Wednesday, August 30, 2017


The Russians are in the news with some frightening activities (Ukraine, Syria, Trump campaign, Magnitsky).  Dictators with egotistical power dreams can disrupt the world in very unhealthy ways.  This blog post is not meant to glorify the political powers, but to remind the rest of us that Russia has given the world a lot of top notch artists. well worth watching.

Russians seem to have a gloomy outlook on life, perhaps because of relatively short daylight and harsh climate.  They must have patience as their movies tend to be longer and bleaker.  They also seem more intellectual than others.  The quality of some of their movies is very high, but unfortunately it is difficult to gain access to them.  Over the years I have seen a few but am aware that for the most part they are not so easily available.

Lev Kulshev was involved in some early films, including covering the Russian Civil War 1918-20.  He turned to editing and was the first to theorize about how altering before and after a closeup shot of a person could alter our perception of the scene and his Kuleshuv effect has an ongoing presence.  He helped found the Moscow Film School in 1918.

Political supervision must effect the movies.  Often one is not aware of politicized movies in the western world, but every writer, director, producer has their own bias.  For the most part the Russian stories and characters are human with the usual foibles and heroisms we look for in cinema.

"Battleship Potemkin" (1925) is a silent film and was subject to censorship.  It had been edited extensively to satisfy censors in Germany.  Music had to be adapted after restoration and some violence deleted. Earlier film about  "Strike" (1925) before the Revolution. Eisenstein was born in Latvia and arrived in Russia in time to be involved in film on the Russian Civil War 1918-20.  He was educated an architect and was first used for set designs.  Both are well done and even innovative for the time.

"Alexander Nevsky" (1938)  also by Eisenstein was a propaganda film, but trying to demonstrate that Russians could stand against the Germans.  They fought against Teuton Knights, very formidable for their time, but in 1938 Sergei wanted to assure Russians they could stand up against the Germans--in subtitles at least the references are to Germans.  Sergei Prokofiev composed the music.  In 1939 it was withdrawn from distribution after the signing of the German-Soviet Pact.

Sergei Eisenstein traveled to Japan to pursue an interest in Kabuki theatre.  He was given a lot of freedom as he pleased Joseph Stalin in the beginning and worked in both the  U.S. and Mexico.  At other times he displeased Stalin.   "Alexander Nevsky" was an effort to placate Stalin.  In his early career he experimented with what came to be called a montage effect achieved by editing a series of short shots in a sequence to condense space, time and information.

"The Cranes Are Flying" (1957) is a story where lovers are split by war allowing a non combatant to marry the woman.  Won Cannes award for Mikhail Kaletazov, who directed, wrote and produced.  He had been a Soviet diplomat in Los Angeles and admired KingVidor and Vincent Minelli.  Mikhail also directed "Letter never sent" (1960) was a story set in Siberia with four geologists who meet a disastrous fire.

"Ballad of a Soldier" (1959) earned an Oscar best original script nomination for director Gregoriy Chukhray.  Westerners do not realize the Soviet Union suffered 30 million soldiers/citizen deaths during World War II.  This movie tells of a single soldier who we are told will not make it through the war and we cannot help but admire and like him as well as a girl he meets on the way back to see his mother.  It is considered one of the most effective anti-war films and is devoid of obvious Soviet propaganda.  It received an Oscar nomination for best script and did win a BAFTA award for best film from any source.  Gregoriy also directed "The Forty First" which won a special award at Cannes in 1957.

Andrei Tarkovsky can be introduced with a quote  "An artist never works under idea conditions.  If they existed, his work would not exist for the artist doesn't exist in a vacuum.  Some sort of pressure must exist.  The artist exists because the world is not perfect.  Art would be useless if the world was perfect as man would not look for harmony, but would simply live in it.  Art is born out of our ill designed world."

Andrei Tarkovsky's best movie "Andrei Rublev" (1969) was based on the the 15th century that included Tartar invasions and the development of the Greek Orthodox Church.  It was heavily censored dropping from the director cut of 205 minutes with an initial cut of 15 minutes and finally down to 145 minutes and finally restored many years later.  Originally Tarkovsky was given a lot of leeway under the leadership of Nikita Khrushev, but when he was replaced by Breznev the censorship increased.  It had been committed to the Cannes Festival, but to avoid attention it was aired at 4 am in the morning, nevertheless it won an award.  It is considered a master piece by many.

"Solarius" (1972) at 167 min. also had censorship problems.  It represented a different approach to science fiction with less emphasis on on special effects and was more intellectual  It is considered one of the best science fiction movies of its time.  Natalya Bodnarchuk, daughter of Sergey Bodnarchuk, played the leading lady.

