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The Childhood of Maxim Gorky (1938)

“You’ll have a hard life, but don’t surrender to anyone.”

The Childhood of Maxim Gorky (Detstvo Gorkogo) was released in 1938, Gorky (whose real name was Peshkov), the man on whose life (and books) the film is based died two years earlier. The Childhood of Maxim Gorky is the first of a trilogy (the other two titles are My Apprenticeships, & My Universities) all directed by Mark Donskoi and adapted from Gorky’s autobiography. These three films are all from Russico, and apparently all three were available at one time with English subtitles, but so far I’ve only been able to find the other two films in Russian only. 

The film is set in the 19th century and begins with the arrival of Aleksei Peshkov (Aleksei Lyarsky) and his mother by boat to join his mother’s family. Although it’s not expressed, the idea is present that Aleksei and his mother Varvara Peshkova (Yelizaveta Alekseyeva) have returned to her family due to harsh necessity. It seems that Aleksei’s father was not popular with Varvara’s irascible contentious father, Vasili Kashrin (Mikhail Troyanovsky), but Aleksei’s father is now dead. Structurally, the film follows Aleksei’s early life concentrating on the people and incidents that influenced him.

Varvara and her son Aleksei return to a viper’s nest. The problems within the family are glaringly apparent, and most of the squabbles arise over the question of inheritance and how the family dye business will be divvied up among the three children. Aleksei’s two uncles engage in endless battles of recrimination, but they shelve their quarrels for the most part in the presence of their domineering father. The uncles, Mishka and Yashka (Aleksandr  Zhukov & Vasili Novikov) are unpleasant and stupid, and according to the grandfather, when they inherit they “will squander everything on drink.” Given the few scenes involving the uncles, there’s not much reason to argue with the grandfather’s assessment, and in some ways this pathological family situation is very stereotypical. The grandmother (Varvara Massalitinova) is viewed as indulgent, excusing her sons’ behaviour and pestering the grandfather to share the inheritance while he is still alive (reminds me of Zola’s The Earth), and of course, the grandfather reacts by arguing that his wife coddles the sons and has made them into loafers. Basically the family members are at each other’s throats for a battle over the limited resources.

The film shows Aleksei’s relationship with two of his grandfather’s workers: the nearly blind Gregori (K. Zubkov): a good man who’s worked for the grandfather for 37 years. Being in close contact with the dyes has caused Gregori to lose his sight, but there’s no sense of obligation felt by the grandfather towards the man who’s served him for almost four decades. Another huge influence on Aleksei is the Ivan the Gyspy (Daniil Sagal): an employee, a kind, vigorous young man whose zest for life is squashed by Aleksei’s revolting uncles. The grandfather regrets the Gyspy’s death as he would have been “priceless in 5 years.”

A major influence on Aleksei is his wonderful grandmother, an avid storyteller, a woman who loves her home and her family and suffers mistreatment & beatings from her husband. The grandmother is obviously the glue that holds the family together, but when adversity strikes, even she cannot fix the situation, and Aleksei lives with his grandparents, moving and sinking farther and farther into poverty.

Living with his grandparents, but left more to less to his own devices, Aleksei learns to scavenge to earn enough kopecks for food. As their fortunes decline, Aleksei’s grandfather, who is apparently not the most stable of men, vacillates between petty childish tantrums and vicious attacks on his family.

A lodger (S. Tikhonravov) becomes another tremendous shaping influence on Aleksei. Through the lodger, who’s a revolutionary, Aleksei learns that “a man with learning can be anything he likes.”

Various animals appear throughout the film, and clearly they have an important role in Gorky’s life. The film includes moments of whimsy in its depiction of Aleksei running wild in the streets and fields with a band of equally wretched boys (see the DVD cover). But underneath these sentimental touches, there’s the clear message that all these poor people have are their bodies and their ability to labour. There is no social structure to buoy up the blind, the elderly, or the infirm, and those who cannot work must beg for a living or starve. The grandfather recalls how he pulled barges for a living, but in the grandfather’s case, adversity makes him meaner and less likely to share a crust of bread with a passing beggar. The film does not touch on the upper classes but stays firmly with the peasants.

