New Films 






# 5, July 2004

Masses and Classes: Kinotavr 2004

By Victor Matizen, President of the Guild of Film Critics (Russian Union of Filmmakers)

Translated by Vladimir Padunov

Two enclaves were established at the Kinotavr film festival in the mid-1990s: "Films for the Chosen" and "Films for Everyone." Since film production continued to decline and since everyone wanted to be among "the chosen," selection and segregation were virtually eliminated. "Everything Offered" began to be included in the festival, even those films that shouldn't be shown to anyone with an ounce of self-respect. On the basis of this out-dated, but still operative distinction, the films screened at Kinotavr 2004 can easily be divided into three categories:


(I) "Mass" = "Genre" = "Entertainment Films

The Soviet lexicon used to include the word "massconsump" [ширпотреб], used to designate goods in mass production (even if only theoretically, since in the real world they functioned more problematically), goods that were intended for "mass consumption." Four films shown at this year's Kinotavr belong to the category of "kino-massconsump": Tat'iana Voronetskaia's The Recipe of the Sorceress (2003), Ivan Solovov's Words and Music (2004), Ekaterina Kalinina's Lord of the Air Waves (2003), and Aleksei Rudakov's Salamander's Skin (2004). Ol'ga Stolpovskaia's and Dmitrii Troitskii's homosexual opus, I Love You (2003), lies at the border of this category. All of these films are melodramas, all are based on contemporary themes, and all are spiced up with elements of the musical, comedy, and criminal genres.

Paradoxically, film culture aimed at a mass audience is only in the process of being born in post-Soviet Russia, and the demands of mass consumers have not yet been identified. As a consequence, film producers are still merely groping their way towards this audience, at times offering up something strange, something that resembles a commercial product but really isn't because of its low quality or because a real-life audience turns out to be very small.

Just as the class of "nouveau riche" has begun to form in Russian society, "films about living beautifully" have begun to appear. These films are made in a glamorous style, recalling Italian "white phone cinema." They have virtually the same objective as glossy illustrated magazines: to create an atmosphere that allows them easily to foist on the reader-consumer a shampoo for prostates, a belt for dandruff, or condoms with an odor as clean and fresh as an unborn baby's kiss.

The Recipe of the Sorceress is part of this glamorous current, held together not by the director or producer, but simply by the perfumed smell of the times. The thirty-year-old heroine, an ex-ballerina, lives in an apartment that resembles an expensive art gallery, dresses in haute couture, works out in a fitness club, and uninterruptedly gazes into the camera lens (just like the heroine of another glamour film, Aleksandr Strizhenov's and Sergei Ginzburg's Falling Up [2002], who lived in a million-dollar penthouse facing the Kremlin). The only problem in her life is her inability to get pregnant. Actually, the director imposes this problem on her since she is so intoxicated with herself that she has absolutely no need to have a child; it is more prestigious to have a purebred dog. But since it is risky to order the heroine about from off-screen, the director depicts on screen her own authoritative representative: the heroine's girlfriend. This girlfriend sells perfumes, using every means possible to assault her clients' nostrils, including inviting her customers to sniff her. So in addition to selling perfumes, she seems to have a sideline in peddling either her own flesh or its odor. She is just as active in suggesting various ways for the heroine to conceive, almost as if she also sells means for getting pregnant.

While the film's content flirts with indecency, Voronetskaia creates the illusion of maidenly modesty: glamour is the art of surrogates and substitutes. After trying some of her girlfriends' methods without success (including an attempt to spend the night with a male stripper), the heroine meets a romantic young gentleman and then gets pregnant. Because of the film's extreme bashfulness, it is impossible to figure out whether post hoc ("and then") means propter hoc ("as a consequence of")—whether this gentleman engaged in the fertilizing act or not, but also whether he even existed in reality at all or was simply an erotic apparition that so stimulated the heroine's reproductive apparatus that she conceived a child with her own husband. Considering the heroine's visit to the sorceress, however, it can't be excluded that the ex-ballerina conceived via some unclean spirit. This much is clear in a metaphysical sense: in the sterile atmosphere of the screen, all natural ways of conceiving are simply ruled out.

