KHROUSTALIOV, MA VOITURE!
If ‘Closenes’ is an explosion of raw energy, so is Aleksey German’s atomic bomb – ‘Khrustalyov, my Car!’, but in contrast to the former, this is the work of a very experienced and meticulous perfectionist. Just the number of vintage cars sourced for the film points to an unhealthy obsession with detail, while it is all painstakingly employed to recreate the atmosphere in Moscow just before Stalin’s death. It is unforgettable and unrepeatable.
Another explosion of raw energy from a young filmmaker comes from Vera Chytilová’s ‘Daises’. It is extraordinary to think that this film was made behind the so-called Iron Curtain, almost ten years before Laura Mulvey’s acclaimed essay, explaining that film culture is a men-only club, both literally and metaphorically. ‘Daises’ is an astounding affront, formal and narrative, on the deeply entrenched masculine order, in cinema and beyond.
The Gleaners and I
If Chytilová was youthful and confrontational, then Agnès Varda’s documentary ‘Gleaners and I’ is a reflexive and sagacious revelation that alternative ways of living are possible, and perhaps already in practice, but way beyond the radar of any mainstream outlet or point of view. It is clear Varda is also a veteran film polymath, capable of crafting miracles with a small video camera.
Nothing but a Man
Michael Roemer’s ‘Nothing But a Man’ is an exceptional marvel, for which it is very hard to imagine how it came into being at all. While it could be criticised from a contemporary perspective for being a Black story appropriated by White filmmakers, knowing the director’s background hints at a more complex relationship to humanity’s longstanding tradition of hate and repression and the humiliation that comes as a result. It remains as an unflinching document of how easily and pointlessly people become horrible to each other and why they simply need to learn to stop.
As a rare counterbalance to cinema’s proclivity for fetishising male violence, way back in the Hungary of nineteen- seventies, Moscow trained, itinerant director Márta Mészáros produced her own ‘female gaze’, long before the term existed. Her ‘Adoption’ stands as probably the most courageous while deliberately tender of all her efforts, blending fiction with reality and a non-professional cast. Shot in contrasty black and white, the film was not just ahead of its time, but still strongly resonates today, as a lesson in feminine compassion and generosity.
Something Better to Come
What can be said about Hanna Polak’s fourteen year-long work set on Moscow’s infamous rubbish dump, which was closed before the filming was over? This bildungsroman of a young girl climbing her way out of extreme poverty is a harrowing document of human persistence and the need to seek redemption, even or despite the fact that religion is not involved.
Hytti nro 6
We are by necessity compartmentalised in the moving train called life. In ‘Compartment No. 6’, it takes time, will and effort, for the characters to get out of their compartments and look at themselves and their lives with fresh eyes, as helped by a frosty Russian winter. As timing is everything, within and beyond cinema, this film is the most recent of the all-time greats.
While deep down we all may need a film that relaxes and entertains, it is those movies that dare to leave this escapism aside, in order to reach for other, more complex necessities and darker recesses with which we prefer not to engage, while we should and must. It is an even greater mystery how people manage to embark on making such films, despite all the odds. However, when their efforts succeed, they redefine our ideas of greatness in cinema. These are ten such efforts, all doing their own thing, oblivious to anything else.