The Heart Of The World (2000)
Guy Maddin
6 Min.


One of the most exhilarating works of the last decade, Guy Maddin’s six minutes of undiluted phantasmagoria, The Heart of the World (2000), is a postmodern film about modernism. Like The Limits of Control (2009) – a postmodern film about postmodernism – Maddin’s picture parodies modernist ideas of grand narratives and universal philosophical and political truths, obtainable through science, that could help change humanity for the better. But while Jarmusch’s latest took up arms against capitalist modernization and cultural homogenization, Maddin’s film is merely nostalgic and mocking in attitude. Constructed using pseudo-degraded film stock, expressionist, distorted images, atypically ambiguous Eisensteinian montage and a pulsating track by Georgi Sviridov (which was also employed by Peleshian in Beginning (1967)), the film’s “grand narrative” opens with the image of an omniscient cinematic eye peeping into the diegesis and follows Anna the scientist (the mother figure in the film – wielding a telescope that points downwards – is possibly modeled after the titular queen in Aelita (1924)) as she tries to save the “heart of the world” – the truth – from a breakdown due to, well, individualism and capitalism. Even at the minimum, The Heart of the World, teasingly and cheerfully, presents a scintillating time capsule of an age that exhibited a utopian optimism towards psychoanalysis (the film is a Freudian’s playground), feminism, technology and cinema (the last two of which Vertov uses almost interchangeably when he says that Kino-Eye can transform man “from a bumbling citizen through the poetry of the machine to the perfect electric man”), be it through Kino-Pravda, Kino-Train or Kino-Eye.

Schastye (1934) (aka Happiness)
Aleksandr Medvedkin

“Go and find happiness.


HappinessIt is now generally accepted that if not for the efforts of another less talked about filmmaker Chris Marker, the world may not have come to know about his mentor Alexandr Medvedkin and his work. Standing somewhere between the films of Dovzhenko and those of Pudovkin, Medvedkin’s most famous movie Happiness (1934) offers a radically different perspective to the political and cinematic developments in Stalinist Russia. The discussions about Soviet cinema have been dominated by the films and theories of major figures like Eisenstein and Vertov, and perhaps rightly so, obscuring inevitably other stalwarts who may have been. Much less a theoretician than his contemporaries, Medvedkin produces a film that may never make it into classrooms. But one thing can’t be denied and that is the fact that Happiness is a film with a heart. Happiness does work very well as a stand alone piece, but the fact that it is a culmination of a larger and a nobler mission makes it all the more special.

Happiness follows the life of a poor Soviet farmer Khmyr (Piotr Zinoviev) and his “horse-wife” Anna (Elena Egorova) before and after the October Revolution. During the Tsar’s rule, we see Khmyr struggling for existence and envying his wealthy neighbour Foka, who also happens to be the loan shark of the village. So he goes in search of happiness and gets it in the form of a sum of money. He buys a horse for farming but the animal goes on a strike. He manages to harvest by substituting Anna for his horse and gathers a rich output. His celebrations don’t last long as Foka and the Church figures are quick to grab it back from him. He contemplates suicide, but the Church prevents him from doing this “sin”. Now, it decides to punish him by whipping him but not allowing him to die. Years pass by and the country is now in the hands of the communists. The collective farming system has been implemented. Anna seems to have adapted to the system and seems to be doing exceptionally well, becoming the breadwinner of the family. Khmyr, on the other hand, lazes around, making one blunder after the other, desperately tries to become an honest farmer. But the disinvested Foka plans revenge.

Happiness would seem like a very directionless film, if one does not take a look at Medvedkin’s modus operandi outside of the film. Medvedkin was one of the founders of the famous Cine Train of Bolshevik Russia that aimed to travel into the hinterlands of Russia, document the lives of peasants and workers and show it back to them in order to make them understand their strengths and weaknesses. The country had just entered the Bolshevik regime and the common folk, it seems, found it difficult to adapt to most of the improvement measures. Medvedkin and group understood this problem and used the cinema as a medium of introspection to illustrate the situation clearly to the people. Be it public service messages like the importance of hygiene (as in the film Watch Your Health), critical documents about absenteeism, inefficiency and negligence (as in Journal Number 4 and The Conveyor Belt) or queries for betterment of living and working conditions (How Do You Live Comrade Miner?), the Cine Train seems to have never hesitated in putting everything that is right and everything that is questionable about a system on the same plane. And that is very true about Happiness too.

