starring Vladimir Mashkov, Mariya Mironova, Levani Outchaneichvili, Aleksandr Baluyev
screenplay by Aleksandr Borodyansky, Pavel Lungin, Yuli Dubov, based on Dubov's novel Bolshaya pajka
directed by Pavel Lungin
Zir-e poost-e shahr
Under the City's Skin
starring Golab Adineh, Mohammad Reza Forutan, Baran Kosari, Ebrahin Sheibani
screenplay by Rakhshan Bani Etemad, Farid Mostafavi
directed by Rakhshan Bani Etemad
directed by Mark Moskowitz
by Walter Chaw The collapse of oppressive regimes is a double-edged sword for a country's film industry. Official censors are out of work, but they take their government's sponsorship of the film industry with them. Entertaining a stream of strange bedfellows from the United States and France, the Russian cinema in the age of Perestroika struggled to find a balance between artistry and commerce--the same instinct that promoted the creation of underground trades in fake Levi's spawned, too, a steadily gathering horde of cheap knock-off films designed, like their Yankee brothers, for minimal but satisfactory fiscal return. Departing quickly from the early optimism of pictures like Alexander Sokurov's Days of Eclipse and Pavel Lungin's Taxi Blues, the "Russian New Wave" (led like the French nouvelle vague by a cadre of critics) has expressed itself lately through cultural remakes of classics of world (including early Russian) cinema. The S. Dobrotvorsky-scripted Nicotine, an interesting take on Godard's Breathless, is the best of the cultural doppelgängers; Lungin's Tycoon is among the worst.
Based on a Yuli Dubov novel (The Big Slice), Tycoon is structured around Citizen Kane in the obfuscating telling of the rise and fall of real-life robber baron Boris Berezovsky, subbed here by reptilian Plato (Vladimir Mashkov) and his small crew of economic misfits poised to make the roundelay scheme of Superman III work for them. Almost no time is spent in explaining how any money is made, nor really how anything happens at all--the film depends, apparently, on a knowledge of recent Russian history, probably a firm grasp of Cyrillic irony, and intimate familiarity with shady financial shenanigans. A movie only Milken could love, the picture is overlong, underfed, and obsessed with making a point with its style and the none-too-subtle comparison of Welles's newspaper baron to Russia's broom baron. A film-school experiment or hypothetical workshop banter, as a feature it is confused and slack and ultimately the best statement about the state of Russian movie culture for the fact of it than for anything it might have to say.
Conversely, Rakhshan Bani-Etemad's Under the Skin of the City is an example of a film from another traditionally repressive regime (Iran's) that successfully mixes the filmmaker's documentary instincts (Bani-Etemad splits her energies between features and docus, in fact) with a broader narrative sense that recalls Vittorio De Sica's neo-realist melodramas. Tracing the tragedies swirling around an Iranian family (father disabled, brother looking to escape, mother and sister victims of Tehran's social bans), the picture teeters forever on the precipice of schematic screed, with each family member afflicted by one aspect of Iranian social injustice, but Bani-Etemad's gift is her ability to make immediate the human struggle at the heart of a family caught in a time and place so unmoored from tradition that ritual has become cruelty. That a film so unflinching about its nation's problems is produced (and hailed) in a country that most Americans equate with totalitarianism and absolute censorship is reason by itself, beyond the stirring universality of its penitents, to reassess what we think we know about Iran and her art.
At the very least, Under the Skin of the City is several times more honest than Mark Moskowitz's self-aggrandizing and essentially duplicitous Stone Reader. Following the personal odyssey of braggart and self-proclaimed protector of the high art of reading, the picture is an ostensible documentary about Moskowitz (a director of political campaign commercials, no less) searching for one-shot wonder Dow Mossman, author of the all but unread Stones of Summer with which Moskowitz, and no one else, becomes obsessed. In truth, the picture is an opportunity for Moskowitz to bother professors and critics with long conversations about Moskowitz's favourite books while the search for Mossman appears to be solvable within the first ten minutes of the picture.
I have my doubts as to the veracity of the piece, in other words, as Moskowitz indulges in meaningless pastoral shots and obvious set-ups that have a camera crew set and running from inside the house when Mark "surprises" his mother. Hailed in some quarters as a celebration of reading, the picture is really a celebration of exclusivity, wherein an intellectual bully attempts to rank his particular obsession as above all other particular obsessions. A closer look reveals Stone Reader to have no insight into its subject matter (reading, readership, creation), but a lot of insight into Moskowitz and the contents of his bookshelf (shown in loving pans that last almost as long as the actual interview with elusive Mossman). Documentary as pyramid tomb, the film has succeeded at least in prompting a re-printing of Stones of Summer, thus giving folks who shelled out a cool five-hundred to get a paperback off eBay the dubious inimitability they desire. Originally published: June 20, 2003.