Lena Dovlatova, Sergei's widow, got on stage the other night at the Westbeth Community Room to tell us about a new film, Napisano Sergeyem Dovlatovym, "Written by Sergei Dovlatov," documenting her husband's life in St. Petersburg, Tallinn, and New York.
The event was organized by New York Plus Plus, one of those mysterious Russian cultural lists you "just get on" somehow, possibly by knowing Natasha Sharymeva (try writing email@example.com)
Lena didn't want to steal the show, so she simply told us that the film-maker, Roman Liberov, was a slender young man of only 30 who fell in love with Dovlatov's stories and travelled to New York and other cities to film the places where Sergei lived and worked. She seemed a bit hesitant -- she reminded us that most of the films of Dovlatov -- there are 60! -- either are interviews of him while he was alive, or his friends reminiscing about him -- which you can see on his home page.
But Liberov's film is different -- it hardly has any of his friends (a bit of Brodsky), and it's more "arty" -- Lena even asks people to tell her if they like it, she's not sure herself, and she still might be able to change some things about it (well, I would say -- don't).
Lena speaks about her spouse only a few times in the film -- as the camera pans over the buildings and sidewalks and alley-ways and cigar stores -- and fields and barbed wire-fences -- where Dovlatov lived. Imagine putting a cartoon -- a cartoon evidently drawn by the author of himself with self-parody -- reading a humorous story about a funeral -- and superimposing those artifacts over footage of Dovlatov's actual grave. Does it work? Yes, most of the time. You might get a bit tired of the white narrative bird and the big sky shots -- but I don't think Russians will.
Most effective is Liberov's technique of taking photos of the author and his colleagues and friends and family and superimposing them over the buildings he inhabited. You get a wonderful sense of place that is missing in most films and even most books. Dovlatov was all about "sense of place" -- that's why this technique works so wonderfully because the old photos of the big-nosed brooding hulk of a sensitive writer make the buildings come alive. In one scene, a little sketch of Dovlatov walking a dog, put up on a building in Tallinn where he once lived, starts to move...
It's whimsy, but pathos -- made all the more dramatic from the soundtrack chosen from what amounts to a Russian version of Tom Waits -- Billy's Band, singing a tune with the words "DA ya katilsya vniz, DA ya padal" which seems to be about a drunk fellow defiantly admitting that yes, he's fallen down, tripped, cried, and is lying on the couch with his hat tipped over one eye... Pretty soon somebody will say "the typewriter's been drinking, not me..." I checked out this intriguing band's web page and MySpace and discography but I couldn't tell which album this song was on to buy it, I'll keep looking and maybe someone can give me a hint. Russian Tom Waits and Sergei Dovlatov -- what a combo!
Yes, Dovlatov drank, as he narratives himself in the film, but he was productive and left an impressive body of short stories and articles that seem light but are heavier than they look. Ten of them were published in the New Yorker, a magazine the writer, trapped in the closed society of the Soviet Union, hadn't heard of before.
The film brought back memories for me of the days when this town could support three Russian newspapers. Imagine! Novoye Russkoye Slovo, the longest-standing paper (as far as I know) that went back to the "first wave" of Russians fleeing the Bolsheviks' revolution and the "second wave" of Russians coming after World War II. Then there was the "third wave" of mainly Jewish emigres starting to come in the 1970s and throughout the 1980s and early 1990s before the collapse of the USSR. Novy Amerikanets, Dovlatov's joyful paper, was targeted for the "third wave" and had more cultural news than NRS, famous for its translations of US news and page after page of "myortvye dusheshki" as they were known, "Dead Little Souls," ads that people placed in memory of dead relatives.
There was a third paper that I think was called Novaya Kultura or something like that which was a weekly -- was that related to the Soviet Museum of Exile in Jersey City? (In exile from the Soviet Union, and New York...)
Does anyone remember? Looking around the audience of about 100 people the other night I remembered how many of our friends had died. Like Petya Weil, of the famous duo Weil and Genis (Alexander Genis is still alive and working.) Many of the scenes of Novy Amerikanets show Dovlatov and Weil at the office I remember below Times Square, with the crumpled cups and cigarette butts.
My most lasting memory of Dovlatov is in the period when he was at Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe, working as a script-writer after the newspaper folded (for reasons that remain murky and had to do with ownership disputes and funding, I guess). The radios were right near my office at the time, and was a hang-out for all things Russian. That New York branch of RFE/RL kept alive the bright lights of the emigration for many years until it was safer to work in Russia -- it was an absolutely vital institution not only for the jobs it created for creative people torn from their homeland but for the cultural life it sustained which was then relayed back to the homeland, where people were hungry to hear about their literary heroes in ways that Americans just don't understand.
After a hard day of script-writing, the radio workers would foregather in a back office and the bottle of vodka would come out, along with the little pickles, fishes, and hunks of black bread. (Later, these little parties grew more subdued when a manager put up a humorous edict on the bulletin board that ran something like this: "It has come to our attention that some of the staff have been so inebriated that they have had to be poured into cabs at night. Please make sure that you exit the building and get to the street corner to hail a cab yourself when leaving the office.")
I don't remember whether I was there to interview Dovlatov or he was interviewing me, we probably traded places doing that several times. I recall the large-framed author telling story after story, in the way people would before the Internet.
One particularly memorable story related to his time in Komi, when he was drafted into the army and had to go guard a labour camp. Working as a guard in a labour camp, was considered "zapodlo" (a kind of betrayal) among political prisoners (and there were such former prisoners of conscience among the radio freelancers). Yet everyone understood that Dovlatov was drafted, didn't have a choice, and at least he lived to describe the awful scenes, some of which are conveyed in Liberov's movie.
Dovlatov described how once, he had to try to stop a prisoner who was in a fight or something, and somehow, not knowing his own strength, he decked the guy. This incident upset him terribly -- that he, a writer, a literary person, was forced into this system to guard a camp that contained people either innocent or at least not benefiting from due process, and that he even knocked out a guy. It brought tears to his eyes; he was so large; the system was so small and petty. I don't know if he ever wrote about that incident, but I remember it vividly.
I remember the night Dovlatov was taken to the emergency room with a heart attack, word travelled fast in the emigre community and everyone was watching and hoping -- but it was too late, the author died at 48, even shy of the life expectancy for Soviet males, which is around 55.
After the film, only seeing a few vaguely familiar faces but no old friends, I hurried away into the cold evening -- to see the ghosts of Novy Amerikanets swirling in the winter sky. Bank Street, where Westbeth is, happens to be the street where Sharymeva used to live with her partner, Alexander Batchan, back in the 1980s. The pair of them used to write numerous movie reviews and other critical articles for NRS and Novy Amerikanets -- and back in the days before the Internet, these were snatched up by emigres everywhere. Batchan, who worked for Voice of America, died in 2000 unexpectedly at a young age as well -- before the Internet really got started enough to record his numerous works such as this one. I always remember Alik with his shoulder-bag carrying a large tape recorder for his interviews. One day we were walking along that very street. Alik was from Odessa. I recited a rather obscene Russian limerick -- "Iz Odessy devki duri/vse yeblivyye kak kury/U nas na Brightonu Beachu/Ya im foodstampami plachu. Alik didn't think it was funny at all, and retorted, "Sama dura". Proud Odessians!
New York emigre life was so rich then; Dovlatov was always in his office booming on the telephone or banging on his typewriter; Sharymeva and Batchan were always in the paper with a review; Weil and Genis were always dependably witty and penetrating.
At least Liberov has brought back some of that sense, which is gone forever.