Thom Jones: The Pugilist at Rest (in Peace)

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i.

HERE’S THE THING about clean-up hitters: they strike out a lot.

Then again, consider some of baseball’s most prodigious home run champions: Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth, the top three, had career batting averages of .298, .305 and .342, respectively. In baseball terms, excellent, but that also means they didn’t hit safely about sixty-to-seventy percent of the time they stepped to the plate. And these are the best of the best. Making a career at writing is not dissimilar to becoming a big league ball player: a hit every third attempt might enable you to remain employed, to call yourself a professional.

Thom Jones, in this umpire’s opinion, struck out a lot. He was a fast ball hitter, and when he saw a meatball down the middle, he could get hold of it. Epilepsy, punch-drunk boxers and wounded men battling addiction (to drugs, to drink, to bloodshed) comprised his sweet spot, and he returned to it often, albeit with increasingly diminished returns. When he stepped outside his comfort zone, the results could range from embarrassing to unreadable, and those moments occur with distressing frequency in his second (Cold Snap) and especially third (Sonny Liston Was a Friend of Mine) collections.

With very few exceptions, no honest (or sane) writer would quibble with a publishing history that confirms every third or fourth story is generally regarded as a home run, a minor classic, or even one worth remembering. Indeed, a great many writers would be perfectly content with every third or fourth story being an extra base hit. And then there are the thousands (millions?) of undiscovered writers who would trade years of their lives for a solitary single.

No sane or honest writer would ever want to be measured by their batting average of every published piece, over the course of a career.

You write often, as well as you can, and pray that, with a ton of practice and a little bit of luck, you manage to knock one clean out of the park. Mostly you just hope to make contact; to not strike out. Most of these failures, at least, don’t offend any audience; they languish—half-finished drafts, false starts and unattainable visions—in desk drawers or recycling bins.

Most writers, aware of the long odds and erratic whims of both publishers and potential readers, do their best to craft honest work that is more or less within the bounds of conventional taste, trusting the material is at once sufficiently unique and, for lack of a better word, straightforward. That’s to say, most writers (and it could be argued whether this applies more to obscure authors or established, even famous ones) are singles hitters. This is at once a function of the way publishing works (or doesn’t work—another topic altogether), and the internal battle most genuine writers wage that weighs originality vs. acceptance.

Note: I’m not talking about writing publishable work; writing that, for practical purposes, constitutes a single. I’m referring specifically to writers who, through ego or ability or ambition—or a combination of all three—set out to transcend cliché and write something unadulterated, that breaks some type of mold and becomes a new standard of sorts; something inimitable that itself will be emulated by future writers.

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Thom Jones, like many famous writers, resists easy interpretation. A good chunk of his work is redundant, repurposed rather than convincing variations on a theme, and his penchant for stilted dialogue and ham-fisted histrionics mars some of his output. (Considering the publications he appeared in and the editors he worked with, it’s at once amusing and appalling to count the clichés throughout his three collections.) Another good chunk is serviceable, solid: a string of singles and the occasional double. He even hit a triple or two (These are recorded in Cold Snap; Sonny Liston Was a Friend of Mine is extremely tough going; taken on their own, the stories are underwhelming; compared to the previous collections they are somewhat excruciating…it can be debated that Jones burned out, lost his edge or, for any number of documented health reasons, couldn’t produce like he once did). But what separates him, and makes him worth celebrating, is that he had the audacity—and the skill—to make contact in historic fashion. We’re talking home runs like Carlton Fisk in ’75, Kirk Gibson in ’88 or Joe Carter with the walk-off World Series shot in ’93.

As it happens, all of these occur in his game-changing debut collection The Pugilist at Rest. A remarkable effort that deservingly became a National Book Award Finalist, it established Jones as a writer who, like Roy Hobbs, seemingly came out of nowhere, fully formed as a superstar. The title story’s publication is every writer’s dream; that one-in-a-billion fantasy: rescued from the slush pile and published by The New Yorker. That feat alone would more than satisfy most aspiring authors, but Jones, having alternately labored in obscurity and deferred his dream with years of substance abuse and self-sabotage, was ready for the big call-up. Unlike his next two books, there’s not a solitary stinker in the bunch. More significantly, of the eleven stories, (at least) six of them are no doubt dingers. Sabermetrically speaking, that’s well over .500, enough to ensure Jones legend status, one of the seminal debuts in the second-half of the 20th Century.

(To belabor the Hobbs metaphor, had Jones simply produced Pugilist, at 48, and then strode off into the sunset, he really might be considered the Wonderboy of short fiction.)

Opinions will—and should—vary, but in this critic’s estimation, six of these stories could be anthologized and might be studied by anyone hoping to ascertain what makes fiction memorable; what makes it resonate, what makes it work. The aforementioned title story, “Mosquitoes” and “Rocket Man” (allegedly Jones’s personal favorite) all clear the fence and will impart joy and delight (and envy) upon repeated readings.

With “A White Horse”, Jones manages to shoehorn Dostoyevsky, Hunter S. Thompson and the New Testament into a compressed tour de force—as well as any other story, this one best captures the outcast-in-search-of-epiphany. As a metaphor, the wealthy but unsettled protagonist shelling out hundreds to save a dying horse he encounters (à la Nietzsche) in the slums of Bombay seems at once familiar and surreal—Jones deftly combine pathos and desperation in the service of a postmodern parable, and cuts it (crucially) with humor.

Another masterpiece, and grand-slam, is the story of a dying woman entitled “I Want to Live!”. Older (but not that old), semi-estranged mother dying, alone, of cancer. Sound familiar? It’s to Jones’s considerable credit that he takes a potentially hackneyed subject that’s too often played for crocodile tear aesthetics, and deals, indelibly, with the heaviest—and trickiest—of issues: dread of death, longing for love, fear of a life wasted, et cetera.

Her friends came by. It was an effort to make small talk. How could they know? How could they know what it was like? They loved her, they said, with liquor on their breath. They had to get juiced before they could stand to come by! They came with casseroles and cleaned for her, but she had to sweat out her nights alone.

In less than thirty pages, Jones modernizes “The Death of Ivan Ilyich”, without the lugubrious sermonizing and melodrama Tolstoy, even at his best, struggled to suppress. It’s an unflinching, albeit harrowing tour of a helpless but not entirely hopeless woman’s death courtesy The Big C. In addition to merely working, as literature, it can console one with intimate experience with the disease, or prepare uninitiated readers for something too many families are forced to confront.

“The Black Lights”, a novel in miniature, could work as a longer piece (the writing is so unsullied, the characters so memorable, the recurring tension so concentrated), but illustrates the curious, often ineffable magic of the short form. There’s enough backstory related through flashback to provide a sense of who the narrator is, but the action occurs in the present, and we have no idea what the future holds, nor should we. In one of many astonishing passages, a Vietnam veteran stuck in a neuropsych ward to recover from his anxiety-induced epileptic seizures describes his first experience in a straitjacket (after driving the fellow patients to distraction with his paranoia that a large homicidal rabbit is lying in wait beneath his bed):

I forced myself to lie still, and it seemed that my brain was filled with sawdust and that centipedes, roaches, and other insects were crawling through it. I could taste brown rabbit fur in my teeth. I had a horror that the rabbit would come in the room, lie on my face, and suffocate me.

