Issue 58 (2017)

Andrei Silvestrov: The Ice-Hole (Prorub’, 2017)

reviewed by Lilya Nemchenko© 2017

And the Show Must Go On!

Television has done much for psychiatry by spreading information about it, as well as contributing to the need for it.
(Alfred Hitchcock)

Dear show! On Saturday, almost in tears,
The people pulled together around the TV at Kanatchikov’s dacha.
Instead of eating, washing, and getting high,
The entire mad crowd gathered around the screen.
(Vladimir Vysotsky)

prorubAndrei Silvestrov, president of the League of Experimental Cinema, is convinced that Big Cinema (art-cinema), through which he learnt the trade of a film-director and through which we (non-film-people) learnt how to think, feel and live, has remained in the past. The magic of cinema has disappeared, along with the sacral and mysterious processes encapsulated in the words: “camera, roll!”, while the democratic, digital format has arrived with its gadgets, and while the place of the masters of thought has been usurped by TV. The television set has offered and imposed on us, according to the neat definition of Marshall McLuhan, a “global embrace,” and has moved the population from its private, unique space into a “global village;” it has generated “new tribal people,” capable of perceiving abstraction only through “pictures.”

Silvestrov’s experimental films are a synthesis of a cinematic way of presenting material and the opportunities of video-art, performance, and contemporary art. Through his films we may study modern philosophy and culture. So, the film Volga-Volga (2013) is a manual to study Jean Baudrillard’s theory of the simulacrum; Birmingham Ornament (Birmingemskii ornament, 2011) is a guidebook to the history of totalitarianism in the 20th century. In the Japanese cycle of Birmingham Ornament 2 (2013), the actor Shinichi Watabe declares: “We live in a world that does not exist.” The film The Ice Hole, shown in the competition program of Kinotavr—the best and main Russian film competition—designs a world which does not exist and exists simultaneously; the film here functions as an original introduction into media philosophy. The director Andrei Silvestrov and scriptwriters Andrei Rodionov and Ekaterina Troepolskaia work in the genre of comedy, beautifully using cognitive opportunities of laughter to remove the distance between author and object of study, where laughter assumes the role of a “familiar affinity” (Bakhtin) with the phenomenon. Silvestrov’s The Ice Hole emerged from his performance of Rodionov’s and Troepolskaia’s play, which was staged at the Meyerhold Center back in 2016.

prorubSo, Ice Hole is the history of designing or constructing events in the information space that unites the population and, moreover, the nation. In media theory, the forging of facts (“fake news”) offered to audiences should lean on stereotypes embedded in the subconscious. Any lie becomes most effective if it draws on national traditions, sacral experiences, the so-called spiritual “staples.” One of these staples is Orthodoxy and with it, the ritual of baptism, which is marked by bathing in an ice-hole. All the television news on 19 January (Baptism of Christ) are devoted to this event. But we learn about the news not from the first frame. The first minutes of the film show continually changing close-ups of children rhythmically eating chocolate, men drinking beer, elderly woman rhythmically swaying to an invisible musical source, a naked blonde reminiscent of Kustodiev’s beauties, a lonely guy with a bottle of vodka, some couples in evening dress interestedly gazing somewhere, girls pickling cucumbers, a woman mixing something in a saucepan, and a woman with sexy pants. These frames are very similar to the digital collages of the groups AES+F. All the figures are either static, or somnambulistically swaying to the sounds from the television set. But, as media technologists tell us, to throw in the news effectively, you need to create psychosis. And that’s what happens. The quiet rocking concentrated onto the screen, which has been shot slightly in slow-motion, creates an uncanny effect that is interrupted by the shouts “Jesus felt warm!” The shouting man in a diving suit is picked up by police, and the rhythm of the film changes sharply. The entire screen is now taken up by a television screen with the word NEWS written across it in large letters. The well-known television presenter Anna Mongait makes an important announcement: she reads the list of bathing places in Moscow, where 1,000 ice-holes await 1 million Muscovites ready to plunge into an ice-hole. The absurdity of the event is amplified by the fact that the presenters (and, as we later discover, also the heroes of the film) speak in verse, professionally, with a serious expression on their face; this seriousness gives rise to the sensation of an alienation of the newsreader from the text. The newsreader’s text begins to come to live separately, independent of who pronounces it—Anna Mongait or Denis Kataev (both announcers from the disgraced television channel Dozhd’). The text is built on repetitions, statements such as “there is nothing bad about bathing;” “it is important to understand that nobody forces you to bathe;” “there is a time for everything in the phase of the moon,” as well as a list of addresses with ice-holes with modern conveniences and easy access; and, at last, a news item with the sensational story about a presidential ice-hole! Bulat Tsarev (Dmitrii Brusnikin), the president of Russia, as well as all the people, dive into an ice-hole. Just as the TV set is a meeting place for people with authority, so is the ice-hole a space that unites power and people. Power and people are also united by general artistic heritage, where the belief in miracles is an indispensable part of fairy tales. This miracle may be an oven on wheels, but when things happen around an ice-hole, then there is another hero: the pike! Such a pike talks to the president and makes the top headline in the news! Naturally, the journalists taking interviews are anxious about the pike’s words, whether they might be insulting (in today’s Russia such sensitivity is on the rise). The TV broadcasts also transmit popular ideas about happiness that can be achieved without effort (by magic, by the pike’s will) and infinite guesses about the president’s wishes and the pike’s answers, sharing prospective themes for a conversation of the president with the pike: oil, pipe, peace.

