Issue 31 (2011)
Dmitrii Astrakhan: Nice and Good People Live on Earth (Na svete zhivut dobrye i khoroshie liudi, 2009)
reviewed by Christina Stojanova © 2011
A Holy Fool or a Misanthrope?
Dmitrii Astrakhan considers himself a director who makes films for everyone, not only for a chosen few. On the other hand, according to Vasilii Koretskii’s review of Astrakhan’s latest film Nice and Good People Live on Earth for TimeOut Moscow, “over the last ten years, he has enjoyed the exclusive status of Russian cinema’s Holy Fool, whom no one dares smear, let alone analyze” (Koretskii). According to Denis Boiarinov’s witty coverage of the opening night of Nice and Good People Live in Earth in February 2010, this opinion is shared wholeheartedly by Russian television, where the only real rival of Astrakhan’s hit Everything Will Be OK (Vse budet khorosho, 1995) as most often shown Russian film is El’dar Riazanov’s Irony of Fate, or Enjoy Your Bath! (Ironiia sud’by, ili S legkim parom! 1975). Indeed, Astrakhan’s success, albeit easy to appreciate, is not so easy to examine, since his films usually represents a mixture of archetypal motives and stereotypes, borrowed from fairy tales and myths—both classical and contemporary (the so-called urban myths), interwoven into familiar cultural, social and historical references and images, and strung loosely together in sometimes incompatible aesthetically melodramatic, comedic and romantic genre blocks. Or, to quote Boiarinov again, Astrakhan’s films are a “shameless” concoction of “trash-lubok ... falsities, kitsch, absurdities, even uninhibited idiocy.”
Made at the peak of social exasperation brought on by the growing numbers of the New Russian Poor and the unabated arrogance of the New Russian Rich, Everything Will Be OK embodies Astrakhan’s attempt to render the predominant at the time chernukha film style in over-the-top comedic mode. In addition to the plot with its deliberate narrative excesses, the film revealed in an almost statistical manner the hellish depths of social deprivation of the New Russian poor—alcoholism, violent crime, unemployment, prostitution, lack of perspective for the young and security for the old, horrifying poverty—hidden under the ironic title Everything Will Be OK. For it takes nothing short of a miracle to resolve any of those problems.
Fast-forward fifteen years to 2010, when the belief in miracles—in reality as well as on screen—has grown even stronger despite Kira Muratova’s attempts to convince the viewers of her tell-all anti-Christmas tale Melody for a Street Organ (Melodia dlia sharmanki, 2009) that fairy tale miracle-makers—nouveau riches and their damsels—are more preoccupied with themselves than with destitute New Poor like the two orphaned children in her film. Similarly, with Nice and Good People Live on Earth Astrakhan returns to the theme of the miraculous salvation, but this time around in a conspicuously Brechtian, ironic manner, where viewer’s distancing is encouraged by retrospections, introspections and intertitles, indicating the passage of time.
The opening scene of Nice and Good People Live On Earth sets the first of three narrative ideological dominants by showing the teen-aged protagonist Dima watching Chapaev (1934), the Vasil’ev Brothers’ landmark revolutionary flick, with his mother and father. The latter cannot hold back his tears at the sight of Chapaev’s proverbial Civil War heroics mythologized by the Vasil’evs’ classic, thus introducing the heroic-historic parameters of Astrakhan’s film universe. The next episode takes us fifteen years later amidst the disappointing aftermath of a referendum that has just rejected the pet project of Dima and his powerful former classmate, called intimately Vova the Oligarch, for a radical make-over of their small town Zarechensk. Now a high-school history teacher and representative of the local intelligentsia, Dima (Sergei Gorobchenko) has obviously been instrumental in designing the future Zarechensk in the spirit of Tommaso Campanella’s The City of the Sun, heavily influenced by more contemporary American ideas of sustainable suburbia. The project nevertheless attracts only four votes for, as the local TV commentator has it: “we live well the way we are,” thus establishing the second ideological parameter of the film—that of the highly problematic perspective of consensual egalitarianism in contemporary Russia, and the endemic resistance to change. Unlike the nationalist-populist ideal propounded by Chapaev, Dima’s Fordist version of democratic egalitarianism is framed as yet another utopian prerogative of the intelligentsia, whose self-proclaimed moral and social leadership has lost credibility in the eyes of the “ordinary people” since the collapse of Communism—imposed with intelligentsia’s indispensable help—and its lasting legacies. On the other hand, Dima’s alcoholic father and the “ordinary” people he represents do identify with the glory of the Soviet past and its proletarian heroes—a seeming paradox, which is yet to play an important narrative role in the film.
