Issue 50 (2015) : Special Feature KiKu-50

Mikhail Segal: Short Stories (Rasskazy, 2012)

reviewed by Mark Lipovetsky© 2015

Lost in Translation

Following the events of March 2014, many things appear not exactly as before. Mikhail Segal’s famous film Short Stories is no exception. When the film was released, it was predominantly perceived as a witty, well-done absurdist comedy. Now, it reveals something deeper—probably despite its author’s intentions.

rasskazyShort Stories brought Mikhail Segal, already known for his subtle war drama Franz+ Polina (2006), the reputation of a dazzling creator of “(sm)art mainstream” (Abdullaeva 2012) and one of those rare talents whose work is equally captivating for an undergraduate audience and a sophisticated viewer able to detect here the carnivalesque motifs and Foucauldian epistemology (Nemchenko 2013). Short Stories’ collection of prizes and awards looks long, but mainly consists of critics’ awards, and a Grand Prix only at a second- (if not the third-) rate festival. The only exception is Kinotavr, which discovered Segal with his short The World of Fixtures (Mir krepezha, Grand Prix for Best Short), which later would become the first novella in Short Stories (Prize for Best Screenplay and diploma of the Guild of Film Critics and Film Scholars).

Many critics linked the almanac structure of Short Stories,consisting of four novellas, to the director’s previous experience in music-video production: supposedly the film has inherited the notorious “clip-based consciousness”. Zara Abdulaeva has expressed this idea in the most nuanced way: “This card-film is composed of fragments and splinters (of a mirror). The fragment is a respectable genre of Romanticism, but not the only correct way (as is often believed) to reflect on stereotypes or just visualise the superficiality of the contemporary ‘clip-like’ or ‘mosaic’ consciousness. Segal tells of these stereotypes, of this consciousness and even of the ‘collective unconscious’ lucidly, bitingly, and from a distance” (Abdullaeva 2012).

rasskazyInstead of blaming Short Stories for its “clip-based consciousness,” I would like to argue that Segal masterfully imitates the fragmentary structure as one of the central justifications for his artistic logic, at the same time secretly unraveling his vision in a coherent manner, from the film’s first episode to the last. Segal presents the fragmented structure as an epochal replacement of a “big and totalizing form,” about which the publishing house’s chief editor dreams aloud when rejecting the young author’s book of short stories.

In an interview accompanying the screening of Short Stories at Kinotavr in 2012, Segal said that the entire film had already been shot in his head when he was making The World of Fixtures. By this he explains how he managed to transform a 15-minute long production into a full feature film within two summer months. The director emphasized that he did not imagine Short Stories as an almanac, but as a “whole” work.

At the same time, right after the words about the desire to produce not a fragmented, but a “whole” movie, Segal argues that each novella plays with a specific film genre: comedy, satire, thriller, and melodrama. The dissimilarity of the short stories in style and genre serves the same purpose: to create the effect of multiple overlapping and coexisting dimensions as a condition for the filmic narrative. 

rasskazyThe first (“seed”) novella, “The World of Fixtures”, made in the style of dead-pan black humor, plays with the opposition of “European/Russian,” set to the brilliant performance of “Fly Me to the Moon” (Polina Kasianova) accompanied by a Russian accordion. This opposition, however, has a tangential relationship to the satirical parabola “Circular Movement” (Krugovoe dvizhenie) about the motion of bribes in Russian society, and no relation whatsoever to the mock-mystical thriller “Energy Crisis” (Energeticheskii krizis) about a clairvoyant from a provincial library conveying her revelations through verses stylized along the lines of Pushkin’s poetry. One may detect this opposition returning in the final novella “Inflamed” (Vozgoritsia plamia), one of the most elegant in terms of its plot: here the love story of two new “Russian Europeans” displays a deep generational conflict that eventually leads to the most frequently cited phrase from Short Stories: “We have nothing to fuck about!”

rasskazyA dark interior of the café that becomes the stage for the entire “life production” in the first novella contrasts with the motley transformations from a dirty labyrinth of garages to the shining decorum of the President’s vast residence in the second novella. The mystical provincial coloring of the third novella is incompatible with the Moscow setting favored by the “creative class” in the fourth novella. These are not just different stories, these are also disparate Russias which exist without noticing each other, in parallel, yet inevitably overlapping. Thus, the formal structure of Short Stories manifests the film’s theme: multiple realities or, more precisely, multiple post-Soviet realms, each with its own language (or lack thereof) or, at least, its own semiotics.