Finally released, months later, our anti-hero exits the base in one of the more memorable—and satisfying—endings of any modern short story. A bit of dialogue he exchanges with a fellow Marine typifies Jones, at the height of his powers:

“…You want to know something?”

“What’s that?”

“I stole this fucking car. Hot-wired the motherfucker.”

“Far out,” I said. “Which way you going?”

“As far as five bucks in gas will take me.”

“I got a little money. Drive me to Haight-Ashbury?”

“Groovy. What are you doing, man, picking your nose?”

“Just checking for cockroaches,” I said weakly.

This is a story that does everything the best writing aspires to do: it stays read, and changes the way you read, and understand, subsequent work. (In terms of Jones’s work, he arguably set the bar too high to approach that level again himself, but in the final analysis what matters is that he ever got there in the first place.)

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To once again invoke Tolstoy, it could be said that all writers are unhappy, but each writer is unhappy in his or her own way.

Thom Jones, by any benchmark, had a difficult life before, during and after The Pugilist at Rest was published (1993). An absent father who later committed suicide in a mental institution, Marine boot camp, boxing injuries resulting in epilepsy: these themes, which recur like grisly hallucinations in his fiction, all derived from his actual life. Indeed, by the time he was twenty, he’d already experienced the trauma and tragedy that would inform his best work.

Like Raymond Carver, Jones excels at depicting the seedier side of life, black and blue faces with blue collars as opposed to suits and suburban existential howling. Like Charles Bukowski, it’s not difficult to detect a clear line connecting the characters, situations and the person writing about them. Like Tim O’Brien, it’s not so much that his personal history serves as impetus but rather, the obsessions of memory, pain and regret are at once a unifying theme and creative cul-de-sac.

(Put another way, he was the anti-Updike; it is both refreshing and a little heroic that his work bulldogged its way into The New Yorker, unapologetic—but indubitably worthy—turds in that pristine literary punch bowl.)

Jones circled around these washed up palookas, chemically-altered outlaws and quiet nobodies in search of a rock to crawl under because he knew them; he was (or had been) one of them himself. His most compelling pieces seem unforced and unfettered because, while undeniably autobiographical, Jones used fiction as exploration, not therapy. In “The Pugilist at Rest”, the narrator invokes Theogenes, “the greatest of gladiators”, who fought—and won—fourteen hundred and twenty-five life and death battles. The statue commemorating this fighter (an image of which decorates the front cover) becomes the central metaphor not only for this story, but the entire collection. Indeed, the notion of a scarred and skillful brawler being called into the ring, yet again, to provide a spectacle, a distraction or voyeuristic pleasure, is an appropriate allegory for Jones’s career.

Jones once remarked that “in the act of writing I’m not Thom Jones. And it’s such a relief to not be Thom Jones.” How inspiring, how refreshing, how sad. It doesn’t seem a stretch to imagine that Jones had a strenuous life, even after 1993, and the inability to retain his title simply means he’s more Jake LaMotta and less Sugar Ray Robinson—not a one-shot wunderkind but a career scrapper who banged back at a world intent on beating the shit out of him. Whether or not he had a great deal more to write, the only fact that matters is that he took his one shot and made it count. Hopefully he redeemed a great deal of disillusionment with that triumph, but regardless, he had to know he’d escaped the most ignoble fate: obscurity.

His refusal to quit and unwillingness to sentimentalize his past is a testament to his character (that he didn’t need to sensationalize his past is testament to the extraordinary obstacles he overcame). That he plugged away, before and after he was famous, and that he turned his vocation into one long battle is a testament to his resolve, and artistic integrity. And while he wrote about manly men doing macho shit, Jones was the anti-Hollywood writer in the sense that he understood the sadness and futility of fighting, boozing, womanizing and hatred directed inward or outward. He learned how to write the way he learned how to survive: the hard way, with no short cuts and few excuses. His ability to craft unforgettable tales of otherwise forgettable people will endure as the ultimate testament to his distinct talent and warrior’s heart.

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This essay originally appeared in The Weeklings on 10/27/16.

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Remembering Michael Cimino’s Masterpiece, ‘The Deer Hunter’

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Imagine this: Michael Cimino, fresh off five Academy Awards (including Best Picture and Best Director) and the next big “thing” fails to complete the filming of Heaven’s Gate (1980) and stops making movies, all because he couldn’t handle the pressure of following up on not only the movie he needed to make, but the movie America needed him to make: The Deer Hunter (1978).

Discussion would forever boil down to what masterpieces we were robbed from seeing, how a too-sensitive soul could not stand up to the pressures and pettiness of Hollywood, and so on. Bonus scenario: if Heaven’s Gate were only half-finished when he stopped directing, scholars would write dissertations about whether the next Citizen Kane (1942) got sabotaged, or was never meant to be, or too impossibly perfect to reach completion.

Instead, of course, Heaven’s Gate was finished and, due to its underwhelming commercial and critical reception, so was Cimino.

Over the top? Well, so was Cimino. I mean, have you seen Heaven’s Gate? Or even, dare we go there, The Deer Hunter?

In truth, Cimino’s The Deer Hunter has not aged as well as its younger brother, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), but there are many legitimate reasons for this. Apocalypse Now was always imperfect, and, in ways no one could have anticipated; its very messiness, inscrutability, and shoehorned ending only gain stature as the perfect metaphor for the imperfect fiasco that was Vietnam.

If Dostoyevsky had written about Vietnam it might have been a lot like Apocalypse Now; The Deer Hunter, on the other hand, is possibly the most Tolstoyesque American movie ever made.

The Deer Hunter was a novel on the screen, with plotting, tonal shifts, character studies, and a conclusion that, while equally rushed in its way—including the unforgivable kitsch of the crew singing “God Bless America” at the finalé, which is like being bludgeoned with a star-spangled sledgehammer—tries to tell it straight, illustrating not only the senselessness of what went on over there, but the horror of what happened to the people “lucky” enough to make it back here.

Certainly, Coming Home (also from 1978) had similar designs and was also a necessary turd in the punch bowl for anyone opining that we all needed to just move on. But compared to The Deer Hunter, Coming Home was a novella, or a short story; its scope was narrow and effective for keeping things focused, even if it gets a little fluffy toward the end.

It’s also interesting to consider how the respective films reflect the director’s drug of choice: Coming Home, by the time it’s over, is like taking a steam bath in an opium den; Apocalypse Now rips out of the gate on a cocaine rush, settles into an uneasy acid trip and, by the end, is a whole cocktail of uppers, downers, hash and whiskey—the pharmacological equivalent of whatever was happening, in real time, inside Dennis Hopper’s head.

The Deer Hunter, by contrast, is from an older school: its shot-and-a-beer sensibility is ideally suited for the steel town locale. It’s even old fashioned in its way: the aftermath (a separate war unto itself) was one long hangover, filled with regret, recrimination, and self-loathing. Redemption, too. It also, at times, suffers from the weird mix of self-consciousness (that wedding scene could easily have been cut in half and, with a lesser director calling the shots, it should have been) and shed inhibitions. Was it too many Rolling Rocks that convinced Cimino the aforementioned “God Bless America” singalong was not only a wise, but necessary, decision?

