The Perestroika Cinema

Image: Yayoi Kusama


Considerations on Soviet Cinematography During the Government of Mikhail Gorbachev

the day after is an American telefilm produced by the network ABC, broadcast for the first time on November 20, 1983: more than 100 million people watched it, in almost 39 million households, a record for telefilms. A fictional war between NATO forces and the Warsaw Pact countries quickly escalates into a nuclear hecatomb between the US and the USSR.

It was the first American audiovisual product shown on Soviet state TV, in 1987. At the center of events, the cities of Lawrence and Kansas City, located near Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri – from 1962 to 1993, 351 Minuteman missiles were installed on site. The images are graphic, heavy: even Ronald Reagan, the actor-president, wrote in his diary that the film left him “very depressed”. A Russian critic, on the other hand, complained, when the screenplay was shown in his country: “the strategy of using nuclear weapons in the USSR never considered a preemptive strike. Not so much for the peace of mind (that's a relative thing), but for the lack of sense – heavy missiles fly to targets for about 40 minutes, and a retaliatory strike is launched before the missiles hit the targets.”

In 1987, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which resulted in a significant reduction in their respective nuclear arsenals. After the historic deal, Reagan cabled the director, Nicholas Meyer, "Don't think your movie didn't have some of it, because it did." Nobody saw the telegram, and Meyer himself suggested that "it may have been a joke, but I wouldn't be surprised, he being a old man of Hollywood”.

Joking or not, Ronald Reagan forced the bar on the policy of nuclear confrontation with the Soviets. The Cold War was firmly on the agenda. Brezhnev's successor at the General Secretariat of the Communist Party – the highest position in the USSR – was Yuri Andropov, former head of the KGB: he took over on November 12, 1982 and entered into a collision course with the president in Washington. In September 1983, the supersonic Sukhoi Su-15 shot down the Korean Air Lines Flight 007 Jumbo that would have invaded Russian airspace, killing 269 people (for the Soviets, the flight was hiding a spy mission).

Yuri Andropov, mentor of Gorbachev's rise in the Party, died in early 1984 after a long illness. He was succeeded by Konstantin Chernenko, apparatchik who stood out in the area of ​​propaganda in the 1930s: it must not have been an easy task, it was the hardest period of the Stalinist purges. Konstantin Chernenko followed up on his friend Brezhnev's (insufficient) reforms to lift the economy out of stagnation. Sure enough, he already took office weakened: at Yuri Andropov's funeral he read the speech with difficulty, coughing and choking. After a year in power, secretly dispatched from a hospital due to ill health, he died in March 1985. Ronald Reagan said to his wife Nancy: “Where am I going to get the Russians if they are dying before me?”

It arrived, and soon: in the same month of March. Mikhail Gorbachev was elected by the Politburo leader of the Soviet Union. Mikhail Gorbachev is responsible for one of the most impressive landings of all time: he was the pilot who landed (and neutralized) 70 years of Soviet empire, in the cold war mined and swampy terrain of the late XNUMXth century, full of nuclear warheads and sharp teeth. He changed history: all without shedding a drop of blood. He was, above all, an enlightened leader, almost quixotic, convinced of the power of reason.

His trajectory, from the peasant family to university education, his rise in the Party's devouring and clientelistic machine, and finally his reforms - the glasnost (“transparency”), which increased freedom of speech and press, and the perestroika (“restructuring”), which promoted the decentralization of decisions in the economic sphere – made him, until today, loved around the former USSR and respected in the West, but ostracized in his home country, Russia.

In 1985, he launched a controversial campaign against alcoholism: crimes committed under the influence of alcohol fell, but prices rose by 45%; in 1986, he had to face the nuclear accident at Chernobyl, in Ukraine, which caused a wave of radiation throughout Europe. The reforms finally unleashed a devastating set of destabilizing forces that hit everyone and everything, starting with cinema.


