Wednesday, November 22, 2017

A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving

I get the feeling that Charles Schulz, creator or the Peanuts comic strip and writer of the Charlie Brown television specials, didn't care much for Thanksgiving. It is a nondescript holiday with a strange history, falling on the third Thursday of November instead of on a specific date every year like Halloween and Christmas. There is a tradition linking it with the first hard winter endured by the Mayflower Puritans and the unexpected generosity of native Americans who shared their food with them. Associated with the holiday feast are the cornucopia, or "horn of plenty," and uniquely American food, like turkey, corn, cranberry sauce, pumpkin and pecan pie. Since the 1950s, television has played an prominent part in the holiday, with broadcasts of the annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in the morning and NFL football games in the afternoon.

Schulz's ambivalence toward Thanksgiving might explain why he waited until 1973 to devote a television special to the holiday, and why, unlike A Charlie Brown Christmas and It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, which have become part of our definition of Christmas and Halloween, A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving seems in comparison so slapdash and perfunctory, as if Schulz couldn't discover anything definitive to say about the holiday. It was the tenth Peanuts special, but only the third to be aired perennially. 

I was 7 years old when the very first Peanuts special, A Charlie Brown Christmas, was first aired on CBS on December 22, 1965. I've watched it every Christmas since, when I'm home in the States, that is. It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown came the following year, which is at least as familiar to me. I don't remember watching A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, probably because I was 15 when it first aired on November 22, 1973 and convinced that I had outgrown the familiar world of Peanuts. I find now, at 59, that outgrowing it would be like outgrowing the past or outdistancing life.

I was quite surprised when I discovered that, altogether there have been 45 Peanuts specials - the latest one, Happiness Is a Warm Blanket, Charlie Brown, airing in 2011. A documentary, It's Your 50th Christmas, Charlie Brown, commemorating the 50th anniversary of A Charlie Brown Christmas, was shown in 2015. Two specials were never aired, because CBS decided to let the contract lapse in 1992. ABC picked it up in 2002, and has shown the specials ever since. This year, A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving will be shown on Wednesday, November 22nd, but I won't be home to see it. I have a copy on my tablet, so I can watch it at my leisure. This is in no way a compensation for watching it on TV at home in the States, which is just one of all the other holiday rituals shared by Americans.

A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving opens with a gag that was introduced in It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown: Lucy persuades Charlie Brown to kick a football that she holds in place, despite his fears that she will pull it away at the last moment and he will fall on his back. Part of the humor of the repeated gag is, of course, that it's repetitious - that Lucy always manages to fool Charlie Brown into trying to kick the football. He knows from experience that Lucy will only pull the ball away just as he is about to kick it and he will crash to the ground. This time Lucy reasons to him: "But, Charlie Brown, it's Thanksgiving."

"What's that got to do with anything?" he asks.

"Well, one of the greatest traditions we have is the Thanksgiving Day football game. And the biggest, most important tradition of all is the kicking off of the football ... Come on, Charlie Brown. It's a big honor for you." He walks away from Lucy, with the bushes and trees in the background going bare of their leaves. He muses:

"Well, if it's that important, a person should never turn down a big honor. Maybe I should do it? Besides, she wouldn't try to trick me on a traditional holiday. I'm gonna kick that football to the moon!" Charlie Brown runs toward the football, but, as usual, Lucy pulls it away at the last moment and he flies through the air and crashes to the ground. Lucy looks pitilessly down on him.  "Isn't it peculiar, Charlie Brown," she asks, "how some traditions just slowly fade away?"

"Holidays always depress me," Charlie Brown grumbles to his little sister Sally. He is anxious to find out (and Charles Schulz is anxious to tell us) the true meaning of Thanksgiving. In A Charlie Brown Christmas, he was depressed by all of the commercialism that smothered the true meaning of Christmas. It turns out, 50 years later, that he was right, and the message of A Charlie Brown Christmas is even more relevant today.

This time, Peppermint Patty has invited herself over to "Chuck's" house for Thanksgiving dinner, except Charlie Brown is going with his parents to his grandmother's house later in the afternoon. He fails to tell her this, however, so he has to make dinner for Patty and her friends Marcie and Franklin before he leaves. Snoopy and Woodstock set up a ping-pong table in the yard and cover it with a cloth and improvise on the dinner with buttered toast and popcorn.

The table all set, with chairs all around, the guests arrive. There are ten places set at the table, but only seven guests. With Linus and Marcie at opposite ends of the table, Charlie Brown, Sally, Peppermint Patty, and Snoopy sit on one side, while Franklin is segregated - the only word for it - on the other. I don't know if this arrangement - Franklin sitting conspicuously alone on one side of the table - was made to conform to anyone's particular design (Schulz's, the TV network's), but it presents a quite uncomfortable picture.

Snoopy serves up the food and someone asks if they should say grace. Linus stands up and gives everyone a history lesson about Miles Standish, the Pilgrims, the natives, and the first Thanksgiving. Then Peppermint Patty complains, "What kind of a Thanksgiving dinner is this? Where's the turkey, the mashed potatoes, the cranberry sauce, and the pumpkin pie?" Charlie Brown, who hadn't the nerve to tell Patty the truth, leaves the table. Marcie lectures Patty about her having invited herself to the dinner, Patty repents, Marcie apologizes to Charlie Brown, and everything is resolved when Charlie Brown's grandmother, over the telephone, invites Patty, Marcie and Franklin to her house for the holiday feast. Everyone climbs into a big green station wagon and they all drive away singing, "Over the River and Through the Woods, to Grandmother's House We Go." Left alone, Snoopy and Woodstock retire to the doghouse from which Snoopy produces a big roasted turkey, stuffing and pumpkin pie. After eating, he proffers the wishbone to Woodstock, they pull hard, the wishbone snaps, and Woodstock sails through the air, smirking as he holds the larger piece of the wishbone. The End.

Sorry, but A Charlie Brown Thansgiving doesn't do it for me. It fails to evoke anything, least of all its stated mission - finding the true spirit of Thanksgiving. Having watched It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown only a few weeks ago, which is redolent of Halloween, the weather and landscape of late October, all the tongue-in-cheek spookiness and even some genuine mystery, A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving is superficial, dimly conceived and indifferently executed. Even Vince Guaraldi's dependable jazz musical accompaniment is mostly borrowed from previous specials. There's the song, "Little Birdie," with its funk overtones (sung by Guaraldi himself), and some electric keyboards evoking the era. But this holiday special has not, for me, earned a place in our Thanksgiving traditions.

