22 May 2008

Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears

Another recommendation from Netflix. So, it's not a particularly great movie, but oh man, there's something highly satisfying about it. The film follows three women trying to make it in Moscow, and then jumps ahead 20 years to see what happened to them. It's a whopping two and a half hours long, and is delightfully sprawling and colorful and kind of ridiculous.

So, at the outset, you've got Tonia, Ludmila and Katya. Tonia immediately finds herself a nice country guy and marries him. Katya has just failed her entrance exams for the university, but intends to keep studying and hopefully get in the next year. Ludmila, on the other hand, wants to marry a rich guy. Of course, this involves a lot of scheming and a complex web of lies. Because men don't want a simple factory worker for a wife - they want a cultured, educated, independent woman with a career! Wait, what? They do? GODDAMNIT. I was born too late. Anyhow, conveniently enough, Katya's uncle goes out of town, so Ludmila and Katya set themselves up there and pose as wealthy educated socialites. It's highly reminiscent of How To Marry a Millionaire, the classic 1953 comedy starring Lauren Bacall, Marilyn Monroe and Betty Grable, except that where that movie is kind of ironic and gently pokes fun at its heroines, this film seems far more earnest. Anyhow, the usual complications arise, except maybe more so, Katya is crying herself to sleep at night and then... fast forward into the future.

Now it's 20 years later! Katya has actually made it big, and is the director of a factory! Ludmila's husband has turned into a worthless alcoholic! Tonia, predictably, leads a fairly bland but largely happy life. Then, BAM, Katya meets a man on a train. And it's LOVE! Except that he most certainly is NOT looking for a career girl. "It's very important, in a family, that the man make more money than the woman." Ooops. Guess things have changed a bit in 20 years, eh? (Sigh). Anyhow, highly satisfying plot arc. 

So, to go ├╝ber nerdy for a minute, what I really appreciated about the movie was the way it illustrated an argument made by Adorno (whom I used to despise, but have now come to appreciate) and Horkheimer in Dialectic of Enlightenment. They have this nice observation in that films feature starlets who invite identification - this could be you! - while simultaneously denying it. "The female starlet is supposed to symbolize the secretary, though in a way which makes her seem predestined, unlike the real secretary, to wear the flowing evening gown. Thus she apprises the film spectator of the possibility not only that she, too, might appear on the screen, but still more insistently of the distance between them." This happens, they argue, through a legitimation of chance. In other words, film stars are people just like you, but they happen to have gotten lucky. Which means it could happen to anyone, but it also means that no matter how hard you try, you have no guarantee of ever succeeding. It's a nice idea, and it's beautifully illustrated by this film. Katya works her ass off, struggles, raises a child alone, is wildly successful but is still sobbing herself to sleep every night until she meets the perfect man on a train, and after some minor problems, lives happily ever after. Moscow doesn't believe in tears, we're told, but only in love. Ie, Moscow has no sympathy for the downtrodden, but adores its success stories. Hard as you may work though, ultimately, it's all up to chance. Ludmila's machinations land her an alcoholic ex-husband who ultimately can't hack it in the big city, Tonya's total lack of effort lands her a bland but happy life, and Katya, through a strange combination of hard work and chance, ends up on top. Nice illustration of the argument, if I do say so myself. Incidentally, isn't it strange how early films seem to lend themselves so beautifully to theorization in ways that current films don't? I suppose it's because those theories were developed with those movies in mind. Maybe in the future, the movies we watch now will seem likewise transparent in terms of their symbolic codes. Fascinating.

So in that vein, another interesting aspect of this movie is the way it reflects on the passage of time. At two points in the film, a character says something to the effect of "in 20 years, the world will be completely different! who knows! And I'll be OLD!" So of course, the film shows you how 20 years later, you still don't feel old. But where it lands on the question of how much the world changes is quite unclear. Both times this conversation happens in the film, it turns into a conversation about new media. The first time, everyone seem to assume that tv will take over and theatre will become extinct, but books will survive too. Second time, again, tv will take over, but this time it's theatre that is assumed to have staying power, and books that are useless. Curious. 

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