Issue 61 (2018)

Aleksandr Vartanov: Blueberry Fields Forever (Dachniki, 2016)

reviewed by Eve Ivanilova © 2018

Why they’re makin’ all these stupid f*cking movies.
Doesn’t anybody out there in Hollywood believe in kissing anymore?
— Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers

Some people already say to me,
“Why we should watch
Blueberry Fields Forever
 if we have seen the pupils from Pskov?”
— Aleksandr Vartanov

Russian viewers as well as professionals from the film and media industry are frequently united by two things: a demonstrative objection to domestic genre cinema, and blind hatred of localized titles of foreign films. Blueberry Fields Forever, the second feature of Aleksandr Vartanov, had good chances to be attacked for these reasons, but none of them exploded the film’s reputation. The program director of the national film festival Dvizhenie, Stas Tyrkin, describes Blueberry Fields Forever as “splashing with postmodern energy and almost not reminiscent of Russian cinema;” he emphasizes ironically “that is a compliment” (Tyrkin 2016). The English title of the film, Blueberry Fields Forever, is actually the original name chosen by the director. But the title Dachniki (literally Summer People, those who spend summer in their country houses), which is known to Russian viewers, was invented by the aforementioned Stas Tyrkin when he selected films for the competition program of Dvizhenie in 2016. Below, I will try to reveal the poetic meaning of the first English title, but now I shall talk about the context in a more logical way. It was Dachniki that became the festival’s favorite, receiving three awards: Best Film, Best Actor (Aleksei Maslodudov), and Best Cinematography. However, the institutional support did not provide success with viewers to the film: Dachniki was in production for over three years, Vartanov sold his apartment to finish it, but eventually the film got only a limited release. The fiasco in post-production is very rueful as Vartanov’s film provides social comment on Russia in the 2000s, using the visual language of new media and confessing the director’s love to genre cinema.

The basis of the plot and the system of images is a dense literary canvas, which Vartanov had made weaving together scenes and replicas from different works of Iurii Klavdiev, a representative of New Drama and a successful screenwriter. Practically, the plot of Blueberry Fields Forever is an abstract compilation, a thorough reading diary, the author of which transformed Klavdiev’s texts into a new, self-meaningful screenplay. The general idea, for which Vartanov combines various stories and plays, is the classical historiosophical question formulated by Aleksandr Pushkin of the senselessness and ruthlessness of Russian rebellion. Vartanov has addressed this topic already in The Bullet Collector (Sobiratel’ pul’, 2011), which is also based on Klavdiev’s play. Vartanov clarifies the connection between the two films and the development of the image of a teenage rebel in one of his interviews: “The main character of Blueberry Fields Forever is the boy from The Bullet Collector, who has now grown up and understands: he should not riot anymore, but tell everyone go to hell and run away” (Vartanov 2016). It is easy to see that the character’s development was happening in co-evolution with historical time and social context in Russia. The Bullet Collector was released in the rebellious 2011 and showed a maximalist teenager, for whom it takes a long time to decide to protest in the real, not imaginative world. Meanwhile, Blueberry Fields Forever is a story of young people without names who escape into the forest, released in the reactionary 2016. And is it still unquestionable that Pushkin is an old-fashioned writer?

