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No one has all the time in the world. But for those who have already been abducted by the cinematic, it pays to delve into foreign films every now and then. This is especially the case with Russian cinema. As of today, the rejection of everything Marxist in both hemispheres is a generally accepted reality. All that remains to be seen is whether or not world citizenry has not thrown away an ideology, never fully developed, that might have saved them from the personal idiosyncracies of their various leaders. In the New World Order, is there really a free world and its polar opposite? After all, to be able to choose who will pull the wool over one's eyes is no privilege. All the same, one can easily read Russian literature or watch Russian films without taking sides in an older fight that seems to have run its course. Nevertheless, to go either route, by way of word or image, into Russian culture, without the guiding lights of socialist realism, a product of the Stalin era, is difficult. There is no going back, to be sure, only an acknowledgement that for most of the 20th century, it looked as if some form of Marxism would have the final word on artistic matters.
Oblomov (1979) is the story of a character invented by Ivan Alexandrovich Goncharov (1812-1891). It captures a slice of life in mid-19th century, czarist Russia. Although only a product of fiction, Oblomov is, in world literature, famous for inactivity. As the story unfolds, he lives in St. Petersburg, on family-inherited property, making use of a stipend or pension from an aborted Civil Service career. He has a loyal servant, who is also a bit of a character, and something in the way of a past, insofar as he had once been married. He has responsibilities, most having to do with his estate, which includes 350 serfs. But decision-making is painful. At the same time, he is behind in the rent, without credit at the grocer, and under a constant, unbearable, metaphysical strain. His terrible yearning for a perfect and peaceful state of tranquility that, by all rights, should be his, cannot be obtained. The days are short and there is so much to complain about.
Soon after the film begins, Oblomov has an angry exchange with his servant, Zakhar. It is so traumatic that the be-slippered master gives stern instructions not to wake him until 4:30. His sloth, slovenliness, and lack of ambition are reprehensible, but not to an extreme. Oblomov is decadent, not monstrous. The upper class insensitivities that Eisenstein documents in his films are completely absent here. Oblomov raises his voice every so often, but that is pretty much the extent of his malice. It is not aristocratic degeneracy that is being catalogued. It is, rather, a different sort of failure. Surely, Goncharov, Oblomov's author, cannot blame an individual for wastefulness on such a grand scale. There must be multiple reasons why this society, in this period of time, and within this class, produced such an indolent man -- although "a soul of crystal transparency," according to his best friend. Oblomov is an oddity as well as the product of a bygone era. Only the strident right wing consistently laments the engine of history. It wails at the the devastations time has wrought on civilization. Well all right, the French aristocrats are gone, and now, perhaps, it is the landed gentry in Russia who are in trouble. In one analysis, Oblomov's downfall is not in his laziness but rather his refusal to see that his otherwise enviable position in society is no longer justifiable. Written in 1859, Oblomov is hardly a revolutionary work. But the novel illustrates nonetheless some of what Marx, a contemporary of Goncharov's, felt obligated to challenge. Life should never be utterly empty of meaning, and with Oblomov, there is always that danger.
Granted, Oblomov dwells among the better educated and mannered. But even this is of small consolation. The book more than the film succinctly elaborates upon his affectations and malingering. Oblomov only yawns at the mention of the Venetian School, da Vinci, Beethoven, and Bach. A visitor with a literary inclination drops in to rave about a poem, but his enthusiasm is not contagious. Later, Oblomov gets involved with a woman who cannot be anything other than his intended soulmate. But he is too afraid of scandal during the courtship. He should not have given up so easily. When she objects to shrubbery blocking her view, the immovable object rolls up his shirt sleeves and sets to work. From another angle, Oblomov is very much a part of his generation and its folkish provincialism. He passively accepts the superstitious beliefs of his idyllic neighborhood, which include ghosts, werewolves, transformed sheep, and domovoi -- horse demons who hang about in the stables. To reiterate, this comes more from the book than the film; the latter, pressed by time constraints, cannot pile detail upon detail.
What picks up the tempo is the early introduction of Oblomov's best friend, Schtoltz, and later, of Olga. Oblomov actually has a nice bunch of warm and lively friends. They make a great ensemble taking turns on a big-wheeled tricycle in the countryside. They have good times. Olga sings and Schtoltz is as animated as Oblomov is immobile. There should have been an opportunity here for Oblomov to change his ways, stop being so moody, and give up the slacker's life. But either life has permanently cast him off or he has made some irremediable break with it. Or, maybe Oblomov has an inappropriate level of appreciation for monotony. He is more satisfied reminiscing about childhood than striding forth into reality. He has retreated a little too much into, as he himself puts it, Oblomovism.