not in our stars, but in ourselves
46/52: A movie filmed the year you were born
Roughly 30 years ago – on 22 November 1985, to be precise – White Nights was released in theatres. One day later, your humble author entered the world, eight days* after her due date. I therefore assumed that somehow, this movie would resonate with me. I was right. Despite its mid-eighties, Cold War-centric plot, this movie feels like the kind of film MGM would have concocted back in the day in order to show off Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly** in a vehicle together. And of course, there’s substantial Russian ballet to amuse the likes of us who like that sort of thing. In short: the point isn’t really the story. It’s an ode to Terpsichore, a celebration of two dance geniuses, and a damn fine way to spend a couple of hours.
Nikolai Rodchenko (Mikhail Baryshnikov) is a world-famous ballet dancer based in New York City. Eight years ago, he defected from the Soviet Union – and his life has been a charmed one ever since. He’s touring the free world, happy as a lark. While flying to Tokyo, his plane encounters an electrical failure and is forced to land on a military base in Siberia. When Nikolai realizes where he is, he tries to destroy his American passport, credit cards, and any other identification – but it’s no use. The Soviet government, embarrassed at having lost him in the first place, is determined to keep him this time. Raymond Greenwood (Gregory Hines) is an American in Siberia, performing as a tap dancer for enraptured (and over-awed) Russians. He decided, long ago, to escape to the U.S.S.R., because he couldn’t abide the way the U.S. despised and used him at every term. When he was in Moscow, he fell in love with his translator, Darya (Isabella Rossellini), and he’s worked to build a life for them since. But they’re in Siberia. Not ideal. KGB official, Colonel Chaiko (Jerzy Skolimowski), applies a vice-like grip to Raymond to ensure that Nikolai not only stays in Soviet Russia, but dances again with the Kirov. Chaiko recognizes that the Soviets have some international goodwill to play with, as their “permission” to allow the airplane to land on their military base ended up saving over 200 lives, so he makes it clear to Nikolai that he can’t make a fuss. As far as the rest of the world is concerned, Nikolai sustained grievous injuries in the crash, and those injuries will only be healed when Nikolai makes his miraculous debut (again) as the Kirov’s star dancer. Nikolai and Raymond, despite their different circumstances leading to their respective defections (or “selection” as Raymond calls it), begin to understand that they want the same things. When Darya falls pregnant, Raymond decides he’ll join Nikolai’s wild escape plan – which he’s able to carry out with the help of Galina Ivanova (Helen Mirren), an old flame. Such loyalty that even the Soviets couldn’t stamp out.
Is it a good movie? No. Do I love it? Yes. Any occasion in which you can see two of the twentieth century’s greatest male dancers dancing together is well worth watching – and there are numerous, lengthy, not-necessary-to-the-plot dance sequences featuring Baryshnikov and Hines, solo and together. It’s wonderful to see their different styles together: Baryshnikov’s elastic grace, strength, and poise; Hines’s alacrity, athleticism, and expression. Additionally, it’s fascinating to see a film engage – candidly and directly – with the reasons an African-American might decide to defect to the Soviet Union. Raymond describes – in a tap dance monologue, as you do if you’re Gregory Hines – how his youthful talent was mostly ignored once he reached adulthood, and he was left with nothing. The U.S. military drafted him, but he realized he was little more than cannon fodder. With no job prospects other than near-guaranteed death, what was he to do? Where was he to go? He went to a place that promised equality and respect. As he discovered on arrival, those were somewhat empty promises, but it’s not hard to understand why he would have followed them with the hope that they’d turn out to be true. (Either way, he finds Darya, and if you had the chance to marry the luminous daughter of the sublime Ingrid Bergman, you’d switch teams, too.)
The film’s title, by the way, comes from the phenomenon in far-northern and -southern parts of the world: during the Summer Solstice, from mid-June to early July in Russia, there are 24 hours of sunlight. As such, we get lots of scenes that are set in the wee hours of the night en plein soleil. It’s an interesting geographic phenomenon in itself, but it adds to the sense of disorientation that both Nikolai and Raymond are meant to feel: both are accustomed, by birth or by choice, to the customary sunrise and sunset each morning and night. Here, in this strange world behind the Iron Curtain, their circadian rhythms are violently jolted by the summer sun.
That’s one of the things about White Nights that I find much more interesting than other Cold War-era films: it’s not exactly about demonizing “the Reds” or holding up the American way of life. Granted, the Soviet Union is the place where no one really wants to be, but Taylor Hackford shows us plenty of the beauty, grandeur, and spirit of Russia – Leningrad especially. Bureaucrats are useless everywhere, but art – ballet, music, sculpture, architecture – are ennobling and inspiring. St. Petersburg has that in spades, and did during the Soviet era as well.*** Chaiko is presented as a prick, no question, but he’s just trying to do his job. The Soviets spy on their people, which isn’t great, but consider the U.S. these days. Crumbling empires get paranoid. It’s not right, but it’s understandable, and White Nights doesn’t waste time trying to present any one regime or apparatchik as an evil menace. It’s disorientation, the opposite of the way human bodies are wired to operate, and it’s no wonder someone would want to get out of that kind of place.
All in all, White Nights ticks most of the boxes I’m looking for in my movie-going experience. Dancing? Check. Russia? Check. Pseudo hip-hop AND surreal ballet sequences? Check and mate.
*I was due on 15 November, but I waited a while, because I didn’t want to saddle my mother with a Scorpio baby. By the day White Nights was released, she was watching El Cid to try to induce labor. And hey, it worked! Here I am!
**They did one number together. Kelly said Astaire was his favorite partner. Sheer heaven, as they say.
***Nikolai clarifies, quite angrily, that he is Russian, but he’s not Soviet. Vladimir Nabokov would understand. And there is indeed a world of difference.