On my way to see The Last Bolshevik at Anthology Film Archives, which is having a Chris Marker retrospective, I stopped off at St. Mark’s Bookshop, where I ran into jonmc (who’s been in the throes of moving—he may wind up in my neighborhood—and is looking at the possibility of root canal, so he hasn’t been at his most jovial lately, but was in good spirits when I met him, possibly because he was buying this book, which is absolutely gorgeous) and found two items I absolutely had to buy: a nice Chatto & Windus edition of Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai (a kid who learns Greek at four and Hebrew, Arabic, and Japanese at five, grows up with The Seven Samurai as a source of role models, and carries around a copy of Njal’s Saga—how could I resist?) and the May issue of Magazine littéraire, devoted to “écrivains de Saint-Pétersbourg.”
The movie was brilliant, with interviews of people who’d known the Soviet director Aleksandr Medvedkin and clips from his movies (many of which had been thought lost); the central conundrum was how Medvedkin, a true believer in Communism but a determinedly independent artist, had managed to get through the ’30s without losing either his faith or his life. (One opinion, expressed with a loving smile, was that he simply wasn’t that bright.) There was amazing, chilling footage of Soviet labor camps and of the vile Vishinsky presiding over the show trials, spitting out the names of alleged spies and saboteurs. No matter how much I read about that time and place, I don’t think I can have any real sense of what it was like to live through; whatever the defects of contemporary America, I’m grateful to be here.
After the movie I walked up Second Avenue towards the subway, passing Ukrainian signs that recalled the Ukrainian titles I’d just seen in one of Medvedkin’s “train films“; in the subway station I saw a woman who could have stepped out of one of his kolkhoz dramas, full-featured, rosy-cheeked, waving her arm in a passionate gesture as she pointed towards the shining future; on the train home a girl reminded me strongly of someone I was in love with before she was born, the same combination of eager laughter and a firm-set jaw that implied deep reserves of willfulness and determination. I feared a little for the young man she was with.