KinoKultura: Issue 27 (2010)

Cinematic Abuse as Self-Affirmation: Russian Video Mash-ups, Illegal Social Networking, and the Rise of Bekmambetov’s “Office Plankton”

By David MacFadyen (UCLA)

1. Video Mashups and Social Networking in Russia vis à vis “Freedom of Expression”

When MTV debuted on American TV in August 1981, the idea was to have music videos running 24 hours a day, seven days a week, such that—as the station said—“You’ll never look at music the same way again.” By 2008, it seemed that we wouldn’t be looking at music at all, since the promised 24 hours of video had dwindled to a mere three per day. A worsening economy, decimated music industry, and the growth of the Internet had all moved videos onto other screens and into other hands. As that radical decentring of music video production and promotion continues today, it becomes harder still to speak of these 3-minute films as generically stable amid rapid interrelations of texts, industries, audiences, and other contexts.

Over the course of the 1990s, music videos on MTV and elsewhere went through “the process of working out their initial stylistic conventions.” These kinetic images manipulated the symbolic, imaginary, and physical “places” of music’s origins—diegetically, culturally, and geographically. Thanks to technological and editorial advances, such as digitization or superior pre- and postproduction techniques, videos territorialized sounds in all manner of new contexts with greater specificity and ceaseless fantasy. The desires staged therein—as with any fantasy—were used to structure beliefs about a certain excessive jouissance that must necessarily remain the stuff of imagination, i.e., virtual for any subjects of a social law. Consequently, in the discussion of video production and virtuality, levels of identification with that Law will unavoidably come to the fore. With the birth of online footage (often of suspect legal and moral provenance), this is truer still. With all that in mind, let’s move on from the demise of MTV.

The songs and sounds of desire are most radically expressed through DIY video mash-ups. Audio equivalents had appeared in the late 90s as MTV was starting to stagnate, but anybody today with, say Quicktime Pro and an open-source plug-in like Perian can turn Flash files from YouTube into malleable video using iMovie or a similar tool. These amateur films could not, in turn, have become so important without the added distributional clout of the Internet. File-trading networks like Limewire or the early versions of Napster made it possible for mashups to circulate, while billions of pirated MP3s provided the grist for creation. Piracy and social networking tools finally tore the music video from TV stations and really started socializing.

networkingNetworking online has now become a massively important phenomenon. Having outpaced pornography as the number one activity on the web, its consequences offline are equally striking. It is believed, for example, that one in eight married couples in the US met through a social network; if Facebook were a country, it would be the world’s fourth largest; and 80% of American companies now use LinkedIn as the most effective way to seek employees (“Social Media”). Amid this snowballing activity, an authoritative study was published this summer, claiming that Russia has the world’s most engaged social-networking audience. Russians use networking sites at a rate far above the world average, spending close to 7 hours per month on them (rather than the average 3.7 hours), and viewing over 1,300 members’ videos and personal pages over the same period, rather than the usual 525. Three sites dominate this activity: Vkontakte (similar to Facebook) with 45% of the total internet audience, followed by, (similar to Bebo) with almost 25%, and “My World” (Moi mir) on, with 20% of the audience (“Russia Has World’s Most Engaged Social Networking Audience”).

All are based on “concepts of online directional friendship” or slowly investigated degrees of trust and, most importantly, the sharing of film and audio. On networks such as Vkontakte, friendships were once forged primarily as text, through the chatter of kindred spirits, but now songs and video can be swapped at will. Last December, the site was freed from all legal responsibility for whatever it hosts... It now offers approximately 20 million videos and accepts an extra 70,000 daily. Over and above any role these domains play as entertainment, though, they have caused much concern in Russia. The last few months have seen users fined, convicted, and imprisoned in St Petersburg, Ufa, Arkhangel’sk, plus other cities for publishing “extremist materials.” The Arkhangel’sk case ended with a four-year sentence for using Vkontakte as a gathering place for racist sympathies directed primarily against Jews and southern Muslims (“Devushku”).

