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PETER USTINOV – IN CONVERSATION
by Harlan Kennedy
Peter Ustinov – film star, director, playwright, raconteur, and Belgian detective – sat enthroned in the Excelsior Hotel, Venice. The man of many roles was serving on the Venice Film Festival jury: a job he could surely have performed all by himself, with a suitable plenitude of faces, voices, and accents. But between sitting in judgment on epic Greek movies about beekeepers or Danish biopics of Gauguin, he was also at the end of an international telephone line.
News broke from Canada at 2 a.m. that Ustinov's new television series Peter Ustinov 's Russia, written by and starring himself, in conversation with such Russian notables as Dostoyevsky and Ivan the Terrible, had been bought by BBC-TV. Canada called because Canada produced the programs. They've already been premiered there to runaway ratings.
Ustinov has long been everyone's favorite ambassador of world culture. Every country on the map would like to deploy him as their envoy to every other country. At the moment he's a self-appointed pioneer in the prickly entente between East and West. A keen worker for UNESCO, and a critic of Britain and America's withdrawal therefrom, his TV series sets out to be both a giant helping of entertainment and education, and an information source to Soviet Europe. Today's Russia is not so different from yesterday's czarist Russia, he thinks, nor so different from today's America.
"I try to explain why they are as they are," says the genial mage, "and that they have suffered at our hands at least as much as we have suffered at theirs. There is hardly another country of that eminence or importance, or consequently danger, that has lost more people within its own borders. Considerably more than they have ever lost abroad. And I think that's indicative of a whole mental attitude even today. It's part of the mores and not at all something imposed by the Party, or something as ridiculous as that. When people get married in Russia and before they go to taste the 'delights', presumably, of conjugal life, it's a habit and a tradition to place the flowers they receive at their wedding on the tombs of various unknown warriors. Simply, I suppose, as a compensation for the presumed happiness they're going to enjoy. They're passing on something to people who are not there to enjoy it and who may, it can be interpreted, have sacrificed their lives for those that survived."
How long is the series, how structured, and how large does Ustinov loom?
"I appear in it myself ad nauseam," chuckles Ustinov. "And it's in six parts, six hours, and we interspersed it, in order to liven it up, with eight interviews with celebrated people played by Soviet actors whom we don't recognize here in the West. We don't say, however welcoming we are, 'Oh, there's Alec Guinness with a beard, or me with a wig!' I'm there as a sort of Candide, a journalist that doesn't really know what it's all about, especially when asking questions of Ivan the Terrible. We shot that in minus 40 degrees, and every time our mouths open captions shoot out, except that there's nothing inside the balloons. All the sequences were photographed in places where one really could have met these people; Ivan the Terrible was in the cloister where he'd often go to pray usually for the souls of those he had killed [bursts of laughter]. And it's a very sinister interview indeed, and I think quite amusing apart from anything else. I see no harm in that. We did Catherine the Great in the park outside St. Petersburg, Leningrad. We did Peter the Great on a sailing ship in the Baltic. We did Alexander I in an office in the Winter Palace. We did Dostoyevsky by the canals where he used to rove. We did Tolstoy in Yasnapolanya, in his house at his desk with his old Remington typewriter behind him. We did the young Lenin on a rather decrepit staircase, and finally Oblomov, the fictitious character who is Russia's scourge in a way. (It is the only country where you can still get a ticket for having a dirty car. Oblomov – a kind of Rip Van Winkle who's been asleep since 1864 – wakes up the moment I come in and says, 'Why didn't the dog bark?' And I said, 'I have no idea, I passed him but he was asleep.' And Oblomov, in bed, says, 'Yes, they say that owners and dogs become more and more similar.' [more laughter].) So anyway, the big difference is that the Russians speak in Russian with subtitles, and I speak in English."
Did you have an all-Russian production team?
"The production 'team', as you call it – well, we were desperately understaffed, which is the way I like it. There were six of us in all, including me and three Russians. So in fact there were nine people traveling [here I put away my pocket calculator in despair] two of whom went on ahead to arrange things locally and bully their way through the red tape."
