Issue 33 (2011)
Timur Bekmambetov: Six Degrees of Celebration (Elki, 2010)
reviewed by Beach Gray © 2011
The Russian Federation has another blockbuster all its own. Grossing over $22 million and premiering on 16 December 2010, Six Degrees of Celebration is a film made for Russian citizens in time for the major Russian holiday, New Year. Unlike many of producer and director Timur Bekmambetov’s previous blockbusters, such as Night Watch (Nochnoi dozor, 2004), Day Watch (Dnevnoi dozor, 2006), Black Lightning (Chernaia molniia, 2009)and Wanted (2008), this film is not targeted for a global market, but for an exclusively domestic one (if the former Soviet republics are included). And, unlike Irony of Fate. The Continuation (Ironiia sud'by. Prodolzhenie, 2007), it does not rely on Soviet nostalgia to boost sales.
This New Year’s comedy  aims at pleasing young consumers who have grown up in the Russian Federation: it is stuffed with bright lights, young celebrities, and a series of rapid interconnecting episodes reminiscent of music videos. A nationwide competition launched a year before the film’s release challenged viewers to come up with the best vignette for a movie to be called The New Year Makes its Way Around the Country (Novyi god shagaet po strane). Bekmambetov’s choice in one of the episodes of pop-star Vera Brezhneva is a direct result of this competition.
Six Degrees of Celebration tells the story of a young girl Varia in a Kaliningrad/Königsberg orphanage who, on New Year’s Eve, claims that her father is the President of the Russian Federation, Dmitrii Medvedev. As proof, her fellow orphans demand that the president, in his New Year’s address, say the code words: “Father Frost helps those who help themselves” (Na Deda Moroza nadeisia, a sam ne ploshai!). Her prepubescent, would-be boyfriend Vova decides to come to her rescue. His plan: to put the six degrees of separation into action. According to Vova, all people are separated by at most six acquaintances, and thus it is possible (although it will take a miracle) to reach the president in time. The movie then develops into a series of interconnecting vignettes that tell the stories of various teenagers and not-yet middle-aged adults from major Russian cities (Kazan, Perm, Krasnoiarsk, Ekaterinburg, Iakutsk, Novosibirsk, St. Petersburg, Ufa, Bavly, Moscow) who are willing to pass the message along. The film smacks of a fairy tale and, as one would expect, there is a happy ending—the president (played by Medvedev himself) gets the message in the knick of time and adds the code words in his New Year’s address to the westernmost Russian city. And like a good fairy tale, all loose ends are tied with, if not a wedding, then the promise of weddings to come: the start of new relationships, and the renewal of old ones.
Bekmambetov has been accused of making Hollywood-style blockbusters and simply re-appropriating American cinematic techniques. Indeed, Bekmambetov unabashedly asserts that he owes a lot to Hollywood. Although Bekmambetov has invested in making highly profitable genre films since 2004, his first feature-length movie Peshawar Waltz (Peshavarskii val’s, 1994), a war film about friendly fire on Soviet troops in Afghanistan, had auteur leanings and incorporated, for the time and context, experimental camera work and themes. No matter how one chooses to make the distinction between genre and auteur directors, it is clear that Bekmambetov has developed his own authorial stamp. Several of these distinct features can be seen in each of his recent movies, and they are clearly recognizable in Six Degrees of Celebration. These are: the use of bright and glamorous, often neon, light; a focus on technology and especially cellular phones; a penchant for serendipitous situations and either superpowers or miracles; a clear delineation between good and evil; an intentional blurring of the lines between human and magical beast; the use of highly recognizable actors; quick, short cuts and fast paced plots; and above all stunts, product placement, and special effects. All of these characteristics are coherent if one keeps in mind Bekmambetov’s orientation towards a youth audience and his background and continued interest in advertising.
With a plot that revolves around two young orphans, Six Degrees of Celebration may be comfortably placed in the genre of a children’s film. It focuses on kid power, not only in the initial episode and its conclusion, but in many of the other stories as well. An adolescent Ekaterinburg thief (Artur Smol’ianinov) outsmarts a police captain (Sergei Garmash) by picking the lock to his cell and donning the captain’s uniform while the officer showers. On the run, the youth slips into a cellular phone store and miraculously meets his high-school sweetheart (Ekaterina Vilkova), whom he has not seen for five years. Still dressed as a policeman, he foils a robbery, only to be caught by the captain, now in plain clothes. The captain, seeing that the young man has done a good deed and fallen in love, lets him go.
