Issue 56 (2017)

Boris Guts: Watermelon Rinds (Arbuznye korki, 2016)

reviewed by Eve Ivanilova © 2017

Leave the dead to bury their own dead.
— Matthew 8:22

And whenever we saw dead animals on the road, he’d say,
“Blank ’em out, Zack, blank ’em out.”
— Douglas Coupland, Generation A

“I remember, I was sitting on the coach, and then she was like, let’s shoot a movie.” (Guts 2016)—this is the way director Boris Guts describes the decision to make his debut in the feature film format. It is also his feature-length debut as screenwriter and editor, and his girlfriend Anastasiia Gusentsova’s debut as executive producer. Their film Watermelon Rinds was shot in a very short period (six days) and under conditions far from those for producing big national cinema. The first viewers of the film were the jury members and the participants of Dvizhenie Film Festival. Afterwards, the film had a hard time receiving a distribution certificate, but got a limited release and was shown several times at various special screenings, and once on the TNT channel.

Just like Guts’s previous work, in particular the short film Your Cousin Can (2014), Watermelon Rinds tells us about the (in)ability of young people to feel empathy and their social irresponsibility. I put an additional semantic stress on the verb “tells,” because I am going to reveal a literature-centric specificity of the picture.

The film opens with a close-up of plastic watermelon rinds, swinging on a moving car mirror. Then three characters appear on the screen, one by one: a self-complacent guy dressed in a pink shirt (Gerych); a carefree girl in a pink T-shirt next to him (America); and a guy with a concentrated expression on his face (Matvei). This order of appearance makes sense as the plot moves forward. Young people come to the city beach and the spectator will see further scenes through the eyes of each. But even before this change of the narrative structure from linear to fragmented, the film offers some less obvious counterpoints and traps. While the young people are driving, they are listening to an infantile rap song about relationships, in which a man just “wants to f*** another girl.” The diegetic music harmonizes with the couple in pink, especially considering that the lyrical passage refers directly to their relationships. However, the same silly text and primitive sample stays in contrast to the concentrated guy—but not only because of his looks. Matvei is played by a representative of the Russian alternative rap scene, who half-jokingly calls himself “the father of the existential hip-hop.” It is Evgenii Alekhin, a writer, and by playing himself, he enriches the plot with implied parallels with his own texts. Of course, for many viewers the other male performer, Iaroslav Zhalnin, has a more recognizable face, but precisely as the face of an actor that constantly changes the image on the screen.

watermelon rindsAnother, less obvious trap is the meeting with a friendly stranger. He stops the three characters, as is typical in an American slasher film, but instead of warning them sullenly, he shuffles and asks the couple for cigarettes. Wishing good health to the young and beautiful characters, the man disappears. At this moment the diegetic music changes with an anxious chirr, and the picture dissolves into a black background with the title of the first part—“Gerych.”

Gerych stops the car and gets out of the driver’s seat. The camera follows him. In the next two parts the camera’s view switches to America, then to Matvei and other objects that come in the field of vision of each character. In general, the camera movement is rough. This manner is justified, firstly, by the peculiarity of the plot, and secondly, by the attempt to show the feeling of the ground sinking under the character’s feet. After their arrival at the beach the company goes down to the river. Something unusual occurs on the shore: lifeguards are searching for someone who they fear has drowned. The search for the body acts as an anchor for the three separate parts in the film and generates the main, overall mystery.

