KinoKultura: Issue 40 (2013)

A Picnic on the Road to the Temple

By Anna Nieman (Cheshire, CT)


The hell with it all, I just can’t think of a thing other than those words of his
—HAPPINESS, FREE, FOR EVERYONE, AND LET NO ONE BE FORGOTTEN!
Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, Roadside Picnic

poster me tooThe story told in Aleksei Balabanov’s Me Too (Ia tozhe khochu,2012) is a familiar one. A group of unhappy individuals takes a journey to a mystical place of wish fulfillment created by an extraterrestrial source. The similarity between Me Too and Andrei Tarkovsky’s legendary Stalker (1979) is so obvious, in fact, that most Russian film critics didn’t feel it warranted analysis beyond a passing acknowledgment,  until Viacheslav Kuritsyn asserted that Me Too is a variation of Stalker. He noted two “direct quotes” from Tarkovsky: a paid phone in the deserted village, and a briefcase carried by a character (Kuritsyn 2013). It can be argued, though, that neither serves the same dramatic purpose as they do in Stalker. Otherwise, any thorough analysis of this connection has been missing. The assumption that the audience is being offered a Stalker-redux was strongly supported by the film’s promotional campaign: the moody, elegantly gray-toned poster and early reports from trade publications (Sychev 2012). Furthermore, the aging “enfant terrible” again falls into the lazy cinematic recycling of his tried and true standbys: gangster types, jeeps, and ideas. No need to even watch the film then. Yet, in the flurry of the promotional press for the film it was somewhat morbidly suggested, often by Balabanov himself, that this would be the last film of the ailing director. Film critic Valerii Kichin was unimpressed. Reporting for the online edition of Rossiiskaia gazeta from the Venice film festival, he wrote:

The blatantly conventional narrative could be intriguing if there was a relatively deep idea behind it. It could’ve been a parable or an apocalyptic fantasy with a philosophical subtext. But… no go. […] This is not scary, but dull, trivial and boring to listen to. (Kichin 2012)

balabanovWhen it comes to Balabanov’s oeuvre, the accusations of the “dull” simplicity and “trivial” conventionality are part of the course. Balabanov is routinely “discarded” by a good part of the film press—much in the same way that in the short Trofim, a segment in The Arrival of the Train (Pribytie poezda, 1996), the last proof of existence of the title character, captured on the precious celluloid, is dumped in the trash by the fictional director. The simpleton peasant, with the naiveté of Ivan the Fool, stubbornly shoves his bearded face into the camera lens of an early French filmmaker, trying to interact with the camera, as if insisting on leaving a trace in history. Balabanov is Trofim-like in his relentless effort to populate the screen with his road-tripping gangsters; the black jeep keeps crisscrossing the former Empire to the soundtrack of Russian rock set on repeat.

“Get this bandit of yours out of the script!” (Tarkovskaia 2002: 172) demanded Andrei Tarkovsky of Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, referring to the main character of the script. Dissatisfied with The Wish Machine (Mashina zhelanii)—the first version of what would become Stalker—he had sent the Strugatskys off to work on a rewrite. The sci-fi writers returned with a parable that made the director quite happy. The new stalker, “an Apostle of a new faith, an ideologue of sorts” (Tarkovskaia 2002: 172), was nothing like Redrick Schuhart of the novel Roadside Picnic (Piknik na obochine, 1972). Redrick was a hustler, stalking the Zone for profit, pawning the loot on the black market. He was awkward with words and a stranger to self-awareness and reflection: in a word, a bandit. Finally facing the Golden Sphere, Redrick is at a loss. “My Lord, where are my words, where are my thoughts? [...] Treachery, treachery. Here, too, they’ve cheated me, left me voiceless, the bastards... Riffraff. I was born a riffraff, and I’ve grown old as riffraff” (Strugatsky 2012: 191). Redrick knows that “man is born in order to think” (Strugatsky 2012: 191), but he can’t. At this point he’s not even trying to: “I’m an animal, you can see that I’m an animal” (Strugatsky 2012:193)—he desperately calls out to the Golden Sphere at the end of the novel.

In his film Tarkovsky had no use for a guide, or a stalker; he needed a preacher, someone rejoicing in the opportunity to save lost souls, to baptize them into his faith. The Strugatsky Brothers, in turn, “were concerned with the phenomenon of an average man, one not prone to introspection, incapable of spiritual quest. […] The terrible agony that brings forward the spiritual out of such human material makes up the narrative arc of Roadside Picnic” (Filimonov 2011: 301).

me tooBalabanov’s inspiration, by his own admission, came not from the Strugatskys’ novel or Tarkovsky’s film, but from the location itself, the abandoned bell tower, lost somewhere in the Russian countryside, appearing in the film just as he discovered it: “With cinematographer Sasha Simonov we traveled to Tverskaya Region, saw the dilapidated bell tower and made up the story” (Bobrova 2012).

