Monday, September 22, 2014

Discovering Georgian Cinema: Blue Mountains, or an Unbelievable Story

Georgian book publishers were probably not amused by this portrayal suggesting they were mostly a bunch of self-absorbed loons, who lolly-gagged around the office, pretending they had read manuscripts they never touched. As a publishing professional myself, I can safely say: “no comment.” Initially, the Soviet authorities were what you might call “circumspect,” prohibiting director-co-writer Eldar Shengelaia from attending the international film festivals that had happily accepted it (despite his Party membership). Roughly thirty years later, with a freer, more enlightened government now elected in Georgia, Shengelaia will be in New York to present Blue Mountains, or an Unbelievable Story when it screens as part of MoMA’s latest film series, Discovering Georgian Cinema, Part 1: A Family Affair.

Soso has just finished his next novel, Blue Mountains or Tian Shan. Yes, it has two titles, like Melville’s Pierre: or the Ambiguities—a fact that constantly vexes the Director of Soso’s publishing house, when he remembers it. Soso will make the rounds, duly dropping off copies of the manuscript to staff throughout the office, all of whom are delighted to have it and pledge to read it immediately, including the Director.  Yet, each time Soso returns, he makes the same circuit through the house, getting largely the same empty promises. Meanwhile, only the mining engineer eternally waiting to pitch his collection of folk stories notices the cracks in the ceiling growing at an alarming rate.

Thirty years have passed, but Blue Mountains is as razor sharp as ever. It is a masterfully constructed satire, that repeats large tracts of dialogue, but the implications become ever more absurd as the seasons and circumstances change. Poor Soso does everything by the book (if you will), yet he can never jump through enough bureaucratic hoops.

Although Blue Mountains does not address politics per se, it is easy to see how an apparatchik could decide Shengelaia’s ruthless send-up of bureaucracy, paperwork, and meetings was just bad for Party business. Nevertheless, it eventually won several Soviet film awards (presumably because they had to give them to something credible). Evidently, even if you were a cultural commissar, the humor of Shengelaia and Rezo Cheishvili’s screenplay was still quite potent stuff.

As Soso, Ramaz Giorgobiani might be the greatest cinematic straight-man ever, perfectly facilitating the comedic chaos, while serving as a sympathetic audience surrogate. Gosh darn it, we would really like to see Blue Mountains or Tian Shan get published in the end, but don’t get your hopes up. Likewise, Teimuraz Chirgadze deftly modulates the Director’s madness, at times almost coming across reasonably, given the bedlam erupting around him.

The subtitles are absolutely no hindrance to a wickedly droll skewering of paper-pushery. In all truth, Blue Mountains is a masterwork of international cinema, bordering on outright masterpiece status. Shengelaia is also a fascinating figure in his own right, who had a long and tumultuous political career, leading up to his support for the Rose Revolution. It is an altogether fitting selection for MoMA’s Georgian retrospective and his presence at its initial screening there should be considered a real event. Very highly recommended, Blue Mountains, or an Unbelievable Story screens this Wednesday (9/24) and next Monday (9/29) at MoMA.