I'm looking forward to watching A Charlie Brown Christmas in a few weeks, which is still a charming reminder, even for a devout atheist like me, of the true meaning of Christmas - which is, after all, about memories of the past, the cumulative, layered meaning that Christmas has acquired over the decades, its meaning for me, personally, but also its broader, social significance. With stores now opening at noon on Thanksgiving Day, perhaps we are all in too big of a hurry to wait for Black Friday and start our Christmas shopping, to begin the stampede of materialism that Christmas has become. Too bad that Charles Schulz couldn't do something with Thanksgiving that would make us want to linger there for just one day longer.

Happy Thanksgiving, America.

Friday, November 17, 2017

The Name of the Rose

How could I conscionably resist commenting on the auction at Christie's in New York of a painting only recently attributed to Leonardo da Vinci (that underachieving genius of all time) in excess of $450M? Just the mention of that much money drew gasps from onlookers of the auction. That so much could be spent for a 26-inch tall painting whose authorship has been the subject of speculation and whose condition has been altered by painstaking restoration involving the removal of what someone other than Da Vinci painted over his original arouses - at best - a mixture of emotions.

I was once again bemused, especially since in the 1950s the painting was only considered worth about one-ten millionth its current value, at £45. It is the last Da Vinci painting, of which there are less than twenty, in private hands. Will it be displayed proudly by the owner somewhere in his private residence for visitors to marvel at? Will it be confined to a vault because it is simply too valuable to be put on display? Or will it be hung in the owner's bathroom directly opposite his toilet so that he can contemplate its glories in absolute solitude?

I have written about Leonardo at greater length before (see The Sun Stood Still), and I continue to be surprised at the sheer size of his reputation, given that, for a Renaissance artist (a contemporary of Michelangelo and Raphael), he was something of a failure. The publication of a sub-literate suspense novel embroiling Da Vinci in a secret society of the blood relations of Jesus Christ appears to be responsible for the current vogue for everything to do with Leonardo. Todd Levin, an art advisor, is reported to have told The New York Times about the painting's sale that “This was a thumping epic triumph of branding and desire over connoisseurship and reality.”

Clearly, the word of a consortium of art historians who acquired the painting in 2005 for $10,000 and who spent eight years removing what had been painted over the original figure by an unknown artist, was impressive enough for a Russian oligarch to buy it in 2013 for $127.5M, a trasaction still in dspute. All of this begs the question - among others - how could a painting be considered worth just $60 in the 1950s, $10,000 in 2005 be suddenly worth $450M? It clearly has nothing to do with the image itself, with its intrinsic qualities as an artwork. Watching people marvel at the painting's beauties - now that its bona fides have been established - is certainly amusing.

In Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, Juliet wishes that Romeo had a different name, since "Montague" was anathema to her family of Capulets. Her speech has become one of the most famous in English:

O, be some other name!
What's in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other word would smell as sweet;

What Shakespeare knew is that a rose by any other name is no longer a rose, regardless of its smell. A painting by someone other than Leonardo da Vinci, evidently, can be mistaken for the real thing and sell for a record sum in a preposterous world like ours. 

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Le Feu Follet: Malle's Gentleness


"A few more nights, the last ones. Around six this evening he would go back to Paris and plunge deep into the definitive night."(1)


If you thought you could clear a crowd of filmgoers faster with the name "Bresson" than you could with a fire hose, try using the title "Le Feu Follet." Praise all you want the discretion of the direction by Louis Malle,(2) the delicacy of the performance by Maurice Ronet, the beautiful clarity of the cinematography by Ghislain Cloquet, the perfect choice of music by Satie. Recommend the film as a masterpiece. All of this is evidently and verifiably true. But what you will always come up against is the inescapable fact that Le Feu Follet is one of the saddest and darkest films ever made. Tell this to people who haven't seen it and they will, as the saying goes, "stay away in droves." But it remains one of the most shattering experiences of my filmgoing life.

Like music, a film exists in time, in duration, and once set in motion, Le feu follet has an inexorable rhythm, like the "Adagietto" from Mahler's 5th Symphony. I have seen the film several times over the years, and in the opening scene, from the moment when Lydia speaks the words, "pauvre Alain" and we hear the first stately notes of Satie's 3rd Gymnopedie, the tone of Le feu follet has been set. One feels that a mechanism has been set in motion whose conclusion is as inevitable and inescapable for us as it is for Alain, the film's protagonist. "Protagonist" is a fitting description of Alain, since it is his agon to which we are the witnesses.

Alain has, we can deduce, failed her physically, and is mortified but not exactly surprised. '"It's been a long time," he murmured expressionlessly." Failing others is only fitting for a man who is already planning to fail himself. He spends his last 24 hours tracking down his old friends, secretly beseeching every one of them for a reason to go on living. One by one, Dubourg, Praline, Urcel, Cyrille, Solange, they disappoint him.

Malle's choice of such an obscure novel published in 1931 was unusual enough. That he followed it so closely in his adaptation is a revelation. The author, Pierre Drieu la Rochelle, was more famous for being a Nazi collaborator, who committed suicide shortly after the Liberation. Born in 1893, he was one of that most unfortunate generation of Frenchmen whose coming of age coincided with the outbreak of the First World War. Wounded twice, he had crawled out of the trenches to become a member of some of the movements of the Twenties - Dada and Surrealism. His membership, however, was never purposeful. He had other fish to fry, as his political leanings pulled him further to the Right in the Thirties. Instead of Communism, Fascism attracted him, at a time when such an allegiance was fraught with consequences that he perhaps could not have foreseen. It turned out badly, as Drieu perhaps wanted it to. Suicide had been a fetish in his life, as his posthumously-published Secret Journal revealed.

In his novel Le Feu follet, Drieu modeled his hero, Alain Leroy, on Jacques Rigaud (1898-1929), a poète maudit who chased women and money with varying success until he finally carried out his own sentence of death on November 9, 1929. Like Alain, Rigaud was 30.

Louis Malle was 30 in 1963, and he had suffered the loss of a friend to suicide. He worked on an original script inspired by the experience, but was unsatisfied at the result. Someone suggested Le Feu Follet, and the result is, for me, a near-perfect success. Malle updated the novel with some minor changes - Alain can answer the telephone in his room rather than downstairs at the sanatorium, Lydia returns to New York by plane rather than by boat, instead of a truck driver asking Alain if he was "gassed," Alain tells him he doesn't work because of an illness of "the heart," instead of cashing Lydia's check into "ten crisp thousand franc notes," it's hundred franc notes. But the film differs crucially in Malle's portrayal of every major character, especially Alain. He cares deeply for Alain and for some of the people to whom he turns in his hour of need. Drieu is indiscriminately brutal toward all his characters, including the many beautiful women. Everything in the book is ineffectual. Even a car is described as "a powerful, silent, indifferent machine." 

