Dangerous Lyrical: A Long Happy Life (Gennady Shpalikov, 1966)
Not much really happened: a man and a woman met by chance on a bus heading to a regular provincial town. Later that evening, they met again in a theatre, wandered the night streets, exchanged nice words and decided to leave the town, start a life together. Morning arrived, something had irrevocably changed; and there’s no real reason, no real explanation, why a long and happy life suddenly seemed out of their reach. A barge sailed up the stream – the end.
Gennady Shpalikov oddly punctuated Soviet cinema with his film Dolgaya Schaslivaya Zhizn (A Long Happy Life), the only film he directed. It’s funny and light; and in the anarchic procession of these very light images one suddenly discovers a hidden violence. “Nothing is solved, we feel; nothing is rightly held together,” Virginia Woolf once said of Chekhov, although “on the other hand, [… his is a method…] controlled by an honesty for which we can find no match save among the Russians themselves.”1
* * *
It was 1966; a decade had passed since Khrushchev denounced Stalin at the 20th Party Congress, signaling the beginning of Ottepel, or “Khrushchevite Thaw”, and a window briefly opened in the USSR to let in a spring breeze. The scriptwriter and director Gennady Shpalikov now stands as cinema’s poet of Ottepel, an embodiment of the era’s daring lyricism. Out the front of the Moscow state film school VGIK, there is a statue of Shpalikov alongside Andrei Tarkovsky and actor and writer Vasily Shukshin, as the honorary graduates who “defined the face of Soviet and world cinema of the second half of the 20th century.”2
And honesty meant a great deal to him; the pursuit is felt in the sharp, clear angles of his poetry, and popular song lyrics, some of which Tarkovsky liked to perform to a guitar.
I don’t believe in god, nor devil,
Nor goodness, nor Satan,
I believe absolutely
In this preposterous country.
The more preposterous, the closer,
She – is either conscience or bullshit,
But I see, I see, I see
Like an auto-portrait.3
Shpalikov directed only one film, but wrote the scripts for some of the era’s most memorable works. Zastava Ilyicha (Ilyich’s Gate) was directed by Marlen Khutsiev in 1961 and disliked by Khrushchev, because it “inaccurately” represented contemporary youth in characters who “don’t want anything and don’t know how to live.”4 Eventually released under the title Mne Dvatsats Let (I Am Twenty, 1965), it struck a chord with young Russians, and became a cult hit. Bittersweet, seemingly aimless, uncertain and yet full of hope; a euphoric camera follows three young men meandering the streets and apartments of Moscow, trying to understand how to exist in the brave new Ottepel world, to be a “simple Soviet guy,” how to live with the legacy of war.
Shpalikov’s next script Ya Shagayu Po Moskve (Walking the Streets of Moscow, 1964), was directed by his friend Georgyi Daneliya, who went on to become one of the most loved directors of USSR comedy. This script also worried the censors, as again young people roam the city doing nothing. To explain the film to Goskino (the State Committee for Cinematography), Daneliya and Shpalikov started describing it as a “lyrical comedy”, grounding it as a new genre of Soviet cinema. Lighter and funnier than Ilyich’s Gate, it became an immensely popular film.
When a film was loved back then, it was really, really loved; and it’s hard to express that uniquely intimate relationship audiences had with cinema in a system where all films were approved and funded by the state. Even I still witnessed this unconditional adoration, growing up in St Petersburg in the 1990s, with certain Soviet films endlessly quoted from and endlessly played at celebrations like New Year’s Eve by my relatives. Walking the Streets of Moscow was a film like that, and the main reason why people in Russia now know Shpalikov’s name.
* * *
A Long Happy Life won a prize in Italy, at the Bergamo film festival, where it allegedly impressed Antonioni,5 but deeply frustrated critics and audiences at home. Though Ilyich’s Gate and Walking the Streets of Moscow seemed radically aimless at the time, they both had concrete motifs. A character has served in the army, another is a worker in a steel factory, a construction site, they study and eventually plan to marry; they might seem lost in the moment but are grounded in some kind of overall purpose for their state.
