“How can you talk about love when there are experts arriving at any minute?” asks an antsy young Soviet in The New Moscow, who’s been distracted by a suitor from prepping an experimental piglet for an exhibition. Alexander Medvedkin’s 1938 comedy, showing in the reliably entertaining Envisioning Russia series at the Walter Reade Theater, cruises along blithely with a loony charm beyond standard patriotic kitsch, although throwaways about the desire to build and to love never hurt. Also on show, in scenes invariably held a half-beat longer than necessary: buildings demolished for comedy (and progress), spontaneous accordion singalongs, the concussed grins of smitten lovers, an inescapable technophile granny and bear-suit shenanigans by the light of a Stalinist-slash-folk festival.
Strapping designer Alyosha has concocted a neat piece of techno-magic: a dynamic model of Moscow Future that shows the zippy, modernized and de-cathedralized city of tomorrow. But this simulation debuts only later on in New Moscow, during the official unveiling at a giant convention — till then, nutty urban satire, bits of business, slapstick, farce and a hangdog love triangle rule. Alyosha treks into the big city from swampy Siberia for his presentation and falls in love with cutie Zoia, to the dismay of feckless painter Fedia, whose landscapes of Moscow can’t keep pace with the daily disappearances of whole streets. (Not wholly a flight of fancy: more than 50 buildings were outright moved during the creation of Gorky Street, part of Lazar Kaganovich’s actual reconstruction plan for Moscow.)
Medvedkin’s style and satire edges more into giddy excesses in his better-known collectivization comedy, Happiness, which screened earlier in Envisioning Russia. But New Moscow irked some censors enough to be banned after an initial screening — maybe because the director couldn’t resist showing Alyosha’s grand Moscow model malfunctioning. When the console whirs into reverse under untrained hands, the proud city gracefully speeds back in time: traditional houses arise, onion domes re-proliferate, streets narrow. The city-sim’s audience howls, but those premodern drags look comfy and inviting, like a bustling amateur sketch as opposed to the architectural-spec emptiness of the approved utopia.
Yet Medvedkin’s flourishes feel more like reckless exuberance than clandestine subversion. The filmmaker came of age during the Russian Revolution, and in the 1930s ran an “agit-train” — you know, one of those trains that contain an entire film production lab and puff around the Russian countryside shooting critiques and treatises on local issues like improving freight transport. Other head-turning exploits included early Soyuzkino shorts, e.g., “Stop Thief!” “What a Fool You Are!” and “Fruits and Vegetables!” Even back in his cavalry days he put on an evidently humorous awareness-raising play in which horses, or men dressed as horses, reeled off a litany of the ill-treatment they received at the hands of their riders.
Still, the backward moment in New Moscow stings in a system trumpeting a forward historical march, and it reminded me of a playfully instructive reverse sequence in a Vertov Kino Eye reel, tracing bread production back to the bakery and then the grain mill. Of course, Medvedkin, who died just before the fall of Communism, has already gotten the full historical treatment in Chris Marker’s 1993 essay film The Last Bolshevik, devoted to the filmmaker, the 20th century, cinema and the usual sardonically philosophical “Etc.” But even without harvesting its ideological import, The New Moscow can stand on its own two silly feet.
January 31 and February 3 at the Walter Reade Theater