Issue 25 (2009)
Valerii Todorovskii: Hipsters (Stiliagi, 2008)
reviewed by Volha Isakava © 2009
Valerii Todorovskii's new film, released at the end of 2008, is called Stiliagi—a title that could be loosely translated as “Teddy Boys.” Such a translation would correctly refer to the rebellious moods of the 1950s, daring clothing styles and the fascination with jazz and rock'n'roll, but would fail to capture the peculiarity of the Soviet sub-culture of stiliagi, whose fashionable rebellion against the status quo is the subject of the film. The stiliagi movement is described in the Encyclopaedia of Russian History as a youth sub-culture that emerged in the late 1940s on the wave of post-WWII exposure to Western cultural artifacts, fashions, film and music. A stiliaga sported extravagant clothing and hairstyles that challenged Soviet public taste (stil' [style] is the root of the term), and loved all things Western, particularly those things associated with the United States (stiliagi also called themselves shtatniki [fans of the United States]). The stiliagi were chastised in the press and reprimanded through the Komsomol, some of them were expelled from universities. However, many stiliagi were children of the Communist party nomenklatura [elite functionaries], hence their exposure and access to Western culture (Rudova, 2004).
Stiliagi is not a historical film in the sense of accuracy or depth of inquiry, as Todorovskii himself insists (Todorovskii, 2008a), but it does engage and ponder Russia’s history and present, and it does so in a light-hearted way. Stiliagi was promoted as a film-celebration [fil'm-prazdnik] or musical film [muzykal'nyi fil'm]. The film crew abstained from the word “musical” for fear of alienating Russian audiences, as the genre does not have a long and well-defined history in Russia. The working title of the film was changed for the same reason from Boogie on the Bones [Bugi na kostiakh], which would allegedly have connotations of the horror genre for contemporary audiences, to Stiliagi. The film's release was scheduled close to New Year’s Eve, corresponding to the Russian tradition of releasing films that are meant to appeal to popular taste and contribute to the festive mood of the New Year’s celebrations. In addition to popular success, Stiliagi was also graced with several Nika awards, the Russian equivalent of the Oscar, including for Best Film. Personally, I found the film uplifting, with a rather moralistic simple story-line, but also with a masterful application of genre conventions to specifically Russian material. As Marsha Kinder (2002) suggests, the musical “privileges performance over representation” (53), and this statement holds true for Stiliagi, where story and the characters lack sophistication and depth, but rather stick strictly to singing and dancing.
The story’s protagonist, the young Mels (Anton Shagin), whose name is an acronym for Marx-Engels-Lenin-Stalin, participates in the Komsomol disruption of a secret stiliagi party. While pursuing a female stiliaga with the good intention of cutting her hair or her bright clothes, he instead becomes infatuated with her. Her name is Pol’za [Usefulness], (Oksana Akin'shina), which—as the Stiliagi official website suggests—is an acronym for Pomnim Lenina Zavety [We remember Lenin's behests]. She invites Mels to come and see for himself how stiliagi live. Mels quickly joins the ranks of the stiliagi, changing his name to the westernized “Mel,” learning to play the saxophone in a matter of days, and becoming a part of the fun-seeking stiliagi gang led by Fedor, or Fred (Maksim Matveev), the son of an influential Soviet diplomat (Oleg Iankovskii). Mel and Pol’za become lovers. Mel fully and unequivocally embraces the new, non-conformist and defiant lifestyle. Fred, in turn, has to choose between the stiliagi lifestyle and a diplomatic career in the United States. He chooses the latter and leaves. Soon enough the film assumes a more sober tone. Mel gets expelled from university through the efforts of his former Komsomol friend, Katia (Evgeniia Brik). The scene of the Komsomol meeting in which Katia accuses Mel of being a traitor is orchestrated as a musical number to a famous Nautilus Pompilius hit of the late 1980s—Chained by One Chain [Skovannye odnoi tsep'iu]. Pol'za gets pregnant and delivers a baby fathered by an Afro-American she met by chance. Mel and his family generously adopt the baby. Encountering various obstacles in life, Mel gets something of a reality check—living with his bitter mother-in-law, witnessing how Pol'za becomes increasingly dissatisfied with domestic life and motherhood, and turning into the opposite of the sexy, daring woman she used to be. The film ends when Fred comes back to Moscow and visits Mel. He reveals to Mel that there are no stiliagi in the United States, and that the world which the stiliagi pictured was an imaginary one. Mel chastises Fred and delivers the last song in the film as he walks down Tverskaya Street (Moscow’s central street, nicknamed Broadway by the stiliagi), where he is joined by hundreds of young people of diverse non-conformist styles. He is also joined by Pol'za in her former glamorous incarnation. Mel waves into the camera as he sings “Goodbye, dear friend!,” a line from the hit by ChaiF, and the camera pans up above the crowd.
