Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Victorian Entertainments: There Will Be Fun


The idea of Victorian entertainments might initially conjure up parlour games of an improving sort, or an evening round the piano exhorting Maud to come into the garden.  The latest free exhibition at the British Library takes a more expansive look at the world of Victorian show business thanks to conjuror Harry Evans, aka the Great Evanion.

In 1895 Evans was on his uppers and was forced by necessity to sell his collection of posters, playbills, sheet music and other ephemera, some 6,000 items in all, to the British Museum for £20.  That was apparently the most the curators could spend on a single transaction without having to seek approval from the trustees, who would probably have turned their noses up at the offer.

British institutions are not particularly noted for having this sort of foresight, but Evans’s loss was a huge gain for our understanding and appreciation of popular entertainment in the late nineteenth century.  If not the greatest show on earth, the British Library has conjured up a wonderful little one to put us in the mood for the festive season.

The exhibition encompasses magic, circus acts, menageries, mesmerism, dioramas, waxworks, panto and more, together giving a splendid insight into the way our forebears spent their hard-earned leisure in the latter half of the nineteenth century.  There are five main sections, devoted to stars of varying kinds, and degrees of celebrity: John Nevil Maskelyne, Dan Leno, ‘Lord’ George Sanger (a distant relative of mine), Annie De Montford and the Great Evanion himself.  Why these five were selected is not made clear, presumably because there is enough available in the archives relevant to each to constitute a cohesive presentation.

Evanion is not very well known today, but it would have been impolite to omit him, considering he has largely made the exhibition possible.  He was a magician who after appearing in front of royalty (there is some dispute about their precise status) thereafter billed himself as the ‘Royal conjuror’.

Maskelyne was manager of the Egyptian Hall in Regent Street, ‘England’s Home of Mystery’, in partnership first with George Cooke and then David Devant.  Egyptian Hall Posters on display tilt at Theosophy in the form of Koot Hoomi and the Mahatmas, hinting that there was often a seriously sceptical intent behind Maskelyne’s magic.

De Montford, ‘the psychological star’, was originally a millworker but carved out a career as a mesmerist, an unusual occupation for a woman, situated on the blurred line between science and entertainment.  To indicate how popular mesmerism was, on display is the music for Harry Castling’s song How I Mesmerise ‘em, as sung by Charles Gardener.

Sanger was the purveyor of ‘something new under the sun, twice daily’, as both a travelling circus impresario and later at Astley’s Amphitheatre.  A copy of his 1908 autobiography is in one of the cases, and its title, Seventy Year a Showman, does not seem an exaggeration.  Next to it is a ‘memoir’ by one of his acts, Toby the learned pig, which I think it can be assumed was ghost-written.

Finally, tucked round the corner is a section devoted to George Wild Galvin, better known as Dan Leno, comic singer and versatile performer, including as a clog dancer and pantomime dame.  He was allegedly the funniest man on earth (in admittedly a fairly small field).

The star attraction of There Will Be Fun has to be the wonderful posters.  They conjure up the greasepaint and sawdust and are marvels of the printer’s art.  Designed to be disposable, it seems a miracle they have survived in such fine condition.

Bulking out the gems from the Great Evanion’s collection there are films, such as one from 1902 of Dan Leno’s family larking about in the garden, and early sound recordings.  Further objects have been loaned by the Magic Circle, including rather oddly the spend-a-penny toilet lock invented by Maskelyne.

As well as the archival material, there are new films of actors recreating the old routines, and supplementing the exhibition is a series of live performances in the library – probably mounted in the name of ‘access’ but all to the good if it focuses attention on the collection.  The curators have dressed the display in a gorgeous red circus-themed paper with evocative gold text to reinforce the Victorian atmosphere.

