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# 10, October 2005

Aleksandr Shpagin (Film scholar and Producer at REN-TV)

Newly Sprouting Seedlings in the Rustling Field of Domestic Cinema

Translated by Vladimir Padunov

Everyone agrees that this year’s Kinotavr Film Festival was a success. Something has begun to swirl, some kind of “new wave” has surfaced. Everyone was waiting for it. The wait is over.

Actually, this “something” started a while ago—at the end of the 1990s—both on-screen and in life. But everyone was so irritated with the capitalist reality emerging at that time, everyone was so incapable of coming to terms with its new tendencies that a universal groan was heard everywhere: “Where are good films? We’re surrounded by bandits, lawlessness, chaos!” I keep remembering all of the roundtables―even at Kinotavr―with film critics who were overflowing with pain, suffering, and boredom. Back then talented films had begun to appear; in fact, each was better than the next—let me recall some of them: Pavel Chukhrai’s The Thief (1997), Vadim Abdrashitov’s Time of the Dancer (1997), Valerii Todorovskii’s Land of the Deaf (1997), Petr Lutsik’s Outland (1998), Aleksei Balabanov’s Of Freaks and Men (1998), Aleksandr Rogozhkin’s Checkpoint (1998), Bakhtier Khudoinazarov’s Luna Papa (1999), Aleksandr Proshkin’s The Captain’s Daughter (2000), Aleksei Uchitel'’s His Wife’s Diary (2000), Balabanov’s Brother (1997) and Brother 2 (2000), etc. Even second-rate films then were incomparably better in quality than those of today.

But while the collegium of critics might have understood this in their minds, they could not accept it in their hearts because they could not take to heart anything to do with this devilish democracy, from which came only suffering. Russia’s intelligentsia didn’t agree with the “national- patriots” or other “patriots,” or even with many of the Russian people, who had been coddled into ecstasy by the old paradigm of “Democrats (and Jews) have sold out Russia. Things used to be good, now they’re bad…” Yet all things considered, and with one thing and another… the intelligentsia kind of agreed. After all, it was quite clear: cinema had become worse (that’s for starters), culture was dying (that’s second), and if that is so, then life’s gotten worse (that’s three). So it followed that earlier things had been “better” (that’s four)… and that means “the democrats has sold out Russia” (that’s five). Sold out, please note, not by the “Jews” (after all, that would be anti-Semitism and that would be bad!), but specifically by the democrats, who sold Russia not to “the West” or to those same “Jews,” but to themselves. But everything should have been sold to the intelligentsia, for then everything on our native land would have begun to blossom. For some reason that hadn’t happened and everyone was unhappy. And since it was accepted that culture had died, then cinema, too, was dying. If chaos ruled in society, then it ruled in cinema as well. And those bandits on the screen were particularly annoying.

Although… there weren’t many of them left on the screen by the end of the 1990s (and as for lawlessness, it had entirely disappeared). And the remaining bandits? Who cared? They had always been present throughout world cinema. Basta! The critics got tired of moaning—enough was enough, and besides a new millennium was already on the doorstep. So they stopped moaning. Sometime between 2002 and 2004 new conversations started up, maybe not immediately, maybe gradually—Russian cinema was on the rise. And these conversations arose just as Russian cinema began to decline. But, of course, those who had been reluctant to notice the fact that cinema had been improving earlier, saw this decline as an improvement. What else could they do? You can’t wait forever…

But I shall continue to insist on my point of view: the rise of Russian cinema occurred at the end of the 1990s, while the start of the 2000s marks the beginning of its decline. Why? Let me make my position clear.

At the end of the 1990s a new energy emerged. The chaos, hysterics, and eclecticism of the early 1990s disappeared, and in their place appeared precision, clarity, narratives that were thought through carefully. This marked the beginning of the formation of a visual language for advertisements. Clips became shorter, composition became more striking, the panoramic Steadicam began to become commonplace. The new reality acquired its own voice. It discovered ambiguity within itself and took delight in this ambiguity. Artists’ view of the world became calmer and clearer, and at the same time sharper and more effective. And, most importantly, there was a firm middle level of filmmaking, on which the entire film industry of the end of the 1990s rested. Precisely this middle level was the indicator of the film industry’s vitality. There was one problem: viewers couldn’t see this because they were absent as a whole from movie theaters.

