Saturday, October 03, 2015

Nelzia li bez menia? / [Can't You Just Leave Me Out?]

Lastochkin's daydream of the canteen. Photo: Gosfilmofond of Russia, Moscow. Please click to enlarge the photo.

Нельзя ли без меня? / Nelzja li bez menja? / Vkusnoty / [Faranno a meno di me? / Piatti deliziosi / Delicious Meals]
    Soyuzkino, Moscow – SU 1932. D+SC: Viktor Shestakov; DP: Aleksei Solodkov; AD: Iakov Feldman; ass. D: Yuri Gromov; Zoia Romanovskaya; ass. ph: Arkadi Levitan; scen. rewrite, retakes, re-editing: Nikolai Tarkhahov;
    C: Sergei Poliakov (Lastochkin), Varvara Sevostianova (sua moglie/his wife), Aleksandr Antonov (cuoco/chef), Yelena Maksimova (Malakhova, lavapiatti  / dishwasher), m Skavronskaya, m Shlenskaya (due vicine/two neighbours), Lyubov Nenasheva, Sofia Levitina (donne in fila alla mensa/women in canteen queue)
    Censor date: 9.4.1932; première: 13.10.1932; rel:?; orig. l: 1450 m; 35 mm, 1225 m, 48' (22 fps); titles: RUS; print source: Gosfilmofond of Russia, Moscow.
    Le Giornate del Cinema Muto (GCM), Pordenone.
    Viewed at Teatro Verdi, with e-subtitles in Italian and English, grand piano: John Sweeney, 3 Oct 2015

Natalia Noussinova (GCM catalog and website): "At the start of the 1930s, the idea of collectivism became increasingly popular. Homo sovieticus must sacrifice his private life to society, which will become his family, and in return it will take better care of him than his biological family. If the social family demands that a woman abandon her fiancé and leave Leningrad to go north to a forsaken village in the Altai, this is so that it will in turn save the devoted teacher by sending a helicopter to ensure her medical treatment (Grigori Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg’s Alone [Odna], 1931). If the social family forbids a woman to have an abortion, it is because her baby can be raised in state crèches (I Don’t Want a Child [Ne hochu rebionka], director Mark Gal, 1930). And of course, like any family, the great Soviet family feeds its members."

"The organization of a chain of canteens to replace the family meal at home was declared a major factor of Industrialization in the Soviet Union’s First Five-Year Plan (1928-1932). Can’t You Just Leave Me Out? (Nezlia li bez menia?) is a thesis film, aimed to publicize this state programme. However, the first version of the film presented to the censors (Glavrepertkom) on 22 February 1932 was rejected, since the canteen was depicted in too unappealing a way: the diner Lastochkin was disgusted by it until the end of the film, when he rather abruptly changed his mind about the quality of the collective nutrition. And about the film’s key title question, “Can’t You Just Leave Me Out?” – i.e., of this change in everyday life. The film was rapidly re-edited, however, and in a month and a half was not only accepted by the very same commission, but even recommended as suitable for every kind of urban and rural audience."

"The film represents a very special genre – a mixture of agitka (agitational film) and comedy. The development of the story is driven by the Soviet press – newspaper articles propel the action forward. The husband, weary of the difficult daily routine of Soviet life, reads in the newspaper the sensational news of the opening of canteens in Moscow, and goes there, curious to try them –but pursued by the ironic laughter of his wife and above all his neighbour. Joining the enormous queue at the door of the canteen, he discovers no culinary paradise – alas, the canteen is dirty and the food disgusting. A second newspaper article launches an appeal: “The quality of service in the canteens must be improved!” But the reality ridicules that idea: we see the dishwasher who fancies the chef, and he, distracted by passion, throwing the potato peelings into the soup, which he then tastes and spits out with a grimace of disgust, provoking crazy laughter from the amorous dishwasher."

"As in fairy tales, it is the third attempt that counts. Finally, it is the wife of the hero who reads yet another newspaper, this time publicizing the now-improved canteens. She is the one who now takes her family for a gigantic meal. All happy, full, and reconciled, the couple decide to go there every day. Not only have they eaten well: the important thing is that they don’t quarrel anymore!"

"The canteen creates a family idyll. However, the film’s comedy is stronger than its ideological moral. Some scenes are worthy of Lubitsch (the diners who don’t have the right to choose their dishes walk around the canteen with signs bearing slogans like “I will swap my soup for borscht”). They all have problems with the implements handed to them – forks to eat the soup, spoons to cut the meat, and so on. The witty intertitles parody “Soviet language” in the style of Zoshchenko’s stories. We have the impression that the version rejected by the censors still lurks behind the veil of the imposed re-editing."

"The director Viktor Shestakov (1898-1957) was the former president of the Constructivist group and a member of LEF, who had also worked as a theatre director. But above all he had made his name as a designer with Meyerhold, working from 1922 to 1927 at the Theatre of the Revolution and from 1927 to 1929 at the Meyerhold Theatre. He began in cinema as a set designer and assistant director on Mikhail Doronin’s The Wife  (Zhena, 1927), then became a director in his own right, with Be Like That (Bud’te takimi, 1930) and Metal-Turner Alekseev (Tokar’ Alekseev, 1931)."

"Can’t You Just Leave Me Out? was his third and last film. All Shestakov’s films were “engaged”, but his culture and his formation as an avant-garde artist kept him from being slavish. Moreover, it is quite likely that Can’t You Just Leave Me Out? was withdrawn and then re-worked by Nikolai Tarkhahov, a little-known director, then very young, who went on to work at the Siberian popular-science studio Sibtekhfilm. This would explain the double message of the film, which nevertheless retains a duality of language and hidden and quite sophisticated gags."

"Might the appearance of Aleksandr Antonov in the brief role of the chef who spits in his own soup be an ironic allusion to Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925), in which Antonov played the sailor Vakulinchuk, killed because of the protest at the rotten meat used in the borscht? It is particularly likely, since the role of the dishwasher is played by Yelena Maksimova, who had just appeared in Dovzhenko’s Earth (Zemlya, 1930) as Natalia, the fiancée-widow, whose nude scene had scandalized the public. This comic duo, of Vakulinchuk and Natalia – now chef and dishwasher in Can’t You Just Leave Me Out? – remains like a final salute to the era of Soviet avant-garde cinema, which already belonged to the past." – Natalia Noussinova

AA: An amazing and incredible discovery from the period when Stalinism already had an iron grip on Soviet culture under the code name "Socialist realism".

The first part of this stunning satire shows with a comical approach much of the truth of the "real existing socialism" as it really was until the end of the experiment in 1989-1991. I have never seen anti-Communist or anti-Soviet fiction with more bite than this movie. The final part shows how things are changed when the Communist Party intervenes and steers things on the right course. But the audience would have known how it was. And the "party ex machina" device may itself be seen as a part of the satire.

I have little to add to Natalia Noussinova's excellent program note copied above.

Viktor Shestakov navigates skillfully in an approach combining sharp wit with an account of honest squalor. There is a genuine affection to the characters and their joy of life despite such circumstances.

This movie belongs to a great tradition of Russian satire. The name of Gogol is mentioned in the film, and this film is a worthy contribution to the Gogolian heritage of merciless satire.

The characters are so extremely anti-glamorous and sometimes vulgar that it may be at times hard to relate to them.

The intertitles are witty, and they were well translated in this screening.

The visual quality is ok.

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