Cynically Sentimental
Tractor Drivers (Traktoristy, 1939) review   Preparing for a lecture, I made one of those serendipitous YouTube “discoveries,” stumbling across the Soviet musical-romantic comedy-propaganda film Traktoristy (Tractor Drivers, 1939). Wonder of wonders, it had English sub-titles (be sure to turn them on), and after about 10 minutes, I was hooked.  This is a fascinating piece of edu-tainment: a time capsule of pre-WWII Soviet attitudes, and a fun watch, to boot.
            The opening scene depicts three Soviet military men, recently demobilised after serving in the Far East.  Klim sings a song which describes the “samurai” crossing the Amur River, only to be repulsed by the gallant Soviet armed forces (and more specifically, the tank corps, of which all 3 men were a part).   This alludes to clashes between the Japanese and Soviets in Manchuria, a tense situation but one which is largely ignored for the rest of the movie (instead, suspicion of Germany is paramount).
            However, for the moment the three comrades are on a train, returning to civilian life.  One is going back to Moscow, where his wife works in a ball-bearing factory.  Another has a fiancee in Georgia.  They each urge Klim to join them, but he is intent on going to the fertile steppes of Ukraine, where he’ll drive a tractor.  He shows them a newspaper article and photograph of Maryana, the leader of a tractor brigade on a kolkhoz (collective farm), who’s being lauded for her outstanding work.  Klim says he’s going to find her.  
            This sequence contains various layers of information and meaning.  The three soldiers represent three major regions of the Soviet Union: Moscow (Russia), Georgia, and the Ukraine.  [Not coincidentally, the soldier from Georgia has dark hair and a moustache, and strongly resembles a younger, jollier Joseph Stalin—a native of Georgia.]  Each part of the USSR is extolled as productive: the industrial workers and the agricultural workers are equally important.  The fact that these three young men are not career soldiers is also significant, and later in Traktoristy it is made clear that the Soviet military is composed of citizen-soldiers who take up arms when their nation is endangered.
            Additionally, the idea that women and men are equal under the Soviet system is suggested in this first scene—the Muscovite’s wife works in a factory and Maryana drives a tractor—a theme that is elaborated upon throughout the rest of the movie.  Klim does not fall in love with a glamourous actress, or a (traditional “women’s role”) teacher, shop clerk, artist, or even a political functionary—he is attracted to Maryana, a farm worker, a “celebrity” under the Soviet system due to her work performance.  The photograph shows her wearing a cap and overalls, a costume she wears almost without exception throughout the entire film—until the very last scene, when she dons a dress for her wedding.  
            [It seems likely Maryana’s character is based on Angelina Pasha, a real-life Soviet woman who organised an all-woman tractor team in the early 1930s and won various production awards.  She was prominently featured in Soviet propaganda and in 1938—the year before Trakoristy was made—lent her name to an appeal for more women tractor-drivers.]
            Maryana’s designation as a Stakhanovite (translated as “shock-worker” in the sub-titles)—a term coined after a Soviet coal miner named Stakhanov who exceeded his daily quota in 1935, to great acclaim—is, curiously, seen as having some negative (if humourous) consequences.  She gets “50 letters a day” from would-be suitors, and is constantly receiving proposals of marriage from men she meets.  To dissuade them, and to allow her to continue her work without these distractions, she convinces burly fellow tractor-unit foreman Nazar to pose as her fiancé.  This sets up a romantic-comedy “misunderstandings” plot, when Klim arrives at the collective farm and believes Nazar’s story.  
            If there is one structural flaw in Traktoristy, it is that the romantic-comedy sub-plot is introduced and developed, but is then shunted aside for much of the second half of the picture—in favour of rather repetitive propaganda—until a rushed resolution at the very end.  The idea of having a “collective hero” rather than focusing on a single character (or a couple) was a tenet of Soviet cinema, and Traktoristy shows signs of this: it’s not really about Klim and Maryana’s romance—although that is a significant component of the plot—but the tone of the first half of the film rather fools the audience into thinking this might be so.  It is conceivable that the change in focus was deliberate, implying that collective efficiency (and security) take priority over personal relationships.  Klim and Maryana later deliberately schedule their wedding for “after the first snow falls,” i.e., at a time when the collective farm’s work begins to abate for the winter.
            Klim and Maryana “meet cute,” Hollywood-style.  She’s riding her motorcycle through the steppes at night and has an accident.  Klim happens by: he repairs the bike, bandages her injured leg, and takes her back to the collective farm.  He finally sees her clearly, and realises it’s the famous Maryana, but doesn’t reveal his previous infatuation.  However, there is a “spark” between the two.  Klim agrees to stay on the farm for a time, proving his worth as a mechanic, but when he learns Maryana is engaged to the blowhard Nazar, he decides to leave, despite her pleas.  Kolkhoz leader Kirill brings Klim back and makes him the foreman of Nazar’s unit (Nazar has been demoted for trying to obtain fuel for his machines by hijacking a delivery truck).  Kirill asks Klim to make Nazar into a valuable worker, so he’ll be worthy to wed Maryana.  Klim does so, then declares he loves Maryana (and his feelings are reciprocated), so the film ends happily, with their wedding (attended by Nazar, who may have been attracted to Maryana but never expected to marry her).  
            As part of his attempt to forge Nazar and his happy-go-lucky, lazy team into an effective working unit, Klim sets up a “competition” with Maryana’s all-female group, a plot thread that goes nowhere.  Klim also begins instructing his men in tank tactics, marksmanship, and other military skills, saying tractor drivers can become tank drivers if war comes; Maryana demands equal training for her group and Kirill promises this, although the only example we see is Maryana later reading a military manual.
            Klim’s discipline and ideas (he yokes a second cultivator to Nazar’s tractor, increasing the amount of earth tilled in each pass) produces solid results.  Nazar himself doubles his “norm” (quota) and gets his photograph in the newspaper (although he’s apparently illiterate, so he can’t read the laudatory caption!).  But the theme of increasing agricultural production, like the romantic plot, takes a backseat to the concept of military preparedness.
            Although, as mentioned above, Klim’s adventures in the Far East are discussed in the first half of the film, the focus shifts to the inevitable (or so it seems) confrontation with Germany.  Klim unearths a spiked German helmet (Pickelhaube) in a newly-plowed field.  It’s been buried there since “our glorious 1918,” when—as Kirill tells the residents of the collective farm, while brandishing the relic—“we defeated the Germans and wiped them off our young Ukrainian soil!” He goes on: “the battle time is coming.  The Germans are attracted to our land again…so we’ll fight again…we have to be ready for this fight every hour.”  Kirill equates tractors with tanks, and this leads to a one-minute sequence of slightly sped-up stock footage of tanks racing through forests, leaping over streams, and so forth.  
            Klim’s after-hours military training of his tractor crew is depicted in one short scene, where he lectures the attentive men on the purpose of tanks in modern warfare.  More time is spent singing the tankmen’s anthem, “Thundering with fire, gleaming with their steel, the machines will move in their furious march.  When comrade Stalin sends us into battle, and the first marshal leads us into it!  We don’t need a span of foreign soil, but we won’t yield an inch of our own.  When the day of trial strikes, our Fatherland will send us into battle!”  This song continues in the next sequence, showing Nazar and the others plowing fields while singing patriotically.
            The anthem is heard a third time, at the wedding reception for Klim and Maryana.  Before the song begins, Kirill makes another speech, praising the workers as the sons and daughters of those who “drove the aristocrats to Warsaw, that taught the Germans their lesson, and with their own blood won the power, land and socialism!”  He adds, “Every minute be ready to stand up to the enemy!” (I thought it was every hour? Boy, the geo-political situation must be getting worse!)
            Alexander Nevsky, made in 1938, is another Soviet film with an anti-German theme, using history as an allegory: Nevsky = Stalin and the Teutonic Knights = Nazi Germany.  Traktoristy never openly mentions the Nazis, but refers to the First World War and explicitly identifies the Germans as a threat to the Soviet Union, covetous of the fertile land and other resources.  Alexander Nevsky was withdrawn from circulation during the tenure of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, but it’s unclear if Traktoristy was similarly affected (it was extremely popular in the Soviet Union, and director Ivan Pyryev and his two leads—Nikolai Kryuchkov and Marina Ladynina—all won the “Stalin’s Prize” for the film in 1941).  [Apparently the film was cut for a subsequent re-release in the 1960s, removing “Stalinist” content.]

