Cheer up with a bit of gloom on-screen

Posted Dec. 18, 2009, at 4:54 p.m.

It’s that time of year. The wood pile is shrinking already and it’s not even winter yet. It’s time to refill that oil tank in the cellar, and the checking account is approaching sea level, thanks to holiday spending. It might be a good year to skip that Christmas tree.

You are sitting there in your leopard Snuggie as the icy drafts blow through the leaky windows. It’s about 100 days till the start of spring training.

Like our boy Hollis Brown, with his cabin falling down, you are approaching cabin fever. I am here to help. I have a cure. A fail-safe solution to the long, cold winter.

Russian cinema.

Last week, I rented a trio of Russian films from Netflix. They were so negative, so gloomy, so dark, so hopeless that, by comparison, my life seemed like a day at the Holiday Inn at Fort Myers sitting by the pool, sipping an umbrella drink. Trust me, if you can get through these films, your life will seem like a vacation at Epcot.

“The Ascent” (1977) depicts the brutish battle between the Nazis and the Soviet partisan rebels. When this film starts, the partisans ambush a German patrol, fire a few shots and find out they are out of ammo. And the movie has just started. They run out of food in the next 15 minutes.

Needless to say, it is cold. Always cold.

Two partisans climb through the waist-deep snow and finally find some food, but you know how this will turn out. Soviet traitors turn them in, where they end up in a freezing cellar, scheduled to be hanged in the morning. (Can’t you just hear “Silent Night” in the background?) One partisan, Rybak, offers to join the traitorous local police if only they spare his life.

In what could be the low point of any movie, Rybak realizes what he has done and tries to hang himself in the outhouse … and fails. I won’t give away the dismal ending.

Don’t make any plans if you rent “Dersu Uzala” (1975) for the weekend. This two-hour masterpiece, a collaboration between the Japanese and Soviets, is sort of the Russian version of the Lewis and Clark expedition.

It was directed by the Japanese master Akira Kurosawa and won the grand prize the Moscow Film Festival, plus the Oscar for best foreign film. It is based on the 1923 memoir of Russian explorer Vladimir Arseniev and his expedition to map Siberia.

It is an astounding production, but I had to watch it over a three-day period. I got too tired.

Uzala has lived in the Mongolian-Siberian countryside since birth. When he wanders into a Russian exploration party led by Arseniev the captain hires him as a guide. Although elderly, Uzala easily outhunts and outshoots the best of them, and manages to save the life of the captain during one snowstorm. The soldiers develop a deep respect and affection for Dersu and Arseniev. As the guide’s eyesight fails, Arseniev brings the man into his home in the city. You can just imagine the Russian ending.

Much like the end of a camping trip, when this movie finally concludes, your life, your bed, your refrigerator — even your toilet — will be objects of heightened adoration.

“The Cranes are Flying,” is relatively positive, almost a musical by comparison. The film, directed by Mikhail Kalatozov, won the Palm d’Or prize at the 1958 Cannes Film Festival.

(I am always a sucker for the Palm d’Ors.)

It depicts the family of a Moscow doctor in far less noble terms than traditional Russian war movies. Son Boris and Veronika are madly in love, dancing through Moscow streets before the war. Boris patriotically volunteers for combat. But nephew Mark, very hot for Veronika, bribes a local official to stay home, safe and sound.

Naturally, Veronika’s parents are killed in an air raid, Mark rapes Veronika and Boris dies in a frozen birch forest, in a futile attempt to save another soldier.

Not exactly “The Sound of Music.”

Well, that’s my cabin fever reliever suggestion. Cheaper than lithium.

Have a nice winter, comrades.

Send complaints and compliments to Emmet Meara at emmetmeara@msn.com.

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