A Second Thaw

The poster for a special 35mm screening of Gennady Shpalikov’s A Long Happy Life, held in Petersburg’s Avrora Cinema on September 9, 2017, as part of a “Second Thaw” program at the annual D-Day Dovlatov Festival. The screening, ostensibly held to celebrate the 80th anniversary of Shpalikov’s birth, was to be introduced by the establishment film director Sergei Solovyov. Courtesy of the D-Day Facebook page

What’s wrong with Russia in one easy lesson.

Gennady Shpalikov was a brilliant Soviet screenwriter, poet, and lyricist, and, in his only attempt at directing, A Long Happy Life (1966), an equally brilliant filmmaker.

If you’ve ever seen the film, you probably wondered at some point how such a bleak, beautiful, and utterly hopeless masterpiece could have been made in the post-Krushchevian Soviet Union.

I don’t remember how that miracle happened, but after this and until his death by suicide in 1974 at the ripe old age of 37, Shpalikov was a man without a country and certainly a man without almost any prospects of getting decent, honest work in a country whose leadership had decided to do a little re-Stalinization after a very brief period of mostly cultural liberalization. (Hence the glorious Soviet cinematic new wave of the Krushchev period, in which Shpalikov played a key role.)

But now, even as it persecutes Kirill Serebrennikov for some of the same “faults” that Sphalikov had, the regime tries to redeem itself by resurrecting the suicided Shpalikov for an evening and rehabilitating itself in its own eyes.

I don’t doubt for a second that the utterly loyalist filmmaker Sergei Solovyov regards Sphalikov as his friend, but everything I’ve read about Shpalikov suggests he was such a charming fellow everyone liked him anyway. That is, until he was made a creative outcast by his own country’s always righteous political regime, couldn’t get work, and started hitting the bottle.

Basically, this is like an evening of films by John Cassavetes as introduced by Ron Howard.

I also don’t know what any of this has to do with Sergei Dovlatov, another talented and “troubled” fellow the great Soviet Union ejected from its sacred midst because it had no place for him, essentially, but who has also been subjected, in recent years, to one of the most extensive and absurd cooptation-cum-rehabilitation campaigns you can imagine, as if he hadn’t left the Soviet Union in 1979, or hadn’t had any good reason for leaving.

None of these frantic attempts on the part of the regime and its running dogs to save themselves in the eyes of the nonexistent intelligentsia should prevent you from watching every film Sphalikov had anything to do with (they’re all worth watching, and some are masterpieces), and reading everything Dovlatov wrote (most of it is hilarious and poignant) in the comfort of your own home.

No one needs to attend pro-Putin rallies disguised as cultural events. What else could the slogan “1967: The Second Thaw” refer to?

There was no second thaw. Only a “long happy life” that ended in 1991. ||| TRR, August 30, 2017

Gennady Shpalikov (director), A Long Happy Life (1966)

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