Issue 38 (2012)
Andrei Zaitsev: The Layabouts (Bezdel’niki, 2008-2011)
reviewed by Sergey Toymentsev © 2012
The Layabouts is the debut feature of documentary filmmaker Andrei Zaitsev critically acclaimed for such shorts as My House (Moi dom, 2000), Gleb (2001) and Viktor Astafiev. The Merry Soldier (Viktor Astaf’ev. Veselyi soldat, 2010). The film’s screenplay is based on, or rather inspired by, the early songs of iconic Viktor Tsoi; yet it is neither a biopic—like Todd Haynes’ I am not There (2007) or Petr Buslov’s Vysotsky. Thank God I’m Alive (Vysotskii. Spasibo chto zhivoi, 2011), nor a musical—like Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe (2007), although there is a protagonist impersonating the young rock star (played by Anton Shagin) with the suggestive name Sergei Solov’ev, the director of the cult film ASSA (1987) featuring Viktor Tsoi as well as a massive soundtrack consisting of Kino’s songs from their first underground albums 45 (1982) and 46 (1983). In The Layabouts Zaitsev ultimately rejects the shackles of biographical accuracy by boldly replacing Tsoi as a historical figure with the personal image of Tsoi’s lyrical hero created in his early songs: the image of an idle and naive romantic fully immersed in the pure and purposeless experience of life as such, beyond good and evil. As Zaitsev comments, that particular sense or state of life’s intensity and authenticity is universal: it is experienced by anyone for a short period of time in youth and is expressed most adequately in Tsoi’s early lyrics (in contrast to his later, socially critical and political songs). Zaitsev’s coming-of-age drama, therefore, is not a homage to Tsoi per se but rather to life itself, which aligns it with a series of other cult movies dedicated to the ecstatic celebration of teen spirit, such as François Truffaut’s Jules and Jim (1962), Jean-Luc Godard’s Band of Outsiders (1964), Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused (1993), Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers (2003) or even Marlen Khutsiev’s I am Twenty (Mne 20 let, 1964) and Georgii Daneliia’s I Walk Around Moscow (Ia shagaiu po Moskve, 1964).
The Layabouts was made in 2008, but had to wait for its release until 2011 due to the economic recession. As a rather typical low-budget “indie” ($300,000), the film could hardly seem commercially appealing to distributors. Its eventual release, however, was facilitated by Viktor Tsoi’s approaching 50th anniversary in 2012, which significantly stirred up public interest in his personality (and thus inspired a number of hagiographic documentaries, the Kino tribute concerts, contests on the best monument to the singer, etc.), as well as Anton Shagin’s recent celebrity status gained after more mainstream films such as Valerii Todorovskii’s Hipsters (Stiliagi, 2008) and Aleksandr Mindadze’s Innocent Saturday (V subbotu, 2010), where he played the lead role. Even though The Layabouts won the prize of the Guild of Film Scholars and Film Critics at the “Window to Europe” Film Festival in Vyborg in 2011, not all critics endorsed Zaitsev’s experimentation with genre conventions and rock mythology. The film’s main paradox, which foregrounds a contemporary teenager writing Tsoi’s songs in capitalist Moscow and thus creates a temporal confusion, was taken by some critics (e.g. Lisitsina, Barabanov) as far too artificial and historically perplexing, since the slackers of the 2000s are essentially different from those in the early 80s: the former indulge in idleness because they have everything, while the latter used to do so because they had nothing. And yet, for most critics it is this hybrid superimposition of distinct temporal and spatial orders into a new “alternative present” which is nonetheless fueled by the deep nostalgia for the youth’s irretrievable immediacy of life that appears to be the strongest achievement of The Layabouts. For example, at the 13th International Festival of Independent Film “Deboshirfilm: Pure Dreams” the film received a special award precisely for this: “for the most Muscovite Korean St. Petersburg resident Tsoi.”
