Chekhov, please!

Pasatiempo - - Moving Images - Jonathan Richards I For the New Mex­i­can

The Rus­sians are com­ing, the Rus­sians are com­ing!

They’ll be set­tling in for most of Jan­uary and Fe­bru­ary at The Screen to cel­e­brate the 150th an­niver­sary of the birth of the great Rus­sian writer An­ton Chekhov with a se­ries of his com­pa­tri­ots’ film adap­ta­tions of his works.

Chekhov was born Jan. 29, 1860, in the small sea­port town of Ta­gan­rog. His grand­fa­ther was a for­mer serf who had bought his free­dom. His fa­ther was a re­li­gious fa­natic who owned a small gro­cery store but even­tu­ally went bank­rupt and fled to Moscow. Chekhov worked to pay for his own ed­u­ca­tion and stud­ied medicine in Moscow, be­com­ing a doc­tor. It was while he was pur­su­ing his med­i­cal stud­ies that he be­gan to make a name for him­self and a liv­ing for his fam­ily by pub­lish­ing short sto­ries and satir­i­cal sketches about Rus­sian life. By the time of his death from tu­ber­cu­lo­sis at the age of 44, Chekhov had be­come ac­knowl­edged as one of the great­est short-story writ­ers and play­wrights of the mod­ern era.

Cel­e­brat­ing Chekhov is a pro­gram of seven Rus­sian films made over the past 50 years. “It’s some­thing I’ve wanted to do for a long time,” said The Screen’s di­rec­tor, Brent Kliewer. “It’s an op­por­tu­nity to show­case one of the most adapted writ­ers in the world. Even though he never wrote for film per se, Chekhov kind of came of age dur­ing the in­fancy of the medium, so it’s in­ter­est­ing to think how he would have ap­proached it.”

The films treat a se­lec­tion of the mas­ter’s sto­ries and plays with vary­ing de­grees of fi­delity. In the lineup are beau­ti­ful 1970 film adap­ta­tions of two of the great Chekhov plays: Yuli Karasik’s The Seag­ull and An­drei Kon­chalovsky’s su­perb Un­cle Vanya, which Vin­cent Canby hailed as “an ex­ceed­ingly grace­ful, beau­ti­fully acted pro­duc­tion that man­ages to re­spect Chekhov as a man of his own time, as well as what I would as­sume to be the Soviet view of Chekhov as Rus­sia’s sad­dest, gen­tlest, fun­ni­est and most com­pas­sion­ate rev­o­lu­tion­ary play­wright.”

At the other end of the spec­trum is Karen Shakhnazarov and Alek­sandr Gornovsky’s 2009 up­date of the 1892 short story Ward No. 6, set in a pro­vin­cial men­tal hospi­tal. Shakhnazarov has re­lo­cated the story to the present day, in­ter­spersed in­ter­views with real in­mates of an asy­lum into the action, and framed it as a doc­u­men­tary, with a cam­era crew be­ing shown through the premises by the hospi­tal’s di­rec­tor, Dr. Khobotov (Yevgeni Sty­chkin). Af­ter the off-cam­era in­ter­viewer asks to meet Khobotov’s pre­de­ces­sor as di­rec­tor, Dr. Ra­gin (Vladimir Ilyin), who is now an in­mate, the pic­ture goes on to show us how things turned out that way. As Khobotov ob­serves, the line be­tween san­ity and mad­ness is of­ten pretty flimsy. Al­though Ward No. 6 is on the bleak side, there’s a vein of hu­man com­edy that runs through much of Chekhov, and it is here that Kliewer finds the par­tic­u­lar in­sight of Rus­sian in­ter­preters of his work.