But with the start of a new decade, the film industry found itself suspended in some airless space. It ceased to recognize reality. At first, the middle level dropped in quality. Clarity began to disappear (Khudoinazarov’s Chic [2002], Roman Prygunov’s Solitude of Blood [2002], Abdrashitov’s Magnetic Storms [2003], Proshkin’s Trio [2003]) and, as a consequence, films became far-fetched (Aleksandr Galin’s The Photograph [2002], Aleksandr Aravin’s All That You Love [2002], Vera Storozheva’s The Sky. The Plane. The Girl [2002], Aleksei Uchitel'’s The Stroll [2003], Konstantin Khudiakov’s A Different Woman, A Different Man [2003], Vitalii Moskalenko’s Only One Life [2003]). Dilapidated schemas started to fill in the vacuum: Lidiia Bodrova’s Granny (2003)—the rich bastards are stomping on Russia again; Sergei Nikonenko’s And in the Morning They Awoke (2003)—an anti-alcoholism agit-film straight from the 1970s; Vitalii Mel'nikov’s Poor, Poor Pavel (2003) and Iurii Elkhov’s Anastasiia Slutskaia (2003)—pseudo-historical socialist realism; Stanislav Govorukhin’s Bless the Woman (2003)—a morality play with a “happy end” from sometime in the 1950s; Khusein Erkenov’s The Black Ball (2003)—a flashback to the Gor'kii Studio films from the 1970s; Sergei Lomkin’s Farewell in June (2004)—a moralistic-ethical preachy film from the same time and place; Sergei Solov'ev’s About Love (2004)—a “cameraman’s” film, but an adaptation without any underlying concept, a typical example of the escapist films of the 1970s; Valerii Rubinchik’s A Film About Film (2002)—a refined piece of fluff cut from the same cloth; Nikolai Lebedev’s Star (2002) and Petr Todorovskii’s Under the Sign of the Bull (2003)—wartime socialist realism comparable to what was turned out by the Dovzhenko Film Studios in the 1980s; Nikolai Solovtsov’s The Mother Wolf of Ves'egonsk (2003) and Andrei Proshkin’s The Play of Butterflies (2004)—typical second string high professionalism, characteristic of the end of the 1980s; etc.

Parallel with these films, a whole series of cool knick-knacks by first-time directors made their appearance, the entire goal of which was “not to be thought about”: Ruslan Bal'tser’s Don’t Even Think About It - 1 (2003) and 2 (2004); Leonid Rybakov’s The Book Stealers (2004); Natal'ia Pogonicheva’s Theory of the Binge (2002). Above all of these soared Andrei Zviagintsev’s The Return (2003), a talented―but once again conceptually very unclear―and highly artistic film modeled on European cinema from the 1970s, where the action takes place Nowhere and Never. On-screen reality became cold and vacuous, marked only by the superficial traits of contemporary life in Russia, but not resembling that life in any deeper way—not even aspiring to resemble it. Everything was shot professionally, but lacking any kind of higher goal. And so, of course, there was no pity for any of the characters, there was no one with whom to sympathize.

The year 2003 became the quintessence of emptiness: the skies closed over and sent no signs to the directors; filmmaking found itself abandoned in some kind of metaphysical desert. If there were still some breakthrough films at the beginning of the 2000s (Solov'ev’s Tender Age [2000], Rogozhkin’s The Cuckoo [2002], Valerii Todorovskii’s The Lover [2002], Balabanov’s War [2002]), there were none by 2003. Even the leading filmmakers seemed to disappear. And precisely at this moment everyone started talking about the revival of Russian cinema. God certainly works in mysterious ways! Was this the result of the success of The Return, with all of its international prizes? Or was it the result of the gradual and ever-increasing return of viewers to movie-theaters? Possibly… But all these are extremely superficial, abstractly subjective factors, which have virtually nothing to do with the more general process of filmmaking. As distant from that general process as are the films of Kira Muratova, Aleksandr Sokurov, and Evgenii Iufit―directors who exist within the filmmaking process in such an individualistic-auteurial way that they stand completely outside of contemporary social, historical, or metaphysical contexts―their films could have just as easily been shot ten or twenty years ago and they would be exactly the same: unique and talented, but having no impact on the overall situation.

By the beginning of 2004, the middle level of films continued to decline steadily, resulting in films that were made neither by auteurs nor for viewers, irrelevant films (Ekaterina Kalinina’s Master of the Air Waves, Natal'ia Naumova’s Year of the Horse, Vladimir Khotinenko and Aleksandr Svetlov’s Evening Chimes, Rano Kubaev’s The Beautiful Valley). The level of filmmaking continues to fall even now, pampered by the politics of Goskino, which never gives money for pulp films (the prevailing view is that they’ll get made anyway), but which gives money for withered, boring, non-commercial films—but very, very intellectual ones―and all of which can be described by the title of Vladimir Morozov’s Small Fry (2005). I have in mind films like Adel' Al-Khadat’s An Apocryphal Story (2004), Vladimir Potapov’s We’ll Die Together (2005), Valerii Lonskoi’s The Head of a Classic (2005), Aleksei Karelin’s A Time to Gather Stones (2005), Sergei Potemkin’s Sunless City (2005), and others. There were very many such films at the beginning of 2005 and very few of them made it to Kinotavr. Which is as it should be.

But what about Kinotavr?

As I’ve already mentioned, Kinotavr has come to life, and with it the Russian film industry has partly come to life. We’ve finally made it. In part.