Five years before the appearance of the novel, Colette had created a sensation with her sequel to Chéri, which she called The End of Chéri. The resemblances between the novels are superficial - Chéri is practically divine, too perfect for this world. His long affair with Lea had spoiled him so completely that he was lost without her. Alain is a 30-year-old Chéri, even if such a man could never exist. He knows he has run out of chances of renewal. The final moments of both books are strikingly similar. Colette: 

"Without rising, he experimented in finding a convenient position. Finally he lay down with his right arm doubled up under him. Holding the weapon in his right hand, he pressed his ear against the muzzle, which was buried in the cushions. At once his arm began to grow numb, and he realised that if he did not make haste his tingling fingers would refuse to obey him. So he made haste, whimpering muffled complaints as he completed his task, because his forearm was hurting, crushed under the weight of his body. He knew nothing more, beyond the pressure of his forefinger on a little lever of tempered steel." 

Drieu: 

"Propped up comfortably, neck on a pile of pillows, feet braced at the end of the bed, legs apart. Chest out, naked, well exposed. You know where the heart is. A revolver is solid, it's made of steel. It's an object. To touch an object at last." 

Malle gave the role of Alain to Maurice Ronet, with whom he had worked on Elevator to the Gallows (1958). Ronet lost forty pounds for the film, and Malle provided him with his own clothes to wear. Ronet looks and acts weary, as Alain would've been after a four-month cure. His friends remark on his drawn appearance. Praline even tells him he looks like a "cadaver." Some believe his cure has worked, others know that it hasn't. Malle portrays these old friends far more gently than Drieu had. They genuinely care for Alain. In the book, Doctor de la Barbinais leaves Alain thinking that, "He dared not protest that life was good, for he felt he possessed no convincing arguments." In the film, Malle has him protest, "Alain, la vie est bonne" as he goes out the door. Alain answers, "Good for what, doctor?"

Drieu makes Alain an addict of heroin as well as alcohol. Lydia had spent one of her three nights in Paris with Alain in a police station after a narcotics raid. Malle makes him merely an alcoholic. Alcoholism being more familiar, it is easier for us to sympathise with Alain, especially when, halfway through his long day's journey, he indulges in a drink and he is quickly undone. The velocity of his decline from that moment becomes alarming, especially when it is played out in front of his friends. One of the film's most terrible revelations is that the love of all of his friends combined isn't enough to save Alain. All they can do is watch him as he falls. Malle gives Praline (or a character that is otherwise unnamed, played beautifully by Jeanne Moreau) Urcel's line, "he's a very nice boy, and a very unhappy one."

Drieu allows himself an occasional moment of tenderness toward Alain. Late in the novel, on his way back to the clinic, we read:

"Alain walked without looking at anything, as he had always done ... And yet the avenue was beautiful, like a broad shining river that rolls in majestic peace between the feet of the elephant god. But his eyes were fixed on the little world he had left forever. His thoughts wandered from Dubourg to Urcel, from Praline to Solange, and farther, as far as Dorothy, Lydia ... For him, the world was a handful of human beings. He had never thoughtthere could be anything more to it. He had never felt involved with anything larger than himself. He knew nothing of plants, of the stars: he knew only a few faces, and he was dying, far from those faces."  

Malle's most significant improvement on Drieu's novel takes place in the Café de Flore scene in which Alain tracks down some old mercenary friends from the Algerian War. Supposedly OAS (Organisation Armée Secrète) members, the old guard of French right wing activists who were later behind attempts to assassinate De Gaulle (3), the Minville brothers talk to Alain about "good old times," an old undisclosed "plot," and hint at upcoming adventures on a "skiing trip" to Spain. Alain tries to discourage them, calling them "boy scouts," so they abandon him in the café. 

Alain restlessly watches the passing crowd. Resting on the adjacent table is an untouched glass of cognac. Cautiously, Alain drinks it. A pretty young woman watches Alain curiously until he is overcome with the effects of the cognac. Throughout the film, attractive women pass by Alain and look at him - some with interest, some with longing, others with pity - and continue on their way. Alain sometimes returns their looks, but cannot bring himself to act on them. In the Café de Flore, he even attracts the attention of a young man in the public latrine. Outside, an older man sees Alain and says to the young men with him, "See that face? Alcohol. He's finished. A shame. He was good looking. Richard was in love with him." As Drieu wrote, "The stares no longer had any effect on him: he wasn't interested in pleasing now, men or women; he was through pleasing."    

Malle and Maurice Ronet make us care deeply for Alain, so that by the time the film's last scenes arrive, and we know what's coming, we are overcome with an alarming feeling of pity and of waste, watching a human being whom so many people love, but not quite enough to save him, during the last moments of his life. The voice of Solange, the last woman to hold a promise, however ephemeral, out to him, is the last voice he hears, calling out his name through a telephone receiver as he hangs up on her. In the novel, he reads a nameless detective story in his last moments. In the film, he finishes reading The Great Gatsby. There are several references to F. Scott Fitzgerald in the film, including a scene lifted bodily from his story "Babylon Revisited." Fitzgerald, too, was cured of his alcoholism too late.

I think that the reason for Alain's malaise is, simply put, his impotence. The film and the novel open in a hotel in which rooms are let by the hour. The action commences at the precise moment when Alain has climaxed - and Lydia, presumably, has not. Alain even apologizes. "It's been a long time." Later, he tells Dubourg that all his problems - with drugs, money, women - are due to the fact that "I'm a lousy lay." As a possible motivation for suicide, it's more plausible than some might think. It's rumored, based on his cryptic journal entries, that it was Cesare Pavese's complaint. Hemingway believed that Scott Fitzgerald's wife Zelda preyed on his sense of sexual inadequacy. It may sound foolish, but the inability to sexually satisfy a woman is the source of considerable male anxiety - it's even identified clinically as "performance anxiety" that can effectively paralyze a man in everything he attempts to accomplish. It is Alain's inability to satisfy Lydia and Dorothy and - potentially - Solange that leads him to his conclusion. At the house of Cyrille and Solange, humiliated by Brancion's imperious hold over Solange's attention, Alain is intoxicated with alcohol and with his own confession - his inability to touch anything. He appeals helplessly to Solange, "To leave without ever having touched anything. I don't say beauty, kindness ... with all their words ... but something human ... and then you ... you can do miracles ... Touch the leper." Of course, it is from a beautiful woman that Alain makes his last appeal for succor, for salvation. But Solange can't help him, at least not in the way that he needs help.

