Revolutions, Large and Small

April 30, 2015

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The Russian Revolution, and the Italian Risorgimento:  two different revolutions.  One, cataclysmic; one, not so much. Transforming Russia from a backward agrarian society into a totalitarian industrial giant.  Transforming the Italian peninsula from a motley of states into a unified “modern” nation.  I indulged my abiding interest in Josef Stalin by watching The Inner Circle (1991) by Andrei Konchalovsky, and I’m prepping for a trip to the Piedmont region of Italy, where The Risorgimento originated, by watching Visconti’s The Leopard (1963) again, and re-reading the novel by Lampedusa on which it is based.

Konchalovsky, who was quite successful within the Soviet cinema world, relates that he offered a bottle of brandy to a projectionist if the man would tell him the opinions of the state censors for whom he was screening his latest film.  The man revealed that he had lots of stories to tell about what Stalin used to say about films!  He was the Kremlin projectionist for years:  Konchalovsky was ready to listen, and The Inner Circle is the story of this Kremlin functionary.

The film has some odd things about it, including a score that seems to grow loud and sentimental at the worst moments, and the fact that all the dialog is in English spoken with Russian accents.  Seems a bit hokey at times.  The problem of subtitles and translation was handled more creatively in The Hunt for Red October, about the only good thing I recall from that film.  Tom Hulce plays the projectionist, and he holds onto his pure country-bumpkin good-Ivan characterization a bit too long, but to anyone familiar with Russian history, he’s still believable.

There is a scene where the film breaks during a screening for Stalin, and the projectionist explains that the projector is a poor copy of an excellent German machine – the head of the Cinema Bureau, responsible for these  things, is standing right there – and has an inferior spring part that caused the break.  Stalin uses the incident to indulge his sadistic bent, lightly bandying with the bureau chief who is sweating profusely, while Beria – head of the secret police – notes sarcastically that someone wasn’t doing their duty.  This is the sort of thing that can end with a bullet to the head administered some random dead of night.  It’s a chilling set-piece of Stalin’s daily modus operandi.  If you want a sense of the brutal moral degradation imposed on the Soviet citizenry by Stalin, apart from the mass murder itself, this is not a bad film to see.

Meanwhile, back in Sicily, The Prince is speaking dubbed Italian in Visconti’s adaptation of The Leopard.  Panned at first, it is now highly rated:  Martin Scorsese, not surprisingly, rates it among the greatest of all films.  Why no surprise?  Because Scorsese, as one critic noted, is no great sociologist, and naturally he is entranced by Visconti’s lush nostalgia for a period of elegance decayed.

Starting to read the novel again, I noted right away that the author’s tone is sharper, more harsh, than the elegiac sentiment of Visconti.  The film is an aesthetic response to the politics of the Risorgimento.  You can say that Visconti was a Marxist (he joined the Communist Party after WWII) but how much of one could he be having made this film?  He loves those aristocrats, their clothes, their nobless oblige, and he loathes the upstart middle class.  He was, of course, the scion of a hugely important Italian aristocratic clan.  And in the end, the film is an adaptation, not a copy of the book – he chooses to emphasize the theme of the Prince dealing with his own mortality, as well as the end of his era, a more personal story. A fine film, a wee bit too long, and I think his talents were better suited for Senso.

The Leopard is often referred to as Italy’s “Gone With The Wind,” a comparison that is an insult to Visconti’s considerable talents and highly developed sensibility.

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Dream Sequence: Ivan meets Joe

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Dream Couple: Delon and Cardinale

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Potemkinites

December 15, 2012

Odessa Steps
During the reign of Czarina Catherine the Great, her royal favorite, Prince Potemkin, arranged that she should be spared the site of rural poverty during her travels through Russia by causing false-front villages to be erected along her route.  From her carriage window, Catherine did not see the degradation of her subjects, hidden away behind the princely theatrical productions.

So, should we be surprised that the most famous sequence in Battleship Potemkin (1925), indeed, one of the most famous sequences in the history of cinema, did not actually happen?  Eisenstein’s brilliant political (most call it ‘propaganda’) film, dramatizes the mutiny of the battleship crew in 1905, part of the runup to the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.  The scene at the steps of Odessa where the machine like ranks of the Tsar’s army shoot down civilians, driving them into the whips of the mounted Cossacks waiting at the bottom of the stairs, contains the endlessly quoted – I almost said ‘iconic’, but what does that mean? – bit with the baby carriage bouncing down the stones unattended after the girl attending it is shot down.

There was a mutiny, however, and I was tickled to read that the last survivor of the original crew died in Ireland, aged more than 100, the owner of a thriving fish and chips store.


Demons II: Conclusion

October 31, 2011

So, Demons comes to an end, but I’m not sure that there was a complete exorcism, although this scene after the murder of Shatov is a start:

…he snatched out the revolver and pointed it straight into the open mouth of the still screaming Lyamshin, whom Tolakchenko, Erkel and Liputin had already seized firmly by the arms, but Lyamshin went on shrieking even in spite of the revolver.  Finally, Erkel, somehow bunched up his foulard and stuffed it deftly into his mouth, and thus the shouting ceased.  Meanwhile, Tolkachenko tied his hands with a leftover end of rope.