The genesis of Me Too, as told by the director, changes from interview to interview. Aleksandr Simonov, Balabanov’s travel companion and the DoP on the last four films, recalls that they discovered the bell tower in the Vologda Region, on a road trip to “the birthplace of Father Frost” (Shavlovskii 2012) back in 2008. Simonov remembers Balabanov floating the idea for the film a bit earlier: “I was wicked excited about the fact that everything would happen in the winter, when it’s cold and snowy, on this abandoned ground. So when we got to the bell tower, we just flipped. There it was!.. all for real, you know… the bitter cold, the ice, and that rickety church” (Shavlovskii 2012).

Balabanov may not always remember the details, but he is unwavering in one conviction: his film is not sci-fi, but “fantastic realism” (Bobrova 2012), perhaps in the same way as Of Freaks and Men (Pro urodov i liudei, 1998), according to the director’s own notorious definition, was categorized as “pathological realism.”

One shouldn’t suspect the director of being dishonest in his conversations with the press: obviously Balabanov is familiar with both Stalker, though he claims not to have seen all of it: “it’s a boring film”, and the writing of the Strugatsky Brothers. It is more likely that this story is such an intensely personal product of his own experience that there is no point in mentioning predecessors, influences or even specific places that went into the mosaic of creation.

Unlike the shell-shocked Major from The Stoker (Kochegar, 2011) unknowingly plagiarizing Wacław Sieroszewski’s story “Khailak” on his beat-up typewriter, Balabanov is not “rewriting” somebody else’s story. Arguably though, in some way, appropriating a well-worn narrative (in the case of Me Too from a famous sci-fi novel and a classic film ) becomes for Balabanov, just as it was for the Major, an attempt at self-discovery, and, on another level, at a re-discovery of the central character of his oeuvre within familiar material. It is an act of recognition.

With Trofim and, even earlier, with the very real Nastia Poleva—the rocker heroine of Balabanov’s early documentary Nastia and Egor (Nastia i Egor, 1989)—his characters seek one common thing: recognition. However, they rarely find it and are left to skim the periphery—geographical, historical, societal and personal.

To be lifted closer to you,
To be caught in the line of your sight,
To become something, anything, in you
And not to miss out on something important and yours,
I am performing a tippy-toe dance.

Anastasiia Poleva, “The Tippy-Toe Dance” (Poleva 2005: 17)

In the final scene of The Castle (Zamok, 1994), the main character, the Land Surveyor, whose very sense of self has at this point been all but consumed by the labyrinth of absurdity, lethargically mops around a tavern. A familiar kid from the village leans across the communal table to whisper a confession: “I know who you are. You’re the Land Surveyor!” We see the hero’s face light up with the joy of recognition. The nightmare is over, he has been found!

Upon killing his own brother, Trofim is overcome with the desire to confess his crime to anyone and everyone despite the obvious danger. This is not even about absolution: for him, understanding and recognition are more important than his very life or freedom. At its core, what is War (2002), if not the confession of a prisoner, an attempt to understand and explain himself.

In turn, the characters of Me Too share the stories of their misfortunes. One after another they attempt to explain why they are so eager to abandon their daily lives in search of happiness. What in another film could be a narrative tool here becomes the narrative itself. Matvei (Iurii Matveev), the unlikely philosopher of the bunch, dismisses all of human civilization: “Still trying to explain each other.” Matvei is convinced that humans are “retarded descendants of […] aliens”, pretty much strangers on their own planet. Preparing to forsake this planet for good, the characters attempt a hurried mix of confession and brotherly consortion, taking their communion from a bottle of vodka.

Red Schuhart of Roadside Picnic reaches the Golden Sphere through tremendous losses and sacrifices. He pays for this quest not with his life, but with the ultimate comprehension of his individual inadequacy. Balabanov’s characters are ready to suffer and sacrifice, but do they recognize, understand and accept themselves? To what end do they journey to the frozen “Zone”?

