A Room and a Half
Dir. Andrey Khrzhanovsky, Russia
By Eric Hynes
Memories are remnants of subjective experience, further skewed by time and the brain’s chemical disruptions. But a different sort of subjectivity is afoot when one’s memories are appropriated, conjectured over, and made material by someone else. That the material in question is film, meant for projection into other consciousnesses and destined to multiply into more memories, pushes the paradox—that biography is often more revealing of the biographers than the subject—into even more subjective territory. Andrey Khrzhanovsky positively inhales this contradiction with A Room and a Half, his epic rumination on exiled Russian poet Joseph Brodsky. It is a grand act of ventriloquism, with Khrzhanovksy marshaling the artifices of memory and history to conjure a vaguely factual, deeply felt mythology. There’s some Brodsky here, for sure, but the film is less persuasive as biopic than as a fever-dream conflation of director and subject, observation and contemplation, tactile specificity and metaphorical sweep. A grandiloquent matroshka doll, it locates within the exiled poet layers of art, family, country, and culture—interiors writ oddly large and impersonal.
“Memories,” Brodsky considers. “Their lack of continuity is like the movies, no?” Well, not necessarily. We often shape memories into a continuum, into a story of ourselves. Furthermore, movies are literally, physically linear, and usually also narratively so. But Brodsky/Khrzhanovsky argue that both memory and film are free-associative, not sequential. Exhibit A: A Room and a Half. What’s risked by this approach (and philosophy) is that events don’t necessarily function consequentially, a rather radical idea Khrzhanovsky doesn’t fully commit to. Some memories remain self-contained, while others are amplified to echo with importance. Causation cedes to symbolism, with certain impressions privileged through repetition and rhyme—mother's love via an an ever-present jar of liquid fungi, the defiance of ice-breaking boats trudging through the Neva, love of art through piles of books, paintings, sculptures, instruments, and records, and enough encircled eyes to make Vertov proud. The strategy also effectively obscures sticky political realities. Brodsky remembers his arrest by Soviet authorities, his sham of a trial, his banishment to Siberia and his later forced exile, but details are lost in a haze of nebulous sensation and spiritual defiance. Remembrance may function this way at times, but here it also seems designed to forestall anger, blame, and identification.
A Room and a Half is very much a story of exile, positing a sentimental Brodsky preoccupied with thoughts of home—of Leningrad, of his childhood apartment, of the parents he left behind and never saw again. Events would seem to support this homeward pull. He never wanted to leave Leningrad, even when authorities made it clear that he wasn’t welcome to live there. He ceaselessly, though futilely, petitioned the Soviet government to grant his parents leave to visit him, and also tried in vain to visit them in Leningrad in the years before they each died. The rub is that Brodsky was no sentimentalist. By all accounts Brodsky succeeded in being fully present during his final 24 years. He traveled, wrote, taught, married, fathered a child, became an American citizen, and won a Nobel Prize. Russian Khrzhanovsky has made a very Russian film about a Soviet-born poet who was nevertheless a charismatic, anti-provincial man of the world. Khrzhanovsky’s slant is understandable, forgivable, and certainly not fatal, but does lead the Brodsky story into the service of a somewhat too-familiar nostalgia trip. The prodigal son is here reclaimed, but also tamed.
Elements of the familiar threaten to obscure the fact that A Room and a Half is, in the main, mesmerizing. For the 69-year-old Khrzhanovsky, a master animator and infrequent director of live action, it his magnum opus—a designation doggedly pursued and duly earned. Traditional animation is used very sparingly in A Room and a Half, yet it may be Khrzhanovksy’s most fantastical film. If you’ve seen any of his masterworks of Soviet-era surrealism—The Glass Harmonica, Butterfly, There Lived Kozyavin, to name a few—then you realize the extremity of that claim. In many ways, this film most closely resembles A Long Journey, the director’s inhabitation of another kindred spirit, Federico Fellini. Based on Fellini’s pencil and pastel drawings, A Long Journey, like A Room and a Half, depicts a great man journeying by boat into his past. He floats, he ruminates, and memories morph into fantasies, and of memories of fantasies. Brodsky recalls Leningrad during the siege, when he was just a few years old, as endless hours in a basement bomb shelter. But then he transports himself outside and into a snow sled, which suddenly takes flight over the city and is joined by animated statues of Lenin, stone lions, and Peter the Great’s Iron Horseman, before they all end up as bright stars in the sky. Young Brodsky later dives into a favorite, garishly colored Soviet cookbook where he’s lectured on produce by a genial, domesticated Stalin. Talk of removing Jews from Leningrad (the Brodskys were Jewish) provokes the film’s most powerful reverie: a mass levitation of musical instruments that soar over and out of the city in flocked alignment.
Khrzhanovsky turns every trick in the book—from faux grain and sepia tone to mockumentary and animation—to deliberately, artfully complicate authenticity. Physical barriers and layers appear in front the camera as well. Both boy (Evgeniy Ogandzhanyan) and middle-aged Brodsky (Grigoriy Dityatkovskiy) look through binoculars, and Khrzhanovsky collaborates with an iris eye. In a cramped communal apartment, pubescent Brodsky (Artem Smola) constructs a tower of suitcases and books to approximate privacy from his parents (Alisa Freyndlih and Sergei Yursky). Gauzy lace curtains, a centuries-old staple of Russian interiors, here billow between characters and bisect sightlines, interjecting layers of ghostly, dreamy unreality. Movies, which promise magic, darkness, and furtive sex, come briefly alive projected onto the aprons of vogueing worker women.
Muscovite Khrzhanovsky was born six months before Brodsky, meaning that both men experienced adolescence during the Great Patriotic War and came of age during the relative freedom of Krushchev’s thaw. Each then saw his artistic freedoms attacked in the mid-Sixties, with Brodsky banished to the Gulag for being an alleged literary fraud and “sponger,” while Khrzhanovsky’s surrealistic The Glass Harmonica was cut and shelved by government censors. But whereas Brodsky was forcibly exiled from Russia in 1972, Khrzhanovsky remained and continued to work within the system, turning to the safer terrain of Pushkin-inspired animation. All these years later, it’s fascinating to watch him fail to imagine his subject outside of Russia. The film sputters once Brodsky is exiled, picking up again only when the imagined sea voyage finally reaches Leningrad (now, as previously, St. Petersburg). Professorial, American Brodsky thinks always of home, talking to his parents over bad telephone connections and singing old communist anthems in taverns. Here the Brodsky thread comes completely unspooled in favor of a general, bewildered nostalgia for what was lost and perhaps never was. Brodsky returns home to reunite with his parents and symbolically re-enter the womb, but by now it’s clear that Brodsky, the real poet that died in 1996, has little to do with this moment of wish fulfillment. What’s arrived at isn’t Brodsky’s reunion of selves— disregarding the fact that the older man is last scene cradling himself as a boy—but Khrzhanovksy’s salvaging of what, of life, endures: vague notions of home, family, and the regenerative, ingenious comforts of memory. In the end it doesn’t really matter whose story or sentiments dominate A Room and a Half. It all thankfully amounts to the same thing: very fine art.