Dear students, I just want to round off this fabulous blog with a huge kudos to all of you. Your discussions (both oral and written) this semester have been SO full of perceptive insights, both about the works we have studied themselves, and about the ideas that have grown out of class discussions. Your collective engagement, and your acknowledgement and encouragement of one another’s ideas have been exciting and gratifying for me to watch.
In this incredibly unsettling time–which I know we have all experienced in different ways, with varying degrees of worry and stress–I have been so heartened, impressed, and inspired by the way that all of you have risen to the occasion, taken our work together seriously, and given this class your all. You are a very, very special group of students; I think we have formed a very special community together; and I will always remember you.
Thank you for your dedication, for caring so much, and for working so hard. I hope that we will all stay in touch! And I am looking forward with great anticipation to our sharing of final projects next Saturday!!
Several elements in Window to Paris were very interesting to me because, much like our previous two readings, they complicate previous soviet ideals. There is a line spoken early in the film made by the music teacher which criticizes the politics of education. He lambasts the school in which he work for seemingly lacking ideological integrity, since they before they trained communists and in his time trained capitalists for a similar effect. He seems to be drawing attention to the fact that the distinction is mostly meaningless at best and is, at worst, hypocritical.
The film at large seems to be more or less escapist in a sense. The main character is an eccentric art teacher who has no place in the present society which is focused on brutal practicality and progress rather than imagination or creativity. Compared to him, the rest of Russian society seems somewhat soulless and cold. Paris represents a welcome change in that it seems to, at least on an surface level, have a place with the teacher. Despite being drunk and stumbling into a studio where he didn’t belong, he still found a piano to fix. (This endearing little quirk was possibly my favorite thing about the character.)
I’ve gotten the sense that Russian culture lionizes its artists, so it seemed strange to me that art would be more be more readily accepted in Paris than in Russia itself. Of course, there is historical precedence for this, since many Russian artists remained in Paris rather than returning to the Soviet Union. Perhaps, its possible that the film is pointing out that, despite the move away from communism, art is still suffering in Russia.
Window to Paris offers a modern reinvention of the St. Petersburg myth and plenty of laughs. One aspect of the film that stood out to me right from the opening sequence was the power of music and musical icons within the narrative and satire. First and foremost is Nikolai’s brandishing of a tuning lever like a gun on two occasions. In this way, the means of correcting the pitch of an instrument and restoring harmony to a scene is shown to carry might similar to the ability to take a life. Furthermore, a few major plot points owe to musical intervention. Nikolai’s scheme to break Nicole out of jail entails presenting her as a famous French singer-songwriter, while he assume’s Elvis’ name. Likewise, his plot to evacuate the children from Paris entails passing his entourage off as a French army band before hijacking an airplane. These examples show music as a force transcending conventional authorities — Nikolai asserts that Edith Piaf is worth more to St. Petersburg than its entire police force, a position that yields no opposition from the police. It is no surprise that the master musician can bend the will of the children to stay in Russia and thus avert brain drain despite proving meek in other regards. At the same time, we can see the improbable developments owing to musical elements as marking music as one of the mystical forces governing the St. Petersburg myth.
As for the film’s social critique, music represents an indicator of a society’s health on multiple occasions. For instance, the comedically off-key rendition of “The Internationale” amid a vodka shortage hints at the failure of communist ideals to create a harmonious Russian society. We see a similar theme of music exposing failure and fraud in Gorokhov’s attempt to scam Parisians with the music box concealing a speaker; the pitch drops as the speaker dies, exposing the sinister intent. In addition, the sequence of business instruction superseding musical education for a time in Nikolai’s school points to a loss of aesthetics as a cause of social degradation in spite of ethical reform. The out-of-tune piano too falls into this symbolic category. As I lack formal training in music, I would be curious what you guys make of the finer details of the score.
Window to Paris is the perfect film to finish our class with. While it most definitely is a Russian film (the name Nikolai Nikolayevich stood out to me), one does not need to know much about Russian history or culture to enjoy it. My family actually watched the whole thing with me, and they were laughing throughout. This movie might have been full of laughs, but it effectively depicted changes in post-soviet society.