HappinessJoseph Stalin banned the movie apparently because he thought that Happiness was mocking his collective farming system – the Kolkhoz – but spared Medvedkin knowing his service for the state. But surely, what Medvedkin was doing was neither a satire on the state of affairs nor a propaganda movie that the Soviet cinema was famous for. What he was presenting was merely an honest view of the newly born farming system, without any form of prejudice or support. For this, Medvedkin pays equal attention to both the positive and the negative ramifications of the collective farming. Through a largely objective eye – a common eye called cinema – Medvedkin makes a transparent reading of the Kolkhoz, its strong points and its limitations. If Stalin is pleased by Medvedkin’s attack on the exploitative and irrational nature of the church in the Tsar’s regime, he would be turned off by the vignettes of the Kolkhoz, where there are a bunch of goons waiting to ruin it all for themselves. If he would be laughing at the director’s depiction of the Tsarist army as a bunch of men wearing the same grumpy plastic masks, he would be annoyed by the possibly individualistic upshot of the film. But by no means is Medvedkin taking a centrist stance, for his stance is that of the people. As confirmed by Happiness, his interest is not the upholding of a political ideology, but a desire for people to have better lives.

“Every man is seeking happiness. Some see it in wealth, but the Russian peasant who struggled in poverty dreamt of it in his own way. Anton Pavlovich Chekhov noted in his diary: “What is a Russian peasant’s dream? If I were tsar, I’d steal 100 roubles and run away!” A Russian proverb says that the peasant’s reply is: “If I were tsar I’d eat the fat of the bacon and I’d go to sleep.” What an idea of happiness! Just having a piece of bread, not being hungry, having a horse, a barn, having a few possessions, a sack of wheat… Such an idea of happiness, so little, but linked to the age-old harshness of a Russian peasant’s life, that’s the basis of my comedy Happiness. I tried to show the tragedy of such a man, and the effort he makes to find his ideal life. His dreams couldn’t be very elaborate, of course, they were on his own scale, but in his own way he was looking for happiness. And in this film I tried to tell a story that’s funny, sad and tragic, the story of a peasant like him, Khmyr, for whom nothing goes right. His life is a struggle, just as his grandfather’s and great-grandfather’s had been, just as his father’s had been. And, totally unexpected to him, at the end of the film he finds that there are others who care about him, friends, neighbours, the government too. And in a collective farm he comes close to happiness. That’s the story of the film. Throughout my life the film train has been a wealth of ideas and themes. It made me love themes linked to the people, it made me love the life of the people, their dreams, hopes, joys and pain.”

As he says above, Medvedkin fascination lies with the people of his country. Instead of making his film into a moral tale about the truth about happiness, he is content is depicting the struggles, aspirations and triumphs of a common man – a simple man whom he has seen throughout his life in the Cine Train. That is why, I believe, it is not fair to call Happiness as a politically charged film even though it provides a good indication of the politics of Russia at that time. His Khmyr is not an icon of satire or propaganda, but of the Russian peasant himself. Khmyr is like Chaplin’s Tramp, not fitting easily into preformatted social structures, only that Khmyr is not the happy-go-lucky type like his American twin. Medvedkin seems to be of the opinion that, however strong and simple a system is, there will always be anomalies who will take time to settle down. This idea is reinforced by his other films The Story of Tit (1933) and Stop Thief! (1931), where too we have lazy or incompetent peasants trying to malinger and wriggle their way out of duties at the Kolkhoz.

HappinessIn Chris Marker’s brilliant film The Train Rolls On (1971), he recounts the rise and fall of the Cine Train, employing meditative voiceovers, stock photographs and interviews of Medvedkin himself. The Train Rolls On starts (and ends) with the image of a moving train, denoting at once the beginning of this film, the beginning of cinema and the beginning of revolutionary cinema heralded by the Cine Train. Marker, not without a tinge of sadness, documents the activities of the Train, from its inception to its death, and attempts to bring to light how revolutionary the vision of the group was. In the interviews, Medvedkin recalls the experience of traveling in the train, stopping at villages, carrying out the mission’s objective and working against all odds to give to people what he had taken from them. Marker’s work is a documentation of a (lost) documentation of history, of revolution and of change. Marker tells us that although most of the Cine Train’s work has gone into oblivion, the spirit of the undertaking has lived on. As he puts it: “The biggest mistake one could make would be to believe that [the Train] had come to a halt”.

