Issue 43 (2014)

Viktor Tikhomirov: Chapaev-Chapaev (2013)

reviewed by Lilya Nemchenko© 2014

From a national film to esoteric cinema

Chapaev-Chapaev is the full-length debut of the artist, writer, director, and participant of the legendary Petersburg art-group “Mit’ki”, Viktor Tikhomirov. Some background knowledge of the author’s biography matters in this case: a mityok is a person who longs for genuine simplicity and professes values of romanticism, the most important being freedom. If it is impossible to find freedom in society, then the “Mit’ki” are prepared to search for it in a playful manner, through improvisation and friendly dialogue. So, in one of the episodes of Chapaev-Chapaev, the founder of the “Mit’ki”, Vladimir Shinkarev, appears; together with Tikhomirov he plays the role of a passer-by as they come out of a cinema and walk along an avenue.

chapaev bookThe artist Tikhomirov has much helped the director Tikhomirov: the primitive stylistics (Chkalov’s portrait, posters and writings on the walls) correspond to the naivety of the old Chapaev by the Vasiliev Brothers (1934), as he reveals a perfectly sense of color and generously fills the space of the frame with his paintings.

The literary past is also presented in film. Tikhomirov—not the author of the book Chapaev-Chapaev and of the film script, but the director—invents inscriptions stylized in the manner of a young schoolboy or an illiterate Chapaev-the-fighter, explaining—like intertitles—the course of the action and the meaning of events.

On the one hand, the author of the film Chapaev-Chapaev continues the tradition of the deconstruction of Soviet cult films begun in the 90s by Gleb and Igor’ Oleinikov in Tractor Drivers 2 (Traktoristy 2), or by Andrei Silvestrov and Pavel Lobazov’s Volga-Volga; on the other hand, he presents an essentially new way of constructing an artistic text: it is not a remake, not a pastiche and not a parody. Chapaev-Chapaev above all reminds us of a hypertext with nonlinear narration, with free, often unpredictable transitions from one subject line to another, with obvious and hidden citations, etc. The film weaves together genres of the production film (proizvodstvennyi fil’m)—the process of shooting the new Chapaev in the 60s; the detective film—the history of the police sergeant Pavel Perts who exposes a group of counterfeiters; the formula of the adventure film—the girl wearing Petka’s clothes; as well as the educational film—in the collisions of the tutor and the children in the pioneer camp. It is noteworthy that title Chapaev-Chapaev does not contain the sequel number “2,” but instead repeats the original title. Yuri Lotman once noted that repetition in an artistic text plays an important role in forming meaning, when confirmation simultaneously suggests a question. The repetition of the name gives the film an important melodic intonation. The word and the name “Chapaev” are like a refrain in a song, which appears at various times: from the 1920s to the 1960s. The clever and masterful musician and composer Viacheslav Gaivoronskii, by virtue of his jazz past and present, immerses us in a polyphonic space of familiar themes, from the Cossack song “The Black Raven” to the song “Gray-Eyed” from the film Fire in the Mountains (Ogonek v gorakh, dir. Boris Dolinov, 1958), to the voice of Muslim Magomaev with his rock’n’roll tunes, whilst creating his own music that expresses melodramatic languor, dramatic impulse, and Dionysian passion. The repetition in the title is a Shamanic spell of the name, one behind which stands the epoch of the Grand Style in the most important art of the cinema, the grandiose construction, Chkalov’s flight, the discovery of the North by courageous polar explorers, the use of achievements in the field of chemistry for a peaceful Soviet life.

chapaev-chapaevWorking with cultural myths about Chapaev, about Soviet heroism of the everyday and the role of art in the construction of the bright future, Tikhomirov uses all the mechanisms for the creation of a mythological text. First, he rejects the impenetrable border between living and lifeless: the bullet received in the forehead by the new Chapaev (Ivan Okhlobystin) from the killer and abstract artist (played by Aleksandr Bashirov: a bow to Balabanov’s style), only for a short time knocks the hero out of his well-known cloak: within seconds he stands again, ready to give orders. The fighter Vasil’ev, split into half by Chapaev, not only survives, but also transforms into the legendary directors of the Vasil’ev brothers, the source of Tikhomirov’s fantasies. The piglets from the poem by Lev Kvitko “Anna-vanna, nash otriad / khochet videt’ porosiat” [Anna, our detachment wants to see piglets] appear on the festive table of Raisa Shtorm, but at the end of the party they come to life again. Secondly, the entire film, like an archaic myth, is immersed in eroticism: An’ka loves Pet’ka; Pet’ka loves Vasilii Ivanovich; the pioneer Stepantsova loves the pioneer leader Pavel (Sergei Peregudov); Pavel loves Sonia; Sonia and the polar explorer’s daughter (she is also the counterfeiter Raisa Shtorm) love Semen Semenovich Voron, the actor playing the role of Chapaev (Ivan Okhlobystin); the polar explorer Polikarp (Mikhail Shats) loves the pole: “tomorrow I’ll be gone again to the pole, to the lads,” he pensively informs his folks; and out of love for singing, the police chief keeps as prisoner a man whose voice reminds him of Chaliapin. One of the main monologues of Commissar Klochkov is devoted to gender issues: “don’t kill the girls, or we’ll perish”, the hero shouts; therefore the girls have no right to refuse anybody. Thirdly, Tikhomirov fulfils the dream of all children and adults who have grown up with Chapaev by the Vasil’ev Brothers, about the revival of the hero: Chapaev-Okhlobystin does not perish. Fourth, the filmmaker does not try to take a position outside his work: he is constantly inside the myth that he creates, i.e. he is directly in the frame. He is the director on the set, a rock-and-roll-dancing passer-by, a spectator in the cinema where Chapaev of 1934 is shown, and a guest at Raisa Shtorm’s supper. The majority of the film’s protagonists “tries on” several roles, as if trying on a costume. Thus, Semen Semenovich Voron is an actor, he is Chapaev, he is an erotomaniac, a narcissus, a demagogue and a coward. Raisa Shtorm is a scientist and chemist, a counterfeiter; her uncle is a killer, an artist, an engraver; Pal Palych is a pioneer leader and a policeman. The time in the film is also designed according to the law of myth: it is reversible and non-linear, and the montage allows the transition from the 1920s to the 1960s and back.  

