WARNING!! This month’s movie was the work of the same people responsible for the either brilliant or extremely annoying My Dinner With Andre (1981). Do not let this affect your judgment.
“The Russian forests are groaning under the ax, millions of trees are being destroyed, the dwellings of wild beasts and birds are despoiled, rivers are subsiding, drying up, wonderful landscapes vanish never to return….Man is endowed with reason and creative powers so that he may increase what has been given to him, but up to now he has not created but only destroyed. There are fewer and fewer forest, rivers are drying up, wild life is becoming extinct, the climate is ruined, and every day the earth gets poorer and uglier.”
—Dr. Astrov, in Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya ,1897
The Russians are still coming. For the third month in a row, Seldom Scene’s got a Slavic soul. This time, however, only the source is Russian. The director, actors, and setting are as American as they come. The cast for this great Russian drama is dressed in street clothes, wearing I LOVE NY baseball caps and drinking take-out coffee. Which is why I didn’t expect to be writing this particular column. As if Americans could do justice to Russian classics. Oliver Stone doing Crime and Punishment? Martin Scorsese doing The Brothers Karamazov? Quentin Tarantino doing Dead Souls? I don’t think so.
Skepticism, however, is made to be confounded. I rented Vanya on 42nd Street with the clear expectation that I was going to be disappointed. What else could possibly happen? What could New York contribute that wouldn’t pale compared to Soviet director Andrei Konchalovsky’s superb 1971 version of Chekhov’s play? The only point in watching the American version was to understand how and why it failed. It would be like comparing British director Richard Loncraine’s crudely stunning Reich Deco Richard III (1995) with A1 Pacino’s respectfully sincere Looking for Richard (1996).
The last thing the cinema needs is sincere Shakespeare or Chekhov. Such ventures come out looking like bad translations. Self-conscious. Artificial. At their worst, embalmed. And unlike Shakespeare with his sweeping histories, bloody tragedies, and settings shifting from battlefields to bedchambers to barbicans, there’s nothing obviously cinematic about Chekhov’s plays. The characters’ words and gestures alone must cast their spells on the audience. It’s a high-wire act, with no clever montage, no overpowering musical score, no grandiose decors or elaborate costuming to act as safety nets for the individual performances. If the players succeed, they take our breath away. If they fail, the audience gets 120 minutes of Talking Heads.
There are no missteps in Vanya on 42nd Street. Looking for Chekhov? No, this Vanya has found him, heart and soul.
The story? Simple, really. A handful of unhappy characters on a not particularly well-to-do country estate drink tea and vodka and talk. A country doctor, Astrov (Larry Pine), with a penchant for alcohol, vegetarian food and planting trees, laments a narrow provincial existence that has coarsened him. A retired, querulous old scholar, Serybryakov (George Gaynes), has come to the estate with his beautiful young second wife, Yelena (Julianne Moore). The middle-aged brother of the scholar’s first wife, Uncle Vanya (Wallace Shawn), resents Yelena’s youth wasted on the egocentric old man, resents his own life wasted in endless toil to support Serybryakov’s petty ambitions, resents his past involvement in lost causes. The old man’s daughter, Sonya (Brooke Smith), is passionately in love with the doctor—who scarcely sees her—and, along with Vanya, is infatuated with Yelena’s indolent beauty.
Not so simple are the questions these people ask of themselves and of one another. Because the director and actors make us believe in the people, we care about those questions. The most important one, according to Roger Ebert in his review of Vanya: “What use should we make of our lives?” Ebert goes on to add that Vanya “is not about characters in nineteenth-century Russia, but about anyone who feels their lives have been placed on hold—that some ‘necessity,’ such as a family responsibility or a financial need, has required them to spend years going through motions that are irrelevant to what they really feel and need.” Our own lives may not have much more of a plot than Uncle Vanya, but we’ve all had the same conversations. One suspects that a good deal of Chekhov himself went into the character of Astrov. The lines I quoted at the beginning of this article could have been written yesterday. I’d also swear that Marlon Brando’s “I couddah bin a contendah…” speech in On the Waterfront owes a lot to Vanya’s “You have ruined my life! I haven’t lived! Thanks to you I have destroyed, annihilated the best years of my life…. I was talented, intelligent, self-confident. If I had had a normal life, I might have been a Schopenhauer, a Dostoyevsky.”
Why didn’t Vanya on 42nd Street fail like it was supposed to? Three reasons. Most importantly, the actors are superb. For the sheer love of Chekhov and their craft, they’d all been rehearsing Uncle Vanya for four years, working with director Andre Gregory in lofts, living rooms, and before small audiences. They’d had no intention of ever staging a formal production; they just wanted to get as deeply into this masterwork as they could. The film was a brilliant afterthought, suggested by Louis Malle.
Louis Malle’s direction is the second key. The film begins out on 42nd Street in New York city, as the actors and crew head to the abandoned New Amsterdam Theatre on Times Square for a dress rehearsal. They banter, joke, gossip. Then, in one of the strangest moments I’ve ever experienced at the movies, one realizes that the bantering has become the play. The transition is utterly invisible; Larry Pine’s description of his acting overload becomes Astrov’s complaints about the relentless demands of rural medicine. Even more subtly, the director alters the physical backdrop as the film progresses. From the public space of 42nd Street, and the mildewed grandeur of the New Amsterdam, the acting space becomes increasingly restricted until finally all that is before the camera is a close-up of two people at a table in a darkened room. The more we learn of the characters, the more the camera and lighting focus on them to the exclusion of all else. The effect is precisely that intimacy one develops during the course of a live performance: “a splendid demonstration of the way great art seduces us, has its way with us.” Sonya’s final speech of renunciation, delivered so quietly in the enveloping darkness, is transcendent. It’s the way one imagines Joan of Arc might have spoken when she learned of her betrayal.
