Monday, July 05, 2010

THE LAST STATION: Review and Reflection

Here are two public reviews of the movie “The Last Station,” based on the death of Tolstoy.

“Silly, shallow, sleepy and slow, this sumptuous costume drama about the aging Leo Tolstoy and his long-suffering wife Sophy fails to do several things well.

“It fails to give you any insight into why Tolstoy was one of the greatest writers who ever lived. Or why he wanted to give all his money to the poor. Or why he was so desperate to renounce sex. Or how any of this connected to what was actually happening in Russia at the time”’

“Tolstoy is wonderfully presented as a man who is aware he cannot live up to his own ideals. It shows how his image and words are corrupted into the ideals and beliefs of others who have lost their way. The acting, cinematography, costumes, all was superb. It is a film about love, portraying and comparing old love and new love. Love of a man and love of an ideology. Well done to all who worked on it. I hope this does not get misunderstood as a dry drama, as it is a very funny and moving film.”

If you can trust the DVD interviews, Mirren and Plummer had done prodigious research and relished the chance to “become” these people in this gloriously re-created context of 1910 Russia. The writer/director, Michael Hoffman, who was working from Jay Parini’s book called “The Last Station” which he had read and reread over more than a decade, felt that he was painting an impressionist meditation on the difficulty for extraordinary people to stay in a life-long marriage when circumstances change so radically. I’ll take up my position alongside Hoffman. There was MUCH echo with my own early life. Those who scoff that Helen Mirren’s Sofya was so “bipolar” and hysterical that she ought to have been sedated have never fought desperately against the person they loved the most in the world in order to preserve their own selves and everything they’ve devoted themselves to. Watching Paul Giammati (even after loving him as John Adams, as earnestly idealistic as Tolstoy) was like looking at certain oily art dealers all over again. There was no Valentin. Maybe David Powell, who -- come to think of it -- is married to a woman named Sasha, quite equivalent to the Masha of the movie.

The first reviewer clearly expected his (he’s GOT to be male and probably young, very proud of his education) own agenda to be explored: namely a snobbish nerd’s checklist of the life of Tolstoy in an hour and a half film. Go read a book! Preferably one BY Tolstoy! Or maybe you’d like Wikipedia: canned info to give you a quickie set of facts to drop into conversations.

Hoffman said he despaired of conveying the depth and richness of these actual people until Mirren and Plummer were cast. They just walk onto the set with the qualities that glow in the movie and both are educated and experienced enough to respond to the script. They are roughly the same ages that the characters are. A parallel is in the buildings and costumes. When advised that Hoffman wanted clothes that looked as though they had been worn, the costumer plundered the costume room of a major theatre company in Berlin. Accurate, “broken in,” but not so fragile as actual period garments, they are subtly convincing. Of course, Mirren is half-Russian (she says her family's photos look very similar) and Plummer is Canadian which is not that different. Both are Chekhov veterans.

Tolstoy is one of a stream of people -- usually men to our knowledge probably because women are not written about -- who have had a youth of privilege and even orneriness (Tolstoy’s teachers said he wouldn’t and couldn’t learn his lessons!) who somehow realize the suffering reality in the lives of many people around them. Whitman, Alcott, Buddha, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Luther himself -- many others all through history -- have tried to find some ideal way of living that will restore equity and reduce wickedness. We’re not there yet. The attempt goes so far back that some suggest the trouble started when people gathered into the first cities. We have a stubborn conviction that sophistication and power will let some people off the hook: they will not be required to suffer. Ask Tim how that works out for the sons of rich men that he knows, not even the ones with AIDS.

In the despair of the struggle, one of the secrets to survival is the simple walking in the silver birch forest that this movie shows. Close relationship to nature -- not the extremes of climbing around the mountains of Glacier Park, daring the bears to eat you, but the daily domestic meals in the garden -- whether or not you have people to carry out all the furniture and accouterments (how I love the accouterments, including the ability to play opera on the lawn!) -- and the constant scribbling in diaries. All that reflection and analysis -- no wonder people get hysterical in an attempt to break through it! It is my narcotic of choice! I feel that it’s safe so long as the cats demand a schedule be kept and that I go see what they’re doing in the overgrown grass. They bring the rain to scatter on my papers.

Being human as an individual is tough. Being human as part of a dedicated couple is at the outer limits of possibility. Being a human consumed by an issue, part of the great thought opera of the ages, makes it all worthwhile.

At animal control our veterinarian was a dedicated Christian, rather more fundamentalist than the rest of we pack of rascals. People would come in from the outside and lecture us on how we were doing everything wrong, though they had very little understanding of what we were actually doing and the constraints under which we worked. A dignified older man in his veterinarian’s white coat, he would draw himself up and say in a big voice, “It is all very well for you to sit in the seat of scorn . . .” And they’d shrivel. I never did look up the Bible verse until now (easy with Google): it’s the first psalm. The seat of scorn seems high enough to be safe, but how easy to fall from it! There must be seats in the movie house just for the scornful, since there are so many.

But for those who have lived a long time, paid their dues, and still cling to their beloveds, there’s not much need for discussion of “The Last Station.” As Tim would say, “It just IS.” And I love it.

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