Much of that?
"No, very little. I went four months before we started shooting to see the minister of culture. And we talked about nothing for an hour, with little bottles of mineral water and sweets, and suddenly he said [Ustinov slips into high minister of culture accent], 'Meester OOsteenov, there must be a reeeson you want to see me.' And I said (brightly), `Ah, yes. And I came out with this scheme. And he held his hand out, a peremptory hand, and said, `There's no reason for this conversation to continue: And I thought, 'Oh my God', and I looked at him. And he looked at me, and then he said, 'Because we like your work here, and more important, we trust you. So far as we're concerned you have carte blanche in the Soviet Union. Now we can continue to talk about nothing'." [Laughter.]
But who once said, "Nothing will come of nothing?' Answer: King Lear, another favorite Ustinov role. Seventy hours of footage came out of this "nothing; as Ustinov's Magnificent Six or Seven sashayed across the USSR. "That's about right; he says, "to select six hours from." He adds, "Our Soviet hosts never saw any of it except at our insistence, when we said it was very rude for them to let us go without looking at any of it."
And what is the look of the film ? Or are there different looks for different periods?
"Different looks? The look is really imposed by nature. We were there, in all, about just under four months, but we came and went so we didn't want to give the impression that it was always under snow. But, of course, snow imposes its own look, which is very extraordinary. I did a lot of photographs myself, and they seem to be in black and white but they're actually in color. And so snow has its own mysteries, and then there are those golden domes in the distance. I realize that the churches, whatever religious significance there is in that particular kind of construction, are in fact like lighthouses on land. And the traveler could see them for miles off. It sufficed for a glimpse of sunlight to suddenly be blinded by a nugget on the horizon."
Soviet television is not the liveliest. Are cinemas doing well?
"Cinema in Russia is still a great reality. They have, on capacity, slightly over half the cinemas in the world. I know that India has an enormous industry, but the cinemas themselves aren't very big. They're usually out-of-doors or half out-of-doors, with rows of crows adding their own contributions to the dialogue and songs.
0f course anyone, I said to Ustinov, can fall in love with the Russia of churches, samovars, and 800-page novels. The problems come for the person trying to present modern Russia with its reputation as a graveyard of artistic and political freedom.
"I can see that, of course. I'm not letting out any secrets, but even many of the Venice jury members can't believe they've seen a Russian film when they've seen it because they think it must be an exception to the rule. The point is that nearly all Russian films are exceptions to the rule, once you accept the idea of a grim, gray civilization. As I had the pleasure of telling Maggie Thatcher the other day, Russia is still the most conservative country in the world. And when somebody like Dostoyevsky dies, elderly vestal virgins appear out of the woodwork. And they begin to guard his memory with a jealousy and ferocity worthy of the ancient Greeks. They sit there.
"We went and shot in Dostoyevsky's room, and we begged these old ladies not to enter the room while we were working. They looked noncommittal and dangerous and shot looks at each other like in a western. Sure enough, right in the middle of a `take' one of these old biddies broke open the door and came in with fresh tea, not for me – for Dostoyevsky. Because the glass of tea was on his desk where he had left it. There was a little dust on its surface. But this tea was hot and steaming so we had to start again because we now had hot tea in the background with a wisp of smoke which was curling up from it.
"Russia venerates the past to such an extent that it becomes a reality. They had no need of ghosts as they do in England and Scotland because to them the ghost is there and might come in at any moment and might need tea.... Chekhov's birthplace is absolutely minute, so you have to go in one at a time and you're at the mercy of an old woman with a spun glass pointer. In that kind of room. it's extremely dangerous because she swings it without looking and you're often impaled against the wall by this thing. Everywhere there is this veneration of the past. And even people who have bothered them, such as Bulgakov, who had endless censorship trouble when he was alive – now his house is a place of worship in Kiev. And you get the same treatment from addicts, elderly addicts hooked on Russia's past, who sit in the corridor and wait for victims like spiders on a web."
