In my run-up to Russian Film Symposium 2018, I thought I would prep myself by watching as many Russian films as I can squeeze in until my brain turns to something like cottage cheese. My idea is simple: Grab one of the Russian movies I have never seen from my embarrassingly large collection (DVDs for a buck each are hard to pass up – more on that later), then review not only the movie, but also the quality of the DVD itself – picture, audio, extras, etc. Hope you enjoy the respite.
The first movie I picked was “Zigzag of Success (Зигзаг Удачи),” which features one of my absolute favorite Soviet-era actors, Yevgeniy Leonov. He’s been in more than a handful of Soviet films, and is beloved across the former Soviet Union for his voice-over work as Winnie-the-Pooh (Винни-Пух) in the Soviet animated version of that classic series of books. I originally bought the DVD because I had never seen it before, and because (more importantly) of Leonov being featured as the star. With no more fanfare than announcing to my Facebook friends to leave me alone for the next 82 minutes, I dove right in.
Leonov plays the character of Vladimir Oreshnikov, one of a group of photographers at the fashionable “Sovremennik” photography studio in what I assumed to be Moscow, but described in Wikipedia as a provincial town. He is joined by Alevtina, the homely and seemingly aloof receptionist; Lidiya, another photographer, who is only too well aware of her good looks and charm compared to the other women in the studio; Pyotr, the photo touch-up artist; Kirill, the studio’s manager; and a host of others. It’s the end of the year, and not a lot of patrons are visiting the studio, so money’s thin – very few of the workers appear to be able to support the mandatory worker’s aid fund. In fact, the only money in the tin comes from Oreshnikov’s pocket. It’s soon decided that, in order to keep busy and to avoid going stir crazy, the photographer team will photograph each other, and their family members and/or loved ones.
In the meantime, Oleshnikov decides that his money would be better spent on the lottery than in the worker’s fund. He steals into the studio at night and takes the money back, but not without leaving a receipt. He purchases a ticket from his girlfriend, the well-out-of-his-league Olya, a bank cashier. Their banter is endearing – she seems to really love him in spite of his being fat and sloppy. The pickings must be slim in that town; regardless of how lovable a shlub Oleshnikov is, at the end of the day, he’s still a shlub, whereas Olya is at least ten years younger and, even removed from Soviet film standards, is more than a little easy on the eyes.
Before you know it, the time for the lottery drawing arrives. A public affair in which the anxious players breathlessly await their numbers to be called in the town hall – runners up can get as many as 40 rubles, whereas the grand prize is 10,000 rubles – Oleshnikov finds a seat and can’t believe his ears when he discovers that he’s won the whole borscht enchilada. We learn immediately afterward that Oleshnikov simply can’t keep quiet about the winning, and soon his co-workers are aware of the prize, and the manner in which he arrived at it – through his ransacking of the worker’s aid fund. It doesn’t take long for greed to overwhelm the group, who demand that Oleshnikov fork over the money so it can be divided evenly, more or less, among the workers. What will Oleshnikov do? Does the money rightly belong to him? Or is he only liable to pay the amount he took and signed for?
There are a number of side plots to the story. Alevtina, still living with her parents in spite of her rising age, is set up by mom and dad for a blind date, as she has absolutely no prospects in sight. Her erstwhile suitor, Ivan, at first balks at the idea of courting this aging future spinster – their banter is classic. The two are preparing to leave for their date, and the balding, abrupt Ivan asks her if she likes him. She says “Well, you’re not exactly pleasant.” Without batting a lash, he replies, “You’re no gift yourself, you know.” She says “Well, why are you looking to get married at your age? Looking for a cleaning lady?” His retort: “You’re hardly fit for anything else.” A match made in heaven. Soon afterwards, however, Ivan learns of Alevtina’s co-workers good fortune and the plans to split the prize, and seems to have a change of heart towards Alevtina, who by now has become a sympathetic character, needless to say.
