Charles Burnett, Killer of Sheep, 1977, stills from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 83 minutes.


THE FIRST IMAGE of Charles Burnett’s 1977 film Killer of Sheep is a child’s face, wet-eyed, as he stands castigated for not standing up for his brother in a fight. Inaction replaces wrath in this prologue, but the father’s punishing speech still resounds as the archetypal tale of fraternal responsibility: Cain and Abel. When the man yells, “You ain’t got nobody but your brother,” it is as if he is responding to the boy’s silent, biblical question. Yes, you are your brother’s keeper. The symbolic weight is made heavier by the fact that this particular family is not the heart of any ensuing drama.

Much has been written about the genealogy of Burnett’s film, its stylistic and thematic connections to Italian Neorealism, French New Wave, British social documentary, and the revolutionary impulses of Third Cinema. Rarely, however, has religion entered into critical conversations about Killer of Sheep. Burnett’s main characters never set foot in a church. On the contrary, the only time we see family and friends dressed up and piled into a car for what might be a Sunday outing, their destination is not the chapel but the racetrack. Nevertheless, Burnett’s leading man, Stan, is clearly plagued by an increasing spiritual aimlessness. Here is a person who cannot sleep, cannot have sex with his wife, who proclaims that he is “just working [himself] into [his] own hell.” That work takes place at a slaughterhouse, no less, where Stan leads crowds of sheep hurriedly to their death.

Stan’s ennui reverberates in the film’s structure, which only loosely connects a series of bleak vignettes. One minute, Stan and a friend are laboring to get a crusty used motor onto their truck and home in one piece (it doesn’t make it). The next, children are bounding across the roofs of apartment complexes with seeming invincibility. Scenes of children at play repeatedly punctuate Killer of Sheep, yet there are no playgrounds in sight, just the occasional “raggedy-ass bike.” The lack of safe, structured recreational facilities marks the extreme divestment in the black community of post-Rebellion Watts, but, as Jacqueline Stewart points out in her essay “Defending Black Imagination,” the physical landscape as depicted by Burnett also underscores “the interconnectedness of the threats to black bodies and minds in South Los Angeles.”

Frequent scenes throughout show children pelting both the barren ground and one another with rocks—a reminder of their limited options but also of the film’s first invocation of fraternal accountability. If the crucial question is whether we are our brothers’ keepers, we should remember in such scenes that Cain struck Abel (a shepherd) with a stone. At the same time, they recall the New Testament caveat that only he who is without sin can strike another, setting up a call to concepts of Christian brotherhood that dovetail with the calls to power through community responsibility at the core of black political activism at the time—a viewpoint never expressly articulated by Burnett’s characters.

In the key scene where Stan and his friend are lugging the motor, Stan repeatedly asks for help pushing it further up onto the truck’s bed. His friend ignores his pleas and as expected the motor goes tumbling as soon as the truck starts. The men drive off, leaving the hunk of junk in the middle of the street for someone else to deal with. Burnett never expected the film to be seen widely by audiences, black or otherwise—and even after its theatrical and DVD release thirty years later its reception continues to be limited. Still, the touchstone of Killer of Sheep is our obligation to our fellow man. Will we help our brothers, lead them to slaughter, or will we strike them ourselves?

Cameron Shaw

Killer of Sheep screens Tuesday, April 10 at the BAMcinématek as part of the Ghett’Out Film Festival.

Left: Valérie Mitteaux, Girl or Boy, My Sex is Not My Gender, 2011, still from a color film, 61 minutes. Right: Kashou Iizuka, Our Future, 2011, still from a color film, 75 minutes.


WITH ITS FUTURE UNCERTAIN owing to recent Arts Council funding cuts, the London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival (March 23–April 1) returned with a bang this year, defying anyone who conjectured that it might lose its place as the cream of the queer-festival-circuit crop. In fact, the only real complaint heard among foreign delegates was that hardly anyone stepped foot outside the British Film Institute all week—a testament to the cornucopia of temptations comprising this year’s program.

Indeed, connoisseurs and cognoscenti had a lot to juggle: a newly restored offering of Peter de Rome’s Super 8 porn films from the 1960s; the joy-killing hustlers of Gaël Morel’s Our Paradise; and a much-talked-about biography of film historian and activist Vito Russo. Among the shorts, notable contributions came from festival stalwart Charles Lum, whose Last Kiss depicts the transformation of Oscar Wilde’s final resting place, and Stéphane Reithauser’s Prora, a vision of young love in a deserted Nazi holiday camp.

