02 March 2008

Reviews in Brief: A Cultural Consumer’s Notes

[Ed. Note: This post is an attempt to quickly review a grip of things that I’ve read, watched, eaten or listened to in the past couple of months. I picked a dozen things, put them in six categories, and gave myself one hour (five minutes per review) to write them all up. I went a little over (100 minutes total). I also totally failed by any standard of fair reviewing. But I think I still managed to come close to my goal of a rapid write-up so that I can get my writing bones in motion and also get back to my real work.]

McCarthyism on Vacation II (A Continuation)

While I was on vacation in California, I picked up a couple of popular fictional works on McCarthyism, as the post-war political repression figures into the conclusion of my dissertation and I was just curious about how the events of the time are being portrayed to a wider non-academic audience.

I picked up Red Menace at a bookstore as I was browsing the graphic novels that had been released since I came to Moscow last summer. RM is the story of a veteran superhero, the Eagle, who turns from fighting fascism to fighting crime after World War Two. But he is soon swept up into the anti-Communist scare as his wartime friendship with a Russian superhero calls his patriotism into question. Eventually, we learn that it was all a frame-up by real fascist sympathizing villains who are pulling the strings behind the McCarthyite puppet show to get the Eagle out of the way for a nefarious scheme that imperils the world. The Eagle can only be saved by an eager, earnest, and idealistic younger superhero, who, incidentally, also falls in love with the Eagle’s daughter. I was a little disappointed by this conventional and cliché interpretation of the “excesses” of the post-war repression. The villains, however, were forcefully depicted in artistic terms, I have to say.

Thomas Mallon’s Fellow Travelers came to my attention when it was listed by the NYT as one of the top 100 books of 2007. Mallon is clearly trying to dramatize the story told in David Johnson’s Lavender Scare, an insightful history of the homophobic elements of McCarthyism interwoven with an account of gay life in DC at the mid-century. (He says as much in his acknowledgements.) The novel centers around the romance of a well-groomed, blue-blooded State Department staffer and a younger, upwardly mobile Irish-American Congressional aide. It was interesting, at first, to analyze how Mallon tried to capture the inner workings of the good old boys network on the Hill*, as well as the idealism of some Cold War liberals (embodied in the younger aide). But once I got a taste for this, I realized that there wasn’t really a plot that was going anywhere in this novel and the characters, soon enough, could be distilled to types—older jaded pragmatist, younger idealist, female confidant, sloppy drunk bureaucrat, and so on. I finished it, but only with effort.

*Robert Dean’s Imperial Brotherhood is a good read on this topic, for those who like historical monographs, that is.

Russian Cinema

Ischeznuvshaia imperiia (The Disappeared Empire) is a well-done, nostalgic romance set in the mid-Brezhnev years. A small set of college kids fall in and out of love, try to score Rolling Stones records in the park, get high, and think about life and fate. It is an idealized view in a slick (by Russian standards) package. I got in trouble with an older friend when I said I enjoyed watching it for its production values and visual stimulation. “Do you know who filmed it? Why it was made? I cannot watch such a film. Next, you’ll tell me how good 12 was!” OK, but II was pretty.

Montana, in contrast, was a typical dark Russian action/thriller/romance combo with terrible acting and no redeeming artistic merits. I watched the movie, for the most part, because it was set in Los Angeles and I was curious to see how it represented life in America (yes, I watched Boi s ten’iu 2 (Shadow Boxing 2) for the same reason). No surprises. Americans are naïve and its multicultural messiness is indicative of the country's lack of purpose. It wasn't pretty.

Asian American Detectives

In the fall, I was trying to keep up a theme of reviews of Asian American detective novels, the reading of which is a little hobby of mine. The problem is that most of them are pretty bad and it’s not easy to come up with interesting things to write about.

For instance, I really wanted to like Sujata Massey’s The Samurai’s Daughter, the fifth installment in her Rei Shimura detective series. The author is a biracial Bengali who spends much of her time abroad (how could I resist?) and the protagonist of this series is clearly an autobiographical echo—a hapa Japanese-American antiques dealer who works in Tokyo and San Francisco. In SD, Rei comes home to work on a family history project that quickly puts her in the middle of a murder-mystery involving sex trafficking, war crimes, forced labor and the dangers of excessive national pride. Criss-crossing the Pacific, Rei employs a mix of ethnic essentialist cultural knowledge, wishy-washy multicultural understanding and feminine wiles to get to the bottom of things. Now, maybe you can see why I wasn’t lured in?

