Issue 25 (2009)
Andrei Khrzhanovskii: A Room and a Half (Poltory komnaty, 2008)
reviewed by David MacFadyen © 2009
Since the untimely death of poet Joseph Brodsky in 1996, interpretations of his work in Russia have tended towards two extremes; we might define this graceless immoderation as either “active” in temperament or woefully “passive.” In other words, the former inclination stubbornly positions the poet as some champion of countless subversive scribblers, all of whom labored away with tight-lipped earnestness under a dictatorial regime. The other tendency, displaying equal revisionist vigor, insists that Brodsky suffered for years in American exile, weeping quietly over well-thumbed photographs of Leningrad. This propensity towards things maudlin—the more evident of the two cliches in today’s Russian media —has always centered around one particular text from early in the poet’s career (1962), stating that he would one day return to die on Leningrad’s Vasil’evskii Island. Even now it takes little effort to find schmaltzy sung versions of the poem online.
Neither of these unrelenting stances bears much, if any, resemblance to the worldview that was slowly developed over several decades in versified forms by the man himself. When it was announced, therefore, that a Russian biopic was to be based upon Brodsky’s post-exile essay, “In a Room and a Half” (1985), a general feeling of unease arose. The essay in question is (on occasion) an uncharacteristically sentimental exercise, looking back at his childhood on Liteinyi Prospekt in a patently awful communal apartment. Since it was written thirteen years after its author had been ejected from the Soviet Union with great speed, that awfulness had long been overshadowed by Brodsky’s double sense of loss: he was saddened both by his parents’ inability to visit and by their subsequent death. A powerful symbol of his bereavement was provided by Mother Nature. A couple of crows that regularly visited his Massachusetts residence seemed at the time to be the spirits of his mother and father, watching with curiosity as Joseph remade their life together in written forms.
Handling this personal narrative with tact would be difficult, so a collective sigh of relief was audible once news emerged that the directorial role would be filled by famed Soviet animator Andrei Khrzhanovskii, building upon his charming short, A Cat and a Half (Poltora kota, 2002). Khrzhanovskii comes down neither on the active nor the passive side of recent mythmaking for two reasons. Firstly, the feature, for all its inventiveness and multimedia whimsy, stays very close to the original text, just as A Cat and a Half had done; this longer, two-hour visual work, despite its overriding impression of silence, is nonetheless chockablock with literary references, be they direct quotes or knowing nods and winks in the direction of other essays and poems. The other way in which the director avoids both crude politics and Kleenex is through an unvarying focus upon the familial scale of this story. He does not use Brodsky to make wide-ranging, unjustifiable observations about the “Jewish experience” (especially from a poet who referred to himself as a non-committal, and therefore “bad Jew”); nor does he spend much time outside the famed room and a half to pan lovingly (i.e., deludingly) over soggy laundry and flaccid cabbage, as we recently saw in Valerii Todorovskii’s film Hipsters (Stiliagi, 2009), a musical paeon to spotty boys of the same generation.
This wise avoidance of forgetful, flattering wistfulness or imaginary tales of some “progressively-minded poet” means that core themes of Brodsky’s writing come neatly to the fore. Uppermost in the film’s attention is the subject of time: not a decade, or even an age, but Chronos, pure and simple. This broadening of our purview is managed as follows. The film begins with Brodsky, played by Grigorii Ditiatkovskii, calling his parents’ kommunalka from New York, but nobody answers; the place has long been vacated and stripped of all decoration. Scraps of dusty fabric flap in open windows. And so the film’s central purpose is established: we will accompany Brodsky—maybe literally, maybe in his imagination – across the waters of the Atlantic in order to revisit Leningrad/St Petersburg for the first time since his exile three decades prior. As Brodsky was fond of telling us in both poetry and prose, water is the embodiment of time’s wayward movement, and so the film’s roving structure will be dictated by a man simultaneously recalling the past and imagining the (near) future whilst he drifts across a boundless ocean. Any sense of purposeful, pragmatic storytelling will soon evanesce.
