Issue 43 (2014)
Aleksandr Veledinskii: The Geographer Drank His Globe Away (Geograf globus propil, 2013)
reviewed by Mark Lipovetsky and Tatiana Mikhailova © 2014
Aleksandr Veledinskii is known for his films Russian (Russkoe, 2004) and Alive (Zhivoi, 2006);he has also worked as one of scriptwriters for the famous TV mini-series The Brigade (Brigada, dir. Aleksei Sidorov, 2002). Yet his latest film, The Geographer Drank His Globe Away, has already superseded the success of his previous projects: this film not only won the Grand Prix at Kinotavr Open Russian Film Festival in 2013 (additional prizes included those for Best Actor and Best Music), but it also generated almost ecstatic reactions among viewers and the majority of critics. If viewers raved about the rehabilitation of the intelligentsia and the appearance of a “normal” and “humane” movie “about us,” critics called The Geographer the best film of the year and listed Konstantin Khabenskii’s performance as Viktor Sluzhkin among highest achievement of his career. After its release in November 2013, the film has accumulated $4 million at the box office (with an overall budget of $2.5 million), and half a million viewers watched it in Russian cinemas, which testifies to the fact that The Geographer really resonated with the educated public’s cultural expectations.
The film is based on Aleksei Ivanov’s eponymous novel of 1995 and is located (and the film was shot) in Perm, the city which in recent years has become the scene of a large-scale experiment in radical cultural innovation. However, only the slogan “Happiness isn’t behind the mountains” (an art object by Boris Matrosov), the job affiliation of one of the characters, and the album of contemporary art in Perm that Sluzhkin receives as a birthday gift, remind of Perm’s short-lived cultural renaissance. This is not strange: first, because the novel was written before these events, although the scriptwriters decided to situate the story in today’s Perm rather than in the 1990s; second, and more significantly, despite the positioning of Viktor Sluzhkin, a former biologist and currently teacher of geography in an ordinary high school, as a contemporary intelligent, his actual life interests are limited to alcohol, friends, family, and, of course, tourism, more specifically rafting along the dangerous rivers of the Urals. Cultural novelties or politics are equally non-existent for him. At the same time, despite his constant drinking and meager salary (in the beginning of the film he pretends to be deaf-mute in order not to pay the train fare), he remains a man who is attractive to many women, except for his wife Nadia (Elena Liadova), disheartened by the poverty of their life.
Sluzhkin’s “profile” reminded critics of films from late Soviet era, such as Roman Balaian’s Flights in Dreams and Reality (Polety vo sne i naiavu, 1982) and Vitalii Mel’nikov’s Vacation in September (Otpusk v sentiabre, 1979, released in 1987; based on Aleksandr Vampilov’s The Duck Hunt). Veledinskii directly refers to Balaian’s film through paraphrases of its most memorable scenes: Sluzhkin’s teetering on children’s swings as well as his “disappearance” from the balcony in the finale remind of Makarov’s (Oleg Iankovskii) swinging on the tarzanka (a primitive bungee jumping rope), ending with his fake death and disappearance. Another important point of reference for The Geographer is American Beauty: a repeated photo take of a sinking love letter obviously resonates with a flying plastic bag in Sam Mendes’s film. This reference is also quite meaningful since Sluzhkin’s story is also that of his love for a teenage girl, which ends similarly as in Sam Mendes American Beauty: (1999): Sluzhkin does not take the chance of having sex with his beautiful student Masha Bol’shakova (Anfisa Chernykh), although he apparently is in love with her and the girl eagerly offers herself to the teacher. These references set the context, in which the authors suggest to read their film.