A step lower on this ladder is Lord of the Air Waves, a debut film by Kalinina, a former documentary filmmaker who—following the examples of Voronetskaia, Marina Razbezhkina (Harvest Time, 2003) and Svetlana Stasenko (Shantytown Blues, 2004)—has made the transition to feature films. In passing, I should note that while Razbezhkina and Stasenko partially preserve the aesthetics of documentary filmmaking, Voronetskaia and Kalinina distance themselves as much as possible from that aesthetics. The characters in Kalinina's film are young DJs at an FM radio station and their listeners, who include a famous singer and his producer; a fashion designer and her long-lost admirer from her scouting days, now a garbage-collector; and a foolish girl who is in love with one of the DJs. Without exception, these characters are played as if "by hearsay"; the only things left of real DJs, producers, and garbage-collectors are the names of the professions and external appearances. Zombies sit inside the characters, carrying out the director's instructions.

In his novel Blue Lard, Vladimir Sorokin uses an effective turn-of-phrase: "to snot up a relationship" [сопливить отношения]. The relationships of the characters in Lord of the Air Waves are not merely "snotted up," they are also covered with saccharine syrup. And at the end of the film, great personal happiness awaits each of them. The unintentional gap created by the director between reality and its representation on screen is so great that the film becomes almost a self-parody. Even the film critics sitting in the hall had a fit of collective wisecracking [стеб], something that happens quite rarely. As a rule, experienced producers and distributors try to shove these types of films straight into movie theaters, bypassing festivals and critics. Kalinina and her producer, Sergei Zernov, however, entered the film into the competition program without a moment's hesitation. And they paid dearly for it at the press conference, where they were on the receiving end of a barrage from the irritated critics who had sat in the screening hall.

Words and Music is a remake of Elie Chouraqui's film of the same title (France and Canada, 1984). The plot of the film comes down to an affair between Margo, a forty-year-old show-business broad, and a twenty-year-old musician. Since Marat Basharov, who plays the male lead, is almost 35, his puppy-like behavior makes him appear infantile. But then, in the 21st century this "infantile age" is the same as Christ's when he was crucified. Margo's husband is a writer, with whom she has constant conflicts about their lack of money and his inattentiveness. Whenever these conflicts become too intense, Margo has a habit of seeking solace in the embrace of lovers. Although the musician builds his career more on the basis of his masculine, rather than his musical, talents, the classical theme of "climbing up" across the body of a woman is barely alluded to in the film. Margo's new lover cannot resist her former lover's (her business partner's) cynical offer and dumps her in exchange for a music tour abroad. But his feelings of love quickly conquer the combined interests of commerce and careerism, and he returns to his beloved … for as long as it takes her husband to return from his self-imposed inspirational retreat. Family values—as is to be expected in a cinema aimed at the masses—are victorious over the values of free love. In general, this entirely mediocre film is made using a template for commercial cinema. If the film's title was a bit earthier and its music had a bit more drive, this movie could probably count on a successful run, as far as Russia's market allows.

"Salamander's Skin" is the name given to a heat-resistant uniform for fire-fighters. The film's hero-scientist, however, who manufactures these fire-retarding skins, is "burnt" in the full sense of the word: he loses his job, he is swindled out of his summer home, his wife abandons him for his foreign partner-manufacturer of the uniforms, and his daughter becomes an invalid. As a result, the hero becomes so embittered that he acquires the ability to kill with a word or a glance. A Mephistophelean businessman decides to make use of this power to settle scores with his enemies and to frighten his competitors. So he hires the hero, offering him a well-paying job. A melodramatic plot is grafted on to this criminal plot: the hero meets this new boss's girlfriend, the owner of a furniture factory, who in her spare time cares for invalid children (!). The "bloody" and the "tearful" plot lines get tangled up. As a consequence, the first is resolved by the crass intervention of a deus ex machina in the guise of a procurator and the militia, who arrest the businessman; while the second overflows its banks and drowns the end of the film. It is difficult for a civilized viewer to watch this kind of barbarity. However, in the immortal words of a rock singer, "da people'll swallow it" ["пипл схавает"], especially since the Russian word for "blood" [кровь] still rhymes with "love" [любовь].

All of these films placed at the tail-end of the critics' rankings (see the table at the end of the article), separated from the main group of films by a resounding difference of 1.29 points. This was due not only to the quality of the films themselves, but also to Russian critics' traditional dislike of "massconsump."