Performing was one way someone from humble origins, with talent and some luck, could carve a lucrative career in a society where opportunities for social mobility were limited.  Sadly though, a lot of the greats who dedicated their careers to entertaining our ancestors came to unfortunate ends.  Of those showcased here, Annie De Montfort died in 1882 at the age of 46; Dan Leno spent time in an asylum and died in 1904 aged 43; impoverished, Harry Evans died in 1905 in Lambeth infirmary of throat cancer; George Sanger was murdered with an axe in 1911.

However, their legacy lives on in this excellent little exhibition and for anybody dropping in to see it one thing is certain – there will be fun!  It runs until 12 March 2017.

Sunday, 4 December 2016

Juergen Teller selects Robert Mapplethorpe

Muffin, by Robert Mapplethorpe

It is easy to forget quite how young Robert Mapplethorpe was when he died in 1989.  The exhibition currently on display at the Alison Jacques Gallery in Berners Street, London, was mounted to commemorate what would have been his 70th birthday.  Juergen Teller has collaborated with the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation in New York to choose 48 images. encompassing Polaroids and silver gelatin prints, spread over two floors.  A note at the entrance wisely points out that the contents are not suitable for children, though they can all be found on the gallery’s website.

I can’t make up my mind what I think about Mapplethorpe’s photographs, and my visit didn’t help clarify my opinion.  They were ably selected by Teller (a good choice of curator for such challenging material), but on this showing what mainly distinguishes Mapplethorpe was his indifference to taboos surrounding the explicit depiction of male genitalia and anuses, and I’m not sure the intention to provoke, which must have been an element of his method, is enough to put him in the first rank of photographic artists.

That said, there is a lot more to him than naked men, and this was a welcome reminder of the variety of subjects at which he pointed his camera.  There are still lifes and animals as well as the portraits for which he is best known.  Patti Smith is present of course, but not wearing a shirt, in fact not wearing anything up top at all as she presses her breasts to a window pane, hands up in a pose evoking Maya Derren and so reinforcing Smith’s credentials as a significant artist.

Mapplethorpe is particularly adept at juxtapositions, whether with the contents of an image – a small statue of a devil with a pitchfork about to spear a penis looking like a hotdog – or titles – a classical statue with its arms flexed, as if stretching after sleep, called ‘The Sluggard’.  Gisèle Freund was photographed with one of her pictures of Virginia Woolf on a shelf next to her, rather a startling addition to a Mapplethorpe.  One wonders what Woolf would have made of all this.

In aesthetic terms the still lifes work well: eight frogs on a plate (or is this a portrait? – you don’t expect a still life to have the capability to jump), seedpods, bread in profile at first glance looking unsettlingly like dung; but inevitably they are secondary to the explicit depictions of the human form,  These often have a playfulness and sense of collaboration which neutralises any sense of seediness they might otherwise have had.  If it should seem crude on occasion, most notably in the explicitness of ‘Fist Fuck’, that says more about the prejudices of the viewer than it does about the photographer.

Mapplethorpe clearly had a way with people to earn such trust, and his empathy is revealed in the connection he makes with his subjects, but my favourite of the whole show has to be the dog Muffin pictured looking like an indolent nineteenth-century French courtesan.  Some of the other work is a little obvious or doesn’t quite succeed – ‘Corn’, in which a cob inevitably looks like a penis; a pair of cocoanuts resembling breasts; a grid of apartment windows marred by an ugly shadow that would be frowned on in a club competition; a long exposure making flowing water look velvety (‘Puerto Rico’), already a cliché in 1981 when it was taken.

Such reservations notwithstanding, Teller is to be congratulated on choosing an interesting group, as is Alison Jacques for showing it.  I would have liked to have seen more of Mapplethorpe’s corpus so finely printed, but am grateful these have been made available.  I’m still agnostic on their lasting value, but you could never say Mapplethorpe was a dull personality, nor, with the odd exception (the 1982 one of a television is surprising in its banality), producing boring photographs.

