Thursday, June 29, 2017

The Putin Interview

Between February 2015 and the same month in 2017, the American film maker, Oliver  Stone, was granted access to Vladimir Putin.  Stone conducted several interviews with the Russian leader and has edited the highlights of those encounters into a four-hour series.  The shows, first aired on Showtime, are available to subscribers on-demand and they are worth watching. 

The interviews are inadvertently comical in some respects:  Stone is balding in an unsightly way, jowly, disheveled, and dressed like an overweight New Jersey mobster; he has legal pads on which he has scribbled notes for his interviews, a chaotic handwritten outline that seems to have been written in all directions at once.  Stone also seems to have bad hips and knees and walks with a geriatric shuffle.  By contrast, Putin is impeccably groomed, imperturbable, and ridiculously athletic -- he wears his beautifully cut suits like an Italian model.  Even when he dresses casually in deference to the slovenly Stone, Putin still looks like a figure in a fashion magazine.  Stone, who seems to be no patriot, is forever trying to get Putin to make nasty remarks about the United States -- but Putin is diplomatic, producing the peculiar spectacle of the sinister Russian defending American institutions more vigorously than the fat American.  Stone is a poor interviewer -- he doesn't seem to ask follow-up questions and, most of the time, serves up soft-balls for Putin to hit out of the park.  When he does challenge the Russian leader, Putin's imperturbable, eerily inexpressive poker face gets the best of the American.  A good example of missed opportunities is the first episode.  Stone provides a brief curriculum vita of the Russian, posing leading questions to him:  it's an elementary mistake -- everyone likes to talk about their childhood and adolescence, it's the one part of our lives that we all believe we remember with accuracy.  Putin corrects Stone several times with respect to errors in his account and my guess is that the Russian would have been pleased to speak at length about his father's experiences in the war and the poverty in Russian after the conflict -- one of Putin's siblings seems to have starved to death in the great siege of Leningrad.  But Stone is uninterested in these subjects and simply charges forward to the collapse of the Soviet Union in the hope that he can get Putin to say something nasty about Yeltsin, by all accounts a shambling inebriate.  (Putin is too gentlemanly to make any ungracious remarks about any of his predecessors -- he also declines to insult American leaders refusing to speak about Obama and remarking that Hilary Clinton is a "extremely dynamic woman.")  Stone seems ignorant of the fact that if you can get a man or woman to talk unreservedly about their childhood, you will quickly learn their values, how they view the past, and what they wish for the future.  Stone unimaginatively pushes Putin on political issues -- he should be asking the man about his taste in music, the films that he admires, and his first love affair.  In the second episode, Stone presses Putin on Edward Snowden and we are treated to a bizarre sequence in which the American seems to do his utmost to get the Russian leader to confirm some of the paranoid theories exploited in the interviewer's fictional film about Snowden.  (Putin just equivocates.) 

The interviews are shot in a peculiar fidgety way and edited for maximum fragmentation.  Unfortunately, Stone seems to have been concerned about camera failure and, so, he typically uses three angles on all interviews -- there is a fixed camera producing a Sixty Minutes style tableaux, a roving handheld camera, and, then, a third camera often located in a peculiarly remote location.  (In one sequence, Stone sets the camera on a high balcony above an atrium in which a late night interview is conducted -- he shoots straight down on the participants, a sniper's eye view, that is striking but not expressive.)  Stones is fearful that his interviews lack drama and so he cuts them for maximum kinetic effect -- he has the misunderstanding that an interview should be as visually exciting as an MTV music video and the camera is forever pointlessly changing angles:  in the middle of a phrase, we may get a completely different camera angle or an extreme close-up of Putin's lips or a shot of Stone's scribbled notes.  The effect is nerve-wracking at first, although ultimately the viewer gets used to the scrambled imagery.  Curiously enough, Stone's verite techniques have the effect of making it seem that the interviews have been doctored -- sometimes the camera angles are so similar to one another to create a jump-cut effect:  we wonder what phrase or name did Stone just omit from the interview.

But the show has its pleasures and I recommend it.  Putin is the kind of man who has to be the best at everything he tries.  He has taken up skating and plays hockey and it's pretty obvious that he's not a good player.  Stone makes a jocular remark about other players "letting him score" and Putin is so vain he misses the point entirely.  Stone wants Putin to watch Dr. Strangelove and we get a cringe-inducing sequence in which Stone attends to the movie while Putin watches with an air of very remote indifference -- he is obviously not amused.  After the screening, Stone gives the DVD container to Putin but has failed to remove the disk from the machine.  Putin and his aides vanish and, then, a moment come back to retrieve the disk -- "a typical American gift," Putin says deadpan, flashing the empty DVD case.  (One of the amusing aspects of the film is that Putin obviously understands English and will sometimes respond to Stone's convoluted questions without needing translation -- but the fiction is maintained that Putin doesn't really know any English.)  We see Putin's thoroughbred horses and his country home, a dacha that appears to have an entire Eastern Orthodox cathedral tucked away in one wing -- a riot of gold and silver.  Putin casually makes retrograde comments about women and homosexuals but, almost immediately, takes his words back and substitutes expressions that he thinks are more politically correct, sometimes just deepening the hole that he has dug for himself.  (He tells Stone that he "doesn't have bad days" adding:  "I'm not a woman." When Stone teases him about this statement, Putin drifts into a commentary on women's physiology.)  Throughout the two-episodes of the film that I have watched, Putin generally spins his comments around four themes:  (1) the United States political bureaucracy controls the President and not vice-versa; (2) the weakness in the American political system is that the President must be elected every four years, a cycle that results in shortsightedness -- Putin says that he makes plans for 25 and 50 years in the future and claims that he is prescient to that extent; (3) Russia is a free, liberal society on par with the democracies of the West although he, sometimes, allows that Russia was feudal and, then, totalitarian until 1993 and, accordingly, must not be held to standards that would apply in America; and (4) the United States has double-crossed Russia by encircling it on all sides with NATO allies and a ring of nuclear-armed submarines.  Finally, and most importantly, Putin avers that there are only a couple of sovereign nations on Earth -- by this he means countries that can really do what they want independent of other nations:  Russia is one of these countries and, of course, it's adversary (he uses the word "partner"), the United States. 

The film's nervous and agitated style makes the viewer long for Errol Morris' cyclopean and relentless fixed-eye camera (or the humble 16 millimeter tripod fixed camera that Hans-Juergen Syberberg used in his long interviews.)  Putin's face is an impenetrable mask, sculpted it seems by botox and also some sort of nasty plastic surgery -- he has the waxen look of Lenin's mummy.  He's not at all expressive -- at most, a very faint smile glimmers on his lips -- but it's fascinating to hear him speak and wonder what lies beyond his implacable serenity.

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