Issue 37 (2012)
Aleksandr Gordon: Brothel Lights (Ogni pritona, 2011)
reviewed by Elena Monastireva-Ansdell © 2012
Love Thy Viewer: a film for a “broad yet deep audience”
Viewers of Closed Screening, the popular Channel One talk show devoted to the screening and discussion of Russian art films (avtorskoe kino), were surely surprised when the show’s host Aleksandr Gordon devoted the program of 12 February 2012 to his own Brothel Lights. Gordon, who is publicly known as a highly critical, even cynical judge of contemporary Russian cinema, made a lyrical tragicomedy notable for the emotional generosity and touching vulnerability of its central heroine, a prostitute with a heart of gold who “feels bad for people, especially everyone.” The discrepancy between Gordon’s arrogant public persona and what he admits to be his screen alter ego provides much insight into the filmmaker’s views on the goals of art.
Given the limited commercial distribution of serious fictional cinema in Russia, Closed Screening provides one of the few outlets for directors to share their work with a broader Russian audience. At the same time the program’s distinctly critical stance has been criticized for undermining the reputation of Russia’s avtorskoe kino, which most directly addresses deep moral and social issues. (Zviagintsev, Gladil’shchikov). Since the program’s premiere in 2007, Gordon has consistently voiced his disappointment with what he sees as the dominance of postmodern aesthetics in contemporary Russian cinema, or, as he puts it, “a withdrawal from a clearly expressed authorial position.” In these films, instead of playing a more traditional role of a compassionate moral guide, “the author screams, bellows, and swears” (Al’perina, www.rg.ru) leaving his audience dangerously disoriented and disheartened. Gordon thus proffers his Brothel Lights as a manifesto advocating “viewer-oriented cinema” that holds the artist morally responsible for instilling hope in his “frightened, lonely and lost” audience (Gordon, openspace.ru). In an effort to accomplish this mission, Gordon spent two months in 2011 on a countrywide tour showing and discussing his film with local audiences in the Closed Screening format. Incidentally, Gordon finished shooting and editing Brothel Lights in 2007, prior to launching the program, but could not complete the film until 2011 due to economic constraints. One may suspect that the pressure to raise funds and make good returns on the film influenced Gordon’s aesthetic decisions, though the filmmaker adamantly denies this. Filmmaking is a true passion for the well-paid television celebrity and he is not afraid to lose money as long as he can express his innermost ideas and beliefs.
A somewhat loose cinematic adaptation of the eponymous contemporary novella penned by his father, poet and writer Garri Gordon, Brothel Lights won the Audience Choice Award at the 2011 Vladivostok International Film Festival. Lead actress Oksana Fandera received a Special Jury Diploma at the 2011 Kinotavr Open Film Festival in Sochi. This is Gordon’s second film following his award-winning adaptation of his father’s story A Shepherd of One’s Own Cows (2002, Best Debut Award at the IX Russian Film Festival “Literature and Cinema”).
Set in 1958 in sunny Odessa (Garri Gordon’s birthplace), Brothel Lights tells the story of Mama Liuba (Oksana Fandera), a retired forty-year-old prostitute who runs a successful private service employing two live-in girls. Liuba’s financial future looks secure and holds the promise of comfortable family life with a handsome, well-off sailor who is eager to settle down and tie the knot. However, Liuba’s life changes when she decides to transcend the conventional expectations for someone of her station and follow her heart instead. During her daily escapes to the seaside Liuba falls in love with a local poet-cum-holy fool Adam (Aleksei Levinsky) whose traumatic life experiences, deep psychological insights, and vivid prophecies touch a chord in Liuba’s loving soul. She attempts to carve a niche for this new relationship in her childhood village where she reunites and reconciles with her estranged mother (Ada Rogovtseva). This newly-found love and support notwithstanding, Liuba and Adam’s fragile seaside idyll seems to be unable to withstand the hypocrisy and aggression of the real world into which it is about to be transplanted.
Gordon succeeds at creating a “viewer-oriented” picture that is luminous, delightfully cheerful and lighthearted. Filmed on location, the faithfully-reproduced 1950s Odessa beams with stylish charm and sunshine. The shabby chic of Liuba’s yard and her spacious apartment competes with the beautiful inhabitants’ stunning fashions. The characters’ equally remarkable speech represents an exotic mixture of Russian, Ukrainian, and the Odessa dialect. Famous Odessan humor delights and entertains as opposed to serving as sardonic social commentary. But nothing trumps the majestic seascapes skillfully captured by the Director of Photography, Maksim Shinkorenko, to highlight the vastness, splendor, and brilliant hues of the heroine’s natural habitat that seems to reflect both her happy moods and personal crises. Mama Liuba’s physical beauty painstakingly photographed to showcase her elegant profile, deep eyes, and slim figure serves as yet another visual attraction adding to the glamorous glossy effect so appreciated by the film’s ordinary viewers, yet criticized by professional film critics. It is highly appropriate that Fandera received a Kinotavr jury award created especially for her in recognition of her “Beauty and Talent” as the film’s lead actress.
