How I ended this Summer Alexsei Popogrebski (2010 Rus) Grigory Dobrygin; Sergei Puskepalis
Viewed Tyneside Cinema Newcastle 2 May 2011 Ticket price £7.70
Chekhov in No Man’s Land
How I ended this summer (HETS) is a film made by Alexei Popograbski (AP) that in its opening sections takes the manner and form of a Chekhov short story. Chekhov’s short stories (and his plays) are structured using the classical unities of time place and character. Chekhov writes with deceptive simplicity often introducing an event to create a dynamic interpolation in the situations and characters he has set up. The event provokes change, sometimes but not always remarked in the state of mind of a character; often this change, described as it takes place is externally imperceptible. An event in a Chekhov short story in induces reflection, both in the character and in the reader. In the Chekhov mode the short story shares some qualities with neo realist cinema in that events often have contrasting readings. Firstly by the characters involved and then as a powerful secondary dynamic is released, readings located only in the mind of the reader. The reader is left to consider those things that are unsaid and those things that may come to pass after Chekhov has closed the story.
HETS, like a Chekhov short story, is initially based on close careful observation of its situations and subjects: a chamber piece, set in an artic meteorological station, for two men and voice. Whilst it stays true to its form as situaTion and character piece it has coherence and tension within the terms of its own structure. But suddenly, AP betrays the intelligence of the set up, abandons reflection and state of mind and opts for the banality of narrative form as a means of rounding off the film. In the characteristic manner of many contemporary film makers AP betrays the traditions of his Russian roots, betrays his own historical cultural forms and allows Hollywood to dictate the style and nature of the second half of the film.
The critical weakness of HETS is that it subverts its own structure, for no gain, by introducing into the body of his film a lengthy chase section that is filled and tricked out with the clichés of this kind of cinema, using ambiguity of camera framing as a device to scare the audience. Initially AP sets in play a number of psychic forces: The old school meteorologist steeped in personal and collective history opposing the young tyro scientist fresh from college and living outside history in the virtual world of computer games.: the static decaying location of the weather station and the archaic radio system that has to be used for communication. These powerful resonant psychic assets are suddenly ditched as the films lurches into another zone: the section of the film where it suddenly deviates from its anchoring in character and situation into a cod horror chase sequence. The flight of the young man from the real or imagined fury of his colleague. The tone of the film changes; the unity of place and character are fractured. HETS becomes Hollywood gothic, with the older guy, as real or imagined pursuer, caste as the bogey man. HETS loses its key in the realm that it first establishes; the psychological interactions between the two guys are replaced by the crudity of the action. Chekhov is ditched by AP’s meaningless transposition of his material into an alien key. A change that leads nowhere in relation to the psycho-social realm that has been previously established. This psychic dead end has to be resolved by a dramaturgic revenge device that is practically meaningless in terms of the dynamics set in play in the establishing sections of the film.
The problem may lie in the calculation of the director that in order to justify the use of film as an expressive form he needed to produce a feature film length product . AP may have felt that without an action sequence HETS natural length would be somewhere about ±60 mins: short story, novella length. AP, to qualify for feature film status, may have felt his script should follow ‘the guidelines’. The rules for feature films taught by all those script writing courses (based on the Hollywood template) that have been peddled round Europe brainwashing people for the last 20 years. AP’s script conforms almost slavishly to the received wisdom of Schrader et al: the liminal phase, the change, the plateau the resolution the new situation. A formulaic product that ultimately is the negation of imagination and creativity in film. Initially the HETS held out the promise of a film of pure creative delight. By the time it had run its course HETS looked like a movie that conforms to the rules.
I was uncertain about the use made of time lapse photography in the film. It is a common feature of many of contemporary films that they contain long shots of landscapes. Where there is an enfolding of the scape into the reflective body of the film, this can work. But often these shots function as little more than travelogue style fill: the pretty sunset shot. Their insertion into films is simply as a time slug to help fill out the material to feature length. In HETS the location and nature of the oppositional characters provides a setting where time and place have meaning located in the relations between the two men and the social vistas that their separate and conjoined experience of life call into play. But the use of time lapse for many of the landscape shots seemed little more than another gimmick. The land – sky -sea scapes were remarkable in themselves and didn’t need tech make-overs to emprint their significance. Did AP use time lapse to try and suggest an analogous grounding for the relationship between the two guys and the passage of time? If so why? I don’t know and HETS slides into an exercise in banality….