"The Mirror (1975) also ran into censor problems.  It is remembered partly because it was considered autobiographical of Tarkovskiy, considered one of the most important Soviet film makers.

"War and Peace" (1966) a little over 7 hours based on  a very intimidating book which most people think of with a complicated plot, but you should dig deeper as Leo Tolstoy was a philosopher using the depicted events to help explain his view of life and existence.  At a later date Tolstoy became a pacifist and influenced Gandhi.  Sergey Bondarchuk--director, lead actor and helped write the script  A leading lady was Lyudmila Saveleva also played in an Italian-Russian production with Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni..  War and Peace won the best foreign film Oscar and was also nominated for set design.

"Tchaikovsky" (1970), the biography of a musical legend involved Dmitri Tiomkin, well known American music composer. who served as executive producer.  He was nominated for the Oscar for best music scoring adaptation and original song score.   At 2 hours 37 minutes  the events of his life were covered, but only a few subtle hints that his homosexuality was a constant torment for him.

"Sibiriade" (1979) took on a mammoth task to cover the development of Siberia in 3 hours and 26 minutes.  Most of us outsiders, but also most Russians considered Siberia the backwoods where many are sent as punishment.  The movie carries through three generations using many of the same actors for the different generations.  The salvation of Siberia has been oil.  Farley Mowat wrote a book comparing Russian northern development to Canadian--"Sibir"  Siberiade was rewarded with the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes.

Andrey Konchalovskiy went on to direct several American films including two with Oscar nominees.  He wrote as well as directed including "Tango and Cash," and "Runaway Train."  While in the United States he also won an Emmy award.  He returned to Russia in the 1990's.   In 2014 he won a best director award at the Venice International Film Festival.  He had also worked with Andrei Tarkovsky.  His "Dryado Vanya" is considered one of the best Russian films.  

 His brother Nikita Mikhailov was the lead actor in "Sibiriade"  In his own right Nikita was
an accomplished director, writer and producer.  A movie that he wrote, directed, produced and acted in, "Burnt Skin" (1994) won Oscar as best foreign film.  He won other awards at Cannes and Venice.  "12" was another Oscar nomination that Nikita wrote, directed, produced and acted in.  One twist on this movie loosely based on "Twelve Angry Men" was that the accused was a Chechen Muslim who generated some prejudice.

"Russian Ark" (2002) might be described as an artistic film as it goes through the Hermitage in St Petersburg with an amazing range of art treasures and creates little historical vignettes.  What is really unique about this film is for over 90 minutes it is just one take.  A German cinematographer, Tilman Buttner was hired for the daunting task.

"The Return" (2003) "Elena" (2011) and "Leviathan" (2014) were all directed and written by Andrey Zvyagintsev who won a Cannes Jury prize and an award at the Sundance Festival as well as Oscar nomination for "Leviathan."  Leviathan had one scene where one actor was to play a drunk, but ironically he was the only one sober in the scene.  The director felt he preferred real drunks to acting.

"How I ended this summer" (2010) filmed on a remote Arctic island--two men--young vs older--beauty of the Arctic.  It is very psychological with sparse dialogue and with stunning cinematography.  The two principle actors, Grigoriy Dobrygin and Sergey Puskepat? shared best acting award at the Berlin Film Festibal.  Gregoriy has been in a few English movies, including "A Most Wanted Man" where he played a Checken on the run from terrorists.  The cinematographer, Pavel Kostonarov, for this film was awarded Most Artistic Achievement at the Berlin Film Festival and has also written, directed and produced short films.  Aleksey Popogrebskiy wrote and directed this movie that is well worth seeing.

"The Vanished Empire" (2008) depicts young adults chasing after Western culture and get entangled in a love triangle.  Directed and produced by Karen Shakhnavarov.

Anton Chekhov wrote a number of stories that have been adapted for the theatre and film around the world such as "Uncle Vanya" which had several versions, but I was only able to watch an English tv version with Anthony Hopkins.  "The Lady with a Dog" (1960 was concerned with a frustrated couple committing adultery because of unhappy marriages.

"Ward no 6" (2009) based on Chekov short story in which a psychiatrist becomes inmate in his previous ward.  He has philosophical talks with intelligent inmate.  Produced by Karen Shakhnavarov

Another great writer who has contributed to world cinema was Nikolai Gogol, who was actually Ukrainian and died in 1898.  Forbidden to write in his native tongue he was a well accepted in Russian.  Many of his books and short stories have been the basis for movies.  Some English language examples are "Inspector General" with Danny Kaye and "Taras Bulba" with Tony Curtis that I saw as a young boy.  Two other noteworthy movies in different languages were "the Overcoat" and "The Forty First."  "The Namesake" was an American-Bollywood film that referred to Gogol in the title.  The parent of the protagonist once survived a train crash holding onto a book by Gogal and decided to name his first born Gogol.  A very enjoyable movie.