Stolpovskaia's and Troitskii's I Love You provides yet another model of contemporary spectacle. By uniting "glamour" with "garbage" ("trash"), we end up with a new genre: "glambage." The viewer is once again in a completely bloodless, artificial world that is drowning in love—or, more precisely, "luv" [любоу]. The plot is wonderful, like "the river Dniepr when the weather is calm" (1): a Russian television anchorwoman begins a relationship with a business manager who was educated in the West. Their relationship, however, is shattered by an Asian, bringing to life a fractured quote from Pushkin: "and the wild friend of the steppe—the Kalmyk."(2)  So "wild," in fact, that he lives in a zoo; as a guest, he smears jam on bread with his dirty finger and passes it to his host. Critics, who are accustomed to symbolic readings of texts, could not fail to remark (I believe the first person to make the observation was Nancy Condee of the University of Pittsburgh) that this lopsided "luvers" triangle can be interpreted allegorically: Russia's temporary heterosexual affair with the West might end with a lamentable future, a homosexual alliance between the Civilized West and the Wild East.

Unlike the previous examples of a cinema aimed at the masses, I Love You is shot in a very contemporary way, if by this we mean the chopping up of shots into ad-bites. But its audience will be severely limited because of the directors' artistic amateurism and the film's homosexual theme. This film can be shown only to youthful attendees of nighttime screenings in big cities: only the young can stand watching this type of rollicking rubbish, and even then only late at night and "under the influence," so that it is impossible to distinguish between laughter at the characters and ridicule of the filmmakers.



Long Farewell                                   Red Sky                                                Shiz

(II) "Elite" = "Auteur" = "Existential" Films

The second category includes Sergei Solov'ev's About ♥ (2003), Valerii Ogorodnikov's The Red Sky (2004), Slava Padalka's Dream of a Blind Man (2004), Gul'shad Omarova's The Shiz (2004), Boris Blank's Tairov's Death (2003), Roman Balaian's Bright is the Night (2004), and Sergei Ursuliak's Long Farewell (2004). Four of these films address the past and three exist outside of time (Dream of a Blind Man, Bright is the Night, and The Shiz). While these films demonstrate differences in their level of professionalism, all of them lack consistent clarity and none of them can count on any meaningful distribution.

Tairov's Death is a stylized, aestheticized, static, chamber-theatrical, glum, and partly fantastic film (the scenes with Stalin) about the last stage production of a great director, who is betrayed and persecuted by the actors of his own theater on orders from the Soviet leader. This original model of reality obviously has a right to exist. But it is also important to remember that reality was more complex: during those years, the persecution of Tairov was endorsed by virtually all of the sacred cows of Soviet literature and the theater world, including Stanislavskii and Meierhold. The film would have been highly topical had the director alluded to this stunning circumstance, which was characteristic of the mores of the Soviet art world. But the topicality of the past had no interest for the director.

Solov'ev was invited to shoot a remake of Chekhov's vaudevillian The Bear (Isidor Annenskii, 1938), which starred Mikhail Zharov and Ol'ga Androvskaia. Instead, he stitched with white threads two of Chekhov's stories on either side of it, "The Doctor" and "Volodia," violently combining their respective heroes and forcing Aleksandr Abdulov to be both the cuckolded husband and the sexually successful suitor, an entirely unnatural combination. In addition, he made murky the very clearly described relationships of Chekhov's heroes. If we try really hard to make out some idea in the film, it comes down to something like "broads are bitches," even if the director thought he was saying "women are amoral." On top of that, Solov'ev entitled his film About Love, replacing the word "love" with a heart, even though in these stories by Chekhov there are many kinds of themes, but none about love or any other heartfelt feelings. As strange as it sounds, the world in this film can also be considered "glamorous," if we keep in mind the glamour of the end of the 19th―beginning of the 20th centuries, connected to the World of Art group. What is to be gained by proving that the opulent, obtrusive, and decadent beauty of the film has nothing in common with Chekhov's laconic and rational style? This discrepancy is not surprising, inasmuch as the director explained that he did not so much adapt Chekhov for the screen as adapt what was left in his own head after thirty years of not re-reading Chekhov.