To his friends, his death is a rebuke. But Malle wants the viewer to feel it, too. The final image of the film is a still photo of Alain with the words "I kill myself because you didn't love me, because I didn't love you. I kill myself because we were always apart, to bring us closer together. I leave a stain on you, an indelible stain." 



(1) The Fire Within by Pierre Drieu la Rochelle, Richard Howard, translator. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1965). Incidentally, it was Malle's film that inspired renewed interest in Drieu's novel, leading to its first English translation.
(2) Malle worked as an assistant director on Bresson's A Man Escaped (1956).
(3) See The Day of the Jackal, Frederick Forsythe's book and Fred Zinnemann's film.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Eisenstein's October


An old friend from the Navy is currently working in St. Petersburg, Russia. I asked him if he knows what's going on to mark the centenary of the October Revolution. He replied, "Not much. Tomorrow (October 25) they will show some revolutionary films on the side of the Hermitage, and apparently there's an evening of live jazz at the Museum of Soviet Slot Machines, but I think they are going to let it slip past into history."

How gratifying, I thought, for all those who have convinced themselves that Marxism has been consigned, in the words of Ronald Reagan's clever speech writer, to "the ash heap of history," that what John Reed called the Ten Days That Shook the World is being commemorated with so little fanfare in the city where it all happened.(1) It surprises me, since Russian president Vladimir Putin has called the fall of the Soviet Union the greatest catastrophe that Russia ever experienced.

I wouldn't be surprised if one of the "revolutionary films" being screened on the wall of the Hermitage Museum is Sergei Eisenstein's October, which was finished in time for the 10th anniversary in 1927 but which, at the eleventh hour, Eisenstein had to radically re-edit, delaying its release until the following spring.

"WEDNESDAY, November 7th, I rose very late. The noon cannon boomed from Peter-Paul as I went down the Nevsky. It was a raw, chill day." That is how John Reed, author of Ten Days That Shook the World, wrote of this day in 1917. It was October 25 according to the Gregorian calendar then in use in Russia, which is thirteen days slow. The Russian "October Revolution" was actually the second Russian Revolution of 1917. The first, in March, deposed the Czar and led to creation of the Duma, a government body, led by Alexander Kerenski, that sought to rein in the seething forces of change that had finally found their moment. Kerensky was seen by the Bolzheviks, one of the many political parties in the Duma, as a reactionary figure, determined to maintain the status quo in Russia. This was unacceptable to them, so, after meticulous planning, they staged another revolution in October that deposed Kerensky and dissolved the Duma. Kerensky resigned on November 7, 1917.(2)

Ten years later, after a short civil war, Russia was transformed. Knowing that socialism was designed with an industrialized workers' state in mind, the USSR set about transforming itself from a nation of mostly unskilled peasants into something closer to Marx's proletarian state. Two unexpected blows, however, changed the course of the revolution: Lenin died in 1924, and his appointed successor was Stalin, who immediately came into conflict with the other great leader of the revolution, Leon Trotsky. (Trotsky later claimed that Lenin was possibly poisoned by Stalin.) The resulting power struggle ended with the expulsion of Trotsky from the USSR in 1929. 

This power struggle happened to coincide with the making of Eisenstein's film October - or, rather, its final editing. It was supposed to be shown, along with other films commissioned for the Jubilee, on November 7. As Jay Leyda related in Kino, his overview of Russian Cinema, "When October was not shown at the jubilee, and when Trotsky's open anti-Government campaign began, the wildest rumours flew around Eisenstein and his film, believed even by people who saw Eisenstein arriving at the studio cutting-room every day: that Eisenstein and Alexandrov had joined Trotsky's faction, that the film had been destroyed, that parts of it had to be remade, that Eisenstein was forbidden to touch his film, etc. etc."(3) The film that was eventually shown to the public in the spring of 1928 was quickly attacked by Russian critics, but was acclaimed in the West. Few observers in the West could have known what Eisenstein had been forced to excise from his film. Of the 13,000 feet of film that Eisenstein claimed made up the completed film prior to the re-editing, only 9,100 feet was left in the resulting film released to the public. What the 3,900 feet of missing film contained was every shot or sequence that showed Trotsky as a hero of the revolution. One of the reasons for the success of the October Revolution was winning the allegiance of the military. Key to that important ingredient was Trotsky, whose genius in leadership can be seen in the deployment of soldiers in Petrograd. All of these facts had to be either skirted in the narrative of October or completely eliminated.  

How central was Trotsky to the success of October? In John Reed's book Ten Days That Shook the World, the name "Trotzky" appears 84 times. By comparison, "Lenin" appears 91 times, while "Stalin" appears just 3. In the Redactor's Notes included in the Project Gutenberg edition of Reed's book, it reads: 

The original book of this text had a number of newspaper clipings [sic] from the 1920's and 1930's included. Most of these relate to the violent deaths encountered by those playing a part in this book. Others reveal that Eisenstein made a film of "Ten Days". Stalin, who is not mentioned in the book, suppressed the work.

Reed's book was one of the very few that attempted to give Americans a clear, if not non-partisan, account of the events in Russia that scared the daylights out of so many in the West. Its title became attached to Eisenstein's film for publicity purposes. While both works are accounts of the same events, Eisenstein's film is not a work of reportage or even of reconstruction. 

Stanley Kauffmann, writing about a later, failed effort by Eisenstein to express his vision, nonetheless saw in it "the unique Eisenstein flavor - a distortion of reality that creates higher realism: a combination of masterly screen composition and masterly theatricality."(4)

Because of its highly subjective approach to events familiar to every historian of the Russian Revolution, even knowledge of those events and the figures involved doesn't prepare one for Eisenstein's October. It is impossible to properly assess its accomplishments without a full understanding of the pressure Eisenstein was under to be true to history while being true to his art. 

