April 01, 1999

Lights, Camera ...

Lights, Camera ...

It is hard to underestimate the role of the arts in Russian speech. Consider film, which, to reluctantly quote Josef Stalin, was, for communists “the most important art form” (“Важнейшим из всех искусств для нас является кино”), because it reached such a broad audience. Actually, in my school days, the most important thing about films was that going to the киношка (little movie) was a great excuse for skipping school. Today, our kids can get anything they want on video (на видеке/на видаке), but this is not to say school attendance has gotten any better.

So, when a Russian says “Инте­рес­ное кино!” (“Interesting movie!”), it is not necessarily a cinema critique. Pronounced with the right intonation and a slathering of sarcasm, it connotes indignation, disappointment or disagreeable surprise (or all three at once), i.e. a sarcastic “Excuse me!” or “Well-well-well!” For instance, this is what a creditor might say to a debtor when the latter refuses to repay a debt.

Along these lines, if certain members of the Russian government had wanted to be more inventive when they announced the August 17, 1998, default, they could have simply said: “Кина не будет – электричество кончилось!” (“Sorry, no movie, we ran out of power!”) This is a now idiomatic phrase from the film Джeнтльмены удачи. (Gentlemen of Fortune, 1971). Savely Kramarov (who actually ended his career as an émigré actor in the U.S.), starring as an escaped convict, uttered these words when he was caught by the militia. So, “no movie ...” means “the jig is up” or “oops, it didn’t come off.”

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