MOVIES . . . EAST SIDE STORY: As Dana Ranga, director of the terrific documentary 'East Side Story', puts it, "A specter was haunting communism: the specter of Hollywood." 'East Side Story' is the history of the Soviet Union's glorious, doomed attempt to create musical comedies within the decidedly unfunny confines of socialist realism. Some Commusicals did fit the stolid stereotype, notes TIME's Richard Corliss, but many have an enduring buoyancy. Grigori Alexandrov's pioneering 'The Jolly Fellows' (1934) percolates with jaunty jazz, Cubist compositions and a Dietrichish blond in a party hat. The amazing Midnight Revue (G.D.R., 1962) is a comically cynical parable about the difficulty of making a musical when your producer is not Arthur Freed but a pack of philistine bureaucrats. We can't approve your film, the apparatchiks sing; it's "too hot!" "Beautifully assembled by Ranga and producer Andrew Horn, 'East Side Story' reveals the need for fantasy in any social system," says Corliss. "Now the 'wonderful dream' of Soviet socialism is dead; and these films, reviled in their time, still live. Thirty or 60 years later, in their passionate innocence, they sing to us."
BOOKS . . . STRAIGHT MAN: Richard Russo's new novel (Random House; 391 pages; $25) is the latest and one of the funniest entries in the literary subgenre of satirical novels about the vengeful academic burlesques that go on in university English departments not too different from the author's own. Russo, a former professor at Colby College in Maine and author of 'The Risk Pool' and 'Nobody's Fool', commences his slapstick when William Henry Devereaux Jr., creative-writing teacher and chairman of the English department at an obscure Pennsylvania college, makes a slighting remark about a colleague’s poetry. She whacks him across the face with a notebook, and the metal coil hooks his nose. The swollen, discolored result means that the chairman is hard-pressed to fight departmental budget wars with dignity. Devereaux was once a well-reviewed writer, though of only one book, and that short stories. But rather than agonize over their descent into professorial mediocrity, he and his colleagues, he decides, have 'chosen, wisely perhaps, to be angry with each other rather than with ourselves.' "Wise enough," says TIME's John Skow. "And when one addled prof goes off his medication and resumes cross-dressing, so is the counseling he receives: no pearls before 5 p.m."