The story is pieced together by the musical numbers, when singing and dancing carry emotional and narrative weight. This choice prompted the critic Evgeniia Leonova (2009) to compare the film to TV musical shows that run during New Year's holidays. History, according to Leonova, appears harmless in Stiliagi. Whilst history may be harmless in the polished television shows, like the popular nostalgic Old Songs About the Important Things (Starye pesni o glavnom, 1997-1999), designed as a loose story driven by a compilation of Soviet hits sung by contemporary Russian celebrities, I think that Stiliagi’s story has much more narrative weight as well as an important message threaded throughout the film, which is aided by its different formal aspects—the choice of music, color and editing. However, there is definitely a sense of watching a music clip, achieved through the collage-like editing that employs rapid angle shifts, kaleidoscopic close-ups and long shots and a fast editing pace. A similar effect is created by the radical color contrasts, for example when an extremely bright, diverse color palette is associated with the stiliagi, while the clothes of “regular” Soviet people are colored in different shades of grey. Since the film has many panoramic shots of crowds and streets, the contrast and collision of grey masses and isolated islands of color represented by stiliagi is even more striking.
A comparison can also be made with Moulin Rouge (Baz Luhrmann, 2001). Characterized by similar kaleidoscopic editing and angle techniques (see Kinder), Moulin Rouge also employs similar musical choices: instead of an original score, both films use various popular songs. Moulin Rouge does it more boldly by appropriating many genres and at least a couple of decades of popular song. Stiliagi is more consistent, but also makes an unusual musical choice: songs by Russian rock musicians from the late 1980s-mid 1990s, some with their lyrics reworked to support the story line, while always keeping the songs recognizable for the viewer. The late 1980s were not only the heyday of Russian rock, but also a time of a revived interest in the stiliagi (see Encyclopaedia) following in the footsteps of the 1970s, when the stiliagi subculture became a subject of reflection on the “lost generation” of the Brezhnev era in the play A Young Man’s Grown-Up Daughter (Vzroslaia doch’ molodogo cheloveka), written by Viktor Slavkin and directed by Anatolii Vasil’ev. Russian rock hits contribute to the relationship with history that Stiliagi develops. On the most evident level, the message of the rock songs is clear: rock musicians are like stiliagi in the sense that their music and lifestyle embodied the message of dissent and fight against conformity. The message of freedom of choice and the right to be different is quite obvious in the film, and according to Todorovskii this message is especially relevant today, since so many young people strive for conformity in contemporary Russia. Todorovskii here cites the example of such youth movements as “Our People” [Nashi]) (Todorovskii 2008a).
