Sitting Audience's Film History Lesson By Sergei Lavrentiev

in 29th Moscow International Film Festival

by Sergei Lavrentiev

The program at the Moscow International Film Festival this year was much better than everyone expected, with a lot of good movies in competition (an absence of a masterpieces, but where are such films nowadays?) and — even more important — a wonderful retrospective section.

In another of my FIPRESCI articles, I’ve written about the importance of watching old movies at film festivals. In modern Russia, such an act is doubly important, at the very least.

Before the perestroika, Soviet film buffs were denied the chance to see some 99% of the classics of world cinema. We have read the articles about Fellini who was too Catholic; about Altman, who was only ironic and didn’t show his fellow Americans how to struggle against capitalism; about Visconti, who was too decadent, and about, Forman who was merely a revisionist.

At the end of the Eighties, freedom arrived, allowing us to watch five films a day, seven days a week — and sometimes, some very good movies just got lost in the flood.

And then the Nineties came.

The distribution system collapsed, the youngsters watched only pirated video; the majority of them not only had never been in a cinema, but didn’t even know what a movie theatre looked like.

In the middle of the Nineties, Russian TV channels broadcast three or four films in a day, and it was a real movie porridge. World masterpieces neighboring with b-movie horror films and soft porn; you could watch the works of Luchino Visconti and Just Jaecken in one evening, and not understand the difference.

When the era of new multiplexes arrived, people in Moscow — like those in Tokyo or Buenos Aires — see nothing but blockbusters. Even if some good film should suddenly appear on a single screen for two shows in a day, it disappears forever after two weeks.

But at the same time, a new generation of film freaks here in Moscow has begun to understand the difference between watching a film on video or on TV, and worshipping it in a theater. And that’s why there were so many young audience members at the MIFF screenings of Hollywood’s classic Golden Age musicals. Almost all of the films in this program were broadcast on TV, but it’s amazing that Vincente Minnelli’s Meet Me in St. Louis and An American in Paris were being screened in a theatre in this country for the first time!

Robert Altman’s five landmark movies from the seventies also had their Russian film premieres during the MIFF, as well as Forman’s first English-language film, Taking Off.

The youngsters coming to see these pearls from the great years of film history do not want to know the plot. Unfortunately a lot of them had already seen them on video or DVD. They come to experience the movies because they’ve heard — and are starting to believe — that film truly lives only in the theatre. And even if the quality of the festival prints of Buffalo Bill and the Indians and M*A*S*H were far from ideal, it’s far better to watch those prints than panned-and-scanned tapes or discs where the Panavision camerawork is so badly truncated that, in some scenes, it’s impossible to see who is speaking to whom.

So, it seems to me that the main point of this year’s MIFF was education. When many young people understand what film history really is, it will be better for both the audience and for the new directors making their movies in a country full of filmgoers, educated not only intellectually (in front of their TV sets) but emotionally, in the cinema.