December 2005

Carrie Jones

Are My Blinkers Showing?: Adventures in Filmmaking in the New Russia by Michael York

Michael York has written an engaging memoir of post-Soviet Russian filmmaking that manages to be compelling and thoughtful, though much of the book is about waiting to make a movie. "After more time and an indecent amount of tea, I inquire why nothing much seems to be happening." York fills the slow periods in his most recent Russian adventure with charming anecdotes about Cabaret, Logan's Run, and The Island of Dr. Moreau. He writes about what's in the newspaper, what sites are being torn down or rebuilt, or gives a concise take on the politics of a changing Russia. He fences, parties and sweetly misses his wife (photographer Pat York).

York heads to Russia for Moscow Heat, the film at the center of Are My Blinkers Showing, because he is "seduced" by the chance to return to Moscow to work. Russian bodybuilder Alexander Nevsky is the star power behind the film; Nevsky once wrote a guide to cinematic success called How to Become a Schwarzenegger in Russia and Moscow Heat is his homage his idol. Nevsky and the rest of the cast and crew remain peripheral to this story, only appearing by necessity or for a gracefully rendered name-check. Keeping the story pleasingly narrow, the parade of names and places evokes the whirl of today's Moscovian life.

York's modest and almost cinematically gentlemanly tone allows his politics, when they surface, to come through as thoughtful meditations instead of knee-jerk filler. In fact, you'll find many topics explored in Are My Blinkers Showing that are unexpected for an actor's memoir. He quotes various studies on economics and slips historical data and mini-lessons on the film industry into his story in such a deft way that the magnitude of his erudition only becomes apparent upon reflection. How else could he get away with tossing off references to Chekov, Tolstoy and Shakespeare in a book about an action movie? Have no fear, though, Austin Powers does merit a few mentions for the less studied film buff.

Comparing the Russia of his 1973 Moscow trip (as well as the Russia of literature and politics) to his experiences on Moscow Heat is done in day-to-day details. "Discovering that the maids are still spying on the clientele is a little disconcerting. It must be the one that daily rearranges my toilet articles lining them up like soldiers in a Red Square parade." Surveillance, bureaucracy and extremes in grandeur and desolateness pop up throughout the book, seemingly allowing York to both entertain and make gently worded comparisons to the current political climate in the United States.

In the end, it is York's apparent deep thought and lifetime of cultural absorption that make Are my Blinkers Showing worth reading. What could have been a bloated litany of complaints, or worse, a self-indulgent trip down York's memory lane, is instead a slim and buoyant snapshot of a country in transition. Oh, and "blinkers"? They are a mysterious garment on the National Hotel's men's laundry list. One imagines that if York had ever figured out what they were, that orderly hotel maid would have folded them crisply into regulation size and we would have read all about it.

Are My Blinkers Showing? Adventures in Filmmaking in the New Russia by Michael York
Da Capo Press
ISBN: 0306814447
174 pages