In Which I Suck All the Fun Out of a Childhood Classic
There is a moment in the great comic novel Pnin where Vladimir Nabokov discusses the propensity of Americans to follow even the most inane rules, at any cost, using an empty four-way traffic stop as an example. An American, Nabokov proposes, would stop at an empty traffic stop, despite the lack of safety risk, because it is the rule, whereas a Russian, distrustful of rules and authoritarian abuses, never would.
Animator Vladimir Popov saw things differently. The protagonists of Popov’s short animated film Vacation in Prostokvashino, Sharik and Matroskin, a reliable dog and cat duo if there ever was one, spend their time engaged in clever rapport on the subject of expectancies and regulations, though never once calling those regulations into question. Midway through the short, when Matroskin’s cow, which he has been renting from the State, gives birth, Matroskin and Sharik begin deliberation on the convoluted protocol of payment responsibility. The calf is, Sharik says, a product of the cow, which is owned by the State, and should be paid for, but to Matroskin, the answer is much simpler. If the invoice reads one cow, they will return one cow (for bookkeeping purposes). It is a loophole, for sure, but Matroskin’s tendency toward loopholes suggests a compulsory reverence for legislation that exists outside of any logical foundation of justice. The “right thing to do” is never discussed, nor is the even more pressing question of just who impregnated the calf in the first place.
Later, Pechkin, a postman and embodiment of State ideals, refuses Sharik and Matroskin their parcel on the grounds they lack proper identification. “So why even bring [the parcel]?” Uncle Fyodor, the animal’s human friend, asks Pechkin, but Pechkin only reiterates the rules. If a package arrives, it must be delivered, but if identification is not presented, the package must be refused. It is a(n overly) simple credo, one that keeps the postman happy, and most importantly, one that frees him of any responsibility regarding independent thought. If life is on a grid, each problem has a solution, everything barrels on, full speed ahead, and no one has time for pesky crises of self-fulfillment. Fyodor’s mother declares her life is “hopeless.” The reason? She has nowhere to wear her formal dresses. A vacation is demanded, but the obligations to the grid continue even on the beach, as the mother later writes Fyodor that she’ll be joining him shortly since she only has one dress left to wear at the resort.
Likewise, Sharik feels a compulsion to hunt, because animals were “created for just that, to be hunted for!” That he feels sorry for the animals he hunts is a conundrum to acknowledge, but ignore, leaving the obvious joke, that Sharik is an animal himself, and is subject to the very rules he blindly obeys, to sit like the proverbial elephant in the corner of the room. Just what sort of autonomy are Sharik and Matroskin granted, as citizens, as “domesticated” animals, if any? Do they care? Should they? These are importantly questions to ask, not only when deconstructive subversive political animation, but whenever confronted with a pair of sassy, anthropomorphized pets. Garfield and Otis, I’m looking your way.
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And now, another wonderful, personal top 10 list by Ill Stills reader, swooner13:
My top 10 (one per director): La vie nouvelle, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The New World, Le fils, Container, Neon Genesis Evangelion: The End of Evangelion, Solyaris (1972), Punch-Drunk Love, Sátántangó, Inland Empire
Again, 2001 and Sátántangó make the cut, as well as my personal favorite, The New World. Until recently, I’d always been under the impression that my reverence for The New World put me in the minority, considering the mixed responses the movie has, even among Malick fans, and the inclusion of Colin Farrell as the lead. It’s somehow reassuring that there are others who find the film’s languorous pace, majestic cinematography, and sincere examination of love to be among some of cinema’s finest offerings.
It’s interesting to note that each top ten list thus far, including my own, has been comprised of so many epic films. Apocalypse Now Redux, As I Was Moving Ahead…, Sátántangó, as well as Fanny and Alexander and Ran, are all well over the three hour marks, and the Kubrick and Malick picks are damn close. What is it about long films that stick with us? Is it the feeling of having gone through an experience that an hour and a half film cannot accurately capture, of having occupied such a definitive world and mood for such an extended period of time? 2001 is described as “the ultimate trip,” and yes, it’s a nod to the LSD culture the film was marketed toward, but it’s also a perfect description of the complicity required of us to immerse ourselves in Kubrick’s grand vision. A great film should never be viewed passively. A great film is dangerous and it takes us places, but only if we’re willing to make the effort, and make that first, terrifying step out of our comfort zones.