“What is a cat but a reduced lion?” So muses the fictionalized Joseph Brodsky character in Andrey Khrzhanovsky’s whimsical and inventive film, A Room and a Half. The film is a mesh of genres – bio-documentary, animated fairy tale, imagined fiction, non-fictional re-enactment; in other words, a distinctly contemporary approach (fragmentary, liberal in its notion of “facts,” unconcerned with delineations between objective and subjective) to discovering the “truth” of a man’s life and essence.
The cat in question is both real and imagined, remembered and created. Brodsky did have a pet cat as a child growing up in Leningrad (St. Petersburg) – and Khrzhanovsky would have us believe that Brodsky’s first poems may have been channeled through a cheeky chain-smoking cartoon cat of the boy Joseph’s daydreams. At one point in the film, the pet cat becomes a more literal surrogate for Brodsky; his mother Masva (played by the wonderful Alisa Freindlich) speaks to the cat as if her now-exiled son were inhabiting its consciousness.
How does a poet become a poet? When does he know? What drives his lyric impulse, of what is his soul made? Such are the common questions posed in biographical works about artists; A Room and a Half explores them in delightfully uncommon ways.
Iosif Aleksandrovich Brodsky was born in 1940, a little over a year before the siege of Leningrad. His father was a photographer in the Soviet Navy and retired when Brodsky was still a young boy; thus Brodsky, an only child, enjoyed the loving attentions of both parents. He began writing poetry when he was 17 and was soon lauded by Anna Akhmatova as a gifted lyric voice. In 1964, he was sentenced to five years in exile in northern Russia at hard labor for “social parasitism.” He served one year of that term, until the sentence was commuted in 1965, following protests by prominent Soviet and foreign literary figures. In 1972, he was forced into exile abroad; after brief stays in Vienna and London, he moved to the United States, where he became naturalized in 1977. Among many other awards and honors, Brodsky received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1987 and was U.S. Poet Laureate in 1991. His essays on art and politics won the National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism, and he translated the metaphysical English poets, as well as the work of Czeslaw Milosz, into Russian – despite the fact that most of his own work has appeared only in the West. Brodsky died of a heart attack in 1996, at age 56, having never again seen his parents nor returned to Russia despite ceaseless efforts to gain permission for his parents’ leave and/or for him to visit.
It is no surprise that a central theme of Khrzhanovsky’s Brodsky story is return: an elder Brodsky – let’s say a fictional 57 – travels by ship to his native St. Petersburg. En route, he remembers, narrates, imagines. Animated cats, crows, and other winged figures (Khrzhanovsky is primarily known as a master animator) populate the screen, i.e. Brodsky’s memory and imagination. In one of the film’s most memorable visual moments, young Joseph, who has just witnessed the selling off of the family piano (likely more of a confiscation than a sale, the first ominous signs of Jewish removal from Leningrad), imagines all the musical instruments of the city staging a kind of inspired/conspired escape, floating high above the monumental structures of history and politics, and reuniting to form a heavenly orchestra in the sky.
In Khrzhanovsky’s version of Brodsky’s childhood Leningrad, there is dancing and music, silliness and sex, poet-cats and ice-skating crows. A childhood is a childhood, he seems to suggest, Stalin or no Stalin. In one scene, young Joseph mock-meows through choir rehearsal while a sizable bust of Stalin is being carried to the next room. The two student couriers falter, the bust crashes to the ground; the students follow suit, bowing down to their fractured great leader. Joseph, meanwhile, sneeks peaks at his choir mistress’s ample cleavage and panty lines. Russian absurdist comedy in all its glory, you might say; a genius for foreground/background reversals.
But it’s not all fun and games; Khrzhanovsky tethers his alternating vaudevillian stage show/nostalgic fever-dream to fragments of Brodsky’s own essays, poems, and drawings, which, along with the conceit of the trip home to St. Petersburg and a general sense of chronology, creates a just-enough through-line for the viewer. In the movement between real and imagined and back again, there is a sense of searching and longing, casting and reeling; a poetic interest in the elusiveness of knowledge.
The film’s essential Russianness may be found in its embrace of nostalgia. A Room and a Half not only allows for the fictional Brodsky’s particular nostalgia, but seems to suggest it as the indispensable poetic impulse. For what is nostalgia but the memorializing of loss? In my favorite animated sequence, the two crows – spiritual avatars for Brodsky’s parents – sit wrapped in one another’s affectionate wings, mesmerized by the graceful pair figure skaters (possibly Olympic/World Champions Lyudmila Belousova and Oleg Protopopov, who defected to Switzerland in 1979) performing on television. (Brodsky’s father is also shown a few times watching the same skating sequence on the television in their Leningrad apartment.) In a later scene, Brodsky phones his mother from the US, and he asks her to remind him of the lyrics of an old Russian folk song. She begins to sing; Brodsky’s father, then the neighbors, join in; and by the end of the rousing chorus, mother Brodsky is overwhelmed – seemingly hollowed-out – by a sadness much greater than her original feeling of missing her son. The contrast between the sweet crow scene and this one is clear; Brodsky’s parents and their generation have lost their children, their jobs, their homes; but also they have lost Russia – the glorious vibrancy and elegance of their culture.
It fascinates me that Khrzhanovsky, a 69 year-old Russian native, would explore Brodsky’s life in such mild, domesticated tones. A reduced lion, indeed. Even the actor who plays the elder Brodsky, Grigoriy Dityatkovskiy, has none of the real Brodsky’s pointed features but rather more soft, bulbous ones. In the end, A Room and a Half reminds us that we are each, first and last, someone’s son or daughter. A great literary figure like Brodsky came from somewhere; he was a son of Russia (expelled), of Sasha and Masva Brodsky (beloved). His poetry did not reach Russia, and his mother (in the film) claims that “We never really understood your poetry, you know.” It was this lack of understanding that made young Brodsky crave solitude and rebellion as a youth, to flee the “nest.” But “then one day a man realizes that the nest is gone,” ruminates the Brodsky voiceover. “The people who gave him life are dead. He realizes that the only real thing in his life was that nest.”
When the lights came up on A Room and a Half, I was left with a feeling of both sadness and elation. Art and solitude, exile and loss. The enlivening fantasy of return. Loss rendered as both epically tragic and as everyday as it comes. We remember, but we never recover. A Room and a Half is an artfully-realized remembrance – ultimately a journey into the dream-reality of loss that has shaped both poet and filmmaker, and, the film suggests, anyone who has ever longed for home.
A Room and a Half is playing at Film Forum in New York City through Feb. 2.
[Image credit: Film Forum]