Who are they, this band of misfits setting out on a quest for Happiness? Accidental pilgrims to the mystical Bell Tower, ready to either ascend and be accepted, raptured and rewarded, or fall and die right there in the snow? Balabanov is no Tarkovsky: a bandit is precisely who he chooses to send into his “Zone.” The hero’s companions are not a Writer, and a Scientist, but a musician and an alcoholic, and, to complete the package, a prostitute.

me too, mosinAleksandr Mosin (Bandit, aka Sania) appears in a Balabanov film for the fifth time, this time in a lead role. Mosin is a non-actor, whose shady past is often alluded to by the director with a sense of creator’s pride more appropriate for a fictional character. As for Mosin, he fits easily into the matrix of the character he himself has inspired: a squat, easygoing criminal, a cold-hearted killer, a connoisseur of dried fish. Having killed four before dawn, having been to confession and communion, now absolved, he is enjoying a traditional afternoon in banya. After that he is planning a trip to happiness, or... death. He is the one to whom Father Rafael divulged the story about the Bell Tower that grants happiness. He becomes the gravitational center of the narrative and the group, although it seems he is the only one not looking for the understanding and recognition. Until the very end he is incapable of understanding who he is, why has he been passed over by the Bell Tower, and why he is doomed to collapse into the snow.

Balabanov intentionally places Mosin into the center of the story, and, when the time comes, trusts his confession to no other than him. And so, there they are: sitting in the snow together, much in the same way that recently a different bandit, though played by the same actor, sat in the subterranean boiler room with the Major, the late Mikhail Skriabin’s Stoker. Now Balabanov’s turn has come: visibly abused by life, one arm in a cast, the director leads Bandit into the sanctuary where the altar once stood, searching in vain for the place from which Sania can be raptured. Alas, “they” won’t take the bandit.

Balabanov is often blamed for focusing on a gangster-hero, but he is also a willing participant in maintaining this legend. But even a superficial look at his films reveals that the director is primarily interested in his gangsters’ human content, the self they are holding onto despite the life that made them criminals. “They’ve gone through the Afghan [war]. They’ve murdered a bunch of men” (Solntseva 2012). Balabanov is ready to base his entire vision on this off-screen experience which he associates with a special brand of realism. In this, he remains the documentary filmmaker of his early career. As such, he is a humanist, persistently searching for the human spark, attempting to find something in his anti-heroes that would make them worthy of salvation. The director is ready to empathize and forgive, but the character stubbornly pushes back. His stories, unlike the stories of the fellow criminal Matvei, are more cruel than funny. His actions are not mitigated by humor, or farce, or charisma. He does, however, have “a trunk full” of that praised dried fish he keeps talking about.

It comes as a surprise that this harsh, sinful man cannot find a place in the provided cinematic reality. This space was specially developed for him through several films: from Brother (Brat, 1997)to The Stoker. He dominates it, knows all the ins and outs: he takes over the banya floor that is “closed for women’s day”, self-assuredly marches through the corridors of a detox clinic and St. Petersburg’s backyards. It seems, though, that the space has exhausted itself. In the randomly uttered words of the Musician (Oleg Garkusha) it can be asserted that they seek the mythical “fourth floor,” which evidently does not exist, neither in the banya, nor in Balabanov’s universe. The happiness they are striving to achieve at the cost of their lives is hardly a state, but more like a substance—tangible, but ultimately unachievable within the realities of everyday life. They are not taking a trip into a forbidden unknown, but they are going on a pilgrimage. There’s no one to stop them from exploring this Zone. To the contrary: “The Archbishop ordered to let everyone in,” says a soldier by the nominal road block. Yet this is a pilgrimage from which no one return, so the barriers and guards are unnecessary. There is no need to test the Zone and throw those white-tailed washers, because here late spring morphs into eternal February with surprising ease.

In an interview with Alena Solntseva, Balabanov formulated his concept of happiness, as it is perceived by his characters, thus: “They say it exists somewhere, but no one knows what it’s like. [These] people are tired, they have had enough of this life, they have to either commit suicide or fly off to happiness”(Solntseva 2012). Solntseva wonders if this is “a choice between suicide and happiness?”—“Neither,” replies Balabanov, “just a desire for happiness. Not a paradise. A planet with water, life and happiness. Maybe not a planet at all. We don’t know.” (Solntseva 2012). This desire, this primal need is obviously shared by Balabanov himself. So it’s no surprise that the Bandit, rejected by the Bell Tower, finds none other than the director himself by the exit. The utopian longing that prompts the journey with no return is, first and foremost, Balabanov’s own longing.