General state of Soviet cinema

And it started, with force: between May 13 and 15, 1986, there was a rehearsal of the perestroika in a single industry, the cinema, true general state of Soviet cinema – the historic Fifth Congress of the Union of Filmmakers. The expression “general state” goes back to the French Revolution, and that's what happened. Directors of Goskino, abbreviated name of the State Committee of Cinematography of the USSR, powerful leaders of the Brezhnev era, like the actor and director Sergei Bondarchuk – responsible for War and peace, the most expensive epic of Soviet cinematography – came crashing down with the liberalizing wave of the new political climate.

Mikhail Gorbachev gave the password at the 27th Congress of the Communist Party, two months earlier, in February: he preached tolerance and political transparency, in itself a radical novelty in the pronouncements of USSR leaders, although still restricted to the rhetorical field. At the Congress of Filmmakers, the watchwords were “Down with diktat of bureaucrats; for the privatization of cinema and introduction in the market; Down with Goskino! save independent cinema!” No Goskino decision, from that moment on, would have any value without the signature of Elem Klimov, the filmmaker elected to lead the Union.

The “Commission of Conflicts” was created, in charge of reviewing the productions stranded on the shelf – in October 1986, it began releasing 17 films, by directors such as Kira Muratova, Andrei Konchalovski, and Alexander Askoldov – the latter author of the stupendous the flight attendant, from 1968, banned that same year and only shown in 1987 (in all, 250 films were reviewed). In the Soviet Union, a state-owned and highly centralized model prevailed: practically no film director with authorial pretensions escaped endless negotiations with the Goskino authorities, from script writing to distribution/exhibition.

Elem Klimov himself suffered: his Agony, about the life of the self-proclaimed saint and family protector of Tsar Nicholas II, Rasputin, began writing in 1966, took seven or eight years to get approved for production and was only released in theaters in 1981. The reasons, the director speculated , would have been the excessive presence of Rasputin on the screen and the softness towards the figure of the Tsar, portrayed as inept, but benevolent and concerned about the family.

But these are just speculations: no one has ever stated the specific reason for the delay in approval. Perhaps one of the most innovative features of Agony – the interpolation of archival films from the time of the heretic monk, which added an unexpected historical concreteness to the narrative – bothered the bureaucrats, since the traditional images of the Communist Revolution, Lenin and co.

Elem Klimov was a colleague of the brilliant Larisa Sheptiko at the film school, VGIK – according to a contemporary, everyone was enchanted with Larisa, and some proposed marriage: the chosen one was Elem Klimov. Your go and see, from 1985, is a masterpiece: set during the Second World War, in Belarus, the sound dimension occupies the foreground of violence and suffocates the audience. In twenty years, she has directed six features and one short, Larisa, from 1980, about his wife, who died prematurely in 1979 in a car accident during the pre-production of the farewell (Klimov completed the film in 1981).

The accident was a trauma: the victims' bodies were unrecognizable, said a horrified Tarkovski. the farewell waited two years to obtain an exhibition license, even then restricted to a limited circuit. Mikhail Gorbachev saw it and liked it, just as he had liked Agony e go and see. Klimov and he got along well, Gorbachev was also fond of the novelist Valentin Rasputin, author of the book that inspired the farewell.

In an interview made in the USA in 1988, the filmmaker stated: “He (Gorbachev) is a person who will make a big difference in the development of our cinematography; he values ​​and loves the art of cinema, as well as art in general”. On that occasion, Elem Klimov revealed that he was exhausted by his leadership work in the Union, but that he was looking forward to returning to directing as soon as possible. On his return to Moscow, he declined his second term: never again, however, would he direct a film.

Born in Stalingrad in 1933 into a family of staunch communists (Elem, the first name, is a triple reference, Engels, Lenin and Marx), this elegant and cultured filmmaker – who believed, like Mikhail Gorbachev, in the possibility of a humane and democratic – commented on the battle in his hometown that changed the course of the war in 1943: “The city was on fire to the top of the sky. The river was also on fire. It was night, bombs were exploding, and mothers would cover their children with whatever bedding they had, then lie on top of them. If you had included (in go and see) everything I knew and showed the whole truth, I myself could not bear to watch it.”