However, in a seeming contradiction to this system of coordinates, Aleksei Ivanov insists on a parallel between Sluzhkin and Dostoevsky’s Prince Myshkin. Ivanov said in an interview:
…he [Sluzhkin] is ideal, but not in the sense of ‘the best’ or ‘flawless’. He lives according to an ideal. Sluzhkin as a culturological (sic!) type is the type of the harmonious man, which harkens back not to the ‘superficial men’ of Russian literature (Zilov from The Duck Hunt, Makarov from Flights in Dreams and Reality), but to Prince Myshkin. As a teacher, he is a complete failure. But he is a true human being, he teaches not through pedagogical techniques, but through his own existence in the given circumstances. He is confused neither in his relationships with women, nor in life in general. He clearly knows what is good and what is bad. He won’t be reaching his goal by walking on human heads, he won’t betray, and won’t be arrogant about his morals, because pride is a mortal sin. He is not an alcoholic, he drinks when he has to do something improper, perform a small everyday meanness, which would improve his life. When drinking, he replaces this meanness by misbehavior, without reproaching others by his righteousness (Kul’chitskii 2013).
Frankly, this interpretation raises more questions than answers. What is that ideal according to which Sluzhkin lives? In one of the film’s scenes he directly explains his position as that of a secular saint who doesn’t want to depend on anybody and doesn’t want anybody to depend on him, while preserving his love for everybody. However, in the film (as well as in the novel) this statement is ironically illustrated when it is immediately followed by cheerful sex with his former classmate Vetka (Anna Ukolova), who remains pleased by Sluzhkin’s sexual virility but stays even more amazed by his rejection of pleasure for himself. More seriously, this moral position can be seen in his non-objection to his wife’s affair with his best friend Budkin (Aleksandr Robak). Yet, as another character suggests, this might also be read as Sluzhkin’s demonstration of his “moral superiority” over both Nadia and Budkin, coupled, we might add, with his unwillingness to provide for the family. From a practical standpoint, Sluzhkin’s principle means that he feels liberated from any responsibilities before his wife and daughter and is eager to leave his wife to her devices when her needs place too much pressure onto his freedom. Well, if he is a saint, then he has managed to elevate cynicism to the state of sainthood. Definitely, this is a seminal achievement.
As for alcohol, Ivanov’s description best fits a scene in the movie when Sluzhkin drinks to oblivion and falls asleep in a bathtub instead of sleeping with his beautiful colleague Kira (Evgeniia Brik), seductively and cynically offering herself to him. In a similar way, Sluzhkin prefers drinking to sex when Vetka invites him to spend the night at her place after his birthday party; yet this sacrifice is somewhat devalued by their further sex in the scene described above.
Unlike Ivanov, Veledinskii offers a different genealogy for Sluzhkin: “We thought a lot about classical characters closest to our Sluzhkin. We recalled Oblomov, Prince Myshkin—“the idiot,” Shukshin’s “oddballs,” Vampilov’s characters, Balaian’s film… We decided that he has to be a jester (shut gorokhovyi), a holy fool who, through his misbehavior, exposes our sins. He is like a mirror reflecting our society—this is probably why those who watched the movie liked him so much” (Kichin 2013). This interpretation (also supported by Dmitrii Bykov) invites the concept of the trickster, which appears even more relevant for today’s cultural condition, if one recalls the case of Pussy Riot.
Yet the application of this approach to Sluzhkin is disappointing at best. Admittedly, everyone around him performs like a seasoned cynic: even the tender Sashen’ka (Evgeniia Kregdzhe), a kindergarten instructor spending all her time in the gym, instantly metamorphoses from a nymph into a merciless boss when speaking to her subordinate and thus displays the cynical multiplicity of personae. Even an unnamed schoolgirl articulates her first impression of the new geographer with the words “I’d blow him.” Sluzhkin perfectly fits into this milieu with his constant drinking, playing cards with students, and “teaching” a subject he knows nothing about, by dictations from a textbook. However, his eccentricities are so mild and non-memorable that they can hardly qualify as a trickster’s, thus making his supposed holy-foolishness non-distinguishable from the others’ cynicism. Drinking with his unruly student Gradusov and rapping afterwards an improvised song instead of leading the students in the very beginning of their river trip is probably the sole episode that might fit the trickster interpretation. This scene (except for the rap) comes from the novel, yet there it had a programmatic meaning which is lost in the film.
