‘Eliso’ (1928), ‘Cruising’ (1980), and an update on RGFC 100 project

Eliso (ელისო) 1928, dir. Nikoloz Shengelaia
-Viewed Mon 9/26 at Harvard Film Archive, 35mm, live musical accompaniment by Robert Humphreville
Cruising 1980, dir. William Friedkin
-Viewed Tue 9/27 at Somerville Theatre, 35mm

With over a year since the last post, I think it’s time to correct this blog’s identity crisis.

I first become aware of the problem when explaining if I’d had any creative projects during lockdown: “I’m reviewing the 100 best Russian and Soviet films according to the Russian Guild of Film Critics, going decade by decade and giving a sociopolitical history that contextualizes the audience experience, incorporating what we now know about the economics and power dynamics of the period while also looking at the art itself through a modern lens. You can read all about it at Burrito and a Movie dot com.”

I’d invested so much time into this dissertation-level project for a blog with “burrito” in the name that anything I started that didn’t feel like a chapter from A People’s History of Soviet Cinema went unfinished and unpublished. On top of that, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, I’ve become less comfortable with using a list that touts the best “Russian and Soviet” films but only includes Russian-language films, even when those films are from other republics. The RGFC has a good track record of opposing military aggression from the annexation of Crimea in 2014 to the current invasion, but the list still aligns with the Putinist logic that the current Russian Federation is the rightful heir to anything and anywhere that was once Soviet.

Spring on Zarechnaya Street, famously filmed in Zaporizhzhia and Odesa, is treated as a Russian film while those regions are under Russian attack or occupation. Don’t Grieve! is Georgian in everything but language, down to its star Vakhtang “Buba” Kikabidze currently serving in the Georgian Parliament.

The line must be made clearer. It would be fair to make a list of the “best Russian-language films” that includes entries from other nations and then-Soviet republics. But a list of the “best Russian films” mustn’t coopt the cultural canon of other nations, and the “best Soviet films” must include those in languages other than Russian. Some remarkable, immortal films were made in Armenian, Georgian, Lithuanian, Kazakh, Uzbek; the list goes on. To combine “best Russian and Soviet” then only cite Russian-language films is falling short of a critic’s duty to properly contextualize the medium’s place in history. Omitting works wholly corrupted by Stalinism and propaganda is a start but not enough.

The project is not dead. I may continue it elsewhere, maybe a journal that shares my interest in the region but without the Great Russian chauvinism that pervades most of Soviet and post-Soviet academia.

So let’s get back to it! Here are the repertory films I watched last week and the burritos I ate either before or after.

Eliso (ელისო) 1928, dir. Nikoloz Shengelaia
-Viewed Mon 9/26 at Harvard Film Archive, 35mm, live musical accompaniment by Robert Humphreville

I can’t find a version with English subtitles, so I recommend searching some free caption databases for SRT or VTT files then downloading the video file from YouTube and watching it in VLC Player. Reminder to search for “Eliso,” “Элисо,” and “ელისო.” Welcome to my world!

The burrito:

Steak Super Burrito at Felipe’s in Harvard Square. I’ve taken this same picture of this same order dozens of times and it never gets old.

Eliso is everything a person could want from a movie. Romantic, beautiful, technically audacious yet broadly populist, acutely political but never didactic, of its time but timeless. The first feature film from Nikoloz Shengelaia, poet-turned-founding father of Georgian cinema, it tells the story of a village in the Caucasus caught in the middle of two existential threats in the 1860s: a secret romance blooms between the daughter of Chechen Muslims and a the son of Khevsurian Christians, as the Imperial Russian authorities attempt to manufacture reasons to exile the Chechen population to tighten its military dominance of the region.

For modern viewers, it’s a glimpse at the tools that artists of previous generations used to communicate the same universal concepts. A silent film made halfway across the globe almost a century ago that takes place nearly a century before its own time drew a sizeable crowd of varying ages at Harvard Film Archive, and there were audible gasps and laughs at the intended moments. The historical and political specificity of the narrative was no obstacle to the audience’s emotional investment.

