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Interview with Levental, Vadim. Moviegoing in St. Petersburg in the 1990s and 21st century (2014)

Analysis of Interview with Vadim Levental.
Conducted by Julia Seely-Hall and Olivia Wilkinson in July 2014.
Transcribed and translated by Aaron Buzek, Lydia House, Patricia Radich, Julia Seely-Hall and Olivia Wilkinson in Fall 2014.
Analysis written by Aaron Buzek, Lydia House, Patricia Radich, Julia Seely-Hall and Olivia Wilkinson in Fall 2014.

Analytical Note

In June 2014, Julia Seeley-Hall and Olivia Wilkinson interviewed Vadim Levental in St. Petersburg, Russia. The interview was transcribed and translated by Aaron Buzek, Lydia House, Patricia Radich, Julia Seeley-Hall, and Olivia Wilkinson during the Fall 2014 as part of the Russian Movie Theater Project.

Vadim Levental was born in St. Petersburg, Leningrad at the time, in 1981. He grew up there, never living anywhere else for any considerable period of time. He comes from an educated family – his father was a programmer and his mother a journalist. Levental himself is also a well educated man: he has attended St. Petersburg State University and earned a Master’s degree  (2:06). At the time of the interview, Vadim Levental was the executive editor of  Limbus Press Literary Agency and head of the organizing committee for the National Bestseller Prize (commonly shortened to “Natsbest”). He recently published a novel, Masha Regina, and his prose and criticism has been published in several journals, including “Zvezda,” “Izvestia,” and “Oktiabr.”

Levental divides present day movie theaters of St. Petersburg into two distinct groups: downtown movie theaters and movie theaters in shopping centers, mostly on the outskirts of the city.  He prefers the former because they are more appealing architecturally and offer a better selection of films.  In addition to standard Hollywood blockbusters, they exhibit European art cinema, documentaries and experimental cinema. Levental expresses distaste toward multiplexes in city shopping centers which show mostly Hollywood mainstream cinema. He calls them depressing “black boxes,” which lack  any decorations or character (21:35).

Levental considers the Aurora movie theater among the best in the city, judging by the films screened there  (20:14).  He also mentions recently renovated and restored art house film theater Angleterre (22:20) near a famous historical historical hotel downtown St. Petersburg. This cinema opened recently on St. Isaac’s Square in downtown St. Petersburg and is a new exhibition venue for more affluent patrons.  On its website, the theater owners call their business a cinema lounge.  The theater complex also houses a restaurant. Levental “fell in love” with the Angleterre theater for screening subtitled, rather than dubbed, international films (23:30).

Vadim Levental’s preference for subtitled international films stems from his belief that good films are art objects which should be viewed in the most authentic way possible.  In Soviet times all foreign films were released dubbed – the original soundtrack never reached a Soviet viewer (22:45).  After the fall of the Soviet Union, festival organizers and cineclubs started exhibiting films with subtitles in order to preserve the original soundtrack.  Mainstream international films continue to be released dubbed.  When he watches foreign films, Levental tries to avoid dubbed films and instead watches films with subtitles (20:54).

In addition to the Aurora and the Angleterre, Levental mentions that he and his wife like to attend the Dom Kino cineclub off Nevskii Prospekt.  Along with other downtown movie theaters, the Dom Kino cineclub organizes film festivals, including Austrian, Italian, Korean, and Finnish feature films, as well as documentaries and experimental cinema (13:30).  While they are not film critics, Levental and his spouse try to participate in these events and keep up with new art cinema releases.  Levental is also of the opinion that certain films – such as Lars von Trier’s Melancholia – are best experienced on the big screen of a movie theater, rather than at home (13:10).

Levental grew up in the late 1980s and 1990s.  This was a time of a transition from Soviet state-run exhibition system to market-driven private film exhibition.  Levental notes that after the fall of the Soviet Union, Soviet-style single screening room movie theaters closed down or turned into flea markets.  Instead, there appeared private video salons , which were screening rooms with a VCR machine attached to a TV monitor.  For a modest price these video salons screened bootlegged Hollywood films.  Levental notes that this practice of film exhibition disappeared by the late 1990s when the new movie theaters with modern sound and projection equipment started appearing in St. Petersburg (3:42).