So if The Deer Hunter has not aged as well as most folks in 1978 would have anticipated, its fatal flaw was being, for both better and worse, as perfect as it could have been at the time. There probably wasn’t an American film with such recalcitrant confidence and stunning results, however indulgent, made until There Will Be Blood (2007). Both films have the modest aim of explaining everything, and using one event (Vietnam, the oil industry) to elucidate the tragedies inherent in America’s tendency to overreach, due to greed and inexorable recklessness.

Of course, The Deer Hunter must be celebrated for what it got so right, and while even the best scenes in Apocalypse Now have that quirky genius of lightning captured in a bottle of “33”—kind of like Hunter S. Thompson at the top of his game—Cimino’s masterpiece has a formal elegance, its ambition never overshadowed by its pretensions or showboating. For a study in contrast, consider Platoon (1986) which, while incredible and important for its time, can hardly be watched today without sensing Oliver Stone’s sweaty, self-satisfied mug in every other frame.

It’s regrettable that the movie is best or most often remembered for the gruesome Russian roulette scenes. Those moments were perhaps necessary for anyone delusional enough to think this, or any war, is a reductive contest of good guys shooting bad guys and vice versa (itself a horrific enough scenario to warrant unlimited empathy and funds to assist veterans of these affairs). Even as metaphor, the idea of brothers in arms holding guns to their heads is as eloquent in its insanity as, say, the surreal depravity of a white Alpha male blasting Wagner as he blithely massacres a village of men, women and children: all before breaking out the surfboards.

Again, The Deer Hunter does get war, including the lead up and load out, definitively in its sights, but it manages to also nail the beautiful, if banal simplicity of working class existence: the honesty of that industrious lifestyle, sculpted and fueled by sweat and pitchers of beer.

It takes only one succinct, devastating scene to demonstrate a screenplay worth of suffering in the relationship between Meryl Streep and her used-up and spit out old man. It skillfully captures the way men bond (shooting pool, “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You”) and fight (“This is This!”). It subtly conveys how alcohol enables dudes to express vulnerability (“I love this fuckin’ place!”).

There’s comic relief, with the immigrant mother browbeating (and beating) her son on the afternoon of his wedding. There are layers of meaning within the insinuation that the bride’s growing belly might not be courtesy of her husband. Then there’s everything about Stan (Jon Cazale): his character, the type of complicated coward everyone has met, and everything about Jon Cazale, whom everyone on set knew was dying while they filmed.

As a movie rightly celebrated for its epic scale and achievement, The Deer Hunter boasts a series of immaculate scenes which, when isolated, deftly encapsulate the whole in miniature, while standing on their own as iconic moments in cinema.

Certainly it’s a tad heavy-handed, but the agitated vet stumbling into the wedding reception foreshadows much that the giddy groomsmen don’t understand, but will. “Fuck it,” he repeats, unwilling to shake hands or even look at the young men he knows (and we know) are about to grow up in an abrupt and ugly fashion.

Flash forward to the first post-war reunion between Michael (De Niro) and Steven (John Savage). Michael, full of obligatory bravado and reassurance, smiles at his wheelchair-bound friend and says “We made it”, then leans in for the hug as the smile—and façade—disappears and he repeats, a forceful whisper, “We made it.” Or, the close-up on Michael who, after skipping his homecoming party, paces in a hotel room, doing everything he can to keep himself intact.

Yet, while certain scenes from the wedding, Vietnam, and in the woods will endure as classics, it’s one of the quieter sequences that packs, quite possibly, the most concentrated punch. Back from a successful hunt, the men have squeezed every morsel of joy out of their final hours before shipping off. Finally, more beers are opened, and a friend not headed to Vietnam (George Dzundza) sits down at the piano. As the others gradually recognize the tune being played (Chopin’s Nocturne #6 in G Minor), the merriment ceases and they pause, reflecting.

In a book, there’d be little choice but to tell; Cimino and the actors are able to show, without words, things both obvious and implied. They stare at each other lovingly, appreciating all that’s brought them to this moment but no longer able to ignore the ways so much is soon to change, and none of it for the better. The scene’s already indelible, but the way Dzundza looks at Cazale (who was about to succumb to cancer in real life) after the last note is played is the kind of perfection that can’t be planned; it’s the rarest instance of life and art imitating each other in the service of reconciliation.

In the end it’s this, along with several other subdued moments, that illustrate innocence not merely lost, but obliterated. It’s ultimately the story of decent men from an increasingly forgotten time and environment, and they, of course, represent the many thousands of men from similar places. They all went off to represent a cause they couldn’t fathom, and those that came back faced a different world that in turn couldn’t, and wouldn’t, understand them.

It’s for telling their story, and putting names and faces on uncomfortable statistics (the dead, the crippled, the suicides) that make The Deer Hunter a different, and better, kind of Vietnam movie. It’s a war story, but it’s also a human story. The Deer Hunter is the type of film that, once seen, is capable of creating the right kind of change. It’s for this, above all, that Cimino should be remembered and celebrated.

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“Only Let Be No War”: The Films of Nikita Mikhalkov, Volume 1 (Revisited)

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The release of this box set is a welcome development. This is not necessarily to suggest anyone is likely to shell out $80 for five films, but the fact that they are available at all is good news for movie fans. Of course, if you have a Netflix account, you can enjoy these new releases without having to pay retail prices for them.

Nikita Mikhalkov was a legend in Russia long before Burnt By The Sun won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 1994. It is debatable that even the release of this series (Volume 1, which portends subsequent editions) will convert many American viewers, but at least the films will finally have a fair chance to find whatever audience will receive them.

Having recently viewed each title a couple of times (and having watched Burnt By The Sun for at least the tenth time) this reviewer can recommend each without reservation. To be certain, there is a element of enrichment at play: it’s often worthwhile to learn something about a time—and culture—still mostly unknown to western eyes and sensibilities. That’s what textbooks are for, right? The fact of the matter is that each of these films has a great deal to offer, aesthetically as well as historically. Rest assured, none of these movies will feel like a homework assignment. They are filled with humor, horror and the struggle for fulfillment (or, short of that, the struggle for peace); the same things that have shaped and influenced our history as humans regardless of language or locale.

These films do feel dated, but that’s inevitable and by no means a negative. In addition to being decades old, they were created in a different Russia and, in many regards, an entirely different world than exists now. Then there is the fact that three of the films are set earlier in the 20th (and one is a period piece from the 19th) Century. The question, then, is not so much how well they have aged so much as how convincing they are on their own terms. For several reasons, they hold up well and remain compelling achievements, which is what we should expect from a director of Mikhalkov’s stature.

The next, more crucial question—with all aesthetic considerations aside—is whether they are entertaining enough to entice a contemporary, non-Russian speaking audience. The verdict here is that they are, although this endorsement is offered with the winking caveat that they are only as appealing as any Russian film with sub-titles can be.