The revival could be noticed at the end of 2004. And it happened thanks to Russia’s complex history in the 20th century with its unpredictable past. God bless it! For once again it gave birth to a New Vision on-screen, directed at a broader view of both the past and the present. Pavel Chukhrai’s A Driver for Vera (2004) and Dmitrii Meskhiev’s Our Own (2004)—to which we should also add the television series Penal Battalion (Nikolai Dostal', 2004), Red Square (Rauf Kubaev, 2004), Convoy PQ-17 (Aleksandr Kott, 2004), Red Capella (Aleksandr Aravin, 2004), Children of the Arbat (Andrei A. Eshpai, 2004), Brezhnev (Sergei Snezhkin, 2005), and many others that appeared at the end of 2004 and beginning of 2005—became the spiritual center for the revival of filmmaking. If earlier we used to have a strict paradigm that divided the world into natives and aliens, our own and others, the just and the guilty, then this new filmmaking began to formulate a different conception: no one is guilty in the world; every person is simply a puppet of the dramatic circumstances in which he exists; and each person finds his true self in these circumstances in a unique way, for his individual nature tears him out of any framework into which he is driven by history, society, the collective, the entire liberal intelligentsia with its dogmas, or even by himself. Soviet reality from the 1920s through the 1950s, steeped in totalitarian demonism, provides a wonderful basis for such thoughts, for it played with people much more cruelly than in the narratives of Shakespeare, Dumas, or Dostoevskii. Certainly more cruelly than contemporary popular shows, gangster films, or thrillers, with their narrative games that were dramatically constructed and their more often than not predictable moves. By contrast, here is authentic life, from which it is impossible to hide, but which must be made sense of in a particular way: by privileging understanding, forgiveness, and repentance, instead of passionless condemnation as can be found in virtually all Soviet films in the past, from Sergei Eisensten’s Battleship Potemkin (1925) through Ivan Dykhovichnyi’s Moscow Parade (1992).

All of this is just a preamble. What changes did 2005 bring? Was Kinotavr a success?

It was a success from the very first days. The festival began well. It was exemplary! The “present era” and the “past era” came into immediate conflict. Two films were screened and they stood next to each other―“two worlds, two brews.” One spoke of the past and came from the past; the other spoke of the present and came from the future. It’s curious that both of them were a long time in production, about five years, and the titles of both contained numerals. One was called First on the Moon, the other 4; one attempted to form new relationships with cinematic language, the other with reality itself.

Aleksei Fedorchenko’s First on the Moon (2005) is a pseudo-realistic narrative in a pseudo-realistic style about the first flight by astronauts to the moon, which occurred in the Soviet Union in 1938. Naturally the expedition was unsuccessful in the authors’ telling, and all of the participants perished. That’s how a totalitarian state deals with its heroes. This is the thesis around which the film is organized, but of course, by now it is a completely normal point of view and there is no harm in repeating it. Subsequently, however, things are less clear. The space ship didn’t make it to the moon and crashed somewhere near Mexico, but the astronaut miraculously survived. He was put into an insane asylum, but he escaped and became a circus artiste, performing behind a mask, like “Mister X.” The director of the project somehow escaped from surveillance and somehow mysteriously disappeared. The rest of the astronauts in training were either jailed or executed, but one of them still survives―for some reason he was neither jailed nor executed. And he tells us the entire story. There is not a hint of sadness in his reminiscences about the fate of his former comrades and, as a result, what really happened to them remains unclear. The meaning of the film also becomes murky: the on-board astronaut’s fate is so extraordinary (just think about it―at the end of the 1940s a man works in a Soviet circus wearing a mask and no one knows who he is or where he’s from―ha! ha!)―that it reminds one of the plots of extremely entertaining fantasy novels (in which, for example, Hitler turns out to be an alien or an agent of the Soviet secret service) or of some playfully gross-out, pseudo-historical nose-thumbing, like Two Captains 2 (dir. Sergei Debizhev, 1992). This also applies to the strange story of the disappearance of the project director. He not only disappears, but we are actually shown how he did it, thanks to “unique” footage “shot by the NKVD surveillance team” (he’s walking, walking, walking along the street, and poof!―he disappears! Where to? especially since he’s surrounded on all sides by Chekists!). What is peculiar is that this found footage less resembles a surveillance tape than it does the films from the Odessa Film Studio in the 1970s about the wonderful Soviet Chekists: the shots are clearly and beautifully composed, the soundtrack is recorded with surprising clarity, and episodes (for example, in the director’s apartment) are shot in focus and from several points of view in order to be edited together. Just like a normal movie.

So what is it that we are watching?―a realistic film, an ironic historical fantasy without a rudder of any kind, or something that pretends to authenticity, even if it is a pseudo-authenticity? The filmmakers do not have a clue; they get completely lost in their own material and don't know how to deal with it. And as they go along, they lose their own intonation, their means of interacting with reality, and, as a result, they lose meaning itself. If all of the fantasy-schmantasy that burdens the film is tossed aside, it turns out that the filmmakers have absolutely nothing to say. Even the Motherland is not so guilty in its conduct towards the astronauts, despite the schema that they construct in the film. If one of them went insane, then he actually belonged in an asylum or a circus (lord, this is so jumbled up, who can make sense of it?), and as far as the others are concerning, they either perished in the camps (or did they perish?) — the filmmakers have no interest in their subsequent fates. They treat the characters exactly as the Motherland treated the astronauts―they happily forget about them. They have to keep the plot moving. At first they go into great detail, but then they get control of themselves, evidently remembering either the demands of mass audiences or the need to earn back the money spent on making the film, and they begin to hurry as fast as they can, inventing more fabulous plot twists. Things become incomprehensible. When incomprehensibility reaches its apogee, the filmmakers end the film.

