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Zagdansky continues his series of portraits of Russian exiles living in
America with this empathetic and poignant film of the poet Konstantin
Kuzminsky and his wife Emma.
Konstantin and Mouse follows the release of Vasya (2005), a portrait of Vasily Sitnikov the talented, romantic and impoverished painter from the community of Russian émigré artists living in and around New York beginning in the mid 1970s. Zagdansky has now trained his sympathetic but unflinching eye on Kostya and Emma Kuzminsky's tenuous hold on survival in a ruin of a house on the rail line in the tiny hamlet of Lordville, on the last perch of land on the Delaware River before New York becomes Pennsylvania on the other side.
America has never had a deep poetic tradition, Frost and Cummings, Ginsberg and Whitman aside, particularly in comparison to the deep and almost holy tradition to which ordinary Russians held poetry from before the time of Pushkin to the fall of the Soviet Union.
In Soviet times poetry was the only counter balance to the propaganda and disinformation fed to Russians by the official state media. Poetry was the individual's only vehicle for expressing even a semblance of truth and honesty. But poets had to be very careful not to run afoul of the official apparatus that espoused, and monitored for, strict Socialist Realism.
An outsider in every respect, Kuzminsky grew up in St. Petersburg, developed his gift as a non-conformist poet, and was considered an outlaw by all official measures, part Russian Futurist, part Dadaist, part Bohemian. Zagdansky captures these aspects of Kuzminsky's poetry with the camera trained on his New York and Texas poetry readings (cum 'happenings') and his reflections on poets from Brodsky to Byron. Emma's evident partnership with and devotion to Kuzminksy is skillfully captured by Zagdansky throughout the film and is an emotional highlight of the documentary. Emma (endearingly called Mouse) is the pillar.
Tired of harassment from an overzealous state intent on tightly controlling individual behavior, Kuzminsky and Emma finally fled Russia in 1976 when he was thirty six. The two briefly settled in Austin, TX where Kuzminsky had received an invitation to come teach Russian poetry from the American scholar of Russian Studies, John Bowlt. Emma took on janitorial work. When that contract expired the Kuzminsky's moved to Brighton Beach, NY and then in 1997 to Lordville, NY. Emma worked as a low paid architectural drafter for eighteen years supporting the couple while Kuzminsky worked on his own poetry and prose as well as what became his magnum opus, published in 1986 in nine volumes, the 'Blue Lagoon Anthology of Modern Russian Poetry'. This labor of love that Emma and Konstantin, in equal measure, assembled over many years and hand-published only with great difficulty, as recounted in the film, is the only anthology of its kind containing works from an entire generation of Russian non-conformist poets that would have otherwise been lost to time.
Zagdansky trains his camera on Emma and Konstantin in a series of thirty-three intimate vignettes that when completed left me with the poignant feeling of having just seen two lives lived with a ferocious and uncompromising honesty (and an uncompromising love for one another) along with the attendant suffering that both have endured as a result. They are uniquely double exiles, exiles from Russia and exiles from America, isolated and marginalized by language, poverty and poetry, belonging nowhere but to each other and bravely creating their own meaning and a poetical reality that is strangely affecting. Thankfully for non-Russians like this reviewer, Konstantin and Mouse is produced with optional English sub-titles.
A deliciously unappetizing look at Konstantin Kuzminsky (Kostya) who is, undeniably, the ultimate wasted linguistic genius of his Motherland during his generation. Some day, after Kostya is gone, there may follow the well-deserved acclaim and accolades to his life's work --the odorless laurels of after-death recognition and respect; but not while Kostya the "persona" -- is still able to speak! That would never do for our society! Russia, as a rule, loves to reward the dead! The living Kostya will remain the outcast genius in the world ruled by mainstream mediocrity. His story is worthy of a Shakespearean tragedy. My favorite of the film is Mouse, a humble gentle soul, who, despite the Bohemian chaos that constitutes Kostya's irrational existence, loves him so unconditionally -- my only wish is that the director somehow twist their story into commercially successful romantic tragedy/comedy,so that Kostya and Mouse move to a better home and use hired help to clean it regularly and Mouse can learn to luxuriate.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
"Konstantin and Mouse" is simply a wonderful film. It does not matter if you have never heard of Konstantin Kuzminsky or do not care about Russian poetry. The film is beautiful and well paced and the music is simple and effective. And if you do know about Konstantin Kuzminsky and you do care for Russian poetry ... all the better. From Leningrad to Austin to New York City and presently, to the hamlet of Lordville, New York, where he lives with his wife, Emma, aka Mouse, Kuzminsky embodies the spirit of the poet as seer, witness, and provocateur. His memory is prodigious, his performances are outrageous, and his judgments are both scathing and fair. What is unfair is that Kuzminsky is not as well known as his fellow Leningrad poet, Joseph Brodsky (both born in 1940). And then there is Mouse, who when she met him in Leningrad, fell in love with a poet who swallowed frogs. She is not so much the silent partner, but rather the laughing partner with a camera. Mr. Zagdansky puts everything into satisfying context in this aptly subtitled 'documentary in 33 performances.' Highly recommended!
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