What results over 130 minutes is the portrait of a young man reading, writing, and unhurriedly adopting an aesthetic outlook that would eventually reject the importance of goal-driven or forward-looking philosophies. The very need for poetry to be wilfully unique and deliberately pointless (i.e., not “useful” in a quotidian sense), all in avoidance of life’s one-way passage towards physical demise, led Brodsky to champion the philosophical stance of what he once called “nomadism.” To quote one of his later essays, if you don’t stay mentally, philosophically, and aesthetically nimble, cruder forms of thought (such as politics!) will make you a “sitting duck.” Khrzhanovskii captures this nimbleness perfectly, not only with crisscrossing, looping chronologies, but also with a dazzling array of filmic modes: standard, “realist” footage, false news reels, sepia stock, modern actors subsumed into archival frames, and—of course— animated photographs and doodles from the poet’s own archive.
The lines between fact and fiction, documentary (co-)presence and spatio-temporal distance are gradually blurred in order to show what thirty years in another language and culture can do to one’s (stable) sense of self. Linear narratives dissolve into the same fluid or “liquid” forms as Brodsky’s verse, which adopted increasingly frequent motifs of devolution as the author himself was aging and ailing. These humbling images of fish, molluscs, octopi, and other salty monsters punctuated a slow, versified descent into formlessness that led to his melancholy love affair with Venice in later life. The austere classical emergence of Leningrad from the flat shores of the Baltic would gradually become the final, nomadic twists and turns of small Venetian houses as they quietly sunk back into the water, inch by inch, year after inexorable year.
A Room and a Half, then, is a movie designed to turn linear narratives into networks, and networks into nothingness. Khrzhanovskii, en route to fulfilling that intention, is keen to remove his subject from any pedestals of a proud, if not elitist intelligentsia. The director goes to great effort in order to show Brodsky, especially as a young man, as more (attractively!) flawed than we would usually expect from fawning biographers. One of the most convincing and appealing tools used in this social leveling is music. Young Joseph, for example, is heard declaring that Vasilii Lebedev-Kumach is the Soviet Union’s greatest composer, not Dmitrii Shostakovich, whom he and his father encounter by chance in a cheap café; Leonid Utesov’s “Chance Waltz” (Sluchainyi val’s) is heard several times in the background; and the romantic ditty “Lili Marleen” is sung en masse by cast members. Brodsky did actually translate that song; as a melody popular among all soldiers during WWII, irrespective of citizenship or credo, it remains a fine expression, once again, of Khrzhanovskii’s desire to lower Brodsky into the aimless workings of normalcy and thus, paradoxically, make him a writer of greater significance, a least in the quantitative sense. Both the oceanic and class-specific metaphors of this film therefore work to similar ends, muddling tunes for the Elite (Aleksandr Vertinskii) with those for the Everyman (Arkadii Raikin). We hear them both, resonating in pre-Revolutionary nightclubs and from Soviet televisions.
The Utesov song reappears in one of the film’s two genuinely surreal moments. The first occurs when we observe Brodsky (the man himself) in an overseas restaurant, losing all claims to cultural authority with a horrific karaoke version of “Dark Eyes” (Ochi chernye) broadcast through cheap amplifiers. This comes in the second half of the movie, during which we start to hear the poet’s real voice on the soundtrack more and more; Khrzhanovskii’s efforts are quietly dovetailed with actuality, first audibly and then visually (since for the poet, sound both conditions and creates that actuality). Suddenly, we notice many of Brodsky’s real-life friends sitting around a table having dinner with the actor, pretending that the poet is alive. That table is large; its dimensions mean that many of the assembled figures, such as Iakov Gordin, Evgenii Rein, Vladimir Ufliand, and Mikhail Eremin, are all busy with their own chit-chat. Against that documentary backdrop, Ditiatkovskii continues acting, singing, and joking with Rein. The desire of these men to have a friend back is remarkable, yet somewhat troubling at the same time.