So what does all of this show? The filmmakers’ disorientation in front of the reality that opened up in front of them. They seemingly wanted to sing a hymn in praise of Soviet heroes, but the totalitarian society they were representing on-screen showed itself to be so absurd that it drowned everything―both the filmmakers and their semi-real characters. The real problem is that today, unfortunately, it is becoming clear that even “the brightest accomplishments” lose any meaning whatsoever when inside of totalitarian space and can be spoken of only with tragi-ironic intonations. It appears that the director felt this way, too, but simply drew back in fear from the truth that had opened up in front of him. After all, he was making a film about heroes and initially he adopted a somewhat high-handed, pathos-filled tone. There could have been an entirely different approach, one with more distance, but it would have required more thought and analysis. No doubt Fedorchenko would object (and in his own way he would be correct)― how can you analyze something that never happened? There really is nothing to analyze if everything represented on-screen is made up, fantastical. So the director started to fantasize with all his might, but meaning kept eluding him; perhaps it simply would have been better to make a feature film. As a result, everything fell apart. The film, like the spaceship flying to the moon in 1938, didn’t hit the mark, spun around, hiccupped, and came to nothing. And it seems that the historical discourse of the past has also exhausted itself and left no trace. It is absolutely clear today that there is nothing to celebrate from Soviet history. Yet somehow it is still essential to think about the way of thinking that produced those heroes, who are laid out in countless tombs with all their unprecedented accomplishments.

But together with the greeting from the past, a spitball from the future also arrived at Kinotavr. This was Il'ia Khrzhanovskii’s film 4 (2004).

The film not only proclaims a new relationship with contemporary reality, but also proclaims a new cinematic language that befits this reality. It is a language of free improvisation, out of which several fully developed subjects are supposed to grow. But the subjects don’t grow, don’t hang together, disappear into infinity. Even this new reality does not cohere in a finished form. Yet the filmmaker has mastered this language―very cruelly and precisely. As a consequence, he knows fully well why the on-screen world experiences such intense discomfort. The reason for everything is a profound deception: an absolute absence of a Center and of Law. This deception—formed, surviving, and suiting everyone—and the yawning hole in place of a Center may, in fact, be the Center; may, in fact, be the new God.

                                4  [Chetyre]                                               

… Three people meet in a late night bar, talk about themselves and their lives, and all of them lie. What is most peculiar is that each has made a comfortable and stable place in the real world: one is a businessman, another is a piano tuner, the third is a prostitute (but by no means a victim of the world, she is no Sonia Marmeladova—everything is just fine with her). On this night they put on masks because each of them is “twisted,” the whole world is “twisted,” “shaking.” And then they go their separate ways. One of them endures irresolvable problems with his half-mad father―obsessed with cleanliness―with whom he shares an apartment. At the end he’ll be killed trying to avoid running over a dog. Earlier he’d run over a dog and it seems that a fear of dogs on the roadway gradually turns into a mania. A second will be accused of some crime (it seems as if he is guilty, but who knows) and sent off to a penal colony, and then off to Chechnya. And the third will travel to her birthplace in some forsaken village, which she’d recently left for Moscow. She returns to a world besotted with booze and bestiality, and then will return to the city.

And that’s it. At the same time, however, the screen reveals the cosmos of contemporary Russia, satisfied and well-off, but in which nobody wants to take stock of this satisfaction and everybody dreams of something else. There are no goals and no hopes. It was possible to dream of a return to Soviet power in the past, but now there is no return. It was possible to hope to emigrate, but now everyone realizes that they are needed over there even less than here. There used to be a dream of earning more money, but now that too is gone―earn as much as you want, it all depends on you. Although you’ve already got enough. Capitalism has taken root firmly and the population has more and more money. So why does one need Big Bucks if it has become absolutely clear that they don’t bring happiness, but lead instead to the same spiritual dead-end because they are their own end, an end in itself (instead of a means to something) and what do you do once you’ve attained the end? It’s possible to seek a higher meaning in religion, in faith, but nobody knows why or how this is done.

The Russian Orthodox Church supports fascists and is one of the most regressive forces in society because it, too, considers the new capitalist reality to be the work of the devil. But this devil has been created by people. He’s not very frightening and actually quite kind, he tests everyone’s spiritual commitment. But in lieu of commitment, there’s the abyss; in lieu of law, there’s a concept; and in lieu of a real concept, there’s an interlocking complex of agreements within a single group, a single business, a single society, a single day, a single moment. The media keep using the term “new stagnation.” But this is due to the fact that society has lost any kinds of goals. All that’s left is to keep busy, lie, keep your mouth shut, bullshit. Unending lies in the political arena, pop culture on television. And this can never be rooted out because it is normal, it fulfills the needs of this people and this mentality. But a people and a mentality that have continuously striven towards the Bright Future and have existed within a utopian consciousness are incapable of fitting in with this comfortable stability without a Center or Law that has come crashing down on them. Russia has never lived like this; it has lost its points of orientation and its Meaning because meaning was located exclusively in the movement towards a universal happiness which was transformed into universal evil and thousands (millions) of tombs. And now it’s gone. And instead of it, there’s the Yawning Abyss.

