Petr Tochilin: Khottabych (2006)

reviewed by Alexander Prokhorov© 2007

In Defense of Pulp Cinema and in Memoriam of Aleksandr Drankov

Petr Tochilin's second feature [1] targets adolescents and young adults, and attempts to bridge the gap between the old medium of cinema and the new?and more habitual to young audiences?medium of the internet. Hence, the film's title, inscribed in internet-styled characters, K}{OTT@B\)CH (in Russian }{0тт@бь)ч), evokes Preved slang [2] and one of the two primary settings of the film: cyberspace. The other setting is Las-Vegas-style Moscow, looking like a double of the picture's cyber setting. The authors' designation of the film's genre is an “internet-comedy,” while I would put this film in the category of the teen-flick, next to such Russian spin-offs of American Pie (dir. Paul Weitz, 1999) as Denis Evstigneev's Let's Make Love (Zaimemsia liubov'iu, 2002), Leonid Rybakov's Book Stealers (Pokhititeli knig, 2003), and Aleksei Gordeev's Nobody Knows about Sex (Nikto ne znaet pro seks, 2006). The film also flirts with the genre of fairy tale, evoking both its Soviet [3] and post-Soviet inflections. The interpolated animated sequence about Khottabych's struggle with Shaitanych is actually produced by the Windmill Film Company (Mel'nitsa), the prime maker of new Russian feature animations.

Tochilin employs the key narrative device of many modern adaptations of the tale of “Aladdin and the Magic Lamp” in Khottabych: he confronts the three thousand year-old genie with the miracles of modernity to achieve comic and ideological effect. In a way, this is one of the incarnations of the early cinema genre of the rube film, about the pre-modern man coming to the modern city and being terrified and mesmerized by the attractions of modernity. [4] Now, however, modernity's miracles of mobility, power, sexual indulgence, and unlimited freedom dwell in cyberspace. In this Putin-era version of the story, the protagonist Gena Ryzhov (played by Marius Iampolskis) is a Russian hacker, a postmodern version of a Cossack outlaw browsing freely in cyber frontier land. He is free of the Russian state, represented in the film by Russian cops and customs officers; of the Russian mafia, hardly distinguishable from the cops in its modus operandi; and of American world power, represented primarily by Microsoft. Gena manages to trick Russian cops and the mafia without much effort and to deface Microsoft's official web-site by breaking into its server and posting a paint-brushed picture of a bare ass on its site. The FBI sends their undercover agent Annie (played by Liva Kruminia) to catch the Russian cyber outlaw.

In the romanticized land of cyber freedom, computer animated characters and settings compete for viewers' attention with the non-animated characters and the vistas of the new Moscow. The animators at Mel'nitsa have created several superb comic characters, including the online robot who becomes Khottabych's girl-friend, the voracious moth that eats Khottabych's magic carpet, and the shadow of Shaitanych, the pathetic antipode of a satanic villain. A large chunk of the picture is set in IRC-powered chat rooms and Internet cafes, where Khottabych plays Counterstrike with Gena's buddies. Finally, Khottabych and Shaitanych meet each other for the final shoot out in a setting reminiscent simultaneously of the sets of Counterstrike and the Wachowski brothers' Matrix (1999).

The intertextual links of Tochilin's film go far beyond the teen culture of the first decade of 21 st century Russia and carry within it the genre memory of Soviet socialist realism. The ideological problematic of the reeducation plot operates in a modified form in the relationships between Gena and Khottabych, and Gena and Annie. Gena serves as an ideological mentor for both characters. He reeducates Khottabych by introducing him to the ideology of internet freedom and converting him literally from physical reality into cyber heaven where K}{OTT@B\)CH will live in eternal bliss as a mathematical model of his genetic code. The American woman is a tougher case for reeducation, but nothing is impossible for people well-versed in Soviet film mythology. Following the path of Grigorii Aleksandrov's Circus (Tsirk, 1936), Tochilin brings the confused and law-abiding American from the land oppressed by Bill Gates and Microsoft to the land of hackers and internet freedom. Like Aleksandrov's Marion Dixon, Tochilin's Annie comes to Moscow, the gateway to the new utopia, falls in love with a Russian man, learns the Russian language and, by means of it, converts to Gena's ideology of the ultimate freedom in the internet-based wild East.

While the diegetic world of Tochilin's picture preserves the genre memory of the socialist realist reeducation plot, the teen-flick exhibits a conscious alienation from late Soviet times, in which Gena's parents formed their identities. Tochilin's Moscow is a glamorous capitalist metropolis, an antipode of the gloomy dystopian urban landscapes of the late Soviet era. This distancing explains in part Tochilin's comment that he doesn't view his film as inspired by Lazar' Lagin's 1939 novel or as a remake of the Soviet-era Old Genie Khottabych (Starik Khottabych; dir. Gennadii Kazanskii, 1957) and considers it a film adaptation of Sergei Klado's 2000 novel Old Man Khottabych's Copper Pitcher (Pushkareva).

