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DVDs in the Dog Days of Summer

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Last week, I decided that recommending some unusual DVDs might offer listeners an antidote to the dizziness and lightheadedness associated with the seasonal malady known as "summer blockbuster syndrome." On a walk to muse over my choices, a slogan on a T-shirt caught my eye. It read: Don't Bolshevik Me. Once upon a time, this label could not have been worn so lightly. Too much was at stake, even in the phrases one might make.

This was on my mind watching the DVD of The Anna Akhmatova File, a 1989 film about the Russian poet. Akhmatova is known for her famous poem "Requiem" about the Stalinist Terror. In the 1920s Bolsheviks murdered Akhmatova's ex-husband Nikolai Gumilyov, accusing him of being counter-revolutionary; her son Lev Gumilyov spent years in prison. She stood in lines at Leningrad prisons on his behalf for nearly two decades.

Filmmaker Semyon Aranovich interweaves Akhmatova's biographical facts with moody shots of places and objects that add tonality to the picture. Archival film footage and stills offer rich glimpses of everyday life in the Soviet Union as well as of the historical and literary figures involved.

The film assumes the viewer has some acquaintance with the USSR's political and artistic history. But no explanation is needed for a tracking shot of hundreds of animal skins drying in the sun superimposed over images of a smiling Josef Stalin and an audience of applauding apparatchiks. Communist party faithful? And, even if one doesn't understand Russian, Akhmatova's conscience, forged in suffering, comes across fully in her voice as she reads her poetry.

Akhmatova explains her refusal to describe her acquaintance with Vladimir Mayakovsky, her well-known contemporary. Footage of him accompanies an account of his dismissal of Akhmatova and her friend and fellow poet Marina Tsaeteva. One can take an unusual look at Mayakovsky's work in the remarkable compilation Animated Soviet Propaganda, a four disk set that was released not long ago. It assembles a striking collection of short works that were produced to shape attitudes of Soviet citizens towards the U.S. and other countries, as well as toward the Communist system. Commentary places the animations in context, showing how even works of popular cultural entertainment provide an avenue to historical and political actualities.

Black and White is a Mayakovsky poem that, along with his drawings, is the basis of a short by the same name from 1933. In stark high-contrast graphics, it unfurls a banner decrying capitalist racism and oppression, underscored by a soulful hymn sung by Paul Robeson.

Mayakovsky shows up elsewhere in the set in Forward March, Time — "an animated fantasy" based on his works. This is a masterpiece of animation from 1977 that combines 1920s futurist exhortation with a pop-art fantasia history lesson. Stylistically, it hits the eye as if the Yellow Submarine, crewed by visionary architects á la Archigram, took a wrong turn from west to east by reading a map drawn by Peter Max. Director Viktor Tarasov says that the ambiguity of Mayakovsky's poem endowed him with a degree of expressive freedom, making the film into something other than a univocal song of praise for the state.

The Cold War dichotomies on display in Animated Soviet Propaganda are a thing of the past. But perennial questions persist: Who is an enemy and who is an ally? What is revolutionary and what is reactionary? It all depends on how you look at it. Which is very much to the point of a film by Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami.

The film, entitled Five, is Kiarostami's experimental, poetic homage to Japanese master filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu. The 74-minute-long film consists of 5 single takes, at the shore of Caspian Sea. As homage, it's the best kind, more interpretation and response than faithful imitation. Precise choices of viewpoint and atmosphere make each shot compelling. Kiarostami also applies his talent for bringing the richness of the world to life via off-screen sound. The first miniature drama involves the relation between a piece of wood on the sand and the lambent waves teasing it. Another shows creatures silhouetted against the glowing planes of water and sky: it takes some moments to discern a pack of dogs shifting between attitudes of alertness and repose. To observe the world patiently and in detail, both visually and aurally, remains antithetical to mainstream filmmaking.

Isidore Isou's 1951 film tract Venom and Eternity is a monument to the antithetical. It appears on the new DVD, Avant Garde 2. This two-disk set devotes an entire disk to a selection of American experimentalists, among them early works by James Broughton and Stan Brakhage.

Then there is Isou. Isou was a Romanian-French poet and artist, founder and chief member of the Lettrist movement. His aim was to distill poetry to the level of individual sounds. Lettrism was the crucible from which the Situationist movement emerged.

Isou declares a revolution in film form. His art of Discrepant Cinema shifts emphasis from the image to the sound track. The film consists of three parts. In the first, a contentious exchange at a cine-club plays out on the soundtrack. Images show Isou walking the streets of Paris while he announces his new aesthetic. The second part exemplifies discrepant filmmaking. Upside-down and scratched-on shots, unrelated stock footage, shots of French literary figures and so forth are interleaved with a deliberately insipid, chauvinist melodrama about a love affair. The third chapter comprises Lettrist poems, composed for "the beauty of pure noise, for the harmony of outcry."

Yes, once upon a time, what you said and how you said it really mattered.

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