For folks like me, Eliso is a gorgeous example of its time and place in one the most dynamic film industries the world has ever seen: 1920s USSR. It demonstrates the evolution of montage and the extensive efforts made by Soviet filmmakers to communicate as much as possible without the use of intertitles. It proudly flaunts its formalism before “excessive formalism” became reason enough for arrest or worse. Politically, Eliso was released near the end korenizatsiya, the Soviet policy of encouraging local cultures and languages within the many nations and cultures of the newly formed Union. It depicts the Tsarist use of forced population exile before that became one of Stalin’s favorite forms of subjugation.

I have no idea how controversial this next thought is, but I think Eliso is at least as good as Vsevolod Pudovkin’s Storm Over Asia (Потомок Чингисхана, The Heir of Genghis Khan), also released in 1928. Both borrow photographic techniques from documentaries and travelogues when capturing scenic vistas, both tell stories of non-Russian populations at the outer edges of the Russian Empire being exploited for Imperial interests, and both contain hyperreal moments of heroic swashbuckling. Shengelaia was a poet while Pudovkin was a theorist and engineer, and both backgrounds can be seen in their creative decisions, particularly when they employ lightning-fast edits during their films’ respective climaxes: Eliso‘s group dance of grief and agony intercut with flaming buildings and the dead bodies of loved ones, Storm Over Asia‘s Samson-esque murder-suicide-by-pillar-smashing while loudly declaring one’s identity.

Yet Pudovkin’s film was included on the RGFC list while Shengelaia’s was not. Shengelaia launched a dynasty of celebrated Georgian filmmakers but he never made films in Moscow or Leningrad, while Pudovkin went on to both direct and act in large-scale Mosfilm productions. I don’t mean to minimize Pudovkin’s contribution any more than I would minimize Charlie Chaplin by saying that there are too many of his films on the American Film Institute best of list when there are zero from Buster Keaton (even if in my clout-chasing neophyte days I may have tried to make that case). There should be room for both. The fact that Shengelaia’s influence was mainly in Georgia should not minimize his achievement, but I suspect it’s the reason he’s not included on any “best-of Soviet film” lists.

Sergei Eisenstein – a man who knew a thing or two about both influence and marginalization – said that Eliso‘s depiction of the lezginka dance was superior to that of his own October: 10 Days that Shook the World. I can’t speak to which is better but Shengelaia’s is truly astonishing. I can’t find any standalone videos of it, but it alone is reason enough to watch the film.

Cruising 1980, dir. William Friedkin
-Viewed Tue 9/27 at Somerville Theatre, 35mm


Surf & Turf burrito at Los Amigos Taqueria in Davis Square. I’d been avoiding this place out of loyalty to Tenoch, and I’m generally wary of burritos that feel too hip in their add-ons, but this one shocked me. Still love and prefer Tenoch, but won’t say no to meeting someone here.

William Friedkin’s Cruising is a success-shortcoming sandwich, I just can’t tell which is the bread and which is the filling. However you categorize it, I have never seen anything else like it.

The non-exhaustive list of shortcomings are:
-The effort put into avoiding offense – the opening disclaimer and cautions from Captain Edelson (Paul Sorvino) – actually make things worse than if the film maintained the courage of its own convictions
-Has things it wants to say but gets lost on its way to the point
-Way overstays its welcome beyond what should have been the finale

Some of the successes are:
-Despite the disclaimer, the club scenes feel very humanizing and sympathetic, though obviously the work of an outsider
-Dream logic scenes are not firmly established but are highly effective
-Even more distrustful of the police’s supposed moral authority than The French Connection
-Possibly the closest American film (not best) to a genuine Italian Giallo
-Great cinematography and gorgeous score

Long story short: A serial killer is targeting underground S&M clubs in New York’s gay community. Detective Steve Burns (Al Pacino) bears a strong resemblance to the victim profile, and is sent undercover to find the murderer.

