Issue 48 (2015)

Mikhail Segal: A Film about Alekseev (Kino pro Alekseeva, 2014)

reviewed by Lilya Nemchenko© 2015

The Biographical Method, or “I Feel Well”!


Everybody has a few unrealized biographies,
a number of accidentally unrealized fates.

Daniil Granin

“How are you feeling?”—a TV reporter asks an old man recovering from an accident on the roadside. “I’m well,”—is the answer of Aleksandr Zbruev, who plays the role of a tired, old man, rejected by modern life, who knows about nirvana not in relation to Kurt Cobain, but in general. Yet the routine question of a secretary about coffee preferences (espresso, cappuccino, americano) nonpluses him.

alekseev“I feel well,” were the first words from Iurii Gagarin as he circled earth, and that played a dramatic role in the life of Nikolai Alekseev, the main character in the new film by Mikhail Segal. This drama, just as in Aristotle, arises from the tension between the epic and the lyrical. The director, who is also the screenwriter, professionally united the great time of the late Thaw and the beginning of the Stagnation, with the personal time of an average Soviet engineer. The story turned out to be accurate in its details, although not always psychologically true, but absolutely cinematographic, which the title of the film highlights: A Film about Alekseev. Only in cinema unexpected interviews with astronauts, accidental meetings with the popular singer Andrei Makarevich, flashbacks, journeys in the memory and other aberrations of consciousness are possible. Yet what follows from Segal’s film is also the presupposition that the imagination is as real as empirical experience, and man himself is what he thought up about himself, while his own memories do not guarantee truth.

alekseevSegal accurately and sagaciously chose his actors for the old and the young Alekseev: Aleksandr Zbruev and Aleksei Kapitonov. Zbruev knows his character perfectly both in his old and young days, and works accurately in the given circumstances, investigating a character who has experienced a lot of fear, who has known success and defeat. We all remember Zbruev’s radiant gaze and his openness, although here it is directed more towards his inner Self than at others. Yet the relation to his Self is distanced, as is the director’s attitude. His younger opposite, Aleksei Kapitonov, is at one with his character: there is both the open gaze, the soft speech, and the right smile; he is a prince with a guitar (Kapitonov played the Prince in the musical Cinderella, dir. Robert Manukian), with extraordinary empathy, loved by all the girls. Another aspect of Segal’s accuracy lies in his ability to construct the atmosphere through the set, when the pattern of the wallpaper, a mezzanine level for storage, the shape of the collars on the shirts, the designs of jumpers and the jumpers themselves, the ties, the cuts of dresses, the table sets and the dishes, the hairdryers in the salons—when all these objects bring to life the everyday of two decades of the last century. The film’s chronotope is non-linear (shifting in turn from 2013 to the 1960s and 1970s). The character himself is stylized, but it is peculiar that—when the old Alekseev (Zbruev), who has been living in the past already for a long time, is looking for some documents before his departure to Moscow—the camera captures a box of red-leather rind, a woman’s photograph and a wrist-watch. Several times the director makes precise references to the time: 1961 (Gagarin’s flight), 1967 (“Strings ‘67” festival), 1978 (18th Congress of the Komsomol [Vsesoiuznyi leninskii kommunisticheskii soiuz molodezhi, VLKSM]), 1980 (Amateur Song Club festival [KSP, Klub samodeiatelnoi pesni]). The 1970s are marked by the potato harvest, a memorable event for all coevals of the protagonist, mid the 1960s by the set for Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev and an episode of a play by Aleksandr Volodin in an imagined Sovremennik Theatre with the voices of Oleg Efremov and Oleg Tabakov. The time is given directly when the protagonist either tries to do something unusual, or meets talented people. Against the background of such meetings, Alekseev looks like a “man without qualities,” who appropriates other people’s words and thoughts, imitating activity. Imitation (of creativity, activity, sincerity) is one of the characteristic traits of Soviet life during the stagnation, and the Amateur Song Club KSP (with rare exceptions) belongs to the same category of imitation. The hobby that Segal chose for his protagonist—to be a bard—is very productive in explaining the “Soviet” as a strategy of willful collective invention of meaning where it never existed.

alekseevSegal’s new film only at first sight differs from his previous grotesque and funny Short Stories (Rasskazy, 2012), until Konstantin Iushkevich appears, who plays the episodic role of a studio director. But it is not only about Yushkevich, who seems to be running from the earlier film into the new one, just as the protagonist of Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985). His nocturnal appearance at the studio with another flame reminds us that this is cinema, i.e. fiction, fantasy, assumptions, withheld words, mysteries, unforeseen endings and unpredictable culminations. While offering plausible circumstances, Segal does not worry much about typization: his characters are realistic and recognizable, but this is not social realism, rather fantastical realism, which assumes and allows a great amount of assumptions and variety of circumstances.

