Sunday, September 20, 2009

Postscript on Felines and Fiction

People (particularly data-entry staff at veterinary clinics) would sometimes ask where we got the name of our late pet from (usually after they've asked how to spell it, or if they encountered the written form first, how to pronounce it. It's: KEE-zhay). Classical music lovers generally recognize the reference to Sergei Prokofiev's Lieutenant Kizhe orchestral suite, and are further aware that the music was originally written for the 1934 film, which in turn is based on the novella by Yuri Tynyanov.

The action of the story revolves around the efforts of the Russian Imperial court to hide from the vain, mercurial Tsar Paul I the fact that he has made a mistake: that the name and persona of "Lieutenant Kizhe" is the result of a scribal error. The afore-linked Wikipedia article adequately describes the plot of the novella (the movie changes a few non-essential things), so I won't belabor the details. Though intended as a satire on the Tsarist bureacracy, one can't help wondering if there is not also a subtle jibe being levelled against the Stalinist regime under which both the book and film were made.

We discovered only yesterday that the film (with English subtitles) is now available at the Internet Archive and Google Video. (I think it's been a while since we last searched for it). So last night, in memory of our furry friend, we hooked up the laptop to the TV and sat down to watch....
I'm a lousy movie critic: about the best I can manage is "Liked it" or "That sucked". But this flick is definitely the former. It is made early enough in the "talkies" era to have preserved some of the silent-film propensity for sight-gags. For example, the prison commandant, presented with the non-existent Kizhe for incarceration, with perfect gravity searches the ground around the guards for this "confidential prisoner, who has no shape". No dialog is spoken, or needed. Later, the entire sequence of Kizhe's wedding comprises about 10 minutes of high absurdity. While there is understated slapstick, it never reaches the over-the-top level of the Keystone Cops. And behind it all is Prokofiev's music; the elements of what later became an orchestral classic.

So: it's a quirky kind of closure. We've loved the music for years (enough to name our seventh cat after it), and been fascinated by the back-story, so it was great to at last see that story played out. And we learned one detail about the doubly-fictional Lieutenant, which is perhaps a fitting memorial for the cat who lived in a non-believing household; who always knew what he wanted, and always let you know about it. From the film's closing soliloquy -- a kind of reverse eulogy on his now-deceased officer -- delivered by the Tsar:
Good-bye, little friend.

(Movie poster from WikiMedia Commons)


AJM said...

Condolences. We lost our (beautiful and very sociable) steel-grey long-hair dominant Linus to a still-mysterious gastric disorder a few years ago now. Our daughter still remembers him fondly.

(And I'll make a note to watch Poruchik Kizhe at the next opportunity I have to sit still that long... Sounds promising.)

Unknown said...

Hello Eamon,

My sympathy for your loss- cats are wonderful creatures and each is irreplaceable.

I'm sorry my post here is massively out of place, but I was trying to track you down after I saw an incredibly clever term you coined on Epsilon Clue- "reverse anus". I wanted to ask if you'd mind me borrowing it- I promise to give you full credit if I ever use it.

Thank you very much,

Eamon Knight said...

AR: Thank you, and you're welcome to use my coinage (now I'll just have to remember what that was about...)