The world that Balabanov builds in Me Too is determined by movements of characters. Notably the director returns to St. Petersburg. The camera begins the familiar chase through the labyrinth of its alleys and arches, hallways and staircases. The St. Petersburg of Happy Days (Schastlivye dni, 1991) and Of Freaks and Men was a nearly deserted city, its surface cracked with canals and braced by bridges, its corners sprouting with cemetery greenery. In Brother the same location showed a new side, bulging with the market crowds, blaring post-perestroika techno music from the basement club, and promptly turning into a playground for Danila Bagrov’s real-life game of “cops and robbers.” After the action set in Leninsk, the faceless every-town of the 1980’s stagnation of Cargo 200 (Gruz 200, 2007), the film closes with an underground rock-concert and a walk through a St. Petersburg alley. In The Stoker, the hellish stoves, fed with corpses, burn in Kronstadt, where the movie was filmed—a city which would eventually resemble St. Petersburg.

In Me Too Petersburg is a spring city, timeworn, filled with hurrying people, a city in its daily rush that exists independently from the characters, interacting with them only for a few fleeting moments. Avoiding this hustle and bustle, gangster Sania and his mates move through the innards of the city, a territory mastered by Balabanov. Their movements are guarded by cavernous ceilings and walls of passages and hallways. One of the best examples of Balabanov’s trademark claustrophobic setting is the scene in the apartment of Matvei’s father. At this point in the story, the pilgrims have awkwardly kidnapped Matvei from the detox clinic. He is deeply devoted to his demented father and refuses to leave without him. It is a short scene, devastating in its emotional nakedness. The use of RED, a small digital camera, allowed seamless, tightly choreographed movement within the angular surfaces of the post-war apartment. It is, in its essence, the emotional state of the characters expressed spatially. The walls of the tiny apartment seem to be folding in on themselves and those within them like the bellows of an accordion. The vertical takes over, squeezing, expressing the contour line, extracting the air. The father (Viktor Gorbunov), notably dressed in a striped sailor’s shirt, lost in dementia, feebly calling out to his son, bumps into walls and corners, which are reflected in a mirror so they split and multiply.

Finally the group leaves, knowing all too well that they won’t come back. Bandit, last to walk out, trips over a bag left by the door, shoves it to the side, steps over it and leaves. As it turns out, this is a comprehensive gesture for the character: “Après moi, le deluge.” Bandit pushes on, making no effort to understand the space he inhabits or to utilize it. In the end he, with the same ease, will step over the director lying dead in the snow.

The horizon, almost absent from St. Petersburg scenes, appears as soon as the characters enter the Zone. The dusky, deeply frozen, flat-as-a-pancake countryside opens before them. Across this harsh landscape runs, awkwardly slipping and falling, a naked woman: the hooker Liubov’ (Alisa Shitikova). The only vertical line is formed by the Bell Tower, leaning slightly in the icy field and the frozen corpses. The Bell Tower is in ruins, its steeple missing. There it is, the portal to nowhere. The characters and the director won’t reach the visible, tangible “higher level,” the upper floor, momentarily revealed to Danila (Sergei Bodrov, Jr.) in Brother, whose Olympus in the form of Viacheslav Butusov represented unachievable, but fleshed-out happiness.

In an earlier scene, the Musician, the aging rock-n-roller, enters the bath house and is greeted by an annoyingly strict security guard: “Where to? Third floor? It’s closed!”—barks the guard.—“No! Going to the fourth floor!”—yells the Musician as he runs up the stairs. Later on, he asks an attendant whether they have a fourth floor, which they don’t.

By closing the cinematic space on his characters, Balabanov intentionally excludes the notion of any other reality, as if preparing them for the meeting with the Bell Tower. However, as film critic Vasilii Stepanov notes: “Life breaks through the deathly landscapes in a most unexpected fashion: as the car, seemingly suddenly speeding across an intersection; the passengers of a tram, startled at having to stop in front of the camera; the fir-tree oil, purchased at a pharmacy for a handful of change—for the director’s favorite bathhouse” (Stepanov 2012).

me tooThe more concentrated the efforts of the director, the more actively they are resisted by the live reality of the setting. As the black jeep is fleeing the city, spring and life itself, the camera catches the immense swath of black canvas covering a building under construction. It’s billowing in the wind like a final curtain, or a pirate sail, or maybe a dark omen like a funeral flag. Or is it possible that behind this ominous curtain, in a gust of spring wind one can make out not desolation and destruction, but signs of renovation and restoration? But neither the characters, nor their creator have the time, the strength, or the desire to look for it. Their journey does not require it.