chapaev-chapaevA special role in the film is played by chemistry. Incidentally, it was once part of good tone to subscribe to the journal Chemistry and Life, because here you could read the brothers Strugatsky, as well as Boris Stern and Victor Pelevin. The schoolgirl Raisa (Raia) adores chemistry, and the chemistry teacher feels an unambiguous love for Raisa. Chemistry here acts as a Soviet mythologeme: science transforms the fairy tale into reality, destroying the secrets of the universe; not without purpose does the polar explorer Polikarp confirm at the festive table that “there is no god, only chemistry”. The Soviet slogan “Chemistry in Life” is taken literally and knowledge of the laws of electrotypes leads to a temporal elevation of the polar explorer’s daughter, Raisa. Her genuine love for chemistry is preserved on the false (counterfeited) coins in the form of Mendeleev’s portrait.

chapaev-chapaevAnother mythologized figure is the police sergeant: he is at the same time the tutor Pal Palych, who sings the hit of the 1980s to Nikolai Rubtsov’s lyrics “I’ll go on a long ride with a bike” (Ia budu dolgo gnat’ velosiped). The favorite of the pioneer girls and the enemy of the hooligans, the defender of the student Makarevich and a fine shooter, the enamored Romeo and highly professional detective, Sergei Peregudov’s character comes across on screen like a policeman from [Dmitrii] Prigov, a triumph of justice and order.

Tikhomirov’s film is a densely populated space in which coexist, argue, and live not only characters, but also (direct and mediated) citations from other films. Thus, the scenes in the pioneer camp refer to Elem Klimov’s Welcome, or No Trespassing (Dobro pozhalovat’, ili postoronnym vkhod vospreshchen, 1964); the White officer playing the piano pronounces a monologue about grubbiness from Nikita Mikhalkov’s Unfinished Piece for a Mechanical Piano (Neokonchennaia p’esa dlia mekhanicherskogo pianino, 1977); the expressionist artist Bashirov dancing by a canvas echoes Jackson Pollock in the film Pollock (2000); the tank seems to have moved straight from the children’s film Attention, a Turtle! (Vnimanie, cherepakha, dir. Rolan Bykov, 1969) and Timur and His Command (Timur i ego kommanda, 1976); and there is the well-known trio of the Experienced, the Coward and the Dumb Ass, and many other things. They all organically enter the space of a film that is about filming and about cinematic rushes; the relationship of the heroes and episodes is caused by the history of cinema itself, which Tikhomirov knows only too well.

chapaev-chapaevThe character of Chapaev created by the Vasil’ev Brothers and by Boris Babochkin is for Tikhomirov not simply a fact of cinematic history, but a reference point where cinema and life exist according to the same laws: comic, tragic, and heroic. Babochkin’s hero perishes, having achieved unity and a belief in the “Internationale.” Okhlobystin’s Chapaev is only emptiness. The brutal, (maybe in the myth) optimistic Chapaev by Babochkin is replaced with a Okhlobystin’s character, who multiplies himself in serials and glamour, a “man without qualities”. In this sense (the stress here is on the simulation of the heroic) the choice of the actor is flawless: Okhlobystin’s Chapaev is a trickster, who possesses all the attributes defined by Mark Lipovetsky (2009) in his article: ambivalence, liminality, artistic gesture and a link to the sacral. Moreover, in Tikhomirov’s film, Commissar Klochkov (unlike in the 1934 film where the commissar is a demiurge) is also a trickster: an odd fellow, who has taken off with the captive on an airplane to check whether there is a god in the skies. Thus, the director informs us that the time of heroic mythology is over, as is the time of national cinema, because there is no uniform nation and there will never be an article in Pravda entitled “The whole country is watching Chapaev” (Margolit 2012: 157).

Tikhomirov leaves the past behind while laughing. The country is no longer (true, that’s already been the case for over two decades, therefore during the viewing of the film I could not help feeling as if this were some overdue statement), and the heroes have been reborn. The circle of those who watched the original Chapaev has become narrow, and the circle of those who are able to catch and enjoy the quotations is also quite close.

Translated by Birgit Beumers

Lilya Nemchenko

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Works Cited

Lipovetskii, Mark (2009), “Trikster i ‘zakrytoe obshchestvo,” Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie 100,

Margolit, Evgenii (2012), Zhivye i mertvoe, Sankt Peterburg

Chapaev-Chapaev, Russia, 2013
110 minutes
Director and Scriptwriter: Viktor Tikhomirov
DoP: Sergei Iurizditskii
Composer: Sergei Starostin
Cast: Ivan Okhlobystin, Aleksandr Bashirov, Mikhail Shats, Taras Bibich, Sergei Peregudov, Ol’ga Tolstetskaia, Vladimir Shinkarev, Viktor Tikhomirov,
Producer: Viacheslav Tel’nov

Viktor Tikhomirov: Chapaev-Chapaev (2013)

reviewed by Lilya Nemchenko© 2014