What is perhaps most unique about the Cine Train is its conviction that cinema is a medium that is of the people, for the people and by the people. That it can indeed bring a change in the lives of common people. That it is the only art which can create a revolution for good. This view is remarkably similar to Medvedkin’s contemporary and fellow Russian Dziga Vertov’s Kino Pravda theory. Nikolaï Izvolov, who headed the restoration of Happiness, narrates the strange phenomenon that Medvedkin and Vertov shared. Even though both lived in Moscow and were even next door neighbours for some time, they seem to have never met each other officially. And just before they had an opportunity to work together in the 50s, Vertov passed away. One only wonders what course cinema would have taken if they had joined hands. Herzog’s belief that cinema is the art form of the illiterates seems so true when watching the films of these pioneers. Somehow, it feels like cinema has moved backwards from where it started. One should at least be glad that their followers – the Dziga Vertov Group (Godard et al) and the Alexandr Medvedkin Group (Marker et al) – have tried to sustain the vision of their mentors, if not achieving the desired results.

HappinessIn Happiness, Medvedkin sets up a hilarious contrast between Khmyr and his wife Anna by reversing the conventional notions of masculine and feminine. As Khmyr goes out in search of “happiness”, Anna grabs him by the collar and kisses him goodbye.  She defends him against Foka’s exploitation. She steals a horse from thieves and rescues Khmyr from execution. She drives a tractor and runs the house. Heck, she even carries the horse down from the top of their hut! Medvedkin almost always frames her above the feeble Khmyr producing an amusing effect. Sergei Eisenstein called Medvedkin a “Bolshevik Chaplin”. Although I’m sure many will be surprised by that statement since the slapstick in Happiness seems to have aged a bit (but only as much as many of its American counterparts), there is much dark humour in Happiness to make up for that. I haven’t seen any Russian comedy of this period, except Pudovkin’s magnificent Chess Fever (1925), so I am not sure how this film stands out as a comedy among its contemporaries. But where the success of Happiness (and Medvedkin’s work in general) really lies, in hindsight, is in the fact that it offers us an alternate prism to view a country’s cinema, which has been reduced by text books to mere political messages and then a few cutting techniques.

Koyaanisqatsi (1982) (aka Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance)
Godfrey Reggio

“If we dig precious things from the earth, we will invite disaster”


In 1929, Dziga Vertov came with the amazing Man with a Movie Camera, perhaps the first film of its kind, which served primarily as a showcase of cinema’s abilities and uniqueness. It was just one man’s celebration of his recording instrument and his passion for documenting the world as it is. Larger in scope and execution than Man with a Movie Camera, Koyaanisqatsi (1982) remains an unparalleled movie experience for all film buffs, reminding us once again the magic of the medium.

Koyaanisqatsi is a non-narrative film whose USP remains the phenomenal experience it offers unadulterated by the constraints of story plot and character development. The film starts with paradisiacal images of regions that look like a completely new planet. The imagery slowly takes pace and moves towards “civilization” and subsequently on to the utterly consumerist world of ours. It takes a step back from the bedlam of the world and documents hilariously the things that drive us. The pace intensifies, visibly denoting a impending apocalypse, and culminates in a immortal long shot of a space shuttle slowly meeting its doom.

“Koyaanisqatsi” literally translates to life in chaos or life under imbalance. Watching this movie, one realizes how fast human life passes by and how mundane this technology of ours is. Reggio took six years to make this film. The locations for the shoot range from the hearts of advanced civilization to paradises that mankind hasn’t set foot on. The Time-Lapse technique is used extensively along with doses of slow motion as if to take time to enjoy nature and moments of humanity or ponder over what man has done to it. At the end of it all, you understand how human life has become so mechanized, much like the conveyor technology it dwells on.

There are not many films that urge the audience to get involved and direct the course of the film. The audience is made into puppets whose emotions are controlled by the strings attached to the director’s whims. Yes, the films from and inspired by the French New Wave and from other visionary directors did provide the independence to the viewers to make their own judgments. Still, these films elicited the same kind of empathy from a large section of the audience. Koyaanisqatsi takes the meaning of independent viewing to a whole new level, with the film achieving form as decided by the viewers. Hence the film becomes a unique experience for each viewer and differing largely from others’.

Ron Fricke, who went on to make more non-narrative films such as Baraka (1992), captures the might of the macro as well as the awe of the micro with such care that one must be numb not to appreciate it. If it was the fantastic imagery for the eyes, it is Philip Glass’ spectacular score that treats the ears. The chants of the Hopi language, that literally translate to texts that stress on how man should respect nature and the consequences of not abiding by the same, complement the high-tempo rhythmic music as a result providing the perfect cadence of moments that will be etched in the minds of the viewers for ever.

One can either get involved wit the deluge of images from the screen and interpret them intellectually and try to form a meaningful narrative film out of them or just sit back and get immersed in the visual feast concocted using the technical wizardry. Either way, Koyaanisqatsi will remain a fresh film every time one watches it. The viewing experience will be an entirely new one and so will be the meaning one derives out of the film. Don’t miss this gem.