networkingTo groups espousing racial hatred we can also add socially-networked schemes for civil disorder, protests against state corruption, illegal file-sharing, and child pornography. It is estimated that half of Russia’s web-based child pornography is housed on the pages of Vkontakte (“Moskvicha”). This ability to first manipulate and then move media around surreptitiously has led to intrusive State interest of late, directed initially against overseas software with a curmudgeonly chauvinistic zeal. Skype has thus far been singled out, though some observers maintain the campaign is actually being driven by loss-making phone companies working through the intermediary of the State and the alleged dangers of foreign VoIP software to national security (“Na voine”). In the same spirit, the Russian government has moved actively to prevent Google from consolidating its position in Russia. This has, ironically, only increased the sociopolitical importance and future potential of the Russian networks.

And this domestic media really moves. Programs like VKLife allow users to grab media from VKontakte, YouTube and Mail.Ru; FreeMusicZilla gives you access to LastFM, Imeem, and MySpace. A host of others also exist.[1] Changes in the Russian law have made these social networks the nation’s prime media hosts—to the extent that the official Russian version of MySpace is only the 66th most popular site nationwide. These homegrown networks provide the initial, tentative bonds that lead to democratic movements, extremist political groups, and pornographers. These domains have become places of empathy, of common enthusiasms and freely-chosen goals, due to in part to the role of piracy. It is sometimes said that 80-90% of media in Moscow and St Petersburg is pirated, whereas provincial citizens cannot find licensed materials, even if they want to. Shops selling CDs and DVDs are dying fast in the Russian capital: already there are notably less staff and huge backlogs of unsold media in central warehouses. And so, therefore, initial social sympathies, frequently the consequence of shared cultural tastes, are no longer developed and swapped at the workplace or in school corridors, but online during the long hours that make Russia, as mentioned, the most socially networked nation on Earth.

networkingInitially members will offer images, text, audio, and video to each other, given the death of hard media. Ideas and related, enthusiastically endorsed video clips are swapped online and without restraint: this is a creative process, the negotiation of coincidences and new artistic limits. Thus members of small coteries are validated by their friends and a “much flatter distribution of innovation” takes hold (Toynbee). In other words, when timid online acquaintances make mash-ups or mixes increasingly for one another, social authorship in a group may grow, but innovation moves in the opposite direction. Individuals who become friends are less likely to criticize audiovisual footage: they film and edit more, whilst needing to experiment less. General agreement and new, relatively stable forms replace innovative or unexpected work: hence the fact that an average social networking group today will grow to include 120 people, but members end up actively corresponding with no more than ten individuals (“Primates”). Web communities may, in the terms of Pierre Levy, cultivate collective intelligence, but it usually becomes a shared knowledge of what, in retrospect, are assumed to be a priori processes (Jenkins). Thus tentative socializing, through exchanges of newly (re-)edited videos and music, becomes a series of collective convictions among small groups of people who, in time, see those views or stubborn prejudices as the logical outcome of their debate. What is initially thought to be freewheeling fantasy or an ongoing enjoyment of new liberties soon becomes anything but

The musical patterns and cinematic passions involved here, prior to any declaration of direct political commitment, even coincide with the findings of contemporary neuroscience. Recent studies have found that the prime social purpose of music is—subconsciously—to negotiate degrees of safety, vulnerability, and trust in forces beyond ourselves. Hence the willingness of musical fans in the West, for example, to let musicians “control their emotions and even—on a social scale—their [emancipatory] politics” (Levetin). Music allows for an extension of subjectivity, an increasingly social and “redone” reality, perhaps even the missed opportunities and promised liberties of the Soviet project. After all, emotionally stirring media always re-employs already-familiar feelings in order to go beyond purely linguistic means that can neither match experiential plenitude, nor express a full sociopolitical potential (Adorno). Music turns the repetitions of abortive speech into an increasingly affective or harmonious extension of self-assurance, not unlike the so-called “utopian expansion” of Hollywood musicals and romantic comedies, for example, or, as Alain Badiou puts it: “Love begins where politics ends.”

networkingAnd yet we can see a paradoxical relationship here between initially expansive gestures, flattened innovation, and the gradual return to small, stable units of interaction. Liberal gestures in digital environments and the media thereof, it seems, often become more conservative actualities. Take, for example, the class divisions along which Western social networking sites have already developed. Young people are “freely” constructing their own cultural identities through the use of new video technologies, yet those identities are polarizing in ways that are strongly connected to preexisting patterns of geography, race, and religion. These, in turn, are also bound to huge differences in lifestyle divisions and, one might argue, genres of mediated expression shaped by class.

