Tuesday, November 9, 2010
How I Ended This Summer. (2010)
These cold relationships are exacerbated by the harsh atmosphere on an arctic Russian island. In the winds and rain of this frigid climate, Sergei and Pavel are forced to live together, trying their best to get along as they work a meteorological station. Sergei, a calloused blue collar tough old geezer has been at this work for years. He's the head of the Archym Island Weather Station, and he knows his stuff. Young Pavel seems to have only approached the job like it's temp work, here for the summer season, hoping to write a paper on his experience at the place. He finds Sergei harsh and intimidating, a tough pick for a workmate. Sure, he knows his stuff. It doesn't make him any easier to live with.
Most workmates only have to deal with water cooler gossip and the occasional cubicle cornering. These two have to tough it out in the arctic and get along. They're the only two on the island, it's not like there's gossip around every corner.
It's trout season, and Sergei decides to take the boat out for a day or two. Maybe he really loves the trout at this time of year, or maybe he wants to see if Pavel can handle the work while he's gone. Regardless, while he's out fishing and AWOL from his work, Pavel receives a CB radiogram relaying the distressful message that Sergei's wife and son have been in an accident. The company is sending a vessel to their location to give Sergei the opportunity to get home as fast as possible. Pavel winces at the thought of relaying this message to the grumpy old man. A ship might take five days to get there. Should he relay the message now and bear the bear for the next five days?
He initially takes down the message from the CB, writing it down word for word, but fear keeps him from relaying it. After choosing to not relay it, fear becomes a central character in Pavel's existence. Nervousness chokes him while he keeps the truth from his workmate. And does Sergei really want to kill him when he later learns the truth? Is he really as deranged as he seems? The viewer might not think so, but it's easy to see why Pavel does. Earlier, Sergei told him another story of two men that were also on the island, at an earlier point in time. Things for those two didn't turn out so well. Pavel seems to think that Sergei is capable of repeating history.
So the lie leaves Pavel running for his life and isolated against a dangerous environmental backdrop with little knowledge of how to actually survive. This is the deeper dig into the human nature of the story -- that lying causes distance, when our actual human need is communal. Pavel probably didn't realize how ill equipped he was to take on the island by himself, but as he's forced to -- or thinks he is forced to, anyway -- the island seems to become a much smaller, and stifling place.
There are quite a few moments where the passage of time is relayed through the frigid elements in time-lapse photography. Clouds, fog, the passing sun, the fading of day. They rush by quickly, speeding up the monotony of life on the arctic island. Later, as Pavel seeks every crevice of rock to hide in, his bunny-like nervousness seems to slow the day down, even as fast as he chooses to move. Time on the island moves quickly when you're moving slow, and slowly when you're running for your life.
I can think of two film comparisons to How I Ended This Summer. Because it's a "Russian arctic" movie, the first thing that comes to mind is (obviously) Russian Ark. But two films have never been more different. Everything about Russian Ark screamed majestic and grandiose, with a thousand characters in mis-en-scène, abundant and energetic, like several classic films thrust into one. How I Ended This Summer is minimalist: two characters, one island, one problem, one big cover-up. The films are polar opposite.
And yet it's also comparable to an indie-style film that's in theaters right now, Buried. Reviews of that film have sprung up all over the Internet revealing astonishment at how captivating it actually is. In Buried, the amazement is because the entire 95 minutes are claustrophobic, shot completely inside a coffin; similarly, in How I Ended This Summer it's that only two actors reading telemetry in the arctic could pull the story together. In both cases there is but a device that either fails or excels, based on the viewer's interpretation.
I'm hesitant to say it does either of these things fully. I think it does a little of both.
So I'm not going to hide or lie about How I Ended This Summer. With its crawling pace, typical of many Russian films, it won't be an easy film for some to sit through. The lack of dialogue, too, makes me wonder if the script is even ten pages long -- and with thirty-three minutes left I thought there wasn't enough story for even five. I think the film can on some level be called a success, with the two actors pulling off a coup for minimalism. However, this is not a film I will be revisiting soon. At 130 minutes, it's like watching a Russian arctic snail.