“Who are they dragging out?” Matvei asks, moving forward, but still staying in the background of Gerych’s close-up. “Maybe somebody has drowned while drunk,” Gerych throws back the answer and then begins to associate this incident with recent deaths of friends. It does not work out: he mixes up who, when, and how they died. Matvei corrects him without amazement and criticism. The inequality in the dialogue will remain between them and will develop in two directions: either Gerych speaks about something in an inaccurate way and Matvei corrects him without explanations—and sometimes seemingly without any special need; or Matvei tries to say something about a sore subject and Gerych starts to counter Matvei’s phrases, without hearing the content, even if it sounds quite explicit. For example, when Gerych is foolishly joking about Matvei’s hip flask, he answers very grandiloquently: “Pointing out other people’s vices doesn’t make you a saint.” A little bit later Matvei shares the hope to get away from Russia and bitterly exclaims: “F*** the job!”, but Gerych will only repeat it rosily. While Matvei is capable of citing more or less connected text fragments; other characters just employ a random list of personalities. Gerych calls Matvei, lying in the sand, Pechorin, but Matvei corrects him and states that it was Oblomov who was lying down. Later, Gerych pokes fun at Matvei’s lack of financial stability and calls him Van Gogh. Gerych’s girlfriend supports the senseless recollection of personalities: “America, who called?”—“Barack Obama”—“And why did Obama call you, it should be Vladimir Vladimirovich in your cell.” Matvei corrects the word “cell” to the word “tube” (trubka—cell phone and truba—tube or pipe sound similar in Russian, creating a pun), and Gerych repeats it and laughs loudly—the dialogue reminds us of a vicious circle of communicative failures.

watermelon rindsAfter America says that she is hungry and wants to get some chicken, Gerych imports another quote. He remembers a scene from the crime thriller Killer Joe (2011), in which “a sheriff f*** a heroine in her mouth by a chicken leg.” Not only does the girl grow hungrier (all the while people around her are searching for a dead body), but Gerych unceremoniously shares this cibophobic association (i.e., fear of food), which appears obvious for him, but suddenly for America and the viewers sounds like Matvei’s phrase earlier. Both guys cite quotes that had a powerful suggestive effect on each of them. And surely their perceptive selectivity is not only limited by their high/low dichotomy. Even if we take into account the visual difference between the contemplative Matvei and the declaratively careless Gerych, as well as the fact that the handwritten letter “M” on Matvei’s T-shirt figuratively connects his name with his Biblical namesake, the difference between the friends is not really that great. Matvei quotes not the Biblical Matthew (although it could seem this way), but the post-modern Canadian writer Douglas Coupland. Matvei does not state the name of this author, which is justified by the film’s post-modern logic, not Coupland’s novels. In a later scene, Matvei cites Coupland again, without marking the transition from his own speech to the other’s text. So, a story about the Earth sandwich is borrowed from the novel Generation A—and in that case, if the viewer is unfamiliar with the book, they fall into a double trap. Firstly, just like America is confused, the viewer does not perceive the content of the phrase stripped from its context; secondly, again we fall in a hypertext loop that creates the world of corporations and the web. And while Coupland’s heroine found a friend to make an Earth sandwich, nobody wants to play and be friends with the characters in Watermelon Rinds. Just as the dialogue between characters falls apart, additional dialogue is formed on the intertextual level to offer not a hierarchical, but a rhizomatous structure to the film’s dramaturgy. High-brow quotes, silly rap lyrics, clever rap lyrics remind viewers of Evgenii Alekhin’s facial expression, and create a pandemonium of various names—all this happens after the literary effect helps to create the motive of defensive unconsciousness, which holds together the characters and their corresponding chapters in the film.

When Gerych meets some girl in a bar and persuades her to have sex with him, his voice and face become serious for the first time. Boasting of his achievements, he recounts a very abstract story about the fate of some man—as it turns out later, it is a biographical allegory. Gerych has a mentally deficient brother, whose birth was the reason for their father to leave the family. Now that their father has cancer, his past actions seem to Gerych even more absurd and harebrained. The stress from his father’s disease, in fact, becomes more intense after the unplanned pregnancy of Gerych’s girlfriend, Christina. The character wraps his personal trauma in the unfurled allegory. He does not reflect on his need to work through it, and uses only cosmetic methods: he mutes the pain threshold through uncontrolled sexual behavior and stupid jokes.