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

The Society for Psychical Research’s fundraising appeal


In March 2015 I outlined the reasons why I did not feel it sensible to leave money to the Society for Psychical Research in my will.  The Society had been the beneficiary of a significant bequest from late Nigel Buckmaster but was not in my opinion using it wisely.  Since writing that, my attitude towards leaving money to the SPR has not changed.  What has changed is that in mid-2015 the organisation moved from its rented premises in Marloes Road, having purchased a three-story building in Vernon Mews, West Kensington.  The move was forced on the Society by the landlord at Marloes Road ending the tenancy, and it made sense to buy rather than carry on renting.  The choice of suitable property was limited but, while far from perfect, the new premises are definitely better than the old cramped office and library.

The latest issue of the SPR’s magazine Paranormal Review has an interesting article by the Hon. Treasurer Dr Richard Broughton on the formidable logistics of the move, which had to be done in a very short period to meet the date the landlord had set.  It was a stressful operation, and fitting out the building to suit the Society’s needs was lengthy and expensive.  Broughton’s article states the cost of the move, which is fairly eye-watering: the purchase price was £1.2m, with another £100,000 for fees and the necessary refurbishment.

The Hon. Treasurer concludes by launching an appeal for funds, noting: ‘Our first donor was Mr Nigel Buckmaster who, you might say, foresaw our needs and allocated a portion of his generous bequest to the Society that amounted to £263,000.  That leaves a little over a million pounds to raise and we need your help.’  To facilitate the appeal a ‘Building Fund Committee’ has been established, and a couple of days ago a ‘New Home Campaign’ donate button appeared in a prominent position on the website, though a new home campaign sounds more like something you do to get a new home than start after you have obtained it (and paid for it).  There are enticements to donors in Broughton’s pitch: opportunities to name the library and lecture hall, though no figures are mentioned.

Mr Buckmaster certainly referred to the purchase of a building in his will, but did not specify any particular amount; he could hardly have known precisely how much his estate would be worth after his death.  That £263,000 was what was left after other Buckmaster projects had been allocated from the bequest which, with growth, amounted to some £750,000.  To put it in perspective, from the Buckmaster funds the SPR will have spent more on the new website and online encyclopaedia – a budget of £350,000 – than was allocated to new premises.

The back page of the magazine is devoted to the appeal under the call ‘Help Build Your Society’, noting the symmetry between the £1.3m spent and 1.3 centuries of the SPR’s existence (134 years).  ‘To be able to realise this dream [i.e. a new home] in London’s heated property market we had to dig deep into our financial reserves.  Now we need your help to recoup this ‘advance’ and help us pay for our new home.’

I’m all for the SPR having a healthy financial position of course, but less sanguine about how it spends its money (including how little it spends on supporting research).  It’s good news it has its own spacious property, both a valuable asset and a base to provide a better service than was the case at Marloes Road.  But the appeal subtly suggests that having spent this large sum on the Vernon Mews property, the Society is now a bit strapped for cash.  It doesn’t mention that the last building the SPR owned and rented out for many years, 1 Adam & Eve Mews, just off Kensington High Street, was sold for £800,000.  Nor does it refer to the difference between the proportion from the Bucknmaster bequest allocated to the new home and the amount the bequest was worth in toto, which comes to nearly half a million pounds.

My attitude is still that it would have been better to have used the money the Society already had more wisely than squander it and have to replenish it.  For example, to simply replace the Buckmaster money given to Council member Dr David Rousseau for personal projects yet to show their worth will necessitate raising £78,000.  Perhaps the appeal will bring in the required million, but I am doubtful in the present financial climate, not to mention the fact the Society actually already had the £1.3m necessary without having to ask.  On the other hand someone may fancy having the rather elegant library named after them.


References

Broughton, Richard S., ‘The Society for Psychical Research’s New Home’, Paranormal Review, Issue 80, Autumn 2016, pp. 8-10.

