Issue 46 (2014)
Mikhail Segal: A Film about Alekseev (Kino pro Alekseeva, 2014)
reviewed by Daria Shembel© 2014
“Don’t you have a novel?” asks an editor, obviously disappointed in a manuscript, of its author. In Mikhail Segal’s Short Stories (Rasskazy, 2012), this manuscript provides the structure of the film, a collection of short vignettes on a series of themes. However, in A Film about Alekseev Segal attempts the complexity of a novel, testing the waters of multi-voicedness and meta-narrative that throw off the grand story. The film ends with a twist that the audience may or may not expect: in the last five minutes, we realize we have been watching at least two films about Alekseev, and one of them was created by the film’s protagonist. Along the way, though, many things don’t add up.
In the opening sequence of the film, a wretched elderly man appears in a news report after falling into a pothole in the small village where he lives. He says on camera that this happens to people all the time because local authorities care about the proper maintenance of the roads to their own homes only. Shortly after, the protagonist, Nikolai Alekseev (Aleksandr Zbruev) receives a telegram from a Moscow radio station with an invitation to appear in a live broadcast of one of their programs. He collects all his savings, excavates his musical notes, borrows a guitar from a former neighbor, and sets off for Moscow. At the studio, he is greeted by a female radio host in her 60s with a very pleasant and professional manner.
During the interview, we learn that Alekseev was once a celebrated bard whose continuing influence on the auteur song (avtorskaia pesnia) genre is recognized by the most prominent Russian musicians and poets (e.g. Bulat Okudzhava and Joseph Brodsky) and has inspired fans everywhere, including outer space. He is presented as not just a celebrity, but an institution, a cultural icon whose music spans over generations. The artist himself seems quite surprised by his status, but with an affect one might interpret as modesty.
From the Moscow studio, Segal flashes back to Alekseev’s youth, relating his private life to the public events in the USSR in the 1960s and 70s. We see Alekseev chasing skirts, meeting his wife, and giving concerts in half-empty halls and music festivals of the KSP (Klub samodeiatel’noi pesni / Club of Amateur Song). There is also a subplot about Alekseev’s work as an engineer at a military factory that produces arms which compete with the Kalashnikov rifle.
Through these flashbacks, a completely different picture of the artist emerges: a womanizer, a KGB informer, a plagiarizer, and a spouter of platitudes like vkusnaia shtuka eda (food is a tasty thing). His womanizing runs the gamut, from making the same cartoonish pass repeatedly to almost raping a young journalist who has loved him since she was a young girl. One can’t help but question whether such a person is capable of any creativity, much less poetry and songs which might come to the attention of Brodsky or Okudzhava.
And this leads to the revelation: Alekseev indeed did not create any masterpieces and his alleged fame is a fake. He was not asked to appear for a live broadcast, he was not praised by Brodsky, and he did not inspire cosmonauts or geologists. His “interviewer” is the girl who has been in love with him all her life. After recognizing Alekseev in the news report, she has staged an ersatz retrospective of his life and influence. Her elaborate misrepresentation includes enlisting friends and stars to praise Alekseev’s songs, fabricating videos with devoted fans from all corners of the universe, and even producing a fake record album of the singer’s selected works.
Throughout the film, the young Alekseev obsessively repeats Tarkovsky’s definition of love that he overheard and plagiarized: love means to give a person what he or she needs. The film is replete with scenes of performing of Alekseev’s music—by him and his “fans.” Those performances are partly therapeutic and are meant to hide his pain and dissatisfaction with life. The woman in love certainly gives Alekseev what he needs: emotional redemption and renewal. The movie ends with a shot of Alexeev elated and at peace as he returns home.
In interviews about the film, Segal emphasized that it is first and foremost about Alekseev. However, the film is not a cohesive or nuanced psychological portrait of an artist. The film clearly succeeds, though, in mocking the state-sponsored Soviet nostalgia characteristic of the Putin era which has become the cornerstone of the Russian identity. While doing this, Segal has a very specific target in mind.
At the heart of the Soviet myth of a happy socialist society—today exploited in nostalgia-driven Russian televisual content—lies the life of the Soviet middle class and particularly the technical intelligentsia. This encompasses a broad array of occupations—teachers, engineers, scientists—and could be distinguished from literary intellectuals (gumanitarnaia intelligentsia), who were considered dangerous to the state ideology due to their critical and emancipatory political views.
The state depended on the capabilities of the technical intelligentsia and supported their leisure institutions, where people were actively engaged in social activities, such as KVN (Klub veselykh i nakhodchivykh / Club of the Jolly and Quick-witted) or the KSP. These intellectuals were subject and audience of most of Soviet cinema, including the works of the celebrated satirist El’dar Riazanov. It appears Segal targeted not only the technical intelligentsia but in particular one of their central symbols, the aforementioned KSP; in fact, the original title of the movie was KSP.
