Saturday, June 18, 2011

115. Russian director Aleksei Popogrebsky’s film “Kak ya provyol etim letom” (How I Ended This Summer) (2010): Psychological cinematic perspectives on old vs. new, and duty vs. freedom

For the entire duration of this captivating film that won the Golden Hugo at the Chicago Film Festival and the Best Film award at the London Film Festival, the viewer sees merely two individuals, one young (Pavel) and the other (Sergei) much older, old enough to be the other one’s father.  Both are living on a remote island inhabited perhaps by polar bears and nothing else. Then you don’t get to see the bears (except once), you only hear conversations between the two men about bears. One is a university student, the other a meteorologist. The only other human beings that intrude the script are the voice of a man on the mainland who keeps in touch with the denizens over a fragile radio wavelength. The conversation on the radio link is often limited to transmitting scientific data that seems to include meteorological data as well as radioactivity captured on a Geiger counter.

Director Popogrebsky presents a film that first engages you visually. Popogrebsky’s two major collaborators on this film, as on his earlier film Simple Things, are the cinematographer Pavel Kostomarov (winning a Silver Bear for this film at Berlin Film Festival 2010 and the Golden Eagle in Russia) and composer of music, Dimitry Katkhanov. You first see the sea and the land and you marvel at the natural beauty of the landscape, goaded along aurally by the music on the soundtrack.  Then the director shows you rusty contraptions that are buzzing, emitting sufficient radioactivity to make a Geiger counter come alive to produce frenetic, rapid clicks. No words are spoken but the message is gently conveyed—you, the viewer, are being introduced from beauty to ugliness. Later you are shown fields full of old jerry cans that contain liquid fuel, also rusting, all left behind years ago—a graveyard of junk that had once served many people in the past. But where are those people? The people who erected the radioactive contraptions, the sheds, the few buildings, where are they? And why is a young university student carrying a Geiger counter, while listening to rock music? You are introduced to images that remind you of the dead terrain of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker. If you think the connection is outrageous, you will see the video game played by the young man is also called STALKER.
Popogrebsky has made the film using his own script and is evidently influenced by Tarkovsky. He presents a tale of confrontation between two individuals who come together by fate on this lonely yet lovely corner of the world. The viewer is introduced gradually to a father-son relationship though the two are not related. You note that the old man belongs to the old school who believes in gathering and transmitting the facile data to a faceless recipient, miles away. The young man has his clear order of priorities--music, video games, sleep and lower on the priority rung, gathering and transmitting correct data. You anticipate confrontation between the flag of freedom and the flag of rules. Instead you see teacher-student, a father-son relationship that appears to develop, even though in the old school the elders taught the young using fear tactics to keep the young ones in check. It is easy for the viewer to note that the young man has a growing respect for the elder, who has a wife and child. You feel director Popogrebsky is now treading close to Andrei Zvyaginstev’s cinema (The Return).
But the psychologist in Popogrebsky surfaces later. The young man learns from a radio message that the old man’s wife and child are killed but for a strange reason does not convey the information immediately to the elder man. Why is that? Is he afraid of causing misery to a man who had gone fishing trout to salt and take that precious catch to his wife and child as a gift? Or is it that the old man has been tough with him?
The delay in revealing the facts and the eventual transmission of the vital information leads to events that provide a thriller element to the essentially psychological tale. But the film is able to go beyond the level of a thriller—a tale of an old man who was provided delayed information on the death of his loved ones by a young man whom he treated as a son.

Popogrebsky falls into trap of his own making. The script is written as from the viewpoint of the young man. Within that scope, the story unfolds from the perspective of the young and not of the elder individual. In case Popogrebsky had not resorted to this format and had presented the story as a third person’s view of the tale, it is possible the movie would have had a different impact on the viewer. Tarkovsky adopted such a perspective in his last film, The Sacrifice, where the film is from the father’s point of view while Zvyagintsev attempted it with a flourish in The Return, where the entire story was from the elder son’s point of view. But unfortunately Popogrebsky avoids extensive analysis of the narrator, a flaw that is not so obvious in Tarkovsky and Zvyaginstsev. But all three films/directors were dealing with similar themes: old vs. new, father vs. son, political allegories, etc. While Popogrebsky is able to convey the dark message of radiation poisoning, the final sacrifice of the elder for the younger and end the film with visual optimistic message of a dark sky becoming bright, the focus of the film is turned at the end toward the elder of the duo.        
The captivating film ends with the narrator in a position to write a university paper on how he spent his summer on an island with an elderly man. Is the old man psychologically unstable or is he a very wise old man capable of making decisions the import of which dawns on others much later? It even tends to glorify the lonely, elderly widower slowly dying of radiation on an isolated island. What Popogrebsky, the psychologist, does to the viewer is to make viewer think why young people refrain from doing certain actions. Is it fear? Is it empathy? Is it love? Or is it a flaw in all of us human beings that makes us stumble at a critical point in our lives?

However, if you want to enjoy the film at a different level replace the young man with modern Russia and the elder with the erstwhile Soviet Union, and ask yourself the same questions. The radioactive, rusty machines could then appear meaningful for the viewer than a mere art director's prop. This is precisely where both Popogrebsky's film How I Ended This Summer and Zvyagintsev's The Return reach a point of confluence. 
While Popogrebsky may not be of the same class as Tarkovsky or Zvyagintsev, there is no denying that he is a notable Russian director. Evidently he has a tremendous verve in dealing with actors: both his actors in this film won a Silver Bear each for acting at the Berlin Film Festival—a rare achievement. And Popogrebsky had done this before, as the actor in his previous feature film Simple Things also won best actor awards at two festivals. I do hope that Popogrebsky’s next work improves on this one—he is younger than Zvyagintsev--while continues to work with cameraman Kostomarov and composer Kastkhanov. They make a great team behind the camera.
P.SAndrei Zvyagintsev's The Return was reviewed earlier on this blog.