Somerville Theatre programmed Cruising as part of a double feature with Windows, the 1980 thriller that was the only film directed by legendary cinematographer Gordon Willis. It’s an interesting idea. So often, I’ll rewatch something from the ’80s and steel myself for the casual homophobia that I either didn’t notice or didn’t understand when I was a kid. I was born in 1983, so those would have been well into the Reagan years. Windows and Cruising, meanwhile, were both released immediately pre-Reagan and mid-right-wing reaction to the radical 1960s and ’70s, and were condemned at the time for homophobia. Both were made by celebrated artists who did not anticipate the backlash and admitted the shortcomings of the final product in part or in whole (Willis moreso than Friedkin). Successful films from the era often do not hold up, but is there anything in these films, given their pedigree, that is worth revisiting?

I did not catch Windows as part of this series so I can’t speak to that one. What I can say is that I went into Cruising expecting what I’d thought was Friedkin’s great failure and little more than a curiosity, but I came away with a different impression. For as much as the disclaimer claims it is not an “indictment of the homosexual world” and that it is only “one small segment,” it’s the outside world, especially the police, that ends up looking way worse than any subculture. I’m sure that’s by design or at least intent, but the disclaimer undercuts the point. When Captain Edelson warns Detective Burns that this new undercover assignment is “not in the mainstream of gay life…Heavy leather, S&M, it’s a world unto itself,” we instead see Burns enter a world that values boundaries, consent, communication, and openness. Everyone in the club scenes is having a terrific time, and it’s only dumb, straight Burns that brings the energy down.

Burns as both hero and villain is where Cruising as American Giallo factors in. Many American films have Giallo influences or strong parallels, including Friedkin’s own The French Connection and particularly some of Brian de Palma’s work from the 1970s and ’80s, but Cruising in my opinion is the only American film that if you changed the setting to Rome and overdubbed all of the dialogue into Italian, it’d fit right in, no further changes necessary.

I’m no authority on Giallo, and I know the label can be a poorly defined catch-all, but the ones I’ve seen share a few characteristics (apart from graphic sex and violence). They’re all willing to sacrifice narrative logic for atmosphere or aesthetics, they examine the moral corruption of the outsider protagonist as much as the antagonist, and their resolutions are never tidy.

Burns is completely a fish out of water, and is confronted for his out-of-place behavior more than once. He nabs the wrong guy, flips out at a dig at his masculinity by his neighbor’s partner, and loses his connection with his girlfriend (Karen Allen) to whom he confesses that this case is affecting him, changing him. When he does find his suspect, his behavior is more that of a stalker than someone on a stakeout. He is the only one in the whole movie who performs the telltale signs of the suspect, though whether it is part of his tactic of luring the killer out of hiding or if it’s him playing with a potential victim is not explained.

Friedkin had to edit upwards of 40 minutes from the film to avoid an X rating, and I have to wonder if Burns’s mental devolution is explored more thoroughly. The ending is supposed to make us wonder if he was the killer all along, one of several killers within the NYPD, or if he needed to embody the killer in order to apprehend him, but this theme comes too late for it to successfully toy with our minds enough that we’d put all of those possibilities on equal footing.

From what I’ve read, I do think Friedkin is mounting the wrong defense of Cruising. He says that the disclaimer was forced on him but he does reiterate that notion in spirit, that it’s not all of the New York gay community, just S&M bars he’s depicting. But what the movie shows is the ways that a community forced underground for its protection is still vulnerable from people in places of authority, whether that authority is from mainstream society or the government. A person wishing harm can operate with little legal or political consequence. Those trusted with protecting them can choose to ignore or even participate in the persecution. Cruising is a totally unique movie that I can’t necessarily recommend but I am glad I watched in the context that I did.

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