The film, though explicit in its message, adopts narrative and formal strategies that oscillate between universalization and specificity of history, which is a feature that could be traced to many contemporary Russian productions. This project entails the construction of a coherent and unified vision of history (and by extension national identity)  that would integrate more or less smoothly the Soviet past, the early post-Soviet years (generally viewed as abjection and purged from public consciousness), and contemporary Russia. Valerii Todorovskii himself provides an interesting explanation, stating that Stiliagi charts a “third” way of reaching the audience and making a popular film – not via the conventional paths of “patriotic blockbuster” or “celebrity comedy” (Todorovskii, 2008b). One can conjecture that the task of the “patriotic blockbuster's” might be to glorify and unify the past while that of the “celebrity comedy's” would be to make Russia’s present plausible and self-contained, a time when questions of history, identity and origins are not necessarily posed. Indeed, Stiliagi adopts a different approach: in one of his comments, Todorovskii states that stiliagi “created” rock culture (Todorovskii, 2008b), which could be interpreted not only in a metaphoric sense but also in the generational sense. The 1950s and the early post-war era was an important subject for Petr Todorovskii, the director’s father, if we remember films like Encore, another encore (Ankor, eshche ankor 1992) while Valerii himself belongs to a generation fascinated by and identifying with the Soviet rock culture. The final scene, which showcases contemporary non-conformist styles and insists on addressing the viewer directly in a somewhat idealized setting where all generations come together, further attests to that. The idea of freedom and the desire to be different emerge not only as a moralistic message of the film, but as an attempt to find a common thread through history that would embrace diverse times and people, but would still present a common and continuous Russian history. Such a common history becomes not a monolithic mythology that molds the subject into history, but a key to a personal story that reflects on origins and family, spanning generations and connecting them emotionally through music.
The film sends a similar message when it formally privileges techniques that stress the film’s sincerity and a unifying vision of history on one hand, and the detached camera perspective, the playfulness and artificiality of the musical genre on the other hand. The abundance of crane tracking shots – the love scene, or the introduction of the communal apartment, and the final panoramic sequence – are good examples. The camera acts like an observer from above that looks down on the characters and their surroundings from a distance. This detached position adds to the artificiality of the spaces in the film and stresses the vantage point from which the film reaches into the past rather than choosing to immerse the viewer in the narrative and its complications. Similar goals are achieved when the film uses handwritten inscriptions and pointing arrows to introduce new settings.
The musical is often theorized as a genre that combines the power of “narrative” representation and the “lyricism” of emotional appeal (Dyer 1981). Describing Moulin Rouge, Kinder stresses the power of emotions introduced by the musical nature of the film, which moves its viewers. In Stiliagi the techniques of detachment strive for the universalization of the non-conformist message and a reflection of the history that literally plays out in front of the viewers’ eyes, calling for identification only in the end, indicating a desire for the continuum of history that someone can call his own. At the same time the film, akin to Kinder's assessment of Moulin Rouge, sweeps the viewer off his feet with the lyrical appeal held by the Russian rock legacy and melodramatic impulses within the story that foster empathy and identification. The music chosen for the film shuns contemporary Russian rock singers who could potentially be a better box-office bet for the younger generation, finding its emotional appeal in past references instead. In the film the link to the Soviet past is fashioned by the 1950s; the present provides a backdrop and a vantage point, while the 1990s stand for the history of how the Soviet legacy became post-Soviet and contemporary. The music is the link that binds history together and highlights the emotional appeal to the viewer. The lyrical advantage of the genre, combined with historical reflexivity, create a very specific story—in a sense, the story of a lifetime and of generational change (ironically, despite the one-dimensional characters). This story is also supported by an often detached vision that self-consciously links distant and diverse historical realities. Such a vision is ambivalent in its treatment of history and the individual's place in it. But through this ambivalence it creates a certain camaraderie of subjects in history, especially evident in the last scene—bound by one history and one culture but not reduced to historical casualties or nostalgic constructions. This is when the musical genre with its self-reflexivity, playfulness and emotional appeal comes into play. The film reaches out to contemporary audiences with the music of the 1990s and the story of the 1950s by someone who grew up somewhere in between and in a sense made it his own history and life.
University of Alberta
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1] Stiliagi ranked third in the domestic box office among New Year releases (competing with the science fiction film Inhabited Island [Obitaemyi ostrov, Fedor Bondarchuk, 2008] and the romantic comedy Lovey-Dovey 2 [Liubov'-morkov' 2, Maksim Pezhemskii, 2008]), and ninth in the total box-office revenues during January. See database at Kinopoisk. “Novogodniaia bitva blokbasterov” (15 January 2009) and “Obzoo rossiiskogi boks-ofisa” (5 February 2009).
