Issue 26 (2009)
Sergei Solov’ev: 2-ASSA-2 (2009)
reviewed by Lilya Kaganovsky © 2009
“Cinema is for us is the most important of all the arts”
V. I. Lenin 
Sergei Solov’ev’s 2-ASSA-2 opens and closes with sequences taken from his original classic cult film ASSA (1987). In the opening shots, we once again see the singer Viktor Tsoy of the rock group Kino take the stage to perform his famous “We Wait for Change” [My zhdem peremen]. The camera pushes in on Tsoy’s face and suddenly there’s a background shift—and now we see Tsoy performing at a rock concert at the Zelenyi Theater and millions of Kino fans holding up lit matches. The year, we are reminded, is 1987; the place, Moscow, USSR. The power of this scene, when we first saw it in the late eighties as the closing moments of ASSA, lay in part with the performer and performance, with a new attention to youth culture, and also to the possibility of change. Though many of the film’s characters did not survive to the end, the film nevertheless offered the viewer a glimmer of hope, a kind of renewal for a nation poised on the edge of an abyss.
The new ASSA isn’t about this. The opening sequence with Tsoy (tragically killed in an automobile accident in 1990, and therefore, appearing here as a kind of ghost, a mechanically reproduced hallucination made possible by the magic of cinema) is matched by the opening musical number of 2-ASSA-2: Sergei Shnurov, the lead singer of the nostalgically named rock group Leningrad, performing live at a concert (staged specifically for this movie). His opening lyrics, pace Tsoy, are: “we no longer wait for change.” Over the performance, we get the film title—2-ASSA-2, written in both English and Russian—lit up in sparkling lights and animated by an excessive use of bad computer graphics. We also learn that the director, Sergei Solov’ev, is a “Decorated National Artist of the 4th rank.” This nostalgically Soviet title, combined with the sequence from 1987 when the USSR had not yet ceased to exist (or, as a mini dictionary provided for us half way through the film defines it: “USSR: a large world power that disappeared all at once under mysterious circumstances”), appears strangely un-ironic. Like the closing moments of Karen Shakhnazarov’s film The Vanished Empire (Ischeznuvshaia imperiia, 2007), we seem to be in search of lost time, disappointed by the changes we had so longed for, and engaged in a bit of nostalgia for the “good old days” of the USSR. This effect is underscored when the name “Vladimir Ul’ianov (Lenin)” appears in the credits, and later, when his most famous pronouncement on cinema is inserted into the film through a combination of documentary footage (familiar to us through many films, but in particular, Dziga Vertov’s Three Songs of Lenin [Tri pesni o Lenine, 1934]) and a cartoon talk-bubble. Somewhere between this post-modern play with history and the desire to return to a time when cinema was for us “the most important of all the arts” lies Solov’ev’s project.
But the new ASSA isn’t about this either. A “twenty-years later” sequel  of the cult film that made Solov’ev famous as a director, the “lyrical musical thriller” 2-ASSA-2 is an unfortunate exercise in bad cinema. Subtitled in press releases as “The second death of Anna Karenina,” the film shows the backstage production of Solov’ev’s own Anna Karenina, a kind of new 8½ about the difficulties of the creative process and the convoluted routes by which a contemporary Russian film is made. After killing Krymov, the pregnant Alika (Tat’iana Drubich) spends the next five years in prison, catching up on her reading. She discovers Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (without the first 30 pages) and is herself discovered by a Moscow film director (a stand-in for Solov’ev played by Sergei Makovetskii). He “takes her away from all that” and turns her into a great movie star, finally offering her the role of Anna Karenina in his new film. The trouble is that Krymov’s daughter, orphaned after her father is murdered by Alika and her mother locked up in a mental hospital, and now an obscenely rich mafia boss living in Italy, takes it into her head to destroy Alika. She first goes after the movie (by first investing in and then pulling the funding from the project), and then, following “the second death” of Anna Karenina, after the director and Alika’s daughter. The revenge plot competes with the back-stage production plot, and both are filled with flashbacks to the original ASSA, flash-forwards to the upcoming Anna Karenina, and—if that wasn’t enough—lengthy musical numbers by Shnurov and Ekaterina Volkova, and ghosts.
The disjointed nature of the narrative requires so much explanation, as scenes jump in time and space, that the movie is overwhelmed by titles: we are repeatedly given so much extraneous or supplemental information (such as dates, locations, vocabulary, definitions and quotes) that the film is held together by literary rather than cinematic language. Excessive reliance on clips from ASSA and Anna Karenina contributes to the visually chaotic style of this picture, which jumps between grainy shots of Yalta (taken from ASSA), black-and-white flashback sequences (mostly of women in a Soviet prison in 1988, looking strikingly like America’s next top model, with the brows depilated to just the right arch), Visconti’s villa in Italy (bathed in proper Mediterranean light) and artificially illuminated super-saturated surreal sequences of Anna and Vronsky that recall the final ball and closing sequence of Aleksandr Sokurov’s The Russian Ark (Russkii kovcheg, 2002).