Narratively the film is organized as a series of flashbacks coming from the protagonist, now a rock star, hiding in the club’s dressing room before the concert, drinking cognac and intensely chain-smoking. As we learn toward the end, on this day, two years ago, his best friend with the suggestive name Aleksandr Matrosov (Andrei Shibarshin) got himself killed in a car crash. The nostalgic ambience so manifestly radiating in the film is thus justified by the narrative technique itself: the happy days of youth poeticized by Zaitsev are presented as an act of mournful commemoration by the hero himself, who is now apparently mature and spiritually reformed. Holding together the scenes from the past, the plot is centered on a love triangle: two best friends fall for the same girl, Sasha (Aleksandra Tiuftei). First Sasha dates the quiet and insecure Aleksandr, later she leaves him for the passionate and reckless Sergei, causing friction between the two. Aleksandr’s subsequent suicide traumatizes Sergei and initiates his moral evolution from adolescence to adulthood. The plot could hardly be more conventional, as it is ostensibly built from clichés borrowed from a screenwriting textbook: love triangle, friendship, betrayal, moral education, psychological types. Yet beneath the surface lies not the love story, which has little to do with Tsoi’s lyrics that The Layabouts intends to tell us (just like Shagin’s Tsoi, who deliberately fails to imitate his singing and kung fu moves was meant to produce estrangement rather than emotional involvement). In fact, the film has no story to tell us at all, but only show what lies in-between the bare bones of this bildungsroman narrative: namely, drinking, smoking, laughing, dancing, singing, kissing, riding metro, wandering around, swimming, sunbathing, staring at strangers, peeking under the girls’ skirts, stalking, waiting for a phone call, skipping classes, getting bored or excited, freezing in winter or sweating in summer, or just doing nothing at all for weeks or months. It is essentially this plotless, non-narrative and truly visual component of the film that organically corresponds to its soundtrack.
As we learn from Zaitsev’s interviews, the idea to make a movie based on Tsoi’s early lyrics occurred to him after he accidentally purchased his record at the airport. To his great surprise, the impression of listening to Tsoi’s songs after a long break turned out to be identical to the first original experience when he was 15. As the director nicely puts it, “it was like with a bottle of old perfume which you open and smell absolutely the same scent.” Similar to the Proustian experience of the madeleine, for Zaitsev the music involuntarily triggered a chain of “pictures” closely associated to the memories of his own youth, producing a nostalgic resonance out of which the entire movie was born.
Cinematically, The Layabouts is a good example of the complex and often problematic relation between filmic images and soundtrack. The director succeeds in projecting the atmosphere of Tsoi’s songs onto the visual order, but he does so only because his skills as a documentary filmmaker committed to the non-narrative objectivity of reality share a strange affinity with Tsoi’s descriptive (haiku-like) impressionism and unabashed raw simplicity of emotions in his early lyrics. Both means of artistic expression—Zaitsev’s cinema-vérité documentary style and Tsoi’s sentimental post-punk—converge in their mutual striving towards preserving the unpolished authenticity of lived experience. In his first documentary My House, Zaitsev employs the effect of a hidden surveillance camera statically focused on one spot only—the backyard of a grocery kiosk in a so-called “sleeping district” of Moscow—over half a year. As a result of careful editing, a 20-minute documentary manages to capture hundreds of people using one and the same urban location in every possible application (e.g. public restroom, children’s playground, dating place, parking lot, picnic area, outdoor bar, etc.) and thus provide a surgical slice of contemporary reality representing the nation as a whole with a minimal subjective intervention. In his another documentary Gleb, using the same cinema-vérité technique, he painstakingly observes the little boy’s first day in kindergarten and thus presents an archetypal drama of initiation to society.
In The Layabouts the poetic agreement between the film’s visuals and its soundtrack is surprisingly achieved precisely when the director’s authorial presence is similarly reduced to documentary observation of the nuances of everyday life, a feature which strikingly resonates with Tsoi’s romantic primitivism. In fact, only the dressing room’s scenes from the present are shot by a traditional studio camera, while all the scenes from the past constituting the overall cinematic narrative are shot by a handheld digital camera. As Zaitsev comments, using different cameras for different temporalities was dictated not only by the film’s low budget but also by its philosophy, according to which the past is meant to look more realistic than the present. In this regard, Tsoi’s soundtrack appears to enhance the reality effect of many scenes associated with the past. For example, the film’s action presented in flashbacks covers one year where each seasonal change opens with Tsoi’s song on a respective time period (such as “Sunny Days” for winter, “Rain for Us” for spring and “Summer” for summer). The protagonist’s insomnia visually represented by camera’s random wandering in his apartment is accompanied by the melancholic “In the Kitchen,” while one of the noisy outdoor parties is set to “Mother Anarchy.” Another successful match between Zaitsev’s visuals and Tsoi’s soundtrack is the scene about the layabouts’ train trip to the river beach accompanied by his song “Summer” and inspired by Joanna Stingray’s video recording of a similar event during her stay in Leningrad. This example is particularly interesting, as it emphasizes the documentary realism at the very basis of Tsoi’s early lyrics.