Can we say that anything has been resolved, when we have young people like this in town who gape at suicides for fun?

I remember one of them saying aloud right then that “everything has become so boring that there’s no need to be punctilious about entertainment, as long as it’s diverting.”

Stepan Verkhovensky, the stuffy old-time liberal is aghast at the events in the town, and at the role his son played in organizing it all.  He glimpses the truth that his own abstract, self-satisfied intellectual games helped set the stage for it, and shattered by the knowledge, he sets off wandering in Russia, like King Lear on the heath.  Still, he remains absurd, childishly seeking a new female protector in the person of bible saleswoman he happens upon, and he still utters French expressions as would any self-respecting member of the intelligentsia.  So much for finding the real Russia.

Joyce Carrol Oates has written a fine essay on the novel in which she jeers at critics who insist on judging the book by an arbitrary standard, including Nabokov, and where she draws many parallels with Shakespearean tragedy:

Much has been said of the unevenness of The Possessed: Dostoyevsky has been accused of creating caricatures rather than characters, and of exaggerating the imbecilic nature of his “anarchists.”  Several close readings of the novel have convinced me that this is not the case.  Of course if The Possessed—like any of Dostoyevsky’s work, beginning with The Double—is measured against the conventional standards of naturalism, it will seem somewhat feverish and improbable: but so will King Lear and Hamlet.

Oates remarks on the frequent comparison of Stavrogin to Prince Hal, a foolish one, she thinks:  Hamlet is the more suitable comparison.  An exceedingly dark Hamlet, and all the darker for knowledge of the suppressed chapter, At Tikhon’s, in which the jaded superman character, above all normal human feeling, reveals his cruel seduction/rape – it’s not completely clear which – of a twelve-year-old girl who then killed herself.  His demonic narcissism and self-destructiveness makes him a perfect front man, for Pytor’s nihilist machinations, as well as being a figure of magentic attraction for him:

No need for education, enough of science!  There’s sufficient material even without science for a thousand years to come, but obedience must be set up.  Only one thing is lacking in the world:  obedience.  The thirst for education is already an aristocratic thirst.  As soon as there’s just a tiny bit of family or love, there’s a desire for property.  We’ll extinguish desire:  we’ll get drinking, gossip, denunciation going: we’ll get unheard-of depravity going:  we’ll stifle every genius in infancy.

So I wince when I hear anarcho-hipsters singing Pink Floyd’s We Don’t Need No Education, from The Wall.  Those who learned the lessons carried on, but in a more organized fashion.  They had the courage and ego to create a structure to ensure their place at the vanguard of the destructive wave

In the meantime your whole step is towards getting everything destroyed: both the state and its morality.  We alone will remain, having destined ourselves beforehand to assume power:  we shall rally the smart ones to ourselves and ride on the backs of the fools.  You should not be embarrassed by it.  This generation must be re-educated to make it worthy of freedom.  There are still many thousands of Shatovs ahead of us.

But if Dostoyevsky is ruthless in his depiction of the nihilists, their hangers-on, and by implication, their progeny in the revolutionaries of 1917, he is not light on the Establishment.  Governor von Lembke is an idiot – is he the only thing standing between Russia and the abyss?  Well, he has a German name anyway…

And, in the end, what is to be done?  I will go on to read just that novel since it appears to be one of the most influential in the history of 19th century Russia.


The Foundation Pit

March 24, 2011
 
“We must smash the kulaks, eliminate them as a class.”  Joseph Stalin
 
The Foundation Pit, by Andrey Platonov is a short novel writen around 1930, but not published in Russian until the 1950s.  Platonov was an enthusiastic supporter of the Revolution, but came to understand firsthand its horrific consequences for the rural peasantry.  Unlike a lot of Soviet intellectuals who had their doubts about Comrade Stalin’s methods, and who were only at home in the cities, Platonov travelled and saw by himself what was going on during the period of forced collectivization and de-kulakization.
The kulaks (from the Russian for tight fist) were so-called rich peasants who would naturally tend to resist being forced to relinquish their property and livestock to join a collective.  In fact, any peasant who had any property at all could be deemed a kulak, and they were deported en masse to various parts of the USSR, with large percentages of them dying on the way.  The master plan was to force the rural masses to supply grain to the cities, where Stalin’s breakneck industrialization program was centered, and to supply the grain on demand, as called for by the central bureaucracy, regardless of what a fair price would be or what the rural nutritional needs were.  As a result, millions starved.  The incredible brutality of this policy caused a split in the Party, with horrific consequences. 

The book is rather difficult to read despite its brevity.  It begins and ends at the site of an enormous excavation for a housing project’s foundation, although it isn’t all that clear if the work is being carried forward in any rational manner, and in between there is a long section that takes place in an agricultural village where a party functionary, known as The Activist, is pushing along the collectivization program.   The story is structured like a fable, almost a fairy tale, but the landscape is bleak, and people speak only in political sloganese.  In fact, the language of the text is what is most difficult, for every sentence seems to contain within it many allusions, parodies, sarcasms, and deep ironies.   Readers who are not familiar with early Soviet culture and its controversies are likely to be mystified, or bored.

