Issue 36 (2012)
Dmitrii Kiselev: Six Degrees of Celebration 2 (Elki 2, 2011)
reviewed by Beach Gray © 2012
The made-to-order Russian blockbuster has become a feature of the New Year’s holiday. With a premiere on 15 December 2011 and $24.9 million at the box office in the first three weeks alone (Belavin), the sequel to Six Degrees of Celebration (Elki, 2010) has surpassed the original. With Six Degrees of Celebration 3 already in the works, it seems that the feel-good New Year’s film is here to stay.
Six Degrees of Celebration 2 makes explicit ties to the original: like the first film, a half-Hollywood, half-New Year’s visual aesthetic dominates the cinematic experience with flashy blue lights, intensified continuity editing, extensive use of green screen, and plenty of stunts and camera tricks. The film announces a connection to its predecessor in the opening shots: the orange illuminated map of Russia and the former Soviet Union from the last film is back, along with the voice-over by Konstantin Khabenskii. Once again a series of romantic vignettes—that are resolved after miscommunications have been righted—characterizes the film. An overtly sentimental “master vignette” connects all of these subplots. Instead of the “six degrees of separation”—passing a message from a young boy in an orphanage to President Dmitrii Medvedev in time for the annual New Year’s television address—the characters in this film try to reunite two older characters who have been pining for each other for forty years. This has to happen before the stroke of midnight and the arrival of the New Year, of course.
The airplane pilot Grigorii Zemlianikhin has greeted the New Year on Red Square for the past forty years in the hope that the only woman he has ever loved will meet him there. Despondent, he abruptly decides to end his ritual of waiting for his one and only. He even goes so far as to work on the New Year, and pilot a plane out of Moscow. Meanwhile, his long-lost lover, Iuliia Snegireva (note the similarity with the Russian fairy-tale character Snegurochka [Snow Maiden] who traditionally accompanies Ded Moroz [Grandfather Frost], the Russian counterpart to Santa), living in Astana, Kazakhstan, receives an apologetic letter, forty years delayed, from Zemlianikin, telling her to meet him on Red Square for the New Year’s celebration. She makes the trip to Moscow and awaits him at their meeting place. Supporting actors take action to reach the pilot and inform him that she has finally come.
Even though this “master vignette” is the one that unites all of the subplots, the “real” master vignette, as in the last film, is the one that features the stars of the film, the actors who draw in the audience: Sergei Svetlakov and Ivan Urgant, who play Zhenia and Boria, respectively. Their images are the only two on the DVD menu. These actors set the light-hearted, comedic tone, which balances the sickeningly sweet sentimentality of the other story lines. If in the last film they were at each other’s throats, mistakenly convinced that they were vying for the same girlfriend, in this film they are best buddies. Zhenia has moved to St. Petersburg, and needs 35,000 rubles to secure an apartment for himself and his wife. He asks Boria for the money, and Boria is happy to oblige. Everything looks as though it is going smoothly except for one small hiccup: Boria and his long-time girlfriend Olia have split up. Boria has not moved quickly enough, and Olia has become engaged to a Frenchman after dating the foreigner for only a month. Boria, alone in his office, takes a shot of whiskey to ease his troubles, but falls out of his chair, bumps his head, and loses his memory. The episode then picks up with Zhenia running into an amnesiac Boria. Zhenia, unaware of Boria’s romantic misfortunes, tries to help him make it back to Olia’s apartment before the clock strikes midnight.
Despite strong connections—and even flashbacks—that directly reference the previous film, this movie, at its most fundamental level, shares only aesthetic and formal similarities with its predecessor: it advocates a different agenda than the previous film. It is a family-friendly movie, quick to employ xenophobia as a ready tool to promote ethnic tolerance, as long as those peoples are within the borders of the Russian empire. It is a far more conservative film than Six Degrees of Celebration. This comes as no surprise since Timur Bekmambetov was the director and producer of the first film, but took a less involved role as just producer in this one. With work in Hollywood on the upcoming film Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Slayer, to be released on 22 June 2012, it seems that Bekmambetov’s role in the Russian film industry is changing, with an increased emphasis on production. He continues to have his hand in a number of Russian, Kazakh, and American productions. In fact, a total of three films he produced all came out for the 2011-2 Russian New Year’s season: along with Six Degrees of Celebration 2, Kikoriki [Smeshariki. Nachalo]—a kids’ animated film--and The Darkest Hour, an American-Russian sci-fi thriller.