watermelon rindsThe mentally deficient brother from Gerych’s story suddenly appears and begins to babble about the president’s death. His arrival fits within a new trope in recent Russian cinema, where one brother comes to the other and offers help with some fishy business. Moreover, Gerych’s brother Vasia, resembles Viktor Sukhorukov’s character in the Brother films. “You are the ‘Sun,’ as for me, mom calls me Dummy,” Vasia says, and this refers to the starting points of the plots of the first and the second parts of Aleksei Balabanov’s story. “Goodbye, America!” also appears in Watermelon Rinds, though not as a song:Gerych says it to America, who secretly asked Vasia to come in the first place. Gerych and Vasia are Guts’s versions of the Bagrov brothers; or, to be more precise—their inversion. In Brother-2 Danila becomes cooler and more categorical, and Victor much more extravagant than they were in the first part. In Watermelon Rinds these features are more pronounced and already developed to their limits. What is important, though, is not the similarity between these four characters. As I tried to show above, Watermelon Rinds is replete with meaningless quotations and references, which only point to a multilayered “acting out” on the part of the protagonists. Most importantly, Balabanov’s films and Guts’s film try to capture the generation of a New Russia that cannot find its place in society. Boris Guts puts it that way: “This generation is not lost, this generation is confused. These are people who don’t know the answers and don’t want to solve the problems. They want to be distracted, to play computer games, have sex, drink (unfortunately), and to do many other things, but just not to think about their problems” (quoted in Anon 2016).

The second part of Watermelon Rinds covers the same time interval as the first, but through America’s experiences. When the camera turns to her, the viewer learns that the character who seemed to be only web-browsing has actually been doing something else. She tweets that there is a corpse on beach, and it is prohibited to swim. Her friend Christina reacts to this and asks America to wait for her in order to listen to something very urgent. America lies, saying that she has already left, and then approaches the guys. All the scenes of virtual communication are shown in the format of pop-up windows, meaning that media literally invade the frame and fill the field of view. America quarrels with Gerych again and goes back to the car, where she clutches her head, then takes out a gun from the glove box and points it at her friends.

watermelon rindsChristina appears almost simultaneously with Vasia and, like him, seemingly comes out of nowhere. She is pregnant with Gerych’s child, and America tries to imitate the concern of her friend’s position. Meanwhile, Christina notices the ongoing operation on the shore and demonstrates ostentatious horror about the possible death. Christina’s reaction to the not-yet-found corpse essentially repeats Gerych’s reaction. If the first scene led him to remember his dead friends, even if he got the facts wrong, for Christina it is a way of sharing dull collective memories that America corrects without any emotions (just as Matvei corrected Gerych’s mixing up of names). “Remember, when we were kids, when the ‘Kiev’ submarine sank.” —“It was the ‘Kursk’, actually.” —“Right, ‘Kursk’ it was. But I don’t remember if they raised it from the bottom.” —“Yes, they did it.” —“Poor them, they were like in a can there. And he was like ‘Yeah, it sank, so what.’ This is awful.” In the world of Watermelon Rinds nobody remembers anything: neither dead friends, nor national disasters, nor promises given to each other. Certainly, some characters are erudite (i.e. Matvei and Vasia), but none of them is capable of thoughtful work when confronting something painful; instead, they display classic defense mechanisms: Vasia declares he wants to buy a new cat, Matvei wants to go away, Gerych wants to post a homemade porn, America wants not to be caught within her lies, and Christina wants to buy a baby bed in the “right” color. In their world death and suffering permeate everything, but they do not see it until the corpse is right in front of them. It is no coincidence that they do not care about the drowned person before the corpse is found, just as they talk about the Russian President without caring about the sunken ‘Kursk’. In both chapters Gerych and America displace their feelings of anxiety and disgust: they are pushing problems far away.