No, a genuine, real, rooted Russia still exists―it is located out there, in the countryside, on the soil, in our origins. And Khrzhanovskii shows us―here’s that Russia! There is no countryside; there’s a garbage heap drowning in vodka. There won’t be any Lomonosovs or Shukshins for the foreseeable future. The countryside has drowned, it has completely exhausted or drunk up any kind of consciousness. It has nothing to base itself upon, for its consciousness (as is Russian consciousness in general) is a collective one. And what kind of a collective is possible now? There’s only individualism and a separation of everything from everyone. Russians can’t live like this. So they keep themselves busy, earn money, grow fat and rich, become more entrenched in this new reality, but at the same time continue to hate it. They don’t feel well off, they feel like they are bursting―but they can’t even blame the Jews or the democrats. Putin’s in power and the average Russian is afraid of him. And when fear takes possession of a Russian’s soul (including fear about his relatively comfortable existence), he begins to keep silent. This makes his soul even more bitter: there’s no place into which he can pour out his incomprehensible and inexpressible pain since he can’t even understand where it comes from. There is no more National Idea. And for a Russian that means that there is no God. Even money doesn’t warm the soul any longer, not even dollars―this last Russian god has also plunged into the abyss. Reality keeps playing more and more with Russians, it is becoming entrenched in its slipperiness. And that makes things even more frightening: Meaning is disappearing more and more each day from the lives of Russian citizens. Most likely, only a social explosion will be able to provide that meaning. But even that explosion doesn’t have a source since the external pre-conditions don’t exist.

But as for internal pre-conditions―take your pick. Just let Russians live slightly better than they are right now and the explosion won’t be long to wait for. For if this reality, soaked in lies, soaked in concepts that displace Law and Order, continues to expand these lies and concepts further, Russians will only come to hate themselves even more. Khrzhanovskii shows the closed circle of this shaky, slippery like a jelly-fish, smeared, and expanding reality. The film is stunning, frightening, merciless—and absolutely adequate to reality. And this is the language of the future? Precisely—although if everything remains as it is, it may be that its time will never come. Is this Fukuyama’s “end of history”? Something of the sort. In Khrzhanovskii’s film we are present at the beginning of the end of Russian history—a New Russian Apocalypse—which seemingly does not yet exist. It appears like a praeteritio (Figura Umolchaniia), a Great Unspoken, in which today’s Russia floats, like on a whale. Of course, it is important not to forget that everyone has gracefully and intellectually agreed a long time ago that the Great Unspoken also does not exist. So let’s not remind ourselves of it. We’ll simply live, breathe through the nose, and watch what new things reality will bring us—if not in life, then in cinema, even if at Kinotavr. So—take a breath…

But the days passed and nothing New appeared. We kept encountering a variety of on-screen zombies from a former reality—tired, sick, and not needed by anyone, but sincerely hoping to come to life.

Svetlana Proskurina’s Remote Access (2004) surfaced—an existential drama about the absence of communication. As in 4, everyone is lonely and unhappy, but as distinct from 4, they have no reason to be lonely and unhappy. It’s simply because life is bad a priori. Or maybe because it is a priori bad in contemporary capitalist Russia. After all, at the end of the film the car with the main character gets blown up. This is a typical sign of the newest Russian tele-serials, not of some existential drama. It is supposed to mean that the action takes place clearly in the here and now. Although in the concrete here and now no one blows up cars. They are blown up in tele-serials because it is a standard device of the narrative flow of “soaps,” gratifying television viewers without aspiring towards any authenticity. True, in the films of the 1990s cars were blown up―in existential and in all other kinds of dramas―because filmmakers tried to capture the sense of horror in the face of the contemporary, awful reality, and by blowing up cars they masterfully implanted this sense into the consciousness of the viewer, since it was assumed that the viewer would leave the theater, get in his car, and the car would inevitably blow up. Clearly this was not life; it was a nightmare! Everything had been ruined by those damned democrats. As the Group NOM used to sing: “Can’t go into the building―the cats have shat all over, El'tsin-Judas has destroyed the country.

Alas, Proskurina’s drama elicits no other ideas, for although it is psychological, there is no psychology in it because there are no causes, consequences, or motivations for the characters’ grief-laden state of being. Instead of that, there is a subtle and melancholic atmosphere in the film, slightly artificial. A typical relic of second-string cinema of the beginning of the 1990s―chaos, hatred, boredom. But since such a state of being is typical of most Russians (amongst whom are many film critics), the pulses and codes of Proskurina’s film are quite in tune with them and, in general, the film enjoyed some success. And let it! There are so few elite films at the moment that even such “empty space” films are worthwhile.

Another “hedgehog” from the past was Khusein Erkenov’s I Adore You (2005). It shares the same characteristics as its existential sibling, Remote Access―it is run-down and incomprehensible. Yet at the same time it aspires to be a film for mass audiences. Or maybe to be an auteur film. It is hard to tell. Conceptually it is melodrama, in its incarnation―a dream. It makes no sense. The director―whose best and unique film (100 Days Before the Command, 1990) belongs to the vanat-garde―has suddenly decided “to go to the people.” This story about a single mother raising two children and then quarreling with them for the rest of their lives resembles some strange films from the 1970s. During those years of Soviet filmmaking, it was not unusual for a director (especially a young one) to be assigned some dull script that had made its way around the studio; while the director would try with all his might to create something original. As a rule, nothing came of these attempts; it is extremely difficult to overcome a bad script. But there were some “miraculous flights” that were of interest only to specialists and the cognoscenti. That is what Erkenov’s film reminds me of.

