Issue 74 (2021)

Konstantin Fedotov: Moscow Does Not Happen (Moskvy ne byvaet, 2020)

reviewed by Brian Kilgour © 2021

moskvy ne byvaetKonstantin Fedotov’s Moscow Does Not Happen is a film with a secret. From its opening to the climactic reveal in the film’s final minutes, Moscow Does Not Happen teases the viewer with hints that something sinister and cosmic is behind the film’s various mysteries. This sense of apprehension is maintained by the short but effective score composed by Nikolai Zhigulin (credited alongside the name of his art project, “Kolias”). The film’s opening sequence, a star-scape, is accompanied by an ambient version of the film’s main theme: a sustained synthesizer plays a grouping of three notes as voiceover narration describes the state of the universe leading up to the Big Bang. Gradually, muted guitar strumming provides an organic, percussive layer to the ambient whine of the synthesizer as the camera pans up. Instead of revealing a planet, the star-scape resolves into a mottled bathroom floor and the feet of main character Lyokha (Ivan Fedotov) as he sits on the toilet reading the magazine Nauka i zhizn’ (Science and Life), providing a diegetic source for the voiceover. As the voiceover announces that a sound wave induced the Big Bang, the soundtrack is violently interrupted by a knock on the door; Lyokha has taken too long on the toilet. But this comic interruption doesn’t last: immediately, the television can be heard in the background as a reporter speaks about an upcoming rocket launch. Moscow Does Not Happen is at its best in moments like this when it combines sound and setting to create tension, to abruptly quell it, and then to recall that tension through information relegated to the background.

Lyokha is a handyman who makes a living (occasionally) repairing buildings. During a job repairing the windows at a dilapidated apartment owned by town leader Tolianych, a mysterious visitor from Moscow appears and asks to rent the apartment. While Tolianych takes the visitor to a bar to try to discover the reason for his interest in the apartment, a group of artists approaches Lyokha and informs him that the apartment was most recently the home of the deceased poet Kolmogurov. The artists, including a journalist named Masha, share that Kolmogurov wrote his final poems on the wallpaper; they offer Lyokha beer in exchange for removing the poetry from the apartment. When Tolianych and the visitor return to the now cleaned-out apartment, the visitor dismays over the loss of the poetry and Tolianych sends his minions chasing after Lyokha. At the same time, Masha reveals that she has photographs of herself and Lyokha on her camera from three days ago, though neither can remember ever meeting each other. At this point, Moscow Does Not Happen transforms into a rather typical thriller as Tolianych and his thugs search for Lyokha at one location after another, but through luck Lyokha is able to avoid them and slip away unnoticed. Eventually, Masha and Lyokha decide to flee the town and head to Moscow to start a new life. It is here in the film that some of Moscow Does Not Happen’s main themes come into view.

moskvy ne byvaetUletnoe is emblematic of long-running perceptions of the Russian provinces. Its inhabitants live in Soviet-era apartment buildingsin various states of disrepair and the bar is the most modern establishment in town, complete with karaoke and televisions. Work is scarce, alcohol is plentiful, and Tolianych is portrayed as a combination between a mayor and mafia boss. The few places with economic potential shown in the film are abandoned, including a factory and a farm. As Masha and Lyokha begin their quest to leave the city, the film places Moscow in dramatic opposition to Uletnoe as the place to begin a new life. The portrayal of a provincial city in Moscow Does Not Happen follows the typical representation of the provinces in 19th century Russian literature as described by Anne Lounsbery in Life is Elsewhere: “the local (i.e., the non-capital, because capitals are never “local”) tends to be not only homogeneous and predictable but also static and stagnant, always in need of stimulus from the outside” (Lounsbery 2019: 19). Lounsbery argues that the tension between the provinces and the center (Moscow and Saint Petersburg) in Russian literature echoes the relationship between Russia and Western Europe; the provinces in this way are representative of Russia as a whole. In Moscow Does Not Happen, as Lyokha and Masha search for a way to Moscow, it is revealed to not exist, leaving Uletnoe as their center.