If Solov'ev's film falls apart into disconnected parts, Ogorodnikov's The Red Sky (the film's working title was "The Red Sky, The Black Snow") falls apart into disconnected scenes. This is easy to understand; it is difficult to come up with anything but a digest when a director knits together a ninety-minute film from seven hours of material shot for a TV serial. An intense, inhuman gaze could discern in the film (or read into it) something from the plot of Road to Life (Nikolai Ekk, 1931). Young guys [беспризорные] of 1943 find themselves in a gravitational field pulled between two authoritarian poles―one negative (in the guise of a Stakhanovite-speculator-criminal), one positive (in the person of the captain-instructor). But the end in this film is different: after being pulled between the two poles, as in a magnetic storm, the human plasma-protoplasma sets off for the furnace of war. If this narrative line had been painted in the black color of death across the red sky of blood (a sonorous echo of the Rolling Stones' "I see a red door and I want it painted black…"), the film might have gained an integrated meaning.

Ursuliak's Long Farewell is another committed immersion into the past. The director has for a long time been engaged in a remembrance of things past and an avoidance of contemporaneity. Even in his film A Fantasy for Victory Day (1998), the action of which was set in the present day, he tried to view the events from the future, since the fantasy in question is being written in the mid-21st century by the granddaughter of one of the heroes. Long Farewell uses a triple defamiliarizing frame: a director from the beginning of the 21st century looks back at the 1950s through the prism of the 1970s, without worrying about the fact that for Iurii Trifonov [the author of the novella Long Farewell, on which the film is based―trans.] the 1970s were contemporary reality and that his examination of the past was motivated by a desire to find the roots of the present in the past. But the goal of Ursuliak's search and its message remain incomprehensible.

The film is condemned to fail in its commercial distribution, but is nonetheless of interest to cinephiles insofar as it conveys the atmosphere of Soviet life in the middle of the last century and introduces several theater actors to the film industry, especially Polina Agureeva (who plays Lialia) and Boris Karamzin (Smolianov). Close-ups are always an ordeal for actors, but Agureeva easily holds her own; it is frequently more interesting to keep track of the play of emotions on her face than to pay attention to the peripeteia of the plot. Although Ursuliak could not transfer to the screen the complex interweavings of Trifonov's prose, with its heroes' internal monologs, which echo and challenge each other, he has successfully reconstructed their nostalgic tonality. Many members of the audience left the hall with tears in their eyes, something that did not happen at other screenings during Kinotavr. Unfortunately, this occurred only with adult viewers, in whom Long Farewell stirred up poignant memories of their youth. Younger viewers reacted to the film with indifference. This difference between older and younger viewers is reflected in the critics' ranking (see the table at the end): measured by the index of deviation, Ursuliak's proved to be the most "deviant" film of the competition.

Balaian's Bright is the Night is another example of auteur-filmmaking, one that fundamentally distances itself from the news of the day. The film―about a home for deaf-mute-blind children―could have been made twenty or forty years ago, and little would have changed in it. As in Ursuliak's film, Bright is the Night is filled with atmosphere, with subtleties. Here, too, are superb actors. But the atmosphere erases all of the plot lines; not a single one is carried through, not one is brought to closure. All that remains is an elegiac mood. But it, too, evaporates like a dream. Perhaps this kind of auteur film is simply a screen adaptation of drowsiness.

The strangest film in the auteur category is Padalka's Dream of a Blind Man. Shot almost entirely at the director's own expense, the film received support from a professional studio only during its final stages. In the past few years several dozen such semi-amateur films have been made (mostly shot in video). They come from out of nowhere and disappear into nothingness, which is a pity because there is something in each of them, though frequently not a little cinematic hack-work [кинографомании]. Padalka studied cryptography in the KGB's training school and has read the Sufi mystics. As a result, the film resembles an encoded esoteric text. When I asked him whether the film should be accompanied by a Sufi book of dream interpretations or a decoder, the director answered that the human heart is the universal key to understanding the film. I had to object: even the Australian Bushmen have a heart but are incapable of understanding film language. Actually, the film is less obscure than Heraclitus or Heidegger. One of its two plot lines somewhat resembles Lars von Trier's Dogville (2003) or Joel Schumacher's Falling Down (1993): the world "gets to" the hero so badly that in his heart he wishes it to be destroyed. In Padalka's film, the blind man wishes the world to become like him—that is, to go blind, a wish that Khyzr (a spirit in Sufi mythology) grants.

