"No Power Can Force Us to Live Badly"

By Sasha Kiselev (Moscow)

The title of this article contains more of a mantra than an assertion. A defensive position is a person's natural condition in Russia. Occasionally one can move into the aggressive position, and then the object of that aggression is not to be envied.

As an actor I know once said about film budgets: in a film with a large budget, we see a Mercedes blow up on screen. If the budget is just average, then we see a Mercedes turn and disappear around the corner, from whence bursts of flame and smoke emerge.... In the case of a pathetically small budget, then the scene depends on the hapless actor, who runs into the center of the frame, grimy, angry, dirty, and cries out “My Mercedes blew up! My Mercedes blew up!...”

I think that the important element in this story is the Mercedes. Whatever the budgetary constraints, a Mercedes must be blown up. And here we ask ourselves: just what is a Mercedes? It is well known that in Russia “a poet is more than simply a poet.” An analogous transformation takes place with the Mercedes. It is more than simply a car, more even than an expensive car. It is a symbol of success, a symbol that hardly any film can do without. But most films are made-for-television, which always and eagerly tries to “service” its viewership and to oblige it in every way. Our subject here will be artistic cinema.

It is no secret to anyone that things have gotten much better for Russian cinema today. We could certainly wish for better, but nevertheless one no longer encounters the sense of freefall and crisis of just a few years ago.

We see lively growth in film distribution. New cinemas are being built, which in turn stimulates the development of new film production and gives the viewer greater freedom of choice among the available repertoire. The film itself—that is, not its transmission over the television airwaves or its copies on VHS or DVD—has begun to live longer and in a greater number of prints, and, furthermore, has begun to appear not only in the capital cities, but in the provinces as well. Investment in film production has also grown.

This all sounds very optimistic but only as long as we speak of the average fate of some abstract film.

As soon as we begin to speak of concrete pictures with specific titles and directors, the petty demon in us film critics just cannot refrain from nattering rebukes and complaints although we really ought to be happy. Before now films were fewer and the opportunity to expound upon one's own ideas simply presented itself all too infrequently.

Over the past five years, some 15 films overall have appeared about which there is something to say. This is not a condemnation. In fact, this is a completely normal output level for any national cinema.

However, while cinema over these five years has unfolded like a blooming nasturtium, it has simultaneously wilted. It is no secret that state financing has become the fundamental source of income. And this can only mean one thing: money is allocated for safe films. Or for films that are so serious that even the sharpest-eyed investigator could never decipher them enough to recognize them as dangerous.

Heroic independent producers, the likes of Anatole Dauman, for example, do not exist, and thus we have a cinema controlled by the state. It is controlled with a velvet glove, but this is only for the time being. The current trajectory does not give reason for optimism or hope.

Against the trajectory. This is the basic point. The directors of many films try to express themselves and this is one way that these films turn out to be important, significant, and, as a result, dangerous.

This danger does not spring from aggression. Its main (Buddhist?) essence consists in taking stock of that which really exists. Strange as it may seem, feature films prove to be more effective in this than documentaries. Documentaries present other problems—one always expects a trap. So it's a document, so a person appears in the frame and speaks his thoughts. So what? Who allowed him to do so? Is this person really fit to express his thoughts and are they really his own?

In feature films everything is already made up, and so there is less danger from inappropriate ideas.

For the first time in many years, the development of cinema is presenting a clear picture of what is taking place in the space of Russian-language filmmaking, giving expression to opposing ideas and artistic schools. This is important as it bears witness to the potential of intellectual diversity in cinema and promises—we'll see...—a world-wide return to prominence for Russian cinema. It is curious for the critic to observe how such categories as tradition and innovation function in films by directors of different generations and orientations. In Nanking Landscape (Nankinskii peizazh, 2006), Valerii Rubinchik—a “star” of the 1970s and 1980s and director of the unforgettable Cultural Excursion to the Theater (Kul'tpokhod v teatr, 1982)—shows a sensitive approach to the texture of the representation, but almost immediately loses the physical and psychological logic of a complex story. Iulii Gusman enjoys satirizing cultural recreation in the USSR in Soviet Period Park (Park sovetskogo perioda, 2006) , but his boisterous game of signs and symbols looks somewhat like an insane game of solitaire. Konstantin Lopushanskii is true to himself in his adaptation of the Strugatskii Brothers' novel The Ugly Swans (Gadkie lebedi, 2006) , creating a canvas that is profound, encoded, and seriously inadequate to the “Secret Materials.” Aleksandr Rogozhkin's retro-drama Transit (Peregon, 2006) is about a military airbase that receives American Lend-Lease aircraft in 1942. The narrative appears well thought out in its details, but as a whole it fails—it does not grab the audience at an emotional level. Aleksei Balabanov made his urban story It Doesn't Hurt (Mne ne bol'no, 2006) about doomed love, but, as usual, not in order to move the hearts of the viewers to weep or to sing, but in order that he, the director Balabanov, could outline the alternatives the young people have to choose, their spiritual future and rebellious past.