In the 1920s, the two greatest Russian filmmakers were Vsevolod Pudovkin and Sergei Eisenstein. Both recognized the essential ingredient of film art was montage, a term more complex than "cutting" or "editing." Pudovkin extolled the use of montage in order to create a chain of images that tell a story. Eisenstein, however, insisted that montage was about bringing images into collision. As summed up by Dwight Macdonald:

'In his article, "The Cinematographic Principle and Japanese Culture", in Transition for Spring-Summer, 1930, Eisenstein denounced the idea that montage is "a junction of elements" as "a most pernicious method of analysis". He continued: "By what then is characterized montage ...? By collision.... By conflict. By collision.... From the collision of two given factors arises a concept. Linkage is, in my interpretation, only a possible special case.... Thus, montage is conflict. The basis of every art is always conflict."'(5)

For October, Eisenstein employed what he called "montage of associations," creating metaphors that give the viewer a better understanding of a character or of an event. For example, in the opening shots of October, the March revolution deposing the Czar Nicholas II is reduced to a group of people pulling down a statue of the Czar, intercut with hundreds of upraised rifles and scythes. The statue finally appears to disintegrate before our eyes. Later in the film, the same statue is shown to reassemble itself miraculously at the moment when Kerensky invokes "God and Country".

Some of these "associations," however, are not as simple and require interpretation. As Marie Seton wrote in her biography of Eisenstein: "[It is] difficult to understand without explanatory notes as Potemkin was simple ... History marched across the screen as never before. But historical action suddenly became suspended while Eisenstein wove a visual commentary, the nature of which was nearer to Socratic discourse on the nature of things than to Art, as it was later to be interpreted in the light of Marxism, Leninism and Stalinism. October was an esoteric work of art permeated with symbols of ambiguous meaning to the majority — a work on several levels all developing simultaneously. Being diffuse as well as monumental, October had the power to tire all but the most inquiring mind. No human character served as a focal point and no single emotion ran as a thread through the whole. An encylopaedia of images, the imagery rose to a crescendo that could too easily leave many spectators exhausted by the mental gymnastics required to follow the discursive line."(6)

I have seen other films that tell historical stories - stories that involve a great many details and characters familiar to afiocionados of history but bewildering and impenetrable to a casual observer. Masahiro Shinoda's brilliant and ambitious Assassination requires a familiarity with the period of Japanese history in which the Shogunate fell and the emperor was restored to power. Gillo Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers, which, with incomparable effectiveness, chronicles the last days of French colonial control of Algeria - a story remarkably like October. Except that no two revolutions are alike.

I believe that Seton, for whatever reason, was deliberately misrepresenting Eisenstein's accomplishment. There is plenty in October that is perhaps "esoteric" and "ambiguous," but any reasonably curious viewer will find nothing in it that is inscrutable or obscure. Eisenstein not only made the film for the masses, he made it in the same spirit that liberated the masses. While trying to free society of dogma, he gave society enough credit to have the ability to follow everything he was doing. When Eisenstein employs shock editing that throws images at us so fast it becomes impossible for us to rationally absorb every one of them, he is also aware of our sub-rational vision, capable of absorbing images subliminally. Like Charlie Parker's saxophone solos, when October shock-editing sequences are slowed down and the images, often only a few frames in length, are examined individually, they are in perfect order, even in collision with one another, with the effect that Eisenstein wanted the viewer to perceive.

Eisenstein's great achievement was to express the revolutionary fervor of his time in terms of revolutionary art. What he failed to do, however, was realize how easily his revolution could be perverted. All the while he was satirizing Kerensky and his betrayal of the March 1917 revolution, depicting him living in the Czar's quarters of the Winter Palace, another traitor of the revolution was tightening his grip on power. 

I'm afraid that it is too much to ask an audience today to care much for Eisenstein's film if they no longer care about the history it is telling. Today's citizens of St. Petersburg, a city whose name has been changed three times since 1917, can look back on the Revolution with horror or nostalgia, but it was a moment in history, a very loud and portentous parade, that they would as soon forget.

Throughout Reds, the film that Warren Beatty made about the last years of John Reed's life,(7) you can see some of the people, by then extremely old, who were alive in 1917. Some of them remembered the era with an almost tangible nostalgia. Others tried to forget it. Still others had succeeded in forgetting it. If history has an ash heap or a garbage heap on which it throws the ideas and names for which it has no more use, anyone with a little patience can still find a treasure there if they do some digging.


(1) In Chapter IV of Reed's book, he writes, 'And Trotzky, standing up with a pale, cruel face, letting out his rich voice in cool contempt, "All these so-called Socialist compromisers, these frightened Mensheviki, Socialist Revolutionaries,  Bund-let them go! They are just so much refuse which will be swept into the garbage-heap of history!"'
(2) Kerensky died in obscurity more than fifty years later in New York City!
(3) Jay Leyda, Kino: A History of the Russian and Soviet Film (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1960)
(4) Stanley Kauffmann, "Bezhin Meadow," The New Republic, March 1, 1969. 
(5) Dwight Macdonald, The Responsibility of Peoples and Other Essays in Political Criticism (London: Victor Gollancz, 1957).
(6) Marie Seton, Sergei M. Eisenstein (New York: Grove Press, 1960). It should be noted what Dwight Macdonald wrote about Seton's book, "a peculiar volume whose rich documentation of Eisenstein's career, feelings and ideas conflicts constantly with her political line, which is favourable to the Stalin regime."
(7) Trotsky is a prominent figure in REDS, and is played by the Polish novelist Jerzy Kosinski. 

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

The Dead Live


We are always looking for a poet who speaks to us directly, in almost personal terms. But that is what all true poets do - they can reach further and deeper into our lives than any prose writer can in ways that are still largely mysterious. Like music, poetry touches us like nothing else can. However it accomplishes this, it is non-rational, using language almost like signals that trigger emotions and ideas. In his introduction to Conrad Aiken's Selected Poems, Harold Bloom wrote: "Aiken's flaws are palpable enough: his rhetoric is too consistently eloquent, and frequently he gives us poetry rather than poems. And yet it is poetry, cognitive music, free of all ideology, and courageous in confronting family madness, solitude, death-as-annihilation, chaos."

I first knew Aiken as the author of a short story that I read when I was a boy - a boy about the same age as the boy in the story. It was "Silent Snow Secret Snow," and the story's haunting portrayal of a boy's fantasy world in which it is always snowing captivated me when I was living in the American South, where snow was a very rare and, for me, magical occurrence. I quickly divined the power of snow to slow things down: snarling traffic, closing schools, knocking out power.

