The Best of Soviet Action Films
Westerns, Thomas Pynchon proposes in Gravity's Rainbow, are "dedicated to Property if anything is." That's one definition, but a reasonable one, which places the movies in Lincoln Center's "Wild East: The Best of Soviet Action Films" in a bind. The acquisition of land is obviously a forbidden subject—there's no urges for Manifest Destiny, since everything's already been settled. Nonetheless, the former Soviet Union spanned 11 time zones, providing plenty of space for conflicts: "Easterns," a cute but apt name. The subject isn't taking land but pretending all is well in the satellite republics: the natives aren't restless, except for the inexplicable baddies, so valiant Red Army soldiers (aided by their resident Tonto) are going to dispense some justice. No biggie.
Viewed on strictly ideological grounds, the films in the series (at least out of the half-dozen previewed, with two overlooked) range from willfully oblivious to wildly offensive. In the latter category is 1969's White Sun Of The Desert, an immensely popular cult comedy to this day (cosmonauts always watch it the night before blast-off). It's plenty lively, as demobilized soldier Fyodor Sukhov (Anatoly Kuznetsov) has his journey back to an apple-cheeked wife (glimpsed only in mute visions) interrupted by the need to protect the nine wives of rogue warrior Black Abdullah (Kakhi Kavsadze). In between feats of absurd derring-do, Sukhov tries to educate the women as to their new status: one husband for one woman, freedom and equality. The comic relief comes when he fantasizes about having a harem of faceless women at home (the film fetishizes the burkas it's decrying). It's all generally wildly oversimplified, but it has a kicky energy and some comic non sequiturs ("Not caviar again! I'm sick of eating caviar!").
On the opposite end of the energy scale lies 1989's The Cold Summer of 1953, which gains precisely zero resonance from its perestroika underpinnings. Alexander Proshkin's dully functional direction abuses the zoom lens, presumably to save on expensive film stock by doing all the coverage as inelegantly as possible; only people who salivate at the mere mention of Lavrenti Beria's name should even think of watching this.
In the mixed-dividends pile lies 1950's The Horsemen, which peaks early with easily 200+ horses stampeding. If state-sanctioned Soviet filmmaking frequently restricted the options left for human characterization, it wasn't short on raw physical resources, whether in sheer masses of extra humans or animals. That stampede is a hypnotic display of raw nature, no matter how egregiously fake the matte of the "cliff" that's being trampled. Enemies are found in the Nazis, whose buffoonish antics—singing songs of the Rhineland while bathing in the river—are no match for the square-jawed righteousness of happy collective farmers.
Equally flaky is 1979's The Bodyguard, a rough-and-ready Tajikistani Stagecoach gloss that alternates between jaw-droppingly dangerous mountain stuntwork and turgid talisman-waving. Even more adventurous stylistically is Nikita Mikhalkov's 1974 gauntlet-throwdown At Home Among Strangers, whose jittery camera barrels through hallways like a prediction of Resident Evil. But the politics of nothing-to-see-here-folks undermine it, as does the film's commitment less to experimentation than the simple arbitrary switching between black-and-white and color; eventually, all the chance-taking renders the film close to incoherent.
That leaves one film that's the real deal, unconstrained by the many standard talking points that need to be (barely) dramatized. As a lecturer/department head/professor at VGIK (Russia, and possibly the world's, first film school) , director Mikhail Romm seems to have mentored half of the most significant Russian filmmakers of the second half of the 20th century (Elem Klimov, Tarkovsky, et al.); as a director, his 1936 The Thirteen is superior to John Ford's The Lost Patrol, a film whose set-up it shamelessly cribs. The anti-Christianity/religious fervor subtext is junked in favor of a surprisingly low-key setup, with soldiers entrenched near a watering hole holding off the teeming hostile natives until the cavalry can arrive. Sand fetishists—those who gape at the awe-inspiring sand-slides of Woman In The Dunes in particular—will want to see the beautiful desert-scapes, treated imaginatively rather than as stock indicators of epic status: one hallucinatory dissolve where falling sand becomes indistinguishable from running water is particularly wonderful.
But there are real people here, and the actions they take are deglamorized: shots are fired, but we rarely see the faceless hordes being mowed down. Instead, there are surprising conversations you don't normally see in an adventure movie, like an elderly geologist getting an ad hoc tutoring session in how to use a rifle. Collective achievement is the moral, but the achievement hurts with every death. Technique is one thing, though the film has it in spades; to find a space for real humans despite all the rules is a much grander one.
February 11-17 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center