‘Help Build Your Society: 1.3 Centuries of History … £1.3 Million’, Paranormal Review, Issue 80, Autumn 2016, p. 36.

Friday, 18 November 2016

The death of Felix Dzerzhinsky


I have long had an interest in Felix Dzerzhinsky (1877-1926); in 2008 I was photographed standing next to his statue in Minsk, Belarus, then earlier this year standing by his grave at the Kremlin wall near Lenin’s Mausoleum (the plaque marking the final resting place of the remains of Nadezhda Krupskaya, Lenin’s widow, is just visible on the left, between the trees).  So I was intrigued by the title of a talk, given on 15 November at the University of Cambridge Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities by Iain Lauchlan of the University of Edinburgh in the series ‘Conspiracy & Democracy’, called ‘Conspiracy in the Kremlin: Who (or what) killed Felix Dzerzhinsky’.

The talk hinged on Dzerzhinsky’s sudden death after a two-hour speech to the Central Committee on 20 July 1926 in which he had been critical of Stalin.  The cause given was heart attack.  But was it?  Could it have been murder, and if so, who could have been responsible?  Was this an early move by Stalin to remove possible opposition and consolidate his own grip on power?

‘Iron Felix’ is best known for his role in the Soviet revolutionary government as head of the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage, better known as the Cheka, though he was also appointed Commissar for Internal Affairs which I suppose would be the equivalent of the British Home Secretary also being head of MI5.  Trusted by Lenin, he was ruthless in pursuing counter-revolutionaries and other enemies of the Bolsheviks.

Minsk, 2008. Photo: Keith Ruffles

Operating in ways not unlike those of the old Tsarist Okhrana, his approach was not above criticism: Victor Serge argued that a transparent system would have achieved its results as efficiently, but with more justice.  Dzerzhinsky on the other hand felt this was a life-or-death struggle and half measures could lead to disaster.  As Lauchlan put it in noting how dependable Dzerzhinsky was, if you had to break eggs to make an omelette, Dzerzhinsky was a man who could be relied on to break them honestly.  It was a position that could attract a sadist who might go beyond what was necessary whereas he did not like the job so would not use it for personal gratification.  His colleagues did not feel his methods were excessive.

Dzerzhinsky died in the Kremlin in mysterious circumstances and rumours swirled around his death immediately, particularly in the foreign and émigré press, his sudden demise used by opponents of the regime to suggest that it was a sign of internal dissension.  There was a Russian tradition of violence in the Kremlin, notably Ivan the Terrible killing his son in 1581, and by evoking that murderous history Dzerzhinsky’s death was bound to create conspiracy theories.

Moscow, 2016. Photo: Karen Ruffles

 The suspicion arose that the regime was encountering its Thermidor, a parallel with the situation in France when the Reign of Terror was brought to an end in 1794 and its leading light, Robespierre, guillotined.  By this interpretation Dzerzhinsky was the Soviet Robespierre and his death represented the government, post-Lenin, in crisis (more positively it could have been interpreted as the often arbitrary repression he represented giving way to a considered approach as the government stabilised under the New Economic Policy, but from an anti-Bolshevik perspective it made sense to accentuate negative interpretations).

There were a number of colleagues who could have wanted Dzerzhinsky out of the way, representing a variety of shades of opinion.  Suspects included Trotsky, Zinoviev, Kamenev and Bukharin.  They had all had areas of disagreement with their late comrade.  However, Lauchlan emphasised firstly that Dzerzhinsky argued with both wings, putting him in the middle; and while he disagreed on some things, equally he agreed on others.  There was no single aspect of policy which might want someone to have him killed.

Significantly, Stalin was not mentioned at the time as a moving force in a possible murder.  Nor did Stalin accuse any of those he eliminated later of having orchestrated Dzerzhinsky’s death when he could easily have done so, though Lauchlan did mention that Stalin had planned to include the possibility of his murder as part of the allegations in the Doctors’ Plot shortly before his own death.  Stalin was capable of accusing others of acts he had authorised, so it would have been easy for him to point the finger, even if evidence was lacking or had to be manufactured.  Later a rumour circulated that Stalin had had Dzerzhinsky killed because as head of the Cheka the latter had uncovered evidence that Stalin had once been an Okhrana agent, though this turned out to be baseless.