Like everyone else, I, too, am always on the lookout for a poet who I feel speaks directly to me. Aiken is not such a poet, but he is a fine, serious writer of poetry. In his late poem "Hallowe'en" he appeals to us to restore to the holiday its original meaning and function. In many Catholic countries, including the Philippines (where I write this), there is a tradition for remembering the dead, not as they were, but as they still are - gone but a part of us and of our ongoing lives. 


Hallowe'en

I

All Saints', All Hallows', All Souls', and Hallowe'en,
which is the evening of the last of October,
and the harvest moon full:
and the first of November, Allerheiligen,
and the second of November, Allerseelen.
The moon, dead brother, lights her bonfire
behind Sheepfold Hill, old corpse-fire
blazing through the oaktrees, the bone-fire
which, in the forests, the priests called ignis ossium.

And again you come to complain and to haunt me,
you and the others, the homeless: the bells
trill in the twilight, held by no fingers,
touched by no hand of the living, the voices
under the bronze cloud circle the bonfire,
wing-voice and bat-voice and tree-voice:
and the spotted pebble, flung hissing in flames,
is lost in the ashes, and with it your soul.
It is you at the fire's edge, grandfather—!
your skeleton dancing, the pumpkin-head glaring,
the corpse-light through the pierced eyes and slashed mouth,
you, past the gas-works and the power-plant drifting,
and the old car-tracks and the railroad crossing,
but not, no, not again to the Heath of Simmering
where you watched little rafts of gay candles
floating like fireflies down the Danube, the souls
of those who had drowned in the river! There you
with alien eyes saw the ancient god, there heard
with alien ears the Allerseelen, Allerheiligen,
the candles on grave-mounds, and the flowers,
the procession of the living with wreaths
to the hillside cemeteries in the mountains,
and, after dark, the processions of the dead
to the lost threshold, the lost hearthstone.
And now you come back to complain and to haunt me,
you, and my brother, and the others.
Was your vision of god not enough, that you come
for the vision of the not-yet-dead, and the cricket's
chirp on the still-warm hearthstone?


II

ln the old time, the old country,
these two days, these two holy days,
were devoted to the dead. At the end of summer,
in the first haze of autumn stolen in from the sea,
at Samhain, the end of summer,
salt smell of kelp mixed with scent of the windfall
and whirled up the chalk path at daybreak,
we sacrificed a white horse to the sun-god
and kindled great fires on the hills
and nightlong we danced in circles
with straw-plaits blazing on pitchforks.
We sacrificed too to the moon-god,
an effigy, a simulacrum,
on this night, Hallowe'en, for we knew
the spirits of the dead were released, and would come
to rattle our latches and sit at the table. At Vespers,
in the dank churchyard, in the ossuary,
where the bones from an over-full graveyard were crammed,
we went in and knelt among bones. And the bones
(wing-voice and tree-voice and wind-voice)
suddenly were singing about us
joined in complaint and besought us
for prayers and more prayers, while the candles
flickered in the draft on grave-mounds.
Then on clean cloth we laid out the supper,
the hot pancakes, and the curds, and the cider,
and banked well the fire, and set the chairs round it,
said a prayer, and to bed.

In the old time, the old country:
but now none remembers, now they become
the forgotten, the lost and forgotten. O lost and forgotten,
you homeless and hearthless, you maskers and dancers,
masquerading as witches, as wild beasts, as robbers,
jack-o'-lantern leaping in the shadows of walls,
bells thrilling at the touch of bone fingers,
you come back to abuse and to haunt us,
you, grandfather, and my brother, and the others:
to the forgetful house, yourselves not forgetful,
(for the dead do not forget us, in our hearts
the dead never forget us)
you return to make mischief and to enter the house
you return once more to remind us.
The pumpkin-head lit with a candle, the cry
help the poor, help the poor, help the poor!
comminatory cry from door to door
and the obolos paid that the ghost be laid:
it is our ancestors and children who conspire against us
life unlived and unloved that conspires against us
our neglected hearts and hearths that conspire against us
for we have neglected not only our death
in forgetting our obligations to the dead
we have neglected our living and our children's living
in neglecting our love
for the dead who would still live within us.


III

All summer it rained: day after day, from morning
to sodden noon and eave's-drop eve, it rained:
day after day the heavens and the clouds complained.
Heavy the honeysuckle poll with over-ripe blossom:
rank the myrtle by the doorstep: bleeding the bosom
of the rainsick rose who broke her heart on the tomb.
The dry wells filled, and the vaults, and the cisterns:
and the cellars with underground music: the furrows of clay
glittered with water: rotten under water the wheatfield lay.
In the drear suburb, beyond the greenhouse, and the stonemason's,
on the Cove Road, among the marble shafts and porphyry basins,
and the cold eyeless angels with folded wings,
(there where we fished as children
looking over our shoulders at tombstones)
at last, undermined by water, the headstone fell,
sank softly, slowly, on the grave-mound,
and lay thus, a month neglected, on hollow ground.
And the spirit, the unappeased houseless spirit,
whose dwelling should be in ourselves, those who inherit,
even as our dwelling is in the tomb,
homeward once more looks now for prayer and praise
to be with laurels blest
and in our breast
live out his due bequest of nights and days.


IV

And so it is you at the dark's edge, grandfather,
revenant again to complain and to haunt me,
cavorting at the fire's edge, leaping through the flames,
while the moon, behind Sheepfold Hill,
lights her old bonfire, old bone-fire, and our ancestors
gather down from the hillside, gather up from the sea-wall,
and come home to be warmed. You, from the Geissberg,
the 'Rhine full of molten gold, and the Neckar Valley
echoing the slow psalm of the curfew,
from 'a lecture by Humboldt,' and a ship at sea
'which, as she took up the winds,
and rose in triumph over the waves,'
was a symbol to you of our relation to god:
'the absolute, the eternal, the infinite, a shoreless sea,
in unconscious rest, all its powers in repose,
to be used at man's will.' And the Iphigenie
von Tauris, at Heidelberg read with delight,
while the little Humboldt, 'his small face flushed,
eyes small, bright, and piercing,'
transcribed the last page of his Kosmos.
'And I thought, as he moved off, helped by his servant,
had I waited a twelvemonth, I would never have seen him.'

All Hallows' Even, Hallowe'en,
the evening of the last of October,
and the harvest in-gathered:
and the first of November, Allerheiligen,
and the second of November, Allerseelen.
Was your vision of god not enough, that you come
for the vision of the living, and the cricket's
small share of the hearthstone? Or is it some other,
some humbler, more human, news that yon crave?
Your children?—Long dead; and Cousin Abiel, the Quaker;
and the house with the hawthorns torn down;
and your own house a chapel; and the whaleships
departed: no more shines the eagle
on the pilot-house roof at the foot of the hill.