The nature of “class” here needs to be clarified. In terms of those unfettered, devil-may-care youngsters who chop and upload video, we might draw a distinction between “hegemonic” and “subaltern” youth. Hegemonic users are upwardly mobile or college-bound, defined in one study as “the goody two-shoes, jocks, and other ‘good’ kids [who] go to Facebook. They are primarily white, but not exclusively. They are in honors classes, looking forward to the prom, and live in a world dictated by after-school activities.” Opposed to this group are the subalterns, many of whom prefer MySpace, which—in turn—“is still home for Latino/Hispanic teens, immigrant teens, ‘burnouts,’ ‘alternative kids, ‘art fags,’ punks, emos, goths, gangstas, queer kids, and other kids who didn't play into the dominant high school popularity paradigm… Teens who are really into music or in a band are also on MySpace. MySpace has most of the kids who are socially ostracized at school because they are geeks, freaks, or queers” (“Viewing”). 

networkingWere Pierre Bourdieu at hand, he might support this opposition with recourse to the supposed extremes of bourgeois restraint and working-class excess. The former is fundamentally logocentric, the latter visual - tending towards glitziness, bling, or—in the Russian context—понты. By way of a Slavic parallel, the primary function of Vkontakte, although designed as a text-centric Facebook rip-off, is becoming increasingly visual. In September 2009, the social network launched a torrent tracker that allows members to shift music video at increased rates. The ability of video, games, and related footage to be exchanged will give Vkontakte an estimated seven million new users.  What, then, are the generic benchmarks for Russia’s mute, visually gaudy subalterns, fantasizing through displays of musical, mashed-up overcompensation?  Where do they look for “re-doable” degrees of social change and the narrative limits of their audio-visual dreaming? One recent feature film, made by a citizen of erstwhile Soviet territories, does much to explain the relationship between virtuality, freely-constructed, “mashed-up” narratives of self-assertion, and the subsequent acceptance of “fated” constraints.

2. Freedom of Expression vis à vis “Destiny” and Other Clichés on the Silver Screen

Perhaps the most telling model in recent times for DIY auteur wannabes to emulate has been the thunderous spectacle of Timur Bekmambetov’s Wanted, starring Angelina Jolie and orchestrated— heaven forbid—to music by Danny Elfman and Sarah Brightman, neither known for their sense of restraint. Responses to the film in Moscow and beyond have acted as a sounding board for various desires and fantasies of social change. Designed as an operatic action flick about hazardous potential within a densely interconnected or “networked” world, the movie was lambasted in the West for advocating that “being a killer, being immoral, and wreaking havoc on humanity” are all justified in avoidance of an even greater misfortune: “Having no money, a lousy job, and a cheating girlfriend” (“Wanted”).  Roger Ebert, for example, in a fit of pique declared the film “mindless, heartless, and preposterous.” As a tale blessed with dark, destructive humor—yet devoid of irony - Wanted was a fantasy to fuel numerous nasty prejudices: “Screw reading The Purpose-Driven Life. Embrace your inner hitman and cap a few asses” (“Wanted: Irony-Free”).

In a well-armed world where size really does matter, this “power-fantasy for angry young men” with its “sexualization of ordnance” (“Angie’s”) was rarely spared accusations of torture porn. It was roundly criticized for hiding its anger beneath a loudly-soundtracked, rapidly-edited pastiche of the Wachowski Brothers or Tarantino, in other words with a pretence towards knowing, culturally nuanced wit. What, however, transpired was dismissed by The New Yorker as “endless, happy hyperbole” (“Big Kills).