So if accusations of a conspiracy were lacking in 1926, why did they emerge later?  Lauchlan argued that it is easy to interpret history backwards, reading motives into events retrospectively because we know what takes place next.  Further, history can become a kind of soap opera in which everything occurs for a reason.  Properly constructed drama does not allow for random forces, it requires motivated individual acts.  From that point of view it is easier to see Dzerzhinsky’s death as part of a wider scheme than acknowledge he just dropped dead from a heart attack.

There were a number of deaths in the senior Soviet hierarchy in the 1920s and 30s which happened at opportune moments, and if one thinks in terms of conspiracies then these could be regarded not as coincidences but acts by the state to purge dissent.  However, Lauchlan’s view is that Stalin’s paranoia only developed after the suicide of his wife in 1932, after which he gradually became insular within a limited clique.  By the time of Sergei Kirov’s murder in 1934 he was ready to implicate a wide range of rivals, and order purges using the pretext of a widespread conspiracy.  The political landscape was entirely different to that of 1926, when Stalin had walked with other leading Bolsheviks behind Dzerzhinsky’s coffin.

Assuming Dzerzhinsky’s death was from natural causes, what more can we say about the man?  For Lauchlan this touches on leadership as performance (curiously Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, who happened to be in Moscow at the time, attended his funeral).  With his distinctive beard and sinister reputation, Dzerzhinsky consciously projected himself as a Mephistophelean character.  He admired Robespierre, and saw himself in the same heroic mould.

In pursuit of that image and harbouring a feeling of having a higher purpose, it looks like he had a death wish.  He was not averse to putting himself in dangerous situations and despite a history of ill-health, including previous heart attacks, he effectively worked himself into an early grave, ignoring doctors’ advice to slow down.  He perhaps saw himself as a secular saint, sacrificing himself for the revolution, and there is a remarkable group photo, suppressed until the 1990s, with him in the centre which echoes The Last Supper; he even appears to have a halo behind his head.  It may be relevant that as a youth he had at one point intended to enter a seminary.

Lauchlan outlined a possible cause for this sense Dzerzhinsky possessed that he was somehow destined to martyrdom.  He had had tuberculosis in 1901 which inculcated in him the feeling he was between life and death, engaged in a superhuman struggle with the enemy within, just as he struggled against another kind of enemy within as head of the Cheka.  He wanted his life to have meaning, but turned the desire in a pathological direction.  The irony is that after his death an autopsy, conducted by the foremost authority on TB in the country, revealed no trace of the disease – a conclusion there was no reason to fabricate.  Dzerzhinsky had based his approach to life on a false premise.

For all his faults, Dzerzhinsky created an iconic role model that endures today.  He is still popular in Russia at both official and public levels as a symbol of integrity, and there is a movement to bring his statue, pulled down in 1991 and currently languishing in the fallen statue park at the Central House of Artists, back to its original position outside the Lubyanka.  He is not so popular in Poland (he was an ethnic Pole) and his statue in Dzerzhinsky Square in Warsaw came down in 1989, the square given back its pre-war name.  As the existence of a statue in Belarus attests, the authorities there are quite positive towards his legacy.

The lecture’s title was somewhat misleading in emphasising the ‘who’ over the ‘what’.  One was expecting a surprise contender for Dzerzhinsky’s assassin, perhaps a name hidden in state archives for decades, so it was a slight anti-climax to learn he did actually die of a heart attack after all.  That is an indication of our hankering after conspiracies, life as soap opera.  Despite the disappointment it was still an interesting profile, showing that there was more to Dzerzhinsky, and greater nuance, than is suggested by his image as director of the brutal state security apparatus.  Dr Lauchlan has a biography in press – Iron Felix: Death, Tyranny & the Pursuit of Happiness in Revolutionary Russia, 1877-1926 – which will be well worth a look.

