20 April, 2008

Ruminations on American films about Russia

I recently added to my Netflix Queue the film, PU-239. Netflix describes it this way:

While staving off a power plant disaster, Russian worker Timofey (Paddy Considine) is exposed to radiation and blamed for the accident. With days to live, he steals some plutonium and tries to sell it on Moscow's black market in an effort to provide for his family. Along the way, he gets help from a low-level thug, with whom he forges an unlikely connection. Radha Mitchell co-stars in this gripping HBO adaptation of Ken Kalfus's short story.
It looked interesting. I don't know if the wife'll like it, though.

To my (admittedly selective, possibly underexposed memory) Americans have a fascination with the occasional film about Russia, so long as (a) it's made by Americans, and (b) Russia and Russians don't break much from the stereotype. All the first films I saw about Russia were really about the Soviet Union. Clint Eastwood's adventure Firefox taught me many things that left deep impressions on me. First, never travel in Russia without your papers, since at every streetcorner some intimidating fellow waits to snarl at you with his thick, Slavic accent, "Your papers, please?" When I first visited Russia in 2004, my wife could not understand my terror at the thought of walking around without my passport. I should add Firefox to the queue.

Then there was the nasty apparatchik who spilled hot tea, fresh from a samovar, all over Eastwood's lap. I can't believe that no one thought to add to that scene the one remark that would have made it perfect: the apparatchik could have snarled in his thick, Slavic accent, "Feeling lucky, punk?" (My wife won't understand that joke when she reads this entry tomorrow, while almost every American alive in the 1980s will. Dirty Harry's in the queue, too.)

Next I had the good fortune of watching Red Dawn, which taught me everything I needed to know about the imminent Soviet invasion of Middle America. Memo to self: once you buy a hunting rifle, don't register it, since the gun records are the first place the Red Army will stop.

Since PU-239 is an HBO flick, I might as well mention the classic, Citizen X, about the pedophile who was stopped by an intrepid detective who stood up to the Communist Party.

You may notice a pattern here. American films about Russia always depict what a horrid, horrid place it is. It's so horrid, so creepy, that one must ask oneself why anyone would want to live there. Even Jason Bourne visited Russia long enough only to beat up on a rival, and perhaps to threaten the CIA yet again for chasing him.

I can't think of a single American movie that depicts Russia in anything but the least favorable light. If you, dear reader, know of such a movie, by all means let me know. (Movies produced during the Cold War by the Communist Party USA and affiliated groups don't count.)

Russian movies are somewhat better. Many of the "serious" films also tend to depict Russia as a dangerous and/or depressing place, rife with criminal gangs. On the other hand, there is usually some sort of redemption in some way. Some nice examples would include films I've discussed on this weblog already:

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