FILM / Happiness is making a Bolshevik laugh

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The Independent Culture
TWO OF the unrecognised greats of film history meet at the start of The Last Bolshevik, now in rep at the ICA. In front of the camera, in 1985, the Russian director Alexander Medvedkin, as old as the century whose turbulence is reflected in his battered but buoyant old face: a film-maker lost and found, and a true artist as well as a true believer. Behind the camera, eerily self-effacing as ever, Chris Marker (born Christian-Francois Bouche-Villeneuve), who rode the French New Wave away from drama to the Rive Gauche and its politics, to create his own brand of documentary.

Watching a Marker film is like reading a letter from a writer with a grasshopper mind and a mordant, understated wit. Images and apercus rush at you. His celebrated Sunless (1983), also at the ICA, is a collage of Japanese life - its festivals, rituals, worn-out commuters and rampant technology - with detours to Africa and Hitchcock's Vertigo. Marker's commentary is spoken by a young woman with a voice of computer cool tinged with feeling. She reports his observations as if recalling them from his letters: a moving masking of forthrightness in tentativeness. There's always a sense of loss in Marker's films. Their subject is memory and its deceptions, and photography's fickleness. When Marker speaks of James Stewart's character in Vertigo as 'time's fool of love, finding it impossible to live with a memory of love without falsifying it', he's justifying his own irony and fragmentation.

By Marker standards, The Last Bolshevik is straightforward: a biography of Medvedkin from his birth in 1900 to his death at the dawn of perestroika. But it

contains multitudes. Towards the end, Medvedkin describes his life and those of his contemporaries as like black holes: 'They're only a few cubic inches, but weigh several tons.' Marker sifts through the mass to find a heap of genius and a pile of political folly. The film becomes a study of the cramped conditions of art under totalitarianism. Medvedkin never wavered from his Bolshevism. At his worst, he churned out propaganda for Stalin of May Day parades with fresh- faced peasant women and moustachioed men singing and dancing in fairy-tale fervour. At his best, he made Happiness. Filmed in 1934, at the last hurrah of the silent era, Happiness shows, in Eisenstein's words, 'how a Bolshevik laughs'.

A starving peasant, ribs pressing through his skin, is commanded by his towering, overbearing wife: 'Go fetch happiness and don't come back empty-handed.' Combining the resonance of myth with the capers of Fred Karno, it feels like a slapstick Divine Comedy. Marker argues, harshly, that the film is marred by Stalinist contempt. But mainly it seems a cry against a thrifty, rapacious world, where, as in one glorious scene, even your house can be swiped.

Art slips the leash of dogma.

Happiness was discovered by Marker at the Brussels Cinematheque in the Sixties. Later, footage was unearthed of peasant life in the Thirties, shot by Medvedkin on his film-train - an attempt to take cinema to the masses, a replica of which is now housed at MOMI. It was like finding a Rembrandt in the attic, and Marker conveys the 'pinching of the heart' he felt. But his rapture has been muted by the realisation that it is fool's gold. He links Medvedkin to other Soviet film-makers who lied with the image, prosecuting Eisenstein for the fake storming of the Winter Palace handed to history, and, in a virtuoso critique, savaging the Odessa Steps sequence in Battleship Potemkin.

As ever, you needn't buy the argument (or even fully understand it) to enjoy Marker's film. You can relish a pithy script (powerfully delivered by Michael Pennington), fluid, labyrinthine editing and elegant compositions. Marker's art is both serendipitous and considered: a treasure trove of images and thoughts. Long after the rancour has faded, you'll remember churchgoers' haunted, reverent faces lit by candle; the neon headlines in Times Square at Stalin's death ('HE'S DYING . . . HE'S DYING . . . HE'S DEAD'); and a worker in 1992, who observes: 'Ruining a country is easy. Doing it in five years - that's something.' So ended the dream Medvedkin didn't live to see out. Marker describes Medvedkin's kind as 'dinosaurs' - noting, with topical wit, that the young love them. Marker is a more regular lizard: darting, elusive, but with his own chilly brilliance.

Chantal Akerman, too, has roots in the French New Wave and independent film-making, and directed a Markeresque portait of New York in American Stories (1988). Her new feature, Nuit et Jour (15), has a documentary attentiveness. Its heroine, jolie laide Julie (Guillaine Londez), lives in an apartment in Paris with her lover Jack (Thomas Langmann), a taxi- driver who looks like a male model. They're the sort of couple that can't walk down the stairs without stopping to embrace. Akerman emphasises their closeness in composition: Jack shaves, and we see Julie in the foreground ironing. Jack works nights, and they spend the days in bed without sleeping much. When Joseph (Francois Negret), who takes the cab by day, enters looking like a young Sacha Distel, you bet your bottom franc on a love triangle.

And soon Julie is living in romantic equilibrium, dividing her nights and days between the two. Akerman, with glacial detachment, traces the waning of both affairs, with shots of togetherness giving way to rapid cuts between lovers, like televised tennis rallies. But like any relationship founded on sex, it gets dull. And there's a voice-over telling us the things we'd rather see ('But when he kissed her, it wasn't the same as before . . .'). The narration says too much, and the film too little.

Stephen Frears' The Snapper (15) bounds from small screen to large, its details of Irish home and pub life benefiting from the larger canvas. So, too, does Tina Kellegher's wonderful performance as Sharon, suffering stoically with her unplanned pregnancy, while the world whirls about her: the living-room a Beirut of siblings and parents; her girlfriends bursting their layered make-up in mirth. Scripted by Roddy Doyle, The Snapper is free of the imported gags of Alan Parker's film of Doyle's The Commitments. It's not quite so funny, but more authentic.

From earthy realism to airy escapism in Puerto Escondido (15), which switches from the pigeons and piazzas of Milan to Mexican beaches and palms. A Milanese banker and a crooked police chief retreat there for a Ronnie Biggs- style idyll with some locals and a fighting-cock called Tyson. We're back with the feel-good, get-away- from-it-all message of director Gabriele Salvatores' previous film, Mediterraneo. Had we but world enough and time this plodding picaresque would be no crime. As it is, the charm wears a little thin.

Tom and Jerry: the Movie (U) is a travesty. Glasnost has broken out: the cat has had his claws clipped, the mouse no longer roars. Worse, they have voices: a camp falsetto for Tom, a wiseacre squeak for Jerry. There's an adventure with a corn-haired orphan, some gruesome song and dance, but little of the exhilarating, resourceful violence of old. Even so, it's better than Teenage Mutant Turtles III (PG), whose frog-faced heroes are still called Michelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael and Donatello - an example of culture's zenith lending names to its nadir.

(Photograph omitted)