Issue 28 (2010)
Vadim Sokolovskii: The Book of Masters (Kniga Masterov, 2009)
reviewed by Andrew Chapman © 2010
The Book of Masters will be remembered as Walt Disney’s first, locally produced Russian film. While Western companies such as Fox Searchlight and Sony Pictures Classics have funded and distributed both popular and festival-circuit Russian films in the United States in the last few years, The Book of Masters is intended for a Russian domestic audience. Disney’s entrance into the Russian market can be traced back to 2006 with the formation of its regional company, The Walt Disney Company CIS LLC, and notably its 2008 agreement with the Russian company Media-One, a venture that would have created a free-to-air Disney Channel in Russia, had the merger not been blocked by Russian anti-monopoly laws (“Walt Disney ...”). The Book of Masters, with a budget of seven million dollars, was co-produced with Nikita Mikhalkov’s Three-T studios and shot at Mosfil'm. The director and one of the screenwriters of the film, Vadim Sokolovskii, also serves as head of production and acquisitions at Disney CIS.
The film’s blend of Disney with Mikhalkov can easily be noticed. This children’s fantasy is dominated by garish ensemble casting, a current trend in Russian cinema, most notably in Mikhalkov’s 12 (2007), and in blockbuster films such as Night Watch (Nochnoi dozor 2004) and Day Watch (Dnevnoi dozor, 2006).The marketing of the film heavily emphasizes celebrity presence, especially in the trailer, where all fifteen names are added to the screen one by one. While The Book of Masters features a wide collection of stage and screen actors from the Soviet past as well as the present, the main roles of the young heroes are played by relatively unknowns.
The Book of Masters is an interesting case within contemporary Russian cinema in that the film hasn’t figured out whether it wants to adhere to the Western genre conventions of fantasy, or instead follow the conventions of the fairy tale film, a genre firmly established by the famous Soviet classics of Aleksandr Ptushko and Aleksandr Rou. The Book of Masters tries to make this transition to fantasy self-consciously, featuring an original fantasy plot, but with elements of the Russian fairy tale on the periphery. The film tells the story of the evil Stone Princess (Kamennaia kniazhna), who is secluded in a stone tower, waiting for a stone-carving master to bring her a jewel that will allow her to control the world. This plot is integrated with the fairy tale world, as the Stone Princess’s mother is none other than Baba Iaga, and other stock fairy tale characters are similarly woven into various scenes.
Parts of The Book of Masters’s plot, aesthetic, and computer graphics are abashedly lifted from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001, 2002, 2003), but the film lacks the nuances that made the Rings trilogy so successful. One area where The Book of Masters fails in its imitation is the construction of space in the fantasy world. While Lord of the Rings so perfectly constructed journeys through different spaces, The Book of Masters provides no linkages between settings: the town, the “Endless Forest,” and the Stone Princess’s tower. This is crucial to the fairy tale narrative, which often marks maturation spatially, through the movement of the hero on a quest outside the boundaries of his village.
Instead, The Book of Masters is more interested in emphasizing the folk aspect of the story, rather than visualizing the narrative. It features the storyteller (skazochnitsa), Ol'ga Aroseva who, at the age of eighty-four, narrates much of the story. The use of the narrator recognizes the tradition of the fairy tale as culture that is passed down from generation to generation. This notion is commented on throughout the film, as supernatural events are written off by the king (barin) as “oldwives’ tales” (“babushkiny skazki”). Secondly, The Book of Masters uses a familiar storytelling technique found in fairy tale films: the inclusion of the image of the book itself. This device occurs at various transitions in the film, used to cut between characters and different settings, as the live-action shot morphs into the book illustration. The page is turned and the next scene is introduced in the opposite process, with the illustration becoming the next live-action scene. These two methods perhaps prevent what would be a more interesting visualization of the story, but the film seeks to maintain the simple, folk aspect of storytelling, and this often clashes with the grandiose aesthetics of fantasy.
The Book of Masters clearly parodies Russian fairy tale narratives and their conventions, and does so by laying bare each of its devices along the way. Parody is achieved most notably through the characters themselves: Ivan, the self-proclaimed master, is by no means Ivan the Fool, but is confused by others for the fool at numerous points in the film. Moreover, characters consciously “enact” well known fairy tale sequences, jumping through the hoops in order to drive the plot from point A to point B. For example, in a sequence when Ivan approaches Baba Iaga for the second time, having already escaped once, the two characters go through the familiar scene where Baba Iaga must entice the “unknowing” Ivan to enter. The scene is shot with deadpan humor, as Baba Iaga (Liia Akhedzhakova) recites the necessary lines with no emotion or effort to convince Ivan. Everything is already on the surface, but the plot still must be driven forward through these conventions.