In addition to expressing the filmmaker’s professed respect for his viewers’ sensibilities, the film’s outer splendor also serves to reinforce the inner beauty of the protagonist. Mama Liuba’s seemingly vulgar appellation conceals her enormous capacity for Love. A fair and caring employer who plays the role of a big sister to her “girls” (Ekaterina Shpitsa and Anna Sliusareva) Liuba upholds strict moral standards in her business. She firmly denies service to an underage visitor, Arkasha (Kristian Zheregi), and later takes him to the zoo showering him with the motherly affection that he lacks at home. She gives away her official income at the shipping company, where she is on the books as a ship barmaid, to her former fellow-prostitute, Liza, now married with children and living on very modest means. Liuba’s eyes tear up when she sees a laundry label on Adam’s shirt indicating that there is no loving woman in his life who would devotedly wash his clothes by hand. Seeing this perceived mistreatment, Liuba, who previously adamantly refused to give up her business to wash her future husband’s socks, now compassionately volunteers to do precisely that for Adam. More generally, she as readily sympathizes with her former client, the chief city prosecutor (Bogdan Stupka), as she does with a little spider that gets accidentally washed down the drain.
All in all there are three compassionate characters in the film, and their marginal position in society as prostitute, child, and poet/ holy fool signifies the low value the world places on humaneness. Gordon foregrounds Liuba’s disarmingly childlike trust in the goodness of people through her playful bond with Garik, a ten-year old boy from a neighboring building who follows her throughout the movie with his adoring, wide-open blue eyes. The filmmaker based this addition to the original novella on Garri Gordon’s lyric poetry, which contains reminisces about his father’s experiences and impressions while growing up. This poetic connection, although not explicitly revealed in the movie, advances the film’s overarching theme of beauty, compassion, and art as life’s major sustaining forces. In his biography, Garri Gordon accentuates the importance of precisely these things in his formative years: “Childhood is a dark time of life. Anxieties, gloomy discoveries, careless stupidity of grown-ups… Odessa with its sea and its immense light and shade made things a little easier: poetry, like a big sister, guarded me.” (http://garrygordon.ru/).
The film opens and closes with a lovely audio-visual articulation of the unspoken link between the two kindred spirits, Liuba and Garik; in both instances the characters’ pure and loving outlook runs into the banality and crudeness that surround them. In the opening scene, Liuba gazes pensively through a lace curtain in her bedroom as she listens to Giovanni Raimondo’s emotive romance about an aching heart and lost love. The music comes from an open window across the yard where Garik is cranking his grandmother’s gramophone. Spotting Liuba in her window, Garik playfully speeds up the record in an apparent wish to dispel the melancholy produced in Liuba by the song. Liuba’s glowing smile in response to Garik’s shenanigans momentarily connects the two conspirators before Garik’s overbearing grandmother gives him a smack on the head and stops the record. Pushing the boy away from the window, this corpulent woman shakes an anemic duck carcass in the air while crudely screaming to a neighbor about the scrawny bird and Maia Plisetskaya (a debasing reference to the prima ballerina’s title role in Swan Lake). In the film’s final sequence, the heartbroken Liuba returns home from a devastating trip to her native village only to encounter a drunken orgy at her place. She clears the apartment of the besotted crowd and goes straight to bed. The lights go out in a thunderstorm and the lacy curtain of the opening scene gently covers Liuba’s smiling face. As her soul soars to heaven to the words of the familiar romance, Garik alone sends it off on its last trip with a heartening smile. Liuba’s benevolent role in shaping young Garik’s perception of the world throughout his life is comparable to the role poetry played in shaping Garri Gordon’s life. This touching coda adds a note of optimism to the film’s otherwise tragic finale.
A silent bond exists between the heroine and Adam. After a traumatic incident at the seaside involving Adam and drunken Arkasha, Liuba searches for Adam everywhere, eventually finding him at his apartment washing floors. Liuba and Adam are seated opposite each other in the middle of a wet, barely furnished room looking at each other in silence. The almost palpable emotional energy that connects them lifts them above the daily grind while at the same time obliterating faulty moral standards that turn them into social outcasts. In line with its lighthearted approach, the film comments on the characters’ situation by interjecting a humorous episode: a child in the street innocently sings an obscene ditty about the world as brothel, thereby questioning the moral rectitude of those who pass judgment too easily.
The tragic encounter between Liuba’s loving nature and the world’s moral hypocrisy and callousness constitutes the main conflict of the movie. In Gordon’s own explanation, his heroine perishes in a confrontation with the merciless fate that she courageously attempts to change (Gordon, Kinotavr). In the course of the film, human unkindness gradually drains Liuba of her initially vibrant life force. The family-centered Liza financially exploits Liuba, the hormone-driven Arkasha sexually harasses her while Liuba’s crass and licentious fellow-villagers torment and ostracize her. Liuba’s final stand-off with her hostile environment takes the shape of a fierce fistfight with a brutish young villager, Fedka, who provocatively calls her a whore. This key scene is masterfully choreographed and filmed to express the heroine’s profound anguish and despair in her unequal battle with human harshness. Liuba’s most acute suffering, though, comes from her mother’s emotional detachment. Acting, perhaps, as the heroine’s hypersensitive conscience, Mother persistently calls her a “prostitute”; however, her intonation and emotion in uttering the word change in the course of the film from bluntly judgmental to affectionate as, unlike other villagers, she grows to appreciate and accept her daughter.