A Long Happy Life stands out in its ardent resistance to usefulness; the characters are useless, the plot is useless, the indulgent cinematography is useless too. The gun doesn’t shoot, nothing adds up. Everything is melting – images of people and places, awkward moments and gestures, edges of a nondescript industrial city; and two people’s souls are melting, neutron stars colliding and disappearing into a black hole.
Actress Inna Gulaya’s (Shpalikov’s wife) Lena saunters into frame in the film’s opening; a street, a forest, a group of young men and women walk, talk, sing; the corners of Lena’s lips are turned downward and there is something salacious in her awkward expressions and eyes full of wonderful life. They board a bus; out the window a girl dances on a haystack and a moose chews, a disembodied moose snout that so strongly distils the whole film’s thirst for freedom.
Victor, played by Kirill Lavrov with a perfect poker face, hails the bus in the middle of nowhere and Lena catches his eye. He really seems more like a down and out Dana Andrews (from, say, Preminger’s Fallen Angel) than your regular Soviet citizen, a geologist who has lost his expedition. Gentle glockenspiels ring as Lena and Victor exchange very gentle words. One remembers the distant church bells that underscore the trembling heart of newly wed Marie as she boards the barge L’Atalante (Jean Vigo, 1934). Some time after the film’s release Shpalikov made the following entry in his diary:
in your memory, Vigo, in your memory, Vigo, and once more in your memory, – it’s scary that we are the same age now, – we should be friends, – but what could I do? – I could only shoot this long – insanely long, – barge crossing the water, water, a girl with an accordion – what else could I do? – it’s my confession of love to you, Vigo.6
* * *
A troupe from Moscow is touring The Cherry Orchard at the regional theatre. Shpalikov bluntly extracts scenes of social tragedy that confront Chekhov’s characters, but Victor and Lena can’t concentrate, so thick is the air with sexual energy. Sexual bound on existential, as they kiss on an empty staircase that seems to be carved in some non-space, non-time, they themselves mere shadows.
What Shpalikov’s film most shares with Vigo’s is the joyful montage that messes up time and space like looking at life through a kaleidoscope. Abstracting faces of the heroes from the rest of the world, Dmitry Meshiev’s cinematography seems bent on protecting their dream. If only for tonight, let them float free from their social environment, free from the state, let them dream up their own lives. Tonight, they dance, drink and kiss on a staircase; they collude to flee and change their lives forever, all those big beautiful things that drown a lonely heart.
A Long Happy Life is a film of infinite delight in life’s unrepeatable minutes, and of bottomless melancholy in their passage – two sides of a lyricist’s coin. Great lyrical cinema is predicated on this devastating duality, a disappointment built into the very flesh of a living moment that was so apparent to Marcel Proust.
Returning home on her own, Lena looks in a mirror and wishes for eternal happiness. It’s simple! “I want a happiness without a hole in it big enough to poke in your finger in,” once wished Henry James’ Maggie Verver. Isn’t happiness the simple wish of every romantic heroine?
Simple happiness is one of those tricky things that Shpalikov places in peripheral vision. It disappears if you look at it straight on. When morning arrives and Lena marches into Victor’s hotel room with her little daughter, ready to execute last night’s promises, the chemistry is gone. Camera drifts from ridiculous health nuts running in circles on board a stationed nearby ship, to light forming random patterns on the ceiling. Boatmen are already shooting vodka on the bay.
Ilyich’s Gate and Walking the Streets of Moscow are films conceived by young men, full of delusion and hope, in love: with life and, importantly, the purity of male friendship, fatherhood – which are strong themes in Shpalikov’s early writing. A character skols vodka with the boys in secret while the nagging wife is distracted by the baby (Ilyich’s Gate), the boys console a friend who has just run out on his own wedding in a jealous fit (Walking the Streets of Moscow). The hero of Ilyich’s Gate concludes the film with moving pathos, “I met them when I was 15 and I’ll have them always.”
