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At the Gates of Mosfilm, 1993

January 25, 2020

Mosfilm Gate (0029 11 copy).jpg

In the summer of 1993, when I was in my early 20s and already besotted with Russian culture, I had the good fortune to land a job at Mosfilm Studios in Moscow. The history of the studio had captured my imagination from afar, and each day that summer I felt that ghostly feeling one sometimes gets when inhabiting the present of a place whose past one has dreamed about. Whenever there was time, I liked to roam the studio grounds, or rather hover among them, convincing myself I could hear the talking stones. Here was a heavy building of beige brick, neoclassical, built to Stalin’s tastes, its authority softened by volunteer shrubs sprouting from the rooftop balustrade. Alongside it, a graveyard of rusted out baby-blue studio buses, each grill aged to uniqueness, destroyed in its own special way. There was a traffic light in an alley between soundstages; the lights had been removed; you could look right through it and see the sky. The studio had once been one of the world’s great centers of filmmaking. Now on certain days I could walk from one end of the vast grounds to the other without bumping into anything resembling a shoot. For me, a kid from Las Vegas, there was a strangely familiar air to the place—it felt like the hollowed downtown of an American city after the construction of a suburban mall. And the feeling was apt: Russian film fans had gotten their mall—the miles of roadside kiosks hawking cheap pirated copies of Hollywood films, many of them straight-to-video jobs of which I had never seen or heard. Without its once lavish state support, the studio had no way to compete with such masterworks.

My job was to translate, coach dialogue, and occasionally dig holes on the set of what was at the time Mosfilm’s marquee project—a Russian-Italian-American joint venture. Mosfilm buses 3-0025 13We were making a Western. Starring an Italian. Filmed chiefly on a military base an hour outside Moscow. Each morning we all came to the studio, boarded one of the less distressed of the picturesque blue buses, and headed for the set. On my first day of work I had taken the Metro to Kiev Station, caught Trolley 34 to the gates of Mosfilm, and showed my documents to the guard. I’d arrived early. I didn’t know who to look for, where to find them, or quite how to explain my presence. I knew the history of the studio, but its present, and my present, were something of a mystery. The guard waved me through. I wandered onto the grounds. And there I did what one does on a film shoot. I waited.

GBM0Posters at Mosfilm Gate, Summer 1993 (0020 13 copy)

I could have kept waiting all day. There, just inside the gate, was a long row of displays encased in scratched and fogged Lucite—posters of the majestic movies of Mosfilm’s past.  Poster for Letyat Zhuravli (The Cranes Are Flying), Mosfilm, 1993 (0016 14 copy)Here was Grigorii Chukhrai’s 1959 classic Ballad of a Soldier. Over there—Mikhail Kalatozov’s 1957 masterpiece The Cranes Are Flying. Eight-thousand miles and eleven time zones from home, I found myself longing for a lost time and place, but it was not a time or place in which I or any of my ancestors had ever lived. In the third year of the bewildering Muscovite 90s, in the heart of the world’s first attempt at a post-Socialist society, I found myself missing a Russia where the chocolate came not from M & M Mars but from the Red October Chocolate Factory, where the soundtrack of the times emitted from the voice box of Vladimir Vysotsky rather than the synthesizers of a Scandinavian globo-pop outfit called Ace of Base, and where the Shock Worker movie theatre on the embankment of the Moscow River was showing The Cranes Are Flying. This fantastic daydream made no sense: I had studied the Soviet century, its deprivations, its brutalities both grandiose and audaciously petty. I could not possibly “miss” the Soviet Union. And yet, on that day, in that peculiar way, what could I say but that I missed the place? Continue: Read the full introduction to “Reentry Shock.” (The essay picks up from here on page four.)

Greg at St. Basil's, Moscow, Summer 1993 (0029 8 copy)

That’s me, back then. Had fun. Time flew.


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