Friday, January 12, 2007

Winter Evening in Gagry (1985)

One of the greatest pleasures in moviegoing is being surprised - and I was shocked by the quality of Winter Evening in Gagry, a Russian musical from 1985. In its own modest way, it's a descendent of The Band Wagon (1953), MGM's ode to spontaneous folk performance. Winter Evening tells the story of Alexei Beglov, former national tap-dancing star, reduced to working as dance coach for a garish modern production which attempts to tell the history of IBM through dance. It also has a giant flashing sphinx. This mirrors Fred Astaire's role in Band Wagon, when he was a former vaudeville star tapped to star in a lavish production of Faust complete with blazing pyrotechnics that almost blow him off stage. The main action involves a middle-aged circus employee who asks Alexei to teach him how to tap.

The film evades all expectations after this point - the circus performer (the hilariously tetchy Arkady Nasyrov) soon proves inept and Beglov begs off the job, although they form an uneasy friendship. What happens afterward is a remarkably subtle meditation on aging, as Beglov slowly gets more absorbed in his past after a local news show plays an old clip of one of his routines, and then claims that he is dead.

There are two major musical numbers - both resulting spontaneously from artists during their down time, freed from the restraints of the stage or the director's ego. The first number, the first scene in the film, shows Beglov in his prime, on a TV set filming the routine that the TV news show shows decades later. During a break in filming, Beglov bangs out a beat on the drums, and the musicians join in, as Beglov then twirls and taps with impressive dexterity across the stage. Cut to a shot of the technicians applauding, standing in for me, and then silence, as they have to shoot. The other number occurs after Beglov shows up at rehearsal of the modern production with sparkling apple juice in tow, celebrating his life after presumed death. He gets up to the mic and sings a traditional song, about a worm wanting a bee to pick him up and fly, as the leotarded dancers waltz. Then it stops, and work has to begin - this is exactly the way the numbers work in the Band Wagon, taking place off-stage as an expression of pure communal feeling.

The ending is a stunner - as Beglov lies in his hospital bed, reminiscing about the greatest night of his life, dancing for a half empty theater with his daughter (who earlier asked him not to attend her wedding). This beautiful duet between father and daughter - a dance of spontaneous feeling in a professional setting, is filled with love and bitter reality, it's a memory that Beglov wants to stand in for his whole life, and you can't blame him for it.


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