Svetlana Stasenko, Shantytown Blues [Angel na obochine] (2004)
reviewed by David MacFadyen©2005
One of today’s most successful clichés in Russia’s primetime TV drama is the story of how social and fiscal relationships shifted during perestroika. Such changes, viewers are told, spawned the unsightly offspring of Moscow, whose once-human features are becoming increasingly brutish. These unhappy narrative tendencies are slowly coalescing into one archetypal storyline, in which an impoverished provincial comes to Moscow seeking money and self-respect, but falls foul of urban cruelty. A penchant for social critique has certainly marked series like Two Fates [Dve sud'by] (Valerii Uskov and Vladimir Krasnopol'skii, 2002), A Different Life [Drugaia zhizn'] (Elena Raiskaia, 2003), Lifelines [Linii sud'by] (Dmitrii Meskhiev, 2003), Polka Dot Heaven [Nebo v goroshek] (Vladimir Balkashinov, 2003) or, most famously, The Brigade [Brigada] (Aleksei Sidorov, 2003). Lurking behind many of these tales stand the manifold shareholdings and aesthetic influence of the Kremlin. Inherently respectable storylines, therefore, become ponderously principled as the general public is told what’s patently right and what’s evidently wrong.
Svetlana Stasenko’s film Shantytown Blues finds itself under a similar shadow, in part because of the project’s origins. This movie traces the fate of a young boy from 1980 until the (troubled) present day through the prism of his remarkable and dignified songwriting in a rock group. During perestroika, when the influence of synthesizers, lip-synching, and payola began to haunt popular music, rock bands often saw themselves as arbiters of ethically dignified texts that countered the vacuity of Soviet products—and the equally superficial offerings of modern pop music. Stasenko’s film follows the career of one such rock musician and she busies herself with teacherly finger-wagging en route.
Even promotional material for the film designates different age groups that might benefit from the story’s principled import. Viewers older than 12 will learn the lesson that “Once Is Enough,” by which Stasenko means that our young hero will mature beyond the worldview that all wrongdoings can (and must) be quickly rectified with violence. Likewise, viewers older than 19 will discover “How to Find Their Destiny.”
Leaving aside the issue of how often popular culture in Russia manages to squeeze “fate” and existential triteness into the same sentence, the parallels between television, politics, and musical stories continue. Just as marketable singers (like the warbling orphans of Tender May [Laskovyi mai]) were sometimes taken from children’s homes during late perestroika for pop-projects—to bolster the force of lachrymose ballads—so Stasenko found a suitable boy for Shantytown Blues in a real prison, whither he had tumbled after several years in a “special school.”
In the simplest possible terms, the boy’s story is as follows. He (Mishka) is befriended by a scruffy outlaw called John, a ne’er-do-well who helps Mishka develop his singing because the boy’s chaste voice is a rare joy in the middle of slum-like surroundings. John, however, is suddenly murdered. Mishka kills the murderer and is sentenced to seven years in prison. When he is finally released, Russia’s music, society, and “business” practices have all changed. New decisions must be made in order to “decide one’s fate.” The rock songs of Mishka’s career string the film together in a way that is intended to be terribly modern and fashionable, yet this structural technique sooner recalls Soviet bio-musicals, such as A Woman Who Sings [Zhenshchina, kotoraia poet] (Aleksandr Orlov, 1978) or Soul [Dusha] (Aleksandr Stefanovich, 1981).
Within minutes of the film’s sepia overture, a dog called Ringo is running around the screen, “John the Bandit” appears, a copy of A Hard Day’s Night is on sale at the local marketplace, and the White Album is offered as a good reason to visit a friend. I have grave doubts that copies of either album (in mint-condition sleeves) would have reached these backwaters in 1980—or have been so cheap. Russian journalists have likewise noted that subsequent scenes shot on Moscow’s Arbat employ warm and fuzzy street lighting, which at that time was naught but a distant dream. There is much mythologizing here.
The characters smoke grass because The Beatles did, but when we hear “Michelle,” the first of their songs, its Franglais chorus invokes less the romanticism of neophyte Slavic songsters than the provincialism of rainy Liverpool in 1967, soon to become an unemployment black spot. Provincial dreamers dream of becoming provincial dreamers who dream of... In scenes of early concert “footage” by the fictitious band Kross and their “conceptual minimalism,” the movie seems once more a tad cavalier with cultural history, all in the name of an upstanding romanticism. The lead singer sounds like a young Zhanna Aguzarova or like the early Kolibri recordings, yet viewers’ acceptance of this subversive style as historically accurate depends upon a very flattering chronology.
In attempts to telescope the development of better songs and better people, Shantytown Blues uses occasional refrains from early romances that work their way into today’s criminal [blatnye] ditties, à la “Sing, My Guitar, Weep!” These motifs are very telling, because for all this film’s wistful dreams of cultural fruition, it repeats the use of gypsy romance lyrics in Russia’s pre-revolutionary cinema. At that time, songs of bodice-ripping, knife-wielding gypsies were turned into juicy and profitable screenplays. Stasenko’s feature also, with considerable irony, is redolent of A Hard Day’s Night (Richard Lester, 1964), which barely qualifies as a movie, being a series of hits that are loosely strung together in the spirit of future music videos.
