Issue 67 (2020)

Mikhail Kukushkin: The Gift (Dar, 2018)

reviewed by Holly Myers © 2020

Fathers, Sons and Urinal Art

darIn an under-populated snow-covered provincial Russian town, a Chinese company buys the local factory and thus, on the eve of his sixtieth birthday, Anatolii Sidorov loses the job he has had there for the past 44 years. With bills still to pay (and new boots to buy for his wife), this muzhik needs another way to make some money. Here is where the story takes a strange turn: after a night of drinking, Sidorov runs out into the street to relieve himself. He looks contemplatively off to the side while doing his business; when he’s finished, he glances down at the snow and suddenly stops to stare. The camera stays tight on his face, as he gazes in wonder. The title of the film, The Gift, then flashes across the screen, and—in case that is too subtle—the text is accompanied by a chorus of angelic voices, singing “Ah!” It turns out that Sidorov’s “gift” is that he can draw incredible portraits in the snow... with his urine. The fact that he does so unconsciously the first time, looking off to the side, along with the singing, emphasizes that this gift is divine, unconnected to personal skills. Sidorov snaps a photo of his creation in the snow, and shows it to his wife, who then shows it to the rest of the family at Sidorov’s birthday celebration the next day.

On either side of the miraculous event are scenes with Sidorov’s son, Viktor, a struggling artist living in a tiny, rented room. Unlike his father, he does have artistic skill and training and, in fact, has devoted his life to painting—all to no avail. At the birthday party, when his mother shows everyone the photo of Sidorov’s “drawing” in the snow, she announces that now she knows the source of her son’s artistic ability. Viktor is incredulous, more than a little jealous, and insists that his father demonstrate his “technique.” Once he’s had enough to drink at the party, the father finally complies with the son’s request. They are met outside by Viktor’s son, Kostya. In front of his son and grandson, Sidorov creates a new masterpiece in the snow by means of his “physiological necessity,” as Viktor delicately phrases it the next day at the Department of Culture. Viktor, motivated by an artist’s appreciation for his father’s unique gift—or (and?) a businessman’s nose for a great financial opportunity—sets out to find new clients for his father and organize an art show to showcase the resulting work. Kostya joins Sidorov and Viktor, and a new three-generation family business is born.

dar Sidorov’s “look” gets a make-over, complete with sunglasses that he wears inside at all times, and a Soviet factory worker is thus transformed into a post-Soviet experimental artist. Kostya discovers that sugar works as a substitute for snow. Viktor sets up the operation in a fellow artist’s workshop. And the “clients” start arriving. One after another, they peer at the completed portrait with wonder and—often, for some reason—maniacal laughter. As before, the camera stays tight on the face of the person observing Sidorov’s art. We will never see a piece itself, or any photograph of it.

The main conflicts in the film are generational and personal: Sidorov, 60 years old, presumably born in the late 1950s, petulantly complains that the whole business is a “disgrace” in front of the other men (“muzhiki”) from the factory; 40-something-year-old Viktor, presumably born in the late 1970s, struggles through a midlife crisis, exacerbated by his father’s unexpected artistic success, which highlights his own failure to achieve success of any kind; and 20-something-year-old Kostya, presumably born in the late 1990s, exasperatedly chafes against the outdated mentalities of his father and grandfather. As he shouts one night around the eternal kitchen table: “You’re used to being like everyone else! That was probably normal in your time, everyone lived that way. But now we live in a different country, according to different rules!” While trying to drum up interest in Sidorov’s upcoming art show among uninterested or offended townspeople on the street, it is someone from Kostya’s generation who cynically knows that “free” is the “magic word” that will finally draw these provincial people to an experimental art show. Viktor, who would have come of age in the late 80s and early 90s, lacks his son’s cynicism and mercenary instincts; instead, he argues that Sidorov must create the art out of an obligation he has to the gift, the gift that Viktor so desperately wants for himself.

darAs befits a comedy, ultimately these tensions are easily resolved, and all divisions in the family—as in post-Soviet Russia itself?—are bridged. The final scene is at the family dacha in the summer. Kostya is texting with someone of his own generation about plans to open a business together in Moscow, while Viktor is teaching his father how to paint a landscape with correct perspective. Cue the angelic chorus to sing over the end credits: all’s well that ends well.

The Gift is director Mikhail Kukushkin’s first feature-length film. Kukushkin has more experience as a producer than as director; as the film posters for The Gift prominently advertise, he was among the creators of the hit 2011 comedy Inadequate People. The conceit for The Gift comes from Sergei Zhmakin’s novel, The Golden Stream [Zolotaia struia], which was long-listed for the 2015 Russian Booker Prize. Kukushkin and Zhmakin, who are both from the city of Kurgan, worked together on writing the script. (In fact, it was Zhmakin’s son, who had worked with Kukushkin in television, who gave him a copy of the book.)

Kukushkin has repeatedly stated in interviews that, in his opinion, the point of the film is the nature of the “simple people” in this provincial town, as they live through an extraordinary series of events (Dobrynina 2016). While that is certainly one part of Zhmakin’s novel, I would say that it is actually secondary to the debate undertaken—explicitly by the characters as well as more symbolically in other ways—about the nature of art, including the identity and role of the artist in contemporary Russia. Zhmakin’s idea is a provocative take on the age-old (and very Russian) question of what is or is not art, and what makes an artist an artist. Here, the writer’s pen or painter’s brush—commonly identified as a phallic symbol at least since Freud—becomes the literal phallus. The act that is accomplished with this phallus, however, is not literal procreation but artistic creation; the ejaculated substance is not ink, paint, or even semen, but the sterile waste of urine. And so, the symbolic becomes literal to become symbolic once again.

