ARTMargins Online Blog

Touring Moscow's Art House Cinemas

Differences in the type of films each theater exhibits are not insignificant. Instead of Hollywood blockbusters, Russian commercial comedies, war-themed, action-adventure sagas, or melodramas, Moscow art houses deal in independent and small-release productions from Europe and America, as well as classics from the cannon of international film history. But before and after the screenings I attended and as I walked around the theaters, I thought about the history of these venues and how they operate, as such details also figure into the definition of these venues as art house cinemas. Some of them, like the Art Film Theater, have been around for more than a hundred years. Others, like the World of Art theater, are new additions, which offer audiences access to definitive works of auteur cinema. During my month-long stay in Moscow, I visited five such theaters, a brief description of each follows below.

This is not an exhaustive list of Moscow's art house theaters; my research obligations unfortunately did not permit more free time for a more encompassing view. Nevertheless, I did manage to notice that these theaters, despite their disregard for the mainstream, exist within an interrelated film culture and industrial system. Like the reference to Landmark's role in industry suggests, these theaters do not operate in a vacuum but represent a particular model of film distribution, specifically within the contemporary Russian film industry. In order to turn a profit and stay viable, these institutions depend on megaplex theaters to define their specific market niche. Art house cinemas define their specific industrial and cultural function in contrast to the mainstream commercial industry. The Art Film Theater ("Khudozhestvenii") is the best example of this interrelationship. This art house is in close proximity to the theater October ("Oktiabr'"), a megaplex located only a couple of blocks west on Novyi Arbat Street. This past month, October's eleven theaters where showing everything from the dubbed versions of Despicable Me 2 (Coffin & Renaud, 2013) and White House Down (Emmerich, 2013) to the new Russian comedy Pel'meni (Dumplings, Ostrovskii, 2013). It's from the refracted light of the October megaplex that the Art Film Theater acquires its own glow.

35 mm2

35 mm -- This is Moscow's main institution for cinephiles, located in the Chistye prudy neighborhood. Its large screening room has a 500-person capacity, while its small theater can fit 160 people. From morning until the late evening hours, the theater screens a diverse repertoire of contemporary feature films, mostly from Europe and the United States. Almost all of the films are screened in their native languages, which is exceptional as most foreign films in Russia are dubbed. The theater regularly screens twenty different features and documentaries. Every month, four to five new films are introduced. Tickets range in price from 70 rubles for matinees to 350 for VIP seating, that is, seats closest to the center, in both screening rooms. For 300 rubles on Fridays and Saturdays in the small screening room, the theater offers dusk-till-dawn marathon screenings. While in Moscow, I hunkered down for one of these marathons, which included films dealing with the problems surrounding sex. The Russian film Intimnye mesta (Intimate Parts, 2013) follows the sexual crises of a cast of contemporary Muscovites. The Australian Adore (Fontaine, 2013) tells the story of two women who share a life-long friendship and carry on intimate relationships with each other's sons. Finally, the American Lovelace (Epstein and Freidman, 2013) is the biopic of Linda Susan Boreman, the woman behind perhaps the most famous porn film of all times, Deepthroat (Gerard, 1972).



Mir iskusstva (World of Art) -- Tucked away in a courtyard near the Novoslobodskaia metro station in the Beloruskaia neighborhood, this theater is labeled a "chamber electronic cinema" (kamernyi elektronnyi kinoteatr). The label refers to the cavernous, basement location of the theater and its digital projector, which is connected to a conventional DVD player. The theater is run by an elderly babushka, who sells tickets, works the lights, and pushes play on the DVD player. Tickets cost from 100 to 200 rubles, while students and persons entitled to benefits receive a fifty percent discount. The repertoire features the works of recognized masters of auteur cinema -- from Buñuel to Kim Ki-duk. It's also possible for a couple of thousand rubles to rent the theater and screen a film from its catalog. Each week is devoted to the work of two directors and for seven days, you can see their main films. On weekend mornings the cinema screens free cartoons and animated fairytales. I visited this homey institution during the week dedicated to Jean Vigo and Alfred Hitchcock. I caught Hitchcock's spy thriller Saboteur (1942) and watched a cross-country chase for German spies in World War II America dubbed in Russian. Before my screening, it was nice to see a rather large crowd exiting a showing of Orson Welles' Citizen Kane (1941).