The coming-of-age/coming-out film has been a staple of queer cinema since people started disclosing nonhetero identities on screen, and while the subgenre often tends toward formulaic stultification, this year’s program offered evidence that it can teach us something about the here and now. There are still parts of the world where “coming out” is a risk (or even an impossibility), as Maryam Keshavarz’s Circumstance attests. Winner of the audience award at Sundance, the film explores a relationship between two teenage girls in contemporary Tehran, capital of a country whose government barely sees women as humans, let alone sexual beings. Our Future, on the other hand, details the daily humiliations experienced by a transboy growing up in a small town in Japan, demonstrating that bullying is not just a US phenomenon, and that oppression and exclusion of trans people is nearly always supported, even generated, by institutions. (“If you can’t wear a uniform, don’t come to school.”)

In fact, the festival was commendable for showcasing an array of cinema that interrogates the imagined (and thus very real) border at the heart of the gender binary. The need for an expansion of queer consciousness was evident from films like Sexing the Transman by FTM porn star Buck Angel, which uses an occasionally awkward juxtaposition of talking-head interviews and explicit sex scenes to affirm the power of pussy—even when it comes attached to a male body. Of course, a lot has happened since Monika Treut gave us Gendernauts in 1999, the last major documentary on transmen. We’re currently living in an era of trans revolution, and Valérie Mitteaux’s Girl or Boy, My Sex Is Not My Gender focuses on some of the more notable luminaries, including Lynnee Breedlove and Rocco Kayiatos, animating the movement. Then there’s The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye, perhaps the most important documentary on transgender issues in recent years precisely because it stops short of explicitly addressing trans politics. Director Marie Losier’s less-is-more approach aptly contrasts with the lived maximalism of its heroes’ endeavor to transform themselves into each other, and the result is near perfect.

Of course, some of us just wanted to rock. We weren’t disappointed. Popular music is one of the few places where queers have been able to hide in the open for the past half century—or is it? Jobriath A.D., a brilliant new documentary on the sole openly gay—and now largely forgotten—glam rock artist from the 1970s, depicts a tragic case of “too much too soon.” In the “Whatever happened to . . . ?” department, P. David Ebersole’s Hit So Hard follows Patty Schemel, a former drummer for Hole, who found redemption after a downward spiral into drug addiction and homelessness. A classic though somewhat conventional take on the survival-story genre, it features some fascinating gossip and road stories from Courtney and co.

While a case could (rightly) be made that renegade, experimental work—of which there is plenty in the world of queer cinema—was largely ignored, the strength of this year’s program lay in its tightly knit thematic perspective. The implicit significance of the festival’s position is melancholic: These cinematic paeans to shame, regret, self-destruction, and the looming threat of loss affirm that many burdens continue to weigh on those with marginalized sexual and gender identities, no matter how “progressive” we imagine ourselves to have become in the urban West.

Travis Jeppesen

The 26th BFI London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival ran March 23–April 1.

Lena Dunham, Girls, 2012–, still from a TV show on HBO. Left: Jessa, Hannah, Shoshanna (Jemima Kirke, Lena Dunham, and Zosia Mamet). Right: Hannah (Lena Dunham). Photos: Jojo Whilden / HBO.


THE CHRISTMAS after I moved to New York, my mom gave me the complete DVD set of Seinfeld. “Piper,” she said, “your real life is like Carrie Bradshaw, why not try some Kramer?” If only we all lived in a rent-controlled, West Village apartment with a boatload of disposable Manolo Blahniks (remember when those were “in”?) monetizing whinings-on about boys and the dramas of imaginary people. Instead I, like my friends, lived with college coeds in a shabby unchic Morningside Heights eighth-floor walkup. The freshest fashion was sported by advanced elderly moonlighting in nightgowns on Riverside Drive, and I whined on about my boy problems to anyone and everyone for free. In reality, I already lived the life of Elaine.