The weird language that Platonov creates seems to be mirror of the weird, irrational, tortured state to which Soviet society was reduced during the era of the purges and collectivization.  It seems to mock its speakers with its haywire intellectual pretensions, and sometimes notes of intense tragedy break through, in spite of it. 
 A sample – The activist is making a raft on which to float away the deported kulaks, perhaps an allusion to the practice of filling barges with anti-revolutionaries and sinking them that occurred during the French Terror – a kulak challenges the authorities:

“Show me your papers then, if you’re truly an authorized body.”
“What kind of a body am I to you?” said Chiklin [an engineer at the pit].  “I’m a nobody.  The only body around here is the Party.”
“Show me the Party then.  I want to take a close look at it.”
Chiklin gave scant smile.
“You wouldn’t recognize it – not if it were staring you in the face – I can barely sense it myself! Report to the raft at once, you capitalism, you bastard!”
“Let him sail the seas.  Here today, and gone tomorrow, isn’t that right?”  pronounced Nastya [a very youg girl].  “Bastards like him make life boring.”
Chiklin and the hammerer [a bear that acts like a human – often found in Russian folklore] further liberated another six huts that had been built with the flesh of poor laborers, and then returned to the OrgYard where the masses, now purged of kulaks, were standing in expectation of something.
The activist checked the newly arrived kulak class against his own social stratification register, found complete precision, and rejoiced in the action of Chiklin and the forge hammerer.  In return, Chiklin showed his approval of the activist:  Now that’s what I call consciousness!  Your sense of the classes is just like an animal’s!”

Zhachev, a legless veteran of the “imperialist war” watches the kulaks float away.

By then, the kulak river transport had begun to disappear around a bend, behind the bushes on the bank, and Zhachev was loosing the appearance of the class enemy.
“Fa-are we-ell parasites!” Zhachev shouted down the river.
“Fa-are we-ell! responded the kulaks floating off to te sea.

Does he loose site of the kulaks, or does he cease to see them as class enemies once they are reduced to their helpless state?  Does he know which?  Later, the activist is made frantic by a directive from on high that states that many people like him have gone too far, undermined socialist progress, maybe even been wreckers!  Such forward and backward leaps of policy, leaving the fanatical and the opportunistically faithful vulnerable to purges were common, and completely planned by Stalin.

After a while, the activist descended an inventory down onto the floor so that the child could leave a mark confirming receipt in full of all the property acquired in life by the landless laborers who had died without kin and stating that she would put this to good future use.  Nastya [who dies at the novel’s end] slowly drew a hammer and sickle on the paper and handed the inventory back.

A symbolic exchange.  Note the weird verb cases – “descended an inventory down onto the floor…”  This is not a poor translation, it’s a deliberately odd use of the passive voice, mocking, I think, the pseudo-scientific, objective prose to be found in so much communistic hack work.

Somehow Platonov survived to die in 1951 from the TB he caught from his son who was sent to the Gulag at age fifteen.

… And now, for some comic relief:

Amiel

18 February 2009
Bankers are the new kulaks, rails Lady Black
As credit-crunched citizens of the world unite to scream “Off with their heads!” at bankers, who will protect the money-spinning classes from the howling mob? Step forward Barbara “My extravagance knows no bounds” Amiel.

In an extraordinary article for the current issue of the Canadian magazine, Macleans, Lady Black compares the treatment of bankers to that meted out to the intelligentsia in Mao’s China and the kulaks in Stalinist Russia.

“Those 1960s and 70s marches, complete with stops at which foul intellectuals would kneel and allocate [sic] to the mobs, are not so different from the modern American perp walk. These days it’s the pointy-head intellectuals and the media class that are the Red Guard, and Wall Streeters the accused. Every night, some TV station posts photos of the day’s addition to the Top 10 Business Villains and another fund manager is added to the list of foul CEOs…We are living through a collective madness, all part of the mob, finger pointing, judging, some driven by fear of economic chaos, others enjoying the schadenfreude express.”

This, of course, would strike a chord with Amiel, whose husband is currently serving a 6 ½ year jail sentence in Florida for defrauding Hollinger shareholders.

“I suspect current economic criminals resemble past ones in that they come in two varieties: the ones who really commit economic crimes and the ones who are elevated by political fashion to the status of criminals. Stalin’s taste made economic criminals of the entire kulak class; kulaks in today’s America would include CEOs and Tom Wolfe’s Masters of the Universe. Certain titles such as ‘hedge fund manager’ have become terms of disapproval that trip off the tongues of people, at least half of whom I suspect have utterly no idea what a hedge fund is,” Amiel rails.

Amiel concludes, “Driven by old fears and left-wing hates, we are moving to notions, à la Bertolt Brecht, that all wealth is suspect. If, as I suspect, the economy is a psychodrama, anti-market hysteria is unlikely to restore equilibrium.