R.A. Shiomi’s Yellow Fever is completely different, but not altogether that much better. This play, first performed in the early 1980s, stars Sam Shikaze, a “hard-boiled loner” Japanese-Canadian sleuth who works out of a dingy office on Vancouver’s Powell Street in 1973. According to the author’s notes on “performance style,” the work was intended as a parody of the detective genre, but could just as easily be a farcical take on the inanities of Canadian racial politics of various stripes. In addition to Shikaze, the cast includes a younger Chinese-Canadian female reporter (Sam’s love interest), a racist cop who turns out to be a member of a secret society of white supremacists, an assimilationist Nisei police captain, a well-intentioned liberal Japanophile and a café worker who likes to ham it up for comic relief. I’m not even sure that I need to bother with a plot summary. Just put those characters together, and I’m almost positive that you’ll be able to do it yourselves. But it was a nice window on a different moment, for the historian in me.

Moscow Treats

They told me that Russian honey is the best in the world. I figured it was just hype, but I couldn’t resist going to the 2008 Moscow Honey Fair. It was fun to mill around the main floor of the Manezh and look at the dozens and dozens of stalls from various corners of the Russian Federation with their varieties of honey—different colors, consistencies, flavors, and purported health benefits. My three favorites were the lightly sweet Manchurian Lime (Manchzhurskaia lipa) from some Far Eastern outpost, Birobidjan's Velvet of the Amur (Amurskii barkhat) and a thick sage honey (Shalfei) that was almost like caramel. In the past three weeks, I have consumed one kilogram of honey with various green and black teas. I was going to go back before the fair closed last week, but decided for my health that maybe it’s best I cut myself off.

My other Russian treat was taking a long walk yesterday, since it was almost Spring-like--above freezing, sunny and just a slight breeze in the air. I ended up at the Museum of Contemporary Art (Muzei aktual’nogo iskusstva) to follow up on a review of some sketches by Boris Turetskii over at That Cagey Girl. Since I’m no art critic, I’ll just slip in some photos and let you interpret for yourself as best you can through my shoddy photography.

I dunno, I liked it. The actual exhibit installation tended to walk a line between haphazard and nonchalant and I think the gallery’s inclination toward minimal and/or irrelevant signage is annoying. I was also a little irritated that the paperback book of Turetskii’s sketches was selling for 1700 rubles (about seventy US dollars). Art4.ru or art for who?

But go see the exhibit for yourself, if you're around these parts. It's only nine dollars (R 200) and well worth it.

Russian Music

I’m going to venture out on a limb with a broad generalization that may get me in trouble: Russian music is pretty bad. But I’m trying out here. While I was rummaging through the DVD stores at Savel'evskii market, building my collection of Soviet movies that African-American actor Wayland Rudd had parts in (I finally found the 1936 Ukrainfilm production of Tom Sawyer!), I also picked up some music. First, I got Zerkalo (Mirror) by Poslednye tanki v Parizhe (Last Tanks in Paris), an indigenous punk act that was reviewed in the Moscow Times a week ago. I’ve only listened to it once so far, but I am pleasantly surprised by the complexity and quality of the music. I can’t think of any appropriate comparisons, but imagine a mix of melodic guitar work with the occasional rock-out, folksy-Russian growl singing, and solid bass and percussion work. Or here's how the band put it in their interview with MT: "We were trying to combine the two incompatible things: punk minimalism and psychedelia. We were trying to sound like Jimi Hendrix playing in Joy Division."

I also grabbed the mp3 complete works of Russian rap extraordinaire Ligalaiz that included a couple of Krovostok albums, for good measure. According to the most recent Russian-language Rolling Stone (the one with Britney Spears on the cover with the headline: Amerikanskaia tragediia), Krovostok are master progressive artsy weirdos. Maybe, but I don’t rock to their beat. Ligalaiz, in contrast, totally blows me away. Why? Because he rhymes the following three words: Но-хау, Москау, and Уйау. I am not as persuaded by his attempt to pair проснулся and в курсе. To my ears, it’s a little like when Gerardo put together “parents” and “appearance.” But it’s not my native tongue, so maybe I just don’t get it.

Downloaded American Television

Finally, when I’m too exhausted by Russian things and starting jonesing for that special lip-smacking taste of American pop culture, there’s always iTunes, even if it takes six to eight hours to download a one-hour program.

I’ve become completely engrossed by two shows. The first one is AMC’s Mad Men, a silly historical drama set in 1960 on Madison Avenue. Middle-class malaise and middle of the road existences shouldn’t make for the most compelling viewing, but I swear, just to watch a television show with good writing, sophisticated costume and make-up, appropriate lighting, and decent acting… it’s a treat. I’m also enjoying Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. I saw the commercials for this show when I was back home for the New Year and thought it looked a little goofy. But after a month back in Moscow, I found myself downloading the pilot to give it a chance. Completely over the top. I don’t think the characters are going anywhere, but the action is fun and I like that they kept in the ridiculous one-liners, even if it isn’t Arnold delivering them. Plus, who can resist a little apocalyptic paranoia in these times?