Lyokha and Masha are brought together by the final poems of Kolmogurov, most notably one from which the film takes its title: “Moscow Does Not Happen” [Moskvy ne byvaet]. As they search for an escape from Uletnoe, these words begin to repeat. At the bus terminal, they are told that there are no tickets to Moscow and that there are never tickets to Moscow: “Net biletov v Mosvku, i ne byvaet.” While Lyokha visits his mother, it turns out that his father is Kolmogurov, who spent time in Moscow but was very ill when he returned. At the funeral, Lyokha pulls the shroud from his father’s face to reveal a dummy, removing another connection to Moscow. They decide to buy bus tickets to Klubnichnyi, the furthest stop from the city. When the bus breaks down before the final stop, Masha and Lyokha attempt to walk the rest of the way, which is when they discover that the horizon is in fact a curtain covering a wall. Here, the mysterious visitor from Moscow appears and, at last, reveals the secret at the center of the film: Uletnoe is located on a spaceship, or more specifically, a generation ship.

The concept of the generation ship is known to have first appeared in science fiction in Robert Heinlein’s 1941 short story “Universe” and its sequel “Common Sense.” Heinlein’s stories are foundational to the generation ship paradigm in the way they use dramatic irony; the epigraph to “Universe” refers to an interstellar voyage to Alpha Centauri, knowledge that was lost to the ship’s crew following a disastrous mutiny in the distant past. Over centuries or possibly millennia, the crew forgot that it was on a spaceship at all and established a complex metaphysics based on the belief that the ship was the entirety of the universe. Over the course of the two stories, one character discovers the true nature of reality and attempts to convey this knowledge to the rest of the crew. The limited knowledge of characters in generation ship stories is key to what David Ketterer calls the apocalyptic element of science fiction (Ketterer 1983: 73). Generation ship stories utilize a kind of defamiliarization in which reality is greatly limited, funneled into an enclosed, manufactured space.  Eventually, an inhabitant ventures forth and breaks through into a dramatically expanded reality.

The generation ship serves a role in science fiction like that played by the provinces in Russian literature. The enclosed, static setting of the generation ship is isolated from the rest of humanity, stands in as a miniature version of reality, and requires an external impulse to instigate action; likewise, the Russian provinces are static and insular, separated from the centers of Russian society, and can be representative of the whole of Russia. In combining these archetypes, Moscow Does Not Happen is able to take them to their extremes: there is no center (Moscow), Uletnoe is completely isolated, and action is instigated from the outside. Unfortunately, by delaying its reveal until the final minutes of the film and jealously hiding the nature of its plot twist, Moscow Does Not Happen is not able to truly explore these ideas.

moskvy ne byvaetThe problem with Moscow Does Not Happen is not uncommon to generation ship stories: it doesn’t find the correct balance of dramatic irony (the 2016 generation ship film Passengers also drew this criticism). Less than 15 minutes remain by the time Lyokha and Masha find their way into the ship’s command center with the stranger, who reveals himself to be 385 years old and the ship’s psychologist. At this point, the film’s themes are conveyed solely through a series of monologues given by the psychologist and the ship’s captain. The ship was intended to be an ark of Russian culture, carrying the art of generations to a new planet and away from a dying Earth. However, the second and third generations of the ship fell into depression and many committed suicide. To rectify the situation, the ship’s command crew wiped the memories of nearly every inhabitant. Kolmogurov managed to find his way out of the city several times and was driven insane after having his mind erased multiple times, though he was able to communicate his discovery through his last poems. Masha and Lyokha also found their way out, but had their minds erased, explaining how Masha had photos of Lyokha with no memory of having met each other. Due to the degradation of culture in the population, the psychologist recommends revealing the truth, but in the end has his own memory wiped by the authoritarian captain of the ship. The reasons for cultural degradation, the nature of autocracy, and how memory inspires art are all themes suggested by the final monologues of the film, but they can only be considered in retrospect by the viewer. The film’s ending, in which Lyokha, Masha, and the psychologist appear to recognize each other after having their memories wiped, does little to advance any of the ideas introduced in the film’s climax. Had the film revealed the nature of this city earlier and explored more of typical life in Uletnoe, or had the film instead followed Kolmogurov as he madly attempted to communicate the truth just to have his statements interpreted as art, it may have been able to connect its themes more deeply to its plot.

