"There Was a Lad"

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Sat Nov 18 08:35:20 MST 2000

"There Was a Lad" is a deceptively modest film. Filmed in a radiant
black-and-white on location in the rural Russia of 1964, it tracks the
day-to-day existence of a young truck driver Pavel Kolokolnikov (Leonid
Kuravlev), whose only dream is to rise above his mundane existence. But it
is not money that he hungers for, rather entry into the world of "culture",
especially as expressed in the women of his dreams.

This world is symbolized by the town librarian whom he throws himself at as
soon as he meets her. He shows up at the library and announces in a loud
voice that he wants to take out Karl Marx's Capital, because "there are a
few pages at the end that he hasn't gotten to." He speaks these words with
a broad grin on his face--as if admitting to her and anybody else within
earshot--that it is just a joke. He also tends to speak a few decibels too
loud, as do most of the bumpkins he spends his working days with.
Meanwhile, the librarian and all the other educated professionals in the
film speak at a normal tone. Despite living under "communism", all of the
characters marked by this subtle class distinction--and others not so
subtle--are acutely aware of the differences between them.

Even though she is engaged to a engineer, he keeps making advances toward
her even while sitting with the two of them in a local fashion show. It is
difficult for her or the engineer to get angry at Pavel, because he is such
a simple and affable soul.

Pavel seems more comfortable with those on his own level. In a scene that
expresses the sympathy of director Vasily Shukshin's for such characters,
Pavel shows up at the bungalow of his single middle-aged aunt with a
bachelor friend, also middle-aged. She had instructed him a while back to
find her a man and he was there to deliver the goods. While the three sit
around a dining table drinking vodka and eating fresh vegetables, Pavel
occasionally makes comments like "Auntie, how are you doing lately? Have
you been feeling too lonely?" Meanwhile, his male companion sits in his
chair with beads of sweat forming on his forehead. Although he knew he was
there to get hooked up, the palpable reality of the situation has him
beside himself. Making excuses, Pavel takes each off by themselves in to
put pressure on them to "close the deal". After he contentedly leaves the
two to go off in his truck, we see them a bit more relaxed as they make
small talk over another glass of vodka.

The happiness they share eludes Pavel, who seeks to rise above his
station--at least when it comes to love. When he looks up an old girl
friend on his truck route, who has a job as a construction worker, he finds
fault in her life style. Picking up some chintzy looking ceramic animals
from a shelf in her living room, he berates her: "This is not what refined
people have in their homes. Do you expect these figurines to bring you
luck?" Meanwhile, this accusation is one that he only heard a few hours
earlier from an educated woman who has hitched a ride with him in his
truck. She had told Pavel that refined people have art prints on their
walls and do not keep good-luck trinkets. After dropping her off in her
village, he overhears her talking with her husband about the risks of
taking a ride with a "common truck driver." The hostility he feels towards
his betters is misdirected against the poor construction worker who seeks
nothing more than his affection.

Ultimately Pavel is a prisoner of his dreams. Whether behind the wheel of
his truck or in a hospital bed recovering from injuries incurred in a
heroic act, he fantasizes about a more perfect world where he is garbed in
white in a petal-strewn forest receiving the affections of the town
librarian. Or he dreams that he is a General bedecked in ribbons delivering
inspirational speeches to all the women he has ever known, who are
recovering in a hospital ward. Their problem? It is their "heart", which is
just another way of saying that he is projecting his own romantic
frustrations onto the opposite sex. Such scenes are rendered in a
surprising Fellini-esque fashion.

Although Vasily Shukshin was a preeminent Soviet writer and film-maker of
the "rural" school (derevenschik), there is nothing romantic about his
treatment of such folk. They are prisoners of their dreams. In an
introduction to a collection of Shushkin's short stories, Yevgeny
Yevtushenko compared him to "the carpenter's son from Galilee; one of his
palms was firmly nailed to the country, the other to the town."

Shukshin knew this world first-hand. After all, he was just like the
character Pavel Kolokolnikov. When he showed up at Moscow's film
school--known as a haven for intellectuals-- he was just out of the navy
and still in military fatigues. According to Martin Cruz Smith (LA Times,
Oct. 27, 1996), when asked about his education he shot back with a Siberian
accent that he hadn't had the time to read "War and Peace" because it was
too thick. He had another obstacle to overcome: his father was executed in
one of Stalin's prison camps.

Shushkin died of a heart attack in 1974, at the age of 45. Born in the
Eurasian territory of Altai, a mountainous region just north of Mongolia,
he knew all about working-class life from an early age. At 17 he worked as
an unskilled worker at a construction site in Kaluga. Later he had an
opportunity to move to Vladimir and to work at a tractor plant as a
motor-repair fitter. These experiences shaped his consciousness and are
reflected in every frame of "There Was a Lad" and all his fiction.

"There Was a Lad" was shown as part of a series titled "Soviet Cinema of
the 1960s: Revolution in the Revolution" now at Walter Reade Theater in
NYC's Lincoln Center. (http://www.filmlinc.com/) Encouraged by Krushchev's
thaw in cultural policies and influenced by the New Wave in Europe, these
film-makers were not united by a common style but only in a willingness to
deal with Soviet society in a frank manner and to be honest to their own
esthetic dictates. Instead of recycling "socialist realism", with its
all-too-perfect heroes and heroines, 1960s Soviet cinema dealt with real
people in a real world. This, of course, is something all too rare in
cinema including our own "free" society.

With the rise of Brezhnev, this period came to an end. Some of the
film-makers were no longer able to be free to their artistic vision, while
others came to the United States. With the end of Communism, there is no
longer a Soviet film industry. The junk that Hollywood produces is dumped
on Russian society, along with MacDonalds and Coca-Cola. It is a great
tragedy that the economic, social and artistic initiatives of the Krushchev
era were suppressed. If not for this, the world would look a lot different
today. If I get the opportunity to see other films in this series, I will
report back.

Louis Proyect
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