Issue 26 (2009)
Zulfiqor Musakov: The House under the Curved Moon (Oy Ostidagi Hovli, 2009)
reviewed by David MacFadyen © 2009
“Sometimes it seems to me that we’re living in a diabolical age. People nowadays – especially young people – have lost all notion of prohibition. They can do whatever they want.” (Musakov in Gellar)
At the beginning of September 2009, Moscow played host to fourteen feature-length movies from all around the erstwhile territories of the Soviet Union. Together they constituted an event that the Russian capital showcased the 13th Forum of National Cinematographies. Despite the wide range of cultures, languages, and customs on display, members of the local press perceived several unifying factors between the films, most often as the enduring and problematic subject of a “severed homeland.” In such narratives, directors voiced the concern that careers, families, and other fidelities were constantly held apart on either side of a strictly delineated border that had arisen—depending upon the precise context—some time in the early 1990s. A natural flow of influences and shared identities had been rudely interrupted by post-Soviet politics, leaving the heroes of numerous movies in limbo between the past and present, between the loss of a former empire and the disquieting prospects of an insecure future.
Consequently, many audience members felt that new cinema “from the republics”—purportedly an expression of dizzying sovereignty—was, in fact, infused with a manifest yearning for the past. As Moscow’s journalists looked around the Forum for a representative quote or two, Uzbek director Zulfiqor Musakov played right into their hands—unconsciously paraphrasing one of Putin’s most famous quotes about the demise of the Soviet Union: “Anyone devoid of nostalgia for the USSR clearly has no heart. Anyone who’d like to resurrect it, though, patently has no brains” (“Forum…”).
The particular story in which Musakov’s sympathies had found direct visual expression at the festival was The House under the Curved Moon. This new feature-length movie was officially summarized as follows—again in ways that clearly emphasize the post-Soviet binarisms perceived by Moscow’s critics.
The film concerns a man who was born in Uzbekistan and then spent the first thirty years of his life there. Subsequently, however (and against his will), he had moved to Moscow. Many years later [i.e., now] he returns with his aging mother, both in order to visit his father’s grave and see childhood friends in the Uzbek capital. Places he has known all his life bring back not only moments of happiness, but melancholy, too. The fundamental conclusion he reaches is that whatever the color of our skin, the shape of our eyes, or political efforts designed to create friction between neighboring nations, we’re all people of the same blood group. We’re all people of the same convictions and ethos.
Several months before, at the 12th edition of the Forum held in conjunction with a Film School at Belye Stolby, similar impressions had been left by new Central Asian cinema, such that one Moscow reporter synthesized the common ground between them in almost identical terms. “Apparently, the theme of relationships between people of different nationalities remains one of the most troubling topics [for today’s cinema in Uzbekistan]. It seems fair to say that whenever Uzbek directors ponder such affairs, the basic conclusion reached is that ‘We Need One Another.’” In search of that cherished potential for (re)unification, either metaphorically or literally, Asian filmmakers were purportedly trying to persuade themselves that “all feelings of insult, conflict, or misunderstanding are transitory. True, heartfelt intimacy, however, will last forever” (Semashko). In a word, Central Asian filmmaking had become a process of consolation, at least from a Moscow standpoint. Are such allegations reasonable when applied to The House under the Curved Moon, especially since the film was showcased at the very festivals that provoked this Muscovite essentialism?
Prior to any complicated northern receptions, Musakov had spoken to the official Uzbek press in greater detail and defined the fundamental structure of his film less in terms of stubborn (or traumatic) emphases, than through the absence of a disagreeable fashion. More specifically, The House under the Curved Moon was promoted in Uzbekistan as a film that deliberately avoids casting “a handsome pop star or some one-hit-wonder [in the starring role]. The movie does not go for the ‘big bucks,’ as people say. It’s a very quiet story of two people who meet by chance in the midst of our difficult lives. It’s simply the story of a man and a woman. It’s all about Tashkent, too—about the generation of locals who are already somewhere around forty or fifty years old” (“Novyi fil’m”).
