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Tania Detkina, The Rascal [Pakostnik] (2005)

reviewed by Alyssa DeBlasio©2005



The Rascal is director Tania Detkina’s first feature-length film following four shorts: Flying Bats (Letuchie myshi, 1995), Birthday (Den' rozhdeniia, 1999), To Sit in a Wardrobe (Sidet' v shkafu, 2001), and The Desert (Pustynia, 2002). Detkina graduated from the Moscow Institute of Architecture and worked as a media artist until 1998 before studying at the VKSiR, the Advanced Courses for Scriptwriters and Directors (workshop of Aleksei German, Sr. and Svetlana Karmalita). The Rascal has been shown at several festivals in 2005, including the Berlin International Film Festival, Kinotavr (Russia), and the Ashdod International Film Festival (Israel) where it received the prize for best cinematography. 

 

Fig.2

The movie poster for The Rascal bills the film as “a romantic thriller” (Fig. 2). The central character, Pashka, is fired from his job as a house-sitter in the country but refuses to leave the property, even after the family has returned. He lurks in the woods with his car and his hairless cat, harassing the family’s children and hoping to catch a glimpse of their mother, Natasha, with whom he is having an affair. After noticing that Pashka has made several disturbing changes to the house, the family visits him at night with a container of diesel fuel and a lighter, hoping to chase him off the property once and for all. The film’s plot is disconnected and opaque, and not at all illuminated by the absurd and often indistinguishable dialogue. The events of the film are entirely unmotivated, and in the end―and despite the poster―there is nothing “romantic” or “thrilling” about the plot.

The poster, however, plays an interesting role in helping to understand this film. While the graphic design of the poster includes a puzzling image of a McDonald’s arch situated below a blatant advertisement for “Sex,” The Rascal contains no reference to McDonald’s and very little sex. The film’s production team has admitted that the poster design was used both for its aesthetic appeal and to attract attention, denying any responsibility to be faithful to the events in the film. Incoherence, just as the dislocation between the advertisement for the film and the film itself, runs throughout The Rascal. The film’s appeal, however, lies precisely in this incoherence and in the way Detkina repudiates any responsibility for traditional, linear structuring of the narrative. Only in this context does the film’s poster begin to make sense: it is both a scam (tricking the viewer into believing that he is about to watch a film laced with sex and fast food) and a declaration of the film’s mission―namely, to capture attention through disorientation and incongruity. This project is bolstered by Detkina’s cast, which is composed of non-professional actors she found in Moscow: a poet (Maksim Roganov), a lawyer (Svetlana Malysheva), a saleswoman (Iana Galina), and a video artist (Sergei Vishnevskii). As much as the film is not what its poster claims it to be, the people seen on the screen are not actors. The only professional actor in the group is Ol'ga Rychashkova (Margo), who has one of the smallest roles in the film. The Rascal distorts expectations and sensory experience, refusing to operate by an empirical set of rules: it is truly cinema without borders (kino bez granits), as the name of the film’s distribution company states.

 One of the ways that the film rejects structure is by its various distortions of the human body. Cinematography in The Rascal deforms the body through physical injury and by placing it in unnatural, animalistic positions. When the viewer is first introduced to Pashka, he is naked, a blank palette for Detkina to maim. In the course of the film, his fingers are bandaged; he gets tangled in wire and carpet, like one of his cats (Fig. 3); his body is thrown into a glass window; he is knocked to the ground by an explosion; and, finally, he disappears from the film without a trace. Natasha’s young son is also mutilated, scarred down his chest where he has been cut open and sewn back up. Even in the very first scene of The Rascal, the human body is deformed. The film begins with a tracking shot that opens to a young girl, bouncing in and out of focus, pulling at a long, black, stitched-up scar on her cheek (Fig. 4). At the end of this introductory shot, lasting nearly two minutes, the camera settles on two welders. These men are wound among the metal bars of the construction site, decapitated from the shoulders up, and bathed in the sparks from the work above (Fig. 5). Human speech in the film is also distorted: conversations are muffled, often including several clauses without any logical order and sometimes entirely indiscernible. 

       

Fig. 3                                                            Fig. 4                                                       Fig. 5



Not only is the human body deformed, but it is often done in a way that makes people look like animals. In the middle of the same opening tracking shot, the camera pans across two different welders: their hunched bodies and raised masks create the appearance of mechanical dogs traversing the camera’s plane. The title screen follows this tracking shot, and the viewer is then presented with a dream sequence, in which Pashka twirls Natasha’s body around in circles; she is covered in a thick coat of animal hair and Pashka snarls like a dog. In the first two and a half minutes of the film alone, spanning the opening tracking shot, the title screen, and the dream sequence, every character on screen is disfigured in some way, either through injury to the body, or through Detkina’s transformation of humans into animals. 

Just as humans take the shape of animals, animals (even stuffed ones) have the ability to take on human characteristics. Pashka endows his stuffed teddy bear with life by sewing a homemade heart into its stuffing. He makes this heart by wrapping a cow’s liver around a crude bomb. This gift of life allows the teddy bear, Aloysius, to speak and to kill with the bomb that is sewn inside. Animals sing and dance, are the object of surveillance videos, and one teddy bear even wears a watch. Stuffed animals are also killed like humans: they are gutted and hanged with nooses, forming a mass grave in the attic of the dacha.

Detkina’s use of sound is another way in which her film both disorients and refuses to conform to any logical system. The film’s soundtrack is made mostly of silence, juxtaposed with piercing noises: a foghorn, screaming, the scraping of metal on metal, and shrill whistles. There are short segments of music at only seven points in the film, and music is reserved mainly for animals: Pasha’s hairless cats play the stereo and hiss at one another, a stuffed rabbit dances to music while banging a drum, and Pashka dresses himself while his already-dressed cat looks on. Detkina’s manipulation of the audible focuses attention on the absurdity and awkwardness of the long, silent sequences that are pierced by strident sounds.

Filmed in black-and-white and composed of long tracking shots that are prolonged by the dominating absence of music, Morgachev’s cinematography in The Rascal is visually stimulating from start to finish. The Russian countryside is presented as a wasteland of dilapidated buildings, polluted water, and rusting metal structures. Its inhabitants are miserable, and have no meaningful communication with one other. Pashka, in particular, meanders alone through his desolate surroundings without real purpose. Much of the interaction between characters recorded on-screen is mediated by framing devices, whether the feed of a surveillance camera, the lens of a photo camera, a car window, or the gates of the family’s dacha. This view of Russia as a wasteland can be compared to the long tracking shot of Marina’s peregrination to her native village in Il'ia Khrzhanovskii’s provocative film 4 (2004). 

The ending of the film marks the climax of the absurdity: as Detkina notes in her own synopsis of the film, “If it’s dying