Friday, June 22, 2007

The terrible loneliness of being free

In the opening sequences of Moscow on the Hudson, flashing back to his life in Russia, Robin Williams' character, circus musician Vladimir Ivanoff, remembers risking being late for work, putting his job and his upcoming, much looked forward to trip to New York City with the circus in jeopardy, to jump into a long line outside a store to buy...he's not sure what. Toilet paper, he hopes. Whatever they're selling, he knows that.

In the Soviet Union, you see a line, you get in it, because everything's so scarce, store shelves are usually so empty, what's available is usually so expensive, that odds are whatever is on sale at the end of the line, you need it.

Or you can use it.

What's at the end of this particular line are men's shoes. Vladimir buys two pair, neither in his size, because there are none in his size, all the shoes are the same size, a size too small for most men. Vladimir doesn't care. He can sell the shoes at a profit or use them as bribes.

The privation, the corruption, the paranoia, the dullness, the way everybody lives on the borderline of poverty, how the consumer goods and the small luxuries that separate them from the truly poor are no compensations because they are ugly, badly made, cost too much in time and effort and rubles to obtain, how every relationship, friendships, family life, love affairs, marriage, is reduced to a business deal---we see a society and an economy horribly crippled by the fear and corruption and purposeful bureaucratic inefficiency necessary to keeping its own evil regime in power and our first thoughts are naturally, Three cheers for capitalism and How did we ever see this sorry nation as a threat to our way of life?

The answer to that second thought is that the Soviets had nuclear weapons and men as crazy and as soulless among their leadership as we had among ours.

Still, you wonder how our saner leaders didn't look at what was going on over there and think, We can outlast them, we can out sell them.

This isn't the place to get into the old containment vs confrontation debates or look at what a lot of our leaders were really looking for as an outcome to our rivalry with the Soviet Union---safe markets not new democracies.

As for the first thought, director Paul Mazursky more or less responds, Are you sure you want to cheer that enthusiastically? Maybe you should wait and see.

Mazursky takes a long while to get Vladimir to the United States where we know he's going to defect and where we expect the real plot of the movie's going to unfold, testing our patience, because he wants to show us something else about life in the Soviet Union first.

The way people cling to each other.

Despite the corrupting influence of money, actually the lack of it, on relationships---a marriage proposal, even a sincere one inspired by love, is phrased in starkly economic terms with a list of material benefits that would result---and the fear that any person you know and are close to and trust could turn out to be a KGB stooge---at one point Vladimir is given a choice, spy on your best friend and inform on him, or your beloved grandfather could wind up in a "mental hospital"----the people grab hold of each other, literally, and hold tight, because their only joy in life and their only solace is love.

In Sartre's No Exit, Hell is other people. In the Soviet Union, says Mazursky, all there is of heaven is other people.

With that established, he finally sends Vladimir to New York where he defects in Bloomingdales.

And for the first few scenes after he defects, the movie really does allow us, encourages us, to give three years for capitalism and the USA.

This really is a wonderful country.

Seeing it through Vladimir's eyes as he takes it all in for the first time choked me up.

God, I love this country!

But it is not a paradise, it is not heaven on earth, and it is not without its own forms of hell, even for the lucky like Vladimir.

First, there is just the overwhelming fact of freedom itself. To be able to go where you want, do what you want, be what you want to be---all those choices, all those decisions, all those problems that follow and all the more choices and decisions that have to be made after the first ones! Where do you start? How do you start? Why bother to start?

And having all that freedom to make choices doesn't necessarily mean you have the means to follow through. In America you are free to want everything. You can only have what you can afford.

Or what you know how to ask for. One of Vladimir's friends on his first job in America, washing dishes, is another recent arrival to America, an astrophysicist who has to work in a kitchen because he doesn't speak English well-enough to get a teaching job. He's worried that when he finally does master the language skills, his other skills as a scientist will have become out of date.

All those choices can be depressing too. Just because it's not as bad as it was back in Moscow doesn't mean that it's not dispiriting. Vladimir literally faints when he walks into a grocery store to buy coffee and faces an entire aisle full of fifty brands of coffee to choose from.

Not being able to choose is not as sad as having no choice, but the result is the same. You go home empty-handed.

Freedom means being able to rely on yourself, to not have to ask for favors or make deals just to get through a day (Which inspires the question, how free are any of us?), and that means people don't need each other as desperately as they did back home. Vladimir finds that all his new friendships are much looser than they were in Russia and likely to be temporary.

And the freedom to be your own self, to live your life your own way, to be the person you want to be, can make people jealous of themselves. It can make them resist any claim you might make on them, even the most well-meaning and caring claims, even the claims of love and affection. They will see it as an attempt to control them, as an attempt to steal from them a part of themselves.

On the day Vladimir's new American girlfriend, the Italian sales clerk under whose skirt he hid when he was fleeing his KGB handlers in Bloomingdales, played by Maria Conchita Alonso, becomes a US citizen she turns immediately cold and sullen. She finds a far corner to be alone and away from her family at the party celebrating her citizenship. She pulls away from Vladimir whenever he tries to hug her. She provokes a fight. When he storms off she looks triumphant.

It didn't help that he picked the moment she wanted most to be alone to propose and that he put his proposal in the old, Soviet-style way, as a matter of economic convenience to both of them, making her afraid that all he wanted out of her was a nicer apartment and his own path to citizenship smoothed out. And she's terrified of her new freedom as well. It has sunk in what it means to be able to call her life her own---she is on her own in a way she has no idea yet how to handle.

But what's really upsetting her is that now that she is truly her own person she doesn't want to share any of her new-found self with anybody else. She wants to enjoy it all to herself. She is, understandably, feeling extremely selfish---self-ish---and here's Vladimir trying to claim a major piece of her self away from her.

It isn't long before they break up.

This is how it goes with all of Vladimir's American connections. All his new friendships turn out to be transient or illusory or unreliable in some other way.

The only friend who sticks with him is his lawyer, Orlando, merrily played by Alejandro Rey making the case with his infectious grin that as miserable as life can be here, anywhere, there is still always much to enjoy and love, and Orlando isn't sticking because he likes Vladimir, although he does, very much; he's sticking because he's his lawyer and he's being paid to stick.

The crisis Mazursky has brought Vladimir's story to is spiritual. Freedom has come at soul-crushing price. For Vladimir, being an American, being a New Yorker at any rate, means being all on his own, which is to say, being terribly lonely.

His best friends have wandered away, paying in their way the prices of their own freedoms. The woman he loves wants nothing more to do with him. He will probably never see his family in Russia ever again. There are millions of people all around him but they are strangers and pretty much all of them are content, eager even, to remain strangers.

He is part of a crowd and apart from it. And what he must do is find a way to live with himself as his own best company, figure out how to use his freedom to make himself happy...or at least not miserable.

Thus the last scene of the movie. Vladimir, having found work as a musician again, sets up on a street corner to play his saxophone. Most of the passersby ignore him, but a few pause, listen, applaud, drop some coins, make a connection, a temporary one, and move on, leaving him alone in the crowd, playing his music for himself, making himself happy by himself.

Moscow on the Hudson. Directed by Paul Mazursky. Written by Paul Mazursky and Leon Capetanos. Starring Robin Williams, Maria Conchita Alonso, Alejandro Rey, Cleavant Derricks, and Elya Baskin. Columbia Pictures. 1984.

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