Sunday, January 13, 2013

"Moscow On the Hudson" with Robin Williams (1984)

It’s hard to believe that this film is almost 30 years old already. And it’s not dated at all. The absence of cell phones and laptops is hardly noticeable in this carefully directed comedy/drama by Paul Mazursky; in which Robin Williams plays a Russian saxophone player, Vladimir Ivanoff, on tour with the Moscow Circus, and his sudden decision to defect.

The film is extraordinary in that it shows the lines in Moscow for consumer goods in the last days of the Socialist Soviet Republic. When walking down the street and seeing a line, you simply joined it; no matter if was a line for toilet paper, or food; both were in short demand. So, when Vladimir is slated to go to New York as part of a cultural exchange, he has no basis with which to compare the abundance of the west with his homeland in Russia.

Ironically, Vladimir is not even interested in defecting, as is a friend of his who is a fellow circus performer. The choice to make this character a “sad clown” was brilliant, and his face, as he leaves for the airport without having defected, is hard to forget. Vladimir; on the other hand; is quite believable as a jazz enthused musician whose soul cannot possibly endure a return to Moscow.

The real “meat” of this movie occurs when the circus troupe stops by Bloomingdale’s; a symbol of western decadence; for a shopping trip on their way to the airport on the way home to Russia, Vladimir is seized by all that he has seen and heard in New York City. After he has been to Harlem, and played in a jazz club, how could he ever go home again? The artistic freedom is the magnet which lures him to his most bold and daring act; he defects in Bloomingdale’s, leaving his Russian KGB handlers baffled as to what; if anything; they can do about it. And as Vladimir watches his friends departing for the airport, he is standing outside of Bloomingdale’s, screaming “Freedom!” in English and Russian to his friends.

This film came out when I was still working aboard ships, and so I missed it at the time it was released. For one reason or another, I have never seen it until now. And what a pleasure to find that it still rings true. With all of our differences; and in spite of our seeming disengagement from one another; both politically and socially; we are; as shown in the final moments of the film; a nation of immigrants. And I find a strange sort of comfort in that.

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