There’s That Girl (1966), Working Girl (1988), Word Girl (2006), Golden Girls (1985–1992), Gilmore Girls (2000–2007), Mean Girls (2004), Gossip Girl (2007–), and “I Kissed a Girl” (2008) #thanksKatyPerry, and now there’s Lena Dunham’s Girls, the writer-director’s hotly anticipated HBO sitcom, produced by Judd Apatow, which condenses the title and focuses the subject matter, and which premieres April 15. (FYI, I think Sophia Petrillo got more action than Blanche, Lorelai, and Serena combined.)

With the mass appeal of a girl-on-girl construct, it’s curious that there hasn’t been a female-powered TV event since Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Murphy Brown. Dunham put it best while kvetching around with idol/mentor Nora Ephron at BAM on Monday night for Dunham’s curated series of ovarian-centric flicks: “Everyone lampoons female drama. No one in the industry says, ‘We’ve done our three dude shows—sorry brah, we’ve met our quota.’” Yet that is exactly the response from balding bigwigs when it comes to ugh, god, the “women subject.” Apparently ladies don’t go to the movies, watch TV, or contribute any points to the Nielsen ratings. Oh, and Oprah doesn’t exist either. (Sorry, but Lifetime, the channel for women and gay men, can’t cut it.)

Question: Why wouldn’t women be drawn to a narrative about, um, women? “It’s frightening when you make something that can’t be remade into a video game,” Ephron explained. How exactly would the Angela Chase avatar navigate through the 3-D gameworld of My So-Called Life? Would there be a level called, “I’m, like, so over Jordan Catalano?” I hate the exec that pulled that plug. You forgive but never forget, or whatever.

Anyhow, here are some hot tips from Ephron: Never cry in front of a male film executive, and if you do, blame it on your sinus infection; one missable event before you die is yet another panel about women in film; and, lastly, no matter if you’re a man or woman, if you don’t really want it, and want it badly, it’s not going to happen for you, OK? Oh, and she was fifty when she directed her first film, so if you think you’re wont to win an Oscar before thirty, you won’t.

For Ephron, directing grew from her writing. You get aged out of writing screenplays, she explained, whereas a director’s career has more longevity. After seminal scripts Silkwood (1983), Heartburn (1986), and When Harry Met Sally . . . (1989), Ephron decided that she could screw up a film just as well as the next guy. Her directorial debut, This Is My Life (1992), adapted with her sister Delia from the Meg Wolitzer novel, can prep any twenty- to thirtysomething for the tug-of-war called motherhood—balancing the thing you love more than anything else (your kids) with that thing you love more than anything else (your job). Ephron’s protagonist—skin-care saleswoman–cum-comedian Dottie Ingels says—“If your kids could choose between a suicidal mother in the next room or a mother in ecstasy in Hawaii, they’d choose the suicide.” As acted by Julie Kavner, aka the voice of Marge Simpson.

Dottie and children Opal and Erica explore the scarier and softer sides of growing pains and women relations. Dunham’s forthcoming Girls, a sitcom about four twentysomethings in New York, goes someplace dark, but doesn’t stay there too long. My personal favorite moment comes during the pilot’s opener, when Marnie (Allison Williams) speaks about her saccharine-sweet feely boyfriend, whose touch is starting to resemble that of a “weird uncle at Thanksgiving.” While the friends are bathing together, Lena’s character, Hannah, demands, “What does it even feel like to be loved that much?” A toweled Marnie brutally responds, “I don’t know, I can’t feel it anymore. It makes me feel like such a bitch.” Finally, a realistic woman problem broadcast on TV. Not your speed? There are missed abortion parties, STD diagnoses, vaginal exams, lots of raunchy sex, inappropriate job interviews, older men, masturbation, and even an awkward kinda-hot-dad-of-the-kids-you-babysit asking you to smoke pot, and all that messy, awkward, breathtakingly wonderful, exciting emo experience that comes to you for the first time when you’re twenty-four and -five. The show’s real market strength, its quotability, could also be its greatest weakness. Almost all of the characters seem to spew Lena, er, Hannah, at one point or another. But don’t worry, so will you.

You used to be either Elaine or Carrie, making your way through the big bad world of big men and bad sex in the Big Apple. Now, thankfully, you can be a Hannah, living in Greenpoint, trying to make it as a writer, having sex with a guy you love but who won’t date you. If you don’t have HBO, are unwilling to participate in the TV event, and/or are incapable of getting to BAM this week, you can always alight upon Dunham’s Twitter feed for a fix, where last night, she retweeted a quote from Ephron on the making of Sleepless in Seattle (1993): “No, I didn’t sleep with Sven Nykvist. I’m one of the only people who didn’t.”

