Issue 53 (2016)
Oleg Asadulin: Green Carriage (Zelenaia kareta, 2015)
reviewed by Alexandar Mihailovic© 2016
“Can we have another do-over, another take—another chance? That one didn’t work.” Cameras are aimed at an actor—the director’s perfect physical double—lying in a pool of blood, after a beating by a group of young thugs. A floodlit spot of a night shoot, in a Moscow park. After telling the man “OK, but just so you know—this is the last one,” the baseball-capped director shouts “Action!” All of a sudden we’re dropped into both another set and a new setting—a sunlit street in a tonier neighborhood—with both director and thespian doppelgänger no worse for wear. And as we come to the end of our viewing of this meta-movie—this privileged, self-referential exercise in redemptive mise en scène—we find out that yet another tragedy has been averted. The director calls on his mobile a family member we thought was dead, with the camera sweeping giddily over the neighborhood, and moving past the more modernized edge of the cityscape as it rises to the sky. This is truly the best of all possible worlds! No regrets, no bad thoughts—no accidents or misfortune.
Welcome to the consequence-free and obnoxiously solipsistic world of Oleg Asadulin’s Green Carriage, the newest—and possibly most hapless—variation on Harold Ramis’ Groundhog Day (1993), here transferred to the working movie set of one execrable Russian film wedged into another. Early on in Green Carriage, we see the young, arrogant, and Tarantino-like film director Vadim Raevskii being awarded the Grand Prix at the Russian Film Festival, for a film that has also just been selected as the Russian entry for the Oscars. A sexual predator and mandarin in the Russian film industry who seems barely cognizant of his wife Vera and twenty-something son Artem (who studies at the prestigious Film Institute VGIK), Vadim can’t help seeing himself in his own films, projecting himself—hey, it’s what film directors do!—onto his protagonists. As he pompously declares to a police detective at one point of the film: “I know psychology—I’m a film director!” Things take a turn decidedly for the worse—for him, his family, and for us, his victim audience—when his son apparently jumps off a roof terrace during an Ecstasy-fueled party with his mates. Raevskii fantasizes about re-scripting the otherwise automotive, yet indisputably tragic—hey, those are BMWs, dammit!—catastrophes that befall the heroes of his films. As the acerbic critic John Simon once quipped about Jean-Luc Godard’s experimentation with stop action film motion—which simulated rapid shutter contact sheet photography as a way of getting at the otherwise hidden consciousness of whatever or whoever was being filmed—a series of static images of a car’s front fender tells us precious little about the psychology of a vehicle, and more than we want to know about the one of the filmmaker (Simon 1983: 402-403).
At the very least, Asadulin does seem to be shrewdly aware of the aesthetic tension between the still photograph and the moving image, and the ways in which a movie may engage with a still image in a manner that opens up an otherwise unsympathetic audience’s affective response. In post-Soviet cinema, perhaps the best example of this reliance of photographic conventions and compositional principles—as a way of creating a productive experience of alienation from the clichéd and familiar—is Andrei Zviagintsev’s The Return (Vozvrashchenie 2003). With its inert scenes of often taciturn and immobile human agents, and grotesque yet transfixing landscapes of decaying infrastructure tricked out in sharply etched shapes of bleached colors, Zviagintsev’s film emerges as something of a gloss, if not kinetic translation, of Boris Mikhailov’s tinted photographs of bloated bodies posed against the stripped, de-varnished palette of once-pristine Soviet-era housing developments. We’ll have more to say about the otherwise unfortunate intersection, or rather collision—it’s also a movie about vehicles as status swag, remember?—between Asadulin’s Green Carriage and Zviagintsev, later on. Asadulin’s filmbegins with a yellowed photomontage of the life that preceded the real and imagined series of floods that come to overwhelm Vadim. This showing of wedding, birth and family vacation pictures brings to mind the sociologist Olga Shevchenko’s characterization of post-Soviet personal narratives as gambits for individual autonomy and agency in a time of moral and social breakdown, as fraught representations of ‘kinship networks’ that vanished during the multiple crises that rocked the identities and lifestyles of the Russian intelligentsia over the course of the nineties (Shevchenko 2009: 39-40). Certainly the onset of the family dysfunction stands in dramatic contrast with the scenes of camping, hiking, and conviviality among friends and colleagues that we see in these images, and in the snatches of home movies made from the same experiences. The jump cut of the virtual still shots of the before and after of Artem’s death—one taken from the distance of a neighboring building, with his isolated figure leaning over the railing of the terrace, followed by one in which he has vanished—is undoubtedly the most powerful moment of Asadulin’s film. Never has the glimmering nocturnal skyline of corporate Moscow seemed so lovely in its luminescent vistas, and so palpably lacking in genuine—or perhaps simply grounded—human presence.