The most professional film in the second category is Omarova's film debut, The Shiz (co-produced by Russia, Kazakhstan, France, and Germany). Omarova wrote the screenplay for Sergei Bodrov Jr.'s film Sisters (2001). "The Shiz" is the nickname of a fifteen year-old boy who lives on the outskirts of the city and makes money by providing fighters for an underground fight-club, where the combatants fight without any rules.(3) When one of them is killed right in the ring, "The Shiz" takes the fighter's earnings to his widow and falls in love with her. In its content and details, the film belongs to the tradition of chernukha ["blackening of reality"―trans.]. The film lacks a purpose and contains no innovations. Yet it is impossible not to appreciate how the gloomy content is softened ("relieved") by the film's form. The film carefully adheres to the canons of the Kazakh "New Wave" in cinema, which is characterized by its authenticity in representing situations, a feline gracefulness, and a sense of rhythm that allows episodes to continue just long enough to achieve their impact on a sophisticated viewer. The film is ruined only by its silly "happy end": after serving a prison sentence for killing his scoundrel-friend, "The Shiz" is released from jail and embraced by his beloved.

Andrei Proshkin's Play of Butterflies (2003) is not the first film about a musician who fights his way to the top using his strength and talents. As with The Shiz, the dark content (the musician steals a car, hits a pedestrian, for a long time refuses to admit his guilt, then ends up in jail and is embittered after his release) is extinguished by its clear intonation and ending (where the hero finally softens in the embrace of the girl who loves him). The film represents the mores of provincial life and the militia "stewpot" cruelly, accurately, and tastefully. At the same time, the prolonged investigation into the hit-and-run accident can only be justified because of a crass breakdown in the script: the musician did not wear gloves when he stole the car and inevitably left his fingerprints on the steering wheel. So there is no real justification in dragging out the investigation for so long. If The Shiz hearkens back to an older, but still topical aesthetic system, Play of Butterflies is pulled into the out-of-date aesthetic system of the 1970s-1980s, within which it must cede its place to The Burglar (Ogorodnikov, 1987), Tough Kids (Dinara Asanov, 1983), and Little Vera (Vasilii Pichul, 1988).


        Driver for Vera............................... My Stepbrother, Frankenstein......................Driver for Vera

(III) Hybrid Forms

The third category includes Khusein Erkenov's The Black Ball (2003), Vladimir Khotinenko's 72 Meters (2004), Pavel Chukhrai's A Driver for Vera (2004), and Valerii Todorovskii's My Step-Brother Frankenstein (2004). 72 Meters has already had a very successful run in the theaters. The others have every right to expect that they will too.

Erkenov made his film debut with A Hundred Days Before the Command (1990), based on a novella by Iurii Poliakov. Erkenov transformed the lively publicistic-satirical prose of this popular writer into something strange and asocial. Next, he made The Chill (1991), which on the surface was about the deportation of the Karachaev-Cherkessian peoples, but below the surface was aimed at something different. This "something different" became a bit clearer in his film Don't Shoot the Passenger! (1993), and it turned out to be shame-faced homosexuality, which remained half-buried in the incoherence of the plot. This film was followed by an eleven-year break, during which Erkenov occasionally issued "declarations of intent," promising to make a "genuine homosexual film." In a word, The Black Ball was awaited with certain expectations, sharpened by the presence of an openly gay film, I Love You, in the Kinotavr competition. Especially intriguing was the fact that Erkenov's film had been made with support from the Ministry of Culture, which until now had not expressed any interest in supporting gay Russian culture.

The explanation for all this turned out to be quite simple. Judging from the evidence, the project Erkenov submitted to the Ministry of Culture contained no hint of a homosexual subject. It was a straightforward genre film about contemporary life; about a beginning soccer-player, whose team is sponsored by a "new Russian," the director of a local furniture factory. Everything moves along just fine until the boys have to play a stronger team and are ordered to win by any means necessary. As a protest against playing dirty soccer, the hero intentionally kicks the ball outside the goalposts, for which he is persecuted and virtually driven out of town. The team falls apart; the only daughter of the factory owner abandons him (she is the hero's beloved). And the hero informs the viewer in his voice-over at the end that he made the all-Russia soccer team and scored the game-winning goal in some important match.