Piper Marshall

Girls premieres April 15 on HBO. “Hey, Girlfriend! Lena Dunham Selects” runs through April 8 at BAMcinématek in Brooklyn.

Pussy Galore

03.26.12

Edward Dmytryk, Walk on the Wild Side, 1962, stills from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 114 minutes. Left: Dove Linkhorn and Hallie Gerard (Laurence Harvey and Capucine). Right: Kitty Twist (Jane Fonda).


EDWARD DMYTRYK’S spectacularly lurid melodrama centering around a New Orleans cathouse begins, appropriately enough, with a sleek black feline on the prowl, slinking in step to Elmer Bernstein’s jazz score as the Saul Bass–designed titles list the star-glutted cast. Very loosely based on Nelson Algren’s 1956 novel of the same name, Walk on the Wild Side, set in the early 1930s, features one actress on the rise—Jane Fonda, in her second movie, plays juvie nympho Kitty Twist (the name continuing the cat fancy)—and a legend near the end of her film career. Fifty-four at the time of Walk on the Wild Side’s release in 1962, Barbara Stanwyck, as Jo, the dykey madam of the Doll House, would appear in only two more movies afterward (Roustabout and The Night Walker, both from 1964), though she stayed active on the small screen well into her seventies.

The other performers, enjoying disparate levels of celebrity in the early ’60s, tackle their respective lingual challenges in Walk on the Wild Side with varying degrees of proficiency. Euro-suave Laurence Harvey stumbles with his Lone Star drawl as Texan farmer Dove; lily-white Anne Baxter, with a jet-black fall and Spanish accent, utters a passable “Vaya con Dios” as the café owner Teresina. And mononymed French model/actress Capucine, as Hallie, the Doll House’s main attraction, wearily speaks in the idioms of the melancholic Continental sophisticate inexplicably turned doxy: “I’m a sculptress. Or rather, I used to be before I fell down the well.”

As sticky, damp, and feverish as its Big Easy setting, the plot of Walk on the Wild Side is set in motion by the woman Dove masochistically pursues—Hallie—and those he rejects. Hitchhiking from his home of Arroyo, Texas, where he spent an unforgettable summer with the tragic beauty three years earlier, to New Orleans, where he hopes to ask Hallie to marry him (her letters didn’t specify her new profession), Dove meets Kitty, a teenage runaway from an orphanage in Kentucky. The minor (Fonda was twenty-three during shooting) puts the moves on the one-woman man, who rebuffs her—as Dove will later turn down big-hearted martyr Teresina’s offer: “I love enough for two.” He eventually finds his inamorata in the French Quarter, though it takes him a while to figure out what else Hallie does in her room in the Creole town house on Chartres Street besides dabble in the beaux arts. Dove is also unaware that he has a rival: manipulative lez Jo, who’s brainwashed Hallie into sapphic Stockholm syndrome—and whose “unnatural” leanings have something to do with a legless man on the Doll House payroll, scooting himself around three inches above ground level.

Beyond its role as a fascinating case study of waxing and waning stardom, Walk on the Wild Side was, as Vito Russo points out in The Celluloid Closet (1981), one of three films with homosexual themes released in the first half of 1962, along with The Children’s Hour and Advise & Consent. “Jo’s acceptance of her own lesbianism is part of her villainy,” Russo writes. And a large part of this perverse film’s appeal.

Melissa Anderson

Walk on the Wild Side screens April 1 at BAMcinématek as part of its “New Orleans on Film” series (March 28–April 1 and 8).

Left: A view of “Tarkovsky Interruptus” at the New School, March 10, 2012. Right: Andrei Tarkovsky, Stalker, 1979, color film in 35 mm, 163 minutes. Production still.


OK, I CONFESS: I went to the Wikipedia page for Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979) to double-check something for this piece. I did this despite the fact that, ontologically speaking, Tarkovsky and Wikipedia couldn’t be more incompatible: one man’s brilliant (if at times gnomic), expansive, autocratic vision vs. a mediocre, bite-size, consensus version of reality hashed out by a virtual rabble of bickering volunteer librarians. I wouldn’t risk admitting this if the page didn’t contain something as unbearably perfect for its subject as this generic Wiki admonishment: “This article’s plot summary may be too long or excessively detailed. Please help improve it by removing unnecessary details and making it more concise.” (Cue Tarkovsky groaning painfully from his grave.)

