Monday, March 9, 2009


From the land of Socialist Realism comes something closer to Neorealism. Maybe we should call it Bohemian Realism, since Pavel Lungin's film aspires to warts-and-all honesty about low life during the last days of the Soviet Union. The Koch Lorber DVD invites comparisons with Taxi Driver. I was skeptical, but borrowed it from the library anyway.

It's a holiday of some sort in Moscow. Ivan Shlykov drives his hack through the streets as the masses have their backs turned, their eyes on fireworks over the river. His fares are a noisy, drunken bunch looking for a party. Their ringlieader is Lyosha, a jazz saxophonist who ends up the last passenger in the cab. He tells Ivan to take him to "the Captain," and to wait outside in case Cap's not at home. Ivan ends up staying all night, as Lyosha's fare grows and grows.

The last days of the Soviet brand, from TAXI BLUES.

Ivan goes home and works out. He seems fanatical if not desperate about his routine. He shares a shabby apartment with Deti ("Pops"), an old crank who treats Ivan to anti-Semitic harangues. Since Lyosha had invited him to watch a show at the Blue Note jazz club, Ivan heads there to collect his money. He finds Lyosha, who declares himself broke and dares Ivan to beat him up. Ivan confiscates his sax instead. He tries to pawn it at several places, but no one offers enough to cover Lyosha's debt. He tries to track Lyosha down again, but finds that the guy's been fired from his gig and thrown out of his girlfriend's apartment. He finally discovers Lyosha busking with a guitar and gives him back his sax. Lyosha then has the gall to ask for a loan.

Instead, Ivan brings him to his own apartment and forces him to strip so he can appraise the pawn value of his clothes. Lyosha insists that everything he wears is western and should be worth more, and asks for a drink. Ivan finally demands an apology and, getting one, declares them even. Now Lyosha will stay overnight, despite Pops's protests. In the morning he looks for more booze while the radio reports the latest production goals surpassed by heroic laborers. He settles for Pops's cologne, watered down a little. He soaks in a bathtub and loses himself in a reverie of jazz. Inspired, he plays his sax in the nude while the tub water overflows. The leak damages three floors of the building and sets Ivan back another 400 rubles. By the time he finds out, Lyosha has skipped out.

Ivan finds Lyosha dealing with some rough customers, one of whom beans Ivan with a bottle. Ivan breaks the bottle and drives them off, then drags Lyosha to jail, where the jazzman shares a holding cell with two angry prostitutes. Ivan wants to file a complaint and is told to write that Lyosha assaulted him. As the cabbie drives away from the jail, some punks accost his car. He chases them down and beats some of them up. When one of the punks calls him a fascist, he demands an apology. After this outburst, he has a change of heart, returns to the jail, and rescinds his complaint against Lyosha.

Now he seizes Lyosha's passport and resolves to make the poor slob work off his debt as a baggage handler and car washer. Lyosha finds time during his busy day to raid his ex-girlfriends pad for aspirin. When she tries to kick him out, he throws her into the bathroom and bars the door, yelling, "Slut, you wrecked my life!" After he washes down the pills with water from a plant vase, he calms down and goes into another jazz trance. Later, he opens the bathroom door and joins his girl in the tub.

Lyosha pleads to Ivan that he can repay him more quickly as a musician, but Ivan wants to see him slave for the money. He exhorts Lyosha to wash the floor mats with more enthusiasm. "Put your soul into it!" he says, "Use love! Love the mat!" He farms Lyosha out to other cabbies to make more money, but worries that he's gone too far when the jazzman passes out in the bathroom back home. Lyosha recounts a dream of crawling through narrowing corridors until his skin peeled off. Ivan recommends stomach exercises to get Lyosha out of his funk. When Lyosha doesn't take up the suggestion, Ivan slaps him around until he angrily grabs a knife. "Now you're talking!" Ivan says approvingly, "Now you'll be a man."

Ivan has a girlfriend, Cristina, who works in a meat market and can bring him black-market food. To Pops's disgust, they dine on their plunder and Ivan tells Lyosha to play them some music. Lyosha had one of his reveries and fits of playing earlier, leading Pops to call him a degenerate, but now he protests that he lacks inspiration. Ivan tells him to earn his keep, and Lyosha gets into his work as Cristina gets into the music. Ivan dances like a frantic idiot in emulation of his girlfriend while Lyosha tells her that "Women call it the sexophone." Ivan gets agitated when Cristina embraces the musician. He goes to the bathroom to wash up, then storms back into the kitchen to grab the sax, throw it to the floor and kick it across the room. Lyosha goes nuts in turn and starts tearing up Ivan's posters. Ivan tries to strangle Lyosha until Cristina crowns him with a cardboard box, and he passes out.