In Nemchenko’s words (2013): “All the characters of Short Stories are formally united through the location, and conceptually through the absence of a common language, not on the level of semantics and syntax, but on the level of contextual memory. No fixtures will help here: ‘The link of time is out of joint’.” I’d rather use a more positive characteristic: Short Stories is a film about attempts of translations and transactions between these multiple realms and dissimilar semiotics.

rasskazyIn “The World of Fixtures”a business-like organizer of family events (Andrei Merzlikin), in this case responsible for a wedding and the entire life of a wedded couple, appears as a translator who connects the present with the future; to wed an imaginary “European” style and recognizably “Russian” traditions of wild celebration. In the second novella “Circular Movement,” it is a stash of money that serves as the universal translator, connecting a modest editor paying a bribe for his car’s technical certification to the surreal President (brilliantly played by Igor’ Ugol’nikov). The President doubles the operation of universal conversion: he elegantly “translates” cynical political manipulations into lofty quotations from Leo Tolstoy, Vasilii Kliuchesvkii or Nikolai Karamzin, and vice versa. He also translates Russian “cultural tradition” into a manipulated virtual reality: during the conversation with the governor who has delivered a bribe for his “re-election,” the President elegantly moves against the background of a shining-green landscape, most of all reminiscent of Microsoft Windows’ pre-programmed desktop wallpaper, and at the end of his heartfelt monologue transforms into a TV program.

In the third novella, “Energy Crisis,” the film’s unifying principle is presented in the most obvious way. Here the police major Oleg Ivanovich (Viktor Molchan) “translates” Anna Petrovna’s (Tamara Mironova) stylized versified visions into a “normal human language,” which appears to be a stream of obscenities.

rasskazyIndeed, the procedures of translation between “European” and “Russian”, between present, past, and future, constitute the essence of the post-Soviet epoch. Yet, in Short Stories the only successful translation appears to be the one associated with the money: this is the sole universal language that functions effectively. However, the destructive effect of this successful communication leaves no doubts. All other attempts, based upon the languages of rationality, culture or historical memory, either hopelessly fail or will inevitably fail (as in “The World of Fixtures”).

This becomes painfully obvious in the fourth novella, “Inflamed,” where an inspired love affair between the middle-aged editor Maks (Konstantin Iushkevich) and the stunning young beauty—tellingly deprived of a name (Liubov’ Novikova)—, ends with the man’s disappointment in his female lover: it turns out that the girl never heard of the Cheka, thinks that Dzerzhinskii was a writer, believed that Lenin lived until 1940, and minimizes the number of victims during Soviet history. Striking scenes of intimacy (probably among the best in contemporary Russian cinema) testify that heroes are perfectly compatible sexually, but they fail to find a mutually understandable language of communication.

Maks’s representation is a trap set by the filmmaker. (Segal’s aptitude for such traps revealing the viewers’ misjudgment is even more obvious in his next film, A Film about Alekseev [Fil’m pro Alekseeva, 2014]). The majority of critics and viewers took Maks’s side, detecting in this character their own frustrations with the post-Soviet generation, governed by consumerist rather than cultural or historical signifiers. For some reason, many of Maks’s fans failed to notice that his wisdom is an agglomeration of the intelligentsia’s clichés (including criminal songs, as sardonically noted by Abdullaeva 2012), and that his girlfriend sincerely wants to learn from him, which he finds rather irritating. “We should talk more!”—she repeats as a mantra after each séance of their sensational sex.

rasskazyThe culmination scene in the car and afterwards, when Maks conflates sexual pleasure with an increasingly cruel examination of his lover’s knowledge of Soviet history, is almost painful to watch. In fact, he amplifies his sexual domination by the assumed position of a strict and unforgiving teacher, when—with obvious pleasure—he first humiliates and then dumps his lover on the grounds of her intellectual inferiority. Maks’s arrogance in these scenes borders on sadism, which admittedly only increases his pleasure.

Maks is a member of the “creative class”, an editor and, possibly, a writer, who obviously sees himself as the heir to the Russian intelligentsia. He only prefers to forget that the Russian intelligentsia held itself responsible for translations between social languages and for, pardon my pathos, the enlightenment of those who need to be enlightened. So it is also Maks’s fault that his girlfriend does not understand his values. He could have taught her: she was eager to learn. He forgets about these banalities not by an accident: it’s just much more pleasant to feel angry and disappointed. His noble anger effectively proves—and even more effectively embodies—his cultural and social superiority over post-Soviet consumerist “bydlo”. And this is the key to his character: wearing a clout of the Russian intelligentsia, he has exchanged obligations associated with this “affiliation” for the position of symbolic power nicely fused with hedonism.