Are you still with me? If so, and you are prepared to dive in, you might be best advised to work backward in chronological order of release. Newcomers should certainly get acquainted with Mikhalkov via Burnt By The Sun (1994), followed by Without Witness (1983) and Oblomov (1980). The next two, Five Evenings (1979) and A Slave Of Love (1976) are perhaps the most challenging but, in their way, the most rewarding.

A Slave Of Love has previously been unavailable on DVD, so cinephiles who remember Jack Nicholson praising it in the ‘70s (as the back cover boasts), and people who have heard or read about this minor classic finally have an opportunity to see for themselves if it warrants the hype. The story is set in 1917 during the Bolshevik Revolution, and concerns silent film siren Olga (Yelena Solovey) who is working with a not-particularly inspired crew on a new project. Despite the lethargy, which is exacerbated by the summer heat, there is a palpable sense of urgency. The police keep dropping by and, although they are on location off in the country, a collective apprehension intensifies as rumors and rumblings from the city accumulate.

Eventually, Olga does her best acting away from the bright lights once she finds herself falling for the attractive and worldly cameraman Pototsky (Rodion Nakhapetov). The more she feigns indifference, the more obvious it is that she is smitten. At one point in the midst of a car ride that leaves the vehicle covered with country dirt (the presence of dust and grime sticks to every scene, working well to convey authenticity and serve as a metaphor for what is happening on and off the set), she laments the lack of meaning she finds in her work, despite her celebrity. She longs for a cause; to be something or, short of that, “useful—like a tree or the earth” (Ah, now that is Russian!). She gets her chance when it is revealed that her lover is a dissident, and wants her to help the cause. This sets up an epiphany wherein she is able to transcend her solipsism, but only by paying a price she could not have imagined.

Five Evenings was shot in less than a month, during a seasonal lull while Mikhalkov was filming the expensive and elaborate production Oblomov. The plot seems straightforward enough, but the languid pace and lack of traditional conflict (much less “action”) is deceptive: this film is a quiet powerhouse, and the careful build of emotional intensity reaches a memorable and deeply affecting conclusion. The setting is Moscow near the end of the ‘50s, and involves a fortuitous reunion between Tama (Lyudmila Gurchenko) and Alexander (Stanislav Lyubshin), who were once lovers before the war interrupted their lives 17 years earlier.

Shrewdly shot in black and white entirely inside Tama’s communal apartment, it is a dark film, literally. The interiors of the building are ill-lit and the empty spaces and shadows become characters, albeit in a way that never seems contrived. One feels the vibe of post-war Russian life, with its slowly eroding faith of God, country and self. As Tama and Alexander speak without complaint about their jobs and prospects, it is increasingly clear they are hoping to convince themselves as much as each other. It is also apparent that a great deal of attraction still lingers, while the sense of lost time and missed opportunity is obvious in their clipped exchanges and wary eyes. These are people who can barely allow themselves to dream, so the potential vulnerability risked by admitting they are lonely, scared and quite possibly still in love is unthinkable.

Eventually, inevitably, the truth (truths) can no longer be avoided or denied, and Alexander—after explaining the price he paid for refusing to immerse himself in the corrupted cesspool of the Soviet “system”—articulates the simple truth regarding the soul he has salvaged. “A man should remain true to himself,” he says softly, the hard years hanging around his neck like a noose. “It is a very advantageous position.” Considering all that he has seen and experienced, the simple integrity of this sentiment is a revelation: astute American viewers will be reminded why so many people still give up a great deal to come to this country.

The final scene of Five Evenings does not offer a resolution so much as a celebration of human resolve. In the last moments, once the couple has laid their feelings—and to a certain extent, their lives— on the line, the screen shifts from black-and-white to color (a tactic Francis Ford Copolla may have borrowed a few years later for Rumble Fish). It is an effulgent finale and a brilliant symbolic stratagem for a scene suffused with such unadulterated emotion. Once the credits roll it is difficult not to feel that this cast and crew have rendered what usually passes for drama in Hollywood facile and inauthentic.

Oblomov is, aside from Burnt By The Sun, the film Mikhalkov is best known for outside his own country. Based on the novel by Ivan Goncharov, the eponymous protagonist is a classic sort of Russian anti-hero. Oblomov (played by an ideally cast Oleg Tabakov, whose pudding-face and pork chop physique could not possibly be more suited to the character) is rather like Melville’s Bartleby, only with means. Like Melville’s morose scrivener, Oblomov would prefer not to…do much of anything. He suffers from the very Romantic and very Russian literary affliction of ennui.

Once his legendary inertia is adequately established (augmented by narrated flashbacks of a pampered youth), we meet his lifelong friend Stoltz, the sophisticated and ambitious businessman who knows culture, eats carefully and generally tends to his physical and mental well-being—the anti-Oblomov, if you will. At Stoltz’s urging, his friend reluctantly agrees to spend a summer in the country where he meets the young and gorgeous Olga (Elena Solovey again). He slowly and predictably (but convincingly) falls in love with her, and the resolution of this infatuation will have permanent ramifications. Oblomov is an old-fashioned epic: long, deliberate, full of careful tracking shots (indoor and especially outside), wonderful score, solid acting and able to conjure up another time and place that, once viewed, will be difficult to forget.

Without Witness is probably the most straightforward, if least satisfying of the films. Even more claustrophobic than Five Evenings, all the action occurs during the course of one evening in a small Moscow apartment. The tone is disarmingly jovial when an ebullient, and inebriated, ex-husband (Mikhail Ulyanov)—who has since remarried—drops in on his still-single ex-wife (Irina Kupchenko). They do not seem especially estranged, and she does not seem unduly upset—or surprised—by his impromptu appearance. One quickly suspects his roguish goodwill and her stoic grace are masks, and one is correct. As the evening winds down, they each unburden themselves of secrets, resentments and a nasty surprise or two. Nothing that unfolds is particularly surprising (or frankly memorable) but the acting is fine and it works well enough as the obvious Bergman tribute it is attempting to be.

Finally, the one most western audiences have seen, or at least heard of, Burnt By The Sun. This is perhaps the only film from the last 20 years where I agree with virtually every critique (of which there are many, aside from the contrarian cranks who feel obliged to find fault with any movie fortunate enough to be lavished with awards), yet still consider a near-masterpiece. Is it, at times, heavy-handed? Da. Can it fairly be accused of occasional preciousness? Da. Sentimental? Da. Still, and I measure my words carefully here, so was Tolstoy. Am I comparing this film to Tolstoy? Sort of. It is undoubtedly the most accurate, or at least successful, depiction of what we might call “Tolstoyan” (Memento, incidentally, is for my money the most “Dostoyevskian”).

This invocation is not offered lightly: the (very impressive) number of characters, the scope of its political, social and romantic entanglements, the sense of history anticipating the future even as the future seems to mockingly distort memory and deed, the violence and tenderness—occasionally contained in the same gesture; all of these are indelible elements of great Russian literature. If nothing else, Mikhalkov should be celebrated for the audacity to throw his cap in the big arena and go for broke.