Certainly, this is not the only paradox in the film: Dima, the “intelligent,” has no moral qualms regarding his collaboration with Vova, the Oligarch. Here Astrakhan’s film shares an ethical permissiveness with popular Russian cinema, which has been trying hard over the last decade or so to “naturalize” the phenomenon of the Russian nouveau riches and especially its fascination with the oligarchs. Thus, instead of focusing his moral ire on Vova, Dima turns his critical eye onto the townspeople, ignoring the fact that Vova’s very presence brings out the worst in them. Like Vova, everyone wants easy money and the beautiful life that goes with it, and fairly so since wealth redistribution in post-Communist Russia has rarely been predicated on values like hard work, honesty and respect, constituting the cohesive glue of any normal social environment.
As a rather crude, but helpful tool for furthering his dystopian socio-psychological observations, Astrakhan uses a book his protagonist accidentally comes across: “How to Fulfil Your Secret Desires.” An obvious pun on the proliferation of esoteric beliefs and self-help literature, this plot twist establishes a third ideological paradigm within the film’s universe: that of irrational beliefs as a way of emotional survival in a corrupt, demoralized and desperate society. In tune with the various miraculous phenomena that dominate Russian society, the book trick does not require any patient and systematic efforts: it is enough to just put it on your own head or point it in the direction of any person and say “yes” in order for your or someone else’s most intimate desires to materialize. The only catch is that the book helps fulfill benign, but also unsuspected, self-destructive desires. This witty narrative device allows for an endless number of repetitions with various outcomes, freely mixing and matching reality with imagination, past and present, private and public, thus construing a broad, psycho-analytical portrayal of individual and collective unconscious teeming with sarcastic or hilarious stereotypes.
The “fulfillment” part begins by exposing, to his surprise, Dima’s own “secret desires” to ride and drive his uncle Vasia’s ancient street car and to sing in a communal choir of down-and-outs, whose female conductor is a former student of his. Needless to say, her own desires materialize when Dima finally falls in love with her. However, as a result of Dima’s wife malicious desite to marry Vova, the Oligarch and live in Moscow, Dima nearly dies. Dima’s own desires are also controversial and enigmatic: what he believes to be a noble wish (to sit as an adviser on a specially appointed presidential committee) turns out to be a misleading one, resulting in a fiasco of what is to be a command presentation of his history class. As a compensation – and yet another result of an unpredictable desire—one of Dima’s best-looking colleagues offers herself shamelessly to him in his own classroom. Yet fate offers Dima a second chance for the same command presentation and, although nothing substantially changes (the students are as incompetent and arrogant as before) the adjudicators are now ecstatic. Regardless of the positive outcome, however, the special committee is dissolved and Dima remains in Zarechensk. It is true that he is already in love with the choir conductor (in the unconvincing interpretation of Larisa Gribaleva, whose over-determined blond-and blue-eyed charisma sits uncomfortably with her role of a woman who looks adoringly up to her frustrated husband, happy to make him pancakes).
The realizations of the collective desires of Dima’s fellow towns-people comprise the core of the film. They confirm his worst fears, undermining his commitment to “love his people” unconditionally like a true Russian “intelligent.” It turns out that the universal desire of the “people” is to entertain friends and family by getting drunk to oblivion, thus painfully reminding Dima of his own father and his infuriating antics. It is no small wonder that the pinnacle of their collective secret desires is the materialization of a lavish feast, sponsored by Vova, where the townspeople can eat and drink their fullest while being served by stylish waiters. Yet the miraculous feast and the envelopes with money everyone gets as a kickback do not seem to make them nice or kind, for they continue to harbor sinister desires with regard to their neighbors, whose realization gives them the most exquisite pleasure!
Nice and Good People Live on Earth begins in lighter ironic mode, apparently chosen by Astrakhan to make his otherwise bitter revelations more palatable. “Astrakhan’s best films are marked by misanthropy and camp, carefully hidden behind deliberate naiveté and suspiciously primitivized narrative and acting style” (Koretskii). If comedy is a tool of social integration, ironic comedy nevertheless allows its principal character—in this case Dima—to remain much wiser than the society that has rejected him. Indeed, Sergei Gorobchenko—the star from Andrei Proshkin’s hockey saga Minnesota (2009), where he succeeded in breathing life into the otherwise schematic role of a self-destructive hockey-player who forfeits a contract with an American team because of his infamously irrational Russian nature—is featured as a charmingly dewy-eyed raisonneur, a mouth-piece of the director. With precious little to do as an actor, however, Gorobchenko does look “like a tomb-stone to his own career” (Koretskii). As the narrative progresses by doggedly itemizing and mercilessly exposing the hidden realms of the Russian individual and collective unconscious to the point of redundancy, the tone slides into a satirical derision of people, who actually deserve their fate. A chilling stance, which does not spare Dima, dragging him deeper into the suffocating world, where no one ever changes or wants to change for the better, making his attempts for a difference look ridiculously out of place and are rendered ineffective by cynicism, corruption and alcoholism.