Still, Moscow Does Not Happen has much to recommend it. In addition to the score, the individual tracks chosen for the film are key to the film’s atmosphere. A low-fi, MIDI cover of Grazhdanskaia Oborona’s “Vse idet po planu” with synthesized vocals matches the comic strangeness that Konstantin Fedotov aims for as Lyokha and Masha ride the bus to the outskirts of town. With its limited budget, the film still manages to recall dystopian films such as Dark City (1998) and The Matrix (1999) through casting and setting. Fedotov’s Lyokha channels Keanu Reeves’ slow and deliberate Neo while Anatolii Goriachev’s soft-spoken, detached stranger is not unlike Dark City’s Dr. Schreber (also a psychologist, played by Kiefer Sutherland). Vitalii Abdulov (a credited extra in The Bourne Supremacy) is perhaps the highlight of the film, infusing the thug Kocha with a naïve joy that dominates each of his scenes.

The plot similarities between Dark City and Moscow Does Not Happen are unmistakable: the cities of both films are adrift in space and the populations are controlled by erasing their memories. Even the opening star-scape of Moscow Does Not Happen is quite possibly a quote of the opening shot of Dark City. This makes Dark City a particularly interesting case for comparison, especially concerning how difficult it is to achieve a correct balance of dramatic irony. The theatrical release of Dark City opens with a voiceover that informs the viewer immediately that a powerful alien species came to Earth searching for immortality and are now experimenting on humankind; this precedes a scene showing the city falling asleep in unison at midnight. The Director’s Cut, released in 2018, removes this scene entirely, relying instead on the rest of the film to reveal its mysteries. Yet even without the opening scene, Dark City manages to dole out information gradually instead of relying on a long exposition dump at its conclusion.

Unfortunately, for all its references to classic science fiction literature and cinema, Moscow Does Not Happen is mostly a movie about a hapless man who escapes from hapless mobsters. Its plot twist allows viewers to ask questions at the end of the film, but the film prevents itself from addressing these questions by holding back the plot twist until the very end. The film competently establishes its anticipatory mood through its solid soundtrack, commendable performances, and successful balance of tension and humor. Ultimately, in too closely guarding its secrets, Moscow Does Not Happen places its viewers in the same position as the inhabitants of Uletnoe while failing to address its key question: without a past, how can there be a future?

Brian Kilgour
University of Wisconsin-Madison

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Works Cited

Ketterer, David. 1983. “The ‘Science Fiction’ of Mark Twain,” Mosaic: An Interdisciplinary Critical Journal, 16(4), 59-82.

Lounsbery, Anne. 2019. Life Is Elsewhere: Symbolic Geography in the Russian Provinces, 1800–1917. Ithaca: Cornell UP.

 


Moscow Does Not Happen, Russia, 2020
Color, 98 minutes
Director: Dmitrii Fedorov
Scriptwriter: Lev Ryzhkov
Cinematography: Ian Voronovskii
Composer: Nikolai “Kolias” Zhigulin
Production Design: Sofiia Sladkova
Costume Design: Andrei Likhachev
Cast: Ivan Fedotov, Ol’ga Starchenkova, Anatolii Goriachev
Producers: Aleksei Arkhipov, Vadim Bogdanov
Production: United Filmmaking Group

Konstantin Fedotov: Moscow Does Not Happen (Moskvy ne byvaet, 2020)

reviewed by Brian Kilgour © 2021

Updated: 2021