Finally, the plot takes a third loop and Matvei becomes the narrative’s center. The viewer soon learns the secret of his thoughtfulness: Matvei’s father was killed in a railway station’s toilet and while Matvei is watching somebody looking for a corpse in the water, his father is being buried. In their dialogue Gerych mockingly draws attention to the fact that Matvei never called his father “father,” only “daddy.” Gerych taunts Matvei because he has a pseudo-psychological theory for this usage: “daddy” is just for children and Matvei has never grown up.

The third chapter is built around Matvei’s three attempts to tell others about his trauma. At first he tries to tell America about his father’s death. “I don’t hear you!” yells the elusive girl. The second attempt also fails, because as Matvei begins to tell the revelations to his potential listener, Gerych runs to hide from his own troubles. Finally, a despaired Matvei tries to confess to an unknown man. Of course, he is a character already familiar to the viewer—the man who stopped the car near the beach. “Have you been at the Kiev railway station lately? I wonder if there is a fenced toilet yet... or we don’t wrap crime scenes with red tape, as it happens in Hollywood films. To piss is sanctity in our country. If we cannot have the place to piss we’ll lose our culture—we’ll lose Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Nikita Mikhalkov… We start to take our shit right at the Red Square. But now murders are happening there too.” In the end of this monologue Matvei admits that his father harassed him when he was a child. The reaction of his listener is a proposal to give Matvei a blowjob for 50 rubles. Matvei goes for Gerych’s gun and points it to the man, but does not pull the trigger. After that Matvei does nothing.

watermelon rinds The three parts of the film explore how the three main characters try to run away from their traumatic pasts only to find that there is no place to escape. Gerych sublimates his pain through sex, while his brother tries to look at the world through rose-tinted glasses. Matvei sublimates his pain through art, but also runs away from the real world, from his individual meaning in the world, from his father’s funeral, from the city, and, if he gets his wish, from the country. Their personal lives teem with corpses from the past, but everyone pretends not to notice. The final twist underlines this main idea by revealing the identity of the drowned body. It happens to be the girl from the bar where Gerych was looking for a hook-up. All three main characters, and even Christina ,have contributed to her death, but none of them grasps this fact. While Gerych has already uploaded his sex-video with the girl online, Matvei did not stop him, and both America and Christina took part in cyber-bullying the now-dead girl.  

If it was not for the obvious plot outcome, then Watermelon Rinds could be favorably compared with other good, recent films about the new generation of young Russians. After its release Guts published a self-titled storybook that also captures the mood of the film. Because of the literature-centric point of view in the film, Guts’ scriptwriting skills may remain unnoticed by viewers. This also may occur because of the contradictions between the aim of the story and the way it was executed onscreen. A depressively realistic plot about private and collective dramas that do not get resolved is told through a post-modern approach; this may seem anachronistic when reviewed from the context of “new realism” prevalent for Russian film and literature.

 

Eve Ivanilova
Moscow State University

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Works Cited


Anon. 2016. “”Fil'm o rasteryannom pokolenii.” Molodoi kinorezhisser Boris Guts predstavil tagil'chanam debiutnuiu kartinu ‘Arbuznye korki’.” Mezhdu strok 20 November.

Guts, Boris. 2016. “Chelyabinsk pokaz fil’ma ‘Arbuznye korki’.” YouTube 16 November.

 


Watermelon Rinds, Russia, 2016
Color, 83 minutes
Directed by Boris Guts
Screenplay: Boris Guts
Cinematography: Sasha Tananov
Production Design: Boris Guts
Music: Arsenii Shipovskikh
Editing: Boris Guts
Cast: Iaroslav Zhalnin, Anastasiia Pronina, Evgenii Alekhin, Iuliia Khlynina, Nikolai Golubev, Irina Grigor’eva, Dmitrii Orlovich, Maksim Moiseenkov, Timofei Belousov
Producers: Boris Guts, Anastasiia Gusentsova

Boris Guts: Watermelon Rinds (Arbuznye korki, 2016)

reviewed by Eve Ivanilova © 2017

Updated: 09 Apr 17