And, just when you think it can’t possibly, the film takes a turn for the worse. Tolstoy haunts the train station at Beliaevo, and dead men are resurrected thanks to Frankensteinian medical technology in which heads can be grafted onto bodies and filled with “new economic ideas” in place of old ways of thinking (echoes here of the much more successful Frankenstein monstrosity, Sergei Livnev’s Hammer and Sickle (Serp i molot, 1994), in which a penis is grafted onto the body of a woman to produce the New Soviet Man). There is a brief eruption of now mandatory Tarantino-like gruesome violence, some irritating voice-overs, and music videos to fill in the narrative gaps. The ethereal Tatyana Drubich wanders in and out dream sequences shot through a red filter, looking pouty and doe-eyed, until finally, clearly overburdened by the lack of plot and too many directorial flourishes, she throws herself under Tolstoy’s train. (This sequence is telegraphed so far in advance that it comes as a shock only to the other characters in the film.)
There are, perhaps, two aspects of this film that may save it from complete obscurity: one is (as in the first ASSA) the music—in this case, a combination of contemporary rock from Shnurov and Volkova, a women’s chorus, and classical performances by Iurii Bashmet and Solov’ev and Drubich’s daughter Anna Solov’eva. The fact that all the musicians in the film also make fine actors helps to alleviate some of the pain of this senseless narrative and Volkova’s “unplugged” performance of “Pop-korn” is a moment of sheer brilliance. The second feature is a brief moment of cinematic meta-language: a movie is projected onto Volkova’s bare back while she plays the piano. The whiteness of her back makes a perfect screen for the kaleidoscopic sepia-toned images—and what we witness here, albeit too briefly, is film’s relationship to the body, to image and sound, to origins and hallucinations, to film as illusion, projection, and fetishism. We can read this as a larger comment on cinema’s powers of reproduction, on its ability to shape and organize the world according to the rules of visual language. It is also a palimpsest, a writing on the body that suggests that screen images leave a mark on us, even if impermanent or invisible.
But the new ASSA doesn’t seem to be about this either. Rather, it is about a filmmaker’s struggle with making a film whose language (both visual and literary) he did not master. At the end, once the proper number of dead bodies has been reached, the film returns to Shnurov’s performance at a free rock concert in Moscow. The film title 2-ASSA-2, written in both Russian and English and lit up in lights, is superimposed once again on shots of Shnurov (and Co.) on stage at the Zelenyi Theater. The sparkling lights remind us of the word “glamur,” its Russian usage suggesting a kind of glossy irrelevance, a big show of money and power and “the beautiful” without substance. The film defines “glamur” as “a new civil society occupying the territory of the former USSR.” This title graphic, like much of the film, is overproduced. The computer-generated letters are supplied with every possible lighting effect available for the PC: lens flares, background glow, animation, as well as highlights and shadows to produce a three-dimensional effect. The overly complex sign looks like a corporate logo, as indeed its use of English underscores. The effect is purely un-cinematic, reminding us that, unlike the original ASSA, this film is consumer product first, and work of art only second. The very final credit sequence switches back to the cinema we know and love: over the wintry shots of the rooftops of Yalta (taken from ASSA) we read a list of names of those who have passed away in the last twenty years. Perhaps, 2-ASSA-2 is a kind of memorial for the cinema of the past, for an art form that can no longer lay claim to being “the most important” of all the arts.
Perhaps that, at last, is what the new ASSA is all about.
University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
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2] The closing sequence of 2-ASSA-2 was filmed live on 15 September 2007 at the Zelenyi Theater in Moscow (where Solov’ev also filmed the closing sequence of ASSA with Viktor Tsoy). See the official site.
3] In an early interview about the project, Solov’ev dismisses the term “sequel” because it implies that the original ASSA was in some sense incomplete. Instead, he insists on the awkward term “dilogia” (“duology”) to describe the relationship between 2-ASSA-2 and Anna Karenina, scheduled for simultaneous release, and uses the term “triptych” for the three films together.
4] In an interview with newsru.com on 21 February 2006, Solov’ev suggests that 2-ASSA-2 is a kind of “cine-romance”—a combination of Fedirico Fellini’s 8½ and Mikhail Bulgakov’s Theater Romance(Teatral’nyi roman).
5] Working against that is the fact that so far, 2-ASSA-2 has only had a semi-private screening at the Moscow Film Institute VGIK on 2 April 2009, and a public screening in St. Petersburg during the night of 24/25 April 2009 before screening in the “Summer Euphoria” program at Kinotavr. Unlike the premiere of ASSA which was the first of its kind in the Soviet Union, and which opened nation-wide to millions of viewers across the country, only a limited release is planned for this film, despite its long awaited completion.
2-ASSA-2, Russia, 2009
Color, 120 minutes
Director: Sergei Solov’ev
Scriptwriter: Sergei Solov’ev
Cinematography: Iurii Klimenko
Art Director: Sergei Ivanov
Sound: Pavel Ivushkin
Editing: Rinat Khalilullin
Music: Sergei Shnurov
Cast: Tat’iana Drubich, Sergei Makovetskii, Iurii Bashmet, Aleksandr Bashirov, Anna Solov’eva, Olesia Sudzilovskaia, Sergei Shnurov, Ekaterina Volkova
Producer: Sergei Solov’ev
Production company: Cinema-Line
Sergei Solov’ev: 2-ASSA-2 (2009)
reviewed by Lilya Kaganovsky © 2009