Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Review : How I Ended This Summer : the unloaded gun rule

Two men, one young and one middle aged. Experience vs ennui. Duty vs drudge. Sense of purpose and appreciation of place in universe vs ... restlessness and boredom. They're alone on an Arctic island, running  a weather station. Sergei thinks of his family while applying his hard won expertise. Pavel plays with the junk from the old missions and tests the radioactive sensor for the fun of it. He comes in from this one afternoon and reports the results excitedly to the old man. Sergei embarrasses him by finding out he'd left the shotgun unloaded. There are polar bears on the island. They can and have killed humans. Pavel has risked both their lives and the mission.

Later, because he's experienced and he can Sergei goes on an unauthorised fishing expedition on the other side of the island. Not a fishing trip, mind. He takes the speedboat and is considerably armed. Pavel is worried but here's his chance to do everything right. He covers for Sergei while making his routine report but the remote operator insists he bring Sergei to the radio. Fudging it, he takes a message. Sergei's family have been in an accident and are facing death in the emergency ward. Ummmmm ...

Sergei comes  back in high spirits and ropes Pavel into preparing the fish for salting and curing. Pavel can't get a word in. Several missed opportunities to do so later he shrugs and figures the news will come out soon enough anyway and he has time to think up an excuse. This situation only expands until, when the news must burst out it is accompanied by gun fire.

It was appropriately Anton Chekov who formulated the loaded gun rule which goes like this: if you show a loaded gun early in a story it will need to be discharged before it's over. This one goes one further and extends the unloaded gun at the beginning to Pavel's disassembly as a member of the team. The one moment where he had relevant knowledge that Sergei didn't, he allowed to rot and ferment until it exploded. When Pavel flees to the relative safety of the bear-plagued wilderness he is forced to seek his own power to stay alive but even here his invention is dependent. He needs Sergei or mother earth to furnish him with the means to survive. Without a parent like either of those, he is lost; accepting their worked for bounty or perishing with an impotent curse at his circumstances. It's not just Chekov that this Russian tale evokes but the great demi god of ennui himself the mightless Oblomov who takes the first hundred pages of the novel that bears his name to get out of bed. What might as well be Oblomov's unloaded gun rule is brought to its survivalist end here.

This is a spoilable film and I'll go no further in describing the plot but what remains of it pits these characters against each other. Yes, they develop. It's subtle but it happens and when absorbed it is profound.

This film of misunderstood bonding, low on dialogue but big on thorough and muscular performance, is given such an extraordinary setting that the third character (the landscape now desolate now strikingly beautiful) seems to get all the good lines just by standing there. A powerful trio.

I missed this at last year's Russian Film Festival and am grateful to have been able to see it in a cinema, its natural environment, a place where the image is immersive and the spare plot absorbing. You know when the description of a film alone can make you like it before you see it?  I'm a sucker for sea stories and remote settings like islands, jungle outposts or lighthouses. How I Ended This Summer couldn't have lost with me if it had starred J Lo. As it is it turned out to be a powerful thing. Bonus.

SHADOWS Winter Part 1 program HERE.

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