Issue 50 (2015)

Mikhail Mestetskii: Rag Union (Triapichnyi soiuz, 2015)

reviewed by Lilya Nemchenko© 2015

Rag Union, or the children’s illness of leftism

tryapichny soyuzMikhail Mestetskii’s tragicomedy is a journey along the “waves of memory” of the protagonist Ivan, the director’s alter ego. The journey is defined by two traumas: the trauma of birth, parting with the mother’s womb; and the trauma of a genuinely broken head, the end of a spiritual and physical experiment, an original (if somewhat overdue) initiation. The film is about what happened in-between those traumas: the 1990s, which “will never return”, to speak with the lyrics of a song by the rock group Shklovskii. That improbable thirst for knowledge “will never return”, as well as that desire and enthusiasm. The cameraman Timofei Parshchikov is responsible for that thirst: he seems to expand space, filming the movement of bodies, meadows, rivers, Moscow highways and suburban trains. The landscapes in the vicinity of Maloyaroslavets, the cozy and unimpressive average landscapes of mid-Russia, suddenly appear as a source of powerful creative energy, no matter where it is directed. The production team studied the futuristic energy of Umberto Boccioni and Filippo Marinetti, installed a cool and tempting sense of danger during the training of the “Godmachines”—pyramids built by four youthful bodies of the bio-group, ready to subject the planet to a “major overhaul with eviction.” Parshchikov’s camera argues all the time with the laws of gravitation, and this dispute renders one of the key motifs of the film: the motif of the desire to act, whether it is jogging in the fields, running parkour, storming in Moscow’s center the 98-meter-high monument to Peter I by Zurab Tseretelli, or trying to blow up a military site.

The 1990s are shown rather in a stylized manner through such features as the song “The 90s”; the not too rich New Russian dad of the girl Sasha, who is building a quite modest (by today’s measure) cottage with the help of Tajik workers; the rural grocery shop “Rodina”; and T-shirts with the slogan “Against Everything.” And the cemetery, which during the era of the primitive accumulation of capital turned into a space of business projects. It is there that Vania (Vasilii Butkevich), working as a “living” advertising agent of sepulchral gravestones, meets his future friends Petr (Pavel Chinarev), Popov (Aleksandr Pal’) and Andrei (Ivan Iankovskii). This meeting defines the film’s subject line: it is about adventures, about male friendship, about the durability or fragility of their “union,” about putting to the test both the union and all its members separately. Actually, behind this external plan stands an essentially new view of community, a view which never existed in Russian cinema. The 1990s are here for a good reason: the epoch of grand ideological schemes has come to an end, and the habit of leaning on these ideas has, on the one hand, remained; on the other, the time has come for a more suspicious attitude to grand narratives.

If one sees in the film only the story of friendship and growing-up, then it deserves a place amongst a number of so-called youth films about the search of identity. Although the protagonist engages in these searches also, Mestetskii’s artistic statement is essentially new: before us stands not simply a polyphonic text with equal world views and ideologies, but also the history of the emergence of the left critical discourse. Soviet cinema knew the Timurites, the Young Guardists and Rozov’s Boys,[1] but they were all directly or indirectly connected to a uniform ideological narrative. Rag Union is one of the first Russian films—except for For Marx (Za Marksa, 2012) by Svetlana Baskova and, partly, Angels of Revolution (Angely revoliutsii, 2014) by Aleksei Fedorchenko—where there is a lot of ideology, and where ideologies rather than acting clubs or sports sections become an important condition for community life under the name “rag union”. Here the 1990s cease to be stylized; they define the search for ideologies and explain the critical turn of Aleksandr Pal’s hero Popov, who has come to Moscow from a small mining town, where his older brothers and parents are out of work. His move to the city has been caused by the disappointment with reality and a total distrust of authority when, aged 13, in reply to a detailed photo report about drugs which he submitted at the police station, his parents were imprisoned and Popov was made out as a victim of drug-trafficking. Thus the spontaneous interest in leftish ideas with their critique of capitalism, an interest in questions about injustice, inequality and oppression came about. Mestetskii is both sympathetic and ironical vis-à-vis this followers of the revolutionary Vera Zasulich (1849–1919). The irony here lies in the fact that he reduces the revolutionary pathos of Popov, placing his conversations on a socially responsible state in the space of a sad everyday country bus stop or a glaring rural disco. The genuine interest with which Pal’s hero appeals to the consciousness of the future electorate, asking questions such as “Are you left or right?” collides with the genuine bewilderment of the lazy youth. I suspect that a similar situation of misunderstanding will repeat itself during the wider distribution of Rag Union, as today’s consumerist policy in Russia is not focused on an inquiring consciousness and self-determination along political directives.