The acting is top notch all around, including Mikhalkov who stars as the war hero and Stalin confidante Colonel Kotov. Special mention must be made of the performance Oleg Menshikov turns in as the enigmatic Mitia, the prodigal son who abruptly returns home with a secret that will shatter everyone he knows. Not many actors are able to transform convincingly from lovable to despicable to ultimately sympathetic (or, Tragic in the literary sense of the word), but Menshikov delivers one of the best, if unheralded performances in any movie from recent memory.

Among Burnt By The Sun’s many triumphs is the way it confounds almost every expectation it spends the first part of the film carefully building: the Kotov family’s bliss seems over-the-top, and the viewer eventually realizes this is strictly intentional, not merely as a plot device to set up the house of cards before it crumbles, but to suggest how illusory most of that bliss actually was (as in: ignorance is). The story also explores the tension inherent in one person’s contentment (particularly if that person is powerful) and how it can often be at the expense of someone else’s (particularly if that person is powerless). In a classic scene Mitia relates his decade in the service of the state that he had no choice but to sacrifice and tells the story as a thinly-veiled fairy tale. We see, as he speaks and acknowledgment slowly registers on the listeners’ faces, that the Kotov’s contentment is not only quite complicated, but more than a little revolting.

Like most masterful movies, Burnt By The Sun can be appreciated for its succession of unforgettable scenes: Kotov explaining war and peace to his young daughter by admiring her soft and unscarred feet; Mitia correcting his servant’s pronunciation while carefully loading his pistol; the peasant driving in circles all day, looking for a town that never existed; Mitia playing the piano while wearing a gas mask—and the moment he locks eyes with Kotov across the room: a short and subtle exchange that shifts the entire momentum of the movie; Mitia standing fully clothed in the creek, reciting (in broken English) from Hamlet…these are all astonishing gifts that can be savored again and again. At the beginning of the movie a song is performed in a public square while Kotov and his wife dance in the snow; at the end the song is whistled by Mitia as he sinks into a warm bathtub: in a little over two hours we’ve seen the story of these lives played out, encapsulating the joy, hope, dismay and dread we know haunted an entire country.

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When I have fears that I may cease to be…* (Revisited)

 

I. Til Love and Fame to nothingness do sink

When I have fears that I may cease to be

Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain,

Before high piled books, in charact’ry,

Hold like rich garners the full-ripen’d grain…

If you are a certain age, or a certain type of person (or both) when you first encounter these lines, they lodge themselves somewhere deep and remain there forever. That is the gift the poet gives you; your gift in return is to read and receive the work and by never forgetting it you ensure that the artist never dies.

John Keats will remain immortal as long as humans are capable of reading words. Had he been aware of this while he struggled with the tuberculosis that would take his life at 25, perhaps it might have offered a consolation money, fame and even health could never approximate.

When I behold, upon the night’s starr’d face,

Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,

And think that I may never live to trace

Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance…

This particular work resonates with each successive generation because it grapples with the most profound fear any of us will ever experience: the acknowledgment that we will inexorably perish, not knowing what actually awaits us once we’re gone. That Keats, easily one of the incontestable geniuses of any era, had several decades—at least—of his life stolen by a vulgar disease tends to augment the import of his solemn meditation. There is nothing anyone can say that could possibly begin to explain or rationalize this travesty of karmic justice, this affront to life. It is the intolerable enigmas like these that make certain people hope against hope that there is a bigger purpose and plan, a way to measure or quantify this madness. But in the final, human analysis, whatever we lost can never subdue all that we received.

Does it make a difference if he is no longer around, if he never knew his words would be read, studied and savored centuries after he drew his last breath? Was he hoping he might witness that as he wrote the words; are we hoping we might see it when we read them? The questions are unanswerable, and the only thing we can be certain about is that he did live, he did write, and we do read. That is not nearly enough in terms of consolation for his death, and our loss, but it helps. As always, with art, it helps that we will always have the gifts the artist left behind. It is never enough; it is more than enough.

It is enough to make one consider asking more unanswerable—and unsatisfying—questions, like: “What kind of God would take a poet like Keats from us?”

Asking questions like that can lead one to answers that are at once the easiest and most difficult—to understand or accept: “The same one who gave him to us?”

This, of course, is not enough. It is never enough.

But somehow, it will have to do.

And when I feel, fair creature of an hour!

That I shall never look upon thee more,

Never have relish in the faery power

Of unreflecting love!—then on the shore

Of the wide world I stand alone, and think

Til Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.

II. Strength and Sanity

Eric Dolphy & Booker Little, “Fire Waltz”:

For many years—all through college and after graduate school—John Keats signified, for me, the ultimate artistic loss of all time. In terms of talent and potential versus time granted to practice and refine his skills, Keats has even the most unbearable cases beat: his good friend and fellow genius Percy Bysshe Shelley (aged 29), their mutual friend Lord Byron (36). Even the great Franz Schubert (31) who, considering his abilities, may have amassed a body of work to be mentioned in the same breath as his fellow Austrian Mozart (himself only 35). Yet, like Mozart, Schubert was so stunningly prolific the collected output somewhat mitigates the loss.

Once I began seriously listening to jazz music, I quickly came to recognize that this art form is littered with premature deaths. We know all about our famous rock stars, many of whom flamed out early in life due to self-destructive habits and hobbies. The typical, if irresponsible (and racist) assumption is that most jazz players were junkies and therefore each casualty must have died with a needle in their arm. In actuality, the number of luminous young men whose deaths were not self-inflicted is unsettling. Of the many worth mentioning, two tend to stand out because of their brilliance, potential and clean and sober lifestyles: Eric Dolphy and Booker Little.

It will be difficult to avoid clichés here. In their defense, clichés originate from an authentic place; they are mostly an attempt, at least initially, to articulate something honest and immutable. And so: Eric Dolphy is among the foremost supernovas in all of jazz (Clifford Brown and Lee Morgan—both trumpeters incidentally—also come quickly to mind): he burned very brightly and very briefly, and then he was gone. Speaking of clichés, not a single one of the artists just mentioned—all of whom left us well before their fortieth birthdays—died from a drug overdose. Dolphy, the grand old man of the bunch, passed away at the age of 36, in Europe. How? After lapsing into a diabetic coma. Why? The doctors on duty presumed the black musician who had collapsed in the street was nodding off on a heroin buzz. To attempt to put the magnitude of this loss in perspective, consider that Charles Mingus, perhaps the most difficult and demanding band leader of them all, declared Dolphy a saint, and regarded his death as one of a handful of setbacks he could never completely get over. Dolphy holds the distinction of quite possibly being the one artist nobody has gone on record to say a single negative thing about. His body of work, the bulk of which was recorded during an almost miraculously productive five-year stretch, is deep, challenging, and utterly enjoyable. Let there be no doubt that Eric Dolphy warrants mention amongst jazz music’s all-time immortals.

And then there is Booker Little. Considered the heir apparent to the effulgent Clifford Brown (himself only 25 when he died, clean and sober, in a car crash), Little did not die so much as have his life defrauded, at age 23, from euremia—an especially brutal, and painful, type of kidney failure. Barely legal drinking age, Little had already led sessions that stand alongside the best post-bop recordings of the era (He neither drank nor took drugs, incidentally).

