Issue 33 (2011)
Pavel Bardin: Gop-Stop (2010)
reviewed by Eugénie Zvonkine © 2011
A Postmodern Tale for a Post-Soviet Country
Near a small town with an improbable name (“Verkholuisk” would sound in English something like Upper Flunkey), two guys stop a car and attempt a holdup, but the targeted victim points a gun at their heads. The film suddenly stops and its perforated edges appear on screen, as if we were witnessing a technical problem during the screening. After that stop, the narration starts over, “from the beginning,” guided by a velvety voice-over that introduces the place and the characters with the phrase “Once upon a time.” The introduction of the heroes as likeable and lazy losers sends the spectator back to the popular fairy-tale hero, Ivan-the-Fool (Ivan-durak), who always starts out as a total failure before proving his exceptional resourcefulness.
The director thus opens the film by revealing its narrative as a convention, as a simulacrum (the edges of the film appearing in the frame and the image freezing). But at the same time, the use of the fairy tale reference reaffirms his love for fiction as well as for stereotypes. The rest of the film will unravel along these two lines.
Gop Stop, which follows Pavel Bardin’s scandalous and much debated Russia 88, can be seen as a perfect example of postmodern entertainment. Throughout the film Bardin plays with narrative codes from literature, cinema and fairy tale. The losers, Vasia and Taras, will find a treasure and the girl (Mary, called the “terrorist mermaid” by their enemies); the local Mafioso’s nickname is Karabas (just as the evil puppeteer from Pinocchio); and Vasia’s father who returns from a far-away land (prison) holds on to his nickname, Alibaba. But the treasure plot comes to a brutal end when the father burns the money without further explanation. This twist, the ease with which the director abandons a possible narrative thread, gives the sensation of freedom if only in playing with various stereotypes. The heroes then progressively go from being ordinary outlaws and losers to heroic opponents to post-Soviet social injustice, taking money from the rich and powerful to give it back to the poor. As a matter of fact, the film freely borrows from different genres: some passages clearly come from classical film narration (the hero gets the girl), others from the quest for justice (the press unsurprisingly calls our heroes “the new Robin Hoods”), or the road movie (their car is not only their favorite refuge, but also a kind of a mobile night club with its rotating lights and music).
The whole generic mix is presented in a highly ironic way, aiming at potential complicity and presumable common references between the audience and the director. Thus, while the film constantly takes surprising turns, the spectator tends to feel comfortable in an always recognizable context. For instance, when Vasia’s wingman Taras suddenly gives up his life to get Mary back to Vasia, the spectator accepts this sudden volte-face because he recognizes another stereotypical narrative.
The entire film is spiced with playful references to Russian literature: when one of Karabas’ men puts secret letters in the hollow of a tree-trunk, just like Masha used to do in Pushkin’s Dubrovsky, this happens to be a homosexual who occasionally disguises himself as a woman. When the “social protest” arises, the local mafia has to account to Moscow and we see them panic after a phone call, almost quoting Gogol’s The Inspector General: “We are going to have visitors from Moscow!” (K nam edut iz Moskvy!)
The postmodern universe of the film, already a deformed reflection of previous reflections of the initial referent (the supposedly authentic world) makes us doubt that there is any authentic referent; Alibaba’s “real name” is Archibald Archibaldovich (the name of the restaurant manager in Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita), but it also happens to be the actor’s nickname (Artur Enikeev), presented this way in the credits.
The audiovisual form chosen by Bardin is as eclectic as his narrative. The style of filming changes a lot throughout the film. Sometimes the camera is very active and underlines every sentence or emotion by approaching abruptly the characters’ faces. The editing sometimes resembles that of a video-clip, using quick motion and kitschy editing patches. At other times, on the contrary, the camera stops a few steps away from the scene, letting it unravel in its own rhythm, while the mise en scène endows the image with depth. The film abounds in cartoon-like moments (when Alibaba flicks his son’s forehead, we distinctly hear a metallic sound).
However, the main issue of the film is the gap between the Soviet and the post-Soviet, the past and the present. From the first minutes, this discrepancy is perceptible through the voice-over text, mixing fairy tale vocabulary with contemporary jargon. The beautiful woman bound to be the hero’s beloved is also a Ukrainian prostitute. The town itself does not seem to have decided for one style of living or another, but it is stuck in a disturbing in-between: on the electric post near Karabas’ house, we see two ads, one selling firewood, another proposing sophisticated TV aerials. Some characters seem to come directly from Soviet narratives, such as the judgmental old lady in a headscarf or the “citizen janitor” (grazhdanin vakhter) who strives to maintain respectability in the building and walks around wearing his war medals, and reading out rules and resolutions. Others, on the contrary, are stereotypes of post-Soviet narratives, such as the rich and powerful “New Russian” or the stylish homosexual. They all coexist in fiction, but not without permanent tension. In their language Soviet and ancient verbal stereotypes stand side by side: for instance, the father who gives Vasia wise pieces of advice, asks him “which road has he chosen in life,” but also says “When you have eaten, clean up after yourself” (Poel, uberi za soboi), and other typically Soviet phrases.
Vasia’s father wants him to be modern and become a hacker, but when he offers him a computer, he brings him only the screen and forgets the computer itself. This small gag, which goes almost unnoticed, reveals the difficulty for the old generation to understand the new ways. But Bardin hints at the fact that they are not the only ones: Vasia and Taras do not know how to use a computer either, and their conceptions about the world they live in are still very much influenced by the Soviet past or by the remnants of popular Russian culture.
Here resides probably the main reason for the film’s success: it presents itself as a search for a new cinematographic and narrative form in a space and time without structure. Hence the necessity for the emergence of a new type of a hero, built on the ruins, on the bits and pieces of this eclectic cultural heritage. Hence also the specific psychology of this hero, partially Soviet and pro-hegemonic, but also nurtured by Western narrations. Thus there are two happy endings: the ultimate one, completely individualistic, presents Vasia and Mary running away hand in hand, with the voice-over poetically depicting their first sexual encounter; the penultimate ending, however, reminds us more of Soviet musicals and is introduced by an impressive deus ex machina, when a Putin-faced man clad in a suit stops an oncoming massacre by descending on a rope ladder from a helicopter. The spectator is not surprised because earlier on the heroes had decided to “write a letter to the Tsar” (meaning of course, Putin, whose photograph set with diamonds appears twice in the film), blending contemporary reality with the old Russian myth of the good Tsar. Thus, the spectator is more amused than shocked to discover that this fantasy figure eventually “saves the day.” Every character (even the dead ones) will then join in a sequence shot dance (which is, by the way, quite fun to watch) in a bitter-sweet ultimate simulacrum of social and historical truce.
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Gop-Stop, Russia, 2010
96 minutes, color
Director: Pavel Bardin
Script: Pavel Bardin
DoP: Sergei Dandurian
Cast: Petr Fedorov, Aleksandr Golubkov, Marina Orel, Vladimir Shul’ga, Gennadii Vengerov
Producers: Sergei Livnev, Lev Nikolau, Georgii Malkov, Pavel Bardin, Marius Vaisberg
Release date: 28 April 2011
Pavel Bardin: Gop-Stop (2010)
reviewed by Eugénie Zvonkine © 2011