For Mestetskii, the ideology of the left movement is, to a great degree, art history or an imagined utopia; not accidentally Popov, with his punk hair cut, is busy between the invention of explosives with a strange habit: eating blue bugs.

tryapichny soyuzThe Utopia of revolutionary protest is best felt in art, especially in the art of the avant-garde, and also in actionism. The story of Andrei, the second member of the Rag Union, is about avant-garde strategies of the transformation of the world. Andrei is a future architect, someone who draws, who is ready to aesthetically transform or blow up the world, who feels free playing games. His irony is shared by the director, recognizing the function of justifying life in these art projects.

Petr is the head of the Rag Union, the oldest, obstinate, and most ambitious member, although he is not always certain in the aims. He does not like to be looked after, he plays a bayan with the inscription “against everything”, he likes Sharapova, he shares ideas of Hesychasm, and he practices statistical assignments, remarking that they might be useful in prison. The main thing in his life is the aspiration for the impossible, as he says: “What I am capable of is not interesting.”  

To the score of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” this experimental bio-group jumps over gravestones, where they come into Vania’s field of vision, who is taking a walk along the paths of the cemetery.

Vania is an intelligent young man, whose room is decorated with photographs of John Lennon, Freddy Mercury, Elvis Presley and Kurt Cobain. He is convinced that all the decent people have already died. He would like to sit at a table with the heroes on these photos, and therefore Vania’s dream is to learn how to resurrect people.

Mestetskii shows how none of the friends’ dreams will come true: it’s not possible to resurrect the drowned friend or to blow up the police station; tearing off the head of the foreign agent Peter I fortunately also fails, as does the attempt to turn into Simeon Stylites—the column is wrong. But understanding the limits of your possibilities is part of maturation.

tryapichny soyuzThe movement in the film, paced by the camera, encompasses the development of the protagonists’ characters. If in the beginning the three guys represent a rather repulsive community with the manners of chavs (the bus trip to Vania’s dacha, the treatment of other people’s property, the rout at the dacha), when they become the Rag Union (already with Vania), the uncooperative and negative relationship is replaced with sympathy for boys who take nothing on faith, for non-indifferent lads working on themselves and receiving pleasure from corporal (the pyramids) and spiritual unity. The scenes of Petr and Vania overcoming obstacles in the shape of the guards and doctors at the army recruitment center, stealing Popov from under the hands of the medical board, are simply delightful. It does not matter that it is unlikely to have happened in reality. And there is the mad speed of “interventions in the head of state”, the most impudent attraction in the film, when the heroes storm the monument to Peter the Great from within.

The Rag Union is an organization combining the critical pathos of the avant-garde, the enthusiasm of the Soviet mobilization project and religious-mystical experience. From the avant-garde they have adopted the anti-bourgeois way of life, overcoming borders between art and life, transforming life into an aesthetic action, linking art with politics (Mestetskii was influenced by the society “Radek”, uniting artists, cultural activists and musicians); from the mobilization project they have inherited the task of overcoming of difficulties, the effectiveness of intentions, and such emotional conditions as inspiration and enthusiasm. The latter is presented through John Locke’s prism, who believed that enthusiasm is the result of fabrications of an excited or self-confident mind. Petr hopes for a mystical experience in his aspiration for asceticism and the desire to find his drowned friend.

