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The Yellow House of Cinema

The 2005 Russian Film Symposium

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To Russians, "yellow house" is slang for an insane asylum. For the organizers of the seventh annual Russian Film Symposium, the notion of contained psychosis, folly, displaced allegiance and aberration proved a useful prism for examining contemporary Russian films, particularly in relation to the country's current identity crisis.

 

 

One of the symposium's planners, Vladimir Padunov, an associate professor of Slavic language and literature and an associate director of film studies program at the University of Pittsburgh, explains that Russia has never had a national identity. "It's always been imperial -- the notion of a strong center that basically colonizes regions," says Padunov. "Being landlocked, Russia defined the outlying areas, the outlands, but it never really defined itself as a nation."

 

The break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991 hasn't provided any clarity. "Issues of national identity are getting forefronted partly because they are getting forefronted in daily life and in political life," says Padunov. "The war in Chechnya is only one example; there are entire districts and regions that are petitioning to secede. The question is: They've always been part of Russia, they're really not Russian, and yet what is Russia without them?

 

"The disruption continues because there is no stable identity. So we chose the 'yellow house' theme because there are so many references to social, political and individual psychosis in contemporary Russian cinema."

 

The symposium, co-presented by the University of Pittsburgh and Pittsburgh Filmmakers, runs from Mon., May 2, through Sat., May 7. Nearly all the films on the program were successful critical and commercial releases in Russia, with one notable exception. Padunov is particularly thrilled to be screening Il'ia Khrzhanovskii's 4, which depicts three patrons and one narcoleptic bartender in an all-night tavern. "They begin to make up false identities; there are references to President Putin's and his wife's drinking habits. The Ministry of Culture was upset by its crudeness; it represents people as if we are absolute dogs in incredibly grotesque ways."

 

So troubled times lead to troublesome films? "It's an incredibly interesting film," says Padunov, "and it's definitely not going to get mainstream release in Russia."

 

 

 

The following films screen at the Melwood Screening Room (see below for schedule).

 

The Tuner. A con man, Andrei, poses as a piano tuner in order to cheat two older women out of their money. He is aided by his lover, Lina, an affected beauty who appears to have stepped out of a mid-century European art film. In a basic sense, Kira Muratova's black-and-white film is a mannered crime thriller that tells a familiar story despite its forays into pranks and absurdity. The modern world, so transitory with its ever-shifting surfaces and alienating technology (who is on the other end of the phone?), leaves those more rooted in the mores of the past particularly vulnerable. But the film also gleefully defies some narrative conventions: Characters appear out of nowhere; there are musical interludes and sequences of repetition; at other times persons engage in nearly extemporaneous rants, or a furious group shrieking match transpires that the subtitles can barely keep up with. In the end, it all makes sense -- and yet, as if we've been played too, it remains unknowable.

 

A Driver for Vera. In the early 1960s, a young soldier named Viktor receives what appears to be a plum assignment: driving for a well-appointed general and his daughter, Vera, in the balmy Crimea. Pavel Chukhrai's film too at first sparkles deceptively: The sun-drenched scenery enchants; European pop music plays; Viktor preens and the large touring car gleams. But soon the naïve Viktor is entangled in both household and political conflicts. He becomes a de facto escort to Vera, who is both physically and emotionally crippled, while he sets his sights on professional advancement. The orphaned Viktor strives for a place in a family (the general's home, the military); he rescues three babies (one is the beloved car) but he's helpless to master the necessary politics.

 

Our Own. Early during World War II, three Russian military men escape from the Germans and seek refuge in a remote village that seems poised between dubious patriotism and a willingness to collude with the Nazis. One of the men, a peasant-turned-sniper, is of the village, and presumably a favored son -- but his father, an embittered victim of the state, is also the local watchman for the Germans. What unfolds next is a terse and tense drama in which the three runaways and their caretakers negotiate their new reality in this temporary refuge from the physical war: Who is really "us," and therefore worth defending on principle? Can outsiders barter or connive their way to prolonging their safety? Dmitrii Meskhiev shoots his film with a slightly grainy stock, reinforcing the remoteness of the location and the murkiness of the morality. Likewise, he cuts scenes of pastoral beauty with moments of unsparing violence.

 

My Stepbrother Frankenstein. A contemporary middle-class Moscow family is disrupted by the arrival of a wounded soldier, Pavel, who claims to be a long-lost son. In addition to deep psychological wounds, Pavel has grotesque facial injuries. (It's unstated, but assumed that he fought in Chechnya.) Valerii Todorovskii's domestic melodrama-cum-social critique on one level adapts Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, particularly in scenes when the damaged progeny seeks the love of his creator and the warmth of family. But Todorovskii also posits that the status quo has created this monster -- the confused, damaged veteran -- through the benign acceptance of a country which sends young men to murky wars only to have them return as lost souls denied a place. Even Pavel's immediate identity as a war vet is problematic: Is he a patriot, or a psychotic killer? Daniil Spivakovskii gives an engrossing performance as Pavel, who like Frankenstein's monster is at once feared, repulsive and deeply pitiable.

 

 

 

Films scheduled for the morning and afternoon will screen via video projection in Room 208B of the Cathedral of Learning on the University of Pittsburgh campus (4200 Fifth Ave., Oakland), and will be followed by discussions. Additional screenings will take place at the Melwood Screening Room (477 Melwood Ave., Oakland), and will be presented in 35 mm. All films are in Russian, with English subtitles; admission is $5. For more information see www.rusfilmpitt.edu or 412-521-1327.

 

Schedule

 

Mon., May 2

10 a.m. The Mastermind (Iurii Grymov, 2001, 100 min.)

2 p.m. House of Fools (Andrei Konchalovskii, 2002, 104 min.)

 

Tue., May 3

 

10 a.m. Disbelief (Andrei Nekrasov, 2004, 105 min.)

2 p.m. Bipedalism (Evgenii Iufit, 2005, 90 min.)

7:30 p.m. The Tuner (Kira Muratova, 2004, 154 min.); to be introduced by Nancy Condee. Melwood

 

Wed., May 4

 

10 a.m. Mars (Anna Melikian, 2004, 100 min.)

2 p.m. You I Love (Ol'ga Stolpovskaia and Dmitrii Troitskii, 2004, 85 min.)

7:30 p.m. A Driver for Vera (Pavel Chukhrai, 2004, 114 min.); to be introduced by Vladimir Padunov; Melwood

 

Thu., May 5

 

10 a.m. Russian (Aleksandr Veledinskii, 2004, 115 min.)

7:30 p.m. Our Own (Dmitrii Meskhiev, 2004, 100 min.); to be introduced by Pavel Kuznetsov; Melwood

 

Fri., May 6

 

10 a.m. Magnetic Storms (Vadim Abdrashitov, 2003, 93 min.)

2 p.m. 4 (Il'ia Khrzhanovskii, 2004, 126 min.)

7:30 p.m. The Tuner (Kira Muratova, 2004, 154 min.); Melwood

 

Sat., May 7

 

4:30 p.m. A Driver for Vera (Pavel Chukhrai, 2004, 114 min.); Melwood

7:30 p.m. My Stepbrother Frankenstein (Valerii Todorovskii, 2004, 111 min.); to be introduced by Evgenii Margolit; Melwood

 

Sun., May 8

2 p.m. Our Own (Dmitrii Meskhiev, 2004, 100 min.); Melwood

4:30 p.m. My Stepbrother Frankenstein (Valerii Todorovskii, 2004, 111 min.); Melwood

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