The film features a smattering of familiar Russian folklore characters beyond Baba Iaga, including Koshchei the Deathless, the rusalka, and the bogatyr. These cameo appearances feature many well known Russian actors: an aggressive, masculine and leather-clad, yet also vulnerable Gosha Kutsenko playing Koshchei the Deathless; Ekaterina Vilkova as an enticing, yet unsuccessful Rusalka; and Mikhail Efremov as “the 34th Bogatyr,” who has been expelled from the well-known group of the thirty-three. The cameos are meant to provide moments of comic relief, but they often disrupt the flow of the narrative, with the introductions of the characters being haphazard at best.
The inclusion of typecast stars to play traditional characters is simply part of a larger project at hand: to create humor out of a disjuncture between the contemporary and the traditional. In this sense, The Book of Masters takes a very similar approach to many recent folklore films and cartoons. Like the Mel'nitsa Studio bogatyr’ trilogy (Alesha Popovich, 2004; Dobrynia Nikitich, 2006; Il'ia Muromets, 2007), The Book of Masters tries to blend contemporary culture with ancient folklore. Koshchei, who is portrayed as a hoarder, keeps his jewels in a safe with a combination lock; Baba Iaga’s hut, detached from its feet, has a sign on it labeled “repair” (“remont”) and has a distinct alarm that should belong to a car. These modern references are somewhat unevenly placed throughout the story, but there is an attempt to justify their presence in the traditional fairy tale generic structure. The donor, whom Vladimir Propp identifies in The Morphology of the Folktale as a character type that provides magical assistance to the hero, is associated with technological advancement in the film. The character Mirror, an assistant who appears in the Stone Princess’s hand mirror, is actually a television transmission, and another character, a magical talking ball of wool, gives directions to Ivan in a similar fashion as a GPS device. All of these instances aptly follow through with the motto that advertises the film: “We remember these stories, we know these heroes, but we haven’t yet seen everything.”
While Masters constantly pokes fun with the fairy tale’s many conventions, the choice to end the film with the storyteller Aroseva legitimates the genre’s importance. In the last scene of the film, the audience finally sees Aroseva, who is dressed in kitsch, traditional village clothing, and perched in front of a village home windowsill. While concluding the story, she suddenly reproaches the uninterested viewer, yelling, “Hey you, where are you running off to? I haven’t finished the story!” She pleads with the young viewers, addressed as molodezh', to come again to hear more. She closes the windows, and the credit screen is prompted, which of course is accompanied by a soundtrack of Russian pop music. Thus, The Book of Masters poses a larger, yet unanswerable question: in what ways can contemporary media package traditional Russian culture in order to make it engaging for its younger audiences?
University of Pittsburgh
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1] Disney’s agreement to join Media-One was blocked by Russia's anti-monopoly agency, citing that their application included false information. Disney’s attempt to create a television channel in Russia is part of an aggressive, global marketing initiative that has already succeeded with similar television channel projects in both China and India (Shuster and Keating).
“Walt Disney Company and Media-One Form Joint Venture to Launch Disney-Branded Free-to-Air Television Channel in Russia.” 16 Dec. 2008.
Shuster, Simon, and Gina Keating. “Russia anti-trust body rejects Disney channel.” Ed. Andrew Macdonald. Reuters. 20 Feb. 2009.
The Book of Masters, Russia, 2009
Color, 101 minutes
Director: Vadim Sokolovskii
Screenplay: Anna Starobinets, Vadim Sokolovskii
Cinematography: Archil Akhvlediani
Art Director: Mikhail Filatov, Viktor Shmelev
Sound: Vitalii Krugaikov
Music: Iurii Poteenko
Cast: Maksim Loktionov, Mariia Andreeva, Liia Akhedzhakova, Leonid Kuravlev, Irina Apeksimova, Ol'ga Aroseva, Valentin Gaft, Gosha Kutsenko, Ekaterina Vilkova, Sergei Garmash (voice)
Producer: Leonid Vereshchagin, Marina Zhigalova-Ozkan
Production: Walt Disney Pictures
Vadim Sokolovskii: The Book of Masters (Kniga Masterov, 2009)
reviewed by Andrew Chapman © 2010