What makes this even funnier is that the Russian master director, known for his films’ glacial pace and insanely contemplative passages, was actually scolded in a similar way by the Soviet film board when they screened an early cut of Stalker. They felt the beginning was too slow and long. Bear in mind that by this point they’d already funded and released Solaris (1972) and Mirror (1975), neither exactly The Bourne Ultimatum (2007) in terms of tempo. Saying they were only taking the perspective of potential audiences, the officials were quickly set straight by Tarkovsky: “I am only interested in the views of two people: One is called Bresson and one called Bergman.” (I am endlessly amused by the idea of Tarkovsky taking a career advice meeting with Swifty Lazar.)

This was one of many anecdotes and off-the-cuff analyses about Stalker on offer during a screening-plus-panel-discussion last Saturday evening in a packed auditorium at the New School. Organized by the NYU Institute for the Humanities and keyed to a new book on the film by British author Geoff Dyer, Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room, the appropriately named “Tarkovsky Interruptus” consisted of a projected DVD showing of the film, periodically paused to allow the six-person panel to comment on what had just transpired on-screen. Dyer was joined by Walter Murch, the sound and film editor, best known for his 1970s work with Francis Coppola; novelist Francine Prose; filmmaker Michael Benson; author Philip Lopate; and film critic Dana Stevens.

Before the screening began, Dyer delivered a brief introduction. Calling the event’s format a “potentially irritating way to see Stalker,” he asked for a show of hands from those who’d previously seen it. About 50 percent. He warned the other half that the movie “does not move at the pace of a James Bond film, but is never more boring than a James Bond film.” (Dyer is a deliciously Bernhardian high priest of complaint, often about mainstream culture.) He apologized that the we wouldn’t be watching celluloid—apparently, not one print of Stalker currently resides on North American soil—and recounted the difficulties he and his publisher had had in finding a proper still for the book’s cover, an international intrigue that Dyer compared to a John le Carré novel.

Recalling his first viewing of the film during its initial run in England (1981), he said that Stalker changed the way he sees the world. “People like to think of Tarkovsky as persecuted by the [Soviet] system, but he got the money for films that couldn’t have been made in the West due to the other type of censorship—the censorship of the market.” He described the arduous, troubled production process of the film—a year’s worth of footage lost to a developing error, cinematographers leaving or being fired, the film board almost pulling the plug, etc.—and then the lights dimmed for the screening.

Left: Robert Polito, Francine Prose, Phillip Lopate, Michael Benson, Walter Murch, and Dana Stevens at “Tarkovsky Interruptus” at the New School, March 10, 2012. Right: Andrei Tarkovsky, Stalker, 1979, color film in 35 mm, 163 minutes. Production still.


I’ll spare you a plot summary that may be too long or excessively detailed. Suffice to say that the movie is about the titular Stalker, a poor, ascetic tour guide of sorts, who for a fee takes visitors to a forbidden Zone in the country that has been cordoned off and is guarded with lethal force by the military. Legend has it that a meteor or even a spaceship landed there years ago, and odd things started happening in the area. Unable to “tame” or figure out the secrets of the Zone’s invisible force, the military abandoned buildings, tanks and jeeps, and other industrial detritus to the creeping tendrils and severe water damage of nature. Legend also has it that in one of the rotting buildings is a room that will grant the innermost wish of any who enter it. In the film, Stalker takes Writer (an “in” novelist worried that he’s lost his inspiration) and Professor (a dour physicist) to the Zone, where they slowly and tortuously make their way to the threshold of the Room, all the while talking endlessly about art, science, life, doubt, and faith. It is relentlessly bleak, achingly beautiful, and truly one of the masterpieces of the medium.