Oleshnikov, meanwhile, has promised Olya to buy her anything she needs – he’s rich, after all. He tells her to try on a beautiful sable coat, which she falls in love with. Oleshnikov learns, however, that the 4200 ruble cost will significantly cut into his winnings – he tries to talk her into something more affordable until he finds a price that doesn’t scare him away. By the time he finds a coat that suits his fancy – one that looks more or less what she’s already wearing – Olya has had enough, and leaves him.
The ending is something that we should expect from a Soviet comedy in which the good-natured shlub is either brought to see the error of his ways or, more likely, is sick of the whole affair and just wants to be back to his old life. Either way, there are still a few hard feelings but everything works out in the end, because Soviet Russia! A fun movie, but not without its flaws – but mostly from the DVD itself.
The DVD comes to us by Close-Up International, which appears to have bought sole distribution rights to a large number of Russian language films to be sold in the US and Canada. I have purchased dozens upon dozens of their DVDs and have never had an issue with any of them. The films are cleaned up – presumably by Mosfilm, the film studio that originally produced the movies I’m enjoying – some are even remastered, and brought to a really nice and sharp picture and sound. The problem with this DVD is that it appears to have been made from a less-than-perfect print, with no effort to clean or remaster it; there are scratches and blemishes throughout, and at one point, we miss out on a good chunk of a scene: Olya and Oleshnikov are talking about their future, and a very rough splice brings us into a whole new scene.
The film was made in 1968, which itself was a bit of a revelation, considering how poorly made it appears. Furthermore, it was directed by Eldar Ryazanov, himself no slouch in the world of Soviet film-making. By this time, he was quite well established, as were his actors. The performances were well above par – there was chemistry among many of the players, and some absolutely shining acting jobs all around. Why this film appears to be so slipshod is beyond me – it’s even in black and white, and poorly exposed, at that. At first I thought it surely had to be a 1958 release, not 1968. Nope.
While the DVD fails in terms of completeness and cleanness of movie, and the visuals are grossly lacking, the audio is clear – at times, annoyingly so, because you can tell where the voices are dubbed in post-production – the difference is so stark that it almost becomes laughable. Ambient noises disappear as the actors sit in a sound stage to re-read their lines. The music is typical for the era’s Soviet comedies – it must have been popular at one time in the USSR, but I can’t picture it getting many rave reviews on this side of the Iron Curtain.
Another surprise on this release is the lack of extra material. While Close-Up International doesn’t appear to go out of its way to provide a massive amount of additional material (it’s usually down to stills from the movie of choice, along with a list of credits associated with the key players and director), this has absolutely nothing. I should also add that this version also has no subtitles, neither Russian nor English. Listening through my headphones, I still had trouble at times picking up the dialogue – it was clear, but it was oddly fast-paced at times. Having said that, a second viewing of select scenes provided me with the second listen my ears needed, so not much in the way of dialogue was lost on me.
If you’re a Leonov fan like I am, you’ll want to add this to your collection, in spite of its many technical flaws. Again, a fun film, but the package leaves a great deal to be desired. If you are interested in just finding something fun to watch that’s not painful on the eyes, maybe skip this one and select another DVD – again, more on that in the next paragraph. For the overall package, on a scale of 1 to 10, Doc offers what he feels is a pretty gracious C.
DVDs for a buck? New? In Russian? Really? Yup. They have no idea I’m going to footstomp them, but there’s a really nice store in Brighton Beach called St Petersburg that has a website that sells a lot of high-quality DVDs (as well as this one) for very low prices. Most of them these days come in envelopes rather than DVD holders, which might be a deal-breaker for some – the online catalog will tell you which come in an envelope, and which come in a nice hard plastic holder. I’ve begun simply using a large binder for my Russian DVDs because I just can’t pass up the price. Check them out; good folks, and an honest company. I’ve shopped with them at least seven times, and have never been disappointed. Keep in mind, the more products you buy, the better the shipping deal is – last time I checked, shipping was free for orders over $50.
That’s all I got for now. I’ll be checking in again soon.