Oleg Stepchenko: Velvet Revolution: A Season of Men (Muzhskoi sezon: Barkhatnaia revoliutsiia), 2005

reviewed by Christina Stojanova © 2006

Strictly Confidential:

An Interactive Review of Oleg Stepchenko’s Velvet Revolution: A Season of Men

TO BE DESTROYED AFTER READING!

An old friend of mine once said: “It is kind of boring to watch a good film—no matter how originally it violates the rules, it still moves within the knowable sphere of art and is, therefore, kind of predictable... Watching a really bad film, however, gives you a perverse, albeit consummate pleasure—it is utterly unpredictable and that is where all the fun is!” When, in spite of my honest intellectual efforts, I failed to make sense of the pompous and somewhat hysterical race of images on the screen during the first ten-fifteen minutes or so of Velvet Revolution, I got angry and frustrated. Then I felt a kind of existential empathy for the director, for myself, and for humankind in general. And then I recalled my friend’s witty remark, which definitely helped me to get through the film…

INTERLUDE AND FIRST IMPRESSIONS: What is Michael Madsen doing here, talking about all those millions with someone in a diner, uncannily remindful of Reservoir Dogs (Quentin Tarantino, 1992)? A few episodes later, Madsen is seen torturing (oh, not AGAIN!) the individual he was dining with, leaving only his head to stick out of the sand in a nondescript desert… Obviously this film was made with lots of money… Oh yeah, its signature style seems to be to violate the 180-degree rule, as well as an abundance of diegetic electronic equipment—like long distance spying devices, super-cell phones, globe-scanning computers, etc. Maybe the film is just a product-placement vehicle, nothing more than a “commercial intertext” (to use Thomas Schatz’s elegant term), for the next generation of cell-phones and computers? Especially bearing in mind that all this sophisticated technology does not seem to influence the plot but serves only a decorative purpose…

In the meanwhile, the action has already moved to Africa, where an individual with a thin hawkish profile (the arch-villain Sors, as we find out later) describes—in markedly racist language—his plans for installing a puppet government in an unnamed African country. The presidential candidate is portrayed as a graduate of the Soviet International Institute named for Patrice Lumumba, famous in its time for churning out cadre loyal to the Soviet Union. Sounds like a bad joke? Wait, you’ve seen nothing yet! While I was trying to digest this piece of information and vaguely wondered whether the code of political correctness would ever reach the Russian shores, the location changed once again, this time to a golf field, where a laid-back elderly gentleman, after mumbling something incomprehensible, starts bashing an unpleasant, servile-looking man with his golf club, while the gorgeous blonde standing nearby casually chats away on her cell-phone. At some point I somehow learned that she was the elderly man’s niece; we never see her again. Anyway, cut to a blood-bath in a stadium, where American football is being played (an obviously key phrase—“We don’t need American football!”—is repeated on the sound-track). The game is cheered on by a bunch of beautiful cheerleaders.

Then a hyperactive individual emerges from the crowd, vaguely reminding me of someone and I realize, thanks to my impeccable professionalism, that this must be the hero, beyond fear and reproach (actor Aleksei Kravchenko), and almost reflexively link him to Moscow’s elite police units, although no concrete indication so far has been given about the film’s time or place (at one point I even thought that the editors of KinoKultura had sent me the wrong tape of a foreign film that had been dubbed into Russian!). The hero’s decisive and somewhat insolent face is complemented by a handsomely muscled figure, blond hair, and an obviously unruly character. Oh yes, he is called Vershinin, and I now see on the screen all these “special units” type of men and even armoured vehicles on the football field… and then lots of shooting and bloodied bodies… So it becomes pretty obvious why the film is called “a season of men,” but what does all this have to do with a Velvet Revolution?

SECOND INTERLUDE: Later I find out that Kravchenko played the boy in
Elem Klimov’s 1985 masterpiece Come and See (Idi i smotri), and was praised as one of the discoveries of this remarkable film about the irreversible damage of violence (sic!) and war… It is impossible to make any claims about Velvet Revolution with any degree of certainty because the camera constantly jumps and spins. And when it stops—the editing takes over, experimenting with the separation of (accelerated) sound and a (delayed) visual track and vice versa. Really irking is also the film’s “in your face” mishmash of visual styles— Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report (2002), Andy Wachowski’s The Matrix (1999), Doug Liman’s Bourne Identity (2002), and even John Woo’s Hong Kong films from the 1980s; of stories—Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic (2000), Brian De Palma’s Mission Impossible (1996); and characters—John McTiernan’s Die Hard (1988). Sometimes all this is unbearably kitschy and pretentious. The references to and quotes from these films lack the postmodern playfulness of a deliberate pastiche or parody and openly smack of plagiarism… By this time, however, I am already sorry to have so thoughtlessly committed to writing this review, and am beginning to panic as to what I will write! Evidently this is some kind of a sadistic assault on narrative and the viewer’s senses in the name of a misconceived originality and at the expense of anything coherent, noble, and human that this film obviously aspires to stand for…