The fate of the characters is pre-determined and foretold half-way through the film by Petia (Petr Balabanov, the director’s son), a clairvoyant youth. That ungainly, painful, stumbling run that Liuba puts herself through is pointless and unnecessary, making it even harder to watch. It is obvious that she will be accepted by the Bell Tower, and of course Sania just made a cruel joke. Yet, there she is: running, falling, skinning her knees, freezing the sexual impulse in herself, punishing—as she calls it—her “torso.” The run is for real, of course: Balabanov wouldn’t have it any other way. Alisa Shitikova, the young debutante, dashes naked across the frozen field from one hidden assistant with a coat to the next. Later, down with a cold, she would post pictures of her bloodied knees online. Let them see, recognize and understand. Here—behold the documented suffering.

me tooWhatever the reaction of social networks to those photos, within the film she was understood, accepted, and included into the tight bonfire circle. On a side note, the still from the bonfire scene became the calling card for the film; heavily used by the press, it has spontaneously eclipsed the slick poster with the cold silhouette of the Bell Tower. Awaiting the fulfillment of the inevitable, Sania, Matvei, the Musician and the Prostitute have gathered around the bonfire. Their last conversation—their confession—is fueled by vodka and punctuated by Garkusha’s afflicted acoustic performance. As the scene develops, it becomes obvious that in the phrase “Me, too!”, repeated by the characters throughout the film, first with a childlike, surprised recognition of its meaning and, later like a prayer or an incantation, the emphasis falls on the word “too”. Could it be that the lives, so easily abandoned, were simply lonely rather than unhappy? Characteristically, other than the stories they share with each other, these people lack any previous history or traditional character development. The names of the characters are the names of the actors who play them. The hooker’s name, Liubov’ (“Love”), is a sad old joke. Balabanov traditionally presents his audience with characters who are as generalized as they are singularly real and concrete. Tightly packed in the jeep, through communication and conversation they begin to fill with meaning and acquire a context.

stalker
stalker

Upon reaching the heart of the Zone, the heroes of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker stop at the threshold of the coveted room. The same triad that in the beginning of the film, as the handcar cut through fog, were looking in opposite directions, now, at the end of the journey, resemble Andrei Rublev’s “Trinity.” They return bonded. Stalker is accepted into the fragile bosom of his family, and, like a child, is tucked in by his loyal wife. In Tarkovsky’s view this is the highest reward – the realization of all dreams. The intimacy, the simple human closeness, family and home are the only alternative to the dying world on the edge of Apocalypse.

Why would Balabanov’s Matvei, who is well aware that he will be raptured by the Bell Tower, reject the “offer” and stay behind to bury his father? Why, after “Papa died and didn’t see happiness,” does Matvei lose interest in attaining “happiness” and, along with it, his life? His decision, though seemingly senseless and tragically stupid, contains the logic of the entire film, and the director’s own conviction. It is no accident that Matvei’s father first appears wearing a sailor’s shirt, one of Balabanov’s favorite garments.

For Matvei, the father’s death is an event not just of private, but of universal significance: “Forget Apocalypse—Papa’s dead!”, he says. In Roadside Picnic one of the “gifts” the Zone presents to Schuhart is his resurrected father. He joins the family at the dinner table and Monkey, Schuhart’s mutant daughter, gently puts her head on the grandfather’s shoulders.

And then the old man, in a single motion, as if someone remembered to pull the puppet strings, jerked the glass toward his open mouth.
“So, guys,” said Redrick in a delighted voice, “now we’ll have one hell of a party.” (Strugatsky 2012: 155)

Though dead, the father occupies an appropriate spot at the family table. In this morbid manner, (“terrible and pitiful”, according to Redrick’s friend Noonan) the stalker is trying to preserve the familial closeness, for it’s the only thing he can count on.

me tooAt the end of Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2011), a film not about a hypothetical, but a real and imminent Apocalypse, the self-absorbed and depressed heroine Justine spends her last moments on Earth accomplishing a completely pointless task. Struggling to catch her breath in the thinning air, she builds “a cave,” a shelter for her small nephew: she sticks up some wooden poles and branches to form a tent-like structure as the killer planet bursts through the atmosphere; doomed, they climb inside the “cave”—Justine, her sister and the boy join hands and, together, meet the end of times. Justine’s “cave” is an utterly selfless, senseless act, and precisely therefore an act of absolute, supreme humanism: the fleeting attainment of unity on the brink of a catastrophe, or in the face of one’s own mortality. “We will all die, but it’s okay”,—reiterates Balabanov in an interview with Seance, or, as Bulat Okudzhava’s song goes, “let’s join our hands, friends, so not to perish one by one”. After all, the desire for brotherhood, not a fatalistic acceptance of the inevitable, forms the central narrative arc of Balabanov’s films.