Pasha (Nikita Presniakov), a young Krasnoiarsk taxi driver and fan of Vera Brezhneva, is mocked by a customer for having a crush on the pop star and carrying her picture with him. As soon as the customer gets out of the car and tells the driver that “miracles don’t happen” (chudes ne byvaet), Brezhneva suddenly appears in need of a taxi. Pasha outsmarts Brezhneva’s boyfriend/manager into pushing the stalled taxi, and then drives off with Brezhneva. She is not so much alarmed as charmed by his audacity. In the end, he is able to shock the former skeptic by picking him up with Brezhneva in the backseat.
The young characters are not only romantic daredevils, but they are also extreme athletes and technology whizzes. In a contest to determine who is better, snowboarders or skiers, two adolescent boys (Aleksandr Golovin and Aleksandr Domogarov) race down the stairwell of a large, multi-storied apartment building as if it were a black diamond slope. The emphasis is not only on their brand new and garish snow gear, but also on the stunts they perform, sliding down handrails and rounding the corners. Although the skier runs into a grandmother and almost kills her, by the end all three—snowboarder, skier and grandmother—celebrate the New Year together in their native Perm with champagne, oranges, and good-natured joking.
A college student (Sergei Druz’iak) builds an elaborate set in his dorm room to impress a Russian girl (Kristina Asmus) living in Switzerland. He fakes a beach lifestyle in Cuba as he talks to her over the Internet with live video streaming. Although his scheme is eventually revealed, he finds out that she too was pretending, when they miraculously run into each other in Kazan, the city where they both live.
The orientation towards youth culture is apparent not only in the subject matter, but in the editing as well. Bekmambetov himself admits this: “We came from advertising and music videos and we know who is our audience, it’s young people and they like the language, they like the energy of the music video and the clarity of the commercials, they like the speed of the story, they like it when the action is fast and dramatic and we choose this style because of the audience, and we like it as well” (Salisbury 2005).
In the mid 1990s Bekmambetov made a series of 17 commercials for Imperial Bank, each of which had a narrative structure that told the story of a famous world historical (Russian or otherwise) figure in a little over a minute. Six Degrees of Separation shows not only an inclination to an episodic structure, but to product placement as well. In-yer-face advertising commandeers entire episodes, to the point that they even take place in McDonalds, a Evroset’ cellular phone store, and a Siberian Airlines jetliner. There are advertisements for a host of other consumer products: vodka, wine, diamonds, Daewoo automobiles, etc. Vignettes are connected through an overhead shot of a map of Russia made up of small illuminated dots on a black background—not too dissimilar from the backdrop of Larry King Live. In order to connect with each other, the characters must, of course, use their cellular phones. As these connections are made, the film shows arches that span across the map and connect one city to another. The imagery is reminiscent of a commercial for mobile phones. Thus, the film’s cinematic language and its aesthetic solution lean heavily on that of the advertising clip.
The advertising is not just for consumer products, though. Two of the most recognizable faces from Russian television, Ivan Urgant (long time MTV Russia anchor) and Sergei Svetlakov (star of Nasha Russia and Channel 1’s Comedy Club), guarantee the film’s success: some viewers will come just to see these actors. Furthermore, with the incorporation of Vera Brezhneva, the highly recognizable Artur Smol’ianinov (Ninth Company, 1612, Heat, Burnt by the Sun II),and Sergei Garmash and Ekaterina Vilkova, stars from Hipsters (Stiliagi, 2008)and Black Lightening, as well asBekmambetov’s own cohort from the Night Watch series Viktor Verzhbetskii, Maria Poroshina and Konstantin Khabenskii (the latter having attained God-like status as the voice-over who tells the story), and the president himself, the film advertises itself as a blockbuster—it has all the right stars and the right director in the right place at the right time. The fact that the film relies on celebrities more than the development of characters comes through most vividly in the credits. The actors are listed in order of their fame, without an indication of the role they play in the movie. They are grouped with the people in their specific vignette, without regard to the order in which these episodes occur.
