The other day I saw a couple of films at the Sony screening room that were being released through Sony Picture Classics, an autonomous division catering to the “art-house” market. Both were very good.
“Red Army” is a documentary about the legendary Russian hockey team of the pre-Perestroika era that reflected the USSR at its best and worst. It consists mainly of interviews with Viacheslav “Slava” Fetisov, arguably one of the greatest hockey players of the past half-century as well as an extremely witty and insightful interviewee as deft before the camera as he was with a hockey stick.
Director Gabe Polsky was using the fate of Russia hockey as a symbol of Communism’s contradictions and how they were unsuccessfully resolved in the favor of capitalism. Clearly Polsky has learned from Werner Herzog, having served as his producer on the 2009 narrative film “The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans”. The two men obviously have the same off-kilter view of the world based on this new film for which Werner Herzog returned the favor, serving as co-producer. Like Herzog, Polsky includes some elements that guarantee that the audience will understand that something is being filmed, in his case showing some of his assistants setting up gear and including Fetisov’s admonitions to stop filming since he has to take a phone call. For documentaries, it is the equivalent of breaking through the “fourth wall”.
The film will appeal to people who are still trying to figure out what happened to the Soviet Union and the nature of Putin’s Russia today, as well as hockey fans. In fact the film, which opens on November 14 at the Empire 25 Theater in NY, will have a nationwide rollout in January that will be pitched to sports fans. It has been many years since I watched hockey but followed the NY Rangers in the early 70s when it was led by Rod Gilbert, a speedy forward who turned up as a fellow resident of my high-rise on the Upper East Side.
The film begins with Fetisov reflecting on the state of Soviet Russia when he was a 9-year-old boy trying out for the Russian Army youth team. He tells Polsky that 25 million of his countrymen were killed and that most of the country was destroyed. (Stock footage depicts the horror.) When the country began rebuilding, the new apartment buildings were barely sufficient. It was normal for 3 families to share a 400 square foot apartment. Despite that, Fetisov said that he was happy. There seemed to be enough food to eat, even if you had to stand on line. Of course, once markets were introduced the lines disappeared but hunger became widespread.
Fetisov was a protégé of Anatoli Tarasov, the coach of the Red Army hockey team and the man widely considered the father of Russian hockey. Fetisov joined the team in 1976 at the age of 19, playing defense and learning the skill of passing, something Tarasov saw as fundamental to the game. For Tarasov, hockey as a kind of chess game in which sharing the puck was fundamental.
Indeed, when he was demonstrating to his players how to move forward on the ice, he often illustrated with chess pieces. He was also convinced that ballet exercises could make his players more nimble on the ice, as the film demonstrates from archival footage. By the time that Fetisov began playing on the Red Army team, Tarasov had acquired a huge beer belly. Watching him demonstrating some steps to his team is like watching the hippopotamuses dancing in Walt Disney’s “Fantasia”.
Despite losing to an inferior American hockey team in the 1980 Winter Olympics, a loss that inspired the chauvinistic chant “USA, USA” that has tainted every game since including table tennis, the Red Army team rolled over every professional hockey team that they faced over the years. Tarasov’s goal-sharing methods were superior to the individualistic style of the West. Although the film is far too subtle and skeptical about socialism for that matter to point out that the collectivist culture might have something to do with that, you can’t help drawing such a conclusion.
After Perestroika, it became possible for Russian hockey players to turn professional in the West. Fetisov and other Red Army superstars took high-paying jobs but were not shown to their best advantage since the teams were all based on the individualist model.
It was only when the Detroit Red Wings recruited Fetisov and a cadre of ex-Red Army players that they were able to cash in, winning the Stanley Cub in 1997 and 1998.
I can’t recommend this film highly enough. It is a very sharp analysis of the Communist experience by a director who not only studied at Yale but also was on their hockey team. As the son of Russian immigrant parents, he has just the right background for drawing all the human drama out of the Red Army story. His statement in the press notes indicates the outlook that was clear to me but one that he did not want to beat over the audience’s head:
When I was at Yale, I studied politics and history and learned about the unusual role sport played in the Soviet Union. The Red Army team was designed as an instrument of propaganda to prove the superiority of the Soviet system. The country’s investment in the team’s success was massive. The demanding lifestyle and oppressive circumstances under which the players trained were a reflection of broader Soviet society. It became clear to me that the Red Army’s style of play, too, was significantly informed by the country’s ideology. Much like Communism, there was little emphasis on the individual. Those who became heroes earned as much money as teachers. Priority was placed on serving your teammates and your country, and expressing individuality or questioning authority was forbidden.
“Wild Tales” opens on February 8th. It is an Argentine narrative film directed by Damián Szifron that he described in the following terms:
I frequently think of Western capitalist society as a sort of transparent cage that reduces our sensitivity and distorts our bonds with others. Wild Tales presents a group of individuals who live within this cage without being aware of its existence. But at that point where most of us would repress – or get depressed – these people shift into gear.
Although I loved the film, I don’t think it had much to do with “Western capitalist society”. Basically it is a dark comedy about people going to extreme lengths to destroy each other in the fashion of classic Warner Brothers cartoons but without any hero like Bugs Bunny to cheer for. Instead it is like watching Yosemite Sam and Elmer Fudd trying to blow each other’s brains out with shotguns.
The film consists of six chapters, each one set up as elegantly as an O. Henry short story and an ending that serves as poetic justice for the miscreant characters. In “Road to Hell”, road rage turns into an elemental battle for survival pitting an Audi-driving yuppie against a hulking rural bumpkin who refuses to allow his wreck of car to be passed on a mountainous road. Not long after the yuppie passes him by, making sure to curse him out as he passes, he gets a flat tire next to a bridge over a mountain stream. When the bumpkin catches up to him, all hell breaks loose, including him taking a dump on the Audi’s hood. As the violence escalates, you will not be able to keep your eyes off the action. It is akin to not being able to avert your eyes from a highway accident except one that is far more entertaining.
I will only add that the final chapter, titled “Till Death to Us Part”, is about a Jewish wedding party that will remind you of the great Michael Douglas-Kathleen Turner vehicle “War of the Roses” with bride drawing almost all the blood. It is obvious to me that the guests are Jews even though this is not a point made specifically. Since the director (and screenwriter) has a last name that is a dead giveaway for his Jewish origins, this is a conclusion I feel safe drawing.
Both films are worth putting down on your calendar.