Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 10, 2017

Moscow Never Sleeps; Night School

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 9:56 pm

Those who follow my reviews, especially those of narrative films, know that I am averse to hyperbole. So when I tell you that “Moscow Never Sleeps” is a masterpiece, you’d better damn believe it. Now playing at the Village East Cinema, it has a superficial resemblance to films like “Babel” or “Crash” in which the paths of total strangers keep intersecting with each other in overlapping narratives—by now a cliché. Although sharing this framework, “Moscow Never Sleeps” is far less about random twists of fate than it is about the fate of an entire society. Its characters, drawn from different class strata, are actors in a drama that is unfolding throughout a nation that has become a kind of bogeyman during the current political crisis in the White House. It has devolved upon Irish Director/Screenwriter Johnny O’Reilly to create a picture of Russian life that reflects both the humanity of the people as well as the demons that are eating away at the very fabric of their society.

A few nights ago O’Reilly projected the film’s title onto the façade of Trump Tower accompanied by a press release that declared his intentions:

All too often the actions of a government are conflated with the characteristics of a national people. That’s true of Putin’s Russia and also now of Trump’s America. The projection onto Trump Tower highlights a film which presents a more nuanced view of Russian people beyond the filter of geo-politics, highlights the erosion of democratic values in Trump’s administration and celebrates national “Comey” day in the US.

While it is film rather than literature, I could not help but think of some of my favorite works of fiction while watching it. Like James Joyce’s Dublin-based “Ulysses”, it not only takes place in a single day and in an iconic city but seeks to capture the soul of a nation through a group of characters, who like those in films like “Babel” and “Crash”, keep bumping into each other. Indeed, perhaps the true inspiration for an Irish director like O’Reilly was Joyce’s masterpiece.

It also evokes Hubert Selby Jr.’s “Last Exit in Brooklyn”, a collection of short stories that examines the gritty underbelly of the borough, sparing neither the characters nor the reader’s sense of propriety. Like William S. Burroughs’s “Naked Lunch”, it was part of the beat generation’s assault on the phony values of the Eisenhower years in which the “normalcy” and repression coincided.

We are first introduced to the oligarch Anton (Mikhail Pavlik), a real estate developer who has collided with the Putinite officials who are trying to cheat him out of a contract he signed to build a billion-dollar complex. In his fifties, he has a trophy girlfriend named Katya (Eugenia Khirivskaya) who has been booked to perform at an open-air concert to celebrate City Day, the holiday that celebrates Moscow’s founding, and who is virtually his kept woman.

As she goes about the city shopping for designer clothing we assume that will be on Anton’s dime, she is stalked by a handsome, young man with a haunted expression on his face. He is Ilya (Oleg Dolin), the lover she abandoned who has nothing to offer but his good heart and animal magnetism, which does not go very far in today’s Moscow.

Ilya is the son of a once-famous comedian named Valery (Yuriy Stoyanov), who he has visited in the hospital earlier in the day with the understanding that his father was drinking himself to death. Not very long after the nurse leaves Valery unattended, he dons his clothes and sneaks out of the hospital to find a drinking hole. He steps into a cafeteria that while not selling booze is more than happy to provide a bottle to the miserable man who once made everybody laugh.

He is spotted from a nearby table by petty thieves and gangsta wannanbes who after recognizing Valery come over to take selfies with him using an expensive DSLR camera they have stolen only minutes earlier. They then invite him over to their table to enjoy their questionable company. He says that he has to use the bathroom first—taking the first opportunity to sneak out of the cafeteria when they are not looking. Once he is out the back door and into the rear alley, he is surrounded by the hoodlums who have expected him to duck out. They force him at gunpoint to return to their slummy housing project where they plan to show him off like a pet dog. The tensions between Valery and the feral youth rise until he can no longer take it. He tells them that he needs to return to the hospital whether they like it or not. The thug with the pistol stands in the hallway blocking his exit. The outcome of this confrontation is just one of the film’s surprising dramatic moments that will leave you agape.

Later that evening two of the self-styled gangstas sneak into an exclusive disco where they run into two stepsisters, who can barely stand each other. One is a part-time prostitute and the other is a fairly straight-laced youngster who despite her staid appearance is not only streetwise but tough as nails. The gangstas lure them back to their squat where they expect them to submit sexually. The outcome is as surprising as the one that took place earlier in the same building.

Despite the sense of menace that prevails throughout the film, there are moments of great tenderness, affection and honesty. You develop an affection for all of the characters, including the oligarch and the young thugs who defy stereotypical preconceptions. With a cast of a dozen major characters, O’Reilly is to be commended for thinking through their psychological make-up, their language and their behavior. His screenplay is a throwback to the naturalist fiction of the late 19th century that placed characters in their environment even when they often acted in ways that challenged the expectations of how they would behave. After all, human beings are not laboratory rats. As in Chekhov’s highly naturalistic short stories, O’Reilly’s characters enjoy freedom even to the point of choosing to act against their own self-interest, a not uncommon tendency in capitalist society

Throughout the film, one of the main characters is not even human—in multiple ways. I speak of the alcohol that has made Valery its slave as well as Vladimir, the father of the two stepsisters. Russians drink for a variety of reasons–evoking in their addiction Tolstoy’s observation in “Anna Karenina” that “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The unhappiness of Valery, for example, is that of a man who has probably lost a reason for living after his star has faded. For the other boozehounds in “Moscow Never Sleeps”, vodka is the sedative they need to survive in a society that has lost its raison d’être except making money, usually at someone else’s expense.

