Mark Haney makes Soviet communism sing again at the Vancity Theatre

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      As it emerges finally into open fascism, America would rather blame Russia for its problems than look internally for the causes.

      It’s a deranged, irrational, dangerous spectacle, diagnosed with ringing clarity by Vancouver’s Gabor Mate in this interview with his son, Aaron Mate, and exposed to the light during this week's depressingly predictable last act of the Mueller variety show.

      With this in mind, a weekend at the Vancity Theatre offers some vital perspective. 

      Opening today (July 26), Larry Weinstein’s excellent doc Propaganda: The Art of Selling Lies can’t avoid the suggestion that western consumers are uniquely vulnerable to untruths sanctioned by state and then trumpeted by media, precisely because we’re conditioned to believe we’re not. 

      On Saturday and Sunday (July 27-28), the theatre offers a lively excursion into Soviet history with The Last Bolshevik, Chris Marker’s wondrous film essay on his friend, the filmmaker Aleksandr Medvedkin—a devout Russian communist whose work gradually yielded to his own disillusionment. (Passing in 1989, Medvedken had predicted his own death in '84. “It’s the only five year plan that ever worked,” quips Marker, in the film.)

      Perhaps best of all, Sunday’s screening of the Marker film is followed by Medvedken’s comic masterpiece, Happiness (1935)—with a live score composed by Mark Haney and performed by his Little Chamber Music Series That Could.

      “It’s really a surrealist comic work, which I didn’t really expect to find in, you know, a silent Russian movie from 1935,” remarks Haney, speaking to the Straight shortly before his first full rehearsal of the score. 

      A picaresque following the misfortunes of a downtroden peasant, the wild imaginative force of Medvedken’s film is perhaps better suggested by its original title: A Tale of a Hapless Mercenary Khmyr, His Horse-Wife Anna, His Well-Fed Neighbor Foka and Also of a Priest, a Nun and Other Old Relics

      Naturally, and in spite of the filmmaker’s collectivist sympathies, Happiness was banned by incensed Soviet authorities for 40 years.

      Haney was introduced to the film by VIFF’s Tom Charity, who also suggested that the composer whip up a handful of songs for the performance. And so Haney went looking for a lyricist among the dissident Russian poets of the 20th century. (Why didn’t Elton John ever think of that?)

      “My original thought was to use Pasternak,” he says. “And going through a bunch of stuff online and going down that rabbit hole led me to some Osip Mandelstam poems. He was writing these in the exact same era this film was made—which seemed perfect. And they’re just so bloody dark. Not pretend darkness. This is real darkness.”

      Mandelstam would die in the Gulag in 1935. Marginally less bleak was the Russian folk music Haney scoured for musical inspiration.

      “Old Russian folk songs, I discovered, in a lot of cases, were just two chords,” he says. “So not that interesting to ape that style, but I kinda took some of the flavour from it and made it more angular.”

      As the author of Aim for the Roses, Haney enjoys a reputation for spinning captivatingly weird product from the unlikeliest sources. As such, Happiness would seem to fit the bill, with new compositions boasting titles, per Mandelstam, like “Your Thin Shoulders Whips Will Redden”, “The Stalin Epigram”, and—most poptastic of all—“To Cure Wounds Is Rigid”.

      “And that one,” explains Haney, “is about people who have nothing—except maybe a song.” 

      Which would be all of us, no matter what stripe of authoritarianism. Yes?

      “Exactly,” he says.

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