Category Archives: russia

russian ideas, british delivery

This weekend I watched a performance of Voyage, the first part of Tom Stoppard’s new trilogy, The Coast of Utopia. It’s pure Stoppard: erudition delivered in a crossfire of dialogue and movement, skipping through time like a smartly thrown stone.
It is the story of young Russian intellectuals—Michael Bakunin, Nickolai Stankevich, Vissarion Belinsky, Alexander Herzen, Ivan Turgenev, Nicholas Ogarev—discovering foreign philosophy during the time of Tsar Nicholas I (a particularly conservative government). The young men, driven by Bakunin (played by Ethan Hawke), investigate the philosophies of Kant, Schelling, Goethe, Fichte, and Hegel. Bakunin ferociously pursues each philosopher and sprays his new knowledge at everyone he knows—most significantly his four sisters. By sharing books, writing letters, and expounding during summer visits to the family home he becomes the main vector of change in their lives. This first play is as much about the sisters’ struggle to withstand the shifting currents of MIchael’s idealism as it is about the early days of Russian intellectualism, or the last days of slavery in Russia, or the collision between ideas and reality.
Stoppard weaves these different themes together so deftly you can hardly tell where one ends and another begins. More importantly, it’s difficult to see how you could have one absent the others. The first act of the play is set at Premukhino, the Bakunin family estate, over the course of seven years. A phalanx of ragged bodies is set in the background, behind a sheer scrim representing the serfs. Their presence is constant, menacing, but generally unobtrusive to the Bakunin family, as they go about their own tumults brought on by one thing or another that Michael has done. At times you forget the serfs are there, and then, suddenly, you’ll look up and see the staggered rows of ragged bodies and a sense of foreboding descends.
The second act is set in Moscow, during the same seven years. Stoppard rewinds time to show us how events in the city led to the disruptions at Premukhino. The action in the city is invested with a sense of urgency, where the young men verbally joust as they try to define their latest position with regard to the newest book they’ve read. Moscow is a hotbed of anti-tsarist sentiment and foreign idealism. The political tension is high, the sensation of fear and revolt bubbles just below the surface. But Moscow is also an incubator for love, and it is there we witness the first real contact between humans, not just the meeting of like minds.
The play is a tour of European philosophy in the 1800’s, and it is highly ambitious (something you could say about any 9-hour trilogy, I suppose). But it is, nevertheless, gripping stuff. Billy Crudup does an amazing turn as Belinsky, completely inhabiting the character and committing to the moment. Ethan Hawke was fine as Bakunin, though his insouciance had a Reality Bites mopiness that seemed out of place in a young man who was struggling to bring Mother Russia into the modern era. The performance in the second act was more balanced and more powerful.
Prior to seeing the play I was concerned that the first act of a trilogy would have a sense of being open in the way a cliffhanger is open. I was watching it with two visitors from out of town, and it is unlikely they’ll be able to return to see Shipwrecked or Salvage. I didn’t want them to leave with a sense of the work being unfinished. While the action is indeed open-ended, there is a very strong sense of closure at the end of the second act. It is more portentous than unfinished: there is war and exile and a nobleman at the end of his life, contemplating the loss of his son and the dissolution of his estate. It is a nod to the great Russian novels, but with the unfussy delivery that I recognize from other Stoppard plays.
One of the things I kept noticing during the performance was the presence of books. When Stankevich passed a book to Bakunin, I felt the transfer of knowledge. The play expresses ideal of what we think about at the Institute: books as vehicles for big ideas. There is a treatise waiting to be written about the view of literature defining a nation (explosively presented in a monologue from Belinsky). And there is, throughout, a very powerful sense that the printed word is vastly important. But there is also that sense of impending loss, which makes us question where we are today. Do we live in a world where idealism is lost, and where the gilt-edged books filled with new philosophies are no longer valued? Or is it the opposite? Do we live in a world where the book is doing better than ever, and idealism takes so many forms that it is unrecognizable?