Projected onto the screen are chunks of life in long- and mid-shots―it seems to be the 1940s, but, no, it turns out to be the 1970s. It seems that any moment we will understand, finally grasp what is happening among the characters on-screen and why they quarreled―but nothing becomes clear. The characters are simply unhappy with each other: the heroine with her husbands, lovers, and children; they in their turn are unhappy with the heroine―mothers-in-law simply hate her, her son insists that she “wiped him out” (zatrakhala; an anachronism, since this idiom comes from the end of the 1990s). The characters suffer from hurt feelings; they are tired of living, worn down by everyday chores. It would help if the viewer could experience some of the directorial surrealism of Remote Access, which keeps pushing its metaphysics. But Erkenov shoots everything realistically. And it turns out super-surrealistic: the discomfort level of the film reaches paranoid proportions, especially because the aesthetics of episodic narrative win out in each scene, but the subject and goal keep slipping away. It is interesting to think about the film. There is an impression that the director has a feel for the provincial working-class environment, that he can mercilessly unveil many of the sores of everyday life, that he can show clearly how those who love each other can drive themselves and everyone else into the grave, that he can see the unattractiveness of our very lives―of youth, of old-age, of death, of love. Unfortunately, just as this impression arises, it disappears. This is because Erkenov both cuts the film off in mid-sentence and only shows the results on-screen; he never shows the reasons for the difficult relationships among the characters. And so neither the relationships nor the film take shape.

A similar problem occurs with Larisa Sadilova’s film Baby-Sitter Required (2005), but admittedly on a higher plane and a later time. If Erkenov’s film arrived in all senses from the 1970s, then Sadilova’s film came from last year. But today that is also a century gone by. And it is precisely Kinotavr that put everything in its place.

The heroine of Sadilova’s film comes to work as a nanny in a family of New Russians. She immediately starts messing up their lives. And she makes a total mess! The family falls apart and can barely be put back together again. It is important to state at the outset that the film is very talented. It is shot well and holds together, it is easy to watch, it is alive, it is unpredictable, and it is ambiguous. Actually, the ambiguity slightly trips the film up and its structure begins to slide. The filmmakers pretend that they don’t in the least sympathize with the nanny, but then, after all, she is the heroine and they can’t paint her completely in black colors. Yet they unwillingly have to color her black, so they keep looking for bright spots in her character. It’s true―they don’t find any. As a result, it becomes completely unclear why we have to pay so much attention to some bitch’s machinations, who is merely taking revenge for something incomprehensible―is it because she overheard the couple say she had a fat backside (surely this is insufficient justification for a revenge so dark)? or does the heroine’s sense of social oppression lie at the root of her hatred (perhaps, but this is never made clear and, furthermore, the couple’s roots are also from the working-class; they are expansive, generous, share a drink with their Uzbek Gastarbeiters, and never forget about their ordinary and struggling parents)? or maybe her actions are motivated by a complex, devilish tactic to blackmail the couple and squeeze a large sum out of them (so it seems, although the heroine brings up the large sum only after she has been kicked out and the couple has hired a private detective to keep tabs on her―about which she could easily have found out earlier and, therefore, acted more cautiously)?

Whether the detective will unmask her or not remains unclear because the filmmakers seem to sympathize with the heroine and don’t want to see her end up in jail. Who is she, after all? ― a poor, unfortunate Russian broad or a professional con artist? Nothing about her makes sense, while the filmmakers provide a simple explanation for her actions: “She got carried away.” It is worth noting that in real works of art nobody simply “gets carried away,” or if someone starts to “get carried away” and the director can’t justify this “uncontrolled flow,” it means that the director has been “carried away.”

Perhaps the film is simply a variation on Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (1997) or Joseph Losey’s The Servant (1963)? But that does not work. Funny Games is a hard-hiting warning about the devil who lives side-by-side with us; lacking semi-tones, the film is a surgical procedure, a deliberately scholastic experiment. And The Servant is a refined psychological drama, filled with the director’s deceptive and ironic games. At the core of Baby-Sitter Required lies something entirely different, but no one knows exactly what. An hour and a half of contemplating the actions of some petty and uninteresting riff-raff in a woman’s guise leaves an unpleasant aftertaste. About two or three years ago, when contemporary reality had totally disappeared from the field of vision and world views of Russian directors, such a film would have been welcomed heartily. After all, the film in some ways gets close to that reality. But now? Sorry, no. The fact that film failed to receive any prizes despite some success with viewers is very indicative. I am quite convinced that during the years when prizes were awarded to films like Magnetic Storms and Down House (dir. Roman Kachanov, 2001), Baby-Sitter would also have received something.

It’s a typical example of transitional cinema—neither from the past nor the present—characteristic of the films of the beginning of the 2000s, when the old schemas no longer worked, but new ones had not yet taken shape. Today, however, they have taken shape, not even as schemas, but as entire matrices, with which it is easy to interact and in which it is possible to find one’s orientation.