The librarian Anna Petrovna perishes in flames together with a book, which a girl who is lost in the woods burns in the hope of keeping warm. This is also a signification of the intelligentsia’s  failure—in this case stemming from the cult of classical tradition, from the identification with “sacred” literature. But at least Anna Petrovna tries to provide a translation, through her comically and lofty pseudo-Pushkinian revelations. On the contrary, Maks’s refusal to be patient, his anger at the girl who does not know the basics of the intelligentsia’s lexicon but looks into his eyes with trust and admiration, in the view of recent Russian history reads as an unforgiving explanation of the yawning gap between the liberal intelligentsia and the notorious 86 per cent of those Russian citizens who applaud the annexation of Crimea, the war against Ukraine, the rabid anti-Americanism, nationalist hysteria and other niceties of the current political situation.

The abandonment of attempts in translation and adaptation of the intelligentsia’s language and values to the worldview of the rest of population (that happened in the 2000s) has left a vacuum that has promptly been filled by “fixtures” in the form of quotations from Russian classics adapted to immediate political needs, and especially by the nationalist rhetoric about “Crimeaisours,” the aggressive United States, and the decaying “Gayrope.” (One can detect a preparedness for the preoccupation for this rhetoric in the girlfriend’s characterization of contemporary Russia as a country with “democracy and market economy,” which deciphers as free access to consumerist goods and forgetfulness about all things negative).

rasskazyWith its title and its framework setting in a publishing house specializing in fiction, Short Stories places literature at the center of cinema. Oddly enough, nobody seemed to notice this splendid paradox. In fact, all of the film’s parts are about the power of literature—or at least they include such a motif. The main character in “The World of Fixtures”presents a perfect writer for contemporary Russia, albeit of a new kind: one who has already absorbed the Symbolist- Futurists-Socialist Realist-Pelevin-vs-Baudrillard lessons of live-creation/life-construction/hyperreality of simulacra. Indeed, he masterfully imagines the future in minute detail, extracting the psychological profile of a client and instantly casting actors for the roles in the future play of life. Correspondingly, the President in “Circular Movement”epitomizes a perfect reader and co-creator, who—with virtuoso artistry—utilizes decontextualized fragments of the sacred classics to justify a cynical regime of universal corruption. Anna Petrovna and Maks appear as the priests of the cult of literature: a librarian and an editor. However, they present contrasting scenarios: the former implements her dedication in an archaic way more fitting to the 19th than the 21st century, while the latter abandons his duty for the sake of hedonism. Although both fail, they do not fail to enjoy the position of symbolic power and superiority over their “folk.”

How did we rejoice in the end of Russian logocentrism and literature-centrism in the 1990s, how many tears were shed about it in the 2000s (some, especially advanced Western analysts seem to be catching up with this trend only now!) (Brooks 2015). Yet all in vain. As follows from Short Stories, Russia of the 2010s remains a literature-centric country. Literature-centrism certainly has its obvious cultural benefits (one may call them culture-specific), along with less palpable political disadvantages. Segal’s film is about the latter. 

Short Stories proves that literature-centrism, as a version of much-blamed logocentrism in its post-Soviet incarnation, has become more savvy and more ubiquitous, albeit less obvious than before. Yet as any form of logocentrism, it feeds the illusion of intelligentsia’s innate superiority, and lends itself to corrupt power as a respectable outfit (remember “writers” dancing around their desks at the opening ceremony of the Sochi Olympics?). In other words, it secures positions of authoritarianism, political or symbolic, which in today’s world does not help cultural communication, but interrupts it; does not translate, but preserves untranslatability of power languages as the foundation of power. This is why the Internationale reworked into rap in the finale of Short Stories is not such a silly idea as might seem at first. After all, Segal has made a truly anti-authoritarian film that not only foreshadows failures of the liberal intelligentsia, but also suggests the direction of a further quest that might revoke the triumph of logocentric authoritarianism.

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Works Cited

Abdullaeva, Zara. 2012. “Oskolki. ‘Rasskazy’. Rezhisser Mikhail Segal.” Iskusstvo kino 8. 

Brooks, David. 2015.  “The Russia I Miss,” The New York Times  11 September.

Nemchenko, Lilya. 2013. “Mikhail Segal: Short Stories (Rasskazy, 2012),” KinoKultura 39.

Short Stories, Russia, 2012, 
105 minutes, color, Dolby Digital
Director and Scriptwriter Mikhail Segal
Director of Photography Eduard Moshkovich
Production Design Vitalii Trukhanenko
Costume Design Vladimir Kuptsov
Music Andrzej Petras
Sound Konstantin Stetkevich
Editing Mikhail Segal
Cast: Vladislav Leshkevich, Dar’ia Nosik, Andrei Merzlikin, Igor’ Ugolnikov, Konstantin Iushkevich, Andrei Petrov, Liubov’ Novikova, Tamara Mironova
Producers Anastasia Kavunovskaia, Sergei Kretov
Production Film Company RUmedia

Mikhail Segal: Short Stories (Rasskazy, 2012)

reviewed by Mark Lipovetsky© 2015