Sunday, July 13, 2014

Aleksandr Medvedkin | Schastye (Happiness)

you can’t die without permission
by Douglas Messerli

Aleksandr Medvedkin (writer and director) Schastye (Happiness) / 1934
Although championed by French filmmaker Chris Marker, who also wrote about the director, Medvedkin in his film The Train Rolls On, the silent Soviet comedy Happiness has often met with shrugs of disinterest and even with disdain from American and British critics and audiences. See, for example, the comments by film-writer Dennis Grunes: “This is not a good film.”

    In part this negative reaction has to do with the intentional crudeness of Medvedkin’s film, with its hand-painted sets and its intentional artifice, particularly in the very funny scenes where the work’s central characters, Khymr and his wife Anna attempt to retrieve their obviously “puppet-like” horse (done up in leopard-like spots) from the roof of their home, the eupeptic and vigorous Anna carrying it down a ladder upon her back. Compared with the far more “realistic” presentations of earlier American films by Keaton and Chaplin, Medvedkin’s work looks simply old-fashioned, as if the director simply couldn’t significantly refine his art, one of the last films of the silent era.

    Medvedkin’s film, moreover, is structured far differently from the comically picaresque adventures of American cinema. Consider, for example, the long scene where the slacker/loser Khymr, frustrated by his failure in his attempts to live a life of plentitude they have glimpsed in their neighbor, Foka’s back yard, decides to simply die, constructing for himself a simple wooden coffin. The minute he begins the process, another neighbor shows up to condemn him for his “improvised death,” followed by a priest, a town magistrate, local leaders, a whole army of monstrously masked soldiers, and a representative of the Tsar himself, Khymr is taken away to be whipped within an inch of his life (“Whip him till he bleeds, but keep him alive.”) “For thirty years he was whipped,” the titles tell us, punished for daring to “die without permission.”

     Such outrageous, fable-like humor seldom appears in American literature—with the notable exception of Mark Twain—but is very much at home in the Russian literary tradition, revived particularly in the 1930s and 1940s of the Soviet rule by writers such as Yury Olyesha and Mikhail Zoschenko.

     Indeed, the entire tale of the slacker who, after his father’s untimely death, and an accidental recovery of stolen monies, would become King, has little precedence in American thinking. For in the Russian story, it is the impossibility of such an achievement that is the given, while in the US wealth and fame are nearly presumed as not only possible but inevitable. The very fact that the loser is a loser just because of absurd fantasies may appear to most Americans as an absolutely cynical view of life. Mentally, we may register the fact that the little “tramp” will never gain the “happiness” and wealth he seeks, but with each new adventure that possibility still exists. After all, thousands of others struck it rich in the California and Alaska gold mines, one be discovered by Hollywood, Horatio Alger worked his way up! Even the sad-sack Keaton won the war and the girl’s hand!

      The only ways out, in Medvedkin’s world: the first way is to go it alone or join in temporary league with other loners such as the outcasts, with Foma at their lead, who attempt to steal the granary of the local collective, literally carrying it off, in a wonderful comic sight gag, as if the building have developed human appendages. 

     The second as does the happily blossoming Anna, to join the collective—in short, to abandon their selfish efforts in support of the greater whole.  

      Those two alternatives even seem in opposition to the American way of thinking—if we now have a way of thinking. And, as such, further isolates us from the charms of this nearly-lost film. When the movie was first released in 1934, it received little attention and, apparently, the skepticism of Joseph Stalin, whose values had been the brunt of several similar folktales.

     Indeed, the first time Khymr and his wife attempt to grow their own crops, a locust-like procession of priests, sheer-clothed nuns, city authorities and others settle upon the independent farmers to take away not only the products of their labors but any monies they might have reaped from their farming attempts—suggesting that, at least in this early form of “collectivism,” those who worked hard were left poorer than the serfs.

      But Stalin’s new collectivism, it appears, in this film is a model of society efficiency, the hard-working Anna being awarded melons and gourds as rewards. Even the slacker, a man whom his wife fears may never be brought into the fold of adulthood, realizes the futility of his going alone and springs to action when he realizes that Foma is attempting to burn down the collective stables with its horses locked within. The slacker ceases his slacking only through  joining up with the society at large—something which the Tramp and Keaton try to do, and fail at, time and again.


Los Angeles, July 13, 2014

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