Gorky, a founder of Socialist Realism, is a problematic figure in the history of Russian literature. I don’t want to spend a great deal of time on Gorky’s politics–although it seems impossible to review the film and not mention Gorky’s position in both Tsarist Russia and Stalin’s Soviet Union. At first a supporter of the Revolution, Gorky became disillusioned, as many did, with the outrages of the Bolsheviks. Censored under the Tsar, Gorky found himself censored under the Bolsheviks too. Gorky lived abroad for some years but then returned to the Soviet Union at the personal invitation of Stalin. There are photos of Gorky and Stalin together, and I know I wouldn’t want my mug to go down in history next to Stalin’s.  Gorky was given a mansion and a dacha by Stalin, but by 1934 he was back under house arrest. I’ll admit that one of the reasons I didn’t watch the film earlier is because I connect Gorky with Stalinist propaganda. Gorky knew what was happening in the Soviet Union; he knew that writers, such as Gumilyov were being executed, so Gorky didn’t even have the excuse of ignorance when he returned and effectively endorsed the Stalinist regime. No matter what Gorky’s motives were in returning to Stalinist Russia, his legacy to Russian literature suffered as a result. Many Russian emigre writers suffered in exile and many poets and writers were slaughtered in Stalinist times. My sympathies are with them.

At the same time, to wipe out The Childhood of Maxim Gorky as pure propaganda seems nonsensical. This was Gorky’s childhood, and his childhood mirrored the lives of millions of Russians who depended on their health and their strength to eke out a living. The quantification of humans into the volume of labour they can produce is horrifying (makes me think of factory farming). Watching the film brings to the fore the tremendous waste of human potential under such a system. And of course that brings us back to the idea of revolution….

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Poison Friends (2006)

 “Why do some people write?”

Poison Friends concerns a group of young French university students who are, to various degrees or another, impressed, awed, influenced and duped by the charismatic, intelligent and domineering Andre Morney (Thibault Vincon). The film begins in a large lecture hall in a literature class led by Professor Mortier (Jacques Bonaffe). As with all classes, many personality types are enrolled, but on the very first day, Andre Morney sticks out. Professor Mortier asks for a volunteer to conduct a presentation, and Morney leaps to the podium without hesitation. Confident, domineering, brash, and egotistical, he manages to make all the other students in his immediate circle feel somehow inferior. No matter the situation, Morney always manages to set himself up as the judge, the superior, the more experienced.

poison friendsMorney’s attitude works in several ways on his crowd of friends. He convinces one friend to become an actor, and in this situation, Morney’s confidence seems to work like osmosis for Alexandre (Alexandre Steiger). The graduate students in Morney’s circle are all working on papers, and several of them have literary ambitions including Eloi Duhaut (Malik Zidi), the son of a famous novelist (Dominque Blanc). If Morney even sniffs that one of his friends has literary ambitions, then this just becomes an excuse to belittle and humiliate the would-be writer. Morney’s favourite lecture–which he doesn’t hesitate to give to his friends–is to castigate those who have literary ambitions. To him the question ‘why we write’ is followed by the answer because we are ‘weak.’

Most of us have known some manifestation of a Morney character in our lives. If we are lucky, they are unmasked before they can do much damage to themselves or to their circle of friends. The Morneys of this world can be dangerous figures or just sad. In Poison Friends, Morney is depicted as a character who thrives in academia where his BS is largely undetected until it’s time to actually produce. The film’s setting is therefore perfect for this tale. We are able to see Morney’s manipulations and his pathological need to always assert his superiority–even when the evidence screams otherwise. In French with subtitles, Poison Friends is directed by Emmanuel Bourdieu.

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The Dying Gaul (2005)

“I’m not asking you to jettison any of your principles.”

Struggling screenwriter, Robert Sandrich (Peter Sarsgaard) writes a screenplay called The Dying Gaul. Based on autobiographical events, it concerns the relationship between two gay men. Hollywood executive Jeffrey Tishop (Campbell Scott) offers the desperate and emotionally fragile Robert a million dollars for the screenplay–BUT–Robert must agree to change the two main characters to a heterosexual couple. This presents a dilemma for Robert–he really needs the money; he’s trying to support an ex-wife and a child, but since the play is based on his relationship with his now deceased lover, Robert feels that altering the story from its focus on a gay relationship will be betraying his dead lover and what they once shared.