prorubThe people diving into the ice-hole are from the elite and the masses, the creative intelligentsia and the working class; even television and variety stars, politicians and businessmen such as Gennadii Malakhov with his expertise on getting better; Angelina Volk, the leader of official televised events; the singers Oleg Gazmanov and Nikita Dzhigurda. The latter zealously protect national traditions, criticizing the fakers in diving suits—which offends national feelings. Dzhigurda suggests replacing the symbol of Russian creativity, the Black Square, with an ice-hole. Into an ice-hole dive the psychiatrist Semen Belzhko (a hint at the psychiatrist and artist Bilzho); a disgraced oligarch (Mikhail Efremov); the polit-technologist and gallerist Belman (Marat Gelman), who confirms that “we do not have to leave the literariness of our life;” and Anatolii Kosmolovskii (Anatolii Osmolovskii, artist and editor of Khudozhestvennyi zhurnal [Art Magazine]), who argues about the gesture of the bather in the diving suit offending the feelings of the believers, the representative of the movement for a healthy way of life Aleksandr Shaburov.

prorubAlongside the first important theme of the film, the dictatorship of the media, the film also presents a second, eternal theme: love. Everyone searches for love—from freelancers to the president. And the ice-hole is a meeting place for love. Into this second line falls also the tragic plot of Andrei and his wife Anna. Anna, who cannot bear the drunkenness of her husband Andrei, gets drunk and drowns. Andrei, like Orpheus, descends into the gaping emptiness of an ice-hole in search for his Eurydice, but there again is television: the show “At the Bottom (Na dne).”

Silvestrov’s film is not Utopia and not anti-Utopia; it is a pamphlet of sorts, a harsh diagnosis of a society where most of the country’s population stares at the television set and reckons that they see reality.

Marshall McLuhan, the guru of media philosophy, has noted that television acts like LSD, creating euphoria and hallucinations that are accepted as reality. Andrei Silvestrov shows the absurdity of the image of a world created by mass-media, when people find a voice only once they are on TV. As Mikhail Lermontov said: “all this would be ridiculous if it were not sad.”

PS. On 5 August, two months after the screening of Silvestrov’s film at Kinotavr, the Russian President Vladimir Putin caught a huge pike; the television and radio channels shared this news instantly, video-clips appeared on line. But Silvestrov’s Ice Hole got there first: media create our life, even if it is the life of the president.

Translated by Birgit Beumers

Lilya Nemchenko,

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The Ice Hole, Russia, 2017
Color, 65 minutes, 16:9, 5.1
Director Andrei Silvestrov
Scriptwriters Andrei Rodionov, Ekaterina Troepolskaia
DoP Vladimir Usol’tsev, Andrei Kostianov
Production Design Maksim Zhuikov
Music Andrei Gurianov, Iraida Yusupova
Editing Daniil Zinchenko
Cast: Andrei Rodionov, Kseniia Orlova, Dmitrii Brusnikin, Mikhail Efremov, Denis Iasik, Anna Mongait, Denis Kataev
Producers Vadim Bogdanov, Tikhon Pendiurin, Andrei Silvestrov, Aleksandr Starikov
Production Elixir, Kosmosfilm

Andrei Silvestrov: The Ice-Hole (Prorub’, 2017)

reviewed by Lilya Nemchenko© 2017

Updated: 2017