The schoolchildren in this film were used to demonstrate the shift in economic strategies and the impressionable nature of children. Youth were very important subjects of soviet indoctrination. Instead of being spoon fed the ideals of the proletariat, the children in this film are being molded into young capitalists. One child even wears a suit and carries a briefcase. Speeches giving praise to Lenin are replaced by passionate strike speeches calling for self-determination and popular sovereignty, ideals of the perfect democracy. The teacher that is spearheading the business agenda wears a sparkly gold suit reminiscent of an American pop star. Nikolai plays his flute and the children follow. This speaks to the pliable nature of children. Whether it be in the soviet union or the united states, children can easily be swayed by propaganda.
My favorite bit was the montage of the children, Nikolai, and Nicole enjoying all that Paris has to offer. In typical fashion, the movie did not end on this happy note and, instead finishes with the two lovers being split searching for each other.
The two scenes of Nikolai and the other Russian man exploring France and the French woman exploring Russia contrasted each other. Nikolai and the other Russia man opened the window to a bright sun, beautiful stores and cheerful people. They had a lovely time exploring France once they figured out that the window was magic. There was no horrid events or grouse things to see. When the French woman was locket out of her portal to France, she walked out into a beaten down, dark city that she was not expecting. She was greeted with men peeing in public and a woman who promised to warm her up but stole all of she clothes instead. The troubles that she faced stood out in the film because of such a happy time the Russian men had in France. This contrast emphasized the rough going that Russia was having. Also, all of this stood out when Nikolai was trying to convince the kids to come back to Russia. Telling that Russia is not in the best shape but they need to try and fix it.
I thought it was interesting that music got the attention of a certain group of people and made the group follow the leader of the music. In the beginning of the film, the band lead the crowd waiting for vodka away from the liquor store. There were many scenes of Nikolai grabbing the attention of his kids with music from his flute. I thought this was an interesting theme and was worth noting.
While looking at the late Soviet and post Soviet art, I was particularly struck by the New Wave art and how the broad exploration of new aesthetic techniques demonstrates free will and individualism in this new era. Unlike much of the art we have previously studied, the identity of the subjects and images in the art were not overtly clear. While visually nonsensical, these pieces all convey a clear message of nonconformity and the transition into a modern era. Andrei Bartenev’s work is a great example of this theme, his absurd and avant-garde pieces expand into new realms of expression through his whimsical color palettes and nonsensical imagery. In his The Flower of the Snow Queen (ballet) Bartenev used food packaging as a form of fashion. This piece and the avant-garde movement make a bold statement of nonconformity and carves a new definition for fashion and even the concept of beauty itself. Self-Portrait in the Wedding Attire of the Bird of Paradise was aesthetically very different from The Flower of the Snow Queen, yet both pieces are whimsical and combine disparate inanimate objects to create figures of living beings. The subjects of these artwork and even the artwork themselves do not objectively fit into any rigid category of art or fashion. The art makes an assertive statement that in the absence of ability to create their own styles and paths for creativity and beauty.
These artwork create a new space for self definition and expand the limits of conventional beauty and acceptable forms of self expression.
The cultural phenomenon of Pussy Riot merely existing is a sign of a (slowly but surely) changing Russia. The act of a group of women going into one of the most prominent and revered churches and singing about bringing down Putin is an act of dissident, following in the long history of Russian citizens protesting whatever the current regime was.
The title of the song Pussy Riot sang has a symbolic meaning. Called Mother of God, Drive Putin Away, the song circles back to the religious reverence that highlighted early in this class. The bringing back of religion, oppressed for so many years under Communism, is an interesting take. It seems especially powerful as a tool to fight against what Pussy Riot blatantly believes to be an oppressive regime under Putin. Pussy Riot invokes the name of the Virgin Mary in their claims that she would be a feminist and support them, urging Mary to get rid of Putin. They are simultaneously targeting the Church as a flawed institution, highlighting the worrying closeness of Church and state. This statement was particularly interesting, as only a few decades ago, the government was vehemently against the closeness of Church and state. Pussy Riot further drew on this relationship, comparing the KGB and the Church in the line “black robes, golden epaulettes.” This line is most striking, as the rise of the Church has encouraged many Russians to start going back to Russian Orthodox Christianity and caused many Russians to go up in arms about Pussy Riot. Although three of the five women from Pussy Riot who were involved in this song and the following Church performance were arrested, the protest goes to show that dissidence in Russia is just as apparent now as it was in the Communist period, under the Tzars, during the Mongol invasion, and even earlier.
