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Valerii Rozhnov, The Graveyard Shift [Nochnoi prodavets] (2005)

reviewed by Christina Stojanova©2005



“I am not human! I am a night salesman!”

Reviewing Valerii Rozhnov’s film made me wonder whether his post modern pastiche of contemporary world cinema would eventually secure his place amongst the new talents launched by STW Film Studio, one of the most prestigious film producing companies in present-day Russia, and by its versatile chief producer, Sergei Sel'ianov. Or will this debut film remain carefully circumvented with phrases like “interesting” and “skilful,” used by the daily press upon its release in January 2005, or will it simply be ignored by the bigwigs of Russian film criticism, as seems to be the case so far. I personally was pleasantly surprised by the film in spite of its measured, even brainy, approach to material that ideally should be treated in a much lighter, spontaneous, and emphatically over-the-top, campish way. But this is understandable, bearing in mind that it is the first auteur attempt by a young physician, who has recently, and somewhat later in life, graduated from the famous Moscow film school, VGIK. That does not mean, however, that I intend to soften my critical pathos or spare some of my not very flattering remarks. In any case, Rozhnov is obviously talented and knows what contemporary cinema is all about—not so much about original ideas, but about their unusual or rather iconoclastic (re)-interpretation, what is called post-modernist intertextuality. Post-modern cinema certainly is also about passion, which makes all the difference and which this film badly lacks, but let me not jump ahead of myself and, without much ado, introduce the film. 

On a late summer afternoon and early evening, we are introduced to the Student, who, from the backseat of a car and while being taken to his first night-shift at a twenty-four hour convenience store, is trying to convince his girl-friend and her brother how smart his decision is to go back to school. And what better job than that of a night-shift salesman? The overweight brother and especially the non-descript girl-friend (we shall never see her again) remain unimpressed, while she keeps insisting that it would be much more profitable if the Student were to become her brother’s partner in selling stolen cars, an allusion apparently to the common knowledge that criminals in Russia are much better off than educated and honest people in general. But this is the only time when this film touches the open nerve of Russia’s intricate moral and social problems, which remain somewhere far and away throughout the film. 

                                       

The director’s deliberate distancing from anything that smacks of being socially or ethically didactic is declared by foregrounding the Student, a stock character of the first horror and mystery films from the early 1900s. The Student of Prague comes immediately to mind, both the original version directed by Paul Wegener (1913) and the re-make with Conrad Weidt, directed by Henrik Galeen (1926), both based on a script by Hanns Heinz Ewers and Edgar Allan Poe’s story. This is further reinforced by the fact that we are never told his name; he remains “the Student” throughout. Apparently there is something in poor handsome students that makes them susceptible to evil and mysterious designs, albeit the stakes in this film happen to be much more mundane than selling one’s soul to the Devil in exchange for fame, glory, and the love of the beautiful Countess. Or are they?

During the introduction, while the Student is explaining the advantages of his night-shift job, we are also cautiously invited into the film’s horror intrigue: the newsman on the car radio informs us that there is a serial killer/ maniac on the loose and that his latest victim, hand-cuffed and dismembered, has just been discovered. He also reassures us that the police are closing in on him. But at the same time, the weather forecast adds to the foreboding—a rainy night is to be expected, and the maniac is known to be most active on such nights…

Thus, the introduction neatly determines the genre of the film, a thriller with comic elements, or a “black comedy,” [1]  where the tensions of the plot are to be determined by the imminent danger of the maniac striking again and, ultimately, by the fundamental questions “whodunit” and who will be the next victim? For, in accordance with the rules of the genre, everyone is a suspect on both counts: as a potential “maniac-killer” or a potential victim. The comedic element is apparently to be incorporated into the details, displayed in the intricacies of style and character.