"Silent Souls" (2010) is  a love story after the death of the wife with flashbacks, but also reverence given for death rituals. The two lovers were not glamorous emphasizing the beauty of true love.   Won some awards at the Venice Film Festival.

No comedies found in my search.  The closest was "Bury me behind the baseboard" (2009) based on a biographical novel by Pavel Sanaev who himself is noted as a script writer, and director .    The book apparently had lots of humour and not having read the book I thought the film did in fact have some humour using exaggerations (of apparently real events).

"Crime and Punishment" (2007 )was one of the difficult reads for me, but mind boggling, the way Fyodor Doestoevski could get inside the mind.  The only Russian version I could get was a tv mini series (416 minutes spread over 8 episodes).  One of the most classic cat and mouse games with a police inspector angling to get a confession from the protagonist.  Well done.

"My Joy" (2010) belied its title as a story of corruption and violence.  Missed a line where one character is killed for suggesting Ukraine might have been better off if Christian Nazis had won.  What did catch my eye is the director/Writer, Sergei Loznitsa directed "Maidan" about the Ukrainian revolt of 2013/14 from peaceful protest to violence.  Sergei was born and raised in Ukraine, graduating as a scientist/mathematician with an interest in artificial intelligence.  He subsequently studied film in Russia and had been involved in a number of Russian movies.

"Stalingrad" (2013) criticized as not really being the story of the famous battle.  It really is a segment in the middle.  Tries to show Germans as humans.  A romance (really two), but mainly demonstrating Russian resilience, something Americans overlook in their assumption they won the war.

"Pussy Riot:  a Punk Prayer" (2013) really gets into modern protests.  It was produced and directed by Mike Lerner, a documentary maker who has worked with BBC and PBS and Maxim Pozdorovkin, Russian born, Harvard educated.  It is astonishing how much access they were allowed, including the three members of the Pussy Riot and their parents, Vladiimir Putin, and the prosecuting attorney. --Not a secret, but I had been unaware that Putin is aligning himself with the Russian Orthodox church.  The film follows from the obscenity charge up to an appeal with flashbacks.  There is some explicit sex acts depicted as part of an art exhibit.

Russia has always felt a bit of an outsider in Europe, but has indeed contributed to European culture and even world culture.  If we could only get along better with them they would contribute even more.  Unfortunately Russia has fallen back into a dictatorship and have tried to influence European and American elections for their own greedy desperate ends.  But we can appreciate their technical skills and psychological understanding.

Saturday, August 19, 2017


Donald Trump's motives may not be pure (they're not), but he raised an issue that makes me pause for a moment.  It is obvious that statues of Confederate warriors have raised emotions with terrible racial implications.  The removal of some of them has become a point of contention for white racist groups to rally against as a way of asserting their sick beliefs.  On the other hand there are others who think they should all be pulverized.

Perhaps some of us can reduce the issue to a personal level.  In my case I was dismayed to learn that some of my ancestors (on both my mother and father's side) were members of the Orange Lodge.  I imagine they did some good things, but what bothers me is that they were very anti-Catholic.  A few generations later I see Catholics as people first, some of whom are relatives and others are friends.  In Hamilton I am reminded of them almost every weekend when I walk by what used to be an Orange Lodge.  Ironically when their membership ran out of money a group of Catholic Portuguese  took over the building.  When I walk by I feel a small tinge of shame and recognize that hatred is potentially in all of us.

An historical benefactor of the city of Hamilton, Sir Allan McNab was a key person in putting down the Rebellion of 1837.  In theory I sided with the rebels who did in time force changes in the government, but it cannot be denied Sir Allan McNab accomplished a lot of good things.  If you are in the area have a look at Dundurn Castle (I drive by almost every day).

ISIS members demolished some ancient temples that had been standing for over 3,000 years. Westerners believe that proves how barbaric Islamic terrorists  (and by extension all Muslims) are. The radical Islamists felt they were blasphemous.  Many others thought they were beautiful and historical.

Trump suggested that after the Confederate general statues were dismantled that the public would then move on to George Washington and Thomas Jefferson who were both slave owners.  One key difference is that the Confederate generals killed to help break up the country while the founding fathers helped to establish the country.