               Trakoristy could have been intended in part as a recruiting film for potential agricultural workers.  Life on a collective farm seems pleasant and fulfilling.  The people are congenial, the work is hard but rewarding, and everyone sings a lot.  Furthermore, at least three times the film makes a point of depicting the abundance of food enjoyed by the workers: when Klim first brings the injured Maryana home, the camera lingers on a hearty meal prepared by the motherly Markovna; later, Kirill and the women’s tractor crew visit a watermelon patch and enjoy the luscious fruit; a third scene begins with a closeup of Klim slicing bread, then lunch being served, “3 plates of cabbage soup with fat and garlic” for the over-producing Nazar.  “Our land is so fertile,” one character says, and the farm workers reap the benefits.  Late in the movie, Kirill tells Klim the farm pays 2,000 [rubles?] towards wedding expenses, so Nazar can have a new suit and a band can be hired.  All in all, not a bad life, at least according to Traktoristy.  
         The only minor suggestion of shortages occurs when Nazar tries to borrow fuel from Maryana’s group, since his tractors have run out (Maryana refuses, because he’s done it before and never repaid the loans).  But this lack of gasoline appears to be the result of Nazar’s mismanagement—Klim later criticises the crew for failing to maintain their machines properly—because there is no actual fuel shortage: Nazar and his men attempt to hijack a truck loaded with drums of gasoline, resulting in his demotion from the post of foreman.  The Soviet Union has plenty of fuel, but it must be shared among those who need it, and not wasted by irresponsible workers (Nazar isn’t characterised as a “wrecker,” since his mistakes aren’t malicious and deliberate attempts to sabotage production).
            Traktoristy has numerous embedded musical numbers; some of the songs are repeated more than once (such as the aforementioned “tank anthem” ), and the topics vary, from propagandistic to standard “romance” and humour.  There is even a Ukrainian folk song (in Ukrainian), sung by members of Maryana’s team.  The style of the musical sequences varies considerably.  An early song by the bicycle-riding postman and Maryana (on a motorcycle) is shot without back-projection (although one assumes the performers were post-dubbed), and Nazar’s rendition of the tank theme while driving a tractor is similarly “realistic.”  Many of the other songs are shot simply, with people standing around, but director Pyryev uses fast-motion to provide contrast in the sequence in which Klim meets Nazar’s tractor crew for the first time: one of the wags greets him with a sappy romantic song (“Hello, my darling, I’ve been waiting for too long”), to which Klim replies with a speeded-up dance (incorporating the trepak) to the same tune, signifying the energy he’s bringing to the under-performing tractor crew. 
            The production values of the film (a co-production of Mosfilm and Kiev Film) are fine, with some impressive shots of the empty steppes, stretching off into the distance, waiting to be plowed, then sown with wheat.  There are a handful of what appear to be studio “exteriors,” and the inside of the main kolkhoz building is almost certainly a set (when Maryana leaps out of a window, it looks like the exterior scene is a painted backdrop).  The cast isn’t particularly large but it’s adequate for the film’s needs; although there aren’t any awe-inspiring shots of fleets of tractors (or tanks, for that matter), since this is a thumbnail sketch of one collective farm and its workers, these aren’t really necessary.  
            The 4 main characters—Klim, Maryana, Nazar, and Kirill—are sympathetic (even Nazar, except when he’s a  bit put-out about losing his foreman’s job) and the actors turn in solid performances.  Nikolai Kryuchkov (Klim) is handsome—he slightly resembles Spencer Tracy and/or James Arness—and earnest, the very model of a modern Soviet tank-man (to paraphrase Gilbert & Sullivan).  Marina Ladynina (Maryana) isn’t Hollywood-beautiful (to be fair, the film does nothing to glamourise her) but her character is appealing and sympathetic.  Stepan Kayukov (Kirill) is a stereotypical, ebullient authority figure (in an odd nod to Soviet reality, he scrutinises Klim’s internal passport before allowing the stranger to stay) with a bizarre catch-phrase, “May mosquitoes ram him (or them)!”  Nazar is played by Boris Andreyev as a not-too bright but essentially decent worker who merely needs the proper instruction to do his duty—and indeed, to do more than his duty, doubling his work quota once suitably inspired.
            Traktoristy is an example of internal propaganda, aimed at citizens of the Soviet Union.  In keeping with much Soviet cinema of the 1930s, it mixes entertainment with ideas, some subtle and some not-so subtle.  Director Ivan Pyryev was reportedly one of the major directors of Stalinist cinema of the 1930s and 1940s (Marina Ladynina was his wife and frequent star), and knew what topics to utilise and which to avoid.  
            In light of recent events involving Russia and the Ukraine, it seems a little ironic that this film is so focused on the Ukraine (despite the inclusive opening sequence): even though the songs and dialogue mostly refer to defending the “Fatherland,” what is shown is the Ukraine and Ukrainians (although they speak Russian, except for the folk song), and there’s no attempt to disguise this or to explicitly extrapolate the film’s themes to cover other regions.  Perhaps this was implicit, and Russians, Georgians, Uzbeks, Moldavians, etc., enjoyed the romance and songs and empathised with the “Soviet” patriotic propaganda.   In any case, this remains extremely interesting and entertaining on multiple levels today.

Tractor Drivers (Traktoristy, 1939) review   Preparing for a lecture, I made one of those serendipitous YouTube “discoveries,” stumbling across the Soviet musical-romantic comedy-propaganda film Traktoristy (Tractor Drivers, 1939). Wonder of wonders, it had English sub-titles (be sure to turn them on), and after about 10 minutes, I was hooked.  This is a fascinating piece of edu-tainment: a time capsule of pre-WWII Soviet attitudes, and a fun watch, to boot.

            The opening scene depicts three Soviet military men, recently demobilised after serving in the Far East.  Klim sings a song which describes the “samurai” crossing the Amur River, only to be repulsed by the gallant Soviet armed forces (and more specifically, the tank corps, of which all 3 men were a part).   This alludes to clashes between the Japanese and Soviets in Manchuria, a tense situation but one which is largely ignored for the rest of the movie (instead, suspicion of Germany is paramount).

            However, for the moment the three comrades are on a train, returning to civilian life.  One is going back to Moscow, where his wife works in a ball-bearing factory.  Another has a fiancee in Georgia.  They each urge Klim to join them, but he is intent on going to the fertile steppes of Ukraine, where he’ll drive a tractor.  He shows them a newspaper article and photograph of Maryana, the leader of a tractor brigade on a kolkhoz (collective farm), who’s being lauded for her outstanding work.  Klim says he’s going to find her

            This sequence contains various layers of information and meaning.  The three soldiers represent three major regions of the Soviet Union: Moscow (Russia), Georgia, and the Ukraine.  [Not coincidentally, the soldier from Georgia has dark hair and a moustache, and strongly resembles a younger, jollier Joseph Stalin—a native of Georgia.]  Each part of the USSR is extolled as productive: the industrial workers and the agricultural workers are equally important.  The fact that these three young men are not career soldiers is also significant, and later in Traktoristy it is made clear that the Soviet military is composed of citizen-soldiers who take up arms when their nation is endangered.

            Additionally, the idea that women and men are equal under the Soviet system is suggested in this first scene—the Muscovite’s wife works in a factory and Maryana drives a tractor—a theme that is elaborated upon throughout the rest of the movie.  Klim does not fall in love with a glamourous actress, or a (traditional “women’s role”) teacher, shop clerk, artist, or even a political functionary—he is attracted to Maryana, a farm worker, a “celebrity” under the Soviet system due to her work performance.  The photograph shows her wearing a cap and overalls, a costume she wears almost without exception throughout the entire film—until the very last scene, when she dons a dress for her wedding. 

            [It seems likely Maryana’s character is based on Angelina Pasha, a real-life Soviet woman who organised an all-woman tractor team in the early 1930s and won various production awards.  She was prominently featured in Soviet propaganda and in 1938—the year before Trakoristy was made—lent her name to an appeal for more women tractor-drivers.]

            Maryana’s designation as a Stakhanovite (translated as “shock-worker” in the sub-titles)—a term coined after a Soviet coal miner named Stakhanov who exceeded his daily quota in 1935, to great acclaim—is, curiously, seen as having some negative (if humourous) consequences.  She gets “50 letters a day” from would-be suitors, and is constantly receiving proposals of marriage from men she meets.  To dissuade them, and to allow her to continue her work without these distractions, she convinces burly fellow tractor-unit foreman Nazar to pose as her fiancé.  This sets up a romantic-comedy “misunderstandings” plot, when Klim arrives at the collective farm and believes Nazar’s story. 

            If there is one structural flaw in Traktoristy, it is that the romantic-comedy sub-plot is introduced and developed, but is then shunted aside for much of the second half of the picture—in favour of rather repetitive propaganda—until a rushed resolution at the very end.  The idea of having a “collective hero” rather than focusing on a single character (or a couple) was a tenet of Soviet cinema, and Traktoristy shows signs of this: it’s not really about Klim and Maryana’s romance—although that is a significant component of the plot—but the tone of the first half of the film rather fools the audience into thinking this might be so.  It is conceivable that the change in focus was deliberate, implying that collective efficiency (and security) take priority over personal relationships.  Klim and Maryana later deliberately schedule their wedding for “after the first snow falls,” i.e., at a time when the collective farm’s work begins to abate for the winter.

            Klim and Maryana “meet cute,” Hollywood-style.  She’s riding her motorcycle through the steppes at night and has an accident.  Klim happens by: he repairs the bike, bandages her injured leg, and takes her back to the collective farm.  He finally sees her clearly, and realises it’s the famous Maryana, but doesn’t reveal his previous infatuation.  However, there is a “spark” between the two.  Klim agrees to stay on the farm for a time, proving his worth as a mechanic, but when he learns Maryana is engaged to the blowhard Nazar, he decides to leave, despite her pleas.  Kolkhoz leader Kirill brings Klim back and makes him the foreman of Nazar’s unit (Nazar has been demoted for trying to obtain fuel for his machines by hijacking a delivery truck).  Kirill asks Klim to make Nazar into a valuable worker, so he’ll be worthy to wed Maryana.  Klim does so, then declares he loves Maryana (and his feelings are reciprocated), so the film ends happily, with their wedding (attended by Nazar, who may have been attracted to Maryana but never expected to marry her). 

            As part of his attempt to forge Nazar and his happy-go-lucky, lazy team into an effective working unit, Klim sets up a “competition” with Maryana’s all-female group, a plot thread that goes nowhere.  Klim also begins instructing his men in tank tactics, marksmanship, and other military skills, saying tractor drivers can become tank drivers if war comes; Maryana demands equal training for her group and Kirill promises this, although the only example we see is Maryana later reading a military manual.

            Klim’s discipline and ideas (he yokes a second cultivator to Nazar’s tractor, increasing the amount of earth tilled in each pass) produces solid results.  Nazar himself doubles his “norm” (quota) and gets his photograph in the newspaper (although he’s apparently illiterate, so he can’t read the laudatory caption!).  But the theme of increasing agricultural production, like the romantic plot, takes a backseat to the concept of military preparedness.

            Although, as mentioned above, Klim’s adventures in the Far East are discussed in the first half of the film, the focus shifts to the inevitable (or so it seems) confrontation with Germany.  Klim unearths a spiked German helmet (Pickelhaube) in a newly-plowed field.  It’s been buried there since “our glorious 1918,” when—as Kirill tells the residents of the collective farm, while brandishing the relic—“we defeated the Germans and wiped them off our young Ukrainian soil!” He goes on: “the battle time is coming.  The Germans are attracted to our land again…so we’ll fight again…we have to be ready for this fight every hour.”  Kirill equates tractors with tanks, and this leads to a one-minute sequence of slightly sped-up stock footage of tanks racing through forests, leaping over streams, and so forth. 

            Klim’s after-hours military training of his tractor crew is depicted in one short scene, where he lectures the attentive men on the purpose of tanks in modern warfare.  More time is spent singing the tankmen’s anthem, “Thundering with fire, gleaming with their steel, the machines will move in their furious march.  When comrade Stalin sends us into battle, and the first marshal leads us into it!  We don’t need a span of foreign soil, but we won’t yield an inch of our own.  When the day of trial strikes, our Fatherland will send us into battle!”  This song continues in the next sequence, showing Nazar and the others plowing fields while singing patriotically.

            The anthem is heard a third time, at the wedding reception for Klim and Maryana.  Before the song begins, Kirill makes another speech, praising the workers as the sons and daughters of those who “drove the aristocrats to Warsaw, that taught the Germans their lesson, and with their own blood won the power, land and socialism!”  He adds, “Every minute be ready to stand up to the enemy!” (I thought it was every hour? Boy, the geo-political situation must be getting worse!)

            Alexander Nevsky, made in 1938, is another Soviet film with an anti-German theme, using history as an allegory: Nevsky = Stalin and the Teutonic Knights = Nazi Germany.  Traktoristy never openly mentions the Nazis, but refers to the First World War and explicitly identifies the Germans as a threat to the Soviet Union, covetous of the fertile land and other resources.  Alexander Nevsky was withdrawn from circulation during the tenure of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, but it’s unclear if Traktoristy was similarly affected (it was extremely popular in the Soviet Union, and director Ivan Pyryev and his two leads—Nikolai Kryuchkov and Marina Ladynina—all won the “Stalin’s Prize” for the film in 1941).  [Apparently the film was cut for a subsequent re-release in the 1960s, removing “Stalinist” content.]

               Trakoristy could have been intended in part as a recruiting film for potential agricultural workers.  Life on a collective farm seems pleasant and fulfilling.  The people are congenial, the work is hard but rewarding, and everyone sings a lot.  Furthermore, at least three times the film makes a point of depicting the abundance of food enjoyed by the workers: when Klim first brings the injured Maryana home, the camera lingers on a hearty meal prepared by the motherly Markovna; later, Kirill and the women’s tractor crew visit a watermelon patch and enjoy the luscious fruit; a third scene begins with a closeup of Klim slicing bread, then lunch being served, “3 plates of cabbage soup with fat and garlic” for the over-producing Nazar.  “Our land is so fertile,” one character says, and the farm workers reap the benefits.  Late in the movie, Kirill tells Klim the farm pays 2,000 [rubles?] towards wedding expenses, so Nazar can have a new suit and a band can be hired.  All in all, not a bad life, at least according to Traktoristy.  

         The only minor suggestion of shortages occurs when Nazar tries to borrow fuel from Maryana’s group, since his tractors have run out (Maryana refuses, because he’s done it before and never repaid the loans).  But this lack of gasoline appears to be the result of Nazar’s mismanagement—Klim later criticises the crew for failing to maintain their machines properly—because there is no actual fuel shortage: Nazar and his men attempt to hijack a truck loaded with drums of gasoline, resulting in his demotion from the post of foreman.  The Soviet Union has plenty of fuel, but it must be shared among those who need it, and not wasted by irresponsible workers (Nazar isn’t characterised as a “wrecker,” since his mistakes aren’t malicious and deliberate attempts to sabotage production).

            Traktoristy has numerous embedded musical numbers; some of the songs are repeated more than once (such as the aforementioned “tank anthem” ), and the topics vary, from propagandistic to standard “romance” and humour.  There is even a Ukrainian folk song (in Ukrainian), sung by members of Maryana’s team.  The style of the musical sequences varies considerably.  An early song by the bicycle-riding postman and Maryana (on a motorcycle) is shot without back-projection (although one assumes the performers were post-dubbed), and Nazar’s rendition of the tank theme while driving a tractor is similarly “realistic.”  Many of the other songs are shot simply, with people standing around, but director Pyryev uses fast-motion to provide contrast in the sequence in which Klim meets Nazar’s tractor crew for the first time: one of the wags greets him with a sappy romantic song (“Hello, my darling, I’ve been waiting for too long”), to which Klim replies with a speeded-up dance (incorporating the trepak) to the same tune, signifying the energy he’s bringing to the under-performing tractor crew.

            The production values of the film (a co-production of Mosfilm and Kiev Film) are fine, with some impressive shots of the empty steppes, stretching off into the distance, waiting to be plowed, then sown with wheat.  There are a handful of what appear to be studio “exteriors,” and the inside of the main kolkhoz building is almost certainly a set (when Maryana leaps out of a window, it looks like the exterior scene is a painted backdrop).  The cast isn’t particularly large but it’s adequate for the film’s needs; although there aren’t any awe-inspiring shots of fleets of tractors (or tanks, for that matter), since this is a thumbnail sketch of one collective farm and its workers, these aren’t really necessary. 

            The 4 main characters—Klim, Maryana, Nazar, and Kirill—are sympathetic (even Nazar, except when he’s a  bit put-out about losing his foreman’s job) and the actors turn in solid performances.  Nikolai Kryuchkov (Klim) is handsome—he slightly resembles Spencer Tracy and/or James Arness—and earnest, the very model of a modern Soviet tank-man (to paraphrase Gilbert & Sullivan).  Marina Ladynina (Maryana) isn’t Hollywood-beautiful (to be fair, the film does nothing to glamourise her) but her character is appealing and sympathetic.  Stepan Kayukov (Kirill) is a stereotypical, ebullient authority figure (in an odd nod to Soviet reality, he scrutinises Klim’s internal passport before allowing the stranger to stay) with a bizarre catch-phrase, “May mosquitoes ram him (or them)!”  Nazar is played by Boris Andreyev as a not-too bright but essentially decent worker who merely needs the proper instruction to do his duty—and indeed, to do more than his duty, doubling his work quota once suitably inspired.

            Traktoristy is an example of internal propaganda, aimed at citizens of the Soviet Union.  In keeping with much Soviet cinema of the 1930s, it mixes entertainment with ideas, some subtle and some not-so subtle.  Director Ivan Pyryev was reportedly one of the major directors of Stalinist cinema of the 1930s and 1940s (Marina Ladynina was his wife and frequent star), and knew what topics to utilise and which to avoid. 

            In light of recent events involving Russia and the Ukraine, it seems a little ironic that this film is so focused on the Ukraine (despite the inclusive opening sequence): even though the songs and dialogue mostly refer to defending the “Fatherland,” what is shown is the Ukraine and Ukrainians (although they speak Russian, except for the folk song), and there’s no attempt to disguise this or to explicitly extrapolate the film’s themes to cover other regions.  Perhaps this was implicit, and Russians, Georgians, Uzbeks, Moldavians, etc., enjoyed the romance and songs and empathised with the “Soviet” patriotic propaganda.   In any case, this remains extremely interesting and entertaining on multiple levels today.

"Why do girls always say ‘don’t’ when they mean ‘do’?"  (Best Romance 7, 1952).  To be fair, this fellow is depicted as an unpleasant wastrel momma’s-boy and she only kissed him because she was “lost in ecstasy.”  She later hooks up with a decent guy who’d never kiss her without permission. 

"Why do girls always say ‘don’t’ when they mean ‘do’?"  (Best Romance 7, 1952).  To be fair, this fellow is depicted as an unpleasant wastrel momma’s-boy and she only kissed him because she was “lost in ecstasy.”  She later hooks up with a decent guy who’d never kiss her without permission. 

Gone Girl (2014) review

 And the moral of this story is: “Don’t ever get married. One spouse, or possibly both, will get a figurative death-grip on the other one and both of you will be dragged down to relationship hell.”  The end.  Boy, I’m glad I saw Gone Girl before I made a huge mistake!  Because advice like that doesn’t appear in popular culture every day, does it?  Except, of course, in a novel and film like Rebecca.  Or, really, any of scores of other, similar tales.

            [Oh, hey, SPOILERS in this review.  The film’s been out in the USA for 2 weeks, if you haven’t seen it and intend to, then stop here and come back later.]

            Nick, a handsome schlub who lives in a luxurious house in Missouri (despite being unemployed—well, he’s the co-owner of an unsuccessful bar), discovers his wife Amy has disappeared.  Evidence suggests there was a struggle and violence occurred (lots of blood trace).  The media pick up the story and run with it, because Amy was the model for the main character in a popular series of childrens’ books (and because she’s a young, attractive white woman).  In flashbacks, we learn Nick and Amy’s marriage was not happy: he was having an affair, she was dissatisfied with her life in Missouri (they moved there from New York) and blamed Nick.  Suspicion, particularly in the media, focuses on Nick, and he’s eventually charged with murder and hires celebrity lawyer Tanner Bolt to defend him.

            Meanwhile, Amy is alive and carrying out her plan to frame her husband for her death (she initially intends to commit suicide, then apparently changes her mind).  However, when she’s robbed of her stash of money, she calls former boyfriend Desi (who conveniently lives nearby, even though Missouri is where Nick was from).  He puts her up in his impressive country mansion (not to be confused with his city-mansion).  With Bolt’s assistance, Nick rehabilitates his public image and Amy—after watching his “heartfelt” plea on television—decides to kill the solicitous, still-smitten Desi and blame him for her absence.  She and Nick are reunited; Nick reluctantly agrees to stay married to her (even though he knows she’s an insane murderer) because she’s pregnant with his child.