subtitles and the future of reading

After enduring a weeks-long PR pummeling for its dealings in China, Google is hard at work to improve its image in the world, racking up some points for good after slipping briefly into evil. Recently they launched a website for the Google Foundation, the corporation’s philanthropic arm and central office of evil mitigation. Paying a visit to the site, the disillusioned among us will be pleased to find that the foundation is already sponsoring a handful of worthy initiatives, along with a grants program that donates free web advertising to nonprofit organizations. And just in case we were concerned that Google might not apply its techno-capitalist wizardry to altruism as zealously as to making profit, they just announced today they’ve named a new director for the foundation by the name of — no joke — Dr. Brilliant. So it seems the world is in capable hands.
One project in particular caught my eye in light of recent discussions about screen-based reading and genre-blending visions of the book. Planet Read is an organization that promotes literacy in India through Same Language Subtitling — a simple but apparently effective technique for building basic reading skills, taking popular visual entertainment like Bollywood movies and adding subtitles in English and Hindi along the bottom of the screen. A number of samples (sadly no Bollywood, just videos or photo montages set to Indian folk songs) can be found on Google Video. Here’s one that I particularly liked:

Watching the video — managing the interplay between moving text and moving pictures — I began to wonder whether there are possibly some clues to be mined here about the future of reading. Yes, Planet Read is designed first and foremost to train basic alphabetic literacy, turning a captive audience into a captive classroom. But in doing so, might it not also be nurturing another kind of literacy?
The problem with contemporary discussions about the future of the book is that they are mired — for cultural and economic reasons — in a highly inflexible conception of what a book can be. People who grew up with print tend to assume that going digital is simply a matter of switching containers (with a few enhancements thrown in the mix), failing to consider how the actual content of books might change, or how the act of reading — which increasingly takes place in a dyanamic visual context — may eventually demand a more dynamic kind of text.
Blurring the lines between text and visual media naturally makes us uneasy because it points to a future that quite literally (for us dinosaurs at least) could be unreadable. But kids growing up today, in India or here in the States, are already highly accustomed to reading in screen-based environments, and so they probably have a somewhat different idea of what reading is. For them, text is likely just one ingredient in a complex combinatory medium.
Another example: Nochnoi Dozor (translated “Night Watch”) is a film that has widely been credited as the first Russian blockbuster of the post-Soviet era — an adrenaline-pumping, special effects-infused, sci-fi vampire epic made entirely by Russians, on Russian soil and on Russian themes (it’s based on a popular trilogy of novels). When it was released about a year and a half ago it shattered domestic box office records previously held by Western hits like Titanic and Lord of the Rings. Just about a month ago, the sequel “Day Watch” shattered the records set by “Night Watch.”
nochnoi dozor.jpg
While highly derivative of western action movies, Nochnoi Dozor is moody, raucous and darkly gorgeous, giving a good, gritty feel of contemporary Moscow. Its plot grows rickety in places, and sometimes things are downright incomprehensible (even, I’m told, with fluent Russian), so I’m skeptical about its prospects on this side of the globe. But goshdarnit, Russians can’t seem to get enough of it — so in an effort to lure American audiences over to this uniquely Russian gothic thriller, start building a brand out of the projected trilogy (and presumably pave the way for the eventual crossover to Hollywood of director Timur Bekmambetov), Fox Searchlight just last week rolled the film out in the U.S. on a very limited release.
What could this possibly have to do with the future of reading? Well, naturally the film is subtitled, and we all know how subtitles are the kiss of death for a film in the U.S. market (Passion of the Christ notwithstanding). But the marketers at Fox are trying something new with Nochnoi Dozor. No, they weren’t foolish enough to dub it, which would have robbed the film of the scratchy, smoke-scarred Moscow voices that give it so much of its texture. What they’ve done is played with the subtitles themselves, making them more active and responsive to the action in the film (sounds like some Flash programmer had a field day…). Here’s a description from an article in the NY Times (unfortunately now behind pay wall):

…[the words] change color and position on the screen, simulate dripping blood, stutter in emulation of a fearful query, or dissolve into red vapor to emulate a character’s gasping breaths.

And this from Anthony Lane’s review in the latest New Yorker:

…the subtitles, for instance, are the best I have encountered. Far from palely loitering at the foot of the screen, they lurk in odd corners of the frame and, at one point, glow scarlet and then spool away, like blood in water. I trust that this will start a technical trend and that, from here on, no respectable French actress will dream of removing her clothes unless at least three lines of dialogue can be made to unwind across her midriff.

It might seem strange to think of subtitling of foreign films as a harbinger of future reading practices. But then, with the increasing popularity of Asian cinema, and continued cross-pollination between comics and film, it’s not crazy to suspect that we’ll be seeing more of this kind of textual-visual fusion in the future.
Most significant is the idea that the text can itself be an actor in a perfomance: a frontier that has only barely been explored — though typography enthusiasts will likely pillory me for saying so.