Musakov’s account of these unassuming individuals begins in Moscow, right beside the life-size bronze statue of Soviet actor Evgenii Leonov, striking a famous pose from his classic comedy of errors, The Gentlemen of Fortune (Dzhentel’meny udachi, 1971). The relevance here is not accidental, in that Leonov’s knockabout humor revolves around a series of false identities and criminal misconceptions, shuttling back and forth between the Russian capital and Central Asia. Musakov returns us to this well-loved tradition on several occasions—to the past—and not just in The House under the Curved Moon. This same sense of circling regularity has been actively cultivated by the director elsewhere. Stories of generational loss—of some “criminal” failure between family members and distant lands—have become something of an idée fixe for Musakov. Several years ago I discussed his domestically successful youth film, Boys in the Sky,and a subsequent reexamination of the same characters in a “redone” sequel (MacFadyen), in terms of tales of entering a social entity, only to be threatened with its loss; the same is true of The House under the Curved Moon. While making his newest variation on this aging theme, Musakov claimed in another interview that when the Soviet Union fell apart, people of his generation had simultaneously “lost faith in all of mankind.” The risks of interaction that might lead to various forms of manipulation, abuse, or even violence, had led people—not to mention neighboring cultures—to circumvent one another, time after time. Systems of care and support therefore needed to be reconstructed, one tiny unit at a time.
Here again, one might argue, the director is revisiting familiar aspects of prior decades, in fact of his own youth. After all, if we normally associate such incipient microcosms of social promise (brothers, sisters, or young families) as the sine qua non of filmmaking after Stalin’s death, then here they play an analogous, though less optimistic role. Stories of children and young people during the Thaw nervously tested the waters of a new social landscape—and they did so with hope. Today, that same hope is absent for Musakov: the social landscape is allegedly worsening. It is being slowly depopulated as the metaphorical distance between his detached and “disengaged” characters increases.
In that regard, it is instructive to remember that Musakov’s passion for moviemaking—the very reason he would even want to tell a story—can be traced back to the year 1973, when Aleksei German was filming part of his motion picture Twenty Days without War (Dvadtsat’ dnei bez voiny) in Tashkent. There are clear parallels between the disconsolate viewpoints of German’s film—set during the social destruction of WWII—and Musakov’s analysis of equal depredation in the same town fifty years later. The non-relationship between Liudmila Gurchenko and Iurii Nikulin from Twenty Days can be transposed to the equally tight-lipped and anxious couple at the heart of The House under the Curved Moon. Legend has it, in fact, that somewhere in Twenty Days, a young Musakov falls into the frame for a few seconds, since he often skipped school in order to watch the activities on German’s set. Having literally entered the world of one dream, he is now trying frantically to reverse the flow of significance—and export ostensible social consequences from the virtual world of celluloid to the streets of his hometown.
All manner of painful “disconnects” are posited throughout The House under the Curved Moon; bumps and bruises are accrued in the rough and tumble of public realms where social bonds once stood firm, but have now been severed. Musakov’s feature is jam-packed with laments for the demise of unity, be it private or public. His preferred metaphors of coherence include the (long-lost) wizardry of Soviet football, today’s inexcusable ignorance of Soviet filmmaking, scant respect for one’s children (who now suffer domestic violence), and the dishonoring of one’s elders (whose anniversaries are now forgotten). Nothing symbolizes the tattered remains of the “Peoples’ Friendship” better than the low-grade plov served up in a disparaging Moscow restaurant for Musakov’s protagonist, Viktor. When he asks how such slop can be passed off as “genuine” Uzbek cuisine, a waiter informs Viktor that nobody really cares about recipes that “Darkies” (chernye) use at home.
And so Viktor changes his home address – by flying off to Uzbekistan and the recognizable streets of his childhood. To view this trip home as defeat of any kind after years in the Big City would be humiliating. Immediately upon his arrival, therefore, he denies the importance of his Asian past: “I came because of my mother,” he says. “I don’t need all this nostalgia.” Likewise, he also rejects the notion that Tashkent could offer him anything in the future: “Why do I need to worry about tomorrow [here, in Uzbekistan], when I’m flying away tomorrow?” In the director’s mind, Viktor is a broken soul, since his evinces no sense of tradition in his life, neither privately or publicly.
