A Slave of Love (Nikita Mikhalkov, 1976)/Grey Wolf and Little Red Riding Hood (Garri Bardon, 1990)
“My God, what a beautiful thing it is to take part in a cause for which you might die or end up in prison!”
It’s 1918 Russia and self-involved silent film star Olga (Elena Solovev), having fled from Moscow to the country with the rest of the film crew to continue production on her latest starring vehicle, finds that her affair with camera operator Victor (Rodion Nakhapetov, looking a lot like Franco Nero), which she intended as a brief fling until her equally famous co-star and love showed up for the shoot, is turning into something not only more serious, but leading to the stirrings of political awakening, as the pro-revolution operator is dangerously stealing film and recording the hidden atrocities of the ruling pre-Bolshevik power.
Opening in bravura fashion, first on the flickering silent film theatrics of Olga and Maksakov (Yuri Bogatyryov), which is suddenly stopped, the harsh lights flying open, as scary military figures roughly horde the subservient film crowd out, find the cinema owner they’re looking for, then callously smash his face into a store window pane, before brutally hoisting him like a piece of meat into the back of their military truck then, with a final disdainful yell of ‘Sheep!’ at the cowed on-lookers by the head official, drive off, the narrative then slows a bit, taking on a seemingly more casual, even occasionally comedic, wistful approach, taking its time in introducing the plight of the colorful cast of oddballs trying to remain (indulgently) pure within their art form (or just indulgent, in the case of the childish Olga).
But as the situation becomes clearer, with violent revolution exploding about them (including the on-going termination of all Russian mainstream cinema production as subversive), and the menacing figure of the Russian State Chief Fedov (Konstantin Grigorev) hovering as well, who should be shutting down the production but, like the entire populace (including the uprising Bolsheviks themselves), is so smitten by the actress he allows it to continue… while always holding the threat of arrest and perhaps worse over them all, danger is encircling them… and remaining outside of the political reality is impossible.
Following the troupe, with its overweight director ever bickering with his producer comrade, and its slowly politically awakening lead actress (whose initial claims of wanting to be more than just a movie star is mere diva posturing… until she finds herself slowly intrigued by Victor’s daring acts of revolution, then thrilled by actually taking part in dangerously hiding illegal war film the cameraman has shot), there are enough hints of Bob Fosse’s Cabaret, from a different culture basis naturally, that the two films would make a nice double feature… with, not surprisingly, the Russian film ending on a more hopeful note (because the revolutionaries – i.e., the Lenin Commies — won!).
It’s a beautifully shot film, and the print, as projected by Le Cinéclub/The Film Society head honcho Phil Spurrell at his personal enclave, really brought out the deeply textured and gorgeous look of it (it always amazes me how saturated and beautiful the 16mm image can be). Not only does watching the film provide a wonderful glimpse at what making an old silent film might look like, but the creative set design and production value are abound in creativity.
As the film picks up in its last half, the number of unforgettable, brilliantly composed scenes grow, almost all with Olga at their center, from the assassination, choreographed with a grim sense of inevitability, of a main character on the street by the military as seen from a distance by the silently horrified actress, to the poetically symbolic sudden turning of the gun that her character is supposed to commit suicide with as the celluloid roles through the camera transgressively on Fedorov, with the sound of the blank scaring the shit out of him and the entire crew… and to the final ghostly, haunting isolated shots of her, one of the last survivors and now fully a member of the revolution, leaving behind her cinema stardom for an unknown, yet bright future (speeding away, with a trail of the old guard, losing Russian forces on horseback fading behind her, on a runaway train – which, as Monsieur Spurrell pointed out to me, is the very name of the majestic, somewhat radical action film the brilliant writer of this film – who also wrote some of the great Tarkovsky films – Andrei Konchalovsky, would go on to direct in the US).
With a scene of actual atrocity footage by the pre-Marxist Russian government (the one Lenin’s Bolsheviks would overthrow), presented in kinda meta-style, with Victor supposedly having gone out and secretly captured it (and that is the final shattering straw for Olga, who upon witnessing, makes the final leap into empathy that was clearly not there before), there is a propagandist agenda to the proceedings, but… whatever. It’s a film about discovering political enlightenment and waking up to the need for partaking in violent revolution. Cinema in the 70’s. Gotta love it.
As is his wont for these private screenings, mirroring the Le Cinéclub/The Film Society exceptional Sunday programming nights, Phil usually throws in an extra celluloid tidbit or two from his vaults as a warm-up to the feature… and this night was no exception; a colorful Russkie all-musical claymation short called Grey Wolf and Little Red Riding Hood. Made in 1990 (a year before the country’s collapse), constantly riffing on familiar American iconography, with everything from all the songs being openly formed from the beats of American tunes (“Mack the Knife” and “Auld Lang Syne” being just two of them) to having the Big Bad Wolf not only (literally) flatten a Bugs Bunny stand-in, but chowing down on exact representations of the Seven Dwarfs, one at a time, as he hurries to beat Little Red Riding Hood to Grandma’s house (with the girl’s walking trip starting in the East, in Moscow, and ending in the West, namely, grandma’s little cottage under the Eiffel Tower in Paris) and culminating with the characters the Canis lupus has snacked on bonding together in his stomach and bursting out (and beating the wolf into submission with a peace sign!), the short is clearly filled with a lot of ideological signposts.
While I couldn’t figure out exactly what it was all trying to say (in either of the two presentations of the night, for that matter) due to my cultural limitations (was the short a parody, or an allegory? Was it criticism or mourning?), at the same time, I’m a huge fan of old school claymation (as my daughter can attest, considering how many times I required we watch Mad Monster Party when she was younger) and Grey Wolf and Little Red is a fun, inspired example of the form.
It was an inspired night of all-Russkie viewings in this out-of-whack time of Red Scare hysteria (Putin’s comin’ to getcha!) created by the Cold War-pushing US military complex, filtered through the corporate controlled mass media and gobbled up and internalized by the faux liberal masses (better known as, as a compadre of mine has termed them… the Gibbles). And it all felt so good.