The film then proceeds by strictly observing the three “classical unities”—time (covering roughly the same amount of time as the action itself, from sunset to dawn), place (a single physical space; the anonymous-looking twenty-four hour convenience store, or more specifically, the store, its accounting office, the washroom, the corridor, as well as the immediate space outside), and action (one main, linear plot with no subplots and few characters: the Student [Pavel Barshak]; his Colleague, the Day-shift Salesman [Viktor Sukhorukov]; the Boss’s wife [Ingeborga Dapkunaite]; the Detective [Andrei Krasko]; and the Boss [Viacheslav Razbegaev]). Certainly, securing this cast is the director’s biggest achievement, especially securing the actors’ willingness to be cast against the grain of the roles that have made them famous. For example, Dapkunaite moves decisively away from the dramatic and intellectual characters she has portrayed to that of a nymphomaniac nouveau riche’s wife, literally donning golf-socks and a distastefully curly wig. Like Dapkunaite, Krasko deconstructs the image of an honest, underpaid cop that he established in Pavel Lungin’s The Tycoon (Oligarkh, 2002) and a number of TV series, and plays the role of a slightly deranged inspector who is or believes himself to be closing in on the maniac. His own hang ups, however, with the gory details of the murders (“chopped bloody entrails,” “disfigured faces”), with “justice on the spot,” (that is, killing the maniac without court or trial as soon as he is caught), and with rampant social alienation—formulated angrily as “no one gives a damn!”—make him a very likely candidate as the prime suspect. 

Sukhorukov, one of Aleksei Balabanov’s fetish actors, also contributes tremendously to the success of the film in his role as the possible maniac, doubling as the Day-shift Salesman, thus implying yet another cinematic intertextual pun: on the immensely popular Russian blockbuster Night Watch (dir. Timur Bekmambetov, 2004) where, to make the extremely long and confused story short, the night watchers are the good guys and the day watchers—the bad ones. After a plethora of sleazy, semi-deranged, and perverted characters, launched by Balabanov’s extremely popular Brother (1997) and Brother 2 (2000), and especially in Of Freaks and Men (1998) and his latest opus, Dead Man’s Bluff (Zhmurki, 2005), it is easy to see why just one sentence: “Sukhorukhov—a serial killer-maniac!” has, judging by the press response, served very successfully as a high-intensity advertisement. [2]

On the backdrop of this star-cast, the relatively inexperienced Pavel Barshak (this is his second film role) as the Student survives, so to speak, by not doing too much, but by being himself. Unfortunately, his dead-pan countenance, handsome looks, and natural naiveté—otherwise perfect for the role—turn him gradually into an amorphous, even monotonous presence, failing to provide the psychological energy and emotional glue so badly needed to keep the film from falling apart into a series of episodes or etudes. This, in my view, is the biggest mishap of the film. Thus, the film evolves in uneven chunks, which, unfortunately, are left disconnected by the equally indecisive editing, thereby betraying the director’s lack of experience and leaving the viewer with the mistaken impression that Rozhnov was not quite sure about how to wrap up the story. 

Every episode evolves around its own centre, usually around what the Germans call a wiz (a concise joke or an anecdote) or a witty turn in the course of events. These range from outrageously emphatic “product placements,” like that of the popular beer Brand in the very first episodes, to Dapkunaite’s unusual attire and her unequivocal sexual designs on the Student, interrupted by the Inspector’s first visit. Their advanced sexual game is subsequently interrupted by Sukhorukov’s Day-shift Salesman, who returns for more Brand beer but, intrigued by the noise in the accounting office, catches them in the act. He eagerly accepts the invitation for a ménage a trios, but his elaborate preparations (hand-cuffs, kitchen knives, rubber gloves, and apron, etc.) qualify him immediately as a really serious suspect, thus radically changing the playful mood of the scene. This episode is indeed saturated with intertextual references; it is enough to mention Sukhorukov “flying” on a supermarket trolley à la Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic (dir. James Cameron, 1997) to the sounds of Chaikovskii’s Swan Lake.

The next episode is the most suspenseful and rich in the film’s anecdotal intertextual situations: the Day-shift Salesman joins the Wife in the accounting office, while the Student, clearly anticipating and even visualizing what the outcome could be (the maniac carving pieces out of her beautiful body), desperately looks for a way out of the mess, but is delayed by a couple of visitors. His curiosity takes the better of him, however, and, armed with a baseball bat, he enters the accounting office only to be informed by the Wife in a rather matter-of-fact way that the Day-shift Salesman has just died of a heart-attack, but not before swallowing the key to the hand-cuffs he had used to unite them as part of their weird foreplay. So she demands that the Student carve up the Day-shift Salesman and find the key, creating yet another wiz situation, where the Student takes on the role of the maniac in everything except committing the murder himself. The director has certainly paid meticulous attention to detail: the Student is shot from the back raising the knife over the dead body in a way that strongly recalls Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), while duct-taping the Wife’s mouth to muffle involuntary screams at the sight of blood is a stock image borrowed from so many murder movies, etc.

