Issue 70 (2020)

Aleksei Smirnov: Inside Lapenko (Vnutri Lapenko, 2019)

reviewed by Anna Sbitneva © 2020

lapenkoYouTube has proven to be one of the most influential entertainment platforms of our time, on a par with Netflix. This is especially apparent today, when we have seen cinemas closed during the Covid-19 pandemic. An Instagram-borne comedian and Jack-of-all-trades, Anton Lapenko justifies the use of the platform and makes a splash, taking YouTube by storm with his series Inside Lapenko (Vnutri Lapenko, 2019–), which has now aired the second season. Overnight he came to public notice and won the praise of so many stars and common folk, who keep saying that his work evokes a warm nostalgic feeling of the time when the grass was greener. The appeal of the late 1980s and 1990s in Russia might come as a surprise to people who endured all the hardships of that period. Nonetheless, the main YouTube content consumers, late Millennials and Zoomers, such as Lapenko himself, find it easy to aestheticize that time by producing Soviet-wave videos edited with VHS camera effects. Yet the aesthetics are not what sets this series apart.

lapenkoOn his YouTube channel, Leonid Parfenov called Lapenko a modern Charlie Chaplin, admiring his ability to perform “little men,” who fly in the face of what big bosses preach (Parfenov 2020). Lapenko, however, is not only a little man embodied in the character of the Engineer; he is an eccentric, conspiracy-based TV Journalist, an homage to Parfenov’s earlier works—the dazed metal rock band Red Fantomas (Krasnyi Fantomas), a turpentine-drinking scrounger Katamaranov, a goofy one-eyed TV-host of the survival program Perish or Die (Sdokhni ili umri), and the antagonist of this narrative, Iron Sleeves (Zheleznye rukava). Lapenko plays every single one of them. This whole affair would have reminded us of a famous scene in Being John Malkovich (1999), if it were not for the outstanding acting talent of Lapenko and, of course, a lot of make-up.

Every character feels different, in spite of the constant mustache that the actor wears: intonation, voice pitch, vocabulary, manners, and mimics—each character has their unique way of bearing themselves. The devil is, of course, in the details. A piece of a duct tape fixing the temples of the Engineer’s glasses; an egg wrapped into a piece of newspaper as a snack on the train; the carpet on the wall; a bandit accompanying every Iron Sleeves scene with a suspenseful synthesizer melody directly from the 1980’s crime dramas—every nuance counts. Each character also has their own longings, though never quite fulfilled.

lapenkoThe first season is centered on the Engineer’s odyssey for his Penelope, the osoba (a worthy and special woman). That is how viewers are introduced to this character: he tries to catch a train but does not quite succeed—he is late the first time, the second time the doors shut in his face, the third time he is thrown out of the carriage by the Iron Sleeves. So, predictably, at the end of the first episode he never reaches his osoba: he arrives at the wrong porch, the wrong house, in the wrong city. This is where the tragedy of all of Lapenko’s characters lies: they are doomed to be chasing rainbows, which at times turns to be a rather gruesome enterprise. The attempts of the Journalist trying to interview cars passing on a highway is another fool’s errand: no one notices him until he is run over by an approaching truck. The driver tries to ditch him with the windscreen wipers, but the Journalist persists with his task, shoving his microphone into the car. This persistence is what flips the tragedy: no matter what sufferings the characters undergo, their grotesqueness sends tears of laughter to the viewer’s eyes.

lapenkoThe determination—despite the feeling of bewilderment—runs like a red thread through the series: lost jobs, lost cats, lost mutant lab mice. The host of Perish or Die cannot find the camera and forgets which way to direct his useful tips for forging a bow. The Journalist shouts “Onwards!” but quickly understands that onwards is in the opposite direction. This space is created to disorient its inhabitants. One must embark on a laborious search during every episode in the town that was about to be named Katamaranovsk, but instead “they decided not to name it at all.” In this unheralded city, unheralded people fight for their place under the sun. Neither a protagonist nor an antagonist is named. The characters are functions but somehow manage to be relatable to the extreme; one roots for the Engineer to reunite with his osoba and the Journalist to seize a putanomatka (a queen hooker)—I’d wager that the reason lies in the precision with which the tropes of a typical Soviet engineer or a typical 90’s bandit materialize into the Engineer and the Iron Sleeves bandit. The unique language wielded by every character fleshes them out, be it the mystery-soaked scandalous proclamations of the Journalist shouting “The mystery of the hole!” into the camera, or the unintelligible blabbering of Tatiana Vosmiglazova, a TV lottery hostess.