Lyosha runs amok into the night, stripping his clothes off on a train and fleeing from motorcycle cops, proclaiming himself a Buddhist, a saint and a genius. Back at the apartment, Ivan seems to rape Cristina, though the sex seems to become more consensual later. Their coupling is interrupted by the telephone: Ivan has to bail Lyosha out of the drunk tank. This time he tells Lyosha to get out of his life for good while the jazzman implores him to "at least stick me in the madhouse." Lyosha plants himself in front of a slowly oncoming train until Ivan pleads with him to come home. The train has come to a stop behind them.

Now Ivan and Lyosha are selling bootleg vodka. A potential customer recognizes Lyosha and urges him to come to the recording studio. Hal Singer, an American saxophonist (and a real person playing himself), pays a visit and asks who's playing that sax he hears. It's Lyosha, cleaned up enough to make an impression on a chance for a lifetime. The two men jam together, and Lyosha brings Fisher to Ivan's place. Ignoring Pops's repeated toasts to "disarmament and eternal peace," the musicians commune drunkenly. Fisher says Lyosha is "my brat" -- the Russian for brother. When Ivan shows up, Fisher's handler sees him as "the only normal person here" and urges him to end the party. Ivan throws Lyosha out, while the jazzman vows to tour the world with Fisher.

Sometime later, Ivan is driving the same road he traveled at the start of the movie. He passes a jumbotron screen and can't believe his eyes. It's Lyosha! True to his word, he's made it to New York and scored a triumph. Soon he returns to Moscow a conquering hero. Ivan dresses up in his best clothes to pick him up, but Lyosha is crowded by reporters, handlers and groupies and doesn't see him.

Now it's Ivan's birthday. He drinks sullenly with Cristina's friends at the market but goes nuts while she plays the guitar. He smashes the instrument and roars out an old patriotic song, protesting that she doesn't love him at all. Then he grabs an axe, goes into the meat locker, and takes it out on the carcasses.

Ivan pulls himself together to attend one of Lyosha's shows. Now he gets it, and is moved to tears by Lyosha's virtuosity. This time he catches the jazzman's attention and gets a promise of a visit. He expects the visit that night and sets out an impressive spread, but hours pass before Pops finally offers him some homemade soup. Ivan, a man after my own mind sometimes, loses himself in a kung fu movie until he's surprised by Lyosha and a gang of revelers. He remembered! He's brought all kinds of gifts from America: clothes, cigarettes and more. Pops grabs some cologne to compensate for what Lyosha drank earlier, and seems to be enjoying himself. But there's one special gift just for Ivan. One of Lyosha's cronies puts it together with much expenditure of breath until the finished product is revealed.

Ivan is devastated as it sinks in that Lyosha and company have shown up as much to laugh at him as to shower him with gifts. The camera slowly closes in on him as it sinks in deeper and the kung fu noises throb in the background. Can you guess what happens next? You're probably wrong, but...

Taxi Blues is on to something about the way people on the lower rungs of society are repelled from and drawn to one another at the same time in the forced intimacy necessity often imposes. You may despise someone, and despise the fact that you need him or her, but needing them for whatever reason encourages bonding of different kinds. Ivan clearly has a love-hate relationship with Lyosha, and people are bound to draw conclusions about Ivan from his obsessive workouts. There is room to speculate about his sexuality, but the dominant feeling here is Ivan's longing to be part of something larger than his own tawdry milieu. He envies Lyosha's talent, as his singing outburst at the birthday party makes clear, and he craves the vicarious experience of his friend's (?) storybook success as if it belongs to him in fulfillment of Lyosha's debt. Anyone who's ever lived with roommates will empathize with at least parts of this film.

Taking the larger view, Taxi Blues is an impressive document of the glasnost era, when the Soviets started calling things as they saw them. The film had partial French financing, but clearly owed its existence to Gorbachev's liberalism. His predecessors would most likely not have allowed such a portrait of their country on the downward slide. Nor had Gorby anything to worry about, since Lungin didn't make a political or dissident film, except by implication. "Down with the Party" isn't the film's message. "Down with humanity" probably comes closer to the real theme. Even though Lungin tacks on a "Whatever Became Of" title card that suggests that Ivan straightened himself out eventually, the film itself offers little hope of redemption for its lowlife protagonists. Stardom doesn't make Lyosha less of a jerk; instead it enables his ultimate act of unthinking cruelty. This pessimism is nothing new to world cinema, but for the USSR it was unusual if not entirely new. Whether it could only emerge near the end of that nation's sad history, like a harbinger of it, is a question for another time.

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