As someone who never misses an opportunity to see new Russian films, I was impressed with O’Reilly’s ability to capture a reality that I have seen in other films made by native Russians. His background is not typical of the film industry. O’Reilly graduated from Trinity College in Dublin with a degree in Russian, a language that he uses fluently in Moscow, where he lives. In an interview with the school’s alumni department, he spoke about his ties to his adopted country:

Despite the economic recession, the political repression and the war, Moscow’s a great place to be! It’s the biggest city in Europe and is the nearest thing we have to an Asian-style megapolis. It’s a 24-hour city full of kinetic energy with a throbbing arts scene, great cafes, restaurants and a crazy nightlife.

The best thing about Moscow is the people. Russians seem to live life at greater amplitude to us in the West. There’s more suffering, but there’s also more celebration in their lives. And there’s more drama. This is a great inspiration for any writer, filmmaker or person working in the creative arts.

I invite you to read the entire interview to become acquainted with one of the major new cinematic talents today. Better yet, see “Moscow Never Sleeps” at the Village East Cinema, a film that demonstrates what a “great inspiration” Moscow has been for O’Reilly. It will certainly be my pick for the best foreign language film of 2017.

If I avoid hyperbole about narrative films, I also make sure never to use the word “inspirational” about a documentary that most critics have used to the point of cheapening the word irrevocably. Now that I have gotten that out of the way, let me recommend “Night School” as an inspirational film that is playing at the IFC Center in New York and that had me holding back tears in the closing minutes. Knowing what a flinty bastard I am, that should be reason enough to go see a film about three African-Americans ranging from their thirties to their fifties trying to get a high school diploma from a night school.

Set in Indianapolis, this is a largely cinéma vérité work that makes the wise exception to the rule by allowing the three subjects to speak directly to the camera about their aspirations. Mostly, however, it is about them in the classroom working on algebra problems or scrabbling around the city trying to survive. Victims of very harsh economic conditions, they hope that a high school degree will serve as a ladder that will allow them to reach a higher level. Whether or not that will actually happen is not the concern of director Andrew Cohn. His main interest is in showing the indomitable spirit of three people whose lives are a cipher to most middle-class people. Just after I wrote this sentence, I opened the press kit and discovered that this was exactly Cohn’s intention:

We hardly notice them each day: The single mother working the graveyard shift at a fast food joint, a grizzled retiree bagging groceries at the local supermarket, a young busboy collecting half-empty cocktails after close. They are the working poor. And for most of us, they populate our world without much attention or fanfare. There aren’t reality TV shows about them. You won’t see their faces on the newsstand, but they discreetly go about their work with a quiet dignity that keeps America running. We typically observe these folks in passing, never giving much thought about their hopes, dreams, fears, or aspirations.

Greg Henson is a 31 year old single father, whose vivacious and camera-friendly 4-year old daughter Khloe was probably reason enough to motivate him to get a high school degree. It is obvious that it will not be easy for him to break away from his past since poverty has forced many in his neighborhood to get involved in drug sales, including him when he was in his teens. No matter the obstacles put in his path, Henson is determined to turn his life around. There is plenty of “tough love” shown by the night school teachers and counselors, who while understanding the problems the students face insist that they maintain discipline. When Greg meets with a counselor to discuss his recent tardiness, he sheepishly says that it was cold weather that made him late. She looks him in the eye and says, “I am from Jamaica. If I can deal with the cold, so can you.”

Melissa Lewis is an obese woman in her fifties who has a job working in a used clothing store. With a lively sense of humor that belies her menial existence, she says that she is always on the lookout for garments that she’d look good in. She is now a grandmother, having had her first child when she was 14. Watching her do algebra homework is a reminder of the failure of the capitalist system. If Melissa Lewis is motivated enough to go back to school in her 50s, that is proof enough that given the right opportunities and the right economic system, America can enjoy a renaissance that will usher in a thousand years of cultural and material growth.

The third subject is Shynika Jakes, who works at Arby’s for $7.25 per hour. She ended up there because that was the only “precariat” type job that offered set hours, something that was essential for her being able to go to night school. She is homeless, living two nights a week in her car and the other nights at friends who she says will probably get fed up with her at some point. Midway in the film, she runs into an organizer for the $15 per hour movement who persuades her to go out on strike. Given the awful conditions she lives and works under, not much persuasion was necessary.

Cohn indicates that it took a considerable amount of time in Indianapolis to find the three subjects who would help to make the film “dramatic” (even a documentary has to follow Aristotle’s rules.) He has succeeded wildly.

Don’t miss “Night School”. The film is distributed by Oscilloscope, a Brooklyn-based distribution company that came out with the hugely successful “Kedi” last year. Whoever is in charge of acquisitions at Oscilloscope knows what they are doing since this documentary is just as good as “Kedi” and should enjoy great word-of-mouth recommendations. My advice is to see the film and talk it up with your friends. In a period like this, who can’t use a little inspiration?

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