The soccer plot is shot so carelessly and with so little style that Erkenov clearly was interested not in soccer, but—as in his earlier films—something different. The film begins with the flight of a hawk, winging its way across the sky, as the credits roll. The hawk reappears several times in the hero's visions. In another symbolic episode, the naked hero pushes a giant black ball; in still another, the school watchman explains to the young soccer player for no logical reason that Christ was crucified because he was different from everyone else. Other episodes—even chaste ones that are not integral to the plot—call attention to themselves; for example, the scene in which two boys get into the same bed, and when the trainer sees them holding hands, asks: "What? Getting friendly?" Admittedly, how one makes sense of these scenes is an index of one's own corruption. But, at the same time, quantity becomes quality; so it is not surprising that the factory director can be seen as a closeted sodomite. In a word, behind the surface plot lurks an embedded one about a boy who comes to understand that he is not like "everyone else," who is persecuted for this but manages to show "everyone" that he is better than they. It is simply bad luck that the surface plot lacks any aesthetic value and serves simply as a formal cover-up, a kind of camouflage, for the embedded one, allowing the director to conceal his real intentions from the producers (and possibly even himself).

72 Meters is a commercially successful hybrid of an elite and genre film. It has already earned more than 2.5 million dollars at the box office, a seasonal record for domestic films on the Russian market. A catastrophe film, it is based on stories by Aleksandr Pokrovskii, which recall both Joseph Heller's Catch 22 and Isaac Babel's Red Cavalry stories, though the cruelty of the latter is muted. Pokrovskii's narrator-hero―an intellectual who finds himself in the midst of military men, an environment completely alien to intellectuals—is divided into two roles in the film. His role as narrator is taken over by the author, whose voice contains a certain patriotic pathos (something completely absent in the worlds of Pokrovskii, Heller, and Babel), while as a character he is transformed from a subject into an object, into an inoffensive and touching civilian. Khotinenko's film is a therapeutic exercise, intended to heal the wounds of the Kursk tragedy. In the film, a submarine sinks after accidentally hitting an old mine. So, no one is to blame for the catastrophe and none of the high-ranking officials is forced to lie on televised broadcasts. The fact that heroism, as usual, is the result of someone's negligence is hinted at in the inserted scene about the rescue suits that were not examined and do not work. The director openly admits that he did all of this to fulfill audience expectations; somewhat less openly he admits that the entire undertaking was to fulfill a commission from the government.

Chukhrai's A Driver for Vera is yet another hybrid of elite and "mass audience" filmmaking. The results of this grafting are twofold. While the film has many merits, the genre conventions that are superimposed onto a realistic narrative in order to increase the number of potential viewers leads to a loss of artistic quality. Only the love plot in the film is meaningful: an important general takes for his driver a soldier who was raised in an orphanage. The general does this to some extent in the hope that the soldier might start a relationship with his pregnant and lame daughter, for whom marriage with a social equal is no longer possible. The image of an ambitious young man from the dregs of society, faced with the prospect of a swift flight up the social ladder because of a liaison with a woman of higher rank, is a classic plot in world literature, dealt with in novels as different as Stendhal's The Red and the Black, Stefan Zweig's Impatience of the Heart, John Braine's Room at the Top, and Trifonov's House on the Embankment. The internal intrigue of this type of plot comes down to the fact that the hero is a sort of "black box," in which love, careerism, pity, and a sense of duty are mixed together in unknown proportions; and the "moment of truth" becomes the "moment of choice." In House on the Embankment, this moment occurs when the hero's highly-placed father-in-law suddenly loses his position and the hero's ambitious hopes are reduced to dust. Trifonov's hero shamefully runs away; Chukhrai's could have withstood the test if the director had subjected him to a genuine trial. But there is no trial because everything is jumbled together in the bloody-sentimental finale, when the general and his daughter are "rubbed out" by the bad guys from the KGB. The hero's choice is reduced either to abandon the child and save himself alone, or to save the child as well. Banality wins: the hero saves the child.

As far as the criminal-political plot line is concerned, Chukhrai evidently wanted to demonstrate that the breath of Stalinist "winter" was still palpable during Khrushchev's "thaw" and that even the highest officials of the USSR could not feel safe from the arbitrariness of power, wielded openly or in secret. Regrettably, the fusion of the criminal and love plot lines impoverishes the film; neither of its theses is proven despite the fact that they are effectively presented on screen. The KGB plot of the film cannot withstand criticism because the director's willfulness destroys the logic of the developing conflict. Actually, this plot line doesn't really exist. There is simply a dotted line consisting of superficial hints at some kind of intrigue; but it is impossible to reconstruct the plot. The viewer learns from a conversation between the general and his friend in Moscow that several years earlier a Soviet ship, armed with nuclear weapons, had caught fire near the shore. The general had given orders to put out the fire, but the orders were countermanded by an officer of the KGB, who was afraid of allowing fire-fighters near the secret equipment (!). The ship sank, the sailors drowned, and the surrounding sea was contaminated by radiation leakage. No one paid any attention to the contamination when the event occurred, but years later, when Khrushchev met with Kennedy, the American president for some reason brought this to the attention of the head of the USSR. When Khrushchev orders that the culprits be found, the KGB officer panics, commanding his subordinates to kill the general and to arrange to blame him for the loss of the ship and the ensuing contamination.

