Sunday, October 07, 2012

Prostoi sluchai / A Simple Case

Простой случай - Очень хорошо живётся / Prostoi slutshai / Rasskaz o prostom sluchaye / Ochen’ khorosho zhiviotsa [Un caso semplice; Storia di un caso semplice; Si vive proprio bene / A Simple Case; The Tale of a Simple Case; Life Is Beautiful]
    Mezhrabpomfilm, SU 1932. D: Vsevolod Pudovkin; co-D: Mikhail Doller; SC: Aleksandr Rzheshevskii, based on a newspaper article by Mikhail Koltsov; DP: Grigorii Kabalov, Georgii Bobrov; asst. ph: Sergei Strunnikov; ED: Maria Usoltseva; AD: Sergei Kozlovskii; ass D: Yakov Kuper; ass: Aleksandr Zhutayev, S. Larionov;
    C: Aleksandr Baturin (Pavel Langovoi), Yevgenia Rogulina (Mashenka), Maria Belousova (the girl), Andrei Gorchilin (worker in the Prologue), Anna Chekulayeva (his wife), Mikhail Kashtelian (his son), Ivan Novoseltsev (Vasya), Aleksandr Chistiakov (Uncle Sasha), V. Kuzmich [Vladimir Trofimov] (Zheltikov), Afanasii Belov (Grisha), Ivan Yudin (friend of Langovoi), Vladimir Uralskii (wounded soldier), Dmitri Kipiani (White officer), F. Novozhilov (dying soldier)
    Filmed: 1930; rel: 12.1932; orig. l: 2633 m; 35 mm, 2172 m, 78' (24 fps); print source: Gosfilmofond of Russia.
    Teatro Verdi, Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, Pordenone (The Canon Revisited), with e-subtitles in English and Italian, grand piano: Gabriel Thibaudeau, 7 Oct 2012.

Sergei Kapterev: "A Simple Case is one of Vsevolod Pudovkin’s less-known films and his least available work of the silent era. While discussed by critics and historians, mostly as an unsuccessful deviation by a classic director of Soviet montage cinema confronted by the advent of sound, this film remains a legend rather than a fully realized fact of film history. Therefore, its Giornate presentation as a major candidate for cinematic canonization constitutes a fascinating and ground-breaking event. Pudovkin planned A Simple Case as a combination of silence and sound, a continuation of Soviet montage methodology and an alternative to early sound films, described by him as “lecture-cum-operetta”. Due to technological and organizational problems, it became his last contribution to silent cinema."

"Pudovkin’s previous three films were grand-scale studies of individuals embracing the cause of social liberation: an adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s landmark story of class struggle (Mat’ / Mother, 1926) and two revolutionary epics (Konyets Sankt-Peterburga / The End of St. Petersburg, 1927, and Potomok Chingis-khana / The Heir to Genghis Khan / Storm Over Asia, 1929)."

"A Simple Case told a less ambitious and conceptually reversed story of adultery committed by a confused hero of the Russian revolution. It was conceived as a study of the dilution of revolutionary idealism by the temptations of a peaceful and comfortable existence. As Storm Over Asia had been criticized for excessive “mass appeal”, in his next work Pudovkin reaffirmed his devotion to experiment. Under ideological pressure, he would later retract his original intention and disparagingly refer to A Simple Case as “a catalogue of directorial devices”."

"A Simple Case was based on a script by Aleksandr Rzheshevskii, an avid champion of “the emotional scenario”, which ignored shot-by-shot breakdown and accentuated sentiments and moods, through poetic rhythm, epithets, and romantic intertitles that quoted poetry, embodied inner monologue, or addressed the audience. Pudovkin praised Rzheshevskii’s work as inspiring the director’s inventiveness without imposing excessive instructions, while film theorist Viktor Shklovsky accused Rzheshevskii of “increasing the distance between the script and the film”."