The first pause came after the trio mounted the gas-propelled train trolley that would take them out of the city and into the Zone. The panel ascended to the stage. Murch, recounting the pacing dispute with the film board, said that he and Coppola had a similar argument, “capitalist style,” when they were making The Conversation (1974): “If you speed it up, you draw the wrong kind of audience” (one that doesn’t include Bresson and Bergman, presumably). Benson, who was partly raised in the Soviet Union by his scholar-diplomat parents, said Writer and Professor were near parodies of certain types of Brezhnev-era, late Soviet Muscovites, and noted that there was subtle sociopolitical commentary seeded throughout the film. Stalker’s various rules for negotiating the Zone, ostensibly to avoid invisible yet fatal “traps,” reminded Benson of the most common phrase he remembered hearing in Russian during his youth, “It is not allowed.”

The film was paused again at the end of Part I. Dyer and Stevens discussed how the camera POV is slightly off in the Zone, as if the Zone itself were sentient and “following” the three men, a horror cinematography trope that Tarkovsky raises to the level of art throughout. Queried about Stalker’s striking sound design—nature sounds processed through synthesizers, music blending ancient instruments with electronics, European melodies and Eastern instruments—Murch noted that all of the sound and dialogue was dubbed after the fact, with a unique use of sound effects that was inventive if technically a bit crude. Murch also recalled that Coppola wanted to build a surround-sound movie theater in the geographic center of the United States that would exclusively play Apocalypse Now (1979), a film with which Stalker has many parallels in content and creation.

Dyer said the film was “haunted by the Gulag” and “prophetic of Chernobyl.” Prose characterized an insecure rant by Writer, moaning about readers, critics, and sales, as “what all artists worry about late at night.” “It’s so Russian,” Lopate exclaimed. “They just sit around talking about their wasted lives. Chekhovian.” He continued, however, that he was sometimes resistant to Tarkovsky because some of the writing evoked Chekhov without being quite good enough to compete with him. After screening the coda of the film—a handful of scenes after the return from the Zone—Dyer announced that the trick shot of Stalker carrying his lame daughter on his shoulders (shot high and in profile, she appears to be “walking” until the camera pulls back) was for him one of the most profound moments in all of art. Benson said that his seven-year-old son, who was weaned on the quick-cut aesthetics of the Cartoon Network, once watched Stalker by himself, start to finish, without being able to read the subtitles, and later invited a young friend over to watch it with him again. The film is “constructed in a way to accommodate multiple interpretations,” Murch concurred.

Andrew Hultkrans

Left: Aleksei Guerman, My Friend Ivan Lapshin, 1984, still from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 100 minutes. Right: Aleksei Guerman and Grigori Aronov, The Seventh Companion, 1967, still from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 89 minutes.


AMONG THE MOST IMPORTANT RETROSPECTIVES IN YEARS, “War and Remembrance: The Films of Aleksei Guerman” is also a bracing, deeply satisfying cinematic experience. Though the Russian director’s output is small, his track record is flawless. All five of his features are being screened in this, his first retrospective in North America, along with The Fall of Otrar (1991, directed by Ardak Amirkulov), a curious, almost minimalist epic about Genghis Khan, which Guerman produced and cowrote in the lull between My Friend Ivan Lapshin (1984), his first international success, and Khrustalyov, My Car! (1998), an exhilarating comic masterpiece and one of the great films of the 1990s.

The series is an instructive journey through the Stalinist period of Soviet history as well as an illuminating chronicle of a filmmaker whose work, often plagued by forced delays and loss of funding, has been overshadowed, perhaps unfairly, by such masterful stylists as Andrei Tarkovsky and Aleksandr Sokurov. While those filmmakers often tended toward the metaphysical, Guerman’s reflections on war and ideology are grounded in a concrete social and political reality. Still, the stylistic shift from his first four films to Khrustalyov, My Car! is dazzling—like stumbling upon Fellini’s wildly dreamlike 8 1/2 (1963) after having seen his Neorealist films. Though all five of Guerman’s features warrant attention, space permits focus only on three.

While Guerman can be sardonic, his lack of rancor places him among the finest filmmaker-commentators on the human condition. This is evident in his parabolic first feature, The Seventh Companion (1967, codirected by Grigori Aronov), whose protagonist, retired general and lawyer Adamov (Andrei Popov), questions his role in czarist Russia when he is arrested by the Reds. Though Adamov is released when his captors learn that he acted in the proper revolutionary spirit in an incident of 1905, he finds himself ousted from his apartment by a proletarian housing committee. After visiting colleagues from the old days, he offers his services to the Bolsheviks, but this proves untenable when he witnesses violations of military law. The essence of Adamov’s moral plight in an ideologically driven, ethically confused society is poetically captured when, sitting astride a white horse, Red Army cap atop his head, he and the amiable partisan he has befriended journey unwittingly into the enemy’s camp. A displaced Don Quixote accompanied by his Sancho Panza, he refuses to explain his dilemma to an obtuse White officer and is summarily executed along with his comrade.

