Friday, October 10, 2014

Chiny i lyudi (Chekhovski almanakh) / Ranks and People / A Chekhov Almanac

Чины и люди («Чеховский альманах») / [the film was not released in Finland] / CHINY I LIUDI (Chekhovskii Almanakh) (US: An Hour with Tchekhof) [Cariche e uomini / Ranks and People; Almanacco di Cechov / A Chekhov Almanac] (Mezhrabpomfilm – SU 1929). D: Yakov Protazanov, Mikhail Doller (при участии М. Доллера); SC: Oleg Leonidov, Yakov Protazanov, from three stories by Anton Chekhov; DP: Konstantin Kuznetsov; AD: Vladimir Yegorov; ass D: Aleksandr Popov, Leonid Khmara; cost: Nikolai Kilburg; make-up: Sergei Guskov; literary consultant: Yuri Sobolev; stills ph: Mark Magidson; C:
    Анна на шее / Anna kaulassa (short story: 1895) / [Anna on the Neck] / Anna na shee [Anna al collo/Anna Around His Neck]: Mikhail Tarkhanov (Modest Alekseyevitch), Maria Strelkova (Anna Petrovna), Andrei Petrovskii (Governor), Nikolai Sherbakov (Anna’s father), Viktor Stanitsyn (Artinov), Elena Maksimova (servant of Modest Alekseyevitch), Daniil Vvedenskii (carriage superintendent), Varvara Rizenko (neighbour [in scene cut from final montage]), Sergei Sideliov (student), Sofia Levitina (gossip);
    Смерть чиновника / Virkamiehen kuolema (short story: 1883) / [The Death of a Civil Servant] Smert Chinovnika [Death of a Bureaucrat]: Ivan Moskvin (Cherviakov), Vladimir Yershov (General Bryzzhalov);
    Хамелеон / Kameleontti (short story: 1884) / Khameleon [The Chameleon]: Ivan Moskvin (Ochumelov), Daniil Vvedenskii (Yeldyrin, police commissioner), Vladimir Popov (Khriukin); 35 mm, 1855 m., 73' (22 fps); titles, dial: RUS; print source: Gosfilmofond of Russia.
    With e-subtitles in English and Italian, grand piano: Antonio Coppola, at Teatro Verdi (Le Giornate del Cinema Muto), Pordenone, 10 Oct 2014

Natalia Noussinova (GCM Catalogue and website): "The adaptation of Chekhov’s well-known stories, acted by members of the Moscow Art Theatre, was a very natural choice for Mezhrabpomfilm, given that the studio had always had close links with the theatre of Stanislavsky and Nemirovitch-Dantchenko both in terms of aesthetic and also at the level of the team which worked in both places (Nikolai Efros, critic and literary adviser; Vladimir Simov, designer; Aleksandr Sanin, director; and Leonid Leonidov, actor and director; etc.). However, towards the end of 1929 this traditional arrangement suddenly acquired a political aspect, since Moisei Aleinikov, director of Mezhrabpom (the only private studio that had succeeded in surviving within the USSR) was arrested as a “capitalist” and deprived of his voting rights. A group of intellectuals began a campaign in support of him and his studio, and on 9 February 1930 Lunacharsky, Meyerhold, Kachalov, Moskvin, Barnet, Pudovkin, Protazanov, and others signed a letter to the heads of state, in which they said that the Rus and later the Mezhrabpom studios under the leadership of Aleinikov had played a role in the history of the Soviet cinema comparable to that of the Moscow Art Theatre in the history of Russian theatre. In this context, Protazanov’s recently released film was to be the incontestable proof of the affiliation and the closeness of the two cultural phenomena. Happily and by chance this defence was successful, and Aleinikov was freed."

"Protazanov’s film is interesting above all for the participation of two great actors of the Moscow Art Theatre, Mikhail Tarkhanov and Ivan Moskvin. Protazanov had a reputation as a good director for actors, and thus it was that stage actors – among them Kachalov, Bliumental-Tamarina, Varvara Ryzhova, Klimov, Iliinsky, et al. – very much enjoyed working with him, but the idea of working with Moskvin became a positive obsession for the film-maker. According to the memoirs of the writer Oleg Leonidov, Protazanov was constantly nagging the staff of Mezhrabpom, begging them, “Give me a subject for Moskvin”. Finally, in 1927, Leonidov proposed adapting for this purpose Ivan Shmelyov’s novel The Man from the Restaurant (Chelovek iz restorana), reckoning that the role of the waiter would fit Moskvin like a glove. After some hesitation Protazanov accepted the idea, as did Moskvin, though the actor’s unexpected illness resulted in the part being passed to Mikhail Chekhov. Two years later however Moskvin was directed by Protazanov, in this adaptation of stories by Anton Chekhov – the uncle of Mikhail."