Feeling, in time, an inkling of enthusiasm for a cheap local automobile, unfamiliar in the north, Viktor gets behind the wheel and puts the pedal to the floor. He begins speeding along under the dual influence of both alcohol and some begrudgingly recalled memories. Sadly, though, between him and the open road of a figurative future stands an Uzbek pensioner. Viktor runs him down in a tragic accident and here Musakov establishes one of the film’s core tensions. The old man’s rapid descent into infirmity offers Viktor the chance for salvation—an authentic opportunity to break his ties with a loutish northern materialism and replace them with a local, humbler equivalent. After all, Viktor’s relative affluence means little in Tashkent. He is informed that his victim would never accept any financial “compensation,” since he is—and remains—“an eternal communist.”
While prayers are said for Viktor in an Orthodox church, it transpires that the pensioner’s daughter is a teacher of Russian language and literature. A Central Asian ethos, Russian Orthodoxy, and the hallowed texts of the Soviet intelligentsia all tumble happily into the same domain as mutually consoling bed-partners. These collective harmonies are granted a special soundtrack: The Beatles’ “Julia” plays on several occasions during The House under the Curved Moon. It has a special significance in the context of Musakov’s screenplay. The song was written by John Lennon in honor of his mother, who was herself killed in a hit-and-run accident—while he was still a teenager. Lennon’s comforting bond with a sphere beyond the trauma of physical loss was composed during the band’s well-intentioned (and philosophically asinine) journey to India in 1968. By linking a tragedy on the banks of the Mersey to the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, “Julia” became a jumble of unrelated elements, and therefore suffered accusations of shallow self-analysis upon its release. These critiques arose in the late ‘60s because “Julia” also includes references to Lebanese verse and celebratory, New Age phrases in honor of Lennon’s Japanese wife as a pan-global “Oceanchild.” A similar groaning sound resonates through Musakov’s tale as incongruent traditions are yanked together—all in the name of private therapy. A traumatic experience produces an occasionally frantic search for terra firma.
These assorted strains (and straining noises) come together into our Asian elder, who claims—at his advanced stage in his life—to be living purely for the sake of his granddaughter. When she marries, his job will be done and he can happily slip into history. Although—over a bottle of standard issue vodka—he claims “to have been nothing like a Hero of the USSR” in his behavior, he does emerge, in his own words, as a man of “great marital fidelity. Someone who does not hit his wife.” This sense of moral constancy is underscored, in no uncertain terms, by some frames taken wholesale from Feliks Mironer’s and Marlen Khutsiev’s classic, Springtime on Riverside Street (Vesna na Zarechnoi ulitse, 1956). One scene lingers before us on a TV screen for several seconds—and for good reason. This, too, is the tale of a Russian language and literature teacher who lives mournfully “apart” from a latent state of social inclusion. Only when she goes to teach at a distant, dirty Ukrainian smelting plant does she really understand what bonds the Soviet people, both in their workplace millions and in smaller, compassionate units, behind every dining table or in every bedroom. This state of durable, “well-forged” bondage is what our Uzbek elder represents. Despite his modesty, he is very much a Hero of the USSR… and he wants Viktor to marry his granddaughter.
This opportunity for true love, however, is not to be, due to the foibles and failings of both Viktor and the (relatively) young schoolteacher, whose name is Giuli (i.e., “Julie”). This supplementary, obvious reference back to Liverpool conjures a couple of awkward parallels. Viktor—in the role of Lennon, so to speak—lost all connection to his “Motherland” while still young and full of promise. He was crudely orphaned. Musakov’s choice of music, designed to frame a tiny, latent potential that might still transpire, emphasizes that he wants Viktor to fix things by marrying Giuli—in other words, by walking down the aisle with his lost mother. The director is having trouble with his Ouija board: trying to channel John Lennon, he instead gets Norman Bates.
In an interview Musakov was asked about his impressions of Moscow, since corporate and/or material misery emerges as a primary focus in several of his features. He described the Russian capital in unflattering terms, claiming—once again—that post-Soviet cash in particular has spoiled all semblance of human decency. “In Moscow, more than anywhere else nowadays, you feel your helplessness. It’s a place where nobody claims to need anyone else. There’s nothing more than a no-holds-barred, horrendous fight for survival. It destroys anything human. Countless lives have been ruined.” Including Musakov’s, it would seem. In the same discussion, he claimed that Moscow film studios offer no chance for “outside” directors to promote or fund themselves fairly. These injustices find expression in his “pathetic” Uzbek budgets and aging cameras. As a result, Musakov is forced to use old-fashioned, second-grade apparatus. We, the viewers, will never know what he could achieve “with the resources of Spielberg” (“Chelovek”).