Ivanov’s Sluzhkin develops a particular pedagogical program best manifested during the river trip. He rejects his own authority as teacher and intentionally removes himself from the position of power—hence the drinking bout at the beginning of their journey, after which his students dethrone him. He wants to teach his students to act as free and, therefore, self-responsible persons, and while placing the entire responsibility for the trip and their survival onto the students, he tactfully helps his kids when they lack knowledge or practical skills. This strategy proves to be effective, leading to the novel’s climax when the students, without Sluzhkin, manage to cross the dangerous rapids. Dmitrii Bykov accurately described Sluzhkin’s method: “… this is a cruel but effective technique—just to place them [the students] into a situation when they have to decide. When they have one choice only: either to cross the rapids or to stay in the woods and die. He does not have to be a lonely hero anymore—now his students have to make a heroic effort” (Bykov 2013). Bykov unwillingly mixes up the novel’s and film’s representations of Sluzhkin. What he says befits Ivanov’s version of Sluzhkin, who prepared the students’ success by his honest yet not didactic communication with the “fathers” throughout the entire narrative. But this is not true about Veledinskii’s Sluzhkin, whose pedagogical program remains completely undetectable in the movie. Everything between Sluzhkin and his students happens by accident, and his communication with them is reduced to muted lectures and angry, yet banal, philippics. Even the students’ final success is prepared by his lecture (also muted) about this particular rapid and the ways to cross it—in other words, the cinematic Sluzhkin, unlike his literary counterpart, remains within a traditional teacher/student paradigm, thus obfuscating the central theme of the novel.
Tellingly, while endorsing the interpretation of Sluzhkin as a new secular saint, Ivanov did not participate in the work on the script, which was co-authored by Veledinskii, Rauf Kubaev, and Valerii Todorovskii (also one of the film’s producers). Probably the writer reinterpreted his novel (after all, it was written almost twenty years ago), but as those who have reread the book recently, we cannot help noticing some more significant differences between the interpretations of the protagonist in the film against that of the novel.
The novel represents Sluzhkin as a much more complex character than Veledinskii’s film. On the one hand, it does not hide his irresponsible infantilism. Being drunk, he breaks his leg while sliding down the snowy hill. He openly drinks with his favorite students, whom he calls “fathers”. His pedagogical methods include repeated beating of most annoying students—in the film we see only Sluzhkin’s very moderate (and justified!) violence against Gradusov (Andrei Prytkov) who has peed on the board wiper. His flirtation with Masha is not limited to a tender and restrained embrace, as in the movie, but it also includes sticking his hands under her jeans, grapping etc. Sluzhkin’s risky behavior during the river trip creates several dangerous situations for his students, including confrontations with drunken locals.
On the other hand, in the novel Sluzhkin is much deeper than in the film. Illuminatingly, in the novel he sparkles with quotations from his and others’ poetry, his speech is oversaturated with diverse cultural and historical references, while in the film he recites (ad nauseam) one and the same stanza from Pushkin’s Tale of a Sleeping Princess, which supposedly manifests his free spirit. In the novel, he is truly in love with the Urals’ history and nature (much like Ivanov himself)—unlike the cinematic Sluzhkin who does not even object to Masha’s reaction to his lecture about the Kama docks: “This is not interesting to you too…” In the novel, he vividly transforms the river trip into the students’ immersion into the depth of history, making with them a journey from forgotten ancient life of native tribes to the Gulag, while the film preserves only his banalities and a crude joke about the mammoth’s petrified excrements.