In his controversial, but arguably landmark review of Brother, film historian Evgenii Margolit pinpoints the genesis of the film’s hero, and of Balabanov’s future characters: “Sergei Bodrov Jr. here is painfully reminiscent of [...] the unforgettable pioneer with the butterfly net from Elem Klimov's Welcome.., or No Trespassing! (Dobro pozhalovat’!, ili postoronnym vkhopd zapreshchen, 1964) with his famous: ‘What are you up to, guys?’” (Margolit 1998). The outcasts in Me Too not only receive an answer to the perennial question of the stranger—the Other, always excluded from “the reindeer games”—but they take each other along on the journey. And not out of kindness (they are hard core criminals, after all) but because they “must.” In that sense, they are much kinder and more inclusive than whoever is operating the Bell Tower portal. The ultimate meaning of the pilgrimage to the Bell Tower is not only in finding ephemeral happiness, but in the common, shared experience of the End.

In the Strugatskys’ novel, the stalker had to suffer a long and difficult journey before achieving the final understanding: “HAPPINESS FOR ALL, FREE!” In the end, face to face with the Golden Sphere, he comprehends the tragedy of his spiritual muteness, the words he yells are borrowed, but Redrick accepts and internalizes the, making them his very own, singular expression. At that moment of elevated self-awareness, he becomes a truly universal human being, at one with all.

The Russian philosopher Nikolai Fedorov wrote: “[O]ne should live not for oneself nor for others, but with all and for all.”(Fedorov 2008: 157). The writings of Fedorov permeate the idea of a common, universal, and cosmic brotherhood. This concept is not as alien to the heroes of Balabanov’s films as it may seem. Without exception, each of them yearns for it.

The most obvious examples, of course, is Brother (Brat, 1997) and Brother-2 (Brat-2, 2000), with Danila running up the ladder of the Chicago fire escape, chanting the elementary school rhyme: “I learned that I had/ An enormous family […]/ I love everyone in the world!” With every repetition he creates his own mantra, his prayer, filling the official words of the state-produced “poetry” with deep personal meaning and feeling. In the end, he leaves the U.S. not with his blood brother, but with a “liberated” Russian prostitute. After all, Danila is not exclusive, but a national, universal brother. They are “of one blood:” he and his nation, Danila Bagrov and the whole of Russia.

In It Doesn’t Hurt (Mne ne bol’no, 2006) and Blind Man’s Bluff (Zhmurki, 2005)—both arguably weaker films in Balabanov’s oeuvre—the longing for brotherhood is represented by the random, but decisively communal living conditions that the characters arrange for themselves. In the end, they either find the literal “paradise in a hut” (“cottage love”), in which the death of the central character is more of an afterthought than the cathartic tragedy it ought to be; or they unite in an oddball crime family, cozily housed in an office overlooking the Kremlin, as is the case in the final frames that undermine the over-the-top bloodshed of the film’s events.

me tooThe exquisite tragedy of The Stoker is distilled in Major’s final epiphany. After losing his beloved daughter, he comprehends the fallacy of his blind faith in the bonds of the war brotherhood: after exacting revenge on his comrade, he takes his own life, because he can’t carry the burden of guilt, but also because he doesn’t know how to live in a world where everyone is “our own”, “on our side”, yet they are all ready to kill one another. In her book The Imperial Trace (2009), which includes a chapter on Balabanov, Nancy Condee turns to Dostoevsky to define the idea of narodnost’ and explore what it means to be Russian.

“The most developed articulation of this problematic was to be found in the later writings of Dostoevskii and most intensely in his speech for the Pushkin Celebrations of 1880”, notes Condee (2009: 37). Further she submits her translation of an excerpt from the speech, which, for our purposes should be slightly expanded:

... all of the future Russian people will then realize that to become a true Russian would mean exactly this: to strive to bring lasting reconciliation to European contradictions; to indicate a way out of European languor in the Russian soul, all-human, all-uniting, fill it out with the brotherly love for all our brothers, and in the end, perhaps, to utter the final, concluding word of the great, common harmony, the final brotherly accord of all tribes according to the law of The New Testament of Christ! (Dostoevskii, “Pushkinskaia rech’”)

There is some proximity between the two dwellers of St. Petersburg, separated by a century. They share an affection for those on the margins of society and also, less obviously perhaps, a conviction of a deeper nature: their Christian Orthodox faith is indivisibly intertwined with the mystical vision of a universal, cosmic brotherhood. It should also be noted that Dostoevsky had read and expressed a deep respect for the theosophical writings of Nikolai Fedorov.

