Shakhnazarov is otherwise a nostalgist with a particular attraction to the October Revolution and its precursor skirmishes, and a wry attitude toward life under the Soviet umbrella. JAZZMEN (1983; December 3 at 8 pm), in fact, exhibits a degree of satirical wiggle room — pre-glasnost — that can upend Western notions of Soviet cultural oppression. As broad and obvious and high-spirited as a Keystone Cops comedy, the film follows the rather formulaic travails of a young band of eager jazz musicians in the '30s who're surrounded by official culture (scaldingly mocked) that dubs them as decadent and Western but who eventually play Dixielandish bebop to huge audiences. From the Khrushchev thaw onward, the cinematic vision we get of Russian urban life has often been not so radically different from that in France or Sweden, but Jazzmen is a safe look backward compared with COURIER (1987; December 5 at 6 pm), which plants its feet in the late-perestroika present. Something of a generational touchstone that strove to speak for Russian youth just as the empire was crumbling, Shakhnazarov's movie — a coming-of-age teen saga in which an impetuous 18-year-old (Fyodor Dunaevsky) takes a job as a messenger, half-heartedly woos the beautiful daughter (Anastasia Nemolyaeva) of a famous writer, and generally pisses everyone off — is often awkward and unconvincing, but it also seethes with youthful ire. Not unlike Vasili Pichul's Little Vera (1988), Courier is less about crafting a narrative than about nailing down the discombobulated historical moment, from the cynical stance of teenagers fed up with the adult sphere's fuck-ups.
After Zero City, Shakhnazarov veered into the past, first with THE TSAR'S ASSASSIN (1993; December 5 at 7:45 pm), a supremely odd fable in which a contemporary mental patient (an entirely redubbed Malcolm McDowell) believes he is the Communist assassin of both Alexander II and Nicholas II (and the rest of the Romanovs); his delusions have a transformative effect, for reasons unknown, on his new doctor (Tarkovsky fave Oleg Yankovsky). The psychiatrist becomes convinced he's the last tsar, and we come share the characters' muddlement between what is the "past" and what is the "present," but the political ruefulness and the narrative point both seem half-baked. The filmmaker revisits the tsarist milieu with more determination in THE RIDER NAMED DEATH (2004; December 6 at 3:45 pm), which begins with a rather slovenly nod to the pre-WW1 underworld serial Les vampires and finishes on the same phrase from Revelation that gave its name to Elem Klimov's Belarussian death march Come and See. It's not a milieu we're over-acquainted with: 1905 Russia, when the various revolutionary forces and their radical terrorist arms were still gathering steam, busily bombing and assassinating officers, dukes, politicos, and diplomats.
Based on Boris Savinkov's semi-autobiographical novel — which was written in 1909, before the insurrectionary free-for-all came close to coalescing into something much more substantial — Shakhnazarov's film has in its grip a fascinating anti-hero. A cultured political murderer who fought against the anti-Socialist Bolsheviks after the Revolution, and who appears to have written his book while a fugitive from tsarist forces after escaping from custody in 1907, Savinkov must've been a scary, fascinating, white-hot live wire, that rare figure who might justify a full-on historical bio-pic. (Like the movie's hero, he fell to his death, in 1925, from the window of a Cheka interrogation room — jumped or pushed.) The movie doesn't quite rise to the possibilities, preferring a slack narrative line, an oddly underpopulated urban vibe, and an overall air of life-is-cheap detachment. Savinkov's stand-in is Georges (Andrei Papin), the whispery, gimlet-eyed leader of a motley band of Socialist Revolutionary assassins. In the 23-year run-up to 1917, some 17,000 Russian officials and bluebloods were blown up or shot down by rebel groups, but in The Rider Named Death, the killers are bumbling losers, failing again and again to take out a particular grand duke.