Khudozhestvenii kinoteatr (Art Film Theater) -- Located in Moscow's famed Arbat neighborhood, Khudozhestvenii is the oldest theater in the country and the first built exclusively for film screenings. Over the course of its long history, the theater has been the gathering spot for intellectuals and artists. The first projection took place on November 11, 1909. At the time, the theater boasted the largest screening hall in the country with 400 seats along with space for a full orchestra to accompany silent films. Tickets range in price from 50 rubles for matinees to 300 rubles for later showings. Currently Khudozhestvenii has five screening rooms, the still expansive large hall along with four smaller spaces. The theater offers selections from contemporary Russian cinema, including commercial and independent films, as well as special screenings organized by Moscow's Film Museum (Muzei kino). On Fridays and Saturdays, the theater offers retrospectives of acclaimed directors and actors. I watched Stas Fedosov's Sukhaia zemlia (Terra Seca, 2013) at the Art Film Theater. This eighty-minute allegory whose sparse narrative revolves around a mysterious woman clad in black who offers strangers the opportunity to gamble for her soul or in turn loose theirs, suffered from stilted acting and overwrought concepts. which produced unintentional comic effects such as when a woman dances with a giant loaf of bread.




Illiuzion (The Illusion) -- Housed in one of Stalin's monumental skyscrapers, the Kotelnicheskaia Embankment Building in the Kitai gorod (Chinatown) neighborhood, this is the theater of the State Film Fund of the Russian Federation (Gosfilmofund). Recently renovated, the ambience of the former elite housing building envelopes the theater. The theater's interior walls mimic the building’s pale facade as the foyer also boasts ornately engraved columns and baroque chandeliers. Despite its grand appearance, tickets to screenings are very cheap, ranging between 20 to 120 rubles. Illiuzion's repertoire focuses on the classics of domestic and foreign cinema. Auteur films are regularly shown side by side with the popular comedies and melodramas. One can apparently see an Antonioni film next to a Buster Keaton comedy, in other words – a cinephile's definition of heaven. Outside of film festivals, contemporary films are almost never screened at the Illiuzion. Here, I watched The Republic ShKID (Respublika ShKID, Poloka, 1966). The “republic” at the center of this bitter comedy is a school for orphaned boys run by an eccentric group of pedagogues. The wayward boys are allowed to organize their school as a Soviet republic, as their teachers strive to instill in them the morals and ethics of Communism. It was delightful to see an audience for this film that varied from elderly patrons who might have seen the film when it first premiered to parents with their children.



Fitil' (The Wick) – Located in Moscow's Gorky park neighborhood, this theater includes a medium-sized screening room and a bar/cafe. Its repertoire follows the programming of 35 mm, albeit on a reduced scale. While the bar/cafe doesn't boast a great reputation among locals, Fitil' is the site of the weekly meetings of the Blue Phantom film club. Meeting every Wednesday at 8:00 pm, the club specializes in independent Russian cinema, both documentary and feature films, including many films that are unlikely to ever be released in wide release. The screenings are followed by conversations and Q&A sessions with filmmakers, film critics, producers and curators. The discussions are often reportedly heated. Next time I travel to Moscow I plan to attend one of these discussions and enter they fray. This time around, I only managed to have some tea at the cafe and catch the dubbed American film Frances Ha (Baumbach, 2012), translated in Russian as Dear Frances (Milaia Frencis). The Russian language version of Baumbach's tribute to the French New Wave and specifically Eric Rohmer was a testament to developments in dubbing strategies, as the Russian voices worked hard to follow the intonations of Greta Gerwig's Frances and Mickey Summers' Sophie. Frances Ha, which follows its protagonist's romantic and occupational misadventures, was part of a festival dedicated to contemporary American cinema, then starting across Moscow's art houses. The audience of mostly twenty- or thirty-somethings, albeit small in number, seemed to enjoy the film judging from their laughter.

As far as I know, during the Communist era, the split between art house and commercial cinemas did not exist (I plan to pursue this research question further when time permits). The split seems to have arisen in post-Soviet Russia with the need to develop strategies for marketing and distribution after the state-run film industry was privatized. So even though Moscow's art house theaters have taken on the role of safeguarding the notion of film as art, a function I don't mean to belittle, they perform with financial interests and the interest of their audiences in mind. By emphasizing their art house status, these venues look to remain profitable and subsist in the mediascape of contemporary Russian film culture.

Zdenko Mandušić
Author: Zdenko MandušićCountry: US
Zdenko Mandušić is pursuing a joint Ph.D. in Slavic Languages and Literatures and Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Chicago. His areas of study are Russian/Soviet and Yugoslav cinema, film theory, and Russian and Southeast European Literature. He plans to write a dissertation based around the question of how the desire for innovation has inspired technological developments.

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