Issue 30 (2010)
Garik Sukachev: The House of Sun (Dom Solntsa, 2010)
reviewed by Joshua First © 2010
The 1960s nostalgia industry seems to move in waves, never completely subsiding, but occasionally bombarding consumers with a barrage of objects and media that keep the myths of this “long” decade alive in our collective consciousness. From Julie Taymor’s stylized musical romance set to a Beatles soundtrack (Across the Universe, 2007), to Bernardo Bertolucci’s raunchy tale of an American study abroad experience in the midst of incest and May 68 in Paris (The Dreamers, 2004), to Uli Edel’s portrait of the West German Red Army Faction (Baader-Meinhof Complex, 2008), the 1960s are once again a subject in both popular and art-house cinema.Garik Sukachev’s House of the Sun is less ambitious than these other films with its trite love story, but also more ambitious because it aims to construct a popular mythology where none had yet existed.
Sukachev’s film follows Sasha (Svetlana Ivanova), the only child of a well-born Soviet family, as she rejects her future in medical school and with her careerist fiancé, instead falling in love with the title character, Solntse, or Sun, (Stanislav Riadinskii), and joining his merry band of Moscow hippies as they travel to the Crimea. Along the way, they encounter the intolerance of the militsiia and soldiers who spare no opportunity to harass and beat them up. The film ends in tragedy, as a chronically ill Solntse dies after a failed operation.
House of Sun is Sukachev’s third feature and, given his involvement in Soviet / Russian rock music since the late-1970s, he is probably the filmmaker most qualified to broach the subject of the hippy counterculture in the USSR. As with nearly all films about the 1960s, music figures very prominently here. One of the film’s highlights is a re-creation of a Mashina Vremeni concert in Moscow, which ends with the authorities cutting the power and the audience rioting. But most of the music featured on the film’s soundtrack comprises English-language hits from the period, which frequently moves the drama into the realm of a music video. Most amazingly, though, House of Sun deserves credit for its brilliant recreation of the visual quality of late-1960s / early-1970s counterculture-themed cinema. The apparent replication of lighting and mise-en-scène from this era signifies something more than, or perhaps something completely different from, the recreation of “authentic” details like hair, jeans, headbands and beads (see Stepanova). In House of Sun, the 1960s (or 1970s in this case) inhabit a space similar to the American West: less a part of history proper than the history of cinema. And it is to this cinematic space that our nostalgia is directed.
Whole scenes in House of Sun mimic the frantic camerawork of 1960s American independent film: A scene from a Moscow peace protest seems literally taken from the photojournalism of the American anti-war movement, with the militia on horseback, the close-up of a struggling young man with curly black hair and a bloodied face being escorted away by two militsionery, and again the documentary-like presence of the jerky camera. In a sense, the two worlds of the film—the world of the Brezhnev-era elite and that of “the System”—demand different means of representation entirely, and are rendered as two different kinds of cinematiclanguages.
In this respect, and despite the film’s orientation toward realism, House of Sun bears comparison to Valerii Todorovskii’s Hipsters (Stiliagi, 2008). Both films, for example, rely heavily on generic conventions to drive the action. Thus, Sukachev presents us with a series of pretty images signifying the cinematic world of “the 1960s”—claustrophobic images of protests broken up by the cops, filmed as Direct Cinema; long takes of long-haired young people frolicking in a field at sunset; musically motivated montages of nature; the aforementioned rock concert; pot smoking accompanying philosophical discussions; a drug overdose; a black market deal gone bad; and a love scene that so precisely mimics 1970s cinema that I momentarily forgot that I was watching a new film. All of these characteristics were already recognized as conventional means to represent “the 1960s” by the beginning of the following decade, when Hollywood realized the market potential of the counterculture.
Sukachev’s motives are perhaps more genuine than mere marketability—after all, the Soviet Union did not have a similar cinematic phenomenon, and the director truly is breaking new territory here—but the youth market clearly has the potential to make this low-budget film a financial success. And, unlike the musical pastiche of Hipsters, House of Sun aims at historical accuracy in its choice of music and the material culture of youth rebellion of that period. The soundtrack combines early Soviet rock (Mashina vremeni, Kalininov most) with American and British hits from the early 1970s (Steppenwolf, Grand Funk Railroad, Jimmie Hendrix), some of which can be downloaded for free on the film’s website. Moreover, the outfits worn by the young people in the film are convincing enough to supply would-be imitators with a virtual catalog of new fashions. Add a few dream catchers and friendship bracelets, and young Muscovites will be demanding their very own Urban Outfitters.