In this and related observations, the director’s purported nostalgia for the ethical wonders of socialist society starts sounding more like sour grapes. These are the final words of regret—and not the declarations of moral rectitude. His nostalgia begins to approximate the rhetoric of retreat, back to “Julia” (aka Rodina-Mat’). Both Viktor’s and Musakov’s return to the Motherland, as a result, bear more of a resemblance to a return to the womb. Any analyst worth their salt will tell you that comparable dreams result from trauma at the stage of development when a baby is unable to differentiate itself from the mother and thus become a separate subject. Entrapment in this stage, endlessly willing oneself backwards, is less of a “homecoming” than a small, vicious circle of unrealizable solace.
Musakov, as we saw at the outset, recently echoed the words of Vladimir Putin, consciously or otherwise. In the same cantankerous spirit, The House under the Curved Moon is a film that lambastes Russia’s experience of the 1990s as utterly ruinous for both social and diplomatic relations; Putin has (on many occasions) used the same decade as a whipping boy whenever talk turns to today’s failures. This, supposedly, was a moment in time when policy makers and businessmen were more than happy to “enter into deals with terrorists, to do business with the murderers of our children and women. In the most unconscionable and cynical manner possible, they got rich on the fates of their victims.” Some of the market’s lesser victims, it would seem, have now thrown in the towel and gone to their corner to grumble.
A few months ago in the Uzbek press, an individual sympathetic to Musakov’s tirade saw The House under the Curved Moon in the cinema and immediately penned a brief editorial, asking modern society “not to bury us alive. There are so few of us left. So few people who still remember Springtime on Riverside Street” (“Vot takoe…”). The editorial becomes an obituary for the spirit of socialist culture under Khrushchev and Brezhnev. These same times—replete with a potential now squandered—were well documented last year in Vitalii Pavlov’s biopic of Brezhnev’s daughter, Galina. Pavlov’s epic begins with our heroine in a state of active reminiscing during the 1990s. She, too, looks back fondly at the 1970s—from a mental home. Convinced that she could (or should) have been “Princess Diana,” Galina Leonidovna Brezhneva spends the next 416 minutes rocking back and forth on a footstool, saying the same thing over and over. For the entire film she sits immobile, retelling and re-imagining the ragged past in tight little loops of consoling neatness.
Galina Brezhneva’s dream soon came true. She was buried right next to her mother.
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Pavlenko, Anastasiia, “Chelovek, ne teriaiushchii litsa,” Proza.ru (10 February 2008)
“Forum natsional’nykh kinematografii: kino rodom iz SSSR,” ProfiCinema (11 September 2009)
Malkina, Tat’iana, “I Putin takoi molodoi, i iiunyi Dekabr’ vperedi,” Vremia novostei, (22 November 2007)
“Novyi fil’m ot Zul’fikara Musakova,” Gazeta.uz (8 August 2008)
Gellar (sic), Aleksandr, “Pechal’ vostochnogo dvora,” (interview with Musakov) Press.Uz (22 May 2009)
Semashko, Tat’iana, “V Belykh stolbakh sostoialsia XII Forum natsional’nykh kinematografii,” Soiuznoe vechе, (16 December 2008)
Geller, Aleksandr, “Vot takoe sovetskoe kino,” Gazeta.Uz (6 February 2009)
MacFadyen, David, “Zulfiqor Musakov: Boys in the Sky 2 (Mal'chiki v nebe 2 / Osmondagi bolalar 2),” KinoKultura 12 (April 2006)
The House under the Curved Moon (Russian title: Vostochnyi dvor s krivoi lunoi), Uzbekistan 2009
Color, 90 min
Director: Zulfiqor Musakov
Screenplay: Zulfiqor Musakov
Editing: O’lmasxon Temirova
Sound Editing: Furqat Hasanov, Bahrom Rajabov
Cinematography: Abdurakhim Ismailov
Music: Aleksei Poliakov
Cast: Sergei Genkin, Rano Shodiyeva, Dias Rakhmatov, Eleonora Dmitreeva, Karim Mirkhodiev, Toti Iusupova
Producer: Sadriddin Ziyo
Zulfiqor Musakov: The House under the Curved Moon (Oy Ostidagi Hovli, 2009)
reviewed by David MacFadyen © 2009