Yet no, not these are your loves, but the timeless and formless,
the laws and the vision: as you saw on the ship
how, like an angel, she subdued to her purpose
the confused power of ocean, the diffused power of wind,
translating them swiftly to beauty,
'so infinite ends, and finite begins, so man
may make the god finite and viable,
make conscious god's powers in action and being.'
Was it so? is it so? and the life so lived?

O you who made magic
under an oak-tree once in the sunlight
translating your acorns to green cups and saucers
for the grandchild mute at the tree's foot,
and died, alone, on a doorstep at midnight
your vision complete but your work undone,
with your dream of a world religion,
'a peace convention of religions, a worship
purified of myth and of dogma:'
dear scarecrow, dear pumpkin-head!
who masquerade now as my child, to assure
the continuing love, the continuing dream,
and the heart and the hearth and the wholeness—
it was so, it is so, and the life so lived
shines this night like the moon over Sheepfold Hill,
and he who interpreted the wonders of god
is himself dissolved and interpreted.
Rest: be at peace. It suffices to know and to rest.
For the singers, in rest, shall stand as a river
whose source is unending forever.


Aiken's appeal for the dead is most succinctly stated in the lines 

it is our ancestors and children who conspire against us
life unlived and unloved that conspires against us
our neglected hearts and hearths that conspire against us
for we have neglected not only our death
in forgetting our obligations to the dead
we have neglected our living and our children's living
in neglecting our love
for the dead who would still live within us.


We have a tradition of "restless spirits," walking the earth, like Hamlet's ghost, with a score left unsettled. These spirits are perturbed because of our neglect of them, our habit of forgetting people as soon as they are dead. But the dead have a place in our lives, if we allow them one. Even if we do it only once a year, it is an important reminder. Happy Hallowe'en.

Friday, October 27, 2017

For the Record

I was wrong. For several weeks after the death of my sister a year ago today, I didn't know the cause of her death. Recklessly, I speculated on this blog that she may have deliberately taken an overdose. I had no intentions of impugning my sister's name or her legacy, and whatever indications may have led me draw such a conclusion, I merely wanted to know the truth.

This is as much as I know. A friend stopped by her apartment in Anchorage to drop off some groceries. Because there was no answer to hs repeated knocks on her door, he went to the apartment manager who had the authority, and a key, to enter her apartment. My sister's body was found on her living room floor with the telephone in her hand. I learned later that her phone had been disconnected on the 24th. A neighbor told my sister's friend that when he saw her three days before, her face was "black and blue" and that earlier on the day she died, he responded to cries of help from the parking lot where he found her in her car, without enough strength to get out and make it back to her upstairs apartment.

Her death was from "natural causes." She was just 65 years old. She had been diagnosed a few years before with artereo sclerosis and had been waiting to have an outpatient procedure performed that would implant a "stint" in one of the clogged arteries to her heart. Because she had no health insurance, she sought various ways of paying for the procedure. Since she turned 65 in July, I expected her to apply for medicare. She never told me if she applied or not.

Based on this skimpy information and from what her neighbor had reported about her face being black and blue, my entirely uneducated guess is that my sister likely died of congestive heart failure. And possibly a broken heart as well. What continues to amaze me is that a woman who had had five husbands still managed to die alone. She was waiting for me to come home, and had prepared a place for me on my return. She waited as long, longer, than she could. And a year ago her wait was finally over. I will be sorry for this for as long as I live, but at least I have the luxury of being sorry.

One of the reasons why I miss my sister so much is because every time I encounter something beautiful - a song, a film, a poem - I can no longer share them with her. As happens occasionally, I will hear a lovely piece of music and I will immediately think of her, of how she would've been moved by it as much as I. But since she is no longer able to listen to it, I think to myself that I am her ears, that I am enjoying something beautiful for her.

I am not the fatalist that Thomas Hardy was. But his profound fatalism prevented him from ever forgetting the dead. One of his greatest poems on this theme is "During Wind and Rain." 

During Wind and Rain

They sing their dearest songs --
He, she, all of them -- yea,
Treble and tenor and bass,
And one to play;
With the candles mooning each face....
Ah, no; the years O!
How the sick leaves reel down in throngs!

They clear the creeping moss --
Elders and juniors -- aye,
Making the pathways neat
And the garden gay;
And they build a shady seat....
Ah, no; the years, the years;
See, the white storm-birds wing across!

They are blithely breakfasting all --
Men and maidens -- yea,
Under the summer tree,
With a glimpse of the bay,
While pet fowl come to the knee....
Ah, no; the years O!
And the rotten rose is ript from the wall.

They change to a high new house,
He, she, all of them -- aye,
Clocks and carpets and chairs
On the lawn all day,
And brightest things that are theirs....
Ah, no; the years, the years;
Down their carved names the rain-drop ploughs.


We are so close to Hallowe'en, a day that is supposed to be for the people we have lost, every one of them. Next Tuesday, I will expand on the subject.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Siberian Lady Macbeth

Based on my research (details on the internet are skimpy at best), in 1961 Andrzej Wajda, fresh from Samson (yet another film dealing with the past) and still riding the crest of the success of Ashes and Diamonds (the past), left Poland in protest of its lack of creative freedom and went to Yugoslavia to make Siberian Lady Macbeth (Sibirska Ledi Magbet) with a cast and crew that spoke no Polish. Later Wajda complained that the experience was creatively frustrating and that it was better for him to seek creative freedom in Poland.

The Nikolai Leskov novella Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, published in 1865, is more famous for its 20th-Century adaptations than for its literary merits. It's a bit like The Brothers Karamazov if Grushenka were the central character and if she had been sexually insatiable. How refreshing, though, to find sex treated as it is in Leskov, and not as part of some moral agenda in Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. (Turgenev was virtually asexual, which is probably why Henry James admired him so much.) "Oh! Oh! Let go of me, Katerina Lvovna moaned softly, weakening under Sergei's hot kisses, and involuntarily pressing herself to his powerful body." Not what students expect to encounter in a Russian Lit. class.

