The Tuner

[Nastroishchik]

Ukraine and Russia, 2004
Black-and-white, 154 minutes
Director: Kira Muratova
Script: Sergei Chetvertokov, with Evgenii Golubenko and Kira Muratova (an improvisation on themes from Arkadii Koshko)
Cinematography: Gennadii Kariuk
Art Director: Evgenii Golubenko
Cast: Georgii Deliev, Alla Demidova, Renata Litvinova, Nina Ruslanova
Producer: Sergei Chliiants
Production: Russia (Pygmalion Production); Ukraine (Odessa Film Studio, Ministry of Culture and Art)

Seeking marriage through newspaper ads, Liuba (Nina Ruslanova), a nurse, is bilked by a stranger whom she mistakes for her new date. Liuba's elderly girlfriend, Anna Sergeevna (Alla Demidova) is defrauded in a different fashion: having placed an ad for a piano tuner, she is entrapped by Andrei (Georgii Deliev), who is not only an excellent tuner, but also a reasonably good scam artist. Andrei and his current lover, Lina (played by Russia's newest cult figure, Renata Litvinova), attempt to gain the women's trust by retrieving Liuba's money. Placing their own fake ad in a newspaper so as to locate the suspect, Andrei and Lina return the stolen money, then swindle both women through an elaborate forgery scheme—in a word, normal human nature à la Muratova.

Surface, paper, and the fictional self emerge as the organizing themes of The Tuner, for which Renata Litvinova's Warholian superficiality is ideally suited. The opening scene sets its characters against a backdrop of fluttering ads. And although paper—the ads, the newspaper pages, the bank certificates, the forged papers, fake love letters, the monetary bills—is the film's dominant medium for the "scam self," Litvinova is a multi-media scam artist, performing best on the cell phone. And Muratova, we realize by the film's end, prefers celluloid. The scam artist, the musical artist, and the film artist collapse into a single shot when, in an extended take near the conclusion, Andrei stares out at us, accompanying himself on the (now) well-tuned piano. His knowing wink suggests that what had begun as a deceptive newspaper ad is also the film itself.

Several of Muratova's trademark devices resurface in this new work. Here her episodic eccentrics include a retarded deaf-mute; a toga-clad wine-seller who offers free rosè and a nameless blind man who is granted the film's final lines. When we were younger, we might have mistaken these vignettes as redemptive pathos in Muratova's work; now retrospectively, we observe them with cooler eyes as minor sightings in Muratova's game preserve of the human species. A second trademark device is her love of "cultural intermezzo": here, a gaggle of charmingly inept musicians and a girl singer-songwriter, performing on public transport. Aficionados of Muratova's work will remember Aleksandra Svenskaia's trumpet performance (Asthenic Syndrome, 1989) and Gena's declamatory lyrics in the opening scene of Three Stories (1997). This is Muratova's utopian dimension: art as irredeemably unprofessional, yet utterly self-sufficient, the flawless conjuration of an inner hallucination.

What then is a "tuner"? Anna Sergeevna reminds us that any good musician needs a "personal tuner," who attends to the pianist, not the piano ("everyone needs a tuner"). This is no metaphor for psychotherapy; but an unwitting acknowledgment of life's enduring availability to the marauder for capture, plunder, and annihilation. In the end, Andrei does not murder Anna Sergeevna, but merely swindles her and disappears. Turning to the police, the victims find they can agree upon no common description of Andrei. A certain Gogolian indeterminacy has rendered him indescribable. They themselves have been "tuned"; the tuner has left; the film is done.

Kira Muratova

Kira Muratova (born 1934) has directed twelve feature films. A thirteenth, Letter to America, is a twenty-minute short. Her first two films were co-directed with her (then) husband, Aleksandr Muratov. During the Soviet period, Muratova had encountered severe criticism for her unconventional work in Brief Encounters (1967). Her second film, Long Farewells (1971; released 1987), was banned entirely; the filmmaker herself was downgraded in her professional status. These early films, her "provincial melodramas," mark the first stage of Muratova's work. A second stage is another pair of films from the late Stagnation period: Getting to Know the Wide World (1978) and Among Grey Stones (1983). The move from black-and-white to a vivid, mannered color scheme is complemented by associative camera work. Among Grey Stones was so severely cut that Muratova removed her name entirely, substituting instead the generic moniker "Ivan Sidorov."

A third pair, from the perestroika era, is A Change of Fate (1987) and Asthenic Syndrome (1989; released 1990). If the former continued Muratova's love of contrapuntal narrative, the latter returned to an imbedded plot structure, signaled by an internal shift from black-and-white to color. Muratova's fourth stage, Sentimental Policeman (1992) and Passions (1994), after the fall of communism, marks a gentler period in her work, continuing her mannered style, but without the narrative and verbal provocations of Asthenic Syndrome. Three Stories and Minor People (2001) are the last of her color films. Three Stories is strongly plotted, each of its three brief narratives sustaining a clear structure and story line. Minor People, in some respects her weakest film, exhibits a kind of exhaustion of the best-known devices: the mannered speech, endless repetitions, and random plot digressions. Muratova's two most recent films, Chekhov's Motifs (2002) and Tuner (2004), mark a return to the black-and-white footage of her early work, seeking a balance between the subdued surface of the black-and-white screen and the ornamentalist mise-en-scène.

Filmography:

1961 By the Steep Ravine [U krutogo iara]. Co-directed with Aleksandr Muratov. VGIK Diploma film.
1964 Our Honest Bread [Nash chestnyi khleb]. Co-directed with Aleksandr Muratov.
1967 Brief Encounters [Korotkie vstrechi]. 
1971 (released 1987) Long Farewells [Dolgie provody].
1978 Getting to Know the Wide World [Poznavaia belyi svet].
1983 Among the Grey Stones [Sredi serykh kamnei]. Released under the name Ivan Sidorov. 
1987 A Change of Fate [Peremena uchasti].
1989 (released 1990) Asthenic Syndrome [Astenicheskii sindrom].
1992 Sentimental Policeman [Chuvstvitel'nyi militsioner].
1994 Passions [Uvlecheniia]. 
1997 Three Stories [Tri istorii]. 
1999 Letter to America [Pis'mo v Ameriku].
2001 Minor People [Vtorostepennye liudi].
2002 Chekhov's Motifs [Chekhovskie motivy].
2004 The Tuner [Nastroishchik].

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