Amid Elfman’s wailing, woefully unfashionable guitars, any attempt at serious dialog was laughed off the playing field. The screenplay, by way of illustration, suggests that our shared destiny is constantly shaped by crisscrossing threads on a mystical “Loom of Fate,” a grandiose metaphor so poorly judged that it led one British critic to suggest the existence of a parallel “Trouser-Press of Coincidence” (“DVD”). This pathos colors the entire screenplay, pushing a tale of private triumph into the realm of giggle-worthy excess. Our hero, Wesley, is told:  “You can take control of your own destiny and join us, releasing the caged wolf you have inside. Our purpose is to maintain stability in an unstable world.”

wantedBekmambetov made his name in Russia, so what was the reaction in Moscow to this degree of cocky display? Russian audiences expressed gratitude that Bekmambetov had been left alone by Universal Pictures to work “freely.” That adverb is crucial. What for Western viewers was a tale of excessive, of extreme or impossible self-realization, became for Russians a story of possible insufficiency. We had to go beyond hyperbole and "'mash up' social genres and norms" to an even more radical degree: Moscow newspapers celebrated “The tale of a man who’s brave enough to ask ‘Who Am I?’” This extremism led Russia’s neighbors, however, to call Wanted “the terrifying cinema of new Russia” under Medvedev (“Pulia”). And indeed, the film took a lot less money in Ukraine. Nobody likes living next door to the Trouser-Press of Coincidence.

These cultural differences between New York and Moscow were further highlighted on an Austrian football field. The red-carpet debut of Wanted coincided with Russia’s game against Spain in the Euro 2008 football championships. Bekmambetov made sure that screening times were altered in Moscow, thus allowing the Russian fans of these related spectacles to avoid an awful choice - between two potentially life-affirming events. He said that both the football game and his film concerned a new, virtual potential buried deep within a nation of habitual losers. Both Euro 2008 and Wanted showed—through group or networked activity—what “could be” for all of us.

As the tournament began and Russia first lost, then won… and then lost again, both Moscow’s journalists and Bekmambetov called the campaign a “national triumph” one day, and an “unmitigated disaster” the next. Anything was possible, be it in our cinematic tale of interwoven destinies or the hearts of worried fans, one of whom filmed that tale. True, fully-fledged fans, however, require this state of worry, when anything might happen. Fidelity to the full, revolutionary potential of an event—to its latent truth(s)—requires a dismissal of all mitigating circumstances and an acceptance of possible loss. Bekmambetov, observing a football game from the terraces, drew these and related parallels with Wanted’s view of freedom, fate, and their interlocking or “networked” threads.

wantedAll football teams—of course—will lose, sooner or later, hence the reason why true fans both accept and need the possibility of failure in order to prove their fidelity. They, paradoxically, even see perfection and plenitude in that failing. It comes from some ineffable loyalty to a cause. This same fidelity only realizes its full potential and value when unsuccessful; a failed shot on goal, a wasted opportunity in the 89th minute, and so forth. Only in those moments does the complete possibility of a situation show itself—as something not yet tried. These Russian attitudes to the visually spectacular disaster of getting absolutely nothing (and only thus realizing everything!) at precisely the same time as Wanted’s debut were, arguably, fashioned under socialist experience and its two core attitudes towards nothingness: “Sartre’s conception of radical subjective freedom as being nothing, as an objective nothingness—that is, a freedom that determines its existence at each moment—and Marx’s conception of the proletariat as having nothing, ‘nothing to lose… but their chains’” (Hallward). Within nothing was the majesty of everything; the greatest gain of all lay locked within loss, within spectacular or revolutionary disaster. Only in defeat would bigger, broader vistas open up though the workings of constant, radical negativity.