lapenkoSomehow, the linguistic diversity seems to be working better in the short, one-minute long vines, which Lapenko originally produced for Instagram. In their jargon-loaded, negative review for the online portal Nozh, Mikhail Bode and Artem Kosmarskii notice it too: they say that the jokes in the early Katamaranov videos, where he extracts podbolotniki (mushrooms from under the moor) out of the swamp and is bitten by a muskrat, are simply more affecting (Bode, Kosmarskii 2020). They were fresh with an absurdity that Russian comedy has not seen much of lately. I tend to partly agree with them, though from my perspective the bigger format works well for the Engineer as a character, as he blooms in the environment of perpetual friction with the corrupted politicians and avaricious criminals—a setting impossible in a shorter format.

lapenkoAs for the novelty of the linguistic comic devices, in Inside Lapenko the creators decided to take the viewer not by quality but rather by quantity. The plenitude of characteristic speech styles and their clashes is what drives the series, and discovers new ways of making spectators crack up. This brings a certain concern that at some point the number of creative devices might dry up. The only two ways out of this conundrum seems to be to expand the universe with new characters (which we have seen in the second season); or, less desirably, to start repeating itself (which one can observe in the second season as well).

lapenkoWhen pondering any kind of absurdist work, a natural question arises: “What does it all mean?” This is the question that Iurii Dud’ asked Lapenko in their interview, receiving an evasive reply that it is all just “a flight of imagination and delirium” and “nothing is implied by it” (Dud’ 2020). However, the political subtext of the series looms large in separate scenes, and also in the plot arch of the Engineer. In his apartment, the Engineer is watching a presidential campaign of a corrupt candidate, who wants to “save the country;” the Engineer defies the candidate’s nationalist logic, echoing Putin’s project “Russia will rise from her knees!” He sputters that he lives well, has a carpet and a sofa, no one needs to rescue him: he has already been rescued. The ideology proffered by the government is of no concern for an ordinary Russian citizen, who just wants to be left alone in the comfort of his sofa. Nevertheless, politics keep intruding into his life: the criminal lobby almost deprives the Engineer of his position at the Research Institute so that they build a market in its place; when the corrupt politician is exposed, the Engineer comes under fire because of his open remarks on the criminal mayhem.

Regardless of how strong the Engineer’s adversaries are, he ends up victorious, anyway. On his journey, built through the multiple references to the culture of the 1980s-90s, he is Viktor Tsoi, who did not die at the end of The Needle (Igla, dir. Rashid Nugmanov, 1988); and he is Danila Bagrov, who avenges all the anguish caused by the Iron Sleeves in the reenacted shooting scene from Aleksei Balabanov’s Brother (Brat, 1997). It is as if the misdeeds of history are rectified, winning justice for the little man. We praise the rise of the Engineer in these monstrous times because every now and then we all feel just as lost and confused as he does. Following his progress with a speck of absurdist humor just makes the whole experience even more enjoyable.

Anna Sbitneva
University of Passau

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Works Cited

Bode, Mikhail; Kosmarskii, Artem. 2020. “Bezopasnye attraktsiony Antona Lapenko. Potchemu iz sketchei populiarnogo You-Tube komika ne vyshlo russkogo Monty Python.” [Safe Rides of Anton Lapenko. Why Popular YouTube Comedian’s Sketches Did not Become Russian Monty Python]. Nozh 4 August.

Dud’, Iurii. 2020. “Lapenko – novaya zvezda russkogo interneta.” [Lapenko – a New Star of Russian YouTube]. YouTube interview, vDud’, 3 March.

Parfenov, Leonid. 2020. “Namedni: PS serii. Lapenko kak Charlie. Q&A. Obnulenie posle tchumy. ‘Zagadka dyry’.” [Namedni: PS Series. Lapenko as Charlie. Q&A. Resetting the Counter to Zero after the Plague. The Mystery of the Hole]. YouTube Parfenon, 29 June.

Inside Lapenko, Russia, 2019–
YouTube, color, 22 min.
Director Aleksei Smirnov
Scriptwriters Aleksei Smirnov, Anton Lapenko
DoP Vladimir Lykov
Production Design Anton Lapenko
Music Evgeniia Skachkova, Valeriia Kogan
Editing Aleksei Boboshin
Cast: Anton Lapenko
Producers Viacheslav Dusmukhametov, Aleksei Smirnov, Anton Lapenko, Roman Kolesnikov, Anton Kuril’chik
Production of Medium Quality Group

Aleksei Smirnov: Inside Lapenko (Vnutri Lapenko, 2019)

reviewed by Anna Sbitneva © 2020

Updated: 2020