From director/writer Craig Lucas, The Dying Gaul is full of twists and turns. Part thriller, part mystery, the film is never boring, but the story isn’t pleasant, and some of the twists are less-than-believable. The film explores the bizarre triangle that forms around Robert, Jeffrey and his wife Elaine (Patricia Clarkson)–a former screenplay writer who now lolls around the pool all day long. Sympathies shift as characters reveal their nasty sides, and just who is pulling the strings here isn’t always evident. The film’s beginning is extremely strong, and there’s something not quite nice about the manner in which Jeffrey manipulates Robert into abandoning his principles. Jeffrey espouses a morally bleak position, and then begins to seduce Robert into it–after all, Jeffrey argues, no one goes to see a film “to learn anything.” Peter Sarsgaard, who seems to delight in taking difficult roles, delivers a fantastic performance. Is he a victim, a user, or a catalyst for disaster? Well watch the film (along with the alternate ending) and decide for yourself.

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Kings and Queen (2004)

“There are four men I loved. I killed two of them.”

Nora (Emmanuelle Devos) is a divorced, successful Parisian art gallery owner. When the film Kings and Queen (Rois et Reine) begins, she embarks on the journey to see her father–a famous writer–in the country. The men in Nora’s life make a great fuss of her as she departs. There’s her rich fiance, and her assistant who both see her off with a certain ceremony and fussiness. Once at her father’s, it’s apparent that all is not well. He complains of stomach pains, and a trip to the hospital reveals he has cancer and just a short time to live.

At this point, Nora falls apart. Not only is she about to lose her father, but he’s also raising her small son. Nora turns to her ex–Ismael (Mathieu Amalric) who’s currently locked up in a mental hospital–and this may or may not be a bad thing as he’s also wanted by the IRS.

The film is structured–and the term is used loosely–into two sections and an epilogue. The discursive plot meanders back and forth into Nora’s past and reveals … well … a considerable amount of dirty laundry–including one long meandering sequence with her first dead husband. This sequence takes place while Nora waits in the hospital for news of her father. It’s not clear if this chat with her dead husband is a dream, or a ghostly visitation–but whatever it is–it is the first sign that the film has derailed.

While the structure-less plot is a horrible problem here, another problem with this film from director Arnaud Desplechin–is its characters. I’m comfortable with disliking characters, and as a matter of fact, unlikable characters can often make a film–or book–much more interesting. The characters in Kings and Queen however, aren’t just unlikable–they’re annoying. Nora is at first revealed as this ‘together’ gallery owner, but the big send-off by the men in her life should have been a clue that she has a tendency to unravel. And unravel she does … several times. But then none of the characters are quite how they present themselves–take Nora’s wealthy fiance, for example–she’s supposedly marrying him for stability, but he has a narcotics habit that pulls the rug out on that theory. There’s such a dichotomy between how the characters see themselves and the reality from the viewer’s point of view, that ultimately the film is self-indulgent and pretentious.

Emmanuelle Devos delivered an incredible performance in Read My Lips, and her performance here is faultless too. Kings and Queen deals with some very complicated ideas of human behaviour, and unfortunately the constant meandering and lack of structure let the film down. Somewhere in the 150 minutes of Kings and Queen, I suspect there was a decent film. In French with English subtitles.

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Nadie Conoce a Nadie (1999)

“I often have the feeling that I’m passing through my life.”

The slick stylish Spanish thriller Nobody Knows Anybody (Nadie Conoce a Nadie) is set in Seville during Holy Week in the year 2000. Newspaper crossword puzzle developer and would-be writer Simon Cardenas (Eduardo Noriega) is struggling as usual with his novel when he receives a cryptic telephone message ordering him to use the word “adversary” as an answer to an upcoming crossword clue. Since the message also contained threats, Simon does what he’s told, and he soon finds himself embroiled in a nightmarish sequence of events.

Directed by Mateo Gil, Nobody Knows Anything opens with a scene of a man stabbed to death with a crucifix through his heart, and this scene is one of the ideas that feeds the notion you are about to see some sort of horror film with religious overtones, but the plot moves away from the horror aspect into straight thriller territory. The film–which owes much of its style to American thrillers–is slickly produced, and the exotic settings of the sights and sounds of Seville help, but the preposterous plot with its huge gaps in logic and implausibility ultimately left this viewer disappointed and feeling a bit cheated by the experience.

I was intrigued at first by the film and drawn into the plot. However, once the plot and the mystery aspect became clear (and I can’t give away too much here), the film became silly and trite. There’s little character development–our hero is a flat, dull passive character, and the film’s emphasis is on the thrill aspect. A slick product that is ultimately empty and really ridiculous, this film is in Spanish with English subtitles.

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