What sense is there in having a KGB officer prevent a fire from being extinguished? And what does secrecy have to do with anything? None of this is explained. It is impossible to comprehend why Kennedy would have cared about the contamination of Sevastopol bay (or of the entire Black Sea for that matter). But even if the KGB officer were faced with the possibility of a charge of negligence and even if he indeed were guilty, does it make any sense that this officer would risk exposure and a total end to his career by sanctioning the murder (involving a host of subordinates) of a key and highly-placed witness? And if he had been so afraid of allowing fire-fighters onto the ship, would he really have had the courage to order the murder of a general?

It seems that Chukhrai did not think through to the end what he himself had made up, or that he assumed the viewer would swallow it no matter what. After all, even in super-budget genre films there are examples of more flagrant inconsistencies in the script, but no one pays any attention. People go to these types of films to be entertained, not to tax their brains in order to fault the scriptwriter for being illogical. But when a director shoots a film that claims to be "truthful to life" (and this claim is made clearly in A Driver for Vera), then he is obliged to weave the plot in way that doesn't give the viewer grounds to find fault, rather than doing violence to that reality.

This tendency to do violence to reality, however, is an ontological characteristic of Russian filmmakers. It originated in the Bolshevik's privileging of "will" over "freedom," understanding by this the necessity of obeying specific laws. Russian directors simply aren't themselves unless they commit violence, whether to the reality in front of a camera lens or to the spectator. What kind of demiurge is he, if he isn't despotic? All of this started with Eisenstein when he ordered the tarpaulin be thrown over the sailors about to be executed on the Battleship Potemkin (1925). Eisenstein pretended that this order came from the commander of the ship, even though this would have been a completely senseless and impossible order for a real commander to give. The viewers' own willingness to be fooled became the "hook" for all of Soviet cinema, which strove to manipulate viewers' consciousness for ideological reasons. This "hook" was subsequently justified and extolled by Soviet film criticism.

Unlike many other directors, who flee from contemporary subject matter into the past, the future, the hypothetical world of genre films, or the world of personal fantasies, Todorovskii is not afraid to engage the world in which he lives. This is attested to by his films: Love (1992), Midnights Near Moscow (1994), Land of the Deaf (1997), and The Lover (2002). Todorovskii is a director of intimate spaces; the macrocosm of his artistic world emerges from its reflection in the microcosm. His new film is about an ordinary Russian family, into whose lives both the past and the surrounding world suddenly intrude: it turns out that the head of household has a "sin of youth," an illegitimate son, a one-eyed invalid of the Chechen war who suffers from paranoia. The invalid is simultaneously portrayed realistically and allegorically; after all, at issue is the responsibility of a society towards the participants and victims of a questionable war that is being waged by its country. The film critic Elena Stishova has observed that society's relationship to these people is concentrated in one of the secondary characters in the film, who watches a fight by peering under a gate but does not interfere or call the police.

The film stands out for its wittiness (many of the opening scenes were accompanied by laughter from the audience) and the psychologically expressive acting of Leonid Iarmol'nik (the father), Elena Iakovleva (his wife), and Daniil Spivakovskii (the illegitimate son). Unfortunately, however, the director is inconsistent. The title of the film suggests that the narration will be from the point of view of the youngest son, whose step-brother is "Frankenstein." But nothing of the kind occurs. Even more regrettable is the fact that events in the second half of the film are guided less by immanent logic than by the director's willfulness, extrinsic to the film. It appears that Todorovskii was unable to create a natural resolution to the dilemma that had entangled his characters, and, instead, shifted from a realistic genre to the thriller. The strange and alienating newcomer turns into a character possessed by a single idea: he kidnaps the children, forces the father and his wife to follow him, leads them to their country house, and has a shoot-out with imaginary enemies until he is finally killed by a SWAT-team that arrives from who knows where. All of this is psychologically inauthentic. The kidnapper shows no aggressive intentions towards his brother or sister and, if all of this occurred in real life, rather than on the screen, the parents would not have followed him obediently, but would have tried to get their children back. Viewers, who at first are presented with a flow of realistic situations, lose interest in the film half an hour before its end because of this arbitrary shift to a genre film. At the same time, viewers who enjoy genre films don't remain in the hall for very long. So there is no one left to enjoy the horror.