It is symptomatic—in a positive sense—that no films have emerged that are oriented toward the manipulation of viewers. This seductive and complex process captures the minds of producers and directors, and probably fascinates distributors as well, but in our country it has a bad “credit history.” The sober-minded viewer resists brute force, that is, films in which characters and themes are clearly constructed according to a certain scheme in order to have a certain effect.

Kirill Serebrennikov's Playing the Victim (Izobrazhaia zertvu, 2006), Boris Khlebnikov's Free Floating (Svobodnoe plavanie, 2006), Ivan Vyrypaev's Euphoria (Eiforiia, 2006), Aleksandr Veledinskii's Alive (Zhivoi, 2006), Iurii Moroz's The Spot (Tochka, 2006), and Ekaterina Grokhovskaia's Man of No Return (Chelovek bezvozvratnyi, 2006)—collectively these films represent a breakthrough. They are made in different genres and use different visual languages and cinematic backgrounds. They are oriented toward freedom of expression, as well as toward different viewing publics. Both of these aspects are important. Viewers, in essence, are the main but invisible participants in cinema production and development. They are not an undifferentiated mass, but a society of individuals. This season was able to develop a long-expected possibility: the movement of individuals, different authors and different viewers, toward each other. Once this movement is understood, a system of values becomes clear.

This brings us to the concern with moral and social unrest. Indeed, after many years of oblivion, this authorial position has emerged if not into the foreground, then at least downstage. We are again witnessing the transition of tradition into something new: after several years of muckraking “Perestroika” cinema, social concern somehow fell out of favor. But it has now returned in a new guise: a fundamentally more personal and individual directorial position, free of any impulse toward proclamation. For example, Free Floating, about an unemployed provincial young man, is a metaphysical comedy constructed with hyperrealistic forms. A film about the daily life of urban prostitutes, The Spot is full of honest spiritual longing. We hear a cry for spiritual solidarity in Alive, a kind of post–action film in which the heroes, fallen soldiers, wander through the world of the living.

The expression of social unrest by these authors shares one curious aspect—suddenly, in several films, we find that characters are able to express their ideas and feelings only with the help of obscene language. The use of this magical power of language is differently motivated in each concrete story. In Playing the Victim, the investigator's monologue “about the fates of a generation” (à la Chatskii) is so thickly laced with cursing that one involuntarily begins to wonder about the prospects for this film's distribution. But this is the whole point. The investigator uses the only authentic linguistic form available to speak to moronic murderers who are calmly capable of stabbing their girlfriend with a knife, trying to dissect the corpse, and then going home, or who can simply shoot a fellow classmate at a graduation celebration, and so on. The common message of these utterances is the following: there has appeared a species (one could call it a generation or a social group, no designation would be quite accurate) whose moral values so lack any anchor, are so foreign to the “older” culture, that it is stupid to speak about them with the language of that culture. They are a fringe phenomenon, but nevertheless rooted in and securely established in our society. Civic integrity requires that we interpret them in their own language.

In Free Floating the situation is a bit different. Here the characters are also almost deprived of language; they simply do not have the necessary tools to express themselves and their feelings. Therefore the protagonist, upon arriving for a meeting with his former classmate, nicknamed Khriushka, cannot utter anything more than “Hey, 'sup! Me? Workin...” And then he suggests that she grunt. Strange as it may seem, there is more human emotion in this grunting than in many dialogues.

The very same lack of language and the impossibility of understanding one's place in the world, but in a more intense context, is represented in the film Alive. A platoon of contract soldiers is caught in an ambush somewhere in one of the country's ethnic “hotspots.” By turns, they all carry one wounded comrade off of the field of battle, remaining to give cover to the retreat. As a result, all but the wounded comrade perish. It is only after they have given their lives for him that he begins to reflect—and not even immediately—upon the reason that he is still alive. Unfortunately, it is already too late.

It is somewhat comical to see some of our film-critic colleagues complaining about how unattractively people express themselves on screen. As I see it, the language of life on the screen brings with it life itself. We have waited for this for a long time. And the viewers, as was said above, are of different kinds.

But the films themselves are aimed at disrupting the dogmas of our society's habits of reception. Let us be realistic—this process is only beginning (but it must first begin, before it can be completed). The same is true of cinematic language—the better directors dream of its liberation, but it is easy to surrender to the charm of exhausted devices, which seem radical to uninformed viewers.

The last remaining question concerns the opposition of power and destiny. The assumption here is the claim that power stands against destiny. It tries to overpower it, but this is not in its destiny—for destiny, nevertheless, has many ways to ignore power, no matter how that power may manifest itself.

In spite of the renewed rise of censorship—about which no one will speak aloud because it is the sacred knowledge of the initiated—cinema continues to go about its business. Sometimes, by fortune or by design, it focuses in upon what is actually taking place or what could take place.

Translated by Gerald McCausland

Sasha Kiselev

Sasha Kiselev© 2008

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Updated: 13 Jul 08