Tea House (1914) by Aleksey Isupov,
from the Savitsky Collection.
* * * (out of five stars) The Desert of Forbidden Art. Written and directed by Tchavdar Georgiev and Amanda Pope.
* * 1/2 Paranormal Activity 3. Written by Christoper B. Landon. Directed by Henry Joost & Ariel Schulman.
The suppression of a single significant artistic voice is a tragedy. The suppression of an entire generation of voices is a cataclysm. The record of the Soviet Union in this regard is whatever is worse than “cataclysm”—the deliberate, systematic, and pitiless purging of whole fields of artistic endeavor, liquidated because they had no place in the regime’s ideological narrative of “liberation” (that’s doublespeak for “enslavement”). In Tchavdar Georgiev and Amanda Pope’s extraordinary documentary The Desert of Forbidden Art, (available now on Netflix) we get a glimpse of what the world missed under Stalin and his cronies.
Much of the art that never saw the light of day under the Soviets has landed in an remarkable museum located not in Moscow or St. Petersburg, but in the provincial town of Nukus, Uzbekistan. The museum, formally called Karakalpakstan State Museum of Art, is the brainchild of an extraordinary collector named Igor Savitsky, a failed painter who devoted his life to preserving the artistic legacy his nation would not. Over the course of decades, Savitsky collected some 40,000 paintings, prints, and other pieces of visual art, funding his acquisitions with tacit help of certain individuals in the regional government of Karakalpakstan. The paradoxical result is that one of Russia’s greatest collections of Russian avant garde art isn’t in Russia. A hypothetic equivalent might be encountering one of the world’s best collections of Monets, Manets and Renoirs not in Paris, but in a second-tier regional capital in southern Algeria.
Indeed, many of the banned, imprisoned, or otherwise ignored artists had some connection with that poor, remote region, where European and central Asian cultural crosscurrents met and intermingled. So while the Savitsky’s cause was worthy just in a moral sense, the film very clearly shows that this is emphatically not a case of artworks celebrated because they were suppressed. In paintings by Alexander Volkov, Alexander Nikolayev, and Mikhail Kurzin, we are looking at the Goyas and Gauguins and Daumiers of their time. With stunning vividness, they demonstrate that principle—dangerous to the Soviets’ highly Russocentric ideology—that there was much the country’s “backward” Islamic underbelly could teach their overlords in Moscow.
Aesthetically, The Desert of Forbidden Art is a revelation. But it also shows that an individual like Savitsky—a man who was, quite frankly, a nobody—could make a profound difference, even in the face of the worst tyranny in a century of tyrannies.
* * *
I’m still a fan of Oren Peli’s 2007 Paranormal Activity, a faux home-movie creep-fest about a suburban couple tormented by a demon. Like demons, sequels are can be hard to get rid of, though you can try to ignore them (as this critic did Paranormal Activity 2 last year). The original Activity, after all, was the essence of a sleeper: a low-key, atmospheric horror at a time when virtually nothing was being left to the CGI equipment between our ears. Boosting the budget—and the expectations—doesn’t seem to add much to this particular premise.
Great word of mouth drew me into Activity 3—a prequel set back in the 1980’s, when the haunted Katie (Katie Featherston) was first visited by her personal demon. At first, young Katie (Chloe Csengery) isn’t really frightened out by her new friend, whom, in a possible reference Tobe Hooper’s infamous 1982 haunting movie, Poltergeist, she calls “Toby”. Mom (Lauren Bittner) is content to indulge the “imaginary friend” thing, but live-in boyfriend and video geek Dennis (Christopher Nicholas Smith) is determined to get all those bumps in the night securely on tape. Katie’s fate is not exactly a matter of suspense here, as she obviously lives on to appear in the other movies. Poor Dennis and his honking, ‘80’s-vintage tape deck? Not so lucky.
Though there too many cheap shots, there are also a few genuine jolts. A scene where “Toby” makes creative use of a sheet—Halloween ghost style—is creepily funny, and niftily shot by directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, who (or more precisely, have their character Dennis) mount their camera on an oscillating fan. The fundamental conceit of the Paranormal series—mating primitive video with the visceral kick of modern sound technology—still packs some power. But the script by Christopher B. Landon takes the story in a vaguely Rosemary’s Baby-ish direction that undoes the beguiling simplicity of the original.
At the risk of spoilers, nothing more specific can be said about how this movie doesn’t relate to what is supposed to come later. Suffice it to say that coming out of PA 3, we’re not relishing our survival—we’re scratching our heads. And while “Toby” himself might thrive on confusion, that’s not the best place for horror to live.
© 2011 Nicholas Nicastro