"According to Aleinikov cinema critics were initially very sceptical about the project, since the three stories chosen by Protazanov, particularly “Death of a Bureaucrat” and “The Chameleon” – in both of which Moskvin appeared – are above all dependent on very brilliant and witty dialogue. How would it be possible to find an equivalent in silent film? Astonshingly this equivalent was found through theatrical means. The critic of the newspaper Krasnaya gazeta marvelled how successfully the players’ expressive and “theatrical” acting corresponded to the words of Chekhov. Moskvin’s make-up for “The Chameleon” was very pronounced, very strong. Such a make-up would never have been possible in the theatre because, according to Moskvin, he would be incapable of tolerating it for 20 minutes, which would be the minimum time in the theatre; but an actor could bear a make-up like this for the 20 seconds necessary to shoot a film close-up. Protazanov uses many close-ups in this film, providing the possibility to see the facial expression of the actors of the psychological school of the Moscow Art Theatre."

"Stanislavsky’s “expressive detail” is also very important for this film. An enormous samovar in the ballroom scene of “Anna Around His Neck”, symbol of the vulgarity of the bureaucrats and the hypocrisy of a “charity” auction which is nothing but a show of riches, is followed by a little samovar, auctioned to pay the debts of Anna’s father’s miserable family.

It is notable that the usual style of Protazanov’s décors, with vignettes, portraits, shadows on the wall (there are echoes of Hermann / Mozhukhin losing his mind in The Queen of Spades and the shadows of Anna’s drunken father and his two distraught sons). All this is close to the conception of inhabited space created by the founders of the Moscow Art Theatre. This closeness is not by chance: the artists who succeeded in freeing the producer Aleinikov from prison in fact hardly exaggerated in saying that Mezhrabpom was the Moscow Art Theatre of the cinema. But then, Protazanov is a rare director, who succeeded in making a bridge between great theatre, great literature, and cinema, to arrive at comedy." – Natalia Noussinova

AA: Last year I gave a lecture on "The Short Story and the Cinema" with a special focus on the mystery of Anton Chekhov. Ingmar Bergman thought that the stories of Anton Chekhov are particularly fruitful for film adaptation. Indeed there are so many film adaptations, including Chekhov portmanteau films such as Chiny i lyudi / Ranks and People, that they are a remarkable sub-genre. The mystery is that they never reach the subtlety of Chekhov with the single exception of Lady with the Dog by Iosif Kheifits, and that a true Chekhov affinity may rather be found in certain films by masters such as Ozu, Satyajit Ray, and Kiarostami. (Ok, there are some other exceptions, such as the Romance with the Double Bass, the Jiri Trnka animation).

I am always eager to be disproved, but Chiny i lyudi - a quality production, as Chekhov film adaptations always are - is no exception. It is based on three of Anton Chekhov's beloved stories; none of them, however, belonging to his great tales. They are all satires of bureaucracy, they all share qualities of the caricature. The caricature has been exaggerated, and the satire has been rendered more obvious. The trivial, always essential in Chekhov, has been emphasized, but the more profound dimension, even more essential, but rendered via indirection, is missing. The story, always a mere anecdote in Chekhov, remains, but the theme has been simplified. The general feeling of this film for me was un-Chekhovian.

The best episode in my opinion is the last one, The Chameleon. It is a little anecdote full of juicy vignettes. "Dog bites man" is the definition in the schools of journalism of "there is no story" (and the definition of a story is "man bites dog"). When the police decides to intervene, after all, it turns out that the dog's owner is the general. Thus the final verdict is: "there is no case".

What is precious in this movie is the record of the actors of the Moscow Art Theatre. They are not at their best here as Protazanov directs them to over-act. But Ivan Moskvin, the great theatre director and actor, is memorable.

A beautiful print.
The Death of a Civil Servant: Ivan Moskvin (Cherviakov) and Vladimir Yershov (General Bryzzhalov). Photo: Gosfilmofond of Russia. Click to enlarge.
Anna Around the Neck: Maria Strelkova (Anna Petrovna) and Mikhail Tarkhanov (Modest Alekseyevitch). Photo: Gosfilmofond of Russia. Click to enlarge.

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