9/30/09

White Sun of the Desert

Year Released: 1970 (1973 USA)
Director: Vladimir Motyl
Starring: Anatoly Kuznetsov, Spartak Mishulin, Pavel Luspekaev

The East is a Delicate Matter


The vacuum left by the death of the studio system in American cinema became a melting pot for French influence, hippy sub-cultures and a new generation of film students. In other words, Hollywood underwent a revolution in the late sixties, something I have and will continue to harp on for the rest of my film geek days. The differences between fifties and seventies American cinema should probably be measured in academic terms outside of my vocabulary by film students more educated than myself, but here I write anyway, for better or for worse, and it's because of the American artistic revolution of the sixties that I'm inspired to do so.

Meanwhile, over in the Soviet Union... An artistic revolution unlike the world had ever seen was already fifty years old. For the Soviet Union and Mosfilm, the late sixties were business as usual. The government-run studio system, a unique balance of equal-opportunity-art and heavy censorship, churned out a mixed bag of cinema that continued to offer little challenge to its Western counterpart. (Russia may have won the doomsday machine race, but the cinematic masterpiece gap continued to widen.) Still, directorial and cultural masterpieces found their way out of the Kremlin on occasion (read: Andrei Tarkovsky), and due to advancements in technology and the influence of Western films, the seventies was a successful decade for Russian cinema, too. The trickle east effect gave the world such wonderful films as Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears, Solaris, Gentlemen of Fortune and Ivan Vasilievich: Back to the Future. As I choose seventies films to review on It's Okay With Me, how can I ignore the multitude of big screen delights from the tinsel town of Moscow?

The first Soviet film I've chosen to review is also my favorite Russian movie, and a piece of film history that is unfortunately absent in America: White Sun of the Desert. The fact that most Americans haven't even heard of this film is disheartening, especially considering how well every comrade in the motherland knows it; White Sun of the Desert is Russia's Casablanca, iconic to the point that even the people who haven't seen the film are familiar with its famous lines:
"Открой личико." Show your face.
"Таможня дает добро!" Customs gives the green light.
"Да гранаты у него не той системы." He's got the wrong kind of grenades.
"За державу обидно." I'm sorry about the Empire.
"Вопросы есть? Вопросов нет." Any questions? No questions.
"Восток — дело тонкое." The east is a delicate matter.

...to the point that, before a cosmonaut goes up into space, tradition requires him or her to watch White Sun of the Desert.

As a once-student of the Russian soul, the cultural significance of the film begs my appreciation, but despite slavophilic tendencies, my love for the White Sun of the Desert extends beyond its demographic prominence. On the contrary, my love for the movie is founded much farther west, to the wild west of John Wayne and Gary Cooper. In many ways, White Sun of the Desert is an extension of Italy's spaghetti western era of the sixties, but unlike borscht (and other deliciously modified) westerns, White Sun of the Desert mirrors American westerns instead of mimicking them. If Heinlein's love-loving Martian can grok aspects of human nature in Stranger in a Strange Land, White Sun of the Desert is an example of Russia grokking one aspect of American film; the western becomes the eastern, thanks to the trickle east effect.

Replete with looming showdowns, exaggerated martial abilities, epic clashes of honor and subtleties of heroism, Vladimir Motyl's White Sun of the Desert doesn't merely qualify as a western; it excels. Like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Motyl's film has a penchant for violence and a quirky, B-movie flavor that belies its cinematic worth and thoughtful portraiture of morally ambiguous characters; Like Seven Samurai, Motyl creates something more than stylized violence, with tales of personal integrity and the conflict between where we are from and where we are going; And like traditional American westerns, Motyl's white-hat heroes clash with cruel cultures and unforgiving landscapes as East meets West.

Of course, the East and West are flipped, the unforgiving landscape is today's Turkmenistan and the clashing cultures are a far cry from cowboys and indians. As an eastern taking place during the Russian civil war, White Sun of the Desert is both a gun-slinging frontier epic and a penetrating exploration into Russian culture, an action-adventure flick that doubles as a dark, political comedy. I love this film because it finds success with both formats and I hope this review will establish the merits of White Sun of the Desert as a uniquely Russian vision on top of its being a badass western. But I'll try and tread lightly over that contradiction; the eastern is a delicate matter.

White Sun of the Desert | It's More Than Okay With Me | 9.0/10


When he wasn't hiding from his peers at the side of the school, smoking his one cigarette of the day, Supik taught "Russian Culture through Film" at the International University in Moscow. Over the course of the semester, I found in the professorial Supik a kindred spirit; he waxed enthusiastically over films, drank cheap vodka and preferred John Dos Passos to Ernest Hemingway. (If only we'd talked over cheap vodka before my final week in Moscow, we might have become friends.) In class, he showed us a number of Russian films scene by scene - pausing, rewinding, pausing, rewinding - stretching two hour movies into four class periods with jokes and comments, and I loved every minute of it.

When Supik showed us White Sun of the Desert, he prefaced the film with a disclaimer that I will never forget: "Americans do not like this movie." He said it like it was a law, a truth we had to accept, which is a very Russian way to speak. Because even though Supik loved The Beatles and American literature, he had the Russian soul, quirks included. He had the Russian tendency to exaggerate, to polarize everything and to summarize complicated situations into nifty little one-sentence packages. They are traits born out of civil wars, radical politics and a longstanding East versus West mentality (and traits that I seem to inexplicably share). White Sun of the Desert was a Russian film. Americans cannot like it. It doesn't appeal to the West. It's about the East. It's made in the Russian style. Any questions? No questions.

Obviously, I love the movie, so Supik wasn't entirely right, and I believe that anyone who likes westerns should enjoy White Sun of the Desert on that merit alone. However, I was conditioned to Russian values before seeing the film and I see Supik's point. Like most western-style cinema, White Sun of the Desert is allegorical - white-hat heroes represent good, black-hat heroes represent bad, etc. - but because Russian mentality is so conducive to allegorical storytelling, and because Motyl's allegories represent some specifically Russian values, a foreign audience might get lost in the crossfire.

As an English Literature department alum, watching Motyl's film is a lot like reading Spenser's The Faerie Queene, an epic poem told almost entirely in allegory. A knight errant, the virtuous Bolshevik Comrade Sukhov, travels across a foreign land and encounters a series of other characters that each represent an idea. In The Faerie Queene, these ideas have religious and moral implications, but in White Sun of the Desert, these ideas are socio-political in nature. Characters represent eastern honor, eastern brutality, the Bolshevik revolution and new Russian values, the white army and traditional Russian values, etc. Comparing this film again to one of the most profoundly allegorical westerns (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly), Motyl could have changed the title to The Bolshevik, the Basmachi and the White Army Customs Officer.

In case you haven't seen it...

Comrade Sukhov is on his way home after serving honorably in the red army, but when the safety of Black Abdullah's harem depends on him, Sukhov is cornered into a showdown against the bandit at a small town where a white army official doesn't want to take sides.

Loved

  • I'm not a film analyst, and I usually spend more time highlighting backstory than story, but if there is one element of directing/writing that draws my critical eye, it's the golden rule of show-not-tell, a phrase that's been burned into my skull with red ink since my creative writing days. As a movie fan, this golden rule has translated into a love for subtlety and a disgust for the over-explained, and I think that my favorite thing about White Sun of the Desert is that it's one of the subtlest movies I've seen. Every plot item and setup is left implicit and the audience is left looking for Motyl's clues.

  • Most significantly, I love Motyl's subtlety in regards to personal motive. Some characters, like the life-debted Sayid, have clear - though unvoiced - reasons for their actions, but the film often dangles bait for the people in movie theaters who interrupt with, "Why would he do that?" Observant viewers see the clues and understand the cultural context and threads of personal justice by which people live. In my opinion, the driving personal motives in White Sun of the Desert go far beyond the usual "codes of honor" found in westerns not named Seven Samurai.

  • Despite being an oft-times fun-loving action-adventure film, White Sun of the Desert is tragic, and its greatest tragedy is the wasted lives of the soldier Petrukha and the curious harem wife Gyulchatai, the youngest and most innocent figures in the movie. This is especially poignant due to the unfulfilled non-romance between them, especially when the course of the film revisits Petrukha's line to the covered girl: show your face. Despite the needless and sudden deaths of Petrukha and Gyulchatai, how can you not love that their two lifeless bodies face each other in the courtyard?

  • Westerns have a reputation for good soundtracks. Beautiful music is the perfect match to stark landscapes. White Sun of the Desert, however, differs from most westerns with its choice of soundtrack. Instead of the emotional strings of Ennio Morricone, White Sun of the Desert is filled with the occasional silence and the folksy words of Bulat Okudzhava. Okudzhava's deeply emotional poetry gives the film a distinctly Russian flavor, which stands out beautifully in the Central Asian frontier.

Loathed

  • White Sun of the Desert takes place on a golden stretch of Central Asian desert next to the vividly blue Caspian Sea. This should be an item for the Loved section, but if I were to come up with one major flaw regarding this film, it would be that the overall technical care is disappointing. The cinematography and the editing do not live up to rest of the movie's achievements, and it's for that reason that nobody would compare this potential masterpiece with beautiful, flawless western-style masterpieces like The Searchers.

  • Despite Supik's comments regarding this film and Americans, I've tried showing it to friends, and to Supik's credit, I've had little success. Neither did I predict the two main complaints that I've received in regards to White sun of the Desert: (1) The pace is too slow and (2) It's too campy. In response, I admit that White Sun of the Desert is a slow-paced, campy film, but I would argue that those describe the film's style more than its flaws. Complaint (1) is a matter of preference (maybe Supik meant Americans are impatient; we've got the wrong kind of grenades). In regards to (2), I concede that the word "campy" falls into negative connotations with film, but I believe that White Sun of the Desert uses its campy flavor to its advantage, allowing itself to delve deep into tragedy and political satire without losing its audience. However, these two complaints are two more reasons why this film seems to be so inaccessible, and that's worthy of the Loathed section.




The Arnold Strong Award
for supporting actor:
Spartak Mishulin

Russia's since-been-censored TV show Kukly was a comedy skit show featuring puppets that ridiculed politicians. One of these skits - which I unfortunately cannot find online for you - featured Vladimir Putin, George W. Bush and Arnold Schwarzenegger playing out the famous scene from White Sun of the Desert, when Sukhov comes across Sayid buried neck-deep in the desert. I just wanted to mention that connection between Sayid and Arnold before saying that Sayid wins this award for another reason: being the ultimate gunslinging badass. Also, the actor's name is Spartak.


The Otto Preminger Award
for cinematic advancement:
getting off the shelf

The Brezhnev era in the Soviet Union was a partial return to Stalinism and repressive culture. When Motyl - whose family had been social exiles during Stalin' rule - made White Sun of the Desert (a film that pokes fun at the red army and includes a lovable white army official), it unsurprisingly went straight to the shelf with little chance of getting released. As the story goes, many high-ranking party officials liked to watch unreleased and banned films. Someone (possibly Brezhnev) saw White Sun of the Desert and liked it so much that he arranged for Motyl's film to be released, paving the way for Russian filmmakers after 1970.

The Hawkeye Pierce Award
for contemporary commentary:
Sukhov's dream

In regards to above, the Communist Manifesto was still censored in Sukhov's dreams. However, the reoccurring dream sequences in the film - of Sukhov envisioning his perfect Russian home life - still had plenty of social commentary to go around. As Sukhov encounters the Eastern way of life, his vision keeps changing, and the changes illustrate the ongoing redefinition of the Russian soul that occurs in the Soviet Union. In 1970, Russians had been embarking on a prolonged identity crisis for fifty years, and Motyl turns it into a joke.

The Slim Pickens Award
for memorable mustache:
Pavel Luspekaev

The differences between Sukhov (Good) and the white army customs officer Vereshchagin (Ugly) are reflected in their facial hair. Sukhov, played by Anatoly Kuznetsov, has a neatly trimmed beard. Vereshchagin, played by Pavel, has a large, messy mustache to go along with his large, messy, drunken self. Likewise, by Russian polls, Sukhov is the favorite character of women and Vereshchagin is the favorite character of men. And likewise, Vereshchagin is easily my favorite character in White Sun of the Desert. Like Eli Wallach, the Ugly or less morally affiliated character is the most touching and interesting, and in Pavel's case, has the best facial hair.

If you liked this film...

...watch the Academy-Award-winning Burnt by the Sun, another Russian film about Soviet identity with a sun metaphor that I don't understand.

Reading what little I can find about White Sun of the Desert, I can't help but consider that Motyl's film kind of slipped through the cracks. That the film is so great is almost circumstantial. Andrei Tarkovsky himself turned down the project, citing a poor screenplay and its American style, leaving it to the less talented Vladimir Motyl. White Sun of the Desert is a great film, but it seems like Motyl got lucky - which reminds me of Rocky, the last film I rated this highly - because the film does get a little sloppy sometimes. On the other hand, Motyl's film has not found the international recognition that I believe it deserves. Maybe it isn't a masterful directing and acting effort, but as a piece of the film history puzzle, I think it has earned a place of honor. For simply being fun, cool, culturally relevant and a good film, White Sun of the Desert deserves to be checked out by anyone who likes westerns or Russian culture. And if by chance you like both, customs definitely gives the green light.

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