When perusing over the attached art for our final session, I was really struck by how Russian High Art, and paintings, in particular, have come full circle. At first, this art was reserved for the express purpose of depicting religion but gradually evolved to encapsulate the nobility, and finally, the commoner.
The move from early to middle-Soviet Socialist Realism to Komar and Melamid’s ‘Nostalgic Socialist Realism’ was almost relieving. Whereas previous Socialist Realist paintings tried to prop up the status of former leaders like Stalin and Lenin, these two artist’s works do so more blatantly to the point of parody, as mentioned in the background to their paintings. For instance, “The Origins of Socialist Realism” (1982-83) and “Double Portrait as Young Pioneers” (1982-83), depict Stalin in such a glorified way that it questions his authority. In the latter of the two paintings, Stalin’s bust is in the top right corner of the frame on an elevated surface while two pioneers are saluting him below. Importantly, these men are lower than him, implying Stalin’s significance, and the only source of light in the painting points radially outward from his face, furthering this point. “The Origins of Socialist Realism” (1982-83) is substantially more comical in its insanity and something, I believe, would not have gotten passed the censors.
On a more serious note, an element I noticed in “Nostalgic View of the Kremlin from Manhattan” and “Lenin Hails a Cab”, and a recurring theme in many works of Soviet emigrants is their longing for the birthland. The conflation of aspects that should belong to either the US or the USSR into one image emphasizes this, and the keyhole through which you can see the Kremlin—as if the two are looking from afar—brings home this message.
This was my first time ever looking at post-soviet art, and I was blown away by the creativity and power of both the paintings and the sculptures. I was particularly moved at how the modern pieces provided a more truthful distorted echoed of soviet ideals. Most notably the works seemed to play at the façade of socialist realism, reinventing Soviet art into its more raw reality.
My favorite work from the group that we looked at was Avvakumov, Kuzin and Podyomshchikov’s Worker and Peasant which is a reimagination of a notorious Soviet sculpture we analyzed as a class earlier this semester. Tatlin’s Tower, which was supposed to serve as a monument for the Third International, was going to be erected in Saint Petersburg and have a presence in the city much like that of the Eiffel tower in Paris. The tower was to stand 400 meters high and be a symbol of modernity to all of Russia, showing industrial strength with its constructivist architecture. However, post-revolution Russia had no steel to lend to this artistic endeavor. It is important to note, this piece was made before socialist realism was indoctrinated, however its artistic meaning similarly was to show then post revolution Russia’s and eventually the Soviet Union’s industrial strength.
Worker and Peasant shows a more honest tower, one that’s unfinished and scaffolded in wood. Whereas Tatlin’s tower is meant to be a monument, Worker and Peasant is instead an unfinished ramshackle. Although Worker and Peasant contains the pieces for what could be a beautiful piece, similar to the Soviet Union in the 90s and 80s, it remains in disrepair, on the verge of collapse. The once great thought shows a different reality at the Union’s collapse.
I was wondering if any of you saw themes or allusions in these contemporary pieces?
One moment of this film that stood out to me was the moment when all of the Russian characters, save for Nikolai, are stealing Parisian motorcycles and moving them through the window into their St. Petersburg apartment. Nikolai asks them why there are stealing, and says that it is wrong. One of his housemates, I do not remember who, retorts, “They got fat at our expense…Who protected them from the Tatar-Mongols?”. Nikolai asks in clarification that they are just taking what rightfully belongs to them, and the others nod in confirmation.
I thought that this exchange was a good one to bring up in my final blog post of the semester because it touches on a few themes that we have discussed throughout this course. The first is that the Russian people acted as a buffer between the West and the East, and did not get anything for their efforts. The second, and more significant in the context of a modern film, is that history is always relevant and always front of mind for Russian people. Even though this film is comedic, it is very telling that this excuse is the one they used for their pilferage of French goods. This moment is one of many in the film where the Russian characters play into timeless Russian stereotypes, and that is in large part why it is so funny.