Something boundlessly wonderful, an indescribable social plenitude, was supposed to come about prior to 1991, but never did. What emerges in its place are other, sometimes self-destructive and compensatory urges on the same questionable scale, searching for the majestic defeat that might unlock “everything.” That abnormal desire remains caught in looping, often brutal practices or reactions to a shared awareness of squandered prospects. The absence of fair social practice, sensed by losers such as Wesley, inspires a bizarre and contrary maximalism. It conjures forms of disproportionate energy that even inspired two new tattoos on Angelina Jolie’s body, both written in Russian: “Decisiveness” and “Pain.” Together, they are hell bent on an “excellent” loss, wholly masochistic, and best expressed by the Kazakh press, who—as we’ll now see—appeared intent on really hurting themselves. American audiences used Wanted to voice their cynicism over a tale of social change; the Russians used the same images to voice their acceptance of risk. What about our minor, Muslim nation, the director’s homeland?

wantedVideo-splicing bloggers and amateur journos in Kazakhstan linked the plot of Wanted both to Fight Club (written by a Ukrainian-American!) and the Wachowski Brothers’ Matrix trilogy: “Wanted is a film about superhuman potential.  It’ll give couch-potatoes a chance to feel the physical joy of existence—the kind of pleasure that comes from control over your own body” (“Anzhelina”). These fantastic pleasures (beyond any breakdown caused by pain) come largely from the film’s CGI work, which Bekmambetov himself called “an expression of human possibility and potential.” He is currently extending his filmmaking philosophy once more through the expressive potential of animation, specifically for the project, Nine, recently made with Tim Burton.

Here, though, we must consider the locally specific importance of CGI, of images that allow heroes to really risk their bodies and sidestep disaster altogether. Bekmambetov, talking to the Kazakh press, has sometimes referred to himself as a very “Soviet” director, since the culture of his Soviet Asian birthplace had, he feels, fashioned the adult of today (“Dzholi okazalas’). So what did he learn as a boy from socialist cartoons, for example, about human potential and opportunities for reconstitution amid the possible disaster of nothingness? After all, frequently wordless Soviet cartoons habitually displayed the loss or submission of heroes to intangible forces beyond their control—to the social affects of love, terror, passion, nature, and witchcraft. If the Russian audiences were open to the usefulness of risk, the Kazakh public was going further still, willing their defeat, based on the virtual, animated pictures of their childhood. They loved the tragic ending of Wanted. 

Take the stop-action Soviet puppet film by “My Green Crocodile” (Moi zelenyi krokodil) of 1966. Our green hero falls in love with a cow. He plays her melodies on a violin, and rings her cow-bell while reading rhythmic, incomprehensible and monosyllabic “crocodile poetry.” Some ne’er-do-wells make the cow doubt her love, though, and nature swiftly withers; all flowers fade and the music stops.  The natural disaster of winter is coming; the green crocodile silently turns himself into a summery leaf—to maybe win back their love. A famous quote from the film reads: “If you love somebody, do something beautiful. You could even turn into a green leaf…”  

wantedDisney held back from this extreme, if not “disastrous” kind of dissolution due to marketable taste. Wanted, therefore, is not a Hollywood feature, insisted the Kazakh press: it’s ours!  In addition, they said, it hadn’t been spoiled by the meddling of Russia’s centralized TV stations, who bankrolled Bekmambetov’s previous hits, namely the horror flicks Night Watch and Day Watch—that concern the need for a hazardous cosmic balance. Blogs across Central Asia spoke about losers and other little people with a dangerously big, ever-virtual potential, expressed through a breach of animation’s “dos and don’ts.” Bekmambetov, in fact, used a great deal of CGI previsualization to pre-plan the extremism of his animation, thus pushing it to the very limits of feasibility (“Russkii fil’m”).

