Friday, August 19, 2005

East Side Story (Ranga, 1997)

East Side Story is a documentary with a simply delightful topic: socialist movie musicals. How might things have been different, the narrator wonders, if socialism had just been more fun? The film covers two major periods of the 20th century, starting in 1930's Stalinist Russia and moving on into films made behind the Iron Curtain. Particularly in the early films, musical numbers are constructed around such unlikely events as plowing fields and baling hay. The workers joyfully sing about how rewarding it is to contribute to the well-being of the motherland, though a film historian is quick to point out that the rosy picture painted in the film may have been true only if you happened not to be one of the millions killed under Stalin's rule. The later films made in the 1960's and 70's are somewhat more successful at embedding the party's message (or at least dressing it up in a vehicle that might resemble a Hollywood musical if you squinted your eyes) and from the clips shown in the film, at least a couple have very catchy tunes and seem like they might be passable entertainment. I was particularly curious about the film Midnight Revue in which the writers dared to turn their experience writing to please party ideology into a plot where notable artists are kidnapped, tied up and forced to create a movie musical.

Early on in the documentary, we are told that one of the challenges with making the film was finding enough people willing to talk about the era who were still living. This turns out to be one of the film's faults. While the clips from the various films are captivating, the context for the historical period seems sparse. Too often we return to the same few talking heads to do much of the heavy lifting. We also hear from a couple of people who are simply identified as 'audience members', apparently appearing in the film simply because they were old enough to have seen a couple of the films in their lifetime. While the anecdotes we do hear are of interest, there simply isn't enough to feel like the subject has been covered comprehensively.

I would still recommend the film though, mostly for the opportunity to get a glimpse of an alternate film universe that most of us will not be able to experience anywhere else.



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