Balabanov follows in the philosophical footsteps of both Dostoevsky and Fedorov in his understanding of character development, not as a separate, individualist development, but rather as part of the “brotherhood:” the destiny of an individual lies precisely in the unique “all-human, all-uniting” Russian universality. He sees no contradiction in what Condee describes as the “familiar series of paradoxes of Russian culture”(Condee 2009: 37).

Balabanov follows through by joining the onscreen experience of his characters. In his interview with Moscow News the director excitedly talked about the stories that his characters share onscreen. Those are true stories, he says, from their actual criminal lives. He considers their real-life experience abundantly “real” and true enough to compensate the lack of acting experience. He seems to revel in the off-screen friendship with his characters/actors.

This obvious closeness creates a semi-documentary feel. When asked what genre the filmmaker wanted to play with, Cinematographer Simonov, takes time to explain the true nature of the film, notably disregarding the suggestion of postmodernist playfulness:

A documentary. Several things were filmed documentary-style. [...] We are driving along real streets, we see real, not organized by us, people enter the frame. To the contrary [to the usual approach], we attempt to minimize our presence. I was [...] shocked, amazed even, when Lesha [Balabanov] said: “I won’t even be against going digital”. What with his obsession with film and all! [...] With Me Too everything was different: we freed the camera, and began to work on the juncture of a documentary and a live-action film (Shavlovskii 2012).

Perhaps in experiencing the film not only as a filmmaker, but also as a character, Balabanov has minimized his distance from the story, limiting his ability to analyze and review it from the author’s point of view. He stands side by side with his heroes at the edge, facing the frozen space. The expulsion of iridescent energy from the truncated steeple is barely visible: “a sparing use of elegant special effects” (Young 2012). In The Stoker Balabanov used his last bit of film to push his hero into the light, into the whiteout, into the song. Now, he lacks the strength for that last push.

According to Margolit, the universe of Brother lacks the concept of death (Margolit 1998). Meanwhile, the friends and fans of Sergei Bodrov Jr. recently mourned the tenth anniversary of the catastrophic avalanche that consumed Bodrov and his crew. Last May the incomparable Mikhail Skriabin succumbed to a heart disease. During the filming of River (Reka, 2002), arguably an underappreciated masterpiece among the director’s oeuvre, the lead actress Tuyara Svinoboeva perished in a car crash. Aleksei Poluian, the unforgettable monster of a police officer from Cargo 200, passed away. Death has stepped into the forefront of the narrative, part of the make-believe “cops and robbers” chase, no more. What could a director who has seen so many losses put against death?

So, he peers inside, into that “black pond” from the memories he shares with gangster Sania and is evidently unable to find himself, to identify, understand and accept his self with the same humanism and willingness to forgive that he applies to his characters. What else is there but the final collapse, face first, into the snow?

me tooThe film that opened with a parody of a shootout, that led us through St. Petersburg flying in the spring breeze like a moth-bitten backdrop, finally freezes in the frame of a snowy field strewn with mannequin-corpses. The enterprising locals, by the way, quickly stripped the mannequins of their fancy, department-store coats. The costume designer recalled: “Once we came to the warehouse and the best-looking corpse was gone. They’d pilfered the best coat! Next time, there was the corpse, but no clothes!” (Tarnavskaia 2012). And so, the on-screen gangsters were bested by real-life village hustlers.

In the end, the director delivers his characters to a fantasy, a dream, a utopia. Viktor Filimonov, discussing both Tarkovsky and Balabanov, noted: “’Utopia’—it’s a Neverland, a place that does not exist. A human being has no way of dealing with eternity other than to succumb to a utopian worldview. Not everyone has the guts—not even a person of high culture—to experience life in all its unique, life-affirming brevity within the matrix of eternity” (Khlebnikova 2011). As for Balabanov, the experience of the “unique life-affirming brevity” does not reward him with catharsis. He surrenders, accepting this world without “happiness” as an absolute, ultimate reality. He fails to find the path that he himself had laid out in his previous work.

me tooEven so, the director decided to break the fourth wall and share the fate of his characters. The viewer could find what has eluded the filmmaker in his fruitless quest for happiness: perhaps, the actual, not mystical, ruins of the abandoned provincial bell-tower? Or an out-of-time St. Petersburg, always “under construction,” with its granite piers, scruffy staircases, a dilapidated clinic and the eternal tram? Or perhaps the heroes by the bonfire, craving for warmth and understanding? The criminal and alcoholic Matvei is worlds away from the near-mute Bison (also Matveev) in The Stoker: his acceptance of the burden of an almost philosophical analysis of the predicament, and the decisive step that develops into a personal, individual choice: “What of the end of the world?! Papa is dead! Died and didn’t see the happiness...”