blueberry fields Although the director claims his rebellious hero has grown up, the theme of childhood not only remains, but even intensifies. So, besides the historiosophical narrative, Blueberry Fields Forever reflects the problem of adolescent violence in contemporary Russia. The specific incidents of violence among teenagers highlight the failures of the edifying and protective policy of state and family institutions in relation to children of different ages, and consequently these incidents are not made public. For example, half a year after Blueberry Fields Forever there was a terrible incident in Pskov region. A pair of 15-year-old lovers escaped to the girl’s family dacha (in Russia and other post-Soviet countries dacha is the second house where families spend their summer holidays relaxing, growing garden crops, and doing outdoor activities). They ran away because of the abusive relationships in their families, which they described in a Periscope broadcasting session. In their video-record the teenagers describe the moment when the girl’s mother and grandmother tried to get into the house and tell them that they were being shot at (though not killed) by the boy. The teens were having a Periscope broadcasting session in the real time, enjoying the great experience of shooting at the police and hyping online. But at the same time, they were extremely scared of being arrested or killed. Unfortunately, the young people shot themselves or, as some journalists claim, were killed by police, which did not even let a professional psychologist make contact with the girl and the boy. The teenagers were buried nearby and the dark story was hushed up. Over the last year several local “Columbines” happened in Russia. In September 2017, a teenager from the Moscow region attacked a teacher and several pupils with a pneumatic weapon and a kitchen hatchet. In January 2018, there was a knife massacre in school No. 123 in Perm’. Later, a group of pupils from Buryatia armed with an axe attacked a teacher and children, and then threw a Molotov Cocktail. Russian society was not shocked, and all of these incidents stopped being discussed enormously quickly. When federal TV channels reported, they tried to use examples of teenage violence to recall the destructive influence of American culture and the need for strengthening control over the Internet. Indeed, the same ideological frame had been applied to the coverage of the infamous Blue Whale Game and the Navalny Protests on 26 March 2017, where several dozens of teenagers actively participated. Certainly, New Drama with its different methods for accentuating and researching the theme of youth violence amazingly accurately shows the reverse side of excluding children from political life in the country, which infringes the rights and the freedom of children and adolescents. As Aleksandr Vartanov sums up: “All horizontal and vertical relations are lost, but some indistinct ‘spiritual clamps’ are being created instead. Klavdiev and I, as well as Serebrennikov with his Student, are trying to follow it, and reality adds its own” (Vartanov 2016).

The characters of Blueberry Fields Forever are not actually kids, but the child–adult opposition exceeds the frame of biological or legal age. Childishness is an uncontrolled thirst for freedom and estrangement, while adulthood means abusive normativity. So the first scene of Blueberry Fields Forever is an interrogation of the main characters at the police station. The detective takes photos of a young couple under arrest, and goofily mocks them, saying that he is doing this for their international passports. Not understanding, the young man asks: “What?” But when he answers the detective’s question about his growing-up, he rants a phrase which is more unexpected than the officer’s joke: “Childhood is a sunbathed blooming meadow through which you can run carelessly into the sunset.” The officer squeamishly asks: “What?”, unconsciously duplicating the miscommunication from their previous chat. The guy answers: “Nothing. It’s just written that way.” But the demonstrative literary phrase has not been taken from fiction, which the boy frequently talks about; the quote does not come from Klavdiev’s text either, but from a quasi-scientific book on child psychology with a title that sounds ironic in the context of the film: Bad Habits of Good Children (Alla Barkan, 2004). The question is the following: why does the director make his character say this phrase? The phrase originally continues like this: “and it is really important that a loving, experienced mentor stays with you;” so Vartanov is probably pointing out that the rules are always imposed in one direction, without any reciprocity in the educative process. His character had learned the phrase about childhood in the orphanage or in the children’s police rooms during his previous arrests. Therefore, when he brings back the sentence to the symbolic adults, the detective gets annoyed immediately. The young people confess they have killed several people, but they keep an absolutely naive consciousness: the boy declares what childhood is, while his girlfriend demands to add the phrase “she loves him so much” to the minutes. The harsh detective does not listen to them sensitively, is irritated and finally sums that this is “a f*cking kindergarten.” We can sum up the policemen’s political unconsciousness in a short phrase: childhood is rhymed with a threat to the legitimacy of his law and order.

blueberry fieldsBut for the character “law and order” means that only he and she can make the statement. Their love story is surely a search for answers to question about private law and their identities. They met each other when some gang tried to rape the girl. They were filming this on mobile phones, proving their existence and demonstrating their power. So the viewers can see the scene as a screenshot from a YouTube page. As soon as the boy saves the girl (his future beloved), a new dominant “adult” intervenes into reality. This is a disgruntled women’s voice which condemns the act of violence being out of the frame. However, the invisible woman doesn’t blame the young rapists, but the girl: the woman’s voice calls her a slut and threatens to call the cops. In real life, in Ulyanovsk in 2016 the 16-year-old Diana Shurygina was raped at a friend’s birthday party, and her 21-year-old rapist was sent to prison. A little after the release of Blueberry Fields Forever Shurygina became a genuine anti-rating media star: by February 2017 the episode of a TV-show with her story posted on YouTube scored 12 million views. A grandiose information-hype was raised, where the dominant opinion blamed the girl for debauchery. A mass hate surrounded Shurygina, and people threatened her by keeping a safe distance at the same time. This wave of social indignation seems to me similar to the female voice in the scene of the failed rape. The voice can be interpreted as a representation of a conservative discourse, which does not recognize the right of a young girl to sexuality and gets angry. The parallel to the incident with Shurygina shows us again that the articulation of actual social problems in cinema can predict their specific embodiment in real life.

