I Walk Around Moscow

Apparently, Josef Stalin’s favorite movie was a 1930’s slapstick comedy film called Volga-Volga. And between 1930 and 1952 this man’s unfortunate taste in movies reigned over Russia with an iron fist. If you didn’t follow the censor’s demand for “social realism” (or its somewhat hypocritical weakness for colorful fantasy movies,) you might very well end up in the gulag.

It must have been a relief after he died… Repression was still there, of course (the first sex scene in a Russian film wasn’t until 1988) but there was still a huge renaissance in the late 50’s and early 60’s. One of the best films to come out of this was I Walk Around Moscow (Я шагаю по Москве).

Bros

Meet the bros

The movie centers around three guys approximately 20 years old, but they act like a bunch of ninth-graders.  The main character, Kolya, meets the second one, Volodya, a hopeful young writer from Siberia, when his trousers are torn by an angry dog. Kolya lends him a pair of his. If you are ever in Russia or anywhere else, do not accept invitations from strangers who offer to lend you trousers out of the kindness of their heart. Conversely, don’t expect them to offer. But it shows you how innocent this movie is.

The man without a shirt talks to the man without pants. They have known each other less then 24 hours.

In a manner true to the communist ideal, two men share one set of clothing.

We follow the three through a single day, starting at morning and ending in the evening. If you think it will be like Man With a Movie Camera, though, you’re mistaken: The Russians in Man With a Movie Camera worked their asses off. That movie made Russia look like a horrible place to live. The boys in I Walk Around Moscow have time to burn! They’re the most easygoing Russians I’ve seen on film. They’re like the teenaged slacker/philosophers in American movies. They love telling jokes and making fun of the older generation. They also misguide some tourists at the Kremlin and flirt with a girl in a record shop.
Alyona, the record shop girl. Way out of their league.

Alyona, the record shop girl.

The three characters do little else besides walk around Moscow, playing little games and trying to impress the aforementioned record shop girl. Their adventures aren’t really rebellious, although one of them almost gets arrested. They are just kids seeking entertainment, but they’re also surprisingly sincere with each other. At one point, Volodya tells the record shop girl she should move to Siberia with him. He asks it as a joke, but you can tell they’re both thinking more about it then they let on.

The accusing finger of the older generation.

The accusing finger of the older generation.

But of course, their little world will not last forever. As one of the boys, Sasha, is headed for the army, and the other has a home back in Siberia (Hint: If you are in a Soviet movie, and you are a twenty-year-old male, there’s probably either the army or Siberia in your future.) this army man is also getting married, and at one point he panics and tries to call the wedding off. (in anticipation of  the army, he also shaves his head!) He says it’s because “She doesn’t love him”, but of course the real reason is that he’s afraid of growing up.

Well, it was hot out! (actual quote)

Well, it was hot out! (actual quote)

That prevents the plot from being meaningless. Especially after nightfall, you get the sense that this is the last day of their youth. After this, the characters will all go their separate ways. Still, the movie is able to stay optimistic. Although it may be the end of this adventure, it is not the end of their lives. The ending, in particular, is both inspiring and completely unexpected. I don’t want to give anything away, but it completely destroys the stereotype that all Russian movies have downbeat endings.

Nightfall in Moscow: Someone's gotta hose down the Nikolai Gogol statue.

Nightfall in Moscow: time to hose down the Nikolai Gogol statue.

It reminds me of some of the “nostalgia movies” from the United States (American Graffiti, Diner, etc.) I was surprised that the movie actually took place during the time it was shot; it feels like an affectionate look at a bygone era. I can’t imagine Russians of 1963 watching this in a theater and saying “We live where those guys live”. No one lives where these guys live: It’s the place old people think they lived when they were younger.

Kolya enters a contest to see who can draw a horse the fastest. They make it in three seconds, but the quality suffers.

Kolya enters a contest to see who can draw a horse the fastest. I’m serious.

But despite that, the movie does have a strong connection with life. It’s full of little observations and side-notes. The characters tend to walk around the real Moscow, not studio sets. The film portrays Moscow with much more authenticity then most American movies portray New York. we get to see rush-hour traffic by the Kremlin, empty parking lots, cafes, and a beautifully shot night-time carnival.  It might be romanticized, but “I Walk Around Moscow” is still the best portrait of life in the early sixties I have ever seen.

"Looking for buried treasure, boys? It's no use, I dug their four times already." (actual quote)

“Looking for buried treasure, boys? It’s no use, I dug their four times already.” (actual quote)

It was the debut of two separate geniuses of Russian Cinema. Firstly, the actor and someday-director Nikita Mikalkhov, who plays Kolya. The second is Georgy Daneliya, a Georgian director who might be the single most underrated Soviet filmmaker in history. He would go on to direct comedy films with a surprisingly downbeat atmosphere. Mimino and Kin-Dza-Dza! are both poetic, fun and unique movies. But they are unknown outside Russia. Perhaps from that country, the world only wants to see anguished tragedies like The Cranes Are Flying.

Fortunately, you (yes, you!) can remedy this. I Walk Around Moscow is available freely and legally online. In fact, ALL the Russian movies mentioned in this review are available at cinema.mosfilm.ru, or in lower quality on mosfilm’s official youtube channel.

"Mr. Goldfish, why is life so confusing??"

“Mr. Goldfish, why is life so confusing??”

CONCLUSION:

There’s one scene where the young writer gives his short story to a critic. The critic says that it’s not “true to life”, since the characters are “too good”. The young writer objects: His story is actually true, and the people in it were that good…

That may as well be the director defending his own work! For art-house critics, I Walk Around Moscow has committed the greatest of sins: It implies that people in real life are happy. So many art films have shown us struggling poor people and alienated rich people. The collective thesis of all art films seems to be “Life is horrible”. The director Georgy Daneliya is an artist who has the courage to say, “Well, I’m alive and it’s not so bad…”

Screen Shot 2013-01-21 at 12.30.39 PM

EPISODE PREVIEW:

Ten men an women trapped on an island with a mad killer… They’re also trapped in a soviet made-for-tv movie! A classic tale retold, next time on Speed Racer…

“U.N. Owen was Russian?”

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