Cinema for Russians, Cinema for Soviets

History was accelerating, this time with the Party leadership unsure of the ultimate goal – would it be a communist society? What did this mean? The liberalizing wave, of which Gorbachev was the apex, infected the social fabric: it would be exaggerated to assume, however, that the structure of social welfare provided by the State would collapse in the first shock – in a way, a good part of this structure resisted and subsists until today. After the turbulence of the 1990s, Vladimir Putin managed to restore the popular perception of stability, with the right dose of authoritarianism, and consolidated himself in power.

But, in the audiovisual spectacle society of the last years of communism, the impact was tremendous. The growing availability of television sets, coupled with the expansion of transmissions, began to cause a gradual reduction in the frequency of movie theaters, the main source of income for the film industry. In the early 1980s, a film that drew less than 15 million viewers was labeled poor, even a commercial failure: by the end of the decade, 95% of Soviet films attracted less than the five million viewers minimally needed to recover. production costs through theatrical release.

The explosion of videocassettes in the second half of the decade, with an unprecedented offer of foreign titles (accompanied by piracy) was a hard blow: North American productions beach girls, infamous soft core from 1982, and Nine kills of the Ninja, from 1985, whose title is self-explanatory, circulated massively in private sessions. In 1983, there was still room for a respected director like Eldar Ryazanov to score number one at the box office, with the romantic comedy station for two, which reached just over 35 million tickets sold: in 1985, the lessons on how to get a husband, assimilated by Nádia from Balzac in The most charming and attractive, by Gerald Bezhanov, drew nearly 45 million viewers. Both films were made under the auspices of Goskino, which stood for moralizing limits on what to show and how to show it.

In the economy, the wave would inevitably contaminate cinema: in July 1988, legislation on cooperatives was approved, triggering a process of decentralization of state ownership and, in the case of audiovisual, allowing the formation of independent producers. Also, in the big studios, Mosfilm for example, changes came rushing in: production people were no longer considered permanent employees; and new entities, the “creative associations”, were established to manage productions, being able to hire and fire workers, lobby for political-financial support and monitor filming and post-production without interference from the studio – the counterpart was the risks of financial return , which started to be assumed by the associations (there were 24 in 1988).

All this led to the dismantling of the rigid system that managed production, distribution and exhibition, fomenting a crisis that, in line with the unprecedented mishaps in the country's macroeconomic scenario, on the verge of a radical transition, would take its toll in the following years. The success of renowned filmmakers at international festivals in the second half of the 1980s masked, to a certain extent, the crisis.

My friend Ivan Lapshin, from 1984, perhaps the best work of the formidable Aleksei German, won the Bronze Leopard in Locarno; Theme, which Gleb Panfilov had performed in 1979, was allowed to participate in the Berlin Film Festival in 1987 and won the Golden Bear; my english grandfather, by Georgian Nana Jorjadze, took the Camera D'Or in Cannes, in 1987; regret without forgiveness – the flagship film of the glasnot – was directed by fellow Georgian Tengiz Abuladze in 1984, released in 1986 and won a special Jury Prize at Cannes, 1987. Completed in 1989, the provocative and corrosive the asthenic syndrome by Kira Muratova, a remarkable language experiment that ruthlessly allegorizes the failure of the system – boasting the dubious title of “the last censored film in the Soviet Union” – was released and won the Silver Bear in Berlin in 1990.

The reason for the censorship of Kira Muratova's film, according to the authorities, was due to an obscene monologue at the end, and nudity in some scenes: the monologue in question is pronounced in “food”, Russian underground rough and scatological slang, widespread in the streets and fields of the Gulag, with centuries-old roots. the asthenic syndrome it is also included in the negative and pessimistic trend popularized in the late 1980s, at the limit of the moral code of the official Soviet culture, known as chernukha.