This film seems to be not only an advertisement for itself as a blockbuster, but also an imperative towards national identity specifically geared toward a younger generation that has grown up in a space that is no longer Soviet. What, then, holds this massive country with nine time zones together? If recent Russian cinema has a tendency to focus on the provinces, often in a dark way that presents an almost primordial desolateness in villages and small towns, this movie focuses on the capitals of the regions. Rather than run-down or degraded suburbs, we see people in the best part of town at the best time of the year—blue and green lights and clean, brightly lit spaces make Russia seem homogenous, rich, and befitting of a fairy tale. For whom, then, is this film made? With one premiere in Cheliabinsk and a series of premieres in the cities featured in the film, it seems as though the film was made for a generation with young children who are members, or aspiring members, of the emerging middle class and who live in these major cities.
Although the film claims to tie the country together through the six degrees of separation, the turn to the provinces conspicuously leaves out all of the people outside big cities. No attention is paid to those who are not already rich or on their way to being middle class. Even the orphans live in what looks like a mansion. Furthermore, almost all of the characters are ethnically Russian, except for the Central Asian gastarbeiter, who is the crux of the link with the president. They are well-meaning and ultimately effectual, but also laughable: in one scene the Central Asian Iusuf (Baimurat Allaberiev) eats another customer’s McDonald’s meal, thinking it is his own, only to find out that he is mistaken. These elements, coupled with the endorsement of the president, lend an eerie nationalistic bent to the film. It offers a totalizing view that portrays the leader of the country as the embodiment of all that is good. Dmitrii Medvedev, like Father Frost, will help those who help themselves—that is to say, those who aspire to the affluence and personal happiness that the film portrays.
University of Pittsburgh
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1] For a discussion of the genre of the New Year’s film see Birgit Beumers, “Father Frost on 31 December: Christmas and New Year in Soviet and Russian Cinema,” in Christmas in the Movies, ed. Mark Connelly (I.B. Tauris, London, 2000), pp. 185-209; and Alyssa DeBlasio, “The New-Year film as a genre of post-war Russian cinema,” Studies in Russian and Soviet Cinema 2.1 (2008), pp. 43-61. Six Degrees of Celebration fits DeBlasio’s criteria for the genre, with the exception that it is marketed for the big-screen, rather than for television.
Iusipova, Larisa “Timur i ‘Elki,’” Interview with Timur Bekmambetov, Izvestiia, 13 December 2010.
Salisbury, Mark “‘Night Watch’ Q&A with Timur Bekmambetov” Interview with Timur Bekmambetov, Time Out Movie Blog, 4 October 2005.
Goscilo, Helena. “Introduction,” SEEJ vol. 51, no. 3 (Summer 2007), pp. 214-28.
Six Degrees of Celebration, Russia, 2010
Color, 86 minutes
Head Director: Timur Bekmambetov
Directors of individual vignettes: Timur Bekmambetov, Aleksandr Voitinskii, Ignas Jonynas, Dmitrii Kiselev, Iaroslav Chevazhevskii, Aleksandr Andriushchenko
Screenplay: Dmitrii Aleinikov, Andrei Kureichik, Oleg Malovichko, Timur Bekmambetov, Roman Nepomyiashchii
Cinematography: Levan Kapanadze, Sergei Trofimov
Set Design: Vitalii Trukhanenko
Cast: Alina Bulynko, Sergei Pokodaev, Ivan Urgant, Sergei Svetlakov, Elena Plaksina, Artur Smol’ianinov, Sergei Garmash, Ekaterina Vilkova, Vera Brezhneva, Nikita Presniakov, Boris Khvoshnianskii, Maria Poroshina, Aleksandr Golovin, Dato Bakhtadze, Sergei Druz’iak, Kristina Asmus, Baimurat Allaberiev, Aleksandr Domogarov, Konstantin Khabenskii (voice-over), Dmitrii Medvedev
Producer: Timur Bekmambetov
Production: Bazelevs Production
Timur Bekmambetov: Six Degrees of Celebration (Elki, 2010)
reviewed by Beach Gray © 2011