This complexity could have justified the representation of Sluzhkin as a “superfluous man,” who is too bright to fit into a new repressive social condition, beneficial for a more primitive creatures like Budkin, who plainly introduces himself as “corruptioner.” However, the film radically flattens the central character, leaving from the theme of the “superfluous man” only references to Balaian and Mendes. However, apparently these references operate in Veledinskii’s film as decorative replacements for the protagonist’s missing “depth.” In Inna Denisova’s words:
the principal difference between the character played by Khabenskii and Ivanov’s hero (as well as Iankovskii’s Makarov) is that the latter travels along a certain [intellectual] path. Ivanov describes his character’s internal journey in the second part of the book, when the teacher and the students take a river trip. During this trip, Sluzhkin performs immense internal work, making his way from the lack of love to true love. And this [filmic] protagonist amazes not only by the fact that he doesn’t develop, but also by the fact that the idea of the character’s internal development didn’t cross the minds of either director or scriptwriters (Denisova, Koretskii, and Ruzaev 2013).
In line with the protagonist’s flattening, other characters in the film are also deprived of any shadow of complexity. This is especially noticeable in the representation of Sluzhkin’s wife, Nadia. The novel depicts her as a woman exhausted not only by living with limited means and by the lack of perspective, but also by Sluzhkin’s constant drinking, womanizing, and general infantilism. Elena Liadova reduces this character to an angry bitch, nagging her husband for not having the money to buy a car, punishing him for this by sex deprivation and cheating on him with his best friend. Certainly, such a portrayal of Nadia makes Sluzhkin an obvious victim and grants him loads of viewers’ empathy. (Notably, in Ivanov’s novel, all other female characters, except Nadia, are reduced to mere stereotypes: nymphs, vixen, calculating users, etc.; in this respect, the film duly follows the original.) Similarly, if in the novel each student in Sluzhkin’s crew has an individual face and character, the film allows some individuality only to Masha and, well, Gradusov. The purpose of this simplification is the same as with Nadia: against an indistinguishable mass of aggressive teenagers, Sluzhkin can pose as Hamlet.
Naturally, the question arises why this film, with its persistent flattening of characters, is so successful with critics and educated viewers? In other words, why is the representation of the contemporary intelligent in The Geographer so comforting to contemporary Russian audiences? Anzhelika Artiukh in her review “Losers and Patriots” detects in Veledinskii’s film a bitter verdict for the entire generation of the Russian intelligentsia, the one to which Sluzhkin, Khabenskii, Veledinskii, or Ivanov belong: born in the 1960s, raised and educated in the late Soviet period, whose mature life falls into the post-Soviet years: “Veledinskii’s artistic and personal honesty lies in the following: through the protagonist of his ‘school movie’, he demonstratively explicates that his generation cannot teach anybody anything. […] The post-Soviet period with its shift from the cult of education to the cult of money signified an absolute failure of the Enlightenment project, for which the intelligentsia was responsible in Soviet society. The descendants of the intelligentsia either have degraded to Sluzhkins or became the petty bourgeois, completely forgetful about their social origins” (Artiukh 2013). Inna Denisova is more specific: she detects in Sluzhkin the reflection of a particular strata of the intelligentsia, namely the scientific-technological intelligentsia, avid readers of the Strugatsky brothers and passionate fans of the bard songs: “Much like many spectators, I first read Ivanov’s book, from which it becomes perfectly clear what milieu has formed the protagonist. He is a former scientist, who is left unemployed, because in the 1990s research institutions have closed. And he gives up. He loses his identification in the time of social troubles and cataclysms. In other words, we are observing his tragedy. In the movie, the action takes place in our days, which produces a disorienting effect—it appears that the protagonist gives up for no reason, because he is an egotist, an eternal child, an antihero, who does not give a damn about anybody. What is this film about, then?” (Denisova 2013).
