Issue 51 (2016)

Maksim Sveshnikov: Paws, Bones & Rock’n’roll (Elki lokhmatye 2015)

reviewed by Masha Kowell© 2016

The title Elki lokhmatye (2015), translated confusingly into English as Paws, Bones & Rock’n’roll, has no exact equivalent in a foreign language. Literally, it means “fluffy pine trees,” perhaps with “fluffy” conjuring an association with the dogs who are the movie’s protagonists. Figuratively, however, the meaning resides in the expression’s slightly uncouth, colloquial nature. It is uttered when something does not work out or when something appears perplexing. Ironically, upon watching the movie, the title emerges as a self-reflexive expression that appropriately describes the viewer’s likely confusion (if not amazement) with the disjointed, formulaic plot and unsophisticated formal approaches. Paws, Bones & Rock’n’roll embodies a bizarre pastiche of the classic American slapstick comedy Home Alone (dir. Chris Columbus, 1990) and the cerebral Russian filmic satire Heart of a Dog (Sobach’e serdtse, dir. Vladimir Bortko, 1988). The former is an entertaining movie about a child, played by Macaulay Culkin, who was left behind accidentally by his absent-minded parents. Once left alone, and through a series of improbable tricks, the boy thwarts the asinine home invaders. The latter is a classic, universally known film based on the eponymous fantasy-infused, satirical 1925 novel by Mikhail Bulgakov. Bulgakov provides a biting analysis of the treacherous early post-Revolutionary era and the New Economic Policy (NEP) in Soviet Russia, focusing on human behavior during this transformative moment. In Heart of a Dog, the film’s beginning and the end are told from the perspective of a dog. One of the leitmotifs of the film, as well as that of the novel, is the ease with which certain human beings succumb to what is considered base, animalistic behavior. Indeed, at the end it is the dog that appears to be a creature with superior cognition and emotional attunement.

yolki lokhmatye Similarly, in Paws, Bones & Rock’n’roll the two dog-protagonists, Yoko and Pirate, as well as their young owner, Nastia (Lera Streliaeva), are the ones who prevail both intellectually and physically over the masses of ignorant, socially maladjusted adults. The three of them, especially the masterfully trained canines, are the best actors in the film. As the viewer finds out later in the movie, but also gleans from the well-off interior of a large house where she resides, Nastia is a banker’s daughter. She lives with her grandmother and the two dogs. The film begins as Nastia and her grandmother prepare for a trip to Saint Petersburg to reunite with her parents, whom she has not seen for six months. Even when with her well-wishing grandmother, Nastia emerges as a definitive leader, reminding her grandmother of various packing nuances. She is the “brain” in the family. At the end, Nastia’s rational, composed nature stands in clear contrast to the emotional, impulsive behavior of the grandmother. Before they take off, Nastia makes arrangements to leave her beloved dogs at a “doggie hotel.” Unbeknownst to her, the hotel is run by two crooks, Lekha (Merzlikin) and Makar (Tsapnik), set on robbing wealthy dog-owners. Thus, Yoko and Pirate become their targets. The dogs, however, sense that the two robbers intend to invade Nastia’s house and manage to escape from the hotel. They come back to the empty house and begin barricading it in preparation for the invasion of the unwanted guests. Inexplicably, Nastia figures out that the dogs are in trouble. She leaves her grandmother behind and sets off back home to save her dogs.

yolki lokhmatye While at the house, the dogs assume the role of Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone. They set up various traps and train different offensive tactics as they prepare for the imminent robbery. Once the criminals are in the house, the canine intelligence becomes increasingly more evident as the two short-sighted, vulgar criminals become gradually debilitated by the shrewd ruses that Yoko and Pirate set up. This debilitation is shown through an increasingly disheveled look, constant tripping, and an overall physical awkwardness, which at points undermines the robbers’ ability to speak or transforms their speech into a growl and their gait into a crawl. As the destructive fighting with the dogs continues, the frustrated and clearly losing robbers use the word “dogs” (sobaki) as an expletive. Undoubtedly, the irony lies in the robbers’ grotesque transformation into uncouth, stray animals, while the dogs come forth as anthropomorphic beings with elegance, poise, and wisdom.

yolki lokhmatyeOn her way back, Nastia emerges as a resourceful child, able to rationally argue her way out of various predicaments. She outsmarts her grandmother, she escapes from a policeman, and she convinces a bus driver to give her a free ride. At the end of the film, when she reaches her final destination, the robbers kidnap her. While in the van, she offers a reasonable explanation why they should release her. She cites specific charges and the associated term of imprisonment that the criminals would face if they were to cause her any harm. Her composed demeanor and logical presentation (regardless of their incongruent, artificial quality) highlights Nastia’s intellectual superiority over the adults who generally surround her. After all, it is the adults whose uncontrollable, violent conduct transfigures them into irrational and disheveled monsters.

Formally, the film is a mishmash of a discordant soundtrack and digital effects (stop-motion, slow-motion, speed-up etc.), and cinematic approaches awkwardly appropriated from Heart of a Dog. The combination of the overly “cold,” crisp resolution of images and the overbearing saturation of constantly changing digital effects morph the filmic space into the one that closely resembles a video game. It is difficult to relate to the heart-warming actions of Yoko and Pirate (the cuddling, the whimpering, and the close-ups of their despondent faces, etc.) when the editing remains highly formulaic. Throughout the film, the low camera angles and occasional filter changes designate the mental space and the vantage points of the dogs. This filmic tactic appears to be a citation of the approaches implemented in Heart of a Dog. However, in Paws, Bones & Rock’n’roll the workings of the digital camera and the abrasive chromatic transitions from multi-colored imagery to the bluish, black-and-white palette of the canine intellectual (if not emotional) domain appears patently disjointed. Interestingly, however, toward the end of the film, the low-angle shots are relevant in the portrayal of Nastia and other children’s points of view as well, carving out an intimate, rare space of unadulterated innocence. For instance, in the scene where children and dogs mingle on a playground, the camera stays very low to the ground, safeguarding this space specifically for these vulnerable beings. Parents seem to be excluded from these spaces throughout the film. Nevertheless, the saccharine, conflict-free ending of the film manages to undermine even this bit of profound insight. Unexpectedly, Nastia is reunited with her father and mother, a strikingly good-looking couple, in a slow-motion shot constituted by smiling faces, exchanged hugs, effortless striding, and strikingly—a lack of remorse for the patent parental neglect. This “twist” in the narrative reinforces the banal, citational, and uncomplicated nature of the film.

Masha Kowell
Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles

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Paws, Bones & Rock’n’roll, Russia, 2015
Director: Maksim Sveshnikov
Screenplay: Maksim and Vadim Sveshnikov
DoP Andrei Vakorin
Composer Mark Willot
Production Design: Maria Belozerova
Cast: Andrei Merzlikin, Ian Tsapnik, Lera Streliaeva, Galina Kon’shina, Petr Fedorov, Anna Chipovskaia
Producers: Timur Bekmambetov,
Production: Bazelevs, Pandorafilm

Maksim Sveshnikov: Paws, Bones & Rock’n’roll (Elki lokhmatye 2015)

reviewed by Masha Kowell© 2016

Updated: 02 Jan 16