Iulii Gusman: Soviet Period Park (Park sovetskogo perioda, 2006)

reviewed by Evgeny Dobrenko© 2007

If Iulii Gusman’s film says anything, it is that the Soviet theme has been completely exhausted. It no longer works as raw material. This “overcoat” has been so worn out that it can no longer be patched up. The patches do not stay on: the fabric rips, it falls to pieces.

Zimin, a journalist who is popular throughout the country, is exhausted by the stressful life of semi-criminal contemporary Moscow and is tangled up in endless financial squabbles. He receives a job from the middle-aged, short but athletic, softly speaking but all-powerful Timur, who bears a striking resemblance to President Putin, especially since Timur is interested not only in money but also in “respect and order.” Timur orders Zimin to make a television ad for a new resort project, in which Timur has taken a strong interest. The new project is an “island of Soviet life,” funded by money from Western investors. The Soviet Period Park is a perfect virtual copy of Soviet reality, in which, however, entirely real passions flare up.

The park is inhabited by Soviet monsters (as in Jurassic Park [1993]―the viewer is told that the Soviet wonders were created by the same Hollywood cinematographers used for Steven Spielberg’s film.) Live personalities from the Soviet era have gathered in the park, playing themselves―from the singers Iosef Kabzon and Palad Biul'-Biul'-Olgy, to well-known actors from the Soviet cinema like Klara Luchko and Vladimir Etush. It is an authentic museum of waxen figures from the Soviet past.

The action in the film develops according to the rules of Soviet and Hollywood films. Zimin falls in love with a beautiful nurse. Kisses follow, as does a heroic feat (the hero gets rid of a burning gasoline truck, saving people and “socialist property”). “The Zone,” as usual, does not want to give up the heroine—a series of chases, hijackings, deceptions, tortures, and fights follows. The villain (the grandson of the repressive Peters, who had acted as Lenin’s bodyguard) is defeated. The hero with his new love leaves the park in Lenin’s armored car. As they are driving back to Moscow, they run into Timur who demands the promised advertisement. Here the heroes face a new misfortune, but suddenly Chapaev’s cavalry gallops out of the forest and Timur is forced to withdraw. The Soviet Period Park seems to grow into contemporary Moscow. This theme is repeated insistently throughout the film: the boundary between Moscow and the park is very fluid. Contemporary Russia is in fact the Soviet Period Park; it is steeped in the Soviet past. The director hammers away at this motif. Purely publicistic songs (ready-made for Lev Leshchenko) relate how “the epoch has turned backward,” that “we are again stepping on the old rakes,” that “we are returning quietly and smoothly,” etc. The Park is the symbol of this return.

The director’s entire cast of characters—from the terrible Chekist leader of the pioneers, who tortures the main hero with Sharko’s shower, to the intellectual chief doctor—is a complete collection of Soviet art. A catalog of Soviet film classics flickers through the film: A Severe Youth (Strogii iunosha; dir. Abram Room, 1936), Kuban Cossacks (Kubanskie kazaki; dir. Ivan Pyr'ev, 1949), The Swineherd and the Shepherd (Svinarka i pastukh; dir. Pyr'ev, 1941), At Six in the Evening After the War (V shest' chasov vechera posle voiny; dir. Pyr'ev, 1944), The Cranes are Flying (Letiat zhuravli; dir. Mikhail Kalatozov, 1957), The Chairman (Predsedatel'; dir. Aleksei Saltykov, 1964), Prisoner of the Caucasus (Kavkazskaia plennitsa; dir. Leonid Gaidai, 1966), Repentance (Pokaianie; dir. Tengiz Abuladze, 1984). As does the entourage from Grisha Bruskin’s paintings. The enamored hero begins to resemble at times a typical character in a classic dystopian novel, from We to 1984; at others a character in a novel by Vladimir Sorokin. All this flickers unconnectedly across the screen, creating the impression of a strange stylistic hodgepodge.

Over the past twenty years a specific canon of work on the Soviet past has developed that is marked by a variety of styles—the accusatory, realistic social narrative; the deliberately darkened depiction of reality (chernukha); the amusing spoof (steb); an ironic-parodic style; a nostalgic style; the pastiche; Sots-art playfulness; a metaphoric-pathetic style. Without any difficulty, everybody can name films or books that belong to one of these varieties. It is, of course, also possible to mix of different styles, and narrative and visual strategies. As is well-known, everything is possible in art—provided that it is original.