While Gordon’s goal to project hope is understandable, Liuba’s emotional connection with such kindred spirits as Garik, Adam, and, eventually, her Mother undermines the governing premise of the film – the heroine’s tragic surrender before the unrelenting harshness of life. Counterintuitively, Liuba expires right after she has forged a longed-for inner bond with her mother. The ending makes somewhat better sense if we interpret the heroine’s reconciliation with her mother as a metaphor for assuaging her conscience before departing in peace. However, this plot weakness seems to have deeper roots in a less-than-ideal transition from the original novella to the scenario. In Garri Gordon’s work, Liuba finds no soul mates in her life: Garik is absent from the story, Liuba’s relationship with Adam ends after the beach encounter with the drunken Arkasha, and her mother remains as detached as ever. During her fistfight with Fedka, as depicted in the novella, Liuba is mentally fighting all the people who failed her in her life: an orange-colored delirium she experiences during the fight includes not only Liza and Arkasha, but also Adam and Mother. After the fight, Liuba leaves her village emotionally and physically drained. The orange hue then reappears upon her return home when she sees the drunken party in her apartment. This connection between Liuba’s total defeat in her village and her subsequent realization that she has no safe (morally pure) place to return to is exactly what is lacking in this film with its promise of Mother’s love and protection. When asked what the film is about, Garri Gordon replied that it is “about love. Unreciprocated love for life” (Garri Gordon, www.1tv.ru). This statement makes sense for the novella, but it is confusing when applied to the film. In modifying the original story, Aleksandr Gordon undoubtedly meant to brighten the plot and cheer up the audience but in doing so he made the viewer question the logic of the film’s tragic finale. As a result, even experienced viewers report confusion about what happens in the end. Perhaps, as one professional critic presumes, the heroine just went off to bed? (Gladilshchikov, www.mn.ru).
Overall, Brothel Lights embodies the message, voiced by Gordon in his program (Gordon, 1tv.ru), that “a deception that elevates us is dearer than a host of low truths” (Aleksandr Pushkin, “The Hero”). On the one hand, Gordon created a beautiful and, perhaps, even elevating deception, on the other hand, he glossed over a host of real life issues in the sanitized world of his elegant parable. In the film’s imaginary universe prostitutes are healthy, wealthy and independent; Soviet farms are sunny and abundant; excessive liquor consumption is inspirational; and state patriarchy is respectfully patronizing. In the end, Gordon’s proposed method of appealing to a “broad yet deep” viewership of his Closed Screening smacks of escapism, excessive pampering, and lack of trust in his viewers’ capacity for more sophisticated and critical engagement with life’s problems and anxieties.
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Al’perina, Susanna, “Ogni Gordona”, Rossiiskaia gazeta 7 July 2011.
Gladil’shchikov, Iurii, “Pokaz Gordona: ’Ogni pritona’ kak unikal’nyi obrazets ideal’no krasivogo fil’ma”; Moskovskie novosti, 8 November 2011.
Gordon, Aleksandr, “Eto vse kakaiа-to gnil’, absoliutnaia”; openspace.ru, 1 April 2009.
Gordon, Aleksandr, “Zakrytyi pokaz: Fil’m Kiry Muratovoi ‘Melodiia dlia sharmanki’”; Channel One, 20 January 2012.
Gordon, Garri, “Avtobiografiia”
Zviagintsev, Andrei, “My ne zamechaem nezrimoi katastrofy, kosnuvsheisia nashego kino”; Novye izvestiia, 16 March 2002.
Kinotavr 2011: “Presskonferentsiia fil’ma ‘Ogni pritona’”;
“V kinoprokat vyshel fil’m Aleksandra Gordona ‘Ogni pritona’”; Channel One, 3 November 2011.
Brothel Lights, Russia, 2011
Color, 108 minutes
Director: Aleksandr Gordon
Screenplay: Garri Gordon, Natal'ia Riazantseva
Cinematography: Maksim Shinkorenko
Music: Theophile Collier
Cast: Oksana Fandera, Anna Sliusareva (Sliu), Ekaterina Shpitsa, Aleksei Levinsky, Kristian Zheregi, Ada Rogovtseva, Bogdan Stupka, Evgenii Tsyganov, Nataliia Fisson
Producers: Elena Yatsura, Aleksei Sonk
Production: In Motion Ltd.
Aleksandr Gordon: Brothel Lights (Ogni pritona, 2011)
reviewed by Elena Monastireva-Ansdell © 2012