Bekmambetov’s favorite feature films map that same limit. He is, for example, a huge fan of MacKenna’s Gold, the 1969 Western that starred Gregory Peck and Omar Shariff, having first fallen in love with this forerunner of the Indiana Jones franchise as a boy in Kazakhstan. He adored its scale since the very first viewing, decades ago: “Henceforth, I liked big American movies. I really liked big American movies. Movies of a big, huge empire.” It all inspired Wanted, a film that one Kazakh newspaper called “an American dream… with an Indian or Mexican ending.” This might be the grand, harmonious conclusion of a Bollywood feature or the endless flow of Mexican telenovellas, which never really “start”—and hope never to end. Either one would be a happy parallel. Bekmambetov, on the other hand, sees things differently: “I never planned to go to Hollywood. It's just an interesting adventure for me. Maybe next time I'll go to Bollywood. Imagine going there to film dancing girls with guns...” He smiles and looks thoughtful. “Hmm. Imagine that. Shiva with six guns...” (“A Wanted Man”).

And the guns are everywhere, as we see: insistent signs of phallic overcompensation cast in mumbo-jumbo from Bekmambetov himself about Jolie’s role as “Greek tragedienne” or the film’s overall pretence towards an ancient aesthetic. This style came to the fore because the Kazakh viewers wanted Hellenic destiny, not post-industrial risk. Those desires produce the film’s phallic pageantry of antique pistols, which—since they lack rifling—are able to spin their bullets around corners.  Able, as the Kazakh media noted, to “bend it like Beckham,” a digital animator thus dreamed of how erstwhile imperial statutes and the laws of physics might be twisted. After all, Wanted, Night Watch, and Day Watch all revolve around the guilt of a prodigal son, who—at least initially—is a purposeless outcast, loser, or mere “office plankton.” Hence the need for a really big firearm; it helps to fix both the unfairness of a fallen empire and an unrealized social project that fizzled out 74 years after it began. 

wantedOn the simple premise of his movie, criticized in the West for its dumb Loom of Fate, Bekmambetov asked a rhetorical question: “What’s better: stability without any hope at all or a real risk that’ll give you the chance to find hope?” What sounds like an international banality is in fact very contextually dependent. Take that silly Loom of Fate and its weavers of destiny. Despite what journalists have told us, it must surely be a reference not to international comic-book silliness, but to something local. Marx and Engels were inspired to pen the Communist Manifesto precisely because internationalized trade had led to new abuses of the working class, specifically of handloom cotton weavers, made destitute through the introduction of the power loom. Timur Bekmambetov, a director from Asian lands that suffered millions of deaths under Soviet rule, puts a big, phallic display of risky revolution back in the hands of new loom weavers. Of cotton-waving office plankton. Not only would the Revolution be televised, it was showing at movie theater near you.

More accurately, it first came to a theater, moved to a Blu-Ray, and then headed for an iPod, iPhone or a YouTube HD stream. At which point the provincial mash-ups and pirates' burn-sessions begin. Long-tail media distribution thus throws the social significance of filmmaking far, far beyond the hallowed walls of a cinema; it now takes place in countless bedrooms and nameless villages, where fantasies of self-definition and social potential are lovingly crafted. Big films like Wanted show the degrees to which a mash-up hopes to reflect—or effect, even—a social potential. According to a post-Soviet outlook, that potential can only be truly, fully realized by losing, maybe happily so; this is done by seeking out and acquiescing to a greater or predetermined force, all in some operatic, appealingly “Hellenic” fashion.

History, according to this outlook, has a fixed generic pattern of its own, or at least films such as Wanted would have us believe so, due to their love for things Greek and grimly destined. One recent study by Herriot-Watt University in Scotland complained that romantic comedies can mess with your expectations of normal interaction (“Hit and Run”); if Hugh Grant can do that much damage in a pair of shorts, then heaven only knows what a gun-wielding Angelina Jolie is capable of. Something tells us her days as Goodwill Ambassador for the UN are numbered.

David MacFadyen


1] works with visual media from YouTube, RuTube, Mail.Ru, Vkontakte, LoadUp and others. It offers audio access to Vkontakte, LiveInternet, Moi mir, and Mail.Ru. Equally popular in Russia are programs such as Savefrom.Net, which drag the contents from any inserted URL. For more on the dizzying array of choices, see “Skachat’ v Vkontakte ili kak izvolite?” NewsMusic.Ru, 25 December 2008.

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David MacFadyen© 2010

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Updated: 14 Jan 10