alekseevLet’s begin with the circumstances. The first flight of man into space in April 1961 coincided with the love of a student at Tula Polytechnic Institute for a girl named Ol’ga. Pride for the country and anxiety before the first date lead Nikolai (Kolia) to drink. The tipsy student, who takes a rose to the rendez-vous (just as well brought-up boys should do), is turned away by Olia’s righteous friends. Then, in the early 1960s, Kolia was still able to perform great deeds: he keeps calling Olia from the street beneath her window. His shouting was affectionate and sincere, full of happiness; the feeling of love was transmitted physically. The music of the messages of the first astronaut sounded appropriate: “First stage off! … feeling well!” These words were coming through the window of the dormitory room where Olia was sitting and listening to the formal talk of a friend about the historical significance of the moment. Alekseev’s voice was still audible after the window had been closed, and it sounded as a counterpoint to the words of an annoying guy in a tie who composed the lines: “He may not be handsome/ With sweat on the forehead, / But even in a thousand years/ Gagarin’s name will be remembered.” The director allows Nikolai to repeat three times the words of feeling well, but the last time we only hear “feeling,”, and at the moment of “well” we see some operatives dragging Alekseev into a car. There follows a typewriter in an office, Lenin’s and Dzerzhinsky’s piercing eyes staring from portraits, and the voice of an investigator giving a workshop in logic: “In a drunk condition, derisively shouted the words of the first astronaut,” followed by a syllogism that concludes that goes like this: since the astronaut was sent into space by the Party, that means Alekseev jeered at the Party, and this is an anti-Soviet activity under article such-and-such. After the number of the article is pronounced, the camera turns to Alekseev: an already sober young man, with an open, clear, unblinking gaze, not even scared, but trying to understand what is going on. The absurdity of the situation requires a different logic of understanding, a logic of chance; and this chance comes up. Alekseev is not asked about anything, and instead charged with monstrous accusations; suddenly the investigator asks him to sing (at this department they are well informed about everyone’s hobbies and interests), and the young man who is still trying to understand starts singing: “The evening settles over the town,” and suddenly “his song is sung,” the sentence is changed into collaboration with the department. Not that Alekseev had a choice and he accepted; all decisions in this room are taken by others, within a moment and without comments.

alekseevThe second time this investigator’s face, alongside with countless other typical faces from the same department with the typewriters, copying paper and portraits appear on screen at the end of Alekseev’s singing career in 1980. The energy of vexation—not being on the list for a separate tent, rejection by a girl—take him to the KSP festival stage, where he sings a song that nobody expected: neither the participants of the bard movement which, by the 1980s, was already in decline, nor the film’s spectators who, until now, have seen the protagonist mainly as a graphomaniac-supergrass. The enormous field of the festival, filled with young people in jackets and pullovers, with guitars and tape recorders, comes alive; aerials reach out into the sky (a wonderful job of the cinematographer Eduard Moshkovich) at the words “Hello mom, I’m a deserter! I came back not on a shield, but with shame. Done with the battle, fought for peace, intimidated by the world, stigmatized by the sentence” (song by Filipp Shiianovskii). We can only guess what kind of consequences this song brought for the festival organizers: a song that did not fit in the poetics of Oleg Mitiaev’s “How wonderful that we’re gathered together today,” or how Alekseev’s life unfolded. We only know that Afghanistan had already started, the underground almanac Metropol had been published, Vladimir Vysotskii had died, and the Soviet Union would not last long…

alekseevA girl who was in love with Alekseev heard the “Deserter” song in 1980. She had fallen in love with him much earlier, as a teenager, listening to conversations in the intellectual company of her parents, where a bearded young man talked eloquently about love. She accidentally saw an old man on TV and recognized in him her old love, remembering his definition of love: “Love is to understand what a person needs at a certain moment and to give that to him or her.” She creates his biography anew and fills it with all kinds of signs of honor: the love of astronauts, alpinists, emigrants, and youth. Like a kind fairy, she will give his past form and meaning. This happens only in a fairy-tale, and Segal told us such a tale. A Film about Alekseev is about anyone born in the 1940s, educated in the 1960s, and broken by the military service in the 1970s. Following the director’s will, Alekseev recalls his biography, from which it emerges that the words about love which he repeated so often were actually taken from Tarkovsky, and that his acts were often fraud; that his life consisted of constant repetitions: a kiss, hairdresser, train. He has neither a guitar of his own nor genuine memories; the social order has changed, and only old Tajiks can speak Russian (an episode at his former apartment where a Tajik family now lives is extraordinary in its truthfulness). But in this line of events, non-invented circumstances, and everyday routine there is one song, one deed, and one meeting on the radio. And then again the train, carrying Alekseev, who now smiles for the first time in the film—a smile typical of Zbruev in his early films. He is going with someone else’s guitar with a Nirvana sticker; he was in nirvana, not the one of Kurt Cobain, but in a state of harmony and peace, feeling well again. This condition is carried over to the viewers: a condition when you don’t want to divide people into good and bad, to condemn or judge, to protect or assess. A Film about Alekseev is this condition.

Translation by Ksenia Fedorova, edited by Birgit Beumers

Lilya Nemchenko

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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, Tat’iana Maist, Kseniia Radchenko, Denis Fomin
Producers: Natal’ia Mokritskaia
Production: Novye liudi

Mikhail Segal: A Film about Alekseev (Kino pro Alekseeva, 2014)

reviewed by Lilya Nemchenko© 2015