LOVE AND DEATH: Kino-Critics: 2 Thumbs Up

The life of expat movie buffs in '90s Russia has moved through several stages of evolution, with each new step adding up to a sort of slow and deliberate film-school education, not to mention a different movie snack.

First you ate kolbasa sandwiches at Dom Kino and learned to appreciate the importance of gesture and facial expression, since that was the only thing you had to go on, during live voice-over showings of movies like Liliana Cavani's "The Night Porter." ("Strictly for students of the sleazy," I was shocked, shocked to read in a U.S. video guide. I'm sure that's not what Dom Kino had in mind.)

Then you fine-tuned your hearing with the advent of straight-from-the-back-row pirated videos, where somewhere beneath the one-man dubbing and all those distracting heads in the audience you could just barely detect key phrases from the original dialogue. These were the heady days of sitting around in your cold apartment, eating sukhari, drinking Heineken and waiting for "Naked Gun 2 1/2" to come out.

Next - reminiscent of the euphoria one feels after the fading of a throbbing pain - you paid brief homage to the tradition of professional dubbing, admitting that a multi-voice system with occasional inflection was a major art form compared to what you'd been putting up with before. The appearance of mass-produced videos - still pirated but of much better quality - went far to ease eye strain. This was also about the time that you could begin to safely receive shipments of popcorn through the mail. Beer imports were on the rise. Things were looking up.

Later still, you rediscovered the movie theater, as the Radisson Slavjanksaya tapped into the expat id and began showing in-language Western films to drooling and deprived audiences. The premiere selection, "The Plague," was awful but nonetheless went down as both the social event of the season and the emotional debut of big-box Goobers and Raisinettes (for many Americans, the two events go hand in hand). Once hooked, you were subsequently reeled in for a few decent films and a lot of dogs, usually starring Mickey Rourke. But no matter. To sit in a theater with your fellow man, take in a bad movie and throw popcorn on the floor - that was civilization.

By now, of course, Moscow has scaled the heights of movie-going sophistication. Shiny theaters, well-dressed clientele, expensive tickets, previews, subtitles and a good selection of fairly decent movies that you'd even be happy to see at home. Sometimes you even get to see a film while it's riding high on the wave of Western hype, and for cineastes this is a glorious achievement indeed - an adrenalin-spiked viewing experience.

Such is the case with "The Blair Witch Project," which has had the world in a permanent lather since it caused such a sensation at the Sundance Film Festival. The propaganda streaming out the United States was so fervent and worshipful that I was like a teenager with a copy of Yes! magazine: If I didn't see that movie I was going to die. In the end, the ancient Chinese maxim held true: When I got what I wished for I was mightily depressed. The movie was long, boring and hammered a few more nails in my coffin of conviction that Americans no longer know how to speak English, at least the non-pejorative kind. Fooled by a fad! It was terrible.

Fortunately, there was one saving grace to this dismal experience, and that was Russia. If you see a lousy movie you must, then do yourself a favor and at least see it with a Russian audience. The final chapter in the film-school experience seems to be this: The best critics can usually be found sitting directly behind you. Their commentary was the best part of the movie. To wit:

[45th scene of student filmmakers walking through the Maryland woods]

Critic 1: How long have they been lost in the woods?

Critic 2: God knows. I wish they'd die already.

Critic 1: Are they definitely going to die?

Critic 2: I don't know, but if they don't I'm getting my money back.

[Girl in film begins to cry in fashionably "naturalistic" American way - runny nose, gluey eyes, etc.]

Critic 1: Ha ha.

Critic 2: Well, at least it's finally getting scary.

Critic 1: How much do you think it cost to make this movie?

Critic 2: I'm guessing about 40 bucks. Critic 1: Including her salary?

[Credits roll. Audience silent.]

Critic 1: Nu da.

Critic 2: That's it?

Critic 1: "The Faculty" was better than this. Vot tebe forty bucks.