Visible above all in three areas – literature, cinema and investigative journalism – the trend has spread to perestroika: chernukha suggests, roughly speaking, naturalistic representation and sexuality, including sadistic violence. Two successful films illustrate the concept: Little Vera, box office champion in 1988 with 55 million viewers, brings sex, dysfunctional family, alcoholics, knife fights, and a lot of screaming, epitome chernukha: and, in the following year, intergirl, which made 41 million – the protagonist is a nurse at a public hospital during the day and a prostitute who works with foreigners at night, and ends up receiving a marriage proposal from a Swedish client.

In addition to Kira Muratova, filmmakers such as Aleksandr Sokurov and Pavel Lungin also found aesthetics chernukha a stimulus to dialogue with the new Russian public. save and protect, from 1989, inspired by the Madame Bovary by Flaubert, is one of the most sexualized films by Aleksandr Sokurov, while taxi blues, completed in 1990, depicting the love-hate relationship between a taxi driver and a saxophonist – is the ultimate erosion of proletarian morals.


Cine-amnesia, or how Russia forgot to go to the movies

This is the title of one of the chapters of the excellent book by the American researcher, Nancy Condee, on Russian cinema – The Imperial Trace. The Russians – in the process of liberating themselves from the Soviet armor – forgot to go to movie theaters, in the midst of the historical vertigo that was announced. Unlike previous crises, this time there was no State with a political interest in forging new ideologies for cultural activity, as had occurred in “socialist realism”.

One of the system's reactions, supported by opinion polls, was to blame the films chernukha by the stampede of spectators – the number of productions chernukha of low quality was high, and the mostly conservative audience withdrew. the success of the little vera e intergirl, on the other hand, was evident. What was changing? The abrupt opening to the foreign product was devastating – in 1986, (still) Soviet films accounted for 70% of ticket sales: the few imported from the USA, only 8 out of 107 foreign (mostly Indian) were watched by only 5,4, 1988% of viewers. The 1994 law also broke Goskino's monopoly on international purchases of audiovisual products. Soon, American films proved to be profitable and imposed themselves: in 73, XNUMX% of the market was in the USA.

Andrei Tarkovsky, for many in the West the embodiment of Soviet cinema, left his country for good in 1982: for many in the USSR, he was the very expression of artistic spirituality. Sokurov was hospitalized when he heard the news of Tarkovsky's death in December 1986 over the radio. He wrote in his diary: “At that moment I thought I myself was about to die. The next morning a doctor asked me what was wrong. I told him that Andrei Tarkovsky had died. "And even? And what does that have to do with you?” asked the doctor gently. “Was he related to you?”. “No,” I snapped.

Russian critics often react ambiguously to Tarkovsky's last two films, Nostalgia, from 1983 and The sacrifice, from 1986: they would be two self-indulgent works. Freed from the tortuous Soviet bureaucracy, Tarkovsky would have lost the plumb line of language. Sokurov honored his friend in a magnificent film, Moscow Elegy, initially conceived to celebrate Tarkovsky’s 50th birthday, in 1982 – but, postponed by successive objections from the authorities, it was only completed in 1987.

The historical context is suggested by scenes of the funerals of Brezhnev and Andropov: the particular context, by the sequences of the filmmaker's empty houses, in Russia. At one point, in the soundtrack, Tarkovsky reads his father's poem – “I got sick as a child”. Chris Marker provided images of the hospitalization and funeral in Paris: childhood, exile and death. excerpts from The mirror, Time of travel – documentary for Italian TV made by Tarkovski and Tonino Guerra in 1983 – and Nostalgia they seem to have been extracted from worn sources, as if they were images in the process of cosmic dispersion.

Some material captured on video from the filming of The sacrifice also enters: and the fabulous scene I'm twenty years old, from 1965, where Tarkovsky appears “irritated and unsympathetic”, as the film’s director, Marlen Khutsiev, said. The first showing of Moscow Elegy it was on Dom Kino (Casa do Cinema), headquarters of the Union of Filmmakers, in the capital, when the Soviet Union was living its final moments.

*João Lanari Bo Professor of Cinema at the Faculty of Communication at the University of Brasilia (UnB).


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