Pick a Movie, Any Movie

The other night, a visitor looked over the dinner table at me with that wonderful puzzled sincerity that visitors always seem to become heir to after just a few days in town. "So what's going to happen in Russia, Jo?" he asked. "What's the future?"

The visitor in question, I should perhaps add, was an American movie producer -- and, as they used to say in the old days, "a friend of Russia." That's to say, he'd made a couple of films here some years ago and had by and large loved the experience: the intensity and quickness of friendships; the high pitch of emotion; the sensation that he'd had of an entire cultural landscape springing to life in front of his eyes, like the fiddle-ferns in the countryside do after the first spring thaw.

I, by contrast, had been carrying on cynically at table about the difficulty of making films here at all any more. I'd told him about the experience of a Western film crew I knew, which had gone through purgatory just to get its equipment out of Sheremetyevo airport. Then when it had its equipment, it had asked for permission to shoot at a particular Moscow site. The fee charged had oscillated between gouging and astronomical, before settling back down to the merely outrageous.

"And it's the same everywhere," I'd said. "Anyone who's in charge of anything at all today, however small, thinks of it as his personal fiefdom, his bailiewick, his imperially guaranteed source of income -- from customs officers to museum workers to people a whole lot higher up." I'd even quoted Edmund Burke at that point: "Men must have a certain amount of moderation to qualify themselves for freedom; else it becomes noxious to themselves and a perfect nuisance to everyone else."

I could have added -- again quoting Burke on the French Revolution -- that "the compromise that is the basis of all successful politics" has been long ago thrown out the window in the name of "limitless and illimitable power" claimed on behalf of "the people." This legitimized the bureaucrats and allowed them to make not only their own decisions, but also as much money as they conceivably could out of their positions.

Anyway, it was somewhere around here in the discussion that the producer leaned over the table and asked me what was going to happen. I threw up my hands. (Well, who wouldn't? You would.) And then I said: "Well, let's start at the top. Start with the leader, El Cid. El Cid is not a well man and there are a lot of Moors still to defeat. So they strap him onto the back of a horse -- no one's sure whether he'd dead or alive -- and he leads the Spanish out against the enemy. In our case, however, the questions are: How often will this horse-trick work? Who is it who announces the identity of the enemy? And just who is it who points the horse in the preferred direction? It's not such a great plot.

"A little further down the ladder," I went on with growing enthusiasm, "we're in 'The Untouchables' territory. Al Capone and his ilk are running loose in Chicago. They hang out in fancy hotels and restaurants; they run the protection rackets; they control the judiciary, local assemblymen, ward captains, what have you. The only real difference in our case is that we don't Kevin Costner and his boys -- here the cops are in on the game too. You'd have to call the movie 'The Touchables.' You see? No heroes."

"What about General Lebed?" he asked.

"Well, here I think we have to be in 'Forrest Gump' land," I answered measuredly. "From the people I know who've met him, I understand the general is not perhaps, ah, too weighed down with intellectual baggage. He is, how shall I put it, self-educated -- which is why all the pols think they can manipulate him. On the other hand -- and I say nothing here of the good general -- would you want Forrest Gump to run the country? No, I thought not. That couldn't be the right movie payoff."

"So what's going to happen, Jo?" he repeated impatiently. And I can't say I blame him -- after a while here, everything tends to go vague on you, lost in the mists of metaphor and history and that aching space the Russians call prostor. "Well," I said, "more of the same, I should think. Grandiose projects, torpor, corruption, intrigue, ambition and fear -- more or less the same mixture that's been around for the last 400 or 500 years. Think of Gogol's 'The Inspector General.' Oh, but they've never made that in Hollywood."

"Yes, they have," he said triumphantly. "There's a musical version, with Danny Kaye. "Perfect," I told him. "Do a remake."