The brilliant 29-year-old Dmitri Shostakovich chose Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk as the subject of an opera that not only altered the course of his career but radically changed the course of all "official" artistic expression in Stalin's USSR. Composed in 1932, the opera was already phenomenally successful when Stalin decided to go and see it in January 1936. After storming out of the performance during the last act, the opera was denounced in Pravda (the USSR's official news source) two days later. The opera closed and Shostakovich expected to be arrested and possibly sent to Siberia. Stalin imposed strict guidelines on artists, insisting that their work reflect the ideals of "Socialist Realism," keeping far from modernist abstraction or, in the case of composers like Shostakovich, atonality. Shostakovich survived and eventually managed to be rehabilitated in the eyes of Stalin. His opera, however, was never performed again in its original form in Shostakovich's. After Stalin's death, he reconstituted the opera and called it "Katerina Izmailova". It was first performed in Moscow in 1963. On being expelled from the USSR, Mstislav Rostropovich smuggled the manuscript of the 1932 opera to the West and recorded it in 1979.

The memory of the original opera outlasted Stalin's censorship. In the opening credits of Wajda's film, Dušan Radić is credited with the music, "based on the motives [sic] of the opera 'Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk' by Dmitri Shostakovich". Even filmmaking with such broad strokes as Wajda uses in Siberian Lady Macbeth, the use of Shostakovich's music is not intrusive but quite effective, especially the scene in which Sergei and Katerina dispose of her husband's dead body in a pigsty full of strange woolly pigs.

We are introduced to the precincts of a well to do merchant named Boris Izmailov, whose son Zinovy is away assessing the damage to a mill by a recent dam burst. It seems the old man has nothing to do all day but shout orders to his serfs, collect dead rats that have eaten the poisoned bait he leaves for them under the floor boards, eat and drink tea. Katerina, his daughter-in-law, who has failed to give his son a child, has even less to do with her husband away but walk around the house like a panther pacing her cage. Nothing to do, that is, until a strapping young swineherd named Sergei sallies forth.

In the opening shots, the setting looks like something from a Western - plain, makeshift buildings in the middle of a flat, dusty landscape. The widescreen photography, by Alexander Sekulovič, reinforces the impression that we are on a frontier where domesticated animals outnumber people. It is all exactly as Leskov describes in his novella:

"It was clean everywhere, it was quiet and empty everywhere, icon lamps shone before the icons, and nowhere in the house was there a living sound, a human voice. Katerina Lvovna would wander and wander about the empty rooms, start yawning with boredom, and climb the stairs to her marital bedroom in the small, high mezzanine. There, too, she sat, looked at how they hung up hemp or poured out flour by the storehouse again she would start to yawn, and she was glad of it: she would doze off for an hour or two, then wake up again the same Russian boredom, the boredom of a merchant's house, from which they say you could even happily hang yourself."(1)

Sergei no sooner meets Katerina than he changes into a proper shirt and heads straight for Katerina's bedroom. She feins indignity at his advances, until he's on top of her in her marriage bed. Afterwards (and there never was a more disappointing segue), her father-in-law enters downstairs, Katerina tells Sergei to scram and the old man catches him climbing down from the bedroom window. Old as he is (in the novella he's supposed to be 80), Boris hauls Sergei to the barn where he beats him mercilessly. Katerina covers her ears, but Sergei stifles his own cries by biting into his nice shirt (a nice touch Wajda copied from Leskov). Finished beating Sergei, Boris, exhausted, returns to Katerina and threatens to drag her naked through the streets. Without hesitation, she poisons his soup.

After the funeral, Katerina and Sergei spend all their time in bed until, without warning, her husband Zinovy returns. Having heard of his father's death and the rumors of his wife's infidelity, Zinovy confronts Katerina. Emboldened by the poisoned tea he has just drunk, Katerina, instead of denying the accusations, brings in Sergei (who was hiding outside) and, when Zinovy attacks him, together they finish off Zinovy.

There is an ecstatic scene in which Katerina and Sergei are riding in a horse-drawn wagon with Sergei joyously whipping the horses onward and Katerina lying back on the sacks of flour. But Katerina's problems are far from over. A relative arrives with claims on her estate. Another murder must follow. Wajda planned to tell the story in flashbacks as Katerina and Sergei plod on their long journey to Siberia. Incidentally, Mtsensk in a city in Ukraine. Siberia is where Katerina is exiled after her trial. I think Wajda was right to abandon the idea and tell the story straightforwardly. It gives the film a cumulative effect that is far more satisfying. In fact, when the two are at last caught and sentenced to life in exile, I thought, "the film should end here. Why continue?" But the final moments of the film are worth waiting for, as Katerina drowns Sergei's new girl and then herself in the river as the ferry drifts away behind the rain. It's a spectacular ending to a shamefully neglected film.
Special mention must be made for Ljuba Tadic as Sergei. He is almost pitiable in the final sequence, subject to his own nature, acquiring socks from Katerina to warm his feet on the road to Siberia, only to trade them for the favors of a pretty blonde in the group of exiles.

One searches in vain for antecedents for this film. Bergman's The Virgin Spring, made just two years before Wajda's film, comes close - except there is no violated virgin in Mtsensk. The violation(s) are all committed by Katerina Lvovna. There is also a spooky scene in which Katerina and her maid invoke the fertility of a pregnant mare. I have to admit that I found Katerina's (Olivera Markovic) arms around the mare's belly, pressing her breasts against it and kissing it, disturbingly erotic. The scene corresponds to the witch's (Gunnel Lindblom) appeal to Odin in The Virgin Spring. Bergman tried to repudiate his film by claiming he was heavily under the influence of Kurosawa. Kurosawa, to bring influences full circle, was deeply indebted to Russian literature, particularly Dostoevsky.

As for the influence of Siberian Lady Macbeth on subsequent films, the two most famous Bulgarian films, The Peach Thief (1964) and The Goat Horn (1972), show clear echoes of Wajda's film. Harold Bloom once claimed that Kurosawa's Throne of Blood was the greatest "Shakespearean" film ever made. Bloom had probably never seen Siberian Lady Macbeth, but using his definition of "Shakespearean" (Kurosawa's film, coincidentally based on Macbeth, had to dispense with all of Shakespeare's text), there are very few films that come as close to the spirit and power of Shakespeare as Siberian Lady Macbeth.


(1) Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.


[Dept. of Corrections: I have had to edit the above piece after re-checking (very important!) my facts. I realized that I had trusted Wikipedia's page devoted to Andrzej Wajda too much, especially its filmography listing. It lists Samson as the film that Wajda made after Siberian Lady Macbeth. According to Wajda's official webpage and to IMDB, Samson came before. My apologies.]