Little was able to complete two albums in the final year of his life, both considered masterpieces by aficionados, but largely obscure outside of jazz circles. This is ignominious on a number of levels. For one thing, the music contained in these releases captures the ethereal nature of life, the ecstasy of creation and the unique expressions our most gifted artists are capable of conveying. Beyond that, the albums are touchstones; perhaps the most poignant instances from any era of a human being defying death with dignity and joy, even as mortality circled his head like a demented buzzard.

What Keats was able to convey so succinctly, and enduringly, with words, Little achieves without needing a single syllable. His voice, of course, is his instrument, and his trumpet tells the story of his life: not for nothing was his final work entitled Victory and Sorrow. It’s not possible to listen to this music without hearing the history of illness, injustice and ultimately the transcendent human ability to, at least temporarily, overcome anything.

“Strength and Sanity” (from Out Front):

At once somber and serene, the compositions achieve an intense distillation of Beauty: the joy of inspiration leavened with the contemplation of transience. It is all in there, as devastating in its way as the symphonies of Mahler or the extended meditations of Tolstoy. Does the concentrated intensity of this sound derive from the soul of a man who sensed his time was, all of a sudden, just about up? It is almost intolerable to imagine that he was anticipating –and realizing– some of the experiences and emotions of the years he should have had, putting every thought, feeling, regret and ambition into his playing. Was he in fact dealing with significant pain while he composed and played this music? If so, we are getting into deaf Beethoven levels of drama and disbelief.

How did he manage? There is a tune on the album Out Front entitled “Strength and Sanity”, which could be a commentary on what any individual requires in order to survive –much less thrive– in a world where there is a distinct shortage of both. It certainly speaks to ingredients necessary for jazz musicians, incomparably talented men who were still, circa 1961, considered second-rate citizens, not to mention the additional stigma of being jazz musicians. But it is also a statement about what Little had to count on and cultivate just in order to get as far as he did, and deal with the hand he was dealt: performing, composing and playing against the dying of the light.

Perspective. That he was called on so young by the capricious machinery of Fate is enough to humble a hardened heart. That he succeeded in creating, and leaving behind, music that still inspires and consoles is a miracle; a miracle that, in the final analysis, equals or surpasses and possibly even overwhelms the illogical, unfair nature of his passing. That this blissful, restorative sound exists to help any confused, self-pitying individuals left behind, struggling to carry his baggage, makes a compelling case to consider the bigger picture.

“Man of Words” (also from Out Front, I challenge you to close your eyes for five minutes, listen, and not be moved to think about about what he saw and is saying: about his life, and how it causes you to contemplate your own):

*excerpted from my memoir entitled Please Talk About Me When I’m Gone.

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When I have fears that I may cease to be…*

I. Til Love and Fame to nothingness do sink

When I have fears that I may cease to be

Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain,

Before high piled books, in charact’ry,

Hold like rich garners the full-ripen’d grain…

If you are a certain age, or a certain type of person (or both) when you first encounter these lines, they lodge themselves somewhere deep and remain there forever. That is the gift the poet gives you; your gift in return is to read and receive the work and by never forgetting it you ensure that the artist never dies.

John Keats will remain immortal as long as humans are capable of reading words. Had he been aware of this while he struggled with the tuberculosis that would take his life at 25, perhaps it might have offered a consolation money, fame and even health could never approximate.

When I behold, upon the night’s starr’d face,

Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,

And think that I may never live to trace

Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance…

This particular work resonates with each successive generation because it grapples with the most profound fear any of us will ever experience: the acknowledgment that we will inexorably perish, not knowing what actually awaits us once we’re gone. That Keats, easily one of the incontestable geniuses of any era, had several decades—at least—of his life stolen by a vulgar disease tends to augment the import of his solemn meditation. There is nothing anyone can say that could possibly begin to explain or rationalize this travesty of karmic justice, this affront to life. It is the intolerable enigmas like these that make certain people hope against hope that there is a bigger purpose and plan, a way to measure or quantify this madness. But in the final, human analysis, whatever we lost can never subdue all that we received.

Does it make a difference if he is no longer around, if he never knew his words would be read, studied and savored centuries after he drew his last breath? Was he hoping he might witness that as he wrote the words; are we hoping we might see it when we read them? The questions are unanswerable, and the only thing we can be certain about is that he did live, he did write, and we do read. That is not nearly enough in terms of consolation for his death, and our loss, but it helps. As always, with art, it helps that we will always have the gifts the artist left behind. It is never enough; it is more than enough.

It is enough to make one consider asking more unanswerable—and unsatisfying—questions, like: “What kind of God would take a poet like Keats from us?”

Asking questions like that can lead one to answers that are at once the easiest and most difficult—to understand or accept: “The same one who gave him to us?”

This, of course, is not enough. It is never enough.

But somehow, it will have to do.

And when I feel, fair creature of an hour!

That I shall never look upon thee more,

Never have relish in the faery power

Of unreflecting love!—then on the shore

Of the wide world I stand alone, and think

Til Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.

 II. Strength and Sanity

Eric Dolphy & Booker Little, “Fire Waltz”:

For many years—all through college and after graduate school—John Keats signified, for me, the ultimate artistic loss of all time. In terms of talent and potential versus time granted to practice and refine his skills, Keats has even the most unbearable cases beat: his good friend and fellow genius Percy Bysshe Shelley (aged 29), their mutual friend Lord Byron (36). Even the great Franz Schubert (31) who, considering his abilities, may have amassed a body of work to be mentioned in the same breath as his fellow Austrian Mozart (himself only 35). Yet, like Mozart, Schubert was so stunningly prolific the collected output somewhat mitigates the loss.

Once I began seriously listening to jazz music, I quickly came to recognize that this art form is littered with premature deaths. We know all about our famous rock stars, many of whom flamed out early in life due to self-destructive habits and hobbies. The typical, if irresponsible (and racist) assumption is that most jazz players were junkies and therefore each casualty must have died with a needle in their arm. In actuality, the number of luminous young men whose deaths were not self-inflicted is unsettling. Of the many worth mentioning, two tend to stand out because of their brilliance, potential and clean and sober lifestyles: Eric Dolphy and Booker Little.

It will be difficult to avoid clichés here. In their defense, clichés originate from an authentic place; they are mostly an attempt, at least initially, to articulate something honest and immutable. And so: Eric Dolphy is among the foremost supernovas in all of jazz (Clifford Brown and Lee Morgan—both trumpeters incidentally—also come quickly to mind): he burned very brightly and very briefly, and then he was gone. Speaking of clichés, not a single one of the artists just mentioned—all of whom left us well before their fortieth birthdays—died from a drug overdose. Dolphy, the grand old man of the bunch, passed away at the age of 36, in Europe. How? After lapsing into a diabetic coma. Why? The doctors on duty presumed the black musician who had collapsed in the street was nodding off on a heroin buzz. To attempt to put the magnitude of this loss in perspective, consider that Charles Mingus, perhaps the most difficult and demanding band leader of them all, declared Dolphy a saint, and regarded his death as one of a handful of setbacks he could never completely get over. Dolphy holds the distinction of quite possibly being the one artist nobody has gone on record to say a single negative thing about. His body of work, the bulk of which was recorded during an almost miraculously productive five-year stretch, is deep, challenging, and utterly enjoyable. Let there be no doubt that Eric Dolphy warrants mention amongst jazz music’s all-time immortals.