The avtorskaia pesnia (author’s song), also known as the bard song or guitar poetry, and the KSP arose at the same time in the USSR as an alternative to both official and censored musical genres in the 1960s and 70s. The avtorskaia pesnia was a passion of many among the technical intelligentsia despite being scoffed at for its uneven poetry and bad guitar playing by literary intelligentsia. Despite the socially critical undertones of the bards’ texts, the songs almost always stayed within the bounds of what censors would allow. The genre thus presented a comfortable combination of conformity and bravery. For those who organized and attended KSP festivals, the movement became cult-like, calling itself “the state of KSP.” Campfire singing was for the KSP a form of “inner immigration,” an escape from official ideology, and a way to say: it is okay that we can not travel abroad, but we can camp in the mountains, socialize, and sing about anything we want. However, the movement was never socially and politically active in a dissident way.
With A Film about Alekseev, Segal thrusts a knife at both the technical intelligentsia and the KSP for their conformity and quasi-intellectual efforts. His technical intelligentsia is plain and plagiarizing people who can generate nothing of substance of their own. Segal mocks them for classifying many high culture phenomena as takoi intellektual’nyi (“it is so intellectual”) without any indication that they knew the meaning of their own words, and their speech is replete with clichés such as glotok svezhego vozdukha (“a breath of fresh air”). He suggests also that there was nothing sincere or liberating in the avtorskaia pesnia. The activists were all conformists, even to the point of informing on each other; Alekseev is a KGB informer. And Segal cleverly casts Aleksandr Zbruev, famous for playing archetypal Soviet heroes, to make his point about nostalgia even stronger.
In opposition to the lоw culture of the KSP, which he depicts as a false symbol of the epoch, Segal refers to true intellectual benchmarks of the 1960s: Aleksandr Volodin’s Five Evenings (Piat’ vecherov) and Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev, and denies his characters the ability to comment on them or understand that Tarkovsky would be unlikely to want contemporary music in a 14th-century period piece.
Segal’s Short Stories won multiple awards and became a successful film among Russian intelligentsia, and rightfully so. In Short Stories, the director plays masterfully with iconic stereotypes well-known in Russian high and low culture: city governors, police, librarians, and other local authorities. His social satire is based on and refers to Russian classical literature by Saltykov-Shchedrin and Gogol, among others. The story could be compared to Gogol’s Dead Souls, the travelogue of a rogue storyteller who encounters a gallery of familiar Russian types. A Film about Alekseev is a much more ambitious project for Segal. Rather than base it on images or characters developed elsewhere, he attempts to create characters with psychological depth and a past, present, and future. He is interested not in short vignettes but in a complex novelistic discourse, multilayered and polyphonic. And he succeeds in many of those efforts. The film features clever and funny auteur meta-moments. For example, the characters from Short Stories who fell apart because they had nothing to talk about appear together in A Film about Alekseev; clearly “they” resolved that issue. Alekseev is not a one-dimensional character, but is presented in three guises: a charming and meek old man; a womanizer and informer; and at the KSP festival a “hero” who fearlessly performs a song with anti-military content.
However, Segal’s exposé of his protagonist is an unconvincing disservice to the movie, transforming it into the story of a psychologically unstable woman with resources of unclear origin. Alekseev is suddenly talentless and his work pointless, while his arrival in the pothole becomes more than an excuse to place him on television but a way to depict him na dne (“at his lower depth”), perhaps a winking reference to Gorky. Not only has Alekseev’s life been wasted, putting him in need of an artificial one, but the technical intelligentsia as a whole are conformists, while their central symbol, the KSP, is a sad farce.
I question why the director targeted the intelligentsia. Russia’s woes today are hardly to be blamed on the intelligentsia, and they themselves are sufficiently self-regarding to have already analyzed and understood their sin of conformity. It is as if he has adopted the rhetoric of the state in mocking liberals and the intelligentsia, calling them hamsters and creacls (“creative class” with a sneer). In interviews he repeatedly insists he lacks nostalgia and sentimentality for the USSR, but if he wants to expose problems in contemporary Russian society, why not target those in power, as he did so effectively in Short Stories? Otherwise, it’s the KSP all over again, a mixture of bravery and conformity, only now on the director’s part.
San Diego State University
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A Film about Alekseev, Russia, 2014
Color, 95 minutes
Director: Mikhail Segal
Screenplay: Mikhail Segal
Cinematography: Eduard Moshkovich
Production Design: Vasilii Raspopov, Leonid Kipnis
Music: Mikhail Segal
Cast: Aleksandr Zbruev, Aleksei Kapitonov, Tatiana Maist, Kseniia Radchenko, Denis Fomin
Producers: Natalia Mokritskaia
Production: Novye liudi
Mikhail Segal: A Film about Alekseev (Kino pro Alekseeva, 2014)
reviewed by Daria Shembel© 2014