Let me start with a film that critics for some reason overlooked—Farkhot Abdullaev’s The Catcher (2005). Its form is simple, it is easy to watch, and it is a totally commercial film about the lives of homeless kids. It almost seems as if it is like the films from the past on the same topic—Vladimir Makeranets’s Hi, Kid (2001) or Andrei Proshkin’s Spartacus and Kalashnikov (2002). And yet, it is a film that marks a New Day and says a New Word. The old artistic model asked viewers either to feel sorry for the poor homeless kids (Hi, Kid) or to be moved by their everyday life for—unlike our daily life—theirs was genuinely free and independent (Spartacus and Kalashnikov). Actually, there was a third film, Vladimir Tikhii’s Car Washers (2000), where the lives of homeless boys was presented seriously, frighteningly—as happy, fortunate, and pitiful—all mixed together and filled with drama. But the film was not noticed, was even dismissed with irritation, precisely because it was expected to do only one thing: to elicit sympathy for the unfortunate orphans. The film’s irony and humor appeared simply blasphemous.

Abdullaev handles everything quite differently. The Catcher is open to everything, combining many different conditions and genres. The overall mood, however, is definitely positive, but not positive in a sugary-optimistic way. Its optimism is stoic. The director and his characters secretly welcome the difficulties of the misfortunes and collisions that rain down on them, for it is because of them that the characters mark the paths of their lives, growing up spiritually. As the narrative progresses, an ordinary homeless kid becomes a real person: he becomes the film’s basic metaphor: a catcher—the person on whose shoulders the circus acrobats build their human pyramids and who provides them with stability.

If at the beginning of the 1990s the complexity of contemporary life was represented on screen in the form of chaos and by the end of the 1990s this was replaced by surprise at the complexity and the discovery of its essential ambiguity, then today both have been replaced by a calm (at times, joyful) recognition that nothing else is given to us (Inogo Ne Dano), that this new world is genuinely complex, but that no one is to blame for this complexity—except perhaps human mentality. There are no guilty people in the world and people create around themselves the space that they deserve. No one is exempt. There is and will be no hope. Its place has been taken by life itself with its own currents. All that remains is to find one’s self and one’s path in life. And to move on deeper, into self-comprehension and self-realization.

The absence of illusions is practically the main characteristic of contemporary filmmaking. And next to it lies Russian reckless boldness, dancing slightly drunk on the edge of the abyss: “So if there’s no hope, if there’s no chance to realize desires, if no one will deliver us—let it all burn! We’ll rely on ourselves, we’ll live as we can! And we’ll take delight in all this lawlessness, decay, deceit, disorder, all these twists and turns, this whole mess and morass! After all, this is our very own! And nothing will ever take its place!” For the first time Russians on screen are learning not to move in breadth—horizontally in all directions seeking a “radiant future”—and not to soar—towards a Russian god, who, as we all know, loves the lonely and the wretched but at the same times loves to count the stars like diamonds in the sky—but instead, they are learning to move into the depths in order to understand themselves in this world.

Instead of a negative absence of illusions (Khrzhanovskii’s 4), most directors are pursuing a positive absence of illusions. But in the final count, the meaning is the same. Thus, for example in Maksim Pezhemskii’s Mama, Don’t Worry 2 (2005) we observe the nonsensical and idiotic election of the mayor of a provincial city. The film is a wild cocktail of politicians, businessmen, bandits, pop singers, cops, etc. etc. Someone has come to an agreement in principle with someone else, but then some force majeur or personal stupidity has mixed something up, and now no one understands what is happening. But events keep happening and happening, tying themselves into Gordian knots. And although it’s important to get out of the mess, it’s impossible to get out of it. So the hell with it all! Screw it! Nothing sensible comes out of it all. What did you expect? Nothing. So let’s all get together in our drunken ecstasy to form a brotherly chorus and let’s make peace. What else is there to do? We can’t just kill each other, can we? We’ve already done that. Enough.

The same is true of Pavel Lungin’s Roots (Bednye rodstvenniki, 2005). It all begins with an exquisite scam that is well thought through: some new “Ostap Bender” promises a number of Jews scattered around the world to find their lost relatives in Russia. Obviously he has no intention of finding any lost relatives, deciding instead to use some substitutes, who will be paid to act out their assigned roles. The unsuspecting Jews arrive, the scam naturally is exposed, the main character tries to save himself no matter what―but it’s too late since he is facing death: one of those who has arrived is a famous mafioso and he does not forgive being scammed. The luckless con man is “put down” in the literal and figurative sense (he’s drowned in a lake), but at the last second he manages to save himself, leaving the film without knowing whether his scam has worked. All of the substitutes he has used for lost relatives find real friends and a miracle occurs―the road paved to hell brings them to heaven. So what is to be done? Surely not to grieve, for once more people have been scammed, deceived. So what? Sure, scammed and deceived, but let’s find the positive in the negative and let’s be happy with what this abnormal, empty, delirious, and insane world has to offer us, where the enigmatic Russian soul calls the tune―the soul that can never solve its own riddle because to do so, you first have to solve other riddles, and in Russia there are countless riddles.