What have the heroes gained from the actions that could come under the motto of their own invented slogan “we push one thing, and something else falls”?

The director has shown how carnivalesque elements expressed in pogroms, in the construction of a “research monastery”, in the action titled “Wedding”, as a result of which Petr will renounce his dream about Sharapova, having accepted Sasha’s obvious offer of proximity, in the lyrics of the song “Small Gavroche, struggle is like a carnival for you,” turn back to their tragic side when the game comes to an end. The unexpectedness of Andrei’s death—that master of performance and fine swimmer—is proven by the poet’s observation: “Losses are always mysterious.” The dramaturgy of the film is such that the tragedy happens at the moment of Petr’s and Sasha’s improvised wedding. Andrei once had a weak spot for Sasha, but now he makes a gift in the form of a festive action and, in line with archaic ritual, offers himself as victim. Screams that “Andrei has been drowned” disrupt the harmony of the summer night, and the carnivalesque dances are replaced by the embraces of the three now orphaned friends; the animation insert about Andrei strengthens the tragic tone here, especially when at the end of the “film within the film” the pyramid of four bodies (the symbol of unity of the Rag Union) breaks up. Petr’s screams: “I’ll find him!” end the story of aimless activity.

tryapichny soyuzMestetskii achieves catharsis in the scene of the fire, when high tragedy is replaced by petty and trite tricks of the offended Sasha, telling lies about a pregnancy, after which her father directs the local chavs to the Rag Union and himself pours gasoline over their house. Using archaic mythologems of water and fire—water as the reason for Andrei’s death; fire forces them to finally make an important decision (Mestetskii said that he often remembered scenes from Tarkovsky’s Sacrifice when shooting the fire)—the director shows the opportunity for a feat—not a utopian and imagined act, but a real feat. The rescuer is not the physically strong Petr, who has climbed up an electric pole after the death of his friend, watching the house burn with Popov inside, but Vania. Vania also rescues Petr, having carried Popov out of he burning house, and thus the experiment of “youth and pleasure,” and “anarchy and fury” ends. Soon Vania’s voice will belong to the director, and Mestetskii offers a clear answer: “There are no good ideologies,” and Utopias are better developed in art.

The final scene in the hospital ward is an original postscript following the cathartic scene of the fire. Having placed the protagonist in the hospital, the author hopes for his recovery—that means, in this case, maturation.

The numerous complex ideas sometimes remain visually underdeveloped, but Mestetskii manages them with an ironical intonation that makes the film graceful and light. The film has an anarchical energy and healthy absurdism, as for example shown in the scene of an embryo smoking in the womb, or the mother unexpectedly appearing in the window of a bus.

Rag Union is an honest and sincere film showing the link between modern artistic consciousness and romanticism, the avant-garde and post-modernism. This link comes across through romantic irony, the provocation of avant-garde notions, and postmodernist games.

Translated by Birgit Beumers


1] Timurites: the ideal pioneer based on the main character of Arkadii Gaidai’s Timur and his Command/Timur i ego komanda, 1940; Young Guardists: the Molodaia gvardiia was underground anti-fascist organization formed 1942-43; Rozov’s Boys: Viktor Rozov (1913-2004) created in his plays a range characters who represented a new generation of post-war youths ready to fight for their ideas. [BB]

Lilya Nemchenko
Ural Federal State University Yekaterinburg

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Rag Union, 2015, Russia,
97 minutes, colour, 1:1.85, Dolby Digital
Director and Scriptwriter Mikhail Mestetskii
DoP Timofei Parshchikov
Production Design Eldar Karkhalev
Music Kirill Belorussov
Editing Ivan Lebedev, Sergei Loban
Cast: Vasilii Butkevich, Aleksandr Pal, Pavel Chinarev, Ivan Iankovskii, Anastasiia Pronina, Fedor Lavrov
Producers Roman Borisevich, Aleksandr Kushaev
Production Film Company Koktebel

Mikhail Mestetskii: Rag Union (Triapichnyi soiuz, 2015)

reviewed by Lilya Nemchenko© 2015