Perhaps such cynicism is unjustified. After all, House of Sun is not mere imitation of American and Western European retro style. Like Aleksei Balabanov’s Cargo 200 (Gruz 200, 2007)and Karen Shakhnazarov’s The Vanished Empire (Ischeznuvshaia imperiia, 2008),Sukachev’s film engages with the particular themes of late socialism – the bankruptcy of official ideology and the Soviet modernization project, the brutality and corruption of the authorities, and the utter banality and opportunism of everyday life. In similarly looking at young people from the Brezhnev era, House of Sun examines the relationship between social status and access to Western youth culture, and between the stale space of late-Soviet public life and the desire to escape to the realm of the private. To echo Lilya Kaganovsky’s review of Vanished Empire, scenes and characters in House of Sun similarly reveal Aleksei Yurchak’s notion of the “cynical reason of late socialism,” including, most amusingly, a pionerka who chain smokes and operates a pirate radio station under the handle Baba Beda (trouble woman) (see Kaganovsky).
Unlike either Balabanov or Shakhnazarov, however, Sukarev affirmatively resolves these problems in establishing the protagonists as ideal and virtuous types and countercultural space as truly utopian. Escape from official culture is realized in the Crimea, and Solntse’s natural death, while tragic, avoids defeat at the hands of the authorities. At the same time, Western mass culture is not fundamentally corrupting; rather, jeans and rock music unproblematically represent the means of achieving freedom from Soviet totalitarianism. In this respect, House of Sun avoids both the despair of Cargo 200 and the patriotic moralizing of Vanished Empire.
The image of the early 1970s Soviet Union consequently remains a nostalgic space, and Moscow a site of innocent leisure and simple entertainment. In an opening sequence, Sasha moves through urban space with careless abandon, pausing to shoot a couple hoops, before returning home. In another scene, she goes to see a popular American film. Thus there is a firm element of nostalgia present in House of Sun, but the film represents the violence of the Soviet system in much greater detail than either Shakhnazarov or Todorovskii.
Although not without interest, the appeal of House of Sun is on the surface. Sukachev presents a spectacle of the previously unfamiliar Soviet hippy, and of 1960s/70s cultural conflict. The plot, a simple story of young love, appears as a mere vehicle for the image and soundtrack. Moreover, the theme of the counter-culture frequently collides with the historical context and visual codes of late socialism in House of Sun. Nonetheless, the mixing of these two worlds creates an enjoyable and frequently amusing viewing experience, which allows one to ignore the frequently trite aspects of the plot.
University of Mississippi
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Bodroghkozy, Aniko. “Reel Revolutionaries: An Examination of Hollywood’s Cycle of Youth Rebellion Films.” Cinema Journal 41, no. 3 (Spring 2002), 38-58.
Kaganovsky, Lilya. “Karen Shakhnazarov: Vanished Empire” KinoKultura 22 (October 2008).
Marwick, Arthur. The Sixties: Cultural Revolution in Britain, France, Italy and the United States, c. 1958- c. 1974. Oxford: Oxford, University Press, 1998.
Stepanova, Svetlana. “Tsvety i zhelezno.” Ruskino.
The House of Sun, Russia, 2010
Color, 110 minutes
Director: Garik Sukachev
Script: Ivan Okhlobystin and Sukachev
Cinematography: Sergei Kozlov
Cast: Stanislav Riadinskii, Svetlana Ivanova, Dar’ia Moroz, Ivan Stebunov, Kirill Polikashin, Moises Blanca, Aleksei Gorbunov
Producers: Sergei Gribkov, Stanislav Ershov, Sergei Arshinov, Marianna Balashova, Irakli Karbaia
Production Company: Top Line Distribution, Archi-Film, Yalta Film Studio, Gorkii Studio
Garik Sukachev: The House of Sun (Dom Solntsa, 2010)
reviewed by Joshua First © 2010