Tremor: Various Types of Unrest

By Marina Drozdova (Moscow)

Michel Foucault's observation that “the more imperceptibly and skillfully a government seduces its citizens, the freer it is” continues to intrigue me. Foucault's short phrase instantly points to patterns that seem sacral. And this phrase seems productive for reflecting on how the social and ideological processes of the last eight years have been reflected in Russian cinema.

Because of historical circumstances, the government in the territory of Russia and its adjoining regions did not attend to the art of seducing citizens in the same way that it was practiced in Western Europe. That is, it attended to it, but in a rather unsophisticated way—“with wide brushstrokes,” with large-scale activities from the leagues of gigantomania.

Russian cinema of the period of 1987-1999 conducted its analysis of the “seduction of citizens” during the totalitarian period fairly superficially (by comparison with Eastern European cinema, especially in Poland and Hungary). And, as a natural consequence, it turned out to be unprepared for representing the relationships of citizen-society-state (in various configurations) in the “newest” period, a period when critiques of society progressively slid towards “none.” Meanwhile the major television companies implemented successive policies to adapt the mass audience to perceiving reality and history within given, well-defined frames. This was accomplished quite simply, straightforwardly; it was fully condoned by the thinking part of society (and by this very token, probably the responsible part of society). What played the larger role here—the joint actions of ideological technicians or society's readiness to be manipulated (a readiness that was historically conditioned)? The latter seems more likely. Returning to Foucault's observation about the interconnections of freedom and government seduction, we come to a disappointing conclusion: complex methods of seduction are not necessary in Russia since even simple ones work productively.

Against this background, what has happened with cinema? I would like to note a few principle positions.

The “re-encoding” of reality into simple patterns, carried out by the major television companies, led to viewers to become accustomed to a serial-format system. Producers have almost totally oriented themselves to this system. This has led both to the extinguishing of independent thought in cinematic art and to the simplification of the visual lexicon—to a meagerness of constructions in cinematic language and a banalization of discourse. The handful of films made by directors who possess the ability to create a living cinematic language does not cancel out what is happening in cinema as a whole.

For me an example of a breakthrough in cinematic language was Kirill Serebrennikov's Playing the Victim (Izobrazhaia zhertvu, 2006). Serebrennikov is a “star” of radical theatrical direction, who has demonstrated an ability to organize a scene's space in unexpected and spontaneous ways. He confirmed this ability in Playing the Victim and created a space that possesses the rare quality of spontaneity; the trajectories of the relationships between the characters constantly and inappreciably change. At the same time, the mise-en-scènes seem to turn different sides towards the frontal flatness of the screen. One of our colleagues, Natal'ia Basina, gave a very precise and ironic formulation of the space in the film: “complexly fragmented” (“slozhnoraschlenennoe”). At play here is the lexical understanding of, on the one hand, “complex sentence” (“slozhnoe predlozhenie”) and, on the other, the root “fragmentation” (raschlenenie), which is always present in a crime plot (which lies at the core of the film).

Russian film, for the most part—in its mass—is ceasing to be a field for thought, a field for posing and solving existential problems. The system of cinematic production works in such a fashion that it almost entirely forces thinkers out of cinema art. However, potential authors can seek to find themselves in other spheres of visual practice. Take, for example, Galina Myznikova and Sergei Provorov, the directors of the extremely promising short film Fugue (Fuga, 2007). The directors are open to various suggestions from their personal fantasies. They are engaged in installation art, poetic and material constructions. Two years ago their “aero-sound” installation “Idiot Wind” (“Volshebnyi veter,” 2005) was presented at the Venice Biennale. A description of the installation reads: “… this is a complex engineering-technical construction, which scientists helped to create; in the pavilion a viewer finds himself in a space that is penetrated by gusts of wind, which at first he can touch freely, but then he begins to be dependent to the mounting energy of the air streams.” I believe that this idea was continued and developed in Fugue . The film's main character is the wind. It attacks the audience at an organ concert, which takes place in a smallish hall (located in a Catholic church, but probably the space is not being used for confessional purposes). The musical sounds in the streams of wind that attack the auditorium are personified: surprise turns to perturbation, and then to a transformation of connections and relations.

Such metaphysical plots—climate as the main character, air currents as characters—all of this is more than a rarity for contemporary cinema, and especially for Russian cinema, of course. The task that the directors set for themselves somewhat exceeds the result they achieve. But the “backlash” is not too great and creates the wonderful impression that the idea appears in film “with room for growth,” with clearly defined prospects. Galina Myznikova and Sergei Provorov demonstrate such understandings, rare in Russian cinema, as artistic whimsy, experimentation, and a healthy outsider-ness, which become a pacifist base to oppose commercial filmmaking.

However, the crisis of existential ideas, which dictate the transformation of cinematic language, is also a problem confronting European cinema. After all, “the big screen” is, conditionally speaking, philosophy in images.