The agenda of this film comes out most clearly in the vignette that tells the story of two star-crossed teenage lovers, the ethnically Russian Alena, and the Chechen Arslan (who speaks accent-less Russian). They have their feet tattooed—each with one wing that fits the other’s wing—in a sign of their everlasting fidelity. Alena’s father, a policeman played by Sergei Bezrukov, tries to put an end to their relationship by locking up his daughter at the police station and forbidding her to date Arslan. Arslan’s father is also against the marriage since he has already arranged a bride and a marriage for the young boy. The determined and ardent Arslan shows up at the police station only to get kicked out by Alena’s father, despite the fact that a professor of international relations (played by Gosha Kutsenko) pleads his case. The professor is in jail for attempting to climb the elka (the traditional New Year’s fir tree) in a Zmei Gorynych (a three-headed dragon from Russian fairy tales) costume. He claims that climbing a palm tree on New Year’s Eve is an African tradition that results in the release of a maiden. The frustrated Arslan attempts to get arrested so that he can be reunited with Alena at the police station. Goodhearted jovial policemen refuse to oblige him and do nothing but wish him a happy new year. Eventually, Arslan runs into the professor (who had been released before the New Year’s festivities), dons the suit, and climbs the fir tree, only to fall and break his foot. Alena, meanwhile, convinces the police officer on duty to release her so she can meet Arslan for the New Year. As he agrees, she runs out of the cell, but slips and breaks her foot, too. Both end up at the hospital, fortuitously, in the same room. Arslan’s father and Alena’s father both head to the hospital at the same time. Despite their shared opposition the marriage, by the end of the episode the fathers are both won over by the love these two have for each other.
This vignette is indicative of what the film advocates as a whole. Supporting state authority was something that unambiguously occurred in Six Degrees of Celebration, but it was done in a much more overt way, with the entire film leading up to Medvedev’s televised New Year’s address to the nation. In this film, the message of the benevolence of state authority is more subtle. Policemen, again and again, are cast as well-meaning, commonsensical, and not only not racist, but able to mature into the realization that marriage between ethnicities is acceptable. This tolerant view extends beyond the positive portrayal of the Chechen Arslan and his family to the nameless Central Asian on Red Square who explains to the policeman Pasha (the former taxi driver from the previous film who is smitten with pop star Vera Brezhneva) of the interconnectedness of all human beings. This man demonstrates the common origins and relations of all humans and ethnicities to each other with a simple fir (elka) branch and a few words about each person’s place on it. Moreover, the catalyst for the film—the finding of the long-lost letter—by minor Kazakh characters in Astana, further demonstrates the way in which ethnically non-Russian peoples of Russia and the former Soviet bloc are cast positively. With the exception of Arslan, though, these characters play only minor roles. Furthermore, the rhetoric of this “Friendship of the Peoples” does nothing to upset the balance of power, even when mixed marriages occur. According to the film, as long as these figures stay in their place (often, as guestworkers), everything works out for the best.
But the film goes even further: there is a totally unmotivated kiss between the professor and a woman of African descent. She chides him for scaling the fir tree (elka), instead of a palm tree. This woman has no name, is not mentioned before the kiss—which occurs as the vignettes are wrapping up—and has no mention in the film after the kiss. Its purpose is clear: To proclaim that Russia is now a place of racial tolerance, where even interracial relationships between black and white people are possible and even acceptable.
These risks get balanced not only by the heteronormativity of the film—other sexualities either do not seem to exist or get treated ironically—but also by classic Russian xenophobia. The negative characterization of Olia’s new French fiancé, François, shows this most clearly. Unlike the woman of African descent, who speaks excellent Russian, François has a heavy (faked) accent. He implicitly denigrates Russian New Year in his reactions to the traditions that make the holiday what it is. This is added to the fact that he has wooed the rightful girlfriend of the protagonist, Boria, who has an unfair disadvantage due to his amnesia. François is alarmed by the addition of mayonnaise to traditional Russian salads, saying that it is “impossible” from a culinary point of view. He is allergic to the New Year’s tree, the symbol of the holiday itself. His gravest sin, however, comes as he and Olia watch The Irony of Fate (Ironiia Sud'by, 1975), the quintessential New Year’s film that everyone ritualistically enjoys on New Year’s. He complains that “it is a very boring movie.” The media and television programming thwart François, though, when he changes the channel only to find that The Irony of Fate is on every network, just at different points in the movie.