And then there is Booker Little. Considered the heir apparent to the effulgent Clifford Brown (himself only 25 when he died, clean and sober, in a car crash), Little did not die so much as have his life defrauded, at age 23, from euremia—an especially brutal, and painful, type of kidney failure. Barely legal drinking age, Little had already led sessions that stand alongside the best post-bop recordings of the era (He neither drank nor took drugs, incidentally).

Little was able to complete two albums in the final year of his life, both considered masterpieces by aficionados, but largely obscure outside of jazz circles. This is ignominious on a number of levels. For one thing, the music contained in these releases captures the ethereal nature of life, the ecstasy of creation and the unique expressions our most gifted artists are capable of conveying. Beyond that, the albums are touchstones; perhaps the most poignant instances from any era of a human being defying death with dignity and joy, even as mortality circled his head like a demented buzzard.

What Keats was able to convey so succinctly, and enduringly, with words, Little achieves without needing a single syllable. His voice, of course, is his instrument, and his trumpet tells the story of his life: not for nothing was his final work entitled Victory and Sorrow. It’s not possible to listen to this music without hearing the history of illness, injustice and ultimately the transcendent human ability to, at least temporarily, overcome anything.

“Strength and Sanity” (from Out Front):

At once somber and serene, the compositions achieve an intense distillation of Beauty: the joy of inspiration leavened with the contemplation of transience. It is all in there, as devastating in its way as the symphonies of Mahler or the extended meditations of Tolstoy. Does the concentrated intensity of this sound derive from the soul of a man who sensed his time was, all of a sudden, just about up? It is almost intolerable to imagine that he was anticipating –and realizing– some of the experiences and emotions of the years he should have had, putting every thought, feeling, regret and ambition into his playing. Was he in fact dealing with significant pain while he composed and played this music? If so, we are getting into deaf Beethoven levels of drama and disbelief.

How did he manage? There is a tune on the album Out Front entitled “Strength and Sanity”, which could be a commentary on what any individual requires in order to survive –much less thrive– in a world where there is a distinct shortage of both. It certainly speaks to ingredients necessary for jazz musicians, incomparably talented men who were still, circa 1961, considered second-rate citizens, not to mention the additional stigma of being jazz musicians. But it is also a statement about what Little had to count on and cultivate just in order to get as far as he did, and deal with the hand he was dealt: performing, composing and playing against the dying of the light.

Perspective. That he was called on so young by the capricious machinery of Fate is enough to humble a hardened heart. That he succeeded in creating, and leaving behind, music that still inspires and consoles is a miracle; a miracle that, in the final analysis, equals or surpasses and possibly even overwhelms the illogical, unfair nature of his passing. That this blissful, restorative sound exists to help any confused, self-pitying individuals left behind, struggling to carry his baggage, makes a compelling case to consider the bigger picture.

“Man of Words” (also from Out Front, but no comment on the unrelated, albeit not unpleasant accompanying YouTube image; I challenge you to close your eyes for five minutes, listen, and not think about what he saw and is saying: about his life, and how it causes you to contemplate your own):

*another installment from a non-fiction work-in-progress entitled Please Talk About Me When I’m Gone.

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“Only Let Be No War”: The Films of Nikita Mikhalkov, Volume 1

The release of this box set is a welcome development. This is not necessarily to suggest anyone is likely to shell out $80 for five films, but the fact that they are available at all is good news for movie fans. Of course, if you have a Netflix account, you can enjoy these new releases without having to pay retail prices for them.

Nikita Mikhalkov was a legend in Russia long before Burnt By The Sun won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 1994. It is debatable that even the release of this series (Volume 1, which portends subsequent editions) will convert many American viewers, but at least the films will finally have a fair chance to find whatever audience will receive them.

Having recently viewed each title a couple of times (and having watched Burnt By The Sun for at least the tenth time) this reviewer can recommend each without reservation. To be certain, there is a element of enrichment at play: it’s often worthwhile to learn something about a time—and culture—still mostly unknown to western eyes and sensibilities. That’s what textbooks are for, right? The fact of the matter is that each of these films has a great deal to offer, aesthetically as well as historically. Rest assured, none of these movies will feel like a homework assignment. They are filled with humor, horror and the struggle for fulfillment (or, short of that, the struggle for peace); the same things that have shaped and influenced our history as humans regardless of language or locale.

These films do feel dated, but that’s inevitable and by no means a negative. In addition to being decades old, they were created in a different Russia and, in many regards, an entirely different world than exists now. Then there is the fact that three of the films are set earlier in the 20th (and one is a period piece from the 19th) Century. The question, then, is not so much how well they have aged so much as how convincing they are on their own terms. For several reasons, they hold up well and remain compelling achievements, which is what we should expect from a director of Mikhalkov’s stature.

The next, more crucial question—with all aesthetic considerations aside—is whether they are entertaining enough to entice a contemporary, non-Russian speaking audience. The verdict here is that they are, although this endorsement is offered with the winking caveat that they are only as appealing as any Russian film with sub-titles can be.

Are you still with me? If so, and you are prepared to dive in, you might be best advised to work backward in chronological order of release. Newcomers should certainly get acquainted with Mikhalkov via Burnt By The Sun (1994), followed by Without Witness (1983) and Oblomov (1980). The next two, Five Evenings (1979) and A Slave Of Love (1976) are perhaps the most challenging but, in their way, the most rewarding.

A Slave Of Love has previously been unavailable on DVD, so cinephiles who remember Jack Nicholson praising it in the ‘70s (as the back cover boasts), and people who have heard or read about this minor classic finally have an opportunity to see for themselves if it warrants the hype. The story is set in 1917 during the Bolshevik Revolution, and concerns silent film siren Olga (Yelena Solovey) who is working with a not-particularly inspired crew on a new project. Despite the lethargy, which is exacerbated by the summer heat, there is a palpable sense of urgency. The police keep dropping by and, although they are on location off in the country, a collective apprehension intensifies as rumors and rumblings from the city accumulate.

Eventually, Olga does her best acting away from the bright lights once she finds herself falling for the attractive and worldly cameraman Pototsky (Rodion Nakhapetov). The more she feigns indifference, the more obvious it is that she is smitten. At one point in the midst of a car ride that leaves the vehicle covered with country dirt (the presence of dust and grime sticks to every scene, working well to convey authenticity and serve as a metaphor for what is happening on and off the set), she laments the lack of meaning she finds in her work, despite her celebrity. She longs for a cause; to be something or, short of that, “useful—like a tree or the earth” (Ah, now that is Russian!). She gets her chance when it is revealed that her lover is a dissident, and wants her to help the cause. This sets up an epiphany wherein she is able to transcend her solipsism, but only by paying a price she could not have imagined.