2] The issues of identity, nostalgia and appropriation of history in Russian film have been explored in recent scholarship. Svetlana Boym's book The Future of Nostalgia (2002) deals with the nostalgia and history in post-Soviet Russia. For a few examples in film studies, see Susan Larsen's “National Identity and Cultural Authority in Post-Soviet Blockbusters” (Slavic Review, Fall 2003); Mark Lipovetsky's “Transformations of Socialist Realism in the Popular Culture of the Recent Period” (Slavic and Eastern European Journal, Autumn 2004); or the collection Dozor kak symptom (2006).
3] “There [in the film] the soundtrack is classic Russian rock. It matured because stiliagi started dancing to the new music and created those who began to compose such music. Todorovskii's interview with Sobesednik, 23 December 2008.
4] I think this vision is not necessarily nostalgic in the sense of “restorative nostalgia” (Boym, 2002). An attempt to make a universal vision of history into a lifetime story that embraces diverse places and times, creating a history shared by subjects rather than embedded in it prevents the rigid mythologization of the past. By making a very common sense assumption (reiterated in the film by Fred's father) that life is good when you are young, the film dismantles the nostalgic grandeur with which history is often treated in contemporary Russian cinema.
Boym, Svetlana, The Future of Nostalgia New York: Basic Books, 2002
Dyer, Richard, “Entertainment and Utopia,” in Rick Altman, ed. Musical Genre: A Reader. London: Routledge, 1981, pp. 175-189.
Kinder, Marsha, “Moulin Rouge. Review.” Film Quarterly, 55.3 (2002), pp. 52-59.
Leonova, Evgeniia, “Takaia smirnaia igra. Stiliagi”, Iskusstvo kino, 1 (2009).
Todorovskii, Valerii, 2008a. “Valerii Todorovskii o Stiliagakh, den'gakh, sekse i kinokritike,” EmpireNovember 2008.
––, 2008b. “Nuzhna smelost' nadet' zelenye noski!.” Sobesednik, 23 December 2008.
Rudova, Larissa, “Stiliagi,” in James R. Millar, ed. Encyclopedia of Russian History.Vol. 4. New York: Macmillan Reference, 2004, pp. 1478-1479.
Stiliagi, Russia 2008
Colour, 120 minutes
Director: Valerii Todorovskii
Script: Iurii Korotkov and Valerii Todorovskii
Cinematography: Roman Vas'ianov
Producers: Leonid Lebedev, Leonid Iarmol'nik, Vadim Goriainov, Valerii Todorovskii and Television Channel Russia.
Production: Red Arrow Cinema Company [Kinokompaniia Krasnaia Strela], Television Channel Russia [Telekanal Rossiia]
Cast: Anton Shagin, Oksana Akin'shina, Evgeniia Brik, Maksim Matveev, Ekaterina Vilkova, Igor' Voinarovsky, Sergei Garmash, Irina Rozanova, Oleg Iankovskii, Leonid Iarmol'nik, Aleksei Gorbunov.
Art director: Vladimir Gudilin
Music: Konstantin Meladze
Costumes: Aleksandr Osipov
Choreography: Oleg Glushkov and Leonid Timtsunik
Reworked lyrics: Olga Tsipeniuk
Original songs: Viacheslav Butusov and Nautilus Pompilius, Fedor Chistiakov and Nol', Andrei Makarevich and Mashina Vremeni, Mike Naumenko and Zoopark, Nataliia Pivovarova and Kolibri, Vladimir Shakhrin and ChaiF, Valerii Siutkin and Bravo, Viktor Tsoi and Kino, Garik Sukachev and Brigada S.
Valerii Todorovskii: Hipsters (Stiliagi, 2008)
reviewed by Volha Isakava © 2009