While it is possible to shift narrative modes and genres, the task is not an easy one. The most successful director in making this shift is Japanese director Takashi Miike, whose film Audition (1999) begins like In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-Wai, 2000) but ends like the Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974). Miike, however, is a cinematic exception, a veritable "thawed-out" caveman, for whom everything is possible; but Todorovskii and Chukhrai are well-born gentlemen, for whom such tricks are neither suitable nor achievable, despite their talent.


A Driver for Vera received the greatest number of awards at Kinotavr, including the main prize (The Gold Rose), as well as prizes for best director, scriptwriter, and cameraman (Igor' Klebanov). The Grand Prix went to My Step-Brother Frankenstein, which also topped the list of rankings compiled by a survey of critics accredited at the festival. In addition, the film received the prize of the Russian Guild of Film Critics. Play of Butterflies received a special prize from the competition jury.

In closing, I should say a few words about Kinotavr's competition program for short films, which consisted for the most part of course-work and diploma films by students of various film schools. The short form is as specific a genre as the literary novella (which is constructed differently from the novel). Yet most of the short films were flawed either because they could not break out of their school-assignment formats or because they were simply extended "pilots," preparations for future full-length feature projects. The competition jury awarded the two main prizes precisely to this type of film-draft: Ekaterina Grokovskaia's The Two (2004) and Artem Antonov's Fast Train from the Capital (2003). The first was an etude on the theme of "the old man and a dog"; the other on "provincial girls."

Critics were stricter in their reaction to the etudes and, instead, awarded their prizes, The Elephants, to two other films. Mariia Kondrikova's popular science film about mice, Vermin [literally, The Saboteur—trans.] (2003), received one of the Elephant awards with the following inscription: "for debunking one of the main myths of Soviet cinema—the myth of the saboteur―and for transforming exterminated mice into protected elephants." The second award went to radical filmmaker Pavel Ruminov's Deadline (2004) "for the convincing representation of the artistic tortures facing contemporary scriptwriters." The film materializes the metaphor of "agonies of creation": producers literally torture the scriptwriter of a detective serial, squeezing out of him information about a script promised long ago. A joke's a joke, but if real-life scriptwriters were subjected to such tortures, there would be a lot more art and truth in their dramatic constructions.

Two phrases from the film have already entered public speech: "Workers who sit earn more than those who stand" and "I can't think and write at the same time." The second of these phrases is relevant, alas, not just for scriptwriters, but also—if we substitute "shoot" for "write"—to several of the directors whose films were screened at Kinotavr. The table of rankings compiled from the responses of thirty film critics to the survey attests to this. The four "massconsump" films and one of the hybrid films clearly placed last in the rankings, amassing only from 2.14 to 2.6 points on a 10-point scale.



Deviation (degree of variance)(5)

My Step-Brother Frankenstein



A Driver for Vera



The Shiz



Long Farewell



Play of Butterflies



Bright is the Night



72 Meters



The Red Sky



I Love You



Tairov's Death



About ♥



Dream of a Blind Man



Salamander's Skin



The Black Ball



The Recipe of the Sorceress



Lord of the Air Waves



Words and Music



(1) A quotation from Gogol's short story, "A Terrible Vengeance," in the second volume of Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka (1832).

(2) The complete citation, from the closing lines of the third stanza of Pushkin's "The Monument" (1836) is "…and now wild Tunguz, and the friend of the steppe―the Kalmyk".

(3) It is hard to say whether such clubs actually exist in Kazakhstan or whether this is simply the product of the scriptwriter's imagination based on American B-movies. If the latter, it is a very powerful image.

(4) If the average ranking of each film (A) is obtained by adding together all of the points awarded by the individual critics (x1 + x2 + ... + xk) and dividing the result by the total number of critics (k), the mathematical formula is: A = (x1 + x2 + … + xk) / k.

(5) A film's "deviation" (that is, the degree of its variance from the average, or V) is calculated using the following formula: V = √ [(x1 – A) ² + (x2 – A) ² + ... + (xk – A) ² ] / k.

August 2004