Jazz, film, and improvised culture.
Aleksei Guerman at Anthology: My Friend Ivan Lapshin
can you be nostalgic for the bad times? Because they are the old times. For
instance, our narrator looks back rather fondly on the early days of Stalinism.
He and his father were fortunate to share their flat with the local police
constable. That meant there were only five (and later six) people crammed into
the apartment. How spacious. Even without depicting the Stalinist terror, there
is still plenty of scarcity and absurdity in Aleksei Guerman’s My Friend Ivan Lapshin (trailer here), which screens as
part of a mini-Guerman (sometimes translated as German) retrospective now running
at Anthology Film Archives in conjunction with the premiere theatrical release
of Guerman’s Hard to be a God.
is not much sugar in this sleepy village of revolutionary fervor, but there
always seems to be some in Lapshin’s flat. The town will also get a treat in
the form of a traveling agitprop stage performance. The show is a bad as it
sounds, but Lapshin still falls Natasha Adasova, a demur featured actress. They
will have some laughs together, but unfortunately, it will be Lapshin’s
suicidal journalist friend Khanin who turns her head.
Lapshin has another obsession to fall back on: capturing the dreaded Solovyey
gang. It is not clear just what crimes the Solovyey outfit has committed, but
their (comparative) liberty rankles Lapshin. Frankly, they seem to be born out
of the same cloth of economic desperation that gave rise to Bonnie and Clyde—and
their ability to evade justice (probably due to their considerable local
support) arguably undercuts the state’s authority.
thing is certain, everyone spends a good deal of time in queues, struggling
with shortages, except Lapshin, who goes out of his way to bust black market
firewood peddlers. Yet, somehow he seems like a decent fellow, in a rigid,
stentorian sort of way, perhaps because we might guess what sort of trials and
travails lie ahead for him.
Friend is far more accessible and
narrative-driven than HTBAG, the
vibes of the respective films are not so very different. In both cases,
characters exist in a state of constant chaos, yet they live in an environment
of near total stasis. Both films are distinguished by their striking
black-and-white cinematography, but there is something about the dreamy vibe
that keeps us at arm’s length.
Boltnev is commandingly tragic as the severe Lapshin, while Andrey Mironov
makes a strangely charismatic sad sack as Khanin. Nina Ruslanova’s Adasova also
brings sufficient heat to let us buy into their love triangle. Indeed, it is
quite a fine example of ensemble acting, but it is still a rather odd film to
watch, because Guerman is being so deliberately cagey with his
allegorical implications, for obvious reasons.
Nevertheless, Friend was duly banned by the authorities for fourteen years,
finally seeing the light of day in the late 1980s. Reportedly, it was deemed an
insufficiently heroic portrayal of the early days of socialism building. It was
also an awkward, sometimes even sarcastic reminder they had been building
socialism for five decades, but things were as crummy as ever. Recommended as a
fascinating historical document not without its own artistic merits, My Friend Ivan Lapshin screens again
this coming Monday (2/9), as part of the Guerman series at Anthology Film
Labels: Aleksey German, Russian Cinema