Even more revealing is Tochilin's casting of Vladimir Tolokonnikov in the role of Khottabych, an actor best-known for his role of Sharikov in Vladimir Bortko's perestroika-era adaptation of Mikhail Bukgakov's dystopian satire Heart of a Dog (Sobach'e serdtse, 1988). When Gena opens the copper jug he has bought on an internet auction, he encounters the face of Sharikov, the anti-climactic icon of the Soviet demise, not the three thousand year-old genie. Tolokonnikov's genie looks like Sharikov and acts like a character from another planet who has ended up in post-Soviet Russia. Gena himself names this character Khottabych and introduces this alien from the planet USSR to the youthful, goofy, anarchic, and lawless world of Russian capitalism.

Between the two main lines of Russian cinema—quality art films and commercial low brow genre cinema—Khottabych , undoubtedly, belongs to the latter category. This commercial genre tradition?often despised by Russian intellectuals as the true low-class point of origin for domestically-produced Russian cinema?began with Aleksandr Drankov's Sten'ka Razin (1908), and has become the site of the new beginnings for the Russian film industry since 1999. While art snobs and Khottabych purists can frown upon Tochilin's genre vehicle, I would like to pay homage to the business savvy of the film's producer Sergei Sel'ianov. The film's premiere in August 2006 became one of the program events at the rock festival The Invasion, where the picture met its prime audience . K}{OTT@B\)CH received the best director's award at the Smolensk Film Festival (2006). The film was aggressively marketed, most importantly, on the internet, where the picture continues its existence in the interactive environment of the web portal. At the same time, Tochilin's picture did not receive a lot of critical acclaim among film critics and was simply ignored by respectable Russian film journals such as Seans or Art of Cinema. It goes without saying that for many old-fashioned cinephiles, this reviewer included, this teen-flick might be a challenging viewing experience. However, what might be Russian film art's poison, could be Russian film and media industry's medicine.

Alexander Prokhorov
College of William and Mary


Notes

1] Tochilin's first feature, the experimental film Expired by ( Upotrebit' do , 2000) received The Feature Debut Prize at the Kinotavr Film Festival.

2] Preved is the biggest flashmob in the history of the Russian internet community. For a brief history of this flashmob, see Belkin and Amzin.

3] While the filmmaker emphasizes that his picture has nothing to do with Soviet-era cult texts?Lazar' Lagin's 1939 novel Old Genie Khottabych and the 1956 film adaptation of Lagin's novel by Gennadii Kazanskii?viewers and reviewers watched the 2006 Khottabych against the background of these Soviet classics. The Moscow Times reviewer Alexander Bratersky quotes Vladimir Tolokonnikov who played the 2006 Khottabych: “‘It was a big pleasure for me to play the new Khottabych,'” he said, “‘I still had that good old Soviet version in mind'.”

4] Discussing early cinema genres Ian Christie notes: “One of Simmel's themes [in Georg Simmel's The Metropolis and Mental Life - AP] was the city-dwellers' rapid assumption of a condescending attitude towards his country cousin, the ‘rube', and indeed this recurs often in turn-of-the-century American vaudeville and comic-strips, as well as cinema. Rubes in the Theatre (Edison, 1901) shows two countrymen over-reacting to a show and being laughed at by their neighbors, while Rube and Mandy at Coney Island (Edison, 1903) provides a tour of the amusement park in the company of a couple who end up stuffing themselves messily with hot-dogs. Back in the city, Biograph's A Rube in the Subway shows a country hick confused by the New York subway system and having his pocket picked” (43-44). Similarly, in Khottabych, Genka updates his magic helper by giving him a tour of the new Moscow and the internet.


Works Cited

Belkin, Igor' and Aleksandr Amzin. “Polnyi Preved: internet sleng vse chashche vykhodit za predely virtual'nogo prostranstva.” Lenta.ru (28 February 2006).

Bratersky, Alexander. “A Genie's Long Career.” The Moscow Times (18 August 2006).

Christie, Ian. The Last Machine: Early Cinema and the Birth of Modern World. London: British Film Institute/BBC, 1995.

Pushkareva, Irina. “Natsional'nyi supergeroi. Interv'iu s Petrom Tochilinym” (reprinted from CineFantom).


Khottabych , Russia 2006
Color, 92 minutes
Director: Petr Tochilin
Screenplay: Petr Tochilin and Veronika Vozniak, based on Sergei Klado's novel Old Man Khottabych's Copper Pitcher
Cinematography: Anatolii Susekov and Maksim Drozdov
Cast: Vladimir Tolokonnikov, Marius Iampolskis, Liva Kruminia, Mark Geikhman, Iuliia Paranova
Producers: Sergei Sel'ianov, Konstantin Buslov, Sergei Dolgoshein
Production: CTB Film Company

Petr Tochilin: Khottabych (2006)

reviewed by Alexander Prokhorov© 2007

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