Nowadays Levental considers movie-going a simple part of his daily life, not a special event.  He goes to the movies quite regularly, sometimes with his wife and friends and sometimes with his young son.  He and his son usually watch animated films.  While Vadim Levental  usually avoids mainstream films, he makes an exception when he watches animation with his son.  Levental recalls a film about ants that they recently watched together, saying that he enjoys spending time with his son watching movies (26:33).

Vadim Levental is a well-educated person who knows well Russian and world history, literature, and cinema, and these aspects of his personality come across clearly in his taste in movies and his interaction with Petersburg film culture. His general distaste for popular movies and popular movie-going is clearly present throughout the interview: Dumb and Dumber, Transformers, “black box” theaters and the like do not appeal to him at all (10:40). Interestingly, he does not have great respect for acting as a profession or an art in general, not only in popular films (11:05). His love of avant-garde and art cinema comes across much more in his discussion of his favorite directors, where he lists such greats as Dziga Vertov, Sergei Eisenstein, Bernardo Bertoluchi, Lars Von Trier, David Lynch, Peter Greenway, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Federico Fellini (12:08). He generally appreciates the artistic side of film-making, rather than the entertainment side, as is shown by his preference for subtitled international art films over dubbed pop cinema and his interest in film festivals and foreign films (22:00).

At the end of his interview, Levental suggested another person to be interviewed for this project. His choice: Ivan Chuviliaev, a fellow film critic (27:32). Chuviliaev is of the same generation as Levental. He is also a festival organizer and an expert in world cinema–in particular, Russian cinema. Levental thought that the questions asked in this interview would be too easy for Ivan to the point that he would talk to an astonishing amount about every subject. Levental also added that Chuviliaev would be able to talk about some ongoing film projects in Siberia, being filmed by enthusiasts with their own funds.

Throughout the interview, Vadim Levental uses casual, but educated, language. The English translation belies his tone and language – overall, he is informal when talking about himself and his tastes to the interviewer. He refers to the interviewer with the casual forms of words (for example, he uses a form of “Let’s” which is usually only used with close friends and family in Russian culture). Occasioally he becomes very emotional about subjects of the conversation and he  uses a wide variety of colorful idioms, such as “he will tell you so much that your eyes will pop out of your head” (27:32) and “there was nowhere for an apple to fall without hitting a theater” (8:00). He playfully uses slang, curse words and some vulgarities – he calls films like Transformers “Hollywood trash” (15:01) and tells how an audience member of a film he was watching shouted jokingly “they screwed us over” (16:54), using words that, in the Russian language, can be considered disrespectful and inappropriate.

When it comes to describing films, however, Levental uses less informal language. While his overall tone suits that of a casual film goer rather than a professional movie critic, he does use unique descriptions and words revealing his identity a professional writer and a book publisher. He frames his discussion of specific films with digressions about Soviet film avant-garde, Russian and European art cinema.  He also distinguishes between different types of moviegoers: film critics, cinephiles, and more naive film viewers.  For example, Levental talks about taking a friend to a screening of an experimental film and says that he learned that his friend who never attended an experimental film screening turned out to have a “puritanical disposition” (12:56).  Levental discusses the cinematography and aesthetics of  films, such as pointing out the “mysticism” of “A Wild Hunting by King Stakh” (9:28), knows production circumstances of many Russian films, such as Sergei Bondarchuk’s War and Peace.

Levental grew up after the fall of the Soviet Union in an open society.  In addition to his native tongue, he knows English language. As opposed to older interviewees who speak only Russian, Levental  occasionally uses English words.  He calls most films by their Russian name but also knows English titles of Hollywood blockbusters.  At the very end, he uses an English word, “legalize”, as part of a joke.

Vadim Levantal was born at the right time to be a product of two very different worlds of cinema.  Levental is a fascinating interview subject as he mixes elements of youth culture into his sophisticated diction, illustrating the divide between two generations in Russia.  Often times this manifested itself in his raucous laugh which kept the translators very entertained.  Whether he is discussing the direction of Hollywood films or film festivals, Vadim Levental was a valuable source for this interview as his educated opinion was able to shed light on various aspects of diverse film culture of contemporary St. Petersburg.

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