Echoing Denisova, we should like to emphasize once again: all these important social contexts—the broad crisis of the intelligentsia and its scientific representatives—are excluded from The Geographer. Yet, we believe that their invisible presence in the audience’s perception serves as the main prerequisite for the film’s positive effect. By cutting off all links to these social contexts from the filmic representation (the only remaining trace is the film’s title), its creators tried to achieve a very clear goal: to depict the defeat of Sluzhkin and the entire strata of the intelligentsia behind him as a victory; hence, his name—Viktor. This is why Sluzhkin is eventually elevated to the status of someone who does not betray himself, being a “true human being” (in Ivanov’s words): a new Prince Myshkin and a holy fool, although, as mentioned above, it remains ultimately unclear what values and, most importantly, what actions his “victory” entails.
In this respect, the difference between the novel and the film is quite telling. The novel, written in the 1990s, was still hopeful—in a nutshell, its message was: yes, we, the intelligentsia, are economically and socially marginalized, but we manifest freedom and can teach the next generation to be free. The film depicting today’s Sluzhkin is truly hopeless, despite its seemingly positive atmosphere and despite its creators’ intentions. It is hopeless, because Sluzhkin’s freedom appears indistinguishable from his peers’ cynicism; because the film, instead of analyzing the intelligentsia’s failure to fulfill its mission as well as the mission itself, suggests to admire the protagonist for what he is. Instead of questioning, it substitutes a non-entity for an idealist.
Basically Khabenskii in his performance of Sluzhkin faces one main task: to make this static non-entity loveable. The actor unfortunately succeeds, and his Sluzhkin oozes with charm. No wonder that many viewers claimed that they recognized themselves in Sluzhkin: this character’s delightful vagueness and shapelessness literally invites to project your own insecurities onto him. Certainly, such a representation is flattering for the intelligentsia; it offers a comforting indulgence for being what they are, without problematizing their social and cultural functions.
This flattery also befuddles the flatness of the filmic representation of the intelligentsia. In this respect, The Geographer is a truly historical film, as it has tangibly and vividly embodied the gloomiest symptom of the post-Soviet intelligentsia’s defeat: the state of denial.
Mark Lipovetsky and Tatiana Mikhailova
University of Colorado at Boulder
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Anzhelika Artiukh, “Luzery i patrioty (esse o sovremennom rossiiskom kino)”, Arterritory, 19 November 2013.
Dmitrii Bykov, “Proiti porog,” Moskovskie novosti, 1 November 2013.
Inna Denisova, Vasilii Koretskii, and Denis Ruzaev, “Pochemu ia ne Sluzhkin,” Colta.ru, 8 November 2013.
Inna Denisova, “Konstantin Khabenskii: ‘Roman—muzhskoi? Ponimaete?” Colta.ru 7 November 2013
Valerii Kichin, “Aleksandr Veledinskii: Bez liubvi pravd—lozh’,” Rossiiskaia gazeta, 5 November 2013.
Bogdan Kul’chitskii, “Aleksei Ivanov: “’Ekaterinburg—paradoksal’nyi splav idealizma i ambitsii’,” 66.ru, 24 November 2013.
The Geographer Drank His Globe Away, Russia, 2013
Color, 120 minutes
Director: Aleksandr Veledinskii
Screenplay: Aleksandr Veledinskii, with the participation of Rauf Kubaev and Valerii Todorovskii, (based on Aleksei Ivanov’s eponymous novel)
Director of Photography: Vladimir Bashta
Production Design: Vladimir Gudilin and Sergei Gudilin
Music: Aleksei Zubarev
Cast: Konstantin Khabenskii, Elena Liadova, Aleksandr Robak, Anfisa Chernykh, Il'ia Il’inykh, Andrei Prytkov
Producers: Vadim Goriainov, Valerii Todorovskii, Leonid Lebedev
Marmot-film (production) and Krasnaia Strela (distribution), commissioned by the “Rossiia 1” TV channel, with the support of the Federal Film Fund
Aleksandr Veledinskii: The Geographer Drank His Globe Away (Geograf globus propil, 2013)
reviewed by Mark Lipovetsky and Tatiana Mikhailova © 2014