THE REEL LIFE: I WALK AROUND MOSCOW

Matthew Housiaux

MATTHEW HOUSIAUX

mjhousiaux12@ole.augie.edu

Propaganda masquerading as a panegyric to swinging Soviet youth, I Walk around Moscow is a pleasant, if puzzling, cinematic mongrel. Indeed, the film, which progressively maps the aimless, all-day perambulating of Moscow’s most beautiful and blithe young adults, is, for Communist propaganda, surprisingly mum concerning politics.  Instead, director Gregoriy Daneliya reverse-engineers both the romanticism and conviviality of the French New Wave into a Red-friendly lark even Nikita Kruschev could love.  Not exactly good, the film is nevertheless an intriguing artifact of shifting cultural tides (and rampant cinephelia) within the Soviet Union.

Bookended by two quasi-musical reveries and predicated in featherweight farce, I Walk around Moscow hinges upon its style.  The film opens at an immaculately rain-soaked airport where buses arrive as if on cue and pristine jetliners resemble industrial art objects.  A sun-dressed sprite gambols beside the glass-paneled exterior of the terminal, her reflection melding with the building’s interior and a faint apparition of the outside airfield. A young male traveler—also, as it turns out, an aspiring writer visiting from Siberia—engages the girl.  They cheerfully banter before he boards a departing bus and the scene cuts dramatically to a subterranean bunker where a young construction worker shares in the labor of building an industrial empire.

From there, the setting shifts from underground to airborne.  A cantilevered panorama of the Moscow cityscape ushers in a quaintly Vertovian montage of its most scenic precincts.  Boxy roadsters chug in synchronicity along crowded, but never congested, freeways.  A languidly-moving tugboat leaves symmetrical ripples in its wake.  A tree-lined block of tenements suggests a Soviet version of suburbia.  More than anything, I Walk around Moscow is a Euro-arthouse-inflected city symphony and its star is Andrei Tarkovsky-collaborator Vadim Yusov’s rapturous cinematography.

Tactile and hyper-delineated, Yusov’s individual images are worthy of wonderment.  One overhead shot captures a rowing team as they propel through a rippling river, the late afternoon sun enveloping them like an aureole.  A later, somewhat random sequence features an insouciant blonde skipping through sheets of the rain-machine-made precipitation.  Meanwhile, an enterprising young man on a bicycle literally rides circles around the girl, trying to shield her with his umbrella. An astounding manipulator of mood and space, Yusov proves capable of layering beautiful, fabulist landscapes a la Fellini atop even the drabness of a Communist metropolis.

The story, unfortunately, is an afterthought.  After a chance encounter on the subway, the two young men introduced at the film’s opening commence their tour of the city. Among their many encounters, they meet a feckless military recruit with both prewar and pre-wedding jitters.  At a hopping record store, the Siberian visitor finds love at first sight in the form of a bored shopgirl. Daneliya and writer Gennaday Shpalikov obtusely dramatize the generation gap. More than a few old fogeys castigate the excessively good-natured boys, conflating their sanguine temperament with delinquency.  These irascible elders who came of age under Stalinist rule just cannot jibe with how hip the next generation of socialist adolescents has become.

A few fillips do eventually filter through the monotonous assertions of optimism.  The writer, having recently published his first story, makes an appointment to see a renowned Russian novelist and instead finds himself chastised by a Chekov-loving custodian.  Later, as the writer tries to cajole his crush at a concert in the park, a pickpocket strikes and, as he flees, almost the whole audience follows in hot pursuit.  Scored to a noodling saxophone and laden with pleasantly obvious gags (including one where  two restaurant patrons manage to avoid paying for their meal by joining the mob of vigilante citizens), the chase offers a moment of absurd uplift and interesting portrait of communal justice to the film’s plodding third act.

Compared to the work of Danielya’s contemporaries like Tarkovsky and Sergei Paraganov, I Walk Around Moscow is little more than a trifle.  Still, the film is an illuminating portrait of Soviet attitudes during the Kruschev thaw: a brief period in the late fifties and early sixties when the premier relaxed censorship and de-Stalinized repressive internal security measures.  Danielya’s outlook may be excessively sunny, but yours might be too had thousands of your compatriots just been released from the gulags.