Thus, in an unexpected—and one should admit artistically rather sloppy way—Astrakhan’s film contributes to the process of self-investigation that has been slowly gathering momentum in Russian cinema in an attempt to offer some responses to the pressing questions regarding the ubiquitous identity crises compounded by the Russian intelligentsia’s growing sense of frustration and futility. Unlike the sensationalist fatalism of the chernukha films, generally implying that the social malaise in today’s Russia is the result of a diabolical conspiracy, a growing number of directors believe that a mature and responsible soul-searching is the only way to unearth the roots of the abject état des choses in contemporary Russia. Whether their preferred aesthetic mode is the Aesopean fable, parodying a Russian folk tale (the aforementioned Muratova tale), or stories about saints (Aleksandr Proshkin’s Miracle [Chudo 2009]) and holy fools (Nikolai Dostal’s Petya on the Way to Heaven [Petia po doroge v tsarstvie nebesnoe 2009]), these films explore troubling issues of collective and individual guilt under Soviet totalitarianism and its aftermath through the grid of miracles—or, as in Muratova’s film, the conspicuous absence thereof—as narrative and ideological devices. Although the merciless self-interrogation and naturalistic aesthetics, replete with psychological and physical horror motifs, has placed Aleksei Balabanov’s Cargo 200 (Gruz 200, 2007) and Sergei Loznitsa’s My Joy (Schast’e moe 2010) at the centre of the debate, it is nonetheless the miracle films that enjoy the sympathy of the viewers, regardless of their artistic quality. Belief in miracles is part and parcel of Orthodox Christianity; it has also been used and abused by the Soviet Communist Party for seventy-five years. And it seems that people are once again clinging to miracles—out of desperation, and because—as is the case with Nice and Good People Live on Earth—the entertaining quality of miracle-making softens the severity of its message.
Having come quite close to making the title of his film sound like a bad joke, Astrakhan—after having dragged the production of the film for five long years (“Not because of money, but due to creative crisis”; Boiarinov)—changes the tone once again to heroic which, albeit narratively illogical, is psychologically true to the complex collective portrayal he has undertaken. A mutiny at a neighboring high-security prison camp saves the day as mutineers on the loose approach Zarechensk—looting, beating and raping people on their way. The menace serves as the so-much-needed catalyst for change, making everyone sober up and come together at the town square. Moreover, Astrakhan designs the battle between black-clad mutineers and the rag-tag townspeople as a deliberate quote from Chapaev, thus driving the point that Russians are at their best when mobilized against a common enemy. As an anonymous writer stated on the web-site of the principal sponsor of the film, Storm International (one of the largest casino operators in Russia and former Soviet Republics): “It turns out that the Russian people badly needs three components for complete happiness: vodka, a common enemy and a bludgeon.” The author then goes on to say that the very “thought that the notion of the ‘common enemy’ [...] is variable induces fear” and concludes in a self-deprecating manner that “the film was sponsored by Storm International [which], by the way, is also a ‘common enemy’ of the Russian people” (“There comes the opening…”).
However, the film does not end with celebrating the unity between the people and the repressive apparat, which culminates in rounding-up the thugs. Astrakhan has another rabbit up his sleeve, which allows him to sabotage and ridicule any conclusive interpretations of his film. The inter-title informs us that yet another five years have elapsed, and the results of yet another referendum on Dima’s new project promoting Zarechensk as a holiday retreat are announced on the local TV channel. Needless to say, the project, and especially the change that comes with it, are rejected, and once again Dima uses the worn-out magic book to check people’s most intimate desires, this time around provoking the arrival of an alien spaceship. The aliens, however, take off without landing, having realized that “nice and good people live on Earth.” After this ultimate endorsement of their way of life, the inhabitants of Zarechensk return to their vodka and the perennial festivities around their kitchen tables.
University of Regina
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Koretskii, Vasilii “Na svete zhivut dobrye i khoroshie liudi”,TimeOut Moscow, 25 Nov. 2009.
“There comes the opening night of Astrakhan’s film”, Storm International, 2 February 2010.
Nice and Good People Live on Earth, Russia, 2009
Color, 98 minutes
Director Dmitrii Astrakhan
Scriptwriter Oleg Danilov
Director of Photography Aleksei Ubeivolk, Vladimir Sporyshkov
Production Design Igor’ Shchelokov
Composer Izmail Kaplanov
Sound Vladimir Ermolenko, Sergei Shunkevich
Cast: Sergei Gorobchenko, Vladimir Kabalin, Marina Ivanova, Arina Efremova, Larissa Gribaleva, Semen Furman, Andrei Dubrovskii, Maria Vozba
Production Zolotoi vek (Golden Age), Storm, with participation from the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation
Dmitrii Astrakhan: Nice and Good People Live on Earth (Na svete zhivut dobrye i khoroshie liudi, 2009)
reviewed by Christina Stojanova © 2011