In the meantime, sexy-looking Vershinin has turned up in some kind of futuristic-looking office. And, while comfortably cleaning himself up and mostly exhibiting his well-shaped upper body, he is being reprimanded by his boss for his rather enterprising ways towards said elderly golf player, his misfortunate crony the Clerk (Mikhail Gorevoi), and for a bunch of unidentified bandits who, judging again from circumstantial evidence, seem to be linked to drug trafficking abroad and are preparing for some very important visit. Then, in quick succession, it becomes clear that Vershinin’s beautiful wife is a heroin addict and is hospitalized; that his even more beautiful daughter is taking care of her; that the family has serious financial issues; and that the daughter’s male friends are good-for-nothing rich brats, who drive ultra modern sports cars and communicate in Moscow “newspeak”—that is, Russified English…

THIRD INTERLUDE: Make no mistake: the film deliberately rebuffs any attempts at identification or voyeuristic “visual pleasures,” so typical of the good old traditional “narrative cinema.” The tumultuous activity on-screen is designed to be perceived as a computer game… watched through the opposite end of a pair of binoculars… In addition, the incessant violation of the 180-degree rule any time the camera is given the chance to focus on a stationary character is very hard to endure—it is even worse for your eyes and stomach when the rule is violated with character(s) on the move or on the run!

In any case, I brave further into the ever more entangled plot, involving Vershinin’s arrogant rapport with two bandits in their expensive vehicle, which explodes soon after he leaves them, creating elaborately designed chaos in what seems to be Moscow’s downtown area. After taking a quick look at the explosion scene and receiving yet another dressing down from his boss, Colonel Berdiaev (Aleksandr Karpov), Vershinin and his partner, a newly found buddy—the nerdish Suvorovtsev (Aleksei A. Petrukhin)—launch what seems to be an improvised and unauthorized search for the Clerk only to find him drowned in an indoor pool. Later on the film takes us through even more phantasmic sites—like bars featuring models on a catwalk, underground garbage areas that double as a drug lab run by the Chinese, a Disney-like discotheque where the daughter’s boyfriend plays, etc… Certainly nothing rivals the episodes on the airplane bringing the newly elected African President (Charles Igbokh Nduka) to Moscow for what appears to be an international meeting of drug lords. Although he is a Lumumba graduate and seems pretty good-natured, he chops his nephew’s head off (on the plane!!!) as punishment for sedition and shows it proudly to Sors, who is also on board the plane.

It has to be emphasised that Sors (Aleksandr Iakovlev) is “the man behind the scenes” of all drug-trafficking operations so far, and we have had glimpses of his hawkish profile a few times earlier, but not so up-close and personal. Sors is the meanest cat in the film as becomes clear a bit too late, when he is about to be caught after a lengthy stunt-studded chase through Moscow. We are also informed, somewhat casually, that Sors heads an international charity foundation that is named in his honor (sic!). Sors’ arrival provides the missing link for the Federal Security Service (FSB), a link that Vershinin has been trying so hard to expose: during the war in Afghanistan, Sors recruited Vershinin’s Colonel, who has been serving him ever since as a mole inside the FSB, betraying his Motherland…

FOURTH INTERLUDE: It struck me that the unfolding composite image of Russia in the film yields only to a psychoanalytic interpretation as it seems to be an almost perfect externalization of deep-seated complexes vis-à-vis not only Hollywood, but the American way of life in general… Or rather, of what the director believes the American way of life to be! Nothing new, I know, but psychoanalysts rarely stumble across cases that are not already described in their thick books… With every new camera spin or a demonstration of a computer device, or high-speed chase with burning cars; with each meticulously selected location, it becomes painfully clear how desperately the director wants to catch up with and overcome the Americans—as Khrushchev once had it! Unfortunately, he only succeeds in doing so virtually in both senses of the word. Anything requiring hard back-up—from narrative coherence to characters’ psychology to authenticity of social mores and locations—sadly remains beyond the pale of Velvet Revolution, betraying such an acute inferiority complex that at times I caught myself feeling sorry for the filmmakers and their fleeting shadow of a life “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Unfortunately, “signifying nothing” here should be understood in the most literal sense, not in the philosophical one invoked by Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

A lot has been written about Maria Solov'eva’s brilliant camerawork, but I beg to disagree as its alleged originality only emphasises the inappropriateness of everything else and foregrounds the desperate provincialism of the whole enterprise… The same holds true of the obviously talented Aleksei Kravchenko, who could make an excellent action hero, but in another film by another director…

Who needs such a film anyway?

Well, the still outspoken Russian press deciphers the production company’s initials—ROSPO Film Group—as Regional Public Organization of Law and Order Employees (Regional'naia obshchestvennaia organizatsiia sotrudnikov provookhranitel'nykh organov). In other words, the FSB—the successor of the formidable KGB—has lavishly financed this film in an open act of self-promotion. The press has identified the actor Aleksei A. Petrukhin (Suvorovtsev), who also doubles as one of ROSPO’s producers of the film, as a former bodyguard for the aging Russian pop-diva Alla Pugatcheva! [1]

Certainly there is nothing wrong with self-promotion and sponsoring, but noblesse oblige (and, therefore, FSB sponsorship) attracts unwarranted attention to details that would have gone unnoticed had the film been produced by some other company. I am referring specifically to the thinly veiled reference to the prominent philanthropist and benefactor of post-Communist Central and Eastern Europe, Georges Sor(o)s, who also happens to “head an international charity foundation that is named in his honor.” In the film, Sors is not only a high priest of international drug trafficking, but he is also the mastermind behind the Velvet Revolution in the unnamed African country. Lumping together, on the one hand, allusions to post-Communist upheavals (known as Velvet Revolutions, first in Czechoslovakia and more recently in Ukraine) and to Sor(o)s, and—on the other hand—to puppet African regimes, drug trafficking, and blackmail is a bit distasteful, to say the least. Bearing in mind the amount of creative energy and money wasted on this rather meagre cinematic exercise, it is entirely conceivable that the blunder is solely due to director Oleg Stepchenko’s ignorance and passion for glossy superficiality. Maybe he just liked the sound of it; indeed, the English version of the film’s high-tech web-site mentions only Velvet Revolution as a title.

It is a bit more problematic, however, to explain away the Sor(o)s allusions… And if the film is just a PR gig for such a formidable agency like the FSB, then the blunder is open to some extra-diegetic interpretations and could be read as a deliberate attempt at disparaging Velvet Revolutions as a symbol of popular democratic impetus by associating them with international organized crime…

By way of conclusion:
In spite of my diligent search, I could find no evidence of admission figures for the film. In spite of its much tooted world premiere on 17 August 2005 at the Arclight Cinema, one of the most elegant theaters on Sunset Boulevard—three weeks prior to its official opening in Russia on 8 September—and in spite of loud references to the “serious interest, expressed by Miramax” and by some obscure Canadian producer, [2] no evidence of prestigious North American deals exist and the film’s progress since then has apparently been stalled in spite of its richly financed advertising campaign, described in one article as aggressively ubiquitous. [3] It would seem that the moderately negative press, along with word of mouth, finally succeeded in piercing the soap bubble. And, judging by the film’s web-site, the producers efforts are now concentrated on DVD and video sales… and on tie-ins, like t-shirts and, yes, on cell-phone sales! I was right! There WAS a product placement after all!

Christina Stojanova (McMaster University)


NOTES

1] Anna Fedina, “Sezonnoe oboztrenie.” Izvestiia 19 September 2005.

2] Diliara Tasbulatova, “Muzhskoi sezon v Gollivude.” Itogi 36 (482) 6 September 2005.

3] Stanislav F. Rostotskii, “Ni pobedy, ni porazheniia.” Novoe vremia 168 (13 September 2005).

Images from http://www.velvetrevolution.ru/


Velvet Revolution: A Season of Men, Russia, 2005
Color, 106 min
Director: Oleg Stepchenko
Screenplay: Oleg Stepchenko, Aleksandr Karpov
Cinematography: Mariia Solov'eva
Music: Anton Garcia
Cast: Aleksei Kravchenko, Aleksei A. Petrukhin, Aleksandr Karpov, Igor' Kashintsev, Vasilii Livanov, Aleksandr Iakovlev, Arnis Litsitis, Mikhail Gorevoi, Viktoriia Tolstoganova, Anna Churina
Production: Step By Step, ROSPO Film

Oleg Stepchenko: Velvet Revolution: A Season of Men (Muzhskoi sezon: Barkhatnaia revoliutsiia), 2005

reviewed by Christina Stojanova © 2006

Updated: 31 Mar 06