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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Direct from the USSR
by Donald Levit

With introductions and Q&As by their major director-participants on two days, Maysles Cinema recently presented four rare short documentaries. Pioneer octogenarians DA Pennebaker and Albert Maysles reminisced and responded to questions during “The Thaw: Proto-Verity in the Soviet Union,” a Malek Rasamny-Matt Peterson/Red Channels-Brecht Forum. The sessions touched on personal objectives and experiences, on technique and cinema history, and on politicians and plain folks during the brief window of pre-glasnost Cold War détente following Stalin’s death.

Maysles had been in Canada and so attended only the second-day showing, which concluded with his first professional film, the fourteen-minute 1955 Psychiatry in Russia. Still a university psychiatry teacher, he got $1,500 and set off for Moscow to film his favorite subject of faces, “get the stuff that people outside could identify with,” but through lucky contacts on the fly was able to visit leading mental institutions, Pavlovian rather than our Freudian, and staffed largely by women. His aim “to allow people to understand better what’s going on and to love people in the film,” the director compared this approach to that of Michael Moore, who has not learned “to be discrete, not hurt people.” In this vein, he defended his 1975 Grey Gardens against charges of tasteless voyeurism.

These four films in “The Thaw” are American beginnings of what was labeled cinéma vérité, which Maysles prefers to term “Direct Cinema” and Richard Leacock first styled “Living Cinema.” Because of limitations in recording equipment, syncsound, film stock and speed, developing and lighting options, the non-fictions are for the most part dubbed over, narrated, or commented upon much later, thus (as Pennebaker pointed out the first evening) only tending towards the vérité desideratum of dialogue and consequent filmmaker unobtrusiveness, allowing subjects to be unselfconscious and yet see themselves as others do.

Both filmmakers remarked on their uncontested freedom to move about and record in the Soviet Union, although Albert and younger brother David were eventually obliged to move on from 1957 Hungary on the BMW, when their visas expired even if they were ostensibly there for a communist youth gathering. Continuing on into the Soviet Union, for Russian Close-Up they filmed themselves on the cycle but, mostly, people smiling at them, along with rural and urban sights. Hurried hand-drawn markers indicate map progress from starting-point Berlin, for if the brothers were not supposed to go between cities, they did and no one cared or interfered.

This was done without sound, so Rasamny recently showed the thirty-three minutes to Maysles and taped the director’s answers and commentary. It was surprising that in the 1950s no network or distributor showed interest in these four documents of our bugbear enemy. Maysles himself had kept but not watched this particular film for fifty-plus years, and his excited recognitions of faces and places, hazy guesses about others, and candid reactions throughout, are charming.

There was camaraderie among these young experimenters and a lack of ego in individual films as well as in joint projects or work in general. Thus, Maysles was uncertain but not in the least upset about his synagogue interiors that, appearing b&w for lack of illumination, also showed up in the Pennebaker-Shirley Clarke-Albert Maysles-Leacock Opening in Moscow. The first night, Pennebaker and “special guest” former NBC newsman George Malko spoke at easy length of political and cultural happenings around the subject 1959 American Exhibition in Moscow, famous for the Khrushchev-Nixon “kitchen confrontation.” Indicative of attitudes over here, neither government nor media wanted this record of the “first breakthrough behind the walls of Russia.” At three-quarters of an hour, Pennebaker’s “first long film” begins with organizer George Nelson’s “job to present to the Russians as much of America as we could.” Design layout of site and pavilions is considered, alongside remarks from exhibiters and usherettes, but focus is less on the mall-like center and its array of capitalism’s goods from the good life, than on the curious but not convinced working-class Muscovites who line up for tickets much as they do for an intercalated circus.

Here and there turning to busy daily life in the streets of the capital, the camera records differences between there and here but, finally, similarities too among the greater family of man, especially its children. One jarring note, intentional or not, comes in voiced opinions of a young American woman whose provinciality, not to say patriotism, compares what she sees with “back home” and implies condescending denigration of things foreign to her.

Opening the second evening was Letter from Siberia/Lettre de Sibérie. The fifty-seven-minute début feature is among his early works that ex-journalist Chris Marker (born Christian François Bouche-Villeneuve) considered “amateur” and decided not to have shown anymore. This more or less “bootlegged” copy--but from the director as “friend”--is in such poor, overexposed-quality condition that parts are effectively blank and subtitles (from illustrative Russian folksongs) unreadable. This documentarist’s admirers extol him as “the one true essayist of the French cinema,” while others deplore his didactic if easygoing Marxist lectures in film form.

LS is, indeed, the weakest of these four, for the cutesy voiceover section headings -- each a variation on “I’m writing you from a distant land, it’s called Siberia” -- Disney anthropomorphizing of bears, reindeer and Arctic foxes, animations, overt editorializing, and easy sarcasm lend support to the original decision to shelve it.

The Marker medium-length is far from the invisibility goal of Direct Cinema, which seeks truth in what the objective camera sees and nothing more. More European, cinéma vérité is the translation of Dziga Vertov’s Kino-Pravda (cinema truth), “the purest possible essence of truth” provoked by interaction between filmed subject and camera presence. The distinction is academic more than real, but both schools are miles from the historical footage/reenactments/talking heads of today’s docudeluge. The four works screened at Maysles illustrate how far the genre has evolved, for better or worse.

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