All words: Alan Pyke
Mirth is hard to come by in dark times. Perhaps you, like me, have turned increasingly to the absurd for solace. You can only chase the dragon for so long, though, before Our Lady of Perpetual Dank Memes starts to lose its potency. Eventually you need harder stuff, the uncut bizarro bullshit of the tabloids, the stuff that claims to be true even though it’s patently absurd.
Here is some uncut bizarro bullshit: the purported woman’s purported name is, purportedly, Koku Istambulova. She is 128. That makes her one of the only people alive who might have seen Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull performed in one of its debut runs back in 1896 or so, not too terribly far away from Koku’s (purportedly) native Chechnya.
Now, she can see one of the last: director Michael Mayer’s new big-screen adaptation of the classic black comedy hits arthouses Friday. Get on a plane, Koku! Put her up in a nice suite, Sony Pictures Classics! Assisted suicide is legal in DC, milady, so the quiet peaceful death you tabloid-purportedly crave can be easily arranged after the screening. We can bury you at least as deeply as I’ve buried my lede here, if you’d like.
You ever tried breathing life into a 120-year-old thing? It’s not easy. You’re much more likely to collapse into laughingstock status than dazzle the villagers like Dr. Frankenstein.
Why risk it? What treasures does Mayer hope to unearth in reviving so old a work? Perhaps it is something about Chekhov’s sly cat-and-canary tugging at the class disjointment of late-Tsarist Russia. Perhaps a tale stuffed with alternately loathsome and pitiful characters can yank at the same brain-melting media and entertainment stupidities that have warped so-called Western Civilization beyond its maximum torsion.
Or maybe it was just the chance to make a damned good script with a damned fine cast and some damned subtle filmmaking. Maybe all that’s just too good to pass up, in this our Age of Ultron, our summer of needlessly revived sitcoms, our winter of dipshit men newly empowered to bomb Iran and blackball Colin Kaepernick. If they can reboot Full House and Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure and Han motherfucking Solo for some motherfucking reason, surely there’s room on the board for Chekhov!
This is, it turns out, a perfectly good reason to do this thing that Mayer’s done. He’s plucked a peach, though whatever accolades this project deserves should go first to his cast. There are such strong supporting turns that Annette Benning’s excellent work in the aging-actress-who-can’t-
Elisabeth Moss as a scene-stealing drunk ne’er-feel-well! The creepyfuck from True Detective Season 1 (Glenn Fleshler) as an eloquently indignant farm operator with a theatrical bent! Saoirse Ronan as, well ok, a twee young beauty suckered in by attraction to a pretty baboon of a man, but this time in the Russian countryside instead of in Sacramento! Brian Dennehy reaching not-at-all-deep into the actor’s imaginarium to play a man nearing death who’s vaguely disappointed he didn’t leave a more memorable imprint on the world!
As for the filmmaking, who could honestly give a shit? If you want to read someone arguing that Mayer’s choice to use a whirlingly dynamic camera is a distracting catastrophe that upstages Chekhov’s script and the ensemble cast alike, here’s A.O. Scott in the Times. If you want a counterpoint, check out Josephine Livingstone in The New Republic.
If you want to go see what a reanimated 122-year-old corpse can do with the right magicks, though, skip all that shit. Go buy a ticket, stop for a glass of gin on the way in, turn off your phone, and see what it all conjures out of you.
Just don’t – whatever you do – let anyone make you care if Koku Istambulova is really 128. Enjoy something, won’t you? None of us have much left.