“When you look at adap­ta­tions of Chekhov world­wide, al­though we’ve seen some good ones, there’s al­ways some­thing miss­ing com­pared to adap­ta­tions that are specif­i­cally Rus­sian, some­thing that doesn’t hit the in­tan­gi­ble in Chekhov,” Kliewer said. “And while there’s this very hu­mane qual­ity to him, and the sad­ness, and the long­ing— peo­ple caught up in their self-made pris­ons or class re­stric­tions— I think what so many peo­ple miss out­side of Rus­sia is the hu­mor. The hu­mor that em­anates out of de­spair. In Un­cle Vanya, there are th­ese peo­ple try­ing to main­tain this il­lu­sion of a by­gone era, and then by the end they’re crawl­ing around on the floor. There’s some­thing kind of funny about their des­per­a­tion, and that’s what I think the Rus­sians un­der­stand. It’s the abil­ity to pin­point that de­spair at the mo­ment of ut­most des­per­a­tion that is where the hu­man­ity re­veals it­self.”

Not all Rus­sian direc­tors have been in sym­pa­thy with the un­der­ly­ing im­pulse of com­edy be­neath Chekhov’s plays. Con­stantin Stanislavsky, the co-founder and im­pre­sario of the Moscow Art The­atre, who staged Chekhov’s plays and es­tab­lished his rep­u­ta­tion as a drama­tist, wran­gled with the play­wright over their tone and in­tent. When Chekhov was fin­ish­ing Three Sis­ters, he wrote to Stanislavsky’s wife, “It hasn’t turned out a drama, but as a com­edy, in places even a farce.” The great di­rec­tor begged to dif­fer: “This is not a com­edy, nor a farce as you have writ­ten, this is a tragedy, what­ever es­cape to­ward a bet­ter life you open up in the last act. ... I wept like a woman, I wanted to con­trol my­self but I couldn’t. I hear what you say: ‘ Look you must re­al­ize this is a farce’ ... no, for sim­ple men this is a tragedy. I feel a spe­cial ten­der­ness and love for this play.”

Their ar­gu­ment con­tin­ued. Af­ter The Cherry Or­chard opened, Chekhov was be­side him­self. “Stanislavsky has ru­ined my play,” he fumed. “Why do they so ob­sti­nately call my play a ‘ drama’ in play-bills and news­pa­per ad­ver­tise­ments? What Nemirovich [the­ater di­rec­tor/pro­ducer Vladimir Ivanovich Nemirovich-Danchenko] and Stanislavsky see in my play def­i­nitely isn’t what I wrote and I’m ready to swear by any­thing you like that nei­ther of them has read through my play care­fully even once. I’m sorry to say so, but I as­sure you I’m right.” In his mem­oirs, Stanislavsky com­mented, “What shocked him most of all and what he could not rec­on­cile him­self to was that his Three Sis­ters and, later, The Cherry Or­chard were per­ceived as heavy dra­mas about Rus­sian life. He was sin­cerely con­vinced that he wrote cheer­ful com­edy, al­most vaude­ville.”

A hun­dred and fifty years later, the Chekhov-Stanislavsky squab­ble is still go­ing on, played out in the pro­fu­sion of stage and screen pre­sen­ta­tions and adap­ta­tions of Chekhov’s work around the world. In this lineup of Rus­sian films, Santa Fe audiences will have a chance to see a range of Soviet and post-Soviet in­ter­pre­ta­tions, from Iosif Kheifits’ 1960 gem The Lady With the Dog, a poignant ro­mance that be­gins in Yalta and ends in heart­break, to Ward No. 6, Rus­sia’s of­fi­cial sub­mis­sion for con­sid­er­a­tion in the For­eign Lan­guage Film cat­e­gory of this year’s Academy Awards. The pro­gram has been as­sem­bled by Seag­ull Films, an out­fit formed in 1999 to im­prove dis­tri­bu­tion of Rus­sian cin­ema to North Amer­ica. Santa Fe is one of only five cities in the U.S. play­ing host to this se­ries. So see the films and laugh with Chekhov, or weep with Stanislavsky.

Alek­sey Vertkov, left, and Vladimir Ilyin in

Ward No. 6 (2009)

Alla Demi­dova in

The Seag­ull


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