Not everyone is yet willing to accept this newly emerging aesthetics of our national cinema. For example, the critic Tat'iana Moskvina-Iashchenko accused these films of celebrating immorality, while the American cultural scholar Vladimir Padunov observed that it seemed to him—that Russia is going through a period of unfunny comedies. In a general sense, they are right. The above-mentioned films really do joyfully proclaim and propagandize this very immorality, but in this strange, new, positive twist there is also a profound truth. The problem is that moral intentions here have always been tied to notions of a romantic utopia and have always led to prison camps, if not in life itself, then in the souls of the bearers of this utopia. And as for immorality, what can one say―that’s the kind of country we live in, an “enormous” brothel where everything comes from the nether regions. But if you interfere with this nether region even a tiny bit, you will fall back into that same utopia by arguing with the very mentality of life. It is intriguing, “cool,” strange to watch such films, not terribly moral or correct, even if they are given the form of a light-hearted comedy that really is not terribly funny. Maybe there is not enough humor right now. But that’s precisely it: “right now.” Right now it is the internal irony and embedded philosophy in these films that is relevant, not their humor, despite all of their seeming lightness and distance.

What we are seeing are strange, not overly joyful comedies (4 can also be considered a comedy with some minor qualifications, since the director’s world view is ironically pointed). The roots of this tradition go back to the works of Nikolai Leskov, Vsevolod Garshin, and Anton Chekov’s so-called “comedies.” That was another epoch that tried to come to terms with the absence of illusions―the stagnating epoch of Tsar Alexander III that followed on the heels of the romantically inclined times of Tsar Alexander II, which ended with the murders of governor-generals on the streets. Once we enter the zone of our own mentality, we are not very successful at being funny. We are better at being angry, paradoxical, sharp, sarcastic, tragi-comical. Think about it: was Vasilii Shukshin funny? And is Mikhail Zhvanetskii really that funny?

Even Aleksei Balabanov, the greatest Russian director, has made an unfunny comedy―Dead Man’s Bluff (Zhmurki, 2005). But naturally it is angry, angry to the point of derangement. It is a comedy about the purest evil, in which evil is piled on evil and engenders more evil. Where does all of this take place? Here in Mother Russia, of course, but not in today’s Russia―in the Russia of the past, the Russia of the beginning of the 1990s, “Russia departed.” Balabanov does not emphasize the fact that this Russia has departed. His film is unique, perhaps the only attempt of its kind at “near-past retro.” It is deliberately shot on what is clearly poor―some kind of yellowish―film stock (more precisely, the film stock is made to look like this); it consists entirely of long- and mid-shots, the camera deliberately does not move, and the editing is purposely wretched. This is nothing more or less than the “cinema of the cooperatives” from the beginning of the 1990s. Balabanov has made an extremely insightful move (in general, he never does anything that is not carefully thought through). After all, the “retro” style is linked at its root specifically to the cinematic stylistics of a given historical period, and for this reason is deeply embedded in the 20th century. Even when “retro” is turned onto the 19th century, it still makes use of the devices of early, pre-revolutionary cinema (for example, Sergei Solov'ev’s Family Happiness [1969], Emil Lotianu’s My Affectionate and Tender Beast [1978], Sergei Ursuliak’s Summer People [1995]). In the same way, Balabanov first plays with the cinema clichés of the beginning at the 1990s, and then with the anecdotes, the language, and the style of the epoch. His film gasps from all the gunshots and murders; that is, on top of everything else, his film is also a heart-felt farewell to the Russian cinema of bandits about which critics complained for so long.

If anyone after Balabanov needs to make a film about gangsters, they will have to do it in a different way. Here’s an example: at television studios right now (and I work as a producer on REN-TV for Russian films) all scripts about gangsters are sent back with the following curt message: “Well, this is like Balabanov’s film.” He has closed the door on this theme, he has put a period there. He has driven an aspen stake into the ghost of the 1990s bandit, which has continued to haunt our screens (for example, alas, I can point to the film by Il'dar Islamgulov, Mow Them Down and Wipe Them Out [Kosi i zabivai, 2005], where I figure as one of the scriptwriters).

                                  

Admittedly, many viewers took the deliberately slovenly aesthetics of Dead Man’s Bluff at face value and dumped on the film at Kinotavr. But they were wrong. The time for “face value” has passed. It is no accident that films with concrete stories told without any circumlocutions or innuendoes―for example Ildar Iagafarov’ Sky Mountain (Kuktau, 2004), Valerii Akhadov’s Greenhouse Effect (2005), or Valerii Rozhnov’s The Graveyard Shift (2004)―were passed over in silence, eliciting neither strong emotions nor strong feelings in anyone. And although not all of these films are simply so-so (The Graveyard Shift, for example, is marked by the work of an excellent director), they produced the same effect: zero. The New Cinematic Period that is beginning requires films with an extra goal―a complex and paradoxical extra goal with a double bottom.

Whether it will take shape is another matter. Will it be incarnated in new forms? And will a new film language finally emerge? For the time being, none of the films made in 2005 are distinguishable from the films made at the end of the 1990s―the same rapid montage, the same use of brief clips, the same power.

But the goal is different. And that’s the main thing.


09/10/05