The strategic correspondence between the documentary “life caught unawares” and the raw immediacy of life celebrated by Tsoi is more explicitly rendered in the film’s epilogue featuring the layabouts watching (on a barely working TV) and passionately supporting the Russian soccer team triumphantly winning over the Netherlands in the Euro Cup 2008, a unique event in the country’s sport history which considerably boosted Russians’ sense of nationalism. This scene was not originally in the screenplay. As Zaitsev later explained, the soccer event simply coincided with the day of shooting and thus distracted the entire film crew and cast from working. The director eventually allowed them to enjoy the show but only in front of a passively recording camera. As a result, the genuine recorded enthusiasm of the “viewers” helped the film to express the intended pathos of youth with even more straightforwardness and precision. Was it a coincidence, though, that the historic soccer match featured in the film’s finale and accompanied by another famous song “We Saw the Night” took place on June 21, which is the birthday of Viktor Tsoi?
In an interview with Irina Khakamada in her talk show “Success in the Big City,” Zaitsev admits that Russian cinema today no longer has such geniuses as Tarkovsky; it consists mostly of “solid averages,” including himself. His debut feature could similarly be ranked as a “solidly average” production which proposes nothing exceptional, yet diligently follows the traditions of exceptional auteurs of the French New Wave and Thaw cinema. Nevertheless, even on that “solidly average” modest level, The Layabouts succeeds as a thought-provoking piece. By weaving together the divergent ("incompossible") temporalities of the 80s and 2000s into one “alternative present,” where the actual present and the virtual past continuously reverberate and thus become mutually inseparable, the film gives a perfect example of what Gilles Deleuze calls the “direct time-image,” or rather the “crystal image of time,” characterized by a “circuit where the real and the imaginary, the actual and the virtual, chase after each other and become indiscernible” (127). As a result of the present and past being indiscernible, “the truthful man dies, every model of truth collapses, in favor of the new [falsifying] narration” (131), which foregrounds a new kind of hero: “an unlocalizable and chronic forger in paradoxical spaces” (132) who glorifies “the power of the false of life” (141) itself in its perpetual becoming and transformation. With its focus on the Viktor Tsoi myth, Zaitsev’s film effectively demythologizes and depersonalizes it in a rather Brechtian manner by offering the viewer Shagin’s Tsoi as a forger who nonetheless liberates what is at stake in Tsoi’s early songs: a pure and impersonal intensity of life as such.
1] Borrowed from Leibniz's theory of pre-established harmony which justifies an infinite coexistence of possible worlds, Deleuze's concept of the "incompossible" (or "incompossibility") designates a dissonant synchronicity of divergent temporal series in modern cinema that neither converge nor remain exclusive, or im-possible, for each other but rather stand in paradoxical relation to one another as "the simultaneity of incompossible presents, or the coexistence of not-necessarily true pasts" (Deleuze 131).
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Barabanov, Boris, “Nedostovernoe kino,” Kommersant’’ Weekend, 11 November 2011
Lisitsina, Aleksandra, “Sovsem ne miuzikl,” Gazeta.ru, 15 November 2011
Deleuze, Gilles, Cinema 2: The Time-Image, University of Minnesota Press, 1989.
Zaitsev, Andrei. “My khoteli vizual’no peredat’ emotsii iz pesen Tsoia,” KinoPoisk, 9 November 2011
The Layabouts, Russia, 2011
Color, 93 minutes
Producers: Nadezhda Mikhalkova, Maksim Korolov
Director: Andrei Zaitsev
Script: Andrei Zaitsev
Director of Photography: Ivan Finogeev
Production Designer: Ol’ga Khlebnikova
Sound: Sergei Ovcharenko
Cast: Anton Shagin, Andrei Shibarshin, Aleksandra Tiuftei, Polina Filonenko
Production Company: Sentiabr’, VVP-Al’ans
Andrei Zaitsev: The Layabouts (Bezdel’niki, 2008-2011)
reviewed by Sergey Toymentsev © 2012