            Sooo….lots of illogical stuff and loose ends in this one, guys.  There’s a general disregard for any sort of investigative and/or legal reality.  Near the end of the film, Nick, his sister Margo, lead police detective Rhonda, and Bolt agree Amy is a wacko killer, but essentially throw up their hands and say, “well, whaddya gonna do about it?”  Um…how about checking Desi’s alibi for the time/date Amy claimed he was abducting her?  How about dusting the stuff hidden in Margo’s woodshed—allegedly high-value items purchased by Nick using credit cards—for fingerprints?  Just a couple of suggestions from a total layman, maybe they wouldn’t pan out, but…you could try.

            A couple of additional examples of what feel like sloppy script points.  Amy hides out in a rustic Ozarks resort and starts hanging around with a couple of redneck losers (omg, Greta, the woman, even has a tramp stamp!).  Although Greta watches television coverage of the “Missing Amy” case and deduces that Amy (who, facially, looks the same as she always has) is “on the run” from something, she never puts two and two together (although she and her boyfriend do steal Amy’s money). 

          Another Gone Girl mote in my eye was the film’s timeline.  The first half of the movie is rife with flashbacks, but director David Fincher keeps the slower-witted members of the audience oriented by putting the date on-screen at the beginning of each section.  This actually brings attention to the fact that things go from zero to sixty far too rapidly: there’s a huge media firestorm within two days of Amy’s disappearance, it seems.  To quote Anchorman,  “Well, that escalated quickly!”  So much goes on, and then we see an on-screen title reading “Day 3.”  What?  It’s only been three days?  Later, however, things start to drag and suddenly it’s been 30 days—where’d all that time go?

        Although it might be a stretch to say the film is “critical” of the media, a significant portion of Gone Girl deals with media attention and media manipulation.  Crucified by cable TV host Ellen Abbott, Nick counters with a “my side of the story” interview on a rival show (nearly derailed by a televised press conference featuring the university student with whom he’d been having an affair).  Ellen Abbott is obviously modeled after Nancy Grace (who was also skewered last year on an episode of “American Dad”): she’s infuriating, smarmy, biased, insincere, and exploitative.  The media are depicted as predatory but easily led, both pandering to and influencing public opinion.  Nick and Amy are former writers (who lost their jobs in “the recession”) and Amy’s parents made a fortune fictionalising her youth in their books, so to some extent these people are also former members of the media.  Nick is the least savvy of the bunch, and has to be coached by his sister and lawyer on how not to act like a jack-ass.

         Despite the aforementioned flaws, Gone Girl is generally entertaining.  The two main characters (and the performances by Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike) are at least marginally nuanced and interesting.  Nick is never a viable suspect (to the viewer, at least), nor is he an especially obnoxious person, although he does appear weak and not particularly bright.  He has an affair with a younger woman (although Amy is by no means even approaching middle-age), which is a black mark against him, but by film’s end we’ve forgiven him for this: Amy has been painted as such a manipulative psycho that a mere extra-marital affair by Nick can be overlooked. “At least he didn’t frame anyone from rape or murder!”   [One might ask: did Nick have an affair because Amy was so horrible, or is he just a cheating dog and his affair pushed her over the edge?  Amy’s history of twisted behaviour in relationships suggests both may be true, in that she was already disturbed but Nick’s infidelity lit the fuse that precipitated the explosion.] 

         One clever aspect of Gone Girl—which isn’t explored as fully as it could have been—is the ambivalent way Nick is portrayed in the “real” scenes (i.e., those which are apparently depicting objective reality), and in those which illustrate Amy’s contrived (but not wholly fictional?) diary.  For instance, Nick swears he never pushed his wife in anger, but we see this in a flashback: did he do it, or did Amy fantasize it?  One would imagine she’d have made the incident seem worse if the latter were the case.  There are also scenes which, although they’re shown from Amy’s point of view, ring true: Nick on the couch playing video games,  his gradual withdrawal from Amy once they return to his hometown, and so forth.

         Even before the big “reveal” that Amy is alive and has been plotting this whole thing, she is never truly sympathetic.  There are brief moments where one feels sorry for her, but from the start she’s so obviously…odd… that the lovey-dovey flashbacks of their courtship, the honeymoon period of wild sex and pet names, etc. seem artificial and foreboding.  Playing amateur psychologist, one might suggest she has an inflated sense of self-worth (perhaps inspired by her literary doppleganger “Amazing Amy”) and feels superior to everyone around her, yet obsessively fixates on her male partner of the moment and is enraged when she’s “rejected” by him.  Makes sense to me.  This type of portrayal is not uncommon in popular culture (note Rebecca reference in paragraph one), and although Gone Girl doesn’t deviate too much from the trope, it doesn’t feel seriously stale or boring.

       I suppose we can thank David Fincher for that?  I’m not a Fincher devotee—he’s a solid director, albeit perhaps slightly overrated (although I confess I haven’t seen all of his features).  His previous feature film, the Hollywood version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, was in some ways better than the original, in some ways not as good (in the end, I preferred the Swedish film).   It’s been quite a while since I’ve seen any of Fincher’s other movies, so I can’t effectively evaluate them or compare them to Gone Girl: although they didn’t change my life, I seem to recall them as being decent enough, competently made without being too flashy or pretentious. 

         The other performances and the production values of Gone Girl are fine.  While I’m not sure I could identify a Missouri accent or Missouri ambience, the Missouri setting isn’t especially notable or relevant (in fact, the film was not shot there, anyway): it might as well be New Jersey or South Dakota or Oregon or Maryland.  In terms of the plot, “Missouri” = “not New York City,” and, possibly, “heartland America,” and Missouri doesn’t have a monopoly on either one of those things.   

