Friday, February 14, 2014

Lost in Yalta

Since I made it my custom every year since 2009 to devote Valentine's Day on this blog to a distinctive film on the subject of love, I've covered a few fairly obscure items, like the Hungarian gem, Love and the nearly forgotten American film, Falling in Love. If there is such a thing as a "small miracle," which is sometimes nothing more than a happy combination of commonplaces, the 1960 Soviet film, The Lady with the Little Dog (Dama s Sobatchkoi) qualifies as one. Based on one of Anton Chekhov's most celebrated stories, which captures within a few pages the sense of lives being lived, of time passing by, it is one of those hard-to-find films that I knew by reputation long before I ever had a chance to see it in 2006. It is unforgivable that there remain so many treasured films that are unavailable for home viewing - which is the only place such films will ever be screened outside of a film archive. I have written before about some of the more conspicuous missing masterpieces (see Sins of Omission).

Given the many stories and novellas that Chekhov wrote, and his status as one of the foremost Russian authors, it's initially surprising that so few of his works have been adapted to film. But when you see Josef Heifitz's film, which is only eighty minutes long, and read Chekhov's utterly concise story, only thirteen pages in Constance Garnett's translation, the dearth of adaptations becomes obvious. Very little that is dramatically useful takes place in the story (1) - which is one of the reasons why the film is such a beautifully faithful realization of it.

The story of two people leading lives of apparent comfort and contentment, who meet and suddenly decide to reach out, together, for happiness has precedents going back to Homer.(2) In Chekhov's hands, the story reveals both the extreme courageousness of such an act, as well as its ultimate futility. Chekhov's understanding of human beings denied him any faith in the power of love to make them happy. It is simply the means by which his characters learn the truth about their lives.

Chekhov believed implacably in progress, in the slow but steady improvement of human society and of the people within it. The world is imperfect, there is far too much suffering, too many people are unhappy and unfulfilled. Chekhov believed that some time in the future - a hundred or a thousand years - people will learn what to do with themselves and with their lives. At the end of his novella The Duel, Laevsky watches a boat move in heavy seas from the shore to a distant ship:

"'It flings the boat back,' he thought; "she makes two steps forward and one step back; but the boatmen are stubborn, they work the oars unceasingly, and are not afraid of the high waves. The boat goes on and on. Now she is out of sight, but in half an hour the boatmen will see the steamer lights distinctly, and within an hour they will be by the steamer ladder. So it is in life. . . . In the search for truth man makes two steps forward and one step back. Suffering,mistakes, and weariness of life thrust them back, but the thirst for truth and stubborn will drive them on an on. And who knows? Perhaps they will reach the real truth at last.'"

The story of "The Lady with the Little Dog" (3) consists of only a few scenes - the meeting in Yalta, her return to her husband and his return to Moscow, his visit to the town of "S_____" (identified as Saratov in the film) to find her, their meeting in a provincial theater, their meeting in Moscow. This necessitated that additional scenes should be created by the writer-director Heifitz to pad the film out to something close to feature-length. The film was made by Lenfilm for the centenary of Chekhov's birth in 1960. The director, Heifitz, had been making films since the Thirties. A Russian audience's close familiarity with the story is one thing the film had to contend with. Minor details in the story, like Gurov eating a slice of watermelon in Anna Sergeyevna's hotel room after their first intimate encounter, can be found in the film, and all the dialogue is preserved. But one advantage the film has over the story is the vivid presence of Yalta in the early scenes, which occupy half an hour of the film. Although Chekhov doesn't dwell on these scenes in the story, Heifitz and his cinematographer, Andrei Moskvin (once an assistant to Eisenstein's Edward Tisse) make as much of the spectacular scenery as possible. These scenes contrast quite effectively with the subsequent dreary scenes of snowy Moscow, and reinforce for us Gurov's growing nostalgia for Anna and their lost days in Yalta. I was lucky enough to see the DVD produced by Ruscico, the Russian Cinema Council, which features a flawless, bright and beautiful new print of the 54 year old film, looking like it was released yesterday, along with a choice of subtitles in six different languages.

One lovely scene takes place at the train station as Gurov sees Anna off. As the train pulls out of the station, Gurov walks pensively forward. He finds Anna's glove, dropped on the platform, and fondles it for a moment before placing iton an iron railing. The lost glove is absent from the story and presents us with a beautiful visual metaphor for Gurov's thoughts:

"Left alone on the platform, and gazing into the dark distance, Gurov listened to the chirrup of the grasshoppers and the hum of the telegraph wires, feeling as though he had only just waked up. And he thought, musing that there had been another episode or adventure in his life, and it, too, was at an end, and nothing was left of it but a memory. . . ." Or so Gurov, the egoist, convinces himself. Except he has, without knowing it, fallen in love with Anna Sergeyevna, as the days and weeks to come in Moscow will show him.

It is in the following scenes in Moscow that most of the "padding" I mentioned takes place. The ellipses in Chekhov are there to put us in mind of everything he leaves out - all the moments that make up the lives of his characters. We are made to feel the passage of lifetimes in a few pages. But a movie has to show us so much of what Chekhov merely suggests. Hence, there is a boating scene in Yalta, a dinner party in Moscow, a lengthy scene at Gurov's club, an extended sequence in which Gurov, drunk, wanders the winter streets of Moscow. Where Chekhov could inform us of the emptiness of Gurov's life after meeting Anna Sergeyevna in a few lines, a movie has to show us instances of Gurov's misery. And some of the thoughts of Gurov and Anna, especially in the last scene, are turned into dialogue:

"Anna Sergeyevna and he loved each other like people very close and akin, like husband and wife, like tender friends; it seemed to them that fate had meant them for one another, and they could not understand why he had a wife and she a husband; and it was as though they were a pair of birds of passage, caught and forced to live in different cages."

And again, leaving their fates in suspense at the end of the story, Chekhov wonders hopefully about their future together:

"And it seemed as though in a little while the solution would be found, and then a new and splendid life would begin; and it was clear to both of them that they had still a long, long road before them, and that the most complicated and difficult part of it was only just beginning."

The film closes with the same irresolution in which Chekhov ends his story - with Gurov gazing up at a window in which Anna Sergeyevna looks down at him, standing alone in the snow. They can find no solution to their predicament

It is the same tone of desperate wistfulness in which we part from "The Three Sisters":

"IRINA [lays her head on OLGA'S bosom]. A time will come when everyone will know what all this is for, why there is this misery; there will be no mysteries and, meanwhile, we have got to live . . . we have got to work, only to work! Tomorrow I'll go alone; I'll teach in the school, and I'll give all my life to those who may need me. Now it's autumn; soon winter will come and cover us with snow, and I will work, I will work.

OLGA [embraces both her sisters]. The music is so happy, so confident, and you long for life! O my God! Time will pass, and we shall go away for ever, and we shall be forgotten, our faces will be forgotten, our voices, and how many there were of us; but our sufferings will pass into joy for those who will live after us, happiness and peace will be established upon earth, and they will remember kindly and bless those who have lived before. Oh, dear sisters, our life is not ended yet. We shall live! The music is so happy, so joyful, and it seems as though in a little while we shall know what we are living for, why we are suffering. . . . If we only knew -- if we only knew!"

(1) Of course, the same is true of his plays.
(2) Unless, of course, you believe that Helen ran off with Paris unwillingly.
(3) Chekhov identifies the dog as a Pomeranian.

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