Finally, kudos to playwright David Mamet. I’ve sung his praises before, I’ll sing them again. His translation of Chekhov is contemporary, spare, dignified, and faithful. Mamet continues to be a writer whose work is a consistent hallmark of quality on both stage and screen.
There’s a guest’s comment, early in the film when she first walks into the New Amsterdam Theatre, which perfectly captures the poignancy of both Chekhov’s and Vanya’s worlds:
“It’s all crumbling, but it’s all so beautiful.”
Looking Back & Second Thoughts
“This is not a happy home.”
I’m not sure how much I want to add to my original review. The performances still hold up well. Julianne Moore has continued her remarkable acting career, with an Oscar for Still Alice in 2015 and three of my favorite performances in Gloria Bell (2018), Far from Heaven (2002), and The Hours (2002). I can’t help but look at Wallace Shawn a little differently since he showed up as Dr. John Sturgis on the Young Sheldon TV series. Good for him, I say. Brooke Smith has done a lot of television work over the years. Try as she might, there’s no way she can pass herself off as Chekov’s “plain” Sonya. There’s nothing plain about her, and even the jaded Dr. Astrov strains credibility in feigning lack of interest. More believable is an incestuous subtext with Sonya and Vanya, something that comes across in the film but not in Chekhov’s text. George Gaynes only made 3 other feature films after Vanya. Larry Pine continues to have a solid career in both television and film.
On a second watching, two of my most memorable moments with Vanya come near the beginning and at the very end. I love the way the opening scenes of the actors gathering for the production flow seamlessly into the first lines of the actual play. It’s superb theatrical sleight of hand, to which is added the minimalist props of benches and plain tables, the darkly, claustrophobically lit wreck-of-a-theatre, and Joshua Redman’s smoky jazz soundtrack (which is cool enough that, when it plays over the credits at the end of the movie, you’re going to want to stay in your seat till the last note fades).
The second thing that struck me was Sonya’s monologue at the end of the film. This has got to be either one of the greatest affirmations of religious faith put on the screen, or one of the most pathetic. It depends upon how much you want to see religion as an active force for change in the world, as opposed to a justification for enduring the status quo, painful and unjust as it may be. The Christian movement of Liberation Theology, much frowned upon by the orthodox Catholic Church, was a response to precisely the kind of fatalism voiced by Sonya:
“But what can we do? All we can do is live. We’ll live through a long row of days. And through the endless evenings. And we’ll bear up. Under the trials fate has sent to us. We will constantly toil for others. Now, and the rest of our days. And when we come to die, we’ll die submissively. Beyond the grave we will testify that we have suffered; that we’ve wept, and have known bitterness. And God will pity us. Your and I, Dear Uncle, God will take pity on us. And we, Uncle, shall live a life of radiant beauty and grace. And look back on this life our happiness with tenderness. And smile. And in that new life we shall rest. Uncle. I know it. I have faith. I have a passionate faith. We shall rest. We shall rest to the songs of the angels. In a firmament arrayed in jewels. And look down, and we will see evil, all the evil in the world, and all our sufferings, bathed in a p0erfect mercy, and our life grown sweet as a caress. I have faith.”
Wow. That’s either the voice of a true saint, or of Karl Marx making maximal use of dramatic irony.
And still speaking of theology, watching Serybryakov be totally obvious to all of the damage he has caused (and will continue to cause) in the lives of the people closest to him I couldn’t help thinking of the doctrine of “invincible ignorance.” Not in its original Christian sense of being blameless for sins unrecognized as such, but rather in the sense that there are some people whose ignorance is impervious to enlightenment no matter how blatant and/or harrowing the reproofs might be. For these people it’s always someone else’s fault; they might be shaken in their egotism for a moment or two, but the twinges pass quickly and then it’s business as usual. This applies as much to the husband who has spent his whole life taking his wife’s labors on his behalf for granted, as it does to the current president of the United States. It’s good work if you can get it. You’ll never be accountable because you can’t conceive of actually having done anything wrong beyond maybe choosing the wrong entrée on your last restaurant visit.
If you’re looking for classic example of archetypal Russian fatalism, I’d have to go with Dr. Astrov’s “Drinking gives me the illusion I might be alive.” Combine that attitude with a couple of 19th century Russian novels and the existentialists would start to look like the Marx Brothers.
I remember being impressed by the 1970 Russian filmed version of Uncle Vanya. No idea where to find a copy of it nowadays.
From Ann Dunnigan’s translation of Uncle Vanya:
Astrov: The Russian forests are groaning under the ax, millions of trees are being destroyed, the dwellings of wild beasts and birds are despoiled, rivers are subsiding, drying up, wonderful landscapes vanish never to return…Man is endowed with reason and creative powers so that he may increase what has been given to him, but up to now he has not created but only destroyed. There are fewer and fewer forests, rivers are drying up, wild life is becoming extinct, the climate is ruined, and every day the earth gets poorer and uglier.
Sadly, not much has changed since Chekhov wrote those words in 1898. Or since I used this quotation in 1998. Although I’d probably change “Russian” to “Brazilian” to keep up with the times.