Yesterday, Russian television broadcast Francis Ford Coppola's arrival at Moscow's Demedovo Airport. His small orange private jet came in during our latest blizzard. The temperature was -16 degrees celsius, wind gusts of 20 mph, snow blowing everywhere. Coppola's flight looked like a tiny orange dot in a blur of white. He gave a press conference, announced that it was his lifelong dream to experience Russian Winter. Well, his dream has come true. Coppola is in town for some sort of Russian film award. I guess he'll be too busy to come speak to my American culture class. But everyone certainly knows The Godfather. In Tashkent, too. That is the image of America--Al Capone, Don Corleone, etc. Probably inspiration for the Russian mafia. Sometimes I wish Coppola would make a flm about Rudy Giuliani, to show the other side of the coin.
On Wednesday I took the Mosfilm Studio Tour. It's not quite like the Universal Tour in Hollywood. One of the mothers of the schoolchildren in the group to which I was attached had been to Universal and thought that Hollywood was better. I don't know, I enjoyed Moscow more. But they are certainly different. There are no rides at Mosfilm. Only history. And Mosfilm, like Hollywood studios after the 1948 consent decree, mostly rents out its studios and lot to independent producers. It seemed busy. They shoot 100 movies and TV shows a year.
Of course, this being Russia, the Mosfilm tour not open to tourists, unless they make special arrangements for a minimum group of 20. You can't just show up and get a ticket. Secondly, it's not in English. Thirdly, there is no trolley, you have walk around a studio back lot the size of the Vatican in sub-zero cold trudging across snow (luckily it was brilliant sunshine that day, and as Pushkin said, "Cold and sunny--wonderful!"). But the price is right: 50 roubles, about 2 dollars.
Well, if you can't get a ticket, how did I do it?
That is one of the interesting things about being in Russia, at least for an American. Since many things that we take for granted seem to be impossible, there is a special satisfaction in achieving anyting.
I took the Mosfilm tour due to the kindness of a stranger named Alina. She didn't know me, we had never met, yet she took pity on a visiting American. When I called the studio tour number, to inquire in my fractured beginner's Russian, after a few moments of mutual incomprehension, the tour office transferred my call to an English speaking person. She turned out to be a wonderful, kind woman, the chief editor of the script department. She didn't know that I had my MFA and PhD in Film/TV studies, that we read Pudovkin and Eisenstein's theories of montage at UCLA Film School, that Dziga Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera was part of our curriculum for documentaries, that the entire Soviet agitprop operation, the claim that "cinema was the most important art," as Lenin purportedly said, that the rolling movie theatres in specially converted railway cars were highlights of our movie history courses. Or that I had worked as a student intern on the lot at Columbia Pictures and Warner Brothers studios. (Warner's my favorite Hollywood Studio, because of Bogart's Casablanca, and the ghost of Ronald Reagan on their back lot) None of that, of course. Thank goodness! As Don Rumsfeld might say...
Probably because I seemed like a clueless childlike American, this kind stranger made some calls and got back to me (imagine any Hollywood executive doing that for a stranger, say from Russia, on the phone?). I could join a tour for schoolchildren on Wednesday. Meet at the cinema museum...
It was just terrific. Of course, even with permission, it wasn't that easy to get in. Like Hollywood, there is a front gate with a lot of security. Evereyone has to get a pass, even the actors. We watched as Russian film stars lined up a tiny windows to get in to work. My Russian teacher, who was acting as my translator, recognized some of them. "Oh, look at him, he always plays criminals. Doesn't he look like a criminal? Frightening!" Of course I still don't know who. But I can say that Russian film stars sort of look and dress like Hollywood actors. They even walk and carry themselves the same ay, the same blow-dried hair,too
Going with third graders was great. They oohed and ahhed at the cars, sleighs, and model boats and planes in the cinema museum. The special effects display, after a dancing skeleton, had a scene from Ptushko's version of Ruslan and Ludmilla. Two dolls suspended in mid-air--Ruslan about to cut off the evil wizard Chernomor's beard. And the third graders recited aloud the verse from Pushkin's poem, in unison. Their teacher beamed with pride! Maladets!
We saw lots of props and one real item--the tandem bicycle belonging to Lenin and Krupskaya. Why and how it got to Mosfilm, I still don't know. But it was interesting to imagine Lenin and his romantic companion riding on a bicycle built for two. Something very different. The kids loved the old Nazi motorcycles and jeeps, and the 1941 BMW, brought back from Germany as war booty. A lot of them cruised the streets of Moscow after the war, apparently, part of Russia's reverse Marshall Plan.
On the back lot, there was a complete 19th Century Moscow--like the Old New York set on 20th Century Fox's back lot, from Hello Dolly!. But this one was different, for a movie about Terrorism in the 19th century called "A Rider Named Death" based on the Russian novel of the same name.
And for its outdoor sets, Mosfilm doesn't use false fronts painted to look like stone, brick, or whatever. As Ludmilla, our excellent tour guide, pointed out, at Mosfilm Studios they make the sets completely out real materials--real stone streets, real concrete buildings--and when we went on to the set for "Wolf Killer" a blockbuster set in pre-Christian "Rites of Spring" days, there was an entire Russian village constructed of wooden logs, real giant logs. It took 2 1/2 months to put together. Of course, now they need to shoot a few sequels. Big, heavy, giant sets. Very Russian. Perhaps they do look more real on camera than our flimsy false fronts...
Highlight was the make-up department, where the kids got to meet a make-up artists and be photographed in latex masks. They oohed and aahed. And what was piled on the make-up table? A number of bloody human heads, veins and arteries dangling, eyes staring with death's horrible gaze. The tour guide picked up a latex human hand. On another table were piled bloody stumps of arms and legs. Moms took pictures of their kids holding some heads. We all laughed (the make-up artist was wearing a mask, a cross somewhere a monkey and a space-alien). Outside was a display of wigs in a glass case from the film "A History of Poisoning."
Beyond that, past the case with the 4 Mosfilm Oscars, the Silver Bears, the Golden Lions, the Palme D'Ors and other festival awards (cutest one looked like a glass Penguin, maybe a souvenir of the Antarctica Film Festival?), down a long corridor, towards the production korpus, was a case with an artificial eternal flame containing photos of the dozens of Mosfilm employees killed in World War II.
Past this display was Alina's office. She was, as in a movie script, a beautiful blonde, with kind eyes and a nice smile. I thanked her for perhaps the most interesting and thought-provoking studio tour I had ever taken. It was true.
BTW, did you know that Eisenstein reportedly wanted to defect to America, that he travelled to Hollywood in order to do so, that he only returned to Russia because Stalin was holding his mother hostage?
That pile of severed heads on the Mosfilm make-up room table sticks in one's mind...