The question of gender roles and sexual education is important in Blueberry Fields Forever. For instance, in the first scene the girl masterfully plays her gender role that is expected of her. She says to the detective: “I’ve seduced all the right guys during the final year and then these jealous bitches hired a killer. I killed him and left school, and home too.” The characters escaped into the forest only after she had taken revenge on her abuser. They make love on the beautiful green lawn, as the camera revolves fondly around the girl (not the boy, because the viewer is listening to his voice-over and should identify with him). He has almost found the “blueberry fields” from his dreams—fields full of sweet berries, or the intoxicating effect of being only with her (“blueberry” also stays for a hybrid sort of cannabis with a clear blueberry taste and euphoric effect)—but not “forever.”

blueberry fields A forester finds the protagonists sleeping and agrees to give them lunch in his hut. He almost refrains from engaging in a dialogue, but sighs patronizingly “Oh, kid,” answering to the characters’ expatiation about the imaginative apocalypse. Like the rest of the adult world, the forester holds the position of the omniscient guardian, although he is also a runaway, who escaped from the big world into the forest. Vartanov says that the image of the forester implies another social comment: he is the victim of a neo-liberal reform of forest legislation in 2006, which liquidated forestry institutes in Russia, and which the character mentions indirectly. Some of the scenes give us a glimpse of his youthful attempt to shoot himself. The culmination of his falsehood is a mean attempt to rape the girl. Of course, the young lovers kill the adult liar and use the chance to stay in his hut as keepers. At this moment the cinematography changes from the documentary style of the first scene to colorful eccentricity.

The main characters try to build an absolutely new, sacred world, which they discover by a ritualized funeral of the forester. The most curious element in the colorful funeral ritual is the neglect of the Russian Orthodox burial tradition: the characters use neither a coronet, nor a cross. The face of the murdered forester is painted like a Russian nesting doll, and pioneer’s badges are placed on his eyes; then they put the body on a raft with flowers and blueberries, pour gasoline over it and send it floating along the river. All this is clearly the characters’ opposition (perhaps unconscious) to the Orthodox imperative, which is meant to cement the adult world of modern Russia. From various Soviet rubbish—odd furniture, banners with communist slogans, carpets, vinyl records and books about the success of collective farmers—the characters literally and metaphorically construct a wigwam, in which they can quite seriously play, using the skin of a freshly slaughtered rabbit like a glove doll, and getting engaged with rings made of electrical tape. The carnivalization of violence in Blueberry Fields Forever highlights the characters’ childishness and add a social comment. Only the heroine’s quick glance suggests that the carnival will not last long. “I just wanted to live with her. We loved each other, right?”—the male voice-over answers, while the girl is watching him jumping naked onto the barrel and nervously creaking her jaws.

As soon as the first tension arises between the characters, Vartanov introduces a conflict situation. Some criminals appear for a gathering near the hut and the protagonist kills the uninvited guests. Detailed shots of the bloody massacre are intercut with close-ups of the couple kissing. The pathological wish for intimacy with only one person is multiplied by the irreconcilable rejection of other people. The political message of the film is crystallized in personal relationships. Avoiding violence of the “adult” world is reproduced grotesquely with a childlike defamiliarization. The biggest conflict is personalized in the figure of the enemy. During a chaotic fight, one of the criminals tries to attack the girl while another one rescues her. The couple takes in the rescuer, and he gradually invades their life and destroys their intimate relationship. At first, “Enemy” (the nickname given to him by the main character) is chained and muzzled with bones. But very soon the girl allows him to drink tea at the table. The character reads aloud a list of Soviet leaders as if he tries to verbally protect their world, but the girl does not listen to him and flirts with Enemy. The closer the heroine bonds with the Enemy, the quicker the boy swaps places with him. Finally Enemy brutally rapes the boy, which gives the former the right to not pretend being a child any more. Later the girl tries to involve him in a funny, innocent game with flour, which makes him furious: he slaps her buttocks painfully, like a parent-figure from a patriarchal model. When the Enemy gains enough power to be a father-figure, parricide becomes possible. No wonder that the next scene is the violent murder of a random family camping nearby.