         Maybe Gone Girl doesn’t comment in an especially profound way on celebrity, media, sexual obsession, marriage, men, women, the legal system, or anything else, but it is effective and economically-paced, and although the plot twists aren’t shocking (or even especially believable), the film holds one’s interest (despite its length) and provides satisfactory entertainment.

"Are you outraged and offended when a man wants to kiss you? YES or NO"  That seems like an overly broad question.  Does she have to be outraged AND offended?  Is it when ANY man wants to kiss her?  And does it have to be YES or NO?  Couldn’t it be "sometimes" or "maybe?"   (Boy Meets Girl 2, 1950). 

"Are you outraged and offended when a man wants to kiss you? YES or NO"  That seems like an overly broad question.  Does she have to be outraged AND offended?  Is it when ANY man wants to kiss her?  And does it have to be YES or NO?  Couldn’t it be "sometimes" or "maybe?"   (Boy Meets Girl 2, 1950). 

Where’s Kim Jong Un?  He shouldn’t be too difficult to find with that outfit. 

Where’s Kim Jong Un?  He shouldn’t be too difficult to find with that outfit. 

"Everyone else in the family is married and you don’t have a prospect!” (Romantic Confessions 1952).  ”Even your gay uncle Freddie just got married, so you can’t play the ‘oh, but I like girls' card any more!”

"Everyone else in the family is married and you don’t have a prospect!” (Romantic Confessions 1952).  ”Even your gay uncle Freddie just got married, so you can’t play the ‘oh, but I like girls' card any more!”

"You’ll want to push your fist into every one of those faces!" (Cinderella Love 1952).  What every retail clerk is thinking. (Also, what I think when I watch “Big Bang Theory”—ha ha, that’s a joke, I’ve never watched “Big Bang Theory”)

"You’ll want to push your fist into every one of those faces!" (Cinderella Love 1952).  What every retail clerk is thinking. (Also, what I think when I watch “Big Bang Theory”—ha ha, that’s a joke, I’ve never watched “Big Bang Theory”)

Cynically Sentimental turned 5 today!

Cynically Sentimental turned 5 today!

"Forgive you? Young lady, you need some punishment first!" (Darling Love 3, 1950). “It’s spanking season, and I got a hankering for some spankering!”

"Forgive you? Young lady, you need some punishment first!" (Darling Love 3, 1950). “It’s spanking season, and I got a hankering for some spankering!”

"You wouldn’t begrudge an old man a fatherly kiss!" (Cinderella Love, 1952).  Give it up, Rocklyn—that never works, believe me. 

"You wouldn’t begrudge an old man a fatherly kiss!" (Cinderella Love, 1952).  Give it up, Rocklyn—that never works, believe me. 

"He’s only got a nasty cut on his head!”  Understatement of the year.  (Mash-up from Underworld 1/3, 1948 and Love Confessions 50, 1956).  Also, in the first panel she probably should have put quotes around the word “accident.”

"He’s only got a nasty cut on his head!”  Understatement of the year.  (Mash-up from Underworld 1/3, 1948 and Love Confessions 50, 1956).  Also, in the first panel she probably should have put quotes around the word “accident.”

"I don’t like this job." Well then, perhaps you shouldn’t have majored in English Literature.  (Fight Comics 1, 1940).

"I don’t like this job." Well then, perhaps you shouldn’t have majored in English Literature.  (Fight Comics 1, 1940).

Frank (2014) review

 It was Filth (2013) that introduced me to “Frank Sidebottom,”  a character created by UK performance artist Chris Sievey in the 1980s.  Frank—who had a rigid, oversized, false head with literally cartoonish features—was a would-be “celebrity” TV presenter and singer from Manchester.  As Sidebottom, Sievey made recordings and hosted television shows until his death in 2010.  Filth features some video clips of Frank’s work, without explanation—although he’s a cult figure in the UK, I had no clue that these surreal appearances were actual broadcasts, until I did a bit of post-screening research.

            Frank borrows only the first name, the false-head, and—to an extent—the concept of “Frank” as a singer, from Sievey’s character.  The rest of the story is completely new and bears no relation to Frank Sidebottom’s personality, shtick, or “real” life history, which may have initially dismayed some fans who might’ve been expecting (or fearing) a biopic. However, for everyone else, Frank can be enjoyed as an effective comedy-drama that touches on topics such as the nature of creativity, celebrity, and friendship.  And if it piques viewers’ curiosity about the “real” Frank Sidebottom, whose work can be sampled on YouTube, then that’d be a bonus.

            Jon (Domhnall Gleeson, one of the sons of Brendan) is an aspiring composer who by day works in a cubicle, doing something boring on a computer (that narrows it down, doesn’t it?).  One day he spots the police rescuing someone trying to commit suicide in the surf, and is casually invited to take the man’s place as keyboardist for the band “Soronprfbs,” led by the mask-wearing Frank (Michael Fassbender).  The gig doesn’t go well, but Jon later receives a call from manager Don, who invites him to Ireland.  Jon discovers he’s not merely filling in for a weekend engagement, but that Frank, Don, guitarist Baraque, drummer Nana, and theremin-player Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) are going to stay in a rented house there until they’ve completed their new album.

            Desirous of becoming a professional musician, Jon agrees to participate, even financing the band’s extended stay with his own money.  He documents their progress via social media.  Frank, who never removes his mask, is an eccentric perfectionist, and months go by.  The album is finally complete, but it’s Jon’s YouTube videos and Tweets that earn the band an invitation to the SXSW festival in the USA. Clara, protective of Frank and hostile to Jon, objects, but Frank is enthralled that people want to hear his music, and Soronprfbs crosses the pond.

            SXSW doesn’t turn out as expected.  There are arguments, a stabbing, several people hit by cars, on-stage collapses, an arrest—and that’s just events involving the band members!  Frank, which has been (mostly) comedic prior to this point, gets semi-serious in the final section but manages to end on a high note, never fear.

