Underviewed, Undervalued, Underground

Incomparable Moment: The Retrieval of the Ice Skates

Freeze, Die, Come to Life (Vitaly Kanievksy, 1989)

We at Cinema Underground are proud supporters of Mubi.com.  I don’t know what the odds are that you would know us and not know them, but if you don’t, click on “Mubi” in the links section, and check them out.  Before I begin discussing today’s film I would like to draw your attention to a list that one Mike Spence has posted at Mubi, which he calls, “Unavailable films whose release on (English language) DVD is more important than getting Kubrick’s work on blu-ray.”  Here is a link: http://mubi.com/lists/3383.

I bring this up because Vitaly Kanievsky’s 1989 masterpiece, Freeze, Die, Come to Life! is one such movie.  It is currently only available on VHS from New Yorker.  Perhaps there is some debate over the rights to release it on DVD?  I would like to write briefly about an “Incomparable Moment” in this film, which we plan to make into a recurring feature.  The tenets of this feature should become clear as you read on.

Freeze, Die, Come to Life! takes place in a Siberian mining camp/town in postwar Stalinist Russia and centers on the hijinks and predicaments of a boy named Valerka and his friend Galia.  It is a dreary and brutal setting, but Kanievsky’s project is to always be injecting light into what could quite easily be a socialist-realist picture of the old Soviet variety or a ponderous metaphysical vision along the lines of Béla Tarr, Theo Angelopoulos or Andrei Tarkovsky.

Freeze, Die, Come to Life! pits exuberance against fear, violence against calm, beauty against deformity and happiness against sorrow as matters of narrative structure.  There is never a final verdict upon the lives of the people in the film.  It is not a question of revealing the nature of their situation to be ultimately tragic or comic.  Instead Kanievsky shows that life is always both in balance, or if not perfectly harmonious then a pendulum that swings back and forth between the two states of being.

In one scene an old woman drowns kittens one by one, the implication being that she would not be able to afford to feed them.  Later Valerka’s mother gives him a pet pig, an animal that many people in the impoverished town would no doubt view as a source of food.  In another a joyful celebration of music and drinking turns into a drunken brawl that ends with two men, each missing a leg, helping each other up and hobbling off together laughing.

There are indeed several moments one could choose from in Freeze, Die, Come to Life! and call it “incomparable,” but for me, the scene that distills the tension I have discussed thus far and explodes it with chaotic exuberance is:


In short, Valerka’s ice skates have been stolen and Galia tells him that she knows who took them, so she takes him to get them back.  It is unclear throughout whether the clandestine operation is meant to be funny or frightening.  There is an expectation of the possibility of violence upon being found out that is reminiscent of John Carpenter’s favorite tactic in Halloween.  It is unclear how much danger they are in.  However, there is also something of Chaplin in Valerka’s body language, in the absurdity of the situation and ultimately in the resolution, when he finally opens the door to the shed where the skates are, a chicken bursts out as if attacking him, and as the two run away, a naked man emerges standing a screaming at them in only his boots.

I suppose it would be considered a jump cut, for the next thing we see are the two of them laughing hysterically, alternately pushing at each other and leaning against each other.  And there is another voice on the soundtrack, another person laughing along with them, an adult sharing in there moment of revelry.  It is Kanievsky himself.  We may conclude this because we here his voice in the beginning of the film singing and saying, “Let’s begin,” and then again at the end directing the enigmatic final scene.

As far as I know there is nothing like this in all of cinema.  Perhaps the closest analogue would be a painter inserting his likeness into one of his works.  The effect here is quite different, partly because it is so unexpected as to be disorienting, but also because painters do this either as a means of self-critique or as a wink to the spectator.  Kanievsky’s desire is somewhat simpler.  He wants to participate with his actors, and with his audience.  He wants all of us to share a laugh together.



One response

  1. Curious. I escorted Kaneivsky from Canada to the Telluride festival in I suppose 1990 or was it 91. Tom Luddy asked me to since he spoke no English, and I happened to be in same place, headed same place (Montreal festival). Keneivsky was a Russian cliche, heading promptly for the bar and vodka in airport getting sloshy drunk. At passport he got snared for something and I had to rush and get it all sorted out. I forget what the problem was, but he almost didn’t get in.
    Nice film as I recall.

    May 16, 2011 at 8:36 am

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