If that dinner scene embodies the one moment where fiction is pushed deepest into the fabric of fact, the reverse occurs in a brief subplot involving Anna Akhmatova. When Brodsky was arrested and tried for social “parasitism” in 1964, Akhmatova—herself the victim of infinitely worse injustices—quipped that the Soviets were fashioning him an almost enviable biography: that of a youthful, good-looking poet sent to the barren wastelands of a northern nation. (There were good reasons why some of Brodsky’s poems written during that same exile were ego-stroking variations upon Byron…) We watch the poet being harassed by some KGB functionaries before the court case; whilst rifling through his papers, they begin asking him sarcastic and now-famous questions about his supposed “gift” as a poet. (Those questions were, in reality, asked a little later, once the trial had started.) As Brodsky starts to answer them—in equally renowned terms relating to “a gift from God”—Akhmatova jolts us from the engaging narrative with an aside to the camera. Both the director and we (as viewers) are told “not to hurry things.”
Not only does this stop us from succumbing to excessively sentimental involvement, it also inhibits any directorial desire to force events into the tidy, familiar, and yet bogus constraints of “Byronic” pathos. Rather than hand off his film to the well-known and overly politicized melodrama of a trial or exile, followed by moral vindication and a triumphant return home, Khrzhanovskii—through Akhmatova’s sage wisecrack—requires that we remain in the measured, meandering networks of something bigger than one decade or one political system. Thus our attention remains focused on a grander, if not “oceanic” chronotope.
Finally Brodsky does reach the shores of modern St Petersburg and we observe him—in imagined footage—walking the moneyed streets of a very different city. After a tour of familiar locations, he finds his parents in the same “room and a half.” This jars somewhat with the information that we have from earlier scenes, in that the entire film—as noted—begins with the same living space shown as empty. How is it now occupied? Matters are soon explained. After a few minutes, the poet expresses surprise at his mother’s insistence that he, too, has died. How else, she reasons, could he be talking to them? All of a sudden, the film’s logic suggests that everything we’ve observed over the last two hours has—surely!—occurred after Brodsky’s heart attack. This is no homecoming, but—as with Venice—a slow return into the same faceless dimensions from which he and his hometown once arose: a return to the chilly arms of Chronos, to water, or its frozen forms of the Northern Venice.
And indeed, as the credits roll, a boyish figure returns from earlier episodes to walk out across the frozen Neva, stopping to greet an ice-fisherman who is waiting to outfox “devolved” forms of life in the watery nothingness beneath his collapsable stool. In a similar trajectory, the boy then grows smaller still, walking away from us as the entire screen fades to white. Everything devolves or dissolves. Utesov’s music replaces the sounds of a city and another audible, natural circle is scribed by a nationally-loved waltz.
Khrzhanovskii’s wonderful film, increasing the length and scale of A Cat and a Half, deftly removes Joseph Brodsky from his crude and contrasting roles in post-Soviet culture as either political champion or mawkish martyr. Through a striking patchwork of fact and fiction, live footage and animation, one man and his verse are disallowed any “purposeful,” or well-intentioned direction. They are, instead, slowly dissolved into the same, limitless dimensions to which Brodsky dedicated decades of poetry.
As a little, well-dressed dot vanishes across the ice in the film’s dying seconds, a line from Brodsky’s Watermark comes to mind, wherein he explains why the smell of seaweed always made him happy, especially in Venice. “It’s a molecular affair, and happiness, I suppose, is the moment of spotting the elements of your own composition being set free…” The boyish frame on screen grows so small that it breaks up into indistinct pixels.
A Happy Ending.
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A Room and a Half, Russia, 2008
Color/B&W, 130 minutes
Director: Andrei Khrzhanovskii
Screenplay: Iurii Arabov, Andrei Khrzhanovskii
Producers: Andrei Khrzhanovskii, Artem Vasil’ev
Cinematography: Vladimir Bryliakov, Valentin Sveshnikov
Cast: Alisa Freindlikh, Sergei Iurskii, Grigorii Ditiatkovskii, Svetlana Kriuchkova, Aleksei Devotchenko, Sergei Dreiden, Evgenii Ogandzhanian, Artem Smola
Production: Shar Studio
Andrei Khrzhanovskii: A Room and a Half (Poltory komnaty, 2008)
reviewed by David MacFadyen © 2009