            One interesting aspect of Frank is its view of musical creativity.  Frank’s music is beyond avant-garde—densely-layered noise, ambient sound, repetitive vocals, with the occasional recognisable melodic phrase.  Even “Frank’s Most Likeable Song,” played in response to Jon’s frantic attempt to change the band’s direction at SXSW, is hilariously off-putting.  And yet Frank’s drive and dedication are obvious, and Clara, Don, Baraque, and Nina have apparently bought in to his vision.  Even Jon, after weeks of close collaboration while isolated with Frank and the others in the Irish countryside, finds his own creativity restimulated (although he’s hurt that his pop-influenced tunes find no favour with the others).  Late in the film, Jon tries to ascertain if some trauma in Frank’s youth “caused” his musical genius, but learns Frank’s eccentricity (or, to be more accurate, his diagnosed mental illness) probably hampered his development, if anything.  There’s no easy answer—“normal” Jon is talented enough but can’t get beyond snatches of mundane songs like “Woman in a Red Coat,” while Frank’s separation from reality has pushed his music beyond the realm of public acceptability.

            As noted earlier, Jon blogs about his experiences with Frank and the band, and it is his social media promotion that eventually earns them an invitation to SXSW.  Frank and the others believe they have a coterie of fans waiting to see them perform, only to learn that “23 thousand hits on YouTube is nothing,” and there might be “one or two” people in the audience who’ve heard of them.  This is amusing although it’s difficult to believe Jon—depicted as a savvy user of YouTube, Twitter, etc.—would not have known this.  [Also, while the social media aspect of Frank is appropriate and more or less realistically utilised—although I must say the wi-fi signal in rural Ireland seems suspiciously pervasive—I cannot help but feel this will feel a bit “quaint” in a few years, when all social media has been replaced by telepathic brain-slugs.]

            Primarily a comedy, Frank takes an ambivalent stance on mental illness, mocking it at times and portraying it with taste and sympathy at others.  Frank is obviously more than simply “odd,” he’s spent time in a mental hospital (in fact, that is where Don originally met him!).  He refuses to remove his fiber-glass head (“I have a certificate!” he says to the authorities when crossing national borders) even in private, indicating it’s not simply a part of his stage persona. [This is in contrast to “Frank Sidebottom,”  a fictional character portrayed by Chris Sievey.]  Although Frank is articulate and even charming at times, he is also portrayed as volatile and unstable, traits which are exacerbated when the band arrives at SXSW. 

            As mentioned, the band’s manager Don also spent time in psychiatric care—he was sexually attracted to mannequins—and although this is played off as a joke, Don himself eventually succumbs to his own demons.  Jon’s presence in the band is the result of a suicide attempt by the former keyboard player, and at one point Jon tells Clara “I assumed you were mentally ill,” as if this was practically a prerequisite for membership in Frank’s group (to be fair, Baraque and Anna appear more or less normal—for avant-garde musicians, at least). 

            The loyalty of Frank’s band members, despite his extreme eccentricities, is never fully explained.  Have they all subscribed to his outlandish theories about music?   Are they enthralled by his engaging personality?  Do they care about him personally?  The latter would seem to apply to Clara, who, although she enthusiastically participates in the music, seems indifferent to fame and seeks chiefly to protect Frank.  Jon, the outsider, is caught up in the creative process and sees Frank’s band as a pathway to personal fulfillment.  In the end, however, he proves to be a disruptive influence—forcing Frank and the others to break out of their isolation and confront the real (music) world, with tragic results.  At this point, he finally understands that friendship is more important than fame and fortune…

            Frank is an Irish film, directed by an Irish director (Lenny Abrahamson) and largely filmed in Ireland, but the movie, unlike a picture such as Calvary, doesn’t advertise its Irishness.  Frank, Don, and Clara are presumably Yanks (Frank and Don, definitely so), Jon is British, and Baraque is French (possibly Anna as well, although she could be British or even American), so there are no true Irish characters.  The Irish setting is a rural house, which could be located anywhere, and the last third of the film takes place in the USA (Texas and Kansas).  This isn’t a criticism: Calvary is about Ireland and the Irish people, while Frank is not. 

            The performances in Frank are all quite fine.  Michael Fassbender only gets about 10 minutes of actual face-time, but he’s still very affecting as Frank throughout (sounding a bit like Bill Murray at times, excellent American accent).  Domhnall Gleeson, despite occasionally (and unfortunately) slightly resembling Andy Dick (facially), is likeable as Jon, who serves as the audience’s surrogate, observing and commenting on Frank and his weird mob.  Maggie Gyllenhaal and Scoot McNairy do fine work, and although François Civil and Carla Azar have less to do, they also contribute meaningfully to the picture.  Production values are fine.  The direction and script are spot-on, with no significant slow spots. 

            Frank is very funny (sometimes blackly so) for the first hour or so—alternating absurdist, situational, verbal, and physical humour—then turns more serious (with plenty of humour still present—the film doesn’t get grim, no fear) in the final section.  It’s well crafted and really very good. Recommended. 

            [Note: I also saw The November Man.  It was…alright, but it contains almost nothing I feel like writing about.  So I didn’t!]

"If you want romance you’ll be dainty and helpless!" (Love Confessions 50, 1956). Ah, Minnesota, abode of athletic & amorous Amazons, apparently.

"If you want romance you’ll be dainty and helpless!" (Love Confessions 50, 1956). Ah, Minnesota, abode of athletic & amorous Amazons, apparently.

"Grow a moustache—Be a MAN!"  Stroud’s Moustache Forcer! (The Magnet February 1923).  ”You cannot expect to improve your job with a boy’s face.”  Truer words have never been spoken. 

"Grow a moustache—Be a MAN!"  Stroud’s Moustache Forcer! (The Magnet February 1923).  ”You cannot expect to improve your job with a boy’s face.”  Truer words have never been spoken.