Ambivalence also haunts Lazarev (Vladimir Zamanskiy), the protagonist of Trial on the Road. (Although made in 1971, the film went unreleased until 1984 because of political objections.) Set during the Second World War, it begins when Lazarev, a partisan officer who deserted to the Germans for reasons never made clear, returns to become a prisoner in his own army. A man of few words, like Adamov, he declares, “I didn’t make the choice—the path chose me.” Guerman pits hard-line Soviets against compassionate ones. The same officer who refuses to blow up a bridge while a train of prisoners is crossing it entrusts Lazarev with missions, while a senior officer orders Lazarev to be executed as a traitor. Lazarev reaches a breaking point, botches a suicide attempt, and, in a final mission to derail enemy trains, is driven to an outburst of violence that vents his psychological torment while it perversely proves his “loyalty” to the revolution. Bravura filmmaking at its best, the final sequence exhibits Guerman’s command of perspective and orchestration of action, and an instinctive balance between cutting and long takes—all the time registering the maniacal state of his protagonist.

Aleksei Guerman, Khrustalyov, My Car!, 1998, still from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 150 minutes.


None of the earlier work prepares us for Khrustalyov, My Car!, Guerman’s phantasmagoric satire, conjuring a bizarre, nightmarish Moscow in 1953. Fleeting allusions to the “Doctors’ Plot”—a conspiracy, contrived by Stalin, accusing Jewish doctors of poisoning and misdiagnosing illnesses of high officials—account for the paranoia that pervades the atmosphere: Busts of the dictator are everywhere. Ultimately, it triggers the climactic fantasy in which the protagonist, Surgeon General Klensky (Yuri Tsurilo), is solicited to save the dying Stalin. With its relentless pace and myriad details, its farcical tone and brilliant camerawork, the film is impossible to digest in one viewing. Guerman narrates intermittently, shouting, “That’s me” as young Aleksei materializes just before the title. It’s a self-conscious gesture linked to occasional glances at the camera by several characters. Klensky, Aleksei’s father, is head of a hospital-cum-madhouse, where “unauthorized death is prohibited.” He’s a man who works on open skulls, and whose inspection tour of the maze of misfits and mishaps does not preclude pausing for a blow job from an idolizing staff member—eliciting Klensky’s bemused stare into the camera, as we glimpse the “great father” on a pedestal to the left.

While the camera’s incessant mobility strains to encompass the dizzying array of people, incidents, and places—moving about cluttered apartments as if they were mere extensions of hospital, bathhouse, and bar—there is more method than madness here. The Steadicam’s rush down corridors, off of which lie hidden rooms and secret spaces, constitutes a motif that culminates in a sequence in which Klensky—having absconded, only to be attacked by hooligans and raped by prisoners in a truck—is rescued, forced back into his Doctor/General mode, and led, circuitously and clandestinely, from car to car and place to place until, down a corridor past many rooms, he is ushered into the one where Stalin lies dying. At the heart of the film’s grand but frenetic architectural design, then—as of the society it depicts—is the body of its heartless tyrant. Clueless to his identity, Klensky asks the man in the room (another doctor?) if the patient is his father. “Father? That’s well said,” the fellow remarks. After the leader expires, the man thanks Klensky, declares that “a star has fallen,” and departs, shouting the mundane order that gives the film its title, “Khrustalyov, my car!”

The narrator tells us that when Stalin’s death was announced, his father’s name did not appear among those arrested or killed. But we last see Klensky, atop a train, amusing fellow prisoners on the way to a camp with acrobatic tricks—a role finally compatible with the circus that has been his life. His last words—or the narrator’s—are “Fuck it all!” Given the range of Guerman’s work and the unflagging inventiveness of Khrustalyov, one eagerly anticipates his new film, reportedly premiering at Cannes this spring.

Tony Pipolo

“War and Remembrance: The Films of Aleksei Guerman” runs Wednesday, March 14–Tuesday, March 20 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York.