Thomas Jefferson has been a key figure in two blogs that partially explain his situation.   Edward E Baptist relates just how critical slavery was to the United States and the role played by Thomas Jefferson amongst others;  In a fictional account, Stephen O'Connor speculates, using some historic evidence on Jefferson's relationship with a mulatto slave, Sally Hemmings:

Robert E. Lee after surrendering for the Confederacy had been asked to endorse a statue of himself. He refused saying he felt it would retard the healing process the nation had to undergo.  Isn't that a concern?  Many of the statues were built in the twentieth century as blacks were asserting their rights more effectively and have become a slap to modern blacks.

Many otherwise good people have a blemish on their reputation.  Are we to judge them for their sins or look at the whole person and realize that we are all human and subject to a wide range of faults?

What to do?  History should not be ignored as that causes another set of problems.  But when an offensive statue is placed  in a prominent location those in charge have to decide how to go forth.  Do they want to be known for being offensive to local citizens and visitors?   In some cases a logical place might be a museum where we can be reminded of our past follies.  Racists may well focus on the symbolism of their distorted beliefs, but the rest of us can say that artifact is historical.  What about the empty space left behind?  Sometimes that says a lot, but sooner or later someone will be inspired for something else.

The photo is of the building that used to belong to the Orange Lodge, but now belongs to the Vasco Da Gama football club.  I believe that is King William on his horse fighting the Irish Catholics.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

The Best Kind of People

Many libraries have adopted a practice of singling out a book as a community project.  The Hamilton Public Library for its Hamilton Reads program has selected "The Best Kind of People" by Zoe Whitall.  It covers a theme that we are becoming more aware of.  Sexual offences affects not only the victim and the perpetrator, but families, friends and co-workers.  Too often it catches the by standers totally off guard.  A bolded statement on the back cover sums up what the reader is about to explore, "what if someone you trusted was accused of the unthinkable?"

Zoe depicts a standout character, George Woodbury who everyone admires.  He is a perennial Teacher of the Year who had in one dramatic moment stopped a deranged sniper in a school.  His wife Joan is in charge of the trauma unit at the local hospital.  And their daughter Sadie is school student president and accomplished scholar.  An older son, Andrew lives in New York and is a practicing lawyer and living in an open gay relationship with Jared.  They and others are all due to be impacted.

Very early in the narration the exemplary teacher George is accused of sexual assault and attempted rape from four school girls on a trip supervised by George.  He proclaims his innocence and many people support him, including the mayor.  His family of course disbelieves the accusers not only verbally, but also internally.  The reader is not sure, even to the end.

His guilt or innocence is never really resolved, but that is almost inconsequential.  The focus of the book is on his family who suffer not only the slings and arrows from much of their community, but also self doubt.

A lot of side issues develop including a writer living with the daughter's boyfriend's mother.  He had a successful first novel, but has been wrestling with writing ever since.  The accused's daughter moves in to her boyfriend's house with an understanding and tolerant mother.  The author having problems of motivations becomes inspired by the local "scandal" causing another level of problems and misunderstandings.

I would normally think there is some unnecessary sex, (unnecessary except for marketing) but the author is possibly demonstrating that we are all sexual creatures.  There is a significant marijuana culture involving a few of the characters.

The accused in jail is looking at a long wait for a trial.  In the meantime many assume guilt and the family is scorned or pitied by most.  Support groups and therapy are part of the coping mechanisms and various views are presented.  One that carries through the novel is that males are too often unfairly treated.

The family members all love George and admire him, but come to feel that he might be guilty and question how they should respond.  A sister of Joan's brings up the idea of divorce, which is resisted, but also pondered.

Everyone is changed and generally not for the better.  You the reader may not have given the situation much thought before, but some of you will get a surprise in the future and maybe this book will give you a little helpful perspective

The author, Zoe Whitall now has four novels and 3 poetry collections under her belt.  Her first book, "Bottle Rocket Hearts" was acknowledged by the Globe and Mail as Best book of the year.  She also received a Dayne Ogilvy grant.  "The Best Kind of People was short listed for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. as well as being a Heather's Pick at Indigo.  She also published a book written for adults with low literary skills.  Born and raised in Quebec she is now living in Toronto where she contributes to magazines and is working on a television show.  She will attend meetings where the public can meet her in October.  You can learn more about her at:

The Hamilton Public Library  partnering with the Sexual Assault Center for Hamilton and Area  with a number of workshops including, homophobia (and sexism, etc), indigenous sexual violence, allying with survivors, male sexual abuse and much more.  There are still a few opportunities to get involved left and if you are interested go to:

To read about 2016 reading programs for both the Hamilton and Burlington libraries check this link: