Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Without a Home in "Master and Margarita"

   Most novels are read once and placed on a bookshelf or elsewhere and never touched again by the same reader.  There are some novels or stories which one reads on more than one occasion simply out of pure enjoyment. There are others which are re-read in order to obtain information or perhaps understand something which was read earlier even better. 
   However, there are some novels which need to be read more than once simply because of the depth of content, breadth of character development, or numerous layers of themes which cannot be understood properly in a first, second, or, even, a third reading.  One such novel is The Master and Margarita by Mikhaíl Afanasyevich Bulgakov (1891-1940).  This novel has several characters that reek havoc in 1930s Moscow including a large black cat which walks and talks like a person named Behemoth, an “ex-choirmaster” named Fagotto/Koroviev, an assassin named Azazello, and a character believed to be satan named Woland. 
    We are introduced to three of these characters in chapter five.  Mikhail Alexandrovich Berlioz, head of the Soviet literary union MASSOLIT, is at Patriarch’s Pond with Ivan Nikolayevich Ponyryov (whose pen name is Bezdomny), a young poet who is a member of MASSOLIT.  The two are discussing Ponyryov poem about Jesus and the fact that it is too “realistic” for Berlioz’s taste when they are approached by a man who eventually introduces himself as Professor Woland, an expert in black magic. 
   Berlioz and Ponyryov begin discussing whether or not Jesus actually existed (neither believe this is true), when Professor Woland interrupts and begins to explain what transpired between Jesus (Yeshua Ha-Nozri in the novel) and Pontius Pilate, the governor of Judea.  Professor Woland tells them that this is not second hand information, because he was actually there when this dialogue took place.  They then begin to speak about whether or not God exists (Berlioz and Ponyryov are atheists) and Professor Woland argues with them using the philosophical proofs for God existence written by Immanuel Kant (1724-1804).  The argument eventually turns to who is in charge of everything if there is no God.  Ponyryov argues that people are in charge of their own destiny and Professor Woland states that no one even knows when they will die. He then proceeds to tell Berlioz under what circumstances he will die.  He will be run over by a trolley car and lose his head after slipping on some oil spilled by a woman named Anna.
     Berlioz leaves the conversation and ends up dying in exactly the way that Professor Woland described.  Ponyryov sees the end result of the accident and becomes convinced that Professor Woland is a spy.  He then begins a one man crusade to arrest Professor Woland, along with Faggoto/Koroviev and Behemoth who have joined up with the professor. 
   After chasing them around Moscow, to no avail, Ponyryov ends up at a restaurant in his underwear, carrying a candle, and wearing an icon around his neck where the members of MASSOLIT were meeting and dining.  He begins to explain to them what transpired at Patriarch’s Pond and the restaurant manager calls for a car to take Ponyryov to the local psychiatric hospital for evaluation. 
   He then explains the entire scenario to the doctor in charge of the hospital and is diagnosed with schizophrenia.  This was also predicted by Professor Woland during their conversation.  No one will listen to him, including the police, so he is forced to become a hospital patient.
   Later on in the novel, we meet “The Master” who is the main protagonist in the story when The Master enters Ponyryov’s room at night tells him about Margarita and the novel he wrote about Pontius Pilate.  He tells the Master that is a poet, but when asked, “Is your poetry any good?” he responses, “no” and promises never to write poetry again.
   In Russian, as in many other languages, names have meanings.  Koroviev can easily be translated into English as “cow”, for example, and Behemoth can be translated as “hippo”.  Ivan Nikolayevich Ponyryov’s pen name is Bezdomny which translates into “without a home” or “homeless” in English. My question is, “Why did Bulgakov give this character the pen name of Bezdomny?”  We know nothing about where Ivan lives based upon the novel nor do we know anything about his family life; however, there is no mention of the fact that he was, in fact, homeless. 
    Ivan has a profession, is a member of the Soviet literary bureaucracy, and, when confronted with a situation which is beyond his control, he attempts to arrest the person he believes in causing problems and return order to the society in which he lives.  By all appearances, he is a good citizen.  However, people like Ivan really had no home in the Soviet Union.  The system was designed to destroy their personal creativity and force them to produce “works of art” which are completely approved by the state.  These are not works of art, they are propaganda tools.  In real life, people like Ivan attempted to, and, in many cases, succeeded to run away from the Soviet Union and begin a life in a new country. 
     Many literary critics believe that the character of Margarita is based upon Bulgakov’s last wife and the Master is Bulgakov himself.   While I do not necessarily disagree with this assessment I will also add that the character of Bezdomny is also autobiographical in Bulgakov’s case.   Mikhail Bulgakov was born in Kyiv and lives many years of his life in Moscow, but, in reality, he never had a real home in the Soviet Union.  It is true that he had a family and a place to live, but his creative spirit was not as free as it could have been in such a totalitarian society and he suffered a great deal under the repressive government of Joseph Stalin (1878-1953).  In fact, Bulgakov’s extended family was granted permission to leave Russia and go to Paris, but Mikhail was not given such permission.  He and his wife stayed in Moscow and he died quite prematurely for an illness which may have been cured had he been able to move to Paris
    For almost any creative person, living in such a culture can be equated to being like a bird in a gilded cage.  It might look wonderful and provide a sense of safety, but it is still a cage. Creativity requires freedom in order to blossom and survive.  Ivan may have come to that conclusion while in the psychiatric hospital which is why he promised that Master that he would never write again.  Bulgakov felt that he was confined to the life he had in Moscow and attempted to make the best of a very difficult situation.  While both men may have had a place to reside, they were, indeed, homeless since they have nowhere to lay their heads and be at peace. 

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Dealing with the Devil

Since the dawn of creation, mankind has always wanted to do thing his own way.  Individual initiative is certainly not a bad thing; however, doing things one’s own way without listening to any guidance or directions from others can have disastrous side effects which not only impact us directly, but also our loved ones and others we encounter. 
    This reality has been expressed in religious terms in the story of Adam and Eve in the Book of Genesis.  God gave Adam and Eve everything they needed to survive in the Garden of Eden, but told them not to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  Satan, the deceiver, in the appearance of a snake, explains to Eve that she actually misunderstood God’s words to her and encourages her to take the fruit from the tree.  She, in turn, gives this fruit to her husband, Adam.  Christianity refers to this act as “original sin” because Adam and Eve chose to follow their own thoughts instead of listening to God and this “original sin” has been passed on to every one of Adam’s descendants.     
    The story of man turning to the devil for some “help” has been written down in various forms over the centuries.  One famous account was inFaust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832).  In this story, the main character, Faust, is a highly successful, but unhappy scholar who enters into a pact with the devil, Mephistopheles, exchanging his soul for unlimited knowledge and wealth.  The exchange becomes too much for Faust and it eventually becomes the source of his undoing.  Eventually Faust does win his soul back and learns a valuable lesson, namely, that having all this knowledge and worldly wealth is not worth anything at the price of losing one’s soul. 
    A similar theme was also addressed in Master and Margarita (Мастер и Маргарита by Mikhail Bulgakov (1891-1940).  One of the main characters in this novel is Woland.   He is the personification of the devil and could be understood as almost a “Robin Hood” like figure.  At one point in the novel, two of the characters, Mikhail Alexandrovich Berlioz, head of MASSOLIT, the Soviet writer’s guild, and a twenty three year old poet named Ivan Nikolayevich Ponyrov (whose pen name is Bezdomny which means “homeless” in Russian) are discussing their belief that Jesus Christ did not truly exist when they are approached by a third man who wishes to enter into their conversation. This conversation shows the depths of Woland’s understanding of philosophy and history.  He wants to know who is “in charge” if God does not exist.  Berlioz and Bezdomny agree that we are in charge of our own destiny.  Woland introduces Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), the famous Prussian philosopher into the conversation and they begin discussing Kant’s proofs for the existence of God and why they do not make sense   Woland provides his “seventh proof” of God’s existence by demonstrating that he, Woland, not Berlioz, is able to predict Berlioz’s death accurately, thus underscoring the contingency of human life and pointing to the reality of something other than a spatio-temporal reality governed by material laws.  Woland, through his arguments, and the novel itself in its dramatic undermining of Berlioz’s Marxist materialism, thus takes up something like the perspective of Eric Voegelin (1901-1985), a German-American political philosopher, which is that while trying to prove God’s existence is indeed misguided, it is equally misguided to draw the conclusion that because there are no effective proofs that God is an existent object, therefore there is only immanent reality. (2)
   If you read the novel, it seems that Woland is a positive character, who is a patron of arts and love, the hero, who is trying to fight the evils inherent in the people of 1930s Russia. However, Woland is a tempter on closer reading which becomes noticeably diverse. In fact, Woland is Satan, a rethinking of Christ, the new Messiah, a hero as Bulgakov described him in his first unpublished manuscripts.
   To understand the diversity of Woland it is possible only in a careful reading of "The Master and Margarita." Only then can one see the similarity with the Scandinavian hero Odin, then turned into the devil of Christian tradition, or the god, Wotan, who was worshipped the old Germanic pagan tribes. Woland has a portrait resemblance to the great magician and freemason Count Cagliostro, who was able to predict the future and remember the events of a thousand years ago.
   Attentive readers will certainly remember a time when officials remembered the name of the magician and speculated that his name was Faland. Indeed, in tune with Woland, but only not that interesting. Few people know that in “Falandom” is the name the Germans give for the place known as hell in English. (1)
   The acts of the devil Woland and his minions in Moscow seem, at first glance, to be carried out for no reason. From the beginning, when Woland predicts the unlikely circumstances of Berlioz's beheading, to the end, when Behemoth, a large talking black cat who can take on a human appearance when needed, stages a shoot-out with the entire police force, there seems to be no motivation other than sheer mischief. Much of what happens seems to be absurd. However, when it is examined more closely, it does not appear to be that absurd. Well, at least no more absurd than reality itself.
    After a while, though, their trickery reveals a pattern of preying upon the greedy, who think they can reap benefits they have not earned, just because they served the people in power without asking questions. For example, when a bribe is given to the chairman of the tenants' association, Bosoi, Woland tells Korovyov to "fix it so that he doesn't come here again." Bosoi is then arrested, which punishes him for exploiting his position. Similarly, the audience that attends Woland's black magic show is delighted by a shower of money only to find out the next day that they are holding blank paper.  The women who thought they were receiving fine new clothes later find themselves in the streets in their underwear. These deceptions appear mean-spirited and pointless, but the victims, in each case, are blinded by their interest in material goods and dropped all previously cherished moral values as soon as they had the opportunity to benefit from their greed.
   The fact that Woland appears to be robbing from the wealth may give him a “Robin Hood” like appearance, to some; however, there is a deeper meaning at stake.  This is not only about Woland and these people.  The very soul of the Russian nation has been sold to the devil by the Bolsheviks, according to Bulgakov, and these characters are allegorical representations of the entire nation.
    This is a very profound novel and the author is making many important points regarding the role of sin in our lives, the daily struggle between good and evil which we face, and how our actions have consequences not only for us but for generations to come.  It would be unfair to over simplify this great work of Russian literature by stating that these themes are easily understood or that they have only one meaning.  Neither of these things is true.  This novel has multiple layers of meaning and can impact the reader in a variety of different ways depending upon when they read it and what is going on in their own life.  It can be read over and over again and each time the reader will find something new to reflect upon.
   It is also true that the theme of entering into a pact with the devil is present in American literature as well.  The Devil and Tom Walker by Washington Irving (1783-1859) first appeared in 1824 and tells the story of a man who enters into an agreement with the devil and becomes a loan shark.  The story ends with the main character being taken away by the devil on a black horse.  Tom Walker is never seen again and his home burns to the ground. 
    An adaptation of this story was The Devil and Daniel Webster by Stephen Vincent Benét (1898-1943).  This story first appeared in 1937 and tells the story of Jabez Stone, a poor farmer from New Hampshire, who makes a seven year pact with the devil in exchange for prosperity. When the seven years are complete, he is able to extend this pact for another three years.  However, at the end of the tenth year, the devil returns to Stone and demands his soul as payment.
    Stone approaches Daniel Webster, a prominent New England attorney, and asks him to defend him against the devil.  There is a court case involving the devil and Daniel Webster.  Mr. Webster eventually wins this case and it has been said that after this trial the devil was never again seen in New Hampshire.
    Making a pact with the devil may seem like a good decision at first.  One can become wealthy or acquire whatever knowledge he or she wants, but at what cost?  Eventually payment will be demanded by the one with whom this agreement has been made and the price which must be paid is much greater than any possible benefit the person may receive.

(1)      “Seven Keys to the novel ‘Master and Margarita’, which Reveal the Secrets of this Mysterious Book” http://www.kulturologia.ru/blogs/170815/25849/
(2)      Paulette Kidder, “The Interdependence of Satire and Transcendence in Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita” (Eric Voegelin Society Meeting-American Political Science Association 2012)

Monday, November 18, 2013

The Music Lives on Forever

   Throughout the centuries there have been many fine pianists and highly successful musicians, but encountering a genius either at a concert or through his music performed by himself or others is a very rare occurrence in most people's lives.  Listening to the compositions of such people can be a transformative experience and can touch your soul in a way that few others things can.

    One man who had such an extraordinary ability was Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893).  Born in Russia and showing extraordinary talent at a very early age, Tchaikovsky went on to write three ballets, eleven operas, six symphonies, and numerous other works before dying in 1893.  For many people in the West he is known composing the music for “The Nutcracker”, a ballet which is very popular in the US during the Christmas season.  His music was also used in countless films and, thereby, became popular with many generations of people who might not otherwise have had the experience of or interest in hearing classical music.  For example, Disney used several pieces by Tchaikovsky in their 1940 film “Fantasia”. This film helped to introduce young children and parents to some of the finest pieces of classical music ever written by using them as accompaniment to the actions of various Disney characters.

    Tchaikovsky was not only a Romantic music composer, but he was a Russian Romantic music composer.  The influence of Russia on his music can be heard in many of his pieces.  For example, this is very obvious in his “Fourth Symphony”.   The influence of a person’s homeland on his music is certainly not limited to Tchaikovsky. The same thing could easily be said of Sergei Vasilievich Rachmaninov (1873-1943). Rachmaninov died in Beverly Hills, California in 1943, but he was never simply a Russian born American composer.  In the case of both of these men their culture helped to make them into the composers they became.

     There have been several films done about the life of this musical genius.  In the 1950s, the Walt Disney Company produced a half hour film about “Peter Tchaikovsky”1 which was the first time a television show could be heard in stereo.  In 1969, Mosfilms, a Soviet film studio, produced the film “Tchaikovsky” which was nominated for an Academy Award for “Best Foreign Language Film” in 1971.  This film goes into a great deal more detail about Tchaikovsky’s life, especially the influence of Nadezhda von Meck (1831-1894) on his career.   Mrs. von Mack was his “silent” benefactress who was willing to help support Tchaikovsky financially on the condition that they never actually met face-to-face.

     Both of these films presented the Tchaikovsky’s life in a noncontroversial way.  There was some mention of his personal life, but much of the film focused on his work as a composer and his need silence the music which he heard in his head on a rather regular basis since childhood.  Neither of these films would be considered offensive by those who chose to show them to their children.  However, this statement cannot be made about the next film about Tchaikovsky’s life.

     “The Music Lovers” was a 1970 British film directed by Ken Russell.  The film includes at least two major factual errors. In one sequence, Tchaikovsky and his patroness, Mrs. von Mack, see each other on the road; the two never spoke, although their paths crossed once by happenstance in a park in Italy. Later, his wife, Nina, goes mad and is placed in an insane asylum, prompting the composer to call his Sixth Symphony the Pathetique, when in reality she was not institutionalized until after his death.2   

    If these two factual errors were the only major negative factors this film that would be fine; however, it did not stop there. Richard Chamberlain (b. 1934), a fine actor who later became popular in the US for his role in the television series “Thornbirds”, was cast in the title role.  His portrayal of Tchaikovsky could easily have given someone the impression that the composer was a mental patient instead of a genius musician. 

     A great deal of time was spent focusing on the alleged nymphomania of Tchaikovsky’s wife, Nina, and on the question of whether or not Tchaikovsky himself was a homosexual.  Was Russell attempting to make the point that there was a direct link to Tchaikovsky’s alleged homosexuality and his musical genius?   Should musicologists spend time researching if there was a direct link between Rachmaninov’s heterosexuality and his musical genius?  Most people would say, “That is absurd”, but it is not absurd to focus so much time and energy on the idea that Tchaikovsky was a homosexual. 

     “The Music Lovers” was an extremely strong agenda disguised as a film.  Pyotr Tchaikovsky heard music which other could dream of hearing and was able to put that music on paper so that these pieces will be heard by numerous generations long after we are gone.  At this moment, “Evgeny Onegin” is appearing at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City, some one hundred and thirty four years after it was first performed in Moscow.  I sincerely doubt that most current pop songs will be remembered 134 years from now. 

     Musical preferences are highly individualized.  Some people may love opera or classical music while others might prefer jazz or country music.  While musical tastes differ, it is important that people who show musical talent be encouraged.  Parents play a major role in either inspiring or destroying their children individuality.  This is often done under the guise that either the parents know what is best for their child or the parents “meant well”, but the reality is that in many cases these parents are living their lives vicariously through their children with often very unhappy results. 

    Parents often insist that their children conform and not go against the prevailing societal code. Many parents staunchly believe in blind and mindless conformity. They believe that there is safety in following the prevailing and/or majority opinion. They contend that following the majority consensus offers a sense of belonging and security. They stress to their children that it is safer and more feasible to conform to the prevailing groupthink philosophy. They strongly discourage their children's strong individualism and nonconformity because it is believed that if their children refuse to conform to the prevailing groupthink, they would be considered oddballs or worse, being ostracized and alone. A worse scenario according to the parents, these children would be ostracized and denigrated by their neighbors and associates. So if their child/children dare to have a unique, creative, and innovative thought and idea, it is squashed and oftentimes considered outlandish and weird because nobody else thought of it! These parents are killing the dreams of a potential Tchaikovsky.3

     On October 28, 1893, Tchaikovsky conducted the premiere of his Sixth Symphony the Pathétique in Saint Petersburg. Nine days later, he died there at age 53. While Tchaikovsky's death has traditionally been attributed to cholera, most probably contracted through drinking contaminated water several days earlier, some have theorized that his death was a suicide.] Opinion has been summarized as follows: "The polemics over [Tchaikovsky's] death have reached an impasse ... Rumor attached to the famous die hard ... As for illness, problems of evidence offer little hope of satisfactory resolution: the state of diagnosis; the confusion of witnesses; disregard of long-term effects of smoking and alcohol. We do not know how Tchaikovsky died. We may never find out ....."4

    While there is a great deal of speculation surrounding the Tchaikovsky’s death, there is no such speculation surrounding his musical genius.  His contributions to classic music are still admired by audiences throughout the world.  It is entirely possible that he may have lived a difficult and even tragic life, but the mark he left will last forever. 

                                                           End Notes

1)    Disneyland - 5.16 - The Peter Tchaikovsky Story - Version 1” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OTpaaEBbN84  (accessed 10/9/13)

2)     “The Music Lovers” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Music_Lovers  (accessed 10/9/13)

3)     “Destroying Individuality: Making Everyone Mediocre” http://heideggerm1.blogspot.com/2013/03/destroying-individuality-making.html (accessed 10/9/13)

4)     Wiley, Roland John, "Tchaikovsky, Pyotr Illyich" In The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Second Edition (London: Macmillan, 2001), Vol. 25: 169. 

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Influencing of a Culture

   There are some people who have a profound impact on their friends and relatives, there are others who may have such an impact on their neighborhood, and still others who have such impact upon their entire nation, but it is a much rarer person who has such an extremely profound impact upon his culture that he is forever alive in the hearts and minds of numerous generations of people.  Such a man is Sherlock Holmes1.
   We know nothing about his upbringing, we do not know where he was born, nor anything about his education; however, we do know that he has a brother named, Mycroft.  He is a rather complex personality whose powers of observation and gift from deductive reasoning are profound. What we do know about this man’s life was made known to us by the writings of his friend and colleague, John H. Watson, M.D.. 
    Undoubtedly, someone will say to himself or herself, “Why is this person writing about Sherlock Holmes as though he was a real person?  He was the product of the imagination of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) and brought to life in the pages of Strand Magazine.”  This is important historical information regarding the creation of Holmes, but it does not explain the profound impact that Holmes has had on Western culture.
    No other character has been portrayed on television or radio more often than Sherlock Holmes.  While the original stories were set in Victorian England of the 1890s, a series of films based upon Holmes and starring Robert Downey, Jr. (b. 1965) were produced within the past few years.  There are numerous Sherlock Holmes Societies and he is popular in various countries.
     In 1937, the Germans produced their own version of “The Hound of the Baskervilles” and from 1979 to 1986, LenFilms, a Soviet film studio, produced a series of Sherlock Holmes films starring Vasily Livanov (b. 1935) as Holmes. This character was so popular in the Soviet Union that there is a statue dedicated to both he and Dr. Watson in Moscow.  In fact, there are many people who believe that the Holmes character who most closely resembled the figure in Strand Magazine was Vasily Livanov.  He matched the character both in appearance and character, according to many people.  Holmes is even extremely popular in China.  There is even a current American television series entitled, “Elementary” which is based upon the character of Holmes played by Jonny Lee Miller (b.1972) with Dr. Watson played by Lucy Liu (b.1968).
    It is quite interesting that there are even discussions, as mentioned above, regarding who did the best job portraying this character.  It is entirely possible for two people to get into a rather heated debate about whether the Sherlock Holmes portrayed by Basil Rathbone (1892-1967) was better than the portrayal done by Jeremy Brett (1933-1995).  Few, if any other characters, would inspire such loyalty in people that they would even be willing to debate such a topic as which person portrayed him or her in the best fashion.
    Also, “Sherlock Holmes of 221B Baker Street, London” continues to receive mail every year from people who turn to him for advice about a variety of topics.  If Holmes were not “real”, what would inspire people to write to him asking for advice after all these years?  If he was a real person he would certainly have passed away numerous decades ago and if he was simply the creation of someone’s imagination there is no “person” to actually write to.  However, you cannot convince those whose lives he has touched that Holmes is not “real”.
    In an earlier article I wrote about an American cultural icon, namely Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)2.  He was the “Father of the Detective Story” and, in a certain way, we owe Holmes creation to Poe since it was Poe who inspired Conan Doyle to write about these stories in the first place. Poe’s stories are still read today, but the “person” of Sherlock Holmes has transcended both time and space.  He was certainly one of the great icons of the 20th century and he continues to live on into the 21st century largely because he embodies a sense of fair play and justice which is not present in the lived world of most people. 
     For many people justice and fairness are not a part of their daily lived experience, but when they encounter the “person” of Sherlock Holmes they know that he will make everything right and restore that sense of fairness which they have lost.  This is not simply a nice idea, but actually serves to provide hope to many people.  Without a sense of hope it is difficult for many people to want to go on and Holmes helps them to see that there truly is hope after all.
                                                                   End Notes
1.    “Sherlock Holmes” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sherlock_Holmes

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Lev Tolstoy Goes to Hollywood

   Few people have had the impact on Russian literature that Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy (1828-1910) has had.  His novels and short stories have been translated into numerous languages and people from various cultures are familiar with these stories.  Three of his stories including Anna Karenina, one of the greatest novels ever written, The Kreutzer Sonata, and Two Hussars were even made into American films.  These three films were all produced by British producer Bernard Rose (b. 1960). His adaptation of Anna Karenina was certainly not the only one produced for an English speaking audience, but it was certainly one of the best adaptations. 
    In this article I will look at these three films, namely “Anna Karenina” (1997), “The Kreutzer Sonata” (2008), and “Two Jacks” (2011).  I will examine these three films in order to see how faithful they are to the novels themselves and how well they correspond with one another. 
    The 1997 film “Anna Karenina” which stars Sophie Marceau (b. 1966) in the title role, is a very interesting adaption of Tolstoy’s novel.  It was obvious that Rose had borrowed several ideas from the 1948 film with Vivien Leigh, but he also added some new elements which were not present in the earlier films.  For example, the story, in this film, is told by Lev Tolstoy through the character of Constantine Levin.  However, some of the elements of the earlier films about this novel, such as the difficulties between Stepan and Dolly at the beginning of the film, are not present. 
    Sir Georg Solti’s (1912-1997) choice of music also had a profound impact on the film.  Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky’s (1840-1893) Sixth Symphony, which he wrote prior to his own death, the choice of Tatiana’s aria from the opera “Evgeny Onegin”, and the music of Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) helped to tell the story, even without words. For some reason, Sir George did not list this film among the films he is credited with serving as music director for.1  
    Eleven years later, Bernard Rose decided to produce a modern film version of The Kreutzer Sonata. This novella is believed, by some, to be Tolstoy’s argument in favor of sexual abstinence and against marriage.2 It also deals with the question of whether or not true love is possible.3  
     This film was a very interesting 21st century “American” approach to a 19th century Russian novella.  Set in Los Angeles, California, this film remains quite faithful to the story line of the novel; however, it can be seen as extremely pornographic, especially if one of the original themes of Tolstoy’s novella was the virtue of sexual abstinence.4  
     I have no objection to nudity in a film if it is used for artistic reasons, such as to enhance the storyline; however in this film the constant nudity almost became the storyline. 
     It is unfortunate that modern American films must contain graphic nudity, excessive killings, and/or massive explosions; otherwise they will not do well at the box office.  Some people will argue this is not true and point to the 2012 film version of “Anna Karenina” as an example. However, that film won an Academy Award for “Best Costume Design”, not for “Best Picture”.  Hollywood markets films in the same way cigarettes are marketed according to the late great Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky (1932-1986) 5 What Tarkovsky said in the 1980s is even more true today.
     The third film is “Two Jacks” a 2011 film based upon an 1856 short story entitled Two Hussars by Tolstoy.  There was also a 1984 Soviet film entitled “Two Hussars” which was also based upon this short story.7  In the original story the reader is meant to understand that the son is not only a different generation than his father, but that this later generation has actually become worse.  This insight was made quite clear in Bernard Rose’s 2011 film; however, it was not as clear in the 1984 Soviet film. 
      In the 1984 film the father and son were both played by the same actor (with an implied time lapse in the film) and it was difficult to understand why the son was less likeable than the father.  However, this was more obvious in the 2011 film. 
      Danny Huston (b. 1962) plays “Jack, Sr.” and his nephew Jack Huston (b. 1982) plays “Jack, Jr.” and it is somewhat easy to see why Jack, Sr. was a much more likeable character than Jack, Jr.  The movie begins with the audience being introduced to Jack, Sr. at the airport and the film ends with Jack, Jr. at the same airport (in the same terminal) twenty years later. 
    This was the third time that Rose included Danny Huston in one of his films. In addition to playing Jack, Sr. in this film, Huston also played Stepan, Anna Karenina’s brother, in the 1997 film and he played the main character in “The Kreutzer Sonata”.  It would appear that Bernard Rose is quite impressed with Danny Huston’s acting ability. 
     Each of these films remained quite faithful to the novel or short story they were based upon.  These three stories explore very important issues which are still as relevant today as they were when they were written in the 19th century. With the current divorce rate at over 50%, many young people ask themselves if true love is really possible. 
    In Ezekiel 18 it is written, “The father eats green grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge.”  What the prophet Ezekiel is saying that the actions of the parents have a direct impact on their children.  Another phrase we often heard used is “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree”.  Based upon “Two Jacks”, both the quote by the Prophet Ezekiel and the apple are still quite true.  Lev Tolstoy was a deeply religious man and he may very well have had the Bible quote from Ezekiel 18 in mind when he wrote Two Hussars.
      Bernard Rose showed us that the same personalities which could be found in Anna Karenina, The Kreutzer Sonata, and Two Hussars are still very much alive today.   This is a hallmark of classic literature and it is wonderful that this producer was able to introduce these stories by Lev Tolstoy to an audience who may have been familiar with only Anna Karenina and War and Peace.    
                                                          End Notes

1)    Anna Karenina: A Cinematic Journey on the Silver Screen from 1927 to 2012” http://heideggerm1.blogspot.com/2013/03/anna-karenina-cinematic-journey-on.html 

2)    The Kreutzer Sonata” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Kreutzer_Sonata  

4)    “The Kreutzer Sonata (2008 film)” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Kreutzer_Sonata_(2008_film)  
5)    Andrei Tarkovsky: A Poet in the Cinema (1983) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PTvIybrtMqU (47:55)
6)    “Two Hussars” http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Two_Hussars

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Film Adaptations of Classic Russian Novels

  There has been a long history of adapting classic Russian novels to film in the English speaking world.  These classic novels by authors like Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Pasternak, and others allow an English speaking audience to enter into a world with which they are completely unfamiliar and see that the issues which these people face are dealt with all over the world. 

   In this article I will look at the 1935 American film adaptation of “Crime and Punishment” by Fyodor Dostoevsky, the 1956 film “War and Peace”, “Brothers Karamazov” (1958), the 1965 film “Doctor Zhivago”, and the 2002 BBC adaptation of “Crime and Punishment”.  I will examine several films and television series about classic Russian novels in order to see how faithful they are to the novels themselves and how well they correspond with one another. 

  Joseph von Sternberg (1894-1969) directed “Crime and Punishment”1, a 1935 film based upon the novel of the same name by Fyodor Dostoevsky. This film starred Peter Lorre in the title role as Rodin Raskolnikov (his first name was changed to Roderick for an American audience).  This film bore little, if any resemblance, to the novel.  In fact, the director was so disappointed with this film that he does not list it among the films he is credited with directing.         

    What was America’s fascination with classic Russian literature that in a span of two years, from 1956 to 1958, both War and Peace by Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy (1828-1910) and “Brothers Karamazov” by Fyodor Mikhaylovich Dostoevsky (1821-1881) were made into films?  The American people would have known very little about Russia in 1956.  Both countries were in the middle of the Cold War and there was a great deal of propaganda on both sides regarding how horrible the other country was.

    The 1956 film “War and Peace”2 starred Henry Fonda as Pierre Bezuhov and Audrey Hepburn as Natasha Rostova (the two main characters).  This film does not cover every aspect of Tolstoy’s original novel, but focuses on the relationship of three of the main characters.  Very early in the film there is a scene where Pierre is getting drunk with a group of friends.  This scene contains every almost every possible Russian stereotype, except for a dancing bear.  At one point in the scene one of the characters is standing backward on the window ledge and facing inside the room.  He begins to bend over backward while drinking a bottle of vodka.  Apparently, the winner was the person who could finish drinking the vodka without falling out of the window.  Other than feeding into a Russian stereotype, what was the point of this “game”?  This scene is not in the novel; however, the director, King Vidor (1894-1982) felt it necessary to put it in the movie.

    The costumes are wonderful.  In typical Hollywood style of the time, the film makes everything appear almost larger than life by virtue of the camera angles.  This film has a wonderful cast of actors, but financially it was unsuccessful.  It earned only $250,000 for the studio. A large part of the reason might have been that this was an epic film about a Russian novel.  Americans did not normally watch epic films, particularly those about Russian novels.

     It is not that Americans were opposed to epic films.  In the same year that “War and Peace” was completed, Cecil B. DeMille completed “The Ten Commandments” for a different studio.  “The Ten Commandments” is also an epic film, but the story of Moses would have been much better known by an American audience. 
     Two years after the completion of “War and Peace”, Richard Brooks (1912-1992) directed “Brothers Karamazov”3.  This movie is based upon a novel of the same name by Fyodor Dostoevsky.  The novel tells the story of three brothers (Dmitry, Alexei, and Ivan) and their relationship with each other and their father, Fyodor.  It is also a “murder mystery” since Fyodor is killed and the reader must determine who committed the murder.

     Fyodor Karamazov (played by Lee J. Cobb) is not a very likeable figure.  In the one of the first scenes in the film, the audience is introduced to Fyodor Karamazov after he has tied a woman to his bed and is interrupted because his son, Alexei (film debut for William Shatner) has arrived at his home.  Fyodor is a rather boorish man who seems to respect Alexei only. 
      In the novel, Dmitry Karamazov sees himself as being a rather foolish person and his actions reflect his belief about himself.  In the movie, Dmitry (played by Yul Brenner) comes across as a rather self-confident, if not arrogant, person.  He constantly borrows money from his father and this has become a source of tension between the two of them since Dmitry never paid back what he borrowed. 

     Another character is Smerdyakov, half-brother to the Karamazov brothers and son of Fyodor.  Smerdyakov is treated very poorly by Fyodor Karamazov in the film.  Dmitry is accused of murdering Fyodor; however, Smerdyakov confesses to Ivan Karamazov (played by Richard Basehart) that he killed Fyodor. Dmitry is put on trial for murder, but, instead of Smerdyakov confessing in court that he killed Fyodor, he kills himself. 
     In both the novel and film, Dmitry is convicted of murdering his father.  However, in the novel he accepts his fate and considers himself to be a martyr for love.  After being convicted of murder, Dmitry is sent to prison in Siberia and the woman he loved went to be with him in Siberia.

     The film shows Dmitry deciding to escape rather than board a train bound for Siberia.  He became a fugitive and the rest of the film deals with the topic: “Will Dmitry escape from Russia?”  What was the reason why Richard Brooks decided to add this into the film when it was not in the novel?  We do not know.  It is possible he did so because of the lack of justice in Dmitry’s conviction.  He was wrongfully convicted and should be able to escape rather than going to prison.  The movie ends without the audience knowing if he ever escaped from Russia. 
    It is also interesting that Yul Brenner is the only person in this film who had any connection to Russia.  He was born in Russia, but lived most of his life in either the US or Western Europe. 

    Another Western adaptation of a classic Russian novel was the 1965 film “Doctor Zhivago”4 starring Omar Sharif as Yuri Zhivago.  This film was based upon the novel of the same name by well-known poet, Boris Pasternak (1890-1960)5.  This novel was first published in Milan in 1957. Pasternak won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958 for Doctor Zhivago, but was forbidden to attend the award ceremony by the Soviet government of Nikita Khrushchev. 