"Originally entitled Life Is Beautiful, the film began shooting in the spring of 1929. The first screenings in 1930 provoked criticism that it lacked drama and bewildered viewers. Later Pudovkin prepared a simplified and presumably clearer version, now titled A Simple Case. Rzhezhevskii disliked the results, and asserted that Pudovkin’s revisions and “formalism” neutralized the strengths of the original. Pudovkin’s narrative experiments were combined with the systematic use of “temporal close-ups”, a method of fixing the viewer’s attention on particular details by decelerated or accelerated motion. To demonstrate their universal cinematic potential, temporal close-ups were to be meticulously integrated in the film’s rhythmic structure."

"A major prerequisite for such integration was the high quality of cinematography. Pudovkin’s previous work relied on the visuals of Anatolii Golovnia, but Golovnia’s dislike of the script made Pudovkin join forces with another Mezhrabpomfilm cinematographer, Grigorii Kabalov, as well as Georgii Bobrov, who was making his debut as a cameraman. Golovnia’s influence is still felt in the strikingly emotional images of nature and the efforts to synthesize lyrical and documentary features. Nevertheless, by creating monumental but psychologically subtle imagery, Pudovkin’s new associates – assisted by his old collaborator, the designer Sergei Kozlovskii, whose “sets of stark restraint” acted, in the words of Léon Barsacq, as “dramatic elements inseparable from the narrative” – proved that they were not imitative followers, but original interpreters of the filmmaker’s ideas."

"The monumentality of the film’s imagery was enhanced by typage acting. The “blank slate” potential of actors with no cinematic experience (such as the opera bass who played the main protagonist) or who came from the ranks of non-professionals (such as the boy seen in the prologue) were inventively incorporated in Pudovkin’s formal quest. Simultaneously, the psychological nuancing of the images led to individualization and humanization of the typage principle. With the help of co-director Mikhail Doller, another long-time associate and acting expert, Pudovkin put the actors into specific “psycho-physical” states, accentuating their gestures and implementing his belief that an actor’s performance should incorporate “understanding and perception of the film’s shot-by-shot structure”."

"A work of monumental emotion and diverse rhythms and textures, A Simple Case is more than a unique experiment, and is anything but a failure. It is crucial for understanding the stylistic and philosophical complexity of Vsevolod Pudovkin’s achievements, and provides a remarkable epilogue to the history of montage cinema." – SERGEI KAPTEREV

AA: A remarkable discovery: a major Pudovkin movie I had never seen before, as strong as his most famous works, and exploring new ground, although there is a great unsolvable problem in its fundament.

After long years in the underground, the civil war, and the struggle in Kamchatka Pavel comes back and meets his wife Mashenka. They have both aged and been marked by experience. Pavel meets his son. There are meetings with comrades from the front, and traumatic nightmares from war. There are images of new life, including the young son's vitality, montages of nature, water music sequences, montages of ploughing, harvesting and fertility, and images of urban shock experiences and construction sites. The family is breaking, but there is a heroic Red Army montage with promises of new happiness.

The private sphere and the political sphere remain unmediated, and A Simple Case does not succeed either as a psychological play or as political propaganda. But as a work of visual poetry it is superb, representing the heroic era of the Soviet cinema at its most brilliant. A Simple Case is stark, bold, original, and impressive. It is a movie about encountering the shock of the new. The visual vocabulary is rich. There are series of shots with starkly reduced composition, extreme close-ups cropped in surprising ways, lyrical passages of nature, blitz montages of war and urbanity, and enigmatic images. Devices include slow motion, reverse motion, and time lapse. The railway station sequence has montages that are indistinguishable from abstract avantgarde.

The keyword is ellipsis. Elliptical is also the movie's fundamental sense. There is a sense of something inscrutable, sinister, and uncanny going on beyond the optimistic hurrah facade of construction sites and Red Army parades.

The visual quality of the print is largely wonderful, with a feeling like it's been mostly struck from the negative. Although a radical cropping of the images seems to be a part of the film's style, the question of missing eyes and foreheads raises the question whether this print has been correctly printed and/or whether it was projected with the proper aspect ratio. Because A Simple Case was apparently also released as an early sound movie, that version would probably had the high early sound film aspect ratio. During the screening there was a light on the other side of the grand piano directed towards the screen, and the piano silhouette and the light were visible on screen during the entire screening. Even so the movie looked stunning.

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