This is not the only point at which the media comes across as a positive force. It occurs with the skier and snowboarder, who almost killed a babushka in the last film with their antics of flying down stairs on their respective equipment. They reunite with the babushka, and the snowboarder falls in love with her granddaughter. In a symbol of goodwill, they agree to bring the grandmother a bathtub from across the city, but end up falling down a set of stairs in the bathtub, flying through traffic, and crashing into the Mercedes of a politician, Igor'. The politician with his blue siren reminds the viewer of the misuses of power that have led to tragedies on the road. Television news companies (Rossiia 1, a sponsor of the film) arrive quickly on the scene and interview the snowboarder, who explains that he needs to get the bathtub to his beloved. Surrounding motorists yell out their support for the young hooligans, asking them to be forgiven in the spirit of the holiday. The policeman, pressured by the crowd and the media, but also vested with his own authority and New Year’s emotion, declares the Mercedes guilty. Despite the fact that Igor' loses this battle, he fulfills the request that the snowboarder had called him about earlier: getting in touch with Zemlianikhin so that the latter can make it in time to meet Iulia on Red Square. Igor'’s character and predicament is further complicated by the fact that he is actually Zemlianikhin’s brother and the one that came between Zemlianikhin and Iulia in the first place, precipitating the necessity for the letter of apology that got lost in the mail for forty years. Thus, even politicians who misuse their power are eventually cast in a positive light.
Igor' is played by Viktor Verzhbitskii, who was the evil Zavulon in Bekmambetov’s Night Watch (Nochnoi dozor, 2004) and Day Watch (Dnevnoi dozor, 2006). He is joined by two other actors from these films, Vladimir Men'shov and Konstantin Khabenskii. Men'shov, who played the capable Geser on the side of the good in Night Watch, has become a benevolent grandfather raising his grandson. Khabenskii, the star of the series, takes the role of the warm, slightly comedic, but definitely safe and well-wishing voice-over. In addition to these actors—formidable and stern action figures from the mid-2000s who have become safe, respectable and estimable characters—other figures have made the transformation from action hero living on the edge to something new. Bezrukov—who played the fierce Sasha Belyi in the Brigada miniseries—and the Antikiller himself, Kutsenko, have become fatherly, silly and, above all, domesticated for a family audience. All of these male figures have made a transition in their career within the past few years. This film clearly shows that they have committed to the transition.
On many levels, this film is indicative of interesting avenues toward which the Russian film industry has been headed in the past several years: greater state authority, ethnic tolerance and solidarity of the peoples of the former Soviet Union and even satellite states (the woman of African descent who speaks excellent Russian is reminiscent of the African exchange students who studied in the Soviet Union), and the domestication of action stars into safe, respectable actors. This strange mixture of Soviet nostalgia with a projection into the present but an emphasis on the principles and traditions of the past is perfectly illustrated by the resolution of the “master vignette.” With Igor'’s help, Zemlianikhin makes it just in time to Red Square. As he runs through the crowd with flowers in hand, calling out Iulia’s name, he stumbles, and the footage switches to 1971, with a young Zemliankhin calling out to a young, beautiful Iulia, who turns to him as they embrace and lock lips. This is a past that has been decontextualized. The best parts have been taken without thought to the hardships that people went through. The result is a commercialized product. It is a warm vision of the past with a promise of fulfilling hopes in the present. It points to the possibility of healing and a reunification of former Soviet peoples: as long as ethnic Russians lead the casting list when the credits roll.
University of Pittsburgh
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Belavin, Pavel. “Rossiiskoe kino sobralo novogodniuiu doliu,” Kommersant, 12 January 2012.
Elki 2, Russia, 2011
Color, 106 minutes
Head Director: Dmitrii Kiselev
Directors of vignettes: Dmitrii Kiselev, Aleksandr Baranov, Aleksander Kott, Levan Gabridze
Creative director: Ol'ga Kharina
Director of visual effects: Aleksandr Gorokhov
Screenplay: Timur Bekmambetov, Ol'ga Kharina, Roman Nepomniashchii, Anna Matison
Cinematography: Levan Kapanadze, Maksim Shinkorenko, Sergei Trofimov
Cast: Ivan Urgant, Sergei Svetlakov, Sergei Bezrukov, Vladimir Men'shov, Gosha Kutsenko, Bera Brezhneva, Konstantin Khabinskii, Elena Plaksina, Nikita Presniakov, Aleksandr Golovin, Aleksandr Domogarov, Jr.
Producers: Timur Bekmambetov, Iva Stromilova
Production: Bazelevs Production
Dmitrii Kiselev: Six Degrees of Celebration 2 (Elki 2, 2011)
reviewed by Beach Gray © 2012