Subsequent episodes are less inventive and somewhat predictable, with the Inspector’s and the Boss/Husband’s unexpected visits functioning as the main sources of narrative interruption and suspense. These moments are built around the uncertainty of whether the Student will be caught literally red-handed or will get away with the murder (that is, will dig out the key and release the Wife), and also whether he will be able to get rid of the carved-up Day-shift Salesman’s corpse before either the Boss or the Inspector finds them. A lot of attention is paid to the Student’s exchanges with the Inspector, who is the most frequent visitor, and the film comes very close to violating its own measure of good taste when the Inspector asks for a good chunk of the fresh meat the Student claims to be in the process of slicing in order to explain his bloodied rubber apron and gloves. Fortunately, the Inspector changes his mind before ending up with a piece of the Day-shift Salesman’s behind…

To keep viewers’ engagement a-going in the second part of the film, the director shifts the intertextual center of the episodes towards the customers, creating a rather idiosyncratic joke that is accessible only to Russian cinephiles as, according to critics, at least a couple of them seem to come straight from other famous films, produced by STW, like Brother 2, Bimmer (dir. Petr Buslov, 2003), etc. Unfortunately, Rozhnov’s debut cannot match the energy of these films and, to quote one of the critics of the film: 

when Merzlikin [the actor from Bimmer] rushes … into Valerii Rozhnov’s likeable picture as if casually dropping by on his way to another first film, one is immediately overwhelmed by the primal power a bandit holds over a meek night salesman, but also by the difference between a film that dominates viewers and one that—for some reason—fails to do so. [3]

Indeed, it seems that no amount of artistry and intertextual creativity can divert viewers’ interest from the aggressive and multiple apparitions of what I have called elsewhere the Mafiosi Thriller (bearing in mind Susan Suleiman’s contention that naming the genre is half its definition), fixated on the life of the New Russians. [4] The best examples of this new genre have demonstrated its propensity to bring forth the negative aspects of society and its mores. The Mafiosi Thriller appeared in the troubled early 1990s in post-Communist cinemas as a mixture of elements borrowed from Hollywood gangster films, noir thrillers, and the vigilante movie, and its formulaic content can be summarized as the struggle of the lonely hero to restore justice against the villains, who are mostly former members of the Communist secret services turned Mafiosi. In Russia, the genre’s evolution has consistently kept apace with the escalation of social pessimism, and while its latest development has absorbed new aesthetic influences, it has remained ethically ambivalent about “whether to condemn the Mafiosi as greedy and ruthless villains killing mainly for hire, or to represent them as knights of a sort, or contemporary Robin Hoods.” [5] This ambiguity is best illustrated by the extremely popular works of the young director Aleksei Sidorov: the TV series The Brigade (2002) and the blockbuster Shadow Boxing (2005). While romanticizing the ten year-old bonds of four childhood friends, the director fails to change his stance with the collapse of the Soviet Union, when his characters drastically change into big Mafia bosses ever deeper involved in murderous biznes and intricate emotional affairs (The Brigade). In his new film, he goes to the other extreme, creating a model positive hero, who, like the protagonist of Brother, succeeds in single-handedly beating the Mafiosi at their own game. Despite his brief imprisonment (!), the hero gets the girl and, what is more, gets his international boxing career back on track, thus preparing the stage for Shadow Boxing 2

Balabanov, one of the most original and controversial Russian filmmakers nowadays and a “founding father” of the Mafiosi Thriller, has chosen another way to deconstruct and even close off the genre, at least as a vehicle for glamorizing the Mafiosi. Dead Man’s Bluff is a hilarious pastiche of 1990s Russian-mafia movies, and is structured as a comic-book illustration to a high-school lesson on the “initial accumulation of capital.” Balabanov’s callous representation of the intellectual and educational “merits” of the present-day tycoons heavily quotes Guy Ritchie’s dimwitted gangsters and farcical plots, while the description of their biznes methods and political skills make good use of Tarantino’s piles of corpses and rivers of blood.