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

The Ninth Annual Cambridge Festival of Ukrainian Film, November 2016


Once again the film festival organised by Rory Finin, director of Cambridge Ukrainian Studies, a centre in the Department of Slavonic Studies at the University of Cambridge, has brought Ukraine to the Winstanley lecture theatre at Trinity College in Cambridge for two evenings, 11-12 November.  The past couple of festivals unsurprisingly had a major focus on Maidan and the political turmoil which has racked Ukraine, with the emphasis on documentaries exploring filmmakers’ responses to the crisis.  The ninth festival returned to the more traditional format of mixing documentaries portraying broader perspectives on the lives of contemporary Ukrainians with classic fiction.  The festival was run in collaboration with the Docudays UA International Documentary Human Rights Film Festival and the Oleksandr Dovzhenko National Centre.

The first film on Friday evening was a short, Has-Beens (Olena Moskalchuk and Dmytro Burko, 2015), about the Petrivka book market next to the railway line in Kyiv/Kiev.  Opening with the sounds of the trains as the camera tracks along a passageway lined with books, we are introduced to a world the twenty-first century seems to have forgotten: a market crammed with decaying books, piled high and scattered around, but few customers for them.  One seller sadly notes people don’t read these days, while a smartly dressed man hunts only for books not available as digital versions.

Many of the units are shuttered and it must be a long time since this forlorn space saw any kind of bustle.  One wonders how the market keeps going, with customers haggling over books that are relics from another era, as the one containing pictures of a young and old Lenin amply demonstrates.  Yet the sellers and their customers are in good humour, boasting and telling jokes.  There is even an effort to repair books that might have to wait a long time to find a loving owner.  It is heartening to see the occasional young person browsing, but on this showing the second-hand book trade is not in good health.  A rather sad film for bibliophiles, but more context to allow the viewer to gauge Petrivka’s position in the world of Ukrainian bookselling generally would have been useful.

The second documentary of the evening was feature-length, and also dealt with a vanishing world: Hollywood on the Dnipro: Dreams from Atlantis (Oleh Chornyi, 2014), Rory pointing out that the title is a nod to the Odessa Film Studio’s nickname of ‘Hollywood on the Black Sea’.  Hollywood on the Dnipro charts the rise and decline of the village of Buchak, about 150 km from Kiev, as a destination for filmmaking during the Soviet era.  Alexander Dovzhenko, who proclaimed the area ‘Ukraine’s Switzerland’, planned to shoot his final film, Poem of the Sea, here.  After his death in 1956 his widow Yuliya Solntseva undertook the project, and the association gave Buchak a boost that attracted other projects throughout the 1960s and into the 70s.

Over the years a significant number of directors arrived, taking full advantage of the picturesque rural setting.  Andrei Tarkovsky, who used it to great effect in his debut feature Ivan’s Childhood, may have been the most notable, but there was a roll-call of directors in what seems to have been a renaissance in Ukrainian cinema paralleling New Wave movements elsewhere in Europe.  An enthusiasm hinting at boundless possibilities is on display in these films.  As dyed cows in one suggests, the area somehow lent itself to play, a poetic approach bordering on surrealism.  It could be that the feeling of remoteness from government strictures encouraged a sense of escape, though there could not be total freedom from state censorship.

The filmmakers talked to those who worked on the films, both sides of the camera, as well as locals who remembered the productions and often acted in them as extras.  Tarkovsky’s Ivan himself, Nikolai Burlyayev, discusses the film and its director while Larisa Kadochnikova, who spent a year filming Ivana Kupala Night here in the 1960s, is given a tour as she tries to pick out landmarks half a century later.