Such is the “life of the mind” in Moscow, right now. And here's what early Spring looks like, in case you're curious:


Anonymous said...

It sounds as though Red Menace makes use of the device Richard Condon employed in Manchurian Candidate--taking the Cold War liberal protest ("McCarthy is doing as much damage to US institutions as if he were himself a Communist agent!") literally, as a story springboard. (If you haven't seen the movie of Candidate--the 1962 original--I recommend it highly: utterly loony racialized casting, loony politics, loony love story, and a terrific music score by David Amram.)

Another view of postwar repression is Lloyd Brown's novel Iron City, a Black Communist's narrative of three Black Communists serving time in a Pennsylvania prison on Smith Act charges. Worth looking for if you haven't already read it.

kg said...

I'm ever so pleased that you went to see the exhibit and liked it! And funny you should say "Art for who." I wrote a review by that name this summer when the museum first opened :). http://www.gif.ru/reviews/art4whom/
Great minds think alike, eh?

kg said...

Also, I dunno if you pay for stuff on iTunes, but you do know about surfthechannel.com, right? I've watched a couple of seasons of Boston Legal in the last month, and it's been very good for my sanity! They have movies, too. Good ones. With no horrible Russian dubbing!

BusterPh.D.Candidate said...

Yeah, I picked up a copy of Iron City in a Staten Island bookstore a year ago, but still haven't cracked it open. It is now snuggled up with all my books in storage, but based on your recommendation, I will get to it once I get back to the States.

KG, thanks for the surf the channel recommendation!

McFry said...

i totally got into the Sarah Conner Chronicles at my folks' place over the post-super bowl holidays. i caught the first coupla episodes, and programmed their Tivo to record the rest of the series for my viewing pleasure next time around.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately I'm not much into the modern Russian culture, although born and living here.

Mostly, my interests are about books and music.

My greatest 2007 "revelations" included Vyacheslav Rybakov's "Zvezda polyn'", fiction novel reflecting on an imaginary corporation developing space industry in today Russia, what comes on the background clash of 'liberal' and 'patriotic' worldviews.
Another great book was Alexander Ilychevsky's 'Matiss'. Just a story of 1990s. Unlike Pelevin's 'Generation P' it's shown from the different side.

But these might be a bit too hard for you.

About music, 2007 brought 'Uhodiashee Solntse' by band 'Orgiya Pravednikov',


Well, I could also tell about new DDT and Lumen's albums, but better I advice you Viktor Argonov's "2032: Legenda o nesbyvshemsya gryaduschem", story of the USSR if it has managed to last till 2032. It might be interesting for you in view of your studies.



Lyndon said...

So, with respect to Ischeznuvshaia Imperiia, what did your friend mean? I am guessing (not a wild guess, but I'm genuinely unsure) s/he meant that it was made with at least some government funding and tried to make the USSR look good in retrospect by humanizing Soviet life. Assuming that's the case, I guess it would be of a piece with things like this nostalgia-inducing website (aimed at people of my generation and probably yours as well) - but I'd be interested in hearing any nuances or specifics of what your friend meant.

As for Russian pop music, I found this post to be one of the more precise and damning critiques I've seen. Good Russian music definitely exists, but it does not often coincide with popular Russian music.

By the way, thanks in general for making me feel sometimes, if only momentarily, like I'm still in Moscow. And enjoy the spring - Dima said it's coming, so it must be coming soon!

BusterPh.D.Candidate said...


Thanks for the recommendations. I may pick them up to read once I get back to the States in a few months. Right now, after reading Russian documents all day in the archive, I tend to avoid doing it too much at night. Probably bad for my language improvement (especially since Comintern documents don't really use a wide range of vocabulary), but I can't help it. But, who knows, maybe once the days get longer and I work later into the night, that'll change.


I can't say for sure what her rationale was. She said that she hadn't watched it, but read about it in Novaya gazeta and heard about it on Ekho Moskvy. I couldn't find anything online from Ekho, but NG has the following peculiar and fairly negative review:


She also made a big deal of emphasizing that people needed to live in their own time and not try make art out of the past. I replied that this was a weird argument for one historian to make to another. She said there's a difference between living in the past and studying the past. So I guess that's sort of a critique of nostalgia, not so much based on the content of the nostalgia, but of the feeling overall.

Lina said...

Just found your blog randomly, it's very interesting. I just thought it hilarious that you watched The Sarah Connor Chronicles, as I'm hooked on it since this morning, killing time in my tiny little MGU-dormitory. Take care. /Lina