The Russians (and Some Body-Snatching Aliens) Are Coming

Tonight it was Agony, Elem Klimov’s picture about Rasputin and the Romanovs in the last year before the Revolution. Klimov made it in ’75, and even though it pulls the curtain back on plenty of Tsarist excesses, those Commie blockheads shelved it until Gorbachev came into power—presumably because he treats the Tsar and his family as people rather than as history’s garbage. The movie suffers from some of the antic stylistic excesses of the ’60s and ’70s, and sadly most of the scenes focused on Rasputin have a dated absurdist bent that grows old quickly. But when the focus is on Nicholas it’s a quieter, more naturalistic work, and a fascinating one. Anatoli Romashin, who plays Nicholas, was like Anthony Hopkins at his best: I could actually read the waves of thought washing across his face as if they were words. A great moment occurs just before we get our first good look at Rasputin, when Nicholas walks into a room where the monk is treating the hemophiliac kid (who’s otherwise not a player in the movie), and Klimov gives us individual closeups of the royal couple, showing by their responses to Rasputin’s therapy what they hold in their hearts: where Aleksandra appears relieved and a touch defensive about it, Nicholas simply looks consumed—90% weakness and 10% doubt. To keep his audience up with the historical context—1916 being a rather hectic year for the Romanov clan—Klimov relies on extensive montages made up of vintage newsreels. The battle scenes from the front have been endlessly recycled, but the 15 or 20 minutes of footage showing daily street-life and the massive demonstrations in St. Petersburg were wholly new to me. In one, taken as the Tsar’s troopers opened fire on a mob as it neared the Winter Palace, the crowd breaks into flight across a huge square. As they scramble hither and yon, so many people are in the frame that they fill every inch of the screen, and with the snow under their feet forming a natural backdrop, they look like a vast flock of birds pinwheeling across the sky. It’s astonishing.

I guess it was about three weeks ago that I watched Larisa Shepitko’s Wings and The Ascent. Shepitko was Klimov’s wife—I think they met in film school—and she was killed in a car wreck while scouting locations in ’79. Both films are awfully, awfully good, but they were made 10 years apart, and in that time she moved from being a very talented student to something close to a master. Wings, which came out in ’66, carries a heavy debt to the neorealist films, particularly Umberto D.: it bears down like a magnifying glass on a middle-aged woman who was a pilot and national hero during WW II, but who in the film’s present tense has lapsed into the drab, anonymous life of an outmoded headmistress. It’s a wonderful picture, and when I say it’s gorgeously shot, I don’t just mean that it’s pretty, though it’s that, too—I mean that it’s expressive and original. But good as it is, The Ascent is a whole other deal. A metaphysical epic set on the Eastern Front, it follows the moral-cum-spiritual choices made by two Russian partisans after they’re captured by the Nazis. It has the same religious urgency that gripped Dostoevsky’s characters—you feel as if these men, when they each do what they do, understand that they’re sealing their souls for eternity, and everything comes home to roost in a long, emotionally wracking scene that’s ballsier, and more haunting, than anything in Come and See. Which, of course, is saying something.

A weird thing happened tonight, too. I took a break during Agony to get a burrito, and since I didn’t want to eat and take a doctorate course in Russian history at the same time, I threw in Plan 9 from Outer Space to tide me over. It’s a movie I actually like on its own terms, at least in places—its opening puts me in a mood not so far removed from its more reputable cousins Night of the Living Dead and Carnival of Souls—but of course you soon start hitting those mismatched day-and-night cuts and the Lugosi impersonator and, well, it’s still fun, just in a different, more jaw-dropping way. But anyway…it took me half an hour to eat and digest my food a little, and when I turned Plan 9 off and went back to Agony, damn if it didn’t look like another Ed Wood movie. Some of that I’m sure was due to the ’70s shenanigans I mentioned above, but I’ve noticed the same thing happen other times: bad flicks bringing out what might even be nonexistent flaws in even great movies when the proximity between them gets too narrow. That’s the kind of thing that makes me wish I had some training on editing software. It’s an idea I’d love to play around with.

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