The second part of the film’s title comes from the fact that today the village has largely disappeared under water.  In the early 1970s, against fierce local opposition, the Soviet government authorised the Kaniv hydropower plant which entailed building a reservoir.  Some residents moved to abandoned dwellings above the water line but most were relocated to other villages where they had to build their own houses with no government assistance.  As a result Buchak has been left almost completely deserted, its famous windmill which appeared in many films fallen into decay, though it remains home to a handful of bohemians who value the solitude.  Towards the end there is a shift from celebrating Buchak’s cinematic heritage to highlight the fragile ecosystem and the environmental degradation, with activists fighting to prevent further flooding and preserve the natural beauty along with sites of archaeological significance.

The film’s writer Stanislav Tsalyk, who also appeared in the film, was present to introduce it, and do a Q&A afterwards, though the latter turned out to be a single question from Rory and an extremely lengthy answer that covered most of the questions the audience might have asked.  Tsalyk pointed out some of the problems making the film, notably that many of those who had been involved during the village’s golden age had died or moved away, reducing the number of people they could interview.  Memories were fallible because those who had acted in the films only actually saw them once DVDs became available because there were no cinemas close by, and no electricity.  He added that the films discussed are only a slice of those which used Buchak as a location.

This was an important oral history of the Dnieper’s very own dream factory, bringing to light a significant aspect of Ukrainian cinema.  There was undoubtedly an atmosphere of nostalgia and loss hanging over Hollywood on the Dnipro, but it was too an indicator that such excitement and experimentation can once again energise the country’s film making, and reinforce national identity in the process.

Saturday’s screenings, Two Days (Heorhii Stabovyi, 1927) and The Night Coachman (Heorhii Tasin, 1928), were a complete change of pace, two gripping hour-long dramas that were a fascinating alternative to the didacticism of Sergei Eisenstein’s films in the same period (though a shot of a sleeping stone lion in Two Days may have been intended to echo the first of the famous trio of lions in Eisenstein’s 1925 Battleship Potemkin).  Where Eisenstein’s primary concern was the movement of the masses, subordinating the individual and assuming a common motivation based on class, these two films examined the human cost, particularly intergenerational frictions, as a new world was born, leaving those who were stuck firmly in the old in confusion and despondency.  There were commonalities between the two: both show the brutal execution of a child who has joined the Communists – a son in Two Days, a daughter in The Night Coachman – at the hands of the Whites, and the revenge of the aged father, culminating in death or despair.  In each case the father (a widower) is out of sympathy with his offspring’s views, but aghast at the way the Whites, with whom he naturally feels an affinity, behave.  However, in neither case is the retributive act carried out from class consciousness, but from a more visceral hatred of cold-blooded murderers.

The evening began with Two Days.  A wealthy bourgeois family flees before the advancing Reds, leaving their elderly retainer to look after the house.  During the loading of the car a puppy is accidentally killed, a seemingly minor act in the scheme of things but the beginning of a chain of events which drives the tragedy.  The Reds arrive and the old servant is astonished to find his son with them, someone he had thought dead in the war but who is now a commissar.  The young man though makes it clear his loyalty is to the Revolution.  His father is hiding the young son of the family in his attic room, at considerable risk to himself, as the youngster had been left behind in the confusion.  Unfortunately the puppy’s body is dug up by its mother and this leads to the Reds finding a chest with the family’s valuables, buried for safekeeping.  They remove the chest but the boy in hiding mistakenly thinks the old man had told the revolutionaries of its whereabouts, and when the Reds retreat and the Whites come back, he denounces his erstwhile protector.  The commissar had been ordered to remain undercover but the boy betrays his hiding place, the Whites find him and promptly hang him from the tree under which chest and puppy had been buried.  The old man in his agony burns the house, killing everybody in it, including the boy, before himself expiring on the road.