Shantytown Blues was shot in the wretched township of Noginsk. The fact that its 100,000 residents, living within the Moscow region, can still muster such a depressing landscape in 2004 speaks volumes as to the enduring need for Stasenko’s dreaming. She herself has said:
The film tells of my own generation, when people of my age found themselves in perestroika. At the time it seemed something great and vital was just about to happen. We were riding the crest of perestroika’s wave, but a lot of people fell off. Some ended up penniless, some vanished completely, only to crawl back from the abyss many years later. Cinema should open up society’s wounds. Images come from that pain. I don’t believe in “varnished” [lakirovannoe] cinema. It’s trivial.
This vocabulary sounds as time-tested and dusty as the films it once produced. It’s a banality to counter a banality, a series of dull body blows, back and forth.
Irina Ural'skaia, working behind the camera, said she wanted to recreate the style of the 1980s, not to “succumb to the influence of a music-video style.” She strove for the “romanticism” of that decade, for something now absent. In today’s Russia, though, where so much of popular visual storytelling is resorting to the simplistic, often sentimental didacticism of prior years, maybe this isn’t the best game plan. The adoption of another, equally long-absent museum piece—the clunky moralism of 1980s rock lyrics—simply reinstates the bygone banalities I mention, a time when two phraseologies grumbled loudly at one another while everybody else went about her or his business. Or took a nap.
Just as the songs of Soviet musical biographies observed little distance between their sung, fictitious content and the real-life personae singing, so the soundtrack used for Shantytown Blues reflects this tradition. Stasenko waded through more than 300 audition tapes before choosing the ensemble Silver [Serebro], formed in 1997 and—by their own admission—exponents of the (leaden) style made famous by groups like DDT and Auktsyon. This is how their lead singer has defined the ensemble’s modus operandi: "In our work we always try to go beyond the limits of consumerism and its consciousness. The songs’ texts guide people to the realm of primordial essences. Their core design is the unity of subject and object, of the listener and performer. Our concerts are a form of synthesis between varied types of matter and consciousness… a positive dialogic."
Once again, this sounds so obsolete―in terms aesthetic, lexical, and philosophical. The very notion of a cultural or ontological “retro-spective,” as expressed here, requires that the values inherent in that prior age actually pass away before they come back. Just as those radio stations in Russia that are called “Nostalgie” (why not Nostalgiia?) compose endless, dreamy playlists of old songs that nobody in the Soviet Union ever heard, so here we have an ideal that never left the people advocating it. The visual and vocal means used to advocate this ideal are somewhat aged, not just in situ as historical evocation, but off-screen, too, in everyday language. The rhetoric of perestroika rock culture was supposed to be a counterbalance to the faux inclusionism of glasnost speechifying, yet it ended up embodying a cultural snobbery.
To paraphrase some of Žižek’s recent writings on romanticism, we have a situation in which Stasenko and her rockin’ dreamers never had what they now claim is lost. They find themselves caught in something of a narcissistic, unyielding circle: "The lost object which transfixes the Romantic’s desire never existed in the first place. The structure of this double loss is concealed by means of fetishizing the longing itself: the typical Romantic gesture is to elevate the longing as such, at the expense of the object one longs for. It is easy to discern the narcissistic satisfaction derived from such a reflective reversal: we only have to recall the Romantic infatuation with the artist who is subjected to everlasting longing which will never be satisfied." (The Plague of Fantasies, 194 and 196; emphasis added). Stasenko’s film is full of losers and happily so.
In conclusion, this is clearly an admirable film, at least in intent. As one Russian journalist put it succinctly, “this is one of those movies that’s impossible to disparage, despite all its obvious directorial and screenwriting failures.” That’s because Shantytown Blues is driven by very good intentions. Nevertheless, it evokes and advocates those intentions with the oratory and confrontational visual style used to oppose socialist rhetoric on its own, dumb terms in the 1980s. That oratory fought slogans with better slogans, but they were slogans, all the same. At a time when it is becoming increasingly easy to define ORT’s slow re-endorsement of a late-Soviet aesthetic, the wrongness of poverty, deceit, and piracy need to be more astutely—or even entertainingly—countered. Many people, I suspect, already know deceit and poverty are wrong. Bah, humbug. Grumble, grumble.
Most of the above quotes were taken from promotional and background materials that are available at http://angel.mail.ru. The site also includes a trailer and numerous stills.
David MacFadyen, University of California, Los Angeles
Sepia and color, 110 minutes
Director: Svetlana Stasenko
Script: Svetlana Stasenko
Cinematography: Irina Ural'skaia
Soundtrack: Dmitrii Tverdyi and Serebro
Art Director: Aleksei Azarov
Cast: Vasia Lykshin, Mikhail Efimov, Andrei Egorov, Aleksandr Tsurkan, Gennadii Nazarov, Ekaterina Migitsko, Petr Zaichenko, Anatolii Gushchin
Producers: Arnol'd Giskin. Evgeniia Tirdatova, Varvara Arbuzova-Kulish
Production: NETsKI, with support from the Russian Ministry of Culture
Svetlana Stasenko, Shantytown Blues [Angel na obochine] (2004)
reviewed by David MacFadyen©2005