Five Evenings was shot in less than a month, during a seasonal lull while Mikhalkov was filming the expensive and elaborate production Oblomov. The plot seems straightforward enough, but the languid pace and lack of traditional conflict (much less “action”) is deceptive: this film is a quiet powerhouse, and the careful build of emotional intensity reaches a memorable and deeply affecting conclusion. The setting is Moscow near the end of the ‘50s, and involves a fortuitous reunion between Tama (Lyudmila Gurchenko) and Alexander (Stanislav Lyubshin), who were once lovers before the war interrupted their lives 17 years earlier.

Shrewdly shot in black and white entirely inside Tama’s communal apartment, it is a dark film, literally. The interiors of the building are ill-lit and the empty spaces and shadows become characters, albeit in a way that never seems contrived. One feels the vibe of post-war Russian life, with its slowly eroding faith of God, country and self. As Tama and Alexander speak without complaint about their jobs and prospects, it is increasingly clear they are hoping to convince themselves as much as each other. It is also apparent that a great deal of attraction still lingers, while the sense of lost time and missed opportunity is obvious in their clipped exchanges and wary eyes. These are people who can barely allow themselves to dream, so the potential vulnerability risked by admitting they are lonely, scared and quite possibly still in love is unthinkable.

Eventually, inevitably, the truth (truths) can no longer be avoided or denied, and Alexander—after explaining the price he paid for refusing to immerse himself in the corrupted cesspool of the Soviet “system”—articulates the simple truth regarding the soul he has salvaged. “A man should remain true to himself,” he says softly, the hard years hanging around his neck like a noose. “It is a very advantageous position.” Considering all that he has seen and experienced, the simple integrity of this sentiment is a revelation: astute American viewers will be reminded why so many people still give up a great deal to come to this country.

The final scene of Five Evenings does not offer a resolution so much as a celebration of human resolve. In the last moments, once the couple has laid their feelings—and to a certain extent, their lives— on the line, the screen shifts from black-and-white to color (a tactic Francis Ford Copolla may have borrowed a few years later for Rumble Fish). It is an effulgent finale and a brilliant symbolic stratagem for a scene suffused with such unadulterated emotion. Once the credits roll it is difficult not to feel that this cast and crew have rendered what usually passes for drama in Hollywood facile and inauthentic.

Oblomov is, aside from Burnt By The Sun, the film Mikhalkov is best known for outside his own country. Based on the novel by Ivan Goncharov, the eponymous protagonist is a classic sort of Russian anti-hero. Oblomov (played by an ideally cast Oleg Tabakov, whose pudding-face and pork chop physique could not possibly be more suited to the character) is rather like Melville’s Bartleby, only with means. Like Melville’s morose scrivener, Oblomov would prefer not to…do much of anything. He suffers from the very Romantic and very Russian literary affliction of ennui.

Once his legendary inertia is adequately established (augmented by narrated flashbacks of a pampered youth), we meet his lifelong friend Stoltz, the sophisticated and ambitious businessman who knows culture, eats carefully and generally tends to his physical and mental well-being—the anti-Oblomov, if you will. At Stoltz’s urging, his friend reluctantly agrees to spend a summer in the country where he meets the young and gorgeous Olga (Elena Solovey again). He slowly and predictably (but convincingly) falls in love with her, and the resolution of this infatuation will have permanent ramifications. Oblomov is an old-fashioned epic: long, deliberate, full of careful tracking shots (indoor and especially outside), wonderful score, solid acting and able to conjure up another time and place that, once viewed, will be difficult to forget.

Without Witness is probably the most straightforward, if least satisfying of the films. Even more claustrophobic than Five Evenings, all the action occurs during the course of one evening in a small Moscow apartment. The tone is disarmingly jovial when an ebullient, and inebriated, ex-husband (Mikhail Ulyanov)—who has since remarried—drops in on his still-single ex-wife (Irina Kupchenko). They do not seem especially estranged, and she does not seem unduly upset—or surprised—by his impromptu appearance. One quickly suspects his roguish goodwill and her stoic grace are masks, and one is correct. As the evening winds down, they each unburden themselves of secrets, resentments and a nasty surprise or two. Nothing that unfolds is particularly surprising (or frankly memorable) but the acting is fine and it works well enough as the obvious Bergman tribute it is attempting to be.

Finally, the one most western audiences have seen, or at least heard of, Burnt By The Sun. This is perhaps the only film from the last 20 years where I agree with virtually every critique (of which there are many, aside from the contrarian cranks who feel obliged to find fault with any movie fortunate enough to be lavished with awards), yet still consider a near-masterpiece. Is it, at times, heavy-handed? Da. Can it fairly be accused of occasional preciousness? Da. Sentimental? Da. Still, and I measure my words carefully here, so was Tolstoy. Am I comparing this film to Tolstoy? Sort of. It is undoubtedly the most accurate, or at least successful, depiction of what we might call “Tolstoyan” (Memento, incidentally, is for my money the most “Dostoyevskian”).

This invocation is not offered lightly: the (very impressive) number of characters, the scope of its political, social and romantic entanglements, the sense of history anticipating the future even as the future seems to mockingly distort memory and deed, the violence and tenderness—occasionally contained in the same gesture; all of these are indelible elements of great Russian literature. If nothing else, Mikhalkov should be celebrated for the audacity to throw his cap in the big arena and go for broke.

The acting is top notch all around, including Mikhalkov who stars as the war hero and Stalin confidante Colonel Kotov. Special mention must be made of the performance Oleg Menshikov turns in as the enigmatic Mitia, the prodigal son who abruptly returns home with a secret that will shatter everyone he knows. Not many actors are able to transform convincingly from lovable to despicable to ultimately sympathetic (or, Tragic in the literary sense of the word), but Menshikov delivers one of the best, if unheralded performances in any movie from recent memory.

Among Burnt By The Sun’s many triumphs is the way it confounds almost every expectation it spends the first part of the film carefully building: the Kotov family’s bliss seems over-the-top, and the viewer eventually realizes this is strictly intentional, not merely as a plot device to set up the house of cards before it crumbles, but to suggest how illusory most of that bliss actually was (as in: ignorance is). The story also explores the tension inherent in one person’s contentment (particularly if that person is powerful) and how it can often be at the expense of someone else’s (particularly if that person is powerless). In a classic scene Mitia relates his decade in the service of the state that he had no choice but to sacrifice and tells the story as a thinly-veiled fairy tale. We see, as he speaks and acknowledgment slowly registers on the listeners’ faces, that the Kotov’s contentment is not only quite complicated, but more than a little revolting.

Like most masterful movies, Burnt By The Sun can be appreciated for its succession of unforgettable scenes: Kotov explaining war and peace to his young daughter by admiring her soft and unscarred feet; Mitia correcting his servant’s pronunciation while carefully loading his pistol; the peasant driving in circles all day, looking for a town that never existed; Mitia playing the piano while wearing a gas mask—and the moment he locks eyes with Kotov across the room: a short and subtle exchange that shifts the entire momentum of the movie; Mitia standing fully clothed in the creek, reciting (in broken English) from Hamlet…these are all astonishing gifts that can be savored again and again. At the beginning of the movie a song is performed in a public square while Kotov and his wife dance in the snow; at the end the song is whistled by Mitia as he sinks into a warm bathtub: in a little over two hours we’ve seen the story of these lives played out, encapsulating the joy, hope, dismay and dread we know haunted an entire country.

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