But the USSR does repress free expression and opinion? Doesn't it?
"I've always had this debate with Mrs. Thatcher. She's a very open arguer and a very likable person, although I don't agree with her about anything. She always maintains that Russia has no public opinion. And I respond to that by saying that that's why in this century they've had two major revolutions and you've only had football riots!"
Did you ever have these conversations with the Man in the White House?
[Ustinov pauses tactfully.] "I'm not sure that I have made myself understood with him:' [Another pause.] "I'm not sure that I have ever made myself understood with Mr. Reagan. I went too a gala White House evening last year, in honor of Prince Charles and Princess Di. And after dinner, just for something to, say to him before I left, I said, 'Mr. President, I so enjoyed the dinner in London we had many years ago, at Les Ambassadeurs.' I waited. Mr Reagan nodded his head, seemed at a loss for words, and then said, `Which ambassador was that?"
Which brought us, by the smoothest of segues, to the question of USA versus USSR – which Ustinov sees as the land of many colors (Russia) versus the land of shake-and-stir homogeneity.
"The Soviet Union is the absolute antithesis of the United States. The USA has invented the cocktail not only in the bar but outside it. So that you now get Polish immigrants putting their hands on their hearts and talking about [Polish accent] `this great country of ours'; because they haven't yet learned to speak English better than that but they have already taken an oath of allegiance and know something about American history and so on. In the Soviet Union the concept is quite different. They pay much more respect to the maintenance of individual cultures, not just for propaganda; it's absolutely genuine, absolutely true."
Homogeneity in its people and hardening arteries in its government are two attributes usually associated with the USSR. For Ustinov they now characterize the USA. It's an irony he hugely enjoys that for the first time in memory the Russian delegation at the Geneva peace conference is younger than the American. And then, of course, there is Boy Wonder Gorbachev. Anti-alcohol drives apart (and the taking of Western journalists as hostages), Comrade Mikhail is hewing out a mighty reputation as a liberalizer.
"One of the great safety valves is comic stories;' says Ustinov. "And the latest one to come out of Russia is about the factory owner who's working late one night on papers. And suddenly the door opens and a rather attractive charwoman enters with her broom and pail and says, 'Ivan, you're working as late as this? Nearly everybody else has gone home.' And he answers, 'Yes, but I've got to prepare these papers for tomorrow's local Soviet meeting. I don't know how to make any sense of them.' And she says, 'Come, I'll help you.' And she puts down her broom and they work on the figures for a while. And their conversation becomes warmer, and they begin to flirt and then kiss, and then items of clothing begin to drop to the floor. And she gets up and says, 'I'd better lock the door.' And he says, 'Why? We're not drinking.'"
What about that proverbial frozen hell, Siberia?
"I say in my series that only 50 or 60 years ago Britain had her Siberia. It was called Australia. And look at it now. In point of fact, Siberia is going the same way – it's as exciting as Australia about now. And it's quite different, much more open; the distances are enormous, therefore people are extremely friendly. They're terribly glad to see anyone. They're wonderful audiences for orchestras and things like that. And you get a feeling of intense excitement in Siberia and also clarity of vision, and simplicity, generosity, and openness. There is a little city of scientists – it's called Academgordno, which is 15 kilometres from Novo Sibersk. I watched them at work and I said to them that if we made a film of this in Hollywood we'd have to recast you all. You're not grim enough. And also you're in shirtsleeves. They'd put you all into uniform. I mean, this is not even like Moscow. And the chief scientist said, 'Ah, but why do you think we're here!'
"It's quite normal for the press and the politicians to emphasize the differences all the time. But when you're actually there, with your own family – my mother's family is still there – you are inevitably, because of the pressure of reading and hearing the television, you are struck by the similarities between people. Because really human nature is much more powerful than politics."
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE DECEMBER 1986 ISSUE OF FILM COMMENT.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.