Earthquakes in My Life (Deux Hommes dans la Ville)

In August 2007 Robin Hamman reported on the BBC Manchester Blog about an earthquake in Manchester. He was rather surprised that very few of us, Manchester bloggers, noticed it. I didn’t notice it, no. But the Manchester earthquake was but 2 points on the Richter scale. The recent earthquake that hit much of the UK was 5 points, and I did feel it. Well, since this was the first earthquake I personally experienced I’ve got to write a memo of it. I was in the bathroom, and the door shook and rattled, but hardly anything moved, including myself. I thought it was a very strong wind which does occasionally visit the house where I currently live. You can easily imagine my surprise when in the morning I read about Britain being hit by its second strongest earthquake since 1984.

In my Russian LiveJournal I wrote about this experience, since it was really the experience, and I’m very grateful to the reader who sent me their support, even though I didn’t suffer any damage (unlike some people and households in England). In my turn, I hope that none of my friends or readers was affected by the force of Nature.

Although this was the first time I experienced an earthquake myself, it wasn’t the first earthquake in my life to which I had to react somehow. On December 7, 1988 when I was at the second form at school (still primary school), a devastating earthquake hit Armenia. As I gathered from browsing the Internet, it is now known as the Spitak, or Gyumri Earthquake. You can easily guess by looking at the date that this catastrophe occurred while the USSR still existed, and I believe it was a common initiative across all Soviet schools to organise sending some humanitarian aid to the families, and most importantly children who suffered from the earthquake. In my childhood I’ve had a lot of toys, and my Mum and I collected a huge bag of different dolls to send to children in Armenia.

I must be honest, though, and admit that the empathy upon which I focus so much these days and about which I write so much, – well, this empathy wasn’t something I had had back in 1988. I don’t know, perhaps it was normal since I was a child, and I have noticed in the recent years that some childhood experiences are relived much more sharply when I recall them some 15-20 years after they’d happened. With the Spitak Earthquake, I vividly remember smiling sceptically at my grandmother and mother, for I couldn’t understand why they were crying, as my family never had any relatives in Armenia or adjacent areas. Obviously, these days when I look at these photos and there is a whole pool of similar experiences to remember I take their reaction differently. Although I guess that there is a reason for my then reaction, I’m ashamed of it, and my parents did reproach me for it.

That was in 1988. These days I realise that I haven’t always been so detached, and that something had touched my profoundly long before the experience I’m about to relate. I told you in the past about the effect the Russian adaptation of Conan Doyle stories had on me, and there are a few more films that opened me up from one side or another. I feel that in many ways these experiences were brought by some external force (I’m not religious, but this is where I become fatalist and a mystic) to unravel my inner feelings and callings that otherwise would lay dormant.

Occasionally I feel also that when myself or whoever else speak about art, there is a more or less substantial group of people who are extremely sceptical about the ability of art to influence anyone. I don’t know about “whoever”, this is when I’m speaking entirely from my heart and my own memories. It was 1994, I was in the 9th form at school (the last year at secondary school, for you to have an idea), and because it was before my birthday in December I’d still be 13. In the summer of 1994 I read Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita, which had a profound effect on me. As I don’t remember exactly how I was reading it, I doubt this effect was such that it made me cry, but it certainly made me think.

It was probably October or November 1994 when they showed Deux hommes dans la ville on Russian TV. The film is known in the English-speaking world as Two Against the Law or Two Men in Town (Due contra la città in Italian), it was made in 1973 by José Giovanni and starred Jean Gabin and Alain Delon. The plot, in short, is about a bank robber (Delon) who returns home after ten years of imprisonment, makes his best to escape the old pals, but falls victim to the harassment of a cop from his past. Gabin’s character is trying to help and save the unfortunate young man, but the tragedy unravels. The film touched on social injustice, capital punishment, and the inability of an individual to outpower the Law.

It was the first film when I sat in front of the TV set and never moved. It was the first ever film with which I sympathised. I’ve seen a few films with Delon previously, but back then I sometimes relied on the perceptions of my family, and my mother who probably looked at this actor through his performances in Borsalino or Zorro didn’t develop any affection for him. Naturally, it was different with me, and since 1994 I’ve seen many films with Delon, including La Piscine, Once a Thief, and Il Gattopardo.

But back in 1994 I was totally devastated and destroyed by the feature. I was crying throughout the last part of it. As if that wasn’t enough, I woke up in the night, instantly remembered about Delon’s character in the last scenes, especially those in the death chamber, and once again I cried. I thought of the character’s girlfriend… I knew perfectly well that nothing wrong happened to Delon. I knew that this could be just another “story”. But I was inconsolable for the rest of the night, very much moved for a few days after, and am still under the effect of the film, almost 15 years later.

Naturally, I’m thinking exactly what it was that moved me so much. The more I think about it the more I’m inclined to believe that I felt pain from my inability to change anything. Even if such story did take place in France in 1960-7os, I was sitting in Russia in the 1990s, and it was pointless to contemplate on what could be done because there was no capital punishment in France by 1994. Lars von Trier raised the same problem in Dancer in the Dark just a few years ago, although for me it was a film “in context”, whereas Deux hommes dans la ville was the first film of such topic.

So, the devastating effect of Giovanni’s feature had to do with my understanding of my “calling” or desire to be involved – be that involvement in art or in helping people. It could never take place without the actors, the script, the directing, and the whole gamut of other factors involved in film production. And while my experience as a film aficionado has grown far and wide since 1994, it is this film that I will be invariably getting back to when thinking of when and how I realised that whatever books, films, melodies, paintings tell us, they ultimately tell us something about ourselves.

Needless to say, I am deeply indebted to the cast and crew of this film. Deux hommes dans la ville was my own earthquake that shook me and threw me out of a void of detachment. I can never be thankful enough for this…

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