The significance of masculinity and male sexuality in this story is even more explicit in the novel: Sidorov, who in the novel is only 50 years old, has not only lost his job (thus putting his manliness at risk), but subsequently has trouble urinating; the stream is barely a trickle. He goes to the doctor, who diagnoses an enlarged prostrate gland and recommends more sex, in addition to diet and medicine. Sidorov studiously follows his doctor’s advice, “glancing” much more regularly at his wife, and his powerful stream returns. After such an ordeal, Sidorov has learned to appreciate the pleasure of relieving himself. And it is while enjoying such pleasure that he decides to “draw” a portrait of his wife in the snow one day, which sets in motion the whole business.

In the novel, therefore, sexuality and masculinity have a rather obvious connection to the wondrous works of art that Sidorov is suddenly able to create. In the film, however, Sidorov has no prostrate problems and displays no sexual interest. In the novel, there is a careful distinction between masculine and feminine words for the art that Sidorov creates: promoters of his art only use masculine words to describe it (urinal’nyi risunok and urinal’nyi portret), whereas detractors repeatedly use the feminine word (urinal’naia zhivopis’ and mocheispuskatel’naia zhivopis’). It suggests, once again, that Sidorov’s masculinity, his identity as a man, is closely tied to the novel’s debates about art and artists. In the film, however, any distinction between different words for “art” is overlooked, as the feminine word (zhivopis’) is used almost exclusively by all characters. And finally, rather than Sidorov, it is his son Viktor, the failed artist, middle-aged and overweight, who exhibits sexual desire in the film, when he inexplicably sleeps with the young, beautiful, recently dumped, and extremely intoxicated main female character. (But I won’t go there.)

dar Speaking of Viktor: in the novel, Viktor is Sidorov’s nephew (not son), and Kostya is Sidorov’s son (not grandson). Thus, the representation of three distinct generations, and the Russian trope of fathers versus sons, is a modification that Kukushkin makes to Zhmakin’s novel. It works well enough in the film as a rather straightforward device for making some not-too-political commentary on Russian history, and the major societal shifts and transformations that these “simple people” in the provinces have quietly endured. Zhmakin’s novel is more overtly political, in fact, particularly with the appearance of “Eduard Benediktovich Khrzhizhanovsky,” who flies in from Moscow to have his portrait done. He is described as an oilman who used to be imprisoned, but now is a big shot in Moscow and everywhere followed by an entourage of bodyguards and young thugs (or are they political disciples?) known as “khrzhizhanovetsy.” In other words, he is an amalgamation-caricature of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Eduard Veniaminovich Limonov—and he is definitely a bad guy in Zhmakin’s novel.

Of course, any film adaptation of a novel must leave out something; in Kukushkin’s adaptation of Zhmakin’s Golden Stream, however, it is really only the premise of “urinal art” that remains. Yet, perhaps counterintuitively, the film manages to be significantly more sensationalist than the novel in its treatment of the main conceit. The novel’s most violent scene occurs when Sidorov tries and fails to hit Khrzhizhanovsky over the head with a shovel, in retaliation for Khrzhizhanovsky’s spiteful destruction of the unflattering portrait Sidorov had “drawn” of him. The townspeople in the film react much more violently to Sidorov’s experimental art than they do in his novel: passersby literally assault Kostya and his friends when they’re advertising the “urinal art” show, and there is an actual riot at the show itself. Once again, the film’s point is more about the town and its community than about the art or the artist.

The Gift premiered at the Sochi Open Russian Film Festival (Kinotavr) in June 2018 in the category of “debut films.” In September 2018, it took third place at the Seventh Moscow Film Festival Budem Zhit’! [We’ll Live!] and, in December 2018, was awarded the Grand Prix Prize at the Third International Youth Film Festival in Karelia (Avanesov 2018). The film was released in theaters across Russia in May 2019.

Holly Myers
Barnard College

 

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Works Cited

Avanesov, Viacheslav. 2018. “Kurgan nastupaet.” Kikonline.ru. 28 December.

Dobrynina, Galina. 2016. “Rezhisser Mikhail Kukushkin: pro fil’m ‘Dar’ i kinoeksperimenty v Podol’ske.” Podolskriamo.ru. 25 February.

Zhmakin, Sergei. 2014. Zolotaia struia. Kurgan: Etalon.


The Gift, Russia 2018
Color, 95 minutes, 1:1.85, Dolby 5.1
Director: Mikhail Kukushin
Script: Evgenii Chubarov, Mikhail Kukushkin, Sergei Zhmakin
Editing Aleksandr Amirov, Aleksandr Ivanov, Mikhail Kukushkin
Production Design Sofia Zolotareva, Kirill Petrovskii
Cinematographer: Dmitrii Poliakov
Cast: Aleksei Kolubkov, Iurii Oborotov, Vladimir Karpuk, Valeriia Dergileva, Svetlana Bobkina, Evgenii Zelenov, Ul’iana Glushkova, Alena Konstantinova, Viktoriia Piatakina
Producers: Andrei Novikov, Mikhail Kukushkin, Aleksandr Kotelevskii
Production Film Company ART LIGHT, School of Gherman Sidakov

Mikhail Kukushkin: The Gift (Dar, 2018)

reviewed by Holly Myers © 2020

Updated: 2020