Aleksei Balabanov leads his characters to the proverbial temple, but the sanctuary is destroyed and they are rewarded not with rapture, but with teleportation: behold the green men in place of the Holy Spirit. Is the director himself doubtful? Or is the Road to the Temple still under construction? Does the quest continue? “What of the end of the world?!”...

During a recent Q&A session, Balabanov was asked the quintessential question: “What will happen to Russia?” The director was reluctant to accept the crown of thorns, and refused to answer. One has to remain hopeful for “[a] welcome day, for ages desired, only then will rejoice the vast heaven when the Earth that once swallowed swarms of generations, now guided and led by the heavenly love and knowledge of her sons, shall begin to return the consumed and to populate with them the celestial worlds, now soulless, looking upon us coldly and wistfully... nothing will be distant any more when in the aggregation of the worlds we will behold the aggregation of all generations past. Everything will be native, and not alien.” (Fedorov 2008: 690)

Images from Me Too courtesy of CTB Film Company; with special thanks to Oleg Belayev and Aleksandr Simonov.

Anna Nieman
Cheshire, CT


Works Cited

Bobrova, Natal’ia, “Moi fil’mi pro ubiistva ochen’ nraviatsia sviashennikam,” Interview with Aleksei Balabanov, Vecherniaia Moskva, 8 September 2012.

Condee, Nancy, The Imperial Trace. Recent Russian Cinema, New York: OUP, 2009.

Dostoevskii, Fedor, “Pushkinskaia rech’,” in PSS 26, Leningrad: Nauka, 1984.

Fedorov, Nikolai, Filosofiia obshchego dela. Vopros o bratstve...,vol. 1, Moscow: Eksmo, 2008.

Filimonov, Viktor, Andrei Tarkovskii. Sny i iav’ o dome, Moscow: Molodaia Gvardiia, 2011.

Khlebnikova, Veronika, “My vse siamskie bliznetsy. My obrecheny zhit’ odnim domom,”Interview with V. Filimonov, Odnako 12, 20 April 2011.

Kichin, Valerii, “Aleksei Balabanov predstavil novyi fil’m”, Rossiiskaia gazeta 7 September 2012.

Kuritsyn, Viacheslav, “Volny te” Iskusstvo Kino, 8 January 2013.

Margolit, Evgenii, “Plach po pioneru, ili Nemetskoe slovo ‘iablokitai’,” Iskusstvo Kino 2 (1998).

Poleva, Anastasiia, “Tanets na tsypochkakh,” in Balabanov, A.,Brat, Brat-2 i drugie fil’my, St Petersburg: Neformat, 2005, p.17.

Shavlovskii, Konstantin, “Menia besit vsia eta epopeia pro ‘poslednee kino’ Balabanova,” Interview with A. Simonov, Seance, 14 December 2012.

Solntseva, Alena “Aleksei Balabanov: Govoriat, chto schast’e gde-to est’, a kakoe ono, nikto ne znaet,” interview with A. Balabanov, Moskovskie novosti, 28 September 2012.

Stepanov, Vasilii, “Napravlenie k chudu,” Seance 21 September 2012

Strugatsky A. and B., Roadside Picnic, Chicago Review Press, 2012.

Sychev, Sergei, “Balabanov snimaet fil’m ‘Ia tozhe khochu’ v ekstremal’nykh usloviiakh’, FilmPro 22 March 2012.

Tarkovskaia, Marina (ed.), O Tarkovskom: Vospominaniya, vols 1-2. Moscow: Dedalus, 2002

Tarnavskaia, Mariia, “Kak snimali fil’m ‘Ya tozhe khochu’,” Afisha.ru, 26 July 2012.

Young, Neil, “Me Too (Ya tozhe hochu): Venice Review,” The Hollywood Reporter, 7 September 2012.

Video: “Aleksei Balabanov v Poriadke slov,” 11 February 2013,

Anna Nieman © 2013

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Updated: 13 Apr 13