But let us go back to The Graveyard Shift. As I have already mentioned, Rozhnov avoids any engagement with hot social and moral issues, let alone with Mafiosi who are full of dark energy. But he also avoids the much stronger temptations of chamber psychological films, usually claustrophobically isolated in time and space, pretty much in the vein of the immensely successful festival art film The Return (dir. Andrei Zviagintsev, 2003). And that is a pity because a more emphatic psychological approach would have foregrounded the negative evolution of his charmingly naïve Student into a cynical survivor, who coldly blackmails the Wife into helping him to get rid of the Day-shift Salesman’s body. Deeper psychological motivation is clearly lacking in his ultimate transformation in the morning after, when he accepts the proposition to become partners with his girl-friend’s brother in selling stolen cars and maybe in something more sinister, as fleetingly suggested by the last image—a pair of hand-cuffs on the back seat of the car. 

The critic, quoted above, admits that, on the positive side, Rozhnov’s film “does not pretend to be anything more but pure genre and audience entertainment,” pointing out the almost “hazardous” pleasure and commitment in the acting of such shining stars on the new Russian small and big screens as Dapkunaite (“the way she just closes her eyes and collapses” at the sight of blood is “simply unforgettable”…). But that is exactly where the crux of the problem is, for “pure genre and audience entertainment” is a rather challenging professional exercise, with which Rozhnov bravely and creatively struggles, but fails to achieve a decisive victory. His third way out of the current divide in Russia between popular and art-house cinema or between “pure” and intellectual entertainment strains what the critical argument seems to suggest―the post-modern, self-reflexive, and intertextual pastiche, where viewers are offered the rare cinephiles’ pleasure of discovering the sources of the abundant references. In this, Rozhnov is only moderately successful. The film remains too shy and self-conscious to pursue the path of outrageously accumulating camp details, which seems to have been the director’s initial intention. And it is a well-known fact that Le Bon Dieu, The Good God (or the Devil―depending on the context) or the pleasure (pure or not) of entertainment is in the details.

Christina Stojanova, McMaster University


Graveyard Shift, Russia, 2005
Color, 85 minutes
Director: Valerii Rozhnov
Screenplay: Valerii Rozhnov
Cinematography: Roman Vas'ianov
Art Director: Aleksei Shnyrov
Sound: Filipp Lamshin
Cast: Pavel Barshak, Ingeborga Dapkunaite, Andrei Krasko, Viacheslav Razbegaev, Viktor Sukhorukov, Andrei Merzlikin, Spartak Mishulin
Producer: Sergei Sel'ianov
Production: STW Film Studio


Endnotes  

1] The official advertisement for the film, prior to its release on 20 January 2005 describes it as a “youth comedy-horror with erotic-detective deviations.” Fair enough. But as far as advertisements go, perhaps more verbal discretion was advised in order not to spoil the suspense… It would have been much better to stick to the director’s definition of the film as a black comedy. 

2] Similar in effect to Hollywood’s high-intensity advertisements, for example, “Arnold Schwarzenegger and Dani DeVito in Twins.” 

3] Oleg Zintzov, Vedomosti (14 January 2005).

4] Christina Stojanova, “Le nouveau cinéma russe et la nouvelle société russe.” Ciné-bulles. 15.1 (Printemps/Spring 1996): 38-45. See also Christina Stojanova, “The New Russian Cinema.” Kinema. 10. (Fall, 1998); and Christina Stojanova, “The Russian Cinema in the Free-Market Realm: Strategies for Survival.” Kinema. 11. (Spring, 1999).  

5] Christina Stojanova, “Une Nouvelle Europe.” Ciné-bulles. 16. 3 (Automne/Fall, 1997): 38-41. See also Christina Stojanova, “Le film de genre américain dans le cinéma post-communiste: ‘le Mafiosi Thriller’.” Ciné-bulles. 17.2 (Été/Summer 1998): 38-43.

Pictures courtesy of CTB

Valerii Rozhnov, The Graveyard Shift [Nochnoi prodavets] (2005)

reviewed by Christina Stojanova©2005

09/10/05