There has been some debate lately about films concerning so-called "russian Revisionism." The one about "Pavfilov's 28" has been talked to death, but I see now that another film, "Viking" (the story of Vladimir the Great), apparently has skyrocketed to number one at the box office and generated a controversy of its own. In this case, the bellyaching is because the inhabitants of Kievan Rus are portrayed as, well, heathens. Which they may have been. Moreover, the fact that hero of the film has been feted with an enormous statue in his honor near the Kremlin has fed the flames from a political standpoint.
Enough has been said about these particular films in the press and in social media. In a nutshell, those who object to them are of the opinion that the underlying motive is to swell the bonfires of patriotism and nationalism. Possibly true. Yet sometimes positive things emerge from dubious motives, and maybe that is what is at work here.
Recently, I asked the students in one of my English classes to name someone whom they regarded as a present day Russian hero. Expecting a gallery of possibilities, I was surprised by the embarassed smiles and puzzled expressions. "Maybe Putin," someone finally muttered hesitantly. But there was no consensus. Uh, a couple of athletes? Do you mean the para-Olympics? Ok, names? Uh...So. No current national heroes. No present-day Gagarins.
But I say that people, deepdown, need heroes. Just as a child needs Santa Claus, an aspiring entrepreneur needs Steve Jobs, and Christians need Jesus. They (we) -- and the most cynical-sounding are often at heart the most needy -- want someone or something that stands above the soiled ambitions and tawdry cares of the streets. Something pure. Someone who is unblinkingly brave on the scaffold or the rack when the cause is right and bigger than the pain of the person enduring it.
To find this, we almost always have to look at the past, and, considering the way that everything without exception is now put under the microscope, even the heroes of earlier times are now turn asunder. Academic Feminism, for example, uses 21th century standards to revile men ranging from Walt Disney to Leo Tolstoy, conveniently forgetting that these men, whatever their genius, were neverthess products of their times, Just as in Mark Twain's great novel "Huckleberry Finn" the word 'nigger' is used a lot. Some people bemoan that as 'racism' and would like to ban or alter the book. Except in those days, no one said "African American." They said "Nigger."
A film worth seeing, in my honest opinion, should express something worth expressing, say something worth saying. Without meaning to sound haughty, I am not entertained by nonsense. If the film purports to be about history, I confess that I look for something resembling accuracy, especially if I know about the particular period or event. An example: at one point in my life I became something of an amateur expert on the times of Henry the 8th and Elizabeth !. The great English queen never married, perhaps was raped as a teenager (by a guy named Thomas Seymour) and had two great loves in her life, Robert Dudley (Earl of Leicester) and Robert Deveraux (Earl of Essex). Of these two, the only possible sex partner was Dudley, with whom she had a long, deep, but officialy platonic relationship. Maybe yes, maybe no. Therefore, when the film "Elizabeth" came out some years ago, I eagerly went to see it.. And guess what? The film began, began, with a wild and prolonged sex scene between Elizabeth and Dudley. I got up and walked the hell out of the cinema.
The film won an Academy Award. But it couldn't keep me seated for five minutes because it was such an obvious lie, designed only to sell tickets. I devoutly hate that kind of crap.
"Panvilov's 28" was different, and I suggest that it doesn't matter at all whether it was 28 men or 28 million men (and women). It was great because it caught the SPIRIT of the truth. It inspired viewers to love those mostly nameless millions all over again who really did make the ultimate sacrifice. It made Russian people proud to be Russian. I see no harm in that.
It is not the job of film-makers to duplicate the 'truth' of historical events. And, ironically, in this stultifying "information age", who can really agree on anything? Whatever goes down, there are immediately 100 conspiracy theories. The more facts we have, the more spin is put on them and the more confused we become. Ask any police officer or judge and he will tell you that ten eye-witnesses to a crime will give ten versions of what happened.
Does anyone really know what Jesus Christ looked like? We have the received version in paintings and sculpture. Handsome guy, long hair, beard, blue eyes (actually not a whole lot different from Osama bin Laden). But maybe he looked like Woody Allen. Or maybe he was dark-skinned. He was, after all, a Jew of the Ancient World, and he probably resembled one -- short, swarhy, etc. But nobody cries foul when Jesus gets the buff and fluff treatment from the artists.
So, accordingly, it is the job of film-makers to produce something that is a representation of their artistic perception --not a bold-faced lie but an act of the imagination which is dramatically effective without compromising the essential elements of some vital collective impulse of what the reality must have been like.. Hence "Braveheart" and "Titanic". Hence "Spartacus."
Was there ever a "Private Ryan?" The answer is Yes and No. When the Americans landed at Omaha Beach, they got clobbered, but they landed and prevailed.. And a lot of mother's sons got wasted during this landing. Should a film based on a fictitious character, championing victory in a war that the Americans did NOT in fact win, lose any credibility for making a statement symbolizing what was at stake, what was lost, and what was accomplished? I don't think so..
There was another superb film : "Number 17." It was about the marvelous hockey player Kharlemov." The film chronicalled his career and ended after his famous performance in Game One against the Canadians back sometime in the 1970's. The reality is that the Soviets did NOT win the series. In fact, they built a 3-1 lead in Canada, returned to the soviet union and blew the next three matches, thus losing, 4 games to 3.. Kharlemov was seriously injured by an American prick named Bobby Clarke, who should have been jailed for assault but instead is now in the North American Hockey Hall of Fame. But the fact is, with or without Kharlemov, the Soviets pissed away the series on their home ice. They lost.
But do we need to be told that in "Number 17" ?
Of course not. Kharlemov was a hero, just as Gagarin was a hero. The "28" , or 29 or 30, or 20,000,000 who resisted the Nazis were heroes, all of them -- because they represent the very best of our ideals and what dreams provide. .As with old friends and lovers,we need their memories even if some of the lines get changed and the parting was hard. Even if, well, damn it, that wasn't quite the way it really happened.
We need them because they remind of us what we once imagined ourselves to be or wished we might have been. Or hope to become on some tomorrow. This need supersedes mere jingoistic nationalism and reveals our own better instincts.
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