LOVE AND DEATH: Movie Tests Happy Scholars

I was delighted to turn on the television this weekend and chance upon the opening credits of "Autumn Marathon," a minor Mosfilm masterpiece by legendary director Georgy Danelia. I own my own copy in case of emergency, but am always happier to catch it on TV, when I can imagine thousands of like-minded people in apartments throughout Russia settling down on their sofas with cups of tea to re-watch this great little 1979 movie that no one ever seems to get tired of. I personally have watched it at least a dozen times and love it unabashedly.

It is, however, an acquired taste. "Marathon" tells the story of a Leningrad man fecklessly juggling a demanding mistress, a thankless job and an understandably rocky family life. He lives in a dismal tower block, wears a gray sweater and spends much of the movie running contritely from co-workers to lover to wife, all of whom hold him in equal disdain for his inability to deal firmly with the impossible equation he has created. In the words of director Danelia, it is a "sad comedy." In the words of many Westerners who have ever been forced to watch it, however, it is "the most depressing movie I've ever seen in my life."

Most people who live here can probably appreciate that these two seemingly divergent opinions are not necessarily contradictory. It takes a certain amount of time and experience in Russia before a viewer can begin to see the tiny peeps of humor in Danelia's otherwise wistful tale. After a particularly grim year or two you may even come to think this is the funniest movie you've ever seen. But for the unbaptized, "Marathon" can be a bit of a downer. So much so, in fact, that at my particular U.S. academic institution it was used as a sort of screening device, a one-stop Rorschach test that helped the evil dowagers of the Slavic studies department separate the men from the mice. "These students claim they want to be Russian majors," the Marina Vladimirovnas and Anna Mikhailovnas would say as they cracked nuts with their bare hands in the threadbare faculty lounge. "But they are all so cheerful. Let's bring out the movie." Ninety minutes later, enrollment would have dropped by half. A subsequent semester of Solzhenitsyn would kill off any stragglers, and soon the professors would be left with the mottled, melancholy student remains that to them screamed cream of the crop.

Now it seems somewhat incredible to think that there were happy-go-lucky types willingly signing up for Russian classes when they could have been studying Italian or urban planning instead. This was after all the mid 1980s, when there was still no money to be made in Russia; the only real prospects for cheerful Westerners were missionary work and a chance to serve kin and country by signing up with the CIA. For the rest of us, the future was bright with romantic fantasies of damp dormitories, phonetics classes and evenings spent listening to The Cure with friends in gray sweaters; our mopey hearts craved nothing more.

"Autumn Marathon," therefore, was not only an efficacious turn-off for some.

For others it was a glorious promise of things to come. The movie was a scrupulously detailed slice of the real life we were all dying to get at.

The nosy and manipulative neighbor with the mid-morning bottle of vodka he insists upon sharing. The lazy colleague who earns a plum assignment after turning in work done by the hapless hero. A mother who is grief-stricken at the departure of her only child for two years in a faraway town. The petulant girlfriend who forces her married lover to take home a new jacket knowing full well it will cause trouble with his wife. The weak-willed man who can't say no and in the end does well by no one. There was even a portrait of us, the dimwitted and inadvertently meddlesome foreigner whose biggest adventure is getting thrown in the drunk tank. Bad wallpaper. Ice cream in paper cups. The time-honored lament ya nikomu ne nuzhna, nobody needs me. How many times has that little phrase come in handy?

This movie simply had everything!

In the end I had to hand it to my professors for their artful test. (It certainly beats a story I heard recently about a group of Russian academics being introduced to American culture with a screening of "Deliverance.") Russia is no longer the total mystery it once was to Americans, but I expect the dowagers are still employing the film test. They've probably moved on to "Vor" or "Brat" or one of the other New Dismal movies, but their gimlet eye is no doubt still trained on the same target: "You! Smiling in the third row! Get out!"