These myths of real life, real fun and real friends are a form of hope – and a palpable feeling of hope is perhaps what made both films so popular.
A Long Happy Life offers no easy hope. No mates, and no country either. The hero must act, but how? No answers present themselves. Victor simply tells Lena that he must make a phone call, and finds himself on the next bus, with another provincial girl wrapped in another white scarf. The danger of the film, its strange violence, lies in a faint yet consistent realisation that the heroes are walking along the edge of some undefined void. Their banal, almost accidental words and gestures in fact make up their whole lives – there’s nothing else, no bigger and better and happier life outside this one awkward and preposterous reality. Jacques Rivette once wrote this on Cocteau’s Testament of Orpheus: “For this film is beautiful, in the last analysis, because it is the film of a man who knows that he is going to die and yet is unable, no matter how much he might wish to, to take death seriously.”7
By the time A Long Happy Life was made, Brezhnev was already in power, decisively closing a window. The film marked the end of Ottepel cinema, and the beginning of the end of Shpalikov’s popular streak. He spent another few years writing a handful of scripts and drinking, and then hung himself in 1974. His close friend, screenwriter Pavel Finn remembers: “Back then it was a drag to think about today and tomorrow, about beginnings and endings. The light spirit of our time. Light soul of our time. The sin of lightness. We thought it was a game, but it was life.”8
I never rode an elephant,
And I was so unhappy in love,
The country won’t be sorry,
But my friends will cry.9
A hardened man, suddenly overwhelmed with a romantic impulse. A young woman, broken by life, suddenly inspired to trust a stranger. It’s banal and awkward when one wakes up.
Yet the film doesn’t really stop dreaming, even after it leaves the heroes to confront their separate fates. Shpalikov’s continues his dream in an irreverent finale. A barge sails along the river, a girl plays an accordion, semi-nude boys ride horses in the field like they’ve stepped out of the bright and bold Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin’s painting. Factories rise, throw smoke into the sky. Life goes on, the preposterous country goes on too, and individuals with their dreams of happiness get swept into this powerful current. The barge sails upward – Vigo, Vigo. But for now we are left with a dream, we are left with cinema.
- Virginia Woolf, “The Russian Point of View”, in The Moment and Other Essays, (A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook no: 1500221h.html, March 2015). ↩
- Sergey Soloviev, quoted in “When We Were Young”, Russian Newspaper, September 2, 2009 (own translation). ↩
- Gennady Shpalikov, “Untitled Poem”, in Gennady Shpalikov (ed. Yuriy Fait) Walking The Streets of Moscow: Poetry, Prose, Scripts, Diaries, Letters (Moscow: Moscow Publishing House Zebra E, 2017), p. 345 (own translation). ↩
- Nikita Khruschev, “Speech at the meeting of party leaders with representatives of literature and art” (March 8, 1963), quoted in Isskustvo Kino 6 (1988), p. 100 (own translation). ↩
- Antonioni was allegedly impressed by the film’s laconic expression of the impossibility of communication, according to the Russian Wikipedia entry and several articles written about the film, but I can not find the original source of the claim. ↩
- Shpalikov, undated diary entry titled About the Magical, in Walking The Streets of Moscow, op. cit., p. 416 (own translation). ↩
- Jacques Rivette, “La mort aux trousses”, Cahiers du cinema 106 (April 1960), pp. 47-8. Translated as “Death Taken Seriously,” in René Gilson, Jean Cocteau (Crown, 1969), pp. 164-5. ↩
- Pavel Finn, “In the Memory of Gennady Shpalikov” Isskustvo Kino 9 (September 2003), http://kinoart.ru/archive/2003/09/n9-article19 (own translation). ↩
- Shpalikov, “Untitled Poem”, in Walking The Streets of Moscow, op. cit., p. 240 (own translation). ↩