There is everything in Gusman’s film. The only thing missing is an original, creative idea to tie it all together. Take, for example, the violence visible behind Soviet happiness. It is demonstrated at times with parodic pathos, at others satirically on a par with Mikhail Zhvanetskii (in the scene when the chief doctor tells the main character about the construction of “educational attractions,” which include “Lubianka, the GULAG, a complete souvenir outfit of zek’s clothing, prison gruel, a stroll under escort, night time interrogations with torture, making chips fly. We will show that our horrors are the worst horrors in the world”). It is difficult to imagine to whom such an outburst is addressed. It is just as difficult to imagine what level of development the film expects of the viewer in order for him to understand the meaning of the metaphor of the final scene, when the hero turns off the automatic system controlling the Soviet wonders and switches it to manual control. The phrase “The automated system has been turned off. All responsibility lies with you” is repeated several times on the screen. It is clear that the film is stating that with the end of the Soviet era, the “automatic system” was turned off and a level of personal responsibility arose. But the level of such metaphors relies on a very low level of awareness in the audience.

There is nothing in Gusman’s film that did not appear previously in post-Soviet film: everything in this film is second-hand—the ideas, the characters, the conceptualisation, the metaphors, the narrative developments, the problems that are always the same in contemporary Russia. All of this has not only fermented, but it has gone sour. It is practically impossible to create an original spectacle out of this. Even the very best selection of actors cannot save it. This is what distinguishes the film principally from such Sots-art films as The Scorpion’s Garden (Sady skorpiona; dir. Oleg Kovalov, 1995), as well as from such nostalgic films as Old Songs about the Main Things (Starye pesni o glavnom; dir. Dmitrii Fiks, 1996). In these films there was either stylistic heterogeneity (which also does not guarantee success—it is enough to recall Tractor Drivers 2 [Traktoristy-2; dir. Igor' and Gleb Aleinikov, 1992]) or an appeal to clearly defined audience expectations of the moment (Old Songs). Here, however, there is neither an attempt at stylistic originality nor direct social engagement.

Above all, this film represents a problem of genre: aimed at an experienced viewer (who is able to read the interwoven quotations from films, novels, and paintings of the Soviet period), at the same time the film does not belong to the category of “elite” cinematography. The average viewer is not prepared for this kind of game and demands “life in the form of real life,” and not in the form of socialist realism or Sots-art. The result is unfortunate—the film has not found an audience and practically failed commercially: 57 copies were released on the anniversary of the October Revolution (7 November 2006), but the film only grossed 56,000 dollars. It seems to me that the misfortune of the authors lies only in the fact that they misread mass expectations: contemporary Russia is indeed the Soviet Period Park (or is intensively transforming itself into such a space), but viewers are not yet prepared to reflect on this topic. They are still (or already) not up to the task. And this is much more frightening than the failure of any one film.

Translated by Corrine Ducey

Evgeny Dobrenko
University of Sheffield

Soviet Period Park, Russia, 2006
Color, 124 minutes
Director: Iulii Gusman
Scriptwriter: Eduard Akopov, Iulii Gusman
Cinematography: Igor' Klebanov
Art Director: Ol'ga Kravchenia
Music: Maksim Dunaevskii
Cast: Aleksandr Lazarev Jr., Elizaveta Boiarskaia, Mikhail Efremov, Vladimir Dolinskii, Aleksandr Daiuba, Aleksandr Pashutin, Sergei Nikonenko, Aleksei Buldakov, Nina Usatova, Lidiia Fedoseeva-Shukshina, Valerii Barinov
Producers: Sergei Mel'kumov, Arkadii Gaidamak, Iulii Gusman, Timur Vainshtein
Production: Slovo Production Company, YUG-TV, A.G. Pictures, with support from the Federal Agency for Culture and Cinematography

Iulii Gusman: Soviet Period Park (Park sovetskogo perioda, 2006)

reviewed by Evgeny Dobrenko© 2007

Updated: 07 Jan 07