    This film continues to be extremely popular.  Like “War and Peace” this was an epic film, but it was much more acceptable to an American audience.  Perhaps it was simply the period of history when this film was made or the strong love story plot of the film, but it earned over $100,000,000 for its studio.  In the US, the success of a film is based largely upon the amount of money that the film earned rather than the depth of the subject matter. 

     Pasternak depicts Lara as an almost unscrupulous woman who uses her sexuality to obtain what she wants from life, but in the film David Lean (1908-1991), the director, presents Lara (portrayed by Julie Christie) as more of a victim.  In the 2006 Russian TV series “Doctor Zhivago”, Lara is not a very likeable character.   
     Since this film was released in 1965 and the US was still involved in the Cold War with the USSR, David Lean did not spend as much time focusing on the events of the Russian revolution as Pasternak did.   The love story between Yuri and Lara is what made this film successful along with the beauty of the Russian scenery which an American audience would never have seen in person.

      A very good English speaking adaptation of a classic Russian novel was the 2002 TV mini-series “Crime and Punishment” produced by the British Broadcasting Company (BBC). This series was extremely faithful to the novel.  The BBC felt no obligation to change the story line in order to adapt this novel to television.  This is much easier to do with a mini-series since it continues over several episodes instead of a film which only lasts for a few hours, at most. 
    Since I wrote about the various adaptations of Anna Karenina by Lev Tolstoy (1828-1910) in another article6, I have decided to forego writing about it here.  One important fact to remember is that no other novel has had more film adaptations made about it than Anna Karenina. 

    Attempting to turn a novel into a film while, at the same time, remaining faithful to the original novel is not an easy process; however, this is very important. Poetic license does allow for some changes, but how many changes can be made before a movie is no longer connected with a particular novel?  I once heard it said, “Never judge a book by its movie”7 and there is a great deal of truth in that statement.
                                                          End Notes

1)    “Crime and Punishment: (1935 American Film)” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crime_and_Punishment_(1935_American_film) 

2)    War and Peace (1956 film)http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/War_and_Peace_(1956_film)

3)    “The Brothers Karamazov (1958 film)” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Brothers_Karamazov_(1958_film)

4)    “Doctor Zhivago (film)” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doctor_Zhivago_(film)

5)    “Boris Pasternak” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boris_Pasternak

6)    “Anna Karenina: A Cinematic Journey on the Silver Screen from 1927 to 2012” http://heideggerm1.blogspot.com/2013/03/anna-karenina-cinematic-journey-on.html  




Friday, April 5, 2013

No Substitute for Talent

   An aptitude is a component of a competency to do a certain kind of work at a certain level, which can also be considered "talent". Aptitudes may be physical or mental. Aptitude is not knowledge, understanding, learned or acquired abilities (skills) or attitude. The innate nature of aptitude is in contrast to achievement, which represents knowledge or ability that is gained.1

      Talent may be an innate natural aptitude in regard to a certain type of work; however, it is something which must be supported and sustained on a regular basis.  There are many people who can play various keys on a piano and many of the these people are even quite capable to playing various musical compositions, but not everyone can sit down and begin to compose music like Ludwig van Beethoven or Sergei Rachmaninoff.   These men had an innate ability which only improved with use.

    However, there are some people who believe that if they wear the proper clothing or know the right people then somehow their “talent” will be discovered, regardless of whether or not such talent actually exists.  This is quite evident on television shows such as “America’s Got Talent” or “Ukraine’s Got Talent”.  Some of the people who appear on these shows have innate talent which is acknowledged by professionals in a given field; however, there are other people who are living in a fantasy world where they believe that they possess a talent in singing, dancing, or some other area.  Many of these people are astonished when they are told that they do not possess such a talent and often become angry at the judges for saying that they do not have such a talent.  The truth can be a very painful thing to accept; however, there is no virtue in lying to someone and encouraging them to ‘work harder’ when this person does not possess the basis of any real talent.

   Ivan Andreyevich Krylov (1769-1844) was an extremely talented fabulist and he would have been able to see if others possessed talent also.  In “The Quartet” 2, Krylov addresses whether or not playing “musical chairs” actually increases talent.  In fact, it is quite possible that the concept of “playing musical chairs” originated in this fable.

   Simply sitting down at a desk with a pen and paper does not help to inspire the next Edgar Allan Poe in the same way that simply sitting down at a piano would not inspire the next Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.  However, it would appear that Monkey, Donkey, Goat, and Bear have convinced themselves that they have some hidden talent that no one else can see.

     We often see this in government work also.  Many people are promoted or reassigned 
to new jobs not because of their talent, but because their supervisor wants to remove this person from his or her department and having this person transferred is easier than having this person removed from their job.  While it might not be easy, sometimes it is both necessary and charitable to say, as the nightingale said,

      “"For making music, you must have the knack

        And ears more musical than yours,"

        The nightingale comes back,

      "And you, my friends, no matter your positions,

        Will never be musicians!"

                                                     End Notes

2)    “Квартет/Quartet” http://max.mmlc.northwestern.edu/~mdenner/Demo/texts/quartet.htm