In depicting the conflict Stabovyi does not create the simplistic dichotomy of noble Reds and dastardly Whites one might expect in the 1920s.  The former are a boorish lot with bad manners, whereas the Whites are cultivated and at least know how to play the piano (and don’t put lit cigarettes on it).  But the Whites are ruthless when it comes to dealing with the captured commissar.  The old man’s political sympathies are entirely with them but he still has personal loyalties, and cannot reconcile the two.  Not seeing where his true interest lies is his tragedy.  Thus he experiences false consciousness by allying himself to the bourgeoisie, sheltering an ungrateful youth who symbolically takes his bed while he has to sleep on the floor.  At one point the old man sits in his room and fondles his old Imperial Army cap.  He sighs that those days are long gone, and indeed they are.  Alone, with nothing left to live for, his time is over as a new society rises from the ashes of the old.

The Night Coachman is a story about an elderly coach driver who has worked nights for 30 years, living comfortably with his daughter who is employed, so he thinks, at a printing works.  In fact she is a Communist, secretly producing revolutionary literature.  Her father discovers that she is no longer at the works and is associating with, in his eyes, bad company, a fellow radical.  The pair have stashed printing equipment in the loft above the stable, and thinking to save her, the father brings in a ruthless counterintelligence officer when he believes the young man will be in the loft alone.  Unfortunately the daughter is there instead, with incriminating evidence.  In a chilling scene the officer forces the old man to drive them to the mortuary.  After telling the custodian there is a body for him while the camera shows the daughter sitting passively, the officer shoots her (in practice one would have expected him to interrogate her to find out as much as possible about her network, but the scene is superbly dramatic).

The following day the old man is in a daze, out in his carriage in daylight for the first time in decades. He sees at a street corner the officer interrogating the very person with whom his daughter had associated, and when the man is detained the officer orders the father to drive them to – the mortuary.  The father whips up the horse, tells the young man to jump, and crashes the carriage on some steps.  His impulsive act kills the officer and the horse, and leaves him dazed and injured as the film ends with him reaching for the scarf he had earlier given his daughter as a gift.

Technically the film is a marvel, with a great deal of night shooting done on location in Odessa.  Early on there is a sequence where the old man is driving the officer and the latter sees a pretty woman in another carriage.  He orders the old man to speed up and drive alongside, then he hops into the other vehicle to exercise his charms on the lady.  It is similar to a sequence in Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929) in which the camera in a car drives next to another car, filming its occupants; perhaps this is where Vertov got the idea.

As is the case in Two Days, an old man furthers the revolutionary cause, but not from radical motives: here it is to atone for causing the death of his daughter.  Vsevolod Pudovkin’s 1926 film Mother has a mother and son pitted against each other initially; however, she comes to understand the system’s injustice after seeing the harsh way it treats him, and she adopts his revolutionary outlook.  Both Stabovyi and Tasin by contrast demonstrate that the way individuals respond to reality is not always so neat.  Ultimately, if one cannot change one’s views in accord with the forces of history, the forces of history will roll over you.  The old, as symbolised by the father, will give way to the new, albeit at the cost of great sacrifice on both sides.


Rory Finin is doing a fine job organising the festival and bringing us gems.  As well as familiar faces it consistently attracts those new to Ukrainian film, and the number of students willing to give up the more usual pleasures of weekend nights (or even Radio 4’s Any Questions?, which was being recorded at the Cambridge Union at the same time on Friday evening) is testament to its attractions.  Watching the clips in Hollywood on the Dnipro made me realise just how many films Rory could potentially programme for future festivals.  Next year (coincidentally the centenary of the Russian Revolution) will mark the tenth.  There is no shortage of potential material so there is scope, budgets willing, for an expanded festival, perhaps occupying all day on the Saturday.  The festival has always been free, but I am sure that a charge to help defray the extra costs would not deter attendants.  I hope Rory will consider pushing the човен out and making the tenth festival of Ukrainian film even more enjoyable than the preceding nine.