But for all their play with different media and intersecting narrative frames of reference, neither Asadulin’s film nor Raevskii’s seems to be interested in offering anything except a glib identification of the moral malaise within the Moscow film industry. Asadulin and his screenwriter Artem Vitkin seem to be caught up in a view of the artists who belong to the Russian intelligentsia as being self-involved and megalomaniac, and uncomprehending of coherent values and basic human decency, by virtue of the cocoon of stark economic privilege that surrounds them. Certainly such a view is worthy of attention. This negative portrayal of the intelligentsia is distinct from the usual critique of it—as torn from the soil of the people and of being unreceptive to family networks and the desire for order and security, by virtue of its members leading existences that are untouched by the solace of stable bourgeois comforts—which was famously expressed by what arguably remains the towering classic of anti-intelligentsia literature, the 1909 essay anthology Vekhi (Signposts). In Green Carriage, the intelligentsia is not merely alienated and deluded—it is flush with money, and quite comfortable with its privilege. In an effort to understand his son’s possible suicide, Vadim contacts Artem’s girlfriend, a fellow student at VGIK, who agrees to meet him in a new café in what seems to be the wealthy Ostozhenka neighborhood. Initially, she tells Vadim that she likes the place, but as their conversation becomes more confrontational she turns her nose up at it, telling him she prefers a new place where the wait staff is more nimble [shustrye]. She has little to say about Artem, and gives only vague and evasive answers to Vadim’s questions. Sensing that she is not telling him everything she knows, he follows her to a rendezvous with a new boyfriend, a stylishly coiffed hipster who punches him in the face. In its portrayal of a well-heeled and entitled class of creative workers, Green Carriage recalls the idiosyncratic views of Konstantin Pobedonostsev, the Procurator of the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church under Alexander III and Nicholas II, who wrote scathing assessments of moneyed liberals in his famous collection Moskovskii sbornik (Moscow Miscellany). As early as 1864, he described such people as the kind who involve themselves in a “marketplace of projects” [rynok proektov] that is both political and entertainment-driven, rife with the “noise of cheap and superficial ecstasies.” Artem’s apparent death by Ecstasy, in the company of his shiftless and pleasure-seeking friends, seems to resonate with this jaundiced view of the artistic class, offered up by Pobedonostsev and later militantly conservative thinkers, such as the political theorist Carl Schmitt.
At its best, Asadulin’s polemical orientation may be understood as a dramatization of the moral difficulties that are implicit in the Russian intelligentsia’s attempt to fuel the mission of enlightenment with the petrol of state power or social capital. In his book on the surrender and demise of a Soviet “intelligent”, Arkadii Belinkov (1997) provides us with one of the most vivid documentations of such a negotiation, in the appalling compromises of Iurii Olesha’s literary career. Yet Asadulin’s attempt at a similar demystification is severely undercut by the fact that his film manifests many of the negative traits that he attempts to ridicule. By the first half hour of the film, we become quite attuned to Raevskii’s elitist conceit that he has a special power to change and transform for the better, simply by virtue of his prodigious cinematic artistry. Observing himself in anguish outside the morgue that contains Artem’s body, Raevskii’s directorial double shouts “stop, stop—it’s a wrap [sniato]!,” with the last word suggesting here as much “removed” or “retracted” as it does “filmed.” By the time we get to the feckless finale of Green Carriage, we sad non-artists come to realize that for someone as gifted as Raevskii, there is no bad choice or action that can’t be done over with the magic of mental montage.
Asadulin’s most focused attempt to indict the moneyed heirs of the intelligentsia can be found in a series of oddly specific details about Raevskii’s artistic biography. Raevskii has made a film titled Pharaoh (Faraon), which is selected from all other Russian entries for consideration of Best Foreign Picture category at the Oscars. The only Russian film in recent times to have that privilege is Zviagintsev’s Leviathan (Leviafan 2014), which also has a biblically resonant title. A poststructuralist would say that the evocatively similar suffixes of these films draw our attention to the Russian pronoun on (“he”). It would seem that a specific person, a particular man, is the point of access for this critique. The fact that Zviagintsev’s film has been widely accused to be Russophobic, and to be playing to an international audience’s expectations of being treated to a self-abasing spectacle of backwardness and obscurantism (mrakobesie) in the countryside of the Russian Federation, only enhances this parallel, as does the portrayal of family dysfunction (of discord among mothers, fathers, and sons) that is at the center of both Zviagintsev’s Leviathan and Asadulin’s 2015 film. From Asadulin’s point of view, it would seem that Zviagintsev may be merely projecting the kind of family problems that are the subject of his Oscar-nominated film.
The costless personal epiphany at the end of Asadulin’s film is accompanied by the welling melody of the “Green Carriage,” an especially saccharine lullaby about a kind of celestial (as opposed to automotive) omnibus, composed in the style of Tat’iana and Sergei Nikitin, those most mainstream of bards from the late Soviet-era Moscow intelligentsia. In the finale of Green Carriage, Raevskii finds himself in an alternate reality in which his son is alive, he himself is uninjured, and where he has lost his bid to be chosen as the Russian Oscar selection, to the director Barykin. The fact that the name of Raevskii’s filmmaking rival and double recalls the word baryga (hustler; con artist) tells us more about Asadulin’s system of values, than anything we might glean from the paper-thin Raevskii, or the real-life Zviagintsev. How could it be otherwise? As Raevskii reminds us in Green Carriage, projecting is what filmmakers do.
1] From a letter dated 14 December 1864 to the sister of Fedor Tiutchev, Anna Fedorovna Aksakova (Tomisov 2007: 382). A partial translation of the letter (which has never been published in full, and is located in the Russian State Historical Archive [RGIA] in Moscow) can be found in Anon. 1928: 43.
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Anon. (1928), “Pobedonostsev and Alexander III,” The Slavonic and East European Review, 7.19: 30–54.
Belinkov, Arkadii (1997). Sdacha i gibel’ sovetskogo intelligenta. Iurii Olesha. Moscow: ‘Rik’ Kul’tura.
Shevchenko, Olga (2009). Crisis and the Everyday in Postsocialist Moscow. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
Simon, John Ivan (1983). Something to Declare: Twenty Years of Films from Abroad. New York: C. N. Potter.
Tomisov, V. A. (2007). “Fedor Petrovich Pobedonostsev 1827-1909,” in his Russkie pravovedy XVIIi-XX vekov. Ocherki zhizni i tvorchestva. Tom 1. Moscow: Zertsalo, pp. 348-415.
The Green Carriage, Russia, 2015
Colour, 93 minutes
Director Oleg Asadulin
Scriptwriter Artem Vitkin
DoP Andrei Ivanov
Production Design Ol’ga Tsyba
Music DJ Groove
Editing Ekaterina Pivneva
Cast Andrei Merzlikin, Viktoria Isakova, Sergei Iushkevich, Vladimir Menshov, Ania Chipovskaia, Aleksandr Michkov, Ian Tsapnik, Evgeniia Malakhova, Dmitrii Astrakhan, Andrei Leonov, Dmitrii Smirnov
Producers Renat Davletiarov, Andrei Alkema, Grigorii Podzemelnyi, Vitalii Malyi, Konstantin Vitkin, Artem Vitkin, Anastasiia Belskaia
Production Propeller Production
Oleg Asadulin: Green Carriage (Zelenaia kareta, 2015)
reviewed by Alexandar Mihailovic© 2016