blueberry fieldsSeveral details prevent Vartanov’s film from looking excessively literary and mannered. First of all, the performativity, common for New Drama (and especially Klavdiev’s plays): the depiction of a social shift as a children’s game that happens amidst political and cultural stagnation, the numbness of public institutions, the rigid rhetoric of police oversight. The ruthless view of New Drama on reality, as well as its language, grows from the cannibalistic 1990s, and at the same time is to become the language of the confused 2000s and the paralyzed 2010s. Probably this is the reason why New Drama’s language oscillates between documentary and theatrical eccentricity, realism and absurdity. Vartanov’s rebellious and passionate children are not merely recycled images from Klavdiev’s plays; they are strikingly similar to the recent Russian news agenda. The second and most important reason why Blueberry Fields Forever does not represent a logocentric discourse is Vartanov’s use of cinematic tradition. He takes the monsters of Nikolai Gogol, Aleksandr Vvedenskii and Iurii Mamleev reanimated by Klavdiev and moves them into the cinematic lover/murderer sub-genre plot exemplified by Terrence Malick’s Badlands (1973), David Lynch’s Wild at Heart (1990), Tony Scott’s True Romance (1993), and Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers (1994). These films could be seen as a diegetic mini-universe. For each couple, being children means precisely: being alive. But their vitality comes only from transgressing the boundaries of social law. In Natural Born Killers Mallory Knox confesses her love to Mickey after murdering her father and escaping. She describes her feelings: “You make every day feel like kindergarten.” This sounds similar to the officer’s reproach from the first scene of Blueberry Fields Forever, but Mallory’s phrase is diametrically opposed.

One of the most interesting ingredients of the sub-genre concerns the gender question. The protagonist in Badlands independently gets to know a shy heroine. It is important that a frame appears after the characters’ acquaintance where Holly Sargis (Sissy Spacek) sits next to a big advertising inscription “bait.” The character kills her father, sets the house on fire and takes the girl to the criminal adventure. Spacek’s heroine voices the question: “Where would I be this very moment if Kit had never met me or killed anybody?” And then she asks questions typical for a teenage girl—about her parents meeting each other and about her future husband. In Badlands and Blueberry Fields Forever the protagonists are young guys, who suffer because of their dominance. But while in Badlands gender roles do not break, they do in the Russian film. Both films speak about the law, about offense of the law, and about contradictions of the radical protest. The other above-mentioned films are more focused on the invention of cinematic language for criminal love stories. This helps us understand why the hero of Blueberry Fields Forever kills the forester with antlers (the same detail can be found in Badlands), and why Vartanov’s film involves eccentric cinematography, constantly using the Dutch Angle like in the hectically stylish Natural Born Killers.

Blueberry Fields Forever is full of references to the cinematic universe. The protagonists are imbued with the colors of characters from American films, enclosed in a cycle of intertextual links and, perhaps, therefore deprived of their own names. Vartanov is able to catch analogies because of supra-national neo-liberal neutralization or exploitation of different types of inequalities.

Eve Ivanilova
Independent scholar

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Works Cited

Tyrkin, Stas. 2016. “Dachniki.” GogolCenter.

Vartanov, Aleksandr [interview]. 2016. “Kak khardkornoe russkoe kino sovpalo s tragediei s pskovskimi shkol’nikami.” Afisha Daily 21 November.

 

 


Blueberry Fields Forever, Russia, 2016
Color, 84 minutes
Director: Aleksandr Vartanov
Script: Aleksandr Vartanov, Iurii Klavdiev
Cinematography: Vsevolod Kaptur, Ivan Branovets, Denis Klebleev, Ivan Finogeev
Production Design: Elena Shmakova
Costume Design: Ol’ga Vasina
Editing: Aleksandr Vartanov, Grigorii Kalinin, Ivan Gaev
Cast: Ekaterina Steblina, Aleksei Maslodudov, Artur Beschastnyi, Anatolii Khropov
Producer: Aleksandr Vartanov, Tat’iana Meskhi
Production Company: Blancache Production

Aleksandr Vartanov: Blueberry Fields Forever (Dachniki, 2016)

reviewed by Eve Ivanilova © 2018

Updated: 2018