Remaining within the context of thinking with the forms of cinema and film language, I would like to recall Marina Razbezhkina's films, in particular, The Hollow (Iar, 2007). It is well known that Razbezhkina came to feature films from documentary filmmaking and arrived, to express it figuratively, by a hidden path—having made her first feature film, Harvest Time (Vremia Zhatvy, 2004) on the budget of a documentary film. The Hollow, a free screen adaptation of Sergei Esenin's imaginist tale, becomes in part a historico-ethnographic film with a garnishing of dramaturgical motifs. This ethnographic “lexicon,” however, is not in the least merely an illustration, but just the opposite—it is the content of the film. This is the source of the film's breakthrough in cinematic language. There is a notable catchphrase of Maksim Gor'kii's (an ideologue for the subjugation of a rebellious people's will to strong power as the single instrument of social adaptation) about the “enormous lazy body of the Russian people.” Razbezhkina was able to represent on screen a uniform “dough,” a single mass of the “Russian character,” which in an enigmatic way cannot form itself as a separate personality. This, undoubtedly, has historical roots, justifications—and, accordingly, a complex perspective. Working with a folkloric plot and action, which takes place at the beginning of the 20 th century, Razbezhkina presented a visual metaphor on screen; first, one that has been “stretched” to the dimensions of a full-length film, and second, one that is energetically nurtured by dramaturgy. I believe that The Hollow is an emblematic film for an examination of this period, inasmuch as its main theme is the sacral nature of the psychological motifs of the so-called “Russian soul” and its inseparability from the “enormous body of the people.”

In terms of the theme of social unrest, one may speak of how The Hollow presents its own type of historical unrest, while the unrest in Aleksei Mizgerev's film Hard-Hearted (Kremen', 2007) is political, in Aleksei Balabanov's Cargo 200 (Gruz 200, 2007) is social, and in Aleksandr Mindadze's Soar (Otryv, 2007) is existential.

The third type of unrest (social) in my reflections is more of a question than an assertion. To what extent does a filmmaker internalize criticism of society? of the state's institutions? of power? Or the question can be put in a different way: in the virtual absence of criticism of society and power in the mass media (with rare, fragmented exceptions), do these themes occur in cinema? It is general knowledge that in the past few years the selection committees at European film festivals have literally accused Russian filmmakers of ignoring social and civil proceedings in the country.

In this respect, Mizgirev's Hard-Hearted is instructive. It is perhaps an unprecedented occurrence in the context of the critique of society. With a great deal of realism, the film presents a picture of social relations in which a priori the following do not exist: dialogue between citizens and the structures that are called upon to defend the safety of society as a whole and of the citizens within it; any kind of control of society by its members. The film's main character combines, in a surprising way, personal anarchism with religious faith in the notion of power—which makes him an ideal hired terrorist “within the law.” Moreover, it's especially curious to me that many of the details of the character are represented unwittingly in the film, which, in turn, reproduces the sacral nature of civic positions—their blurred, hazy contours.

It is instructive to compare Hard-Hearted with any contemporary Western film of “moral unrest,” for example, with the Dardenne brothers' story about a youth who sells his newborn child (L'Enfant, 2005). The Dardennes are uneasy for the person within society, which rests upon a stable system of values. The tremor in Mizgirev's film is the result of the obvious dysfunction of society as a whole; a society in which civil responsibility is not assumed and cannot be assumed—that is, properly, what the film is about. Responsibility for what happens to people and for what happens with Power is personified in the lowest level of the preservers of order. Everything is upside down: the hero orients himself by his instincts and builds his success on those instincts.

This is announced at the very beginning of the film. The mise-en-scène: the protagonist (a youth, discharged from the army, having just arrived in the megapolis Moscow) does not want to submit to the rules—he does not want to pay the fixed price for a service (the use of a toilet at the train station). And he starts a brawl. In this episode, the very concept of rules is marked as degrading. This is especially true because the responsibility for enforcing rules will fall upon a character that is socially depraved. In this way, rules are the result of the “improper” functioning of the state. Subsequently, the violation of rules is treated as a victory over humiliation. The victor (for an hour) becomes the anarchist, to whom civilized norms are alien, but who is inclined to defend by force his own personal understanding of integrity. A bit later the story has the protagonist firmly established in his position—the concept of order is linked to emotions, not with a social contract. The film bypasses centuries of the development of civilization, retreating to the dominance of instinct or emotion.

Indifferent to the concepts of morality and law, the hero is propelled by instinct, which leads him “through the jungles” of the megapolis without error. He almost does not feel pain—he does not share his own pain and that means he will not be able to empathize with another's. Instinct allows him to claim solidarity with the substance of Power, which rules the city (the world?) in the same way that a pagan god ruled, say, the forest. With the uncomplicated mise-en-scènes of a standard action-thriller, Mizgirev succeeded in formulating and showing that the concept of Power functions as a magical, supernatural phenomenon, which, in its own turn, is serviced by kind of new pantheism.

By way of contrast, it is interesting to recall Maksim Pezhemskii's film Mama Don't Cry 2 (Mama, ne goriui 2 , 2005), which presents an analysis of state technologies in the genre of sarcastic vaudeville, and does so brilliantly. Pezhemskii's strength as a director is in the language of the dialogues. He is a consummate master of slang intonations and vocabulary. The film has a clearly calibrated linguistic structure, which is somehow personified in the twists and turns of the plot.

Another important theme is the problem of details, the problem of realism and documentalism in feature film, the problem of portraying the life of people with all its psychological contradictions and physiological problems. The obvious disregard for a detailed psychology, of analysis, of motivation, I suggest, is the unwillingness (acknowledged or unacknowledged) to introduce a conception of responsibility into cinematic space, individual responsibility first of all, insofar as the concept of responsibility—civic and ethical—is linked to everyday personal motivations. The genre type of film stories, where motivations are subject to a few well-worn schemes, becomes in its own fashion a form of calming and consolation.

Existentialism as a goal—as the meaning of cinematic story-telling and as the method of narration—which is so appealing to European cinema, has become a marginal phenomenon in Russian film. An existential goal is alien to filmmakers attempting to simplify the algorithm of story-telling and simplify the picture of the world.

Exceptions, without doubt, exist. I have in mind the films of Aleksei Popogrebskii and Boris Khlebnikov, whose names are associated with hopes for a cinema of “spiritual unease.”

Popogrebskii's Simple Things (Prostye veshchi, 2007) inherited the sympathies that critics and viewers (not numerous, but the problems of domestic film distribution are outside of the scope of this article) gave to Koktebel' (co-directed by Popogrebskii and Khlebnikov, 2003) and to Khlebnikov's Free Floating (Svobodnoe plavanie , 2006). Popogrebskii carefully thought through his approach: the daily twists and turns in the life of an ordinary person trigger completely unordinary actions. (I note in passing that this same approach lies at the basis of Sam Grabarski's Belgian film Irina Palm (2007)—both the film and its director became the darlings of Berlinale-2007). The long-awaited hero has finally arrived: the weak person, who does not consider force an unavoidable means of existence (money, social status, professional performance, or human arrogance can be understood as “force”). This is a genuinely revolutionary figure in Russian cultural and ideological space of the last fifteen years. It is literally the return of the Chekhovian “little person”—but one who has grown so far as to conceive the theory and practice of small affairs (which he has mastered in full) with natural irony. The doctor decides to deceive his patient—instead of a euthanizing injection, he gives him a shot of sleeping drugs. As payment for the injection, he was supposed to receive an expensive painting from his patient, the sale of which would enable him to get out of an ordinary life's dead end. In this way, the main character prefers a palliative (which does not solve the problem, a temporary solution, a half-measure), falling for a time into a kind of “dream” space where his problems are solved, consciously giving himself a respite, though it is not without curiosity that he observes where this intrigue (à la thriller) could lead. I will note that the complex and pressing existential issues are resolved in the film in fairly comfortable narrative forms. But that does not transfer the film into some kind of soothing genre space; instead, it ironically attests to the authorial politics of non-intervention and outsider-ness. The enclosed plot and direction also turn out to be a strange form of loyalty.

In the context of discussing the problems of realism and documentalism, it is worth mentioning Khlebnikov's Free Floating, a comic-book expanded to epic proportions about unemployment in the provinces. Essential to the film is that its main characters are practically bereft of language: they cannot express their thoughts, their sense of emotions in word forms. Their absence of language becomes the meaning of the plot. This is perhaps the only artistically crafted film that consummately demonstrates the powerlessness or dead-endedness of civilized processes. In this sense the film refers back to the distinct textual epic scope of Andrei Platonov and to his own distinct—on the lexical and semantic levels—analysis of the social working class.

In this sense, Free Floating, despite all its specific metaphoricity, turns out to belong to the realm of “physiologically existentialist” cinema (insofar as it is possible to understand the ability to formulate thoughts with the help of words, of language as a partly physiological quality for a person). “Physiological existentialism” in cinema is linked in a direct way with the understanding of responsibility for the social situation, and it leads into the avant-garde if considering the social function of cinema.

In concluding my reflections, I would like to return to certain of Michel Foucault, in particular to his idea: “… the political merit of psychoanalysis—at least of what is logical in it—is that it has placed under suspicion all that is irreversibly multiplicative in those mechanisms of power that aspired to control and monitor the sexuality of everyday life…” If we understand “control of sexuality” more broadly—as control of personal actions—then, hypothetically, I am struck by the following parallelism: the total constriction in cinematic space of the range for documenting reality, of the field where psychological motivations are analyzed and psychological complexes are studied, threatens the elimination of the social and intellectual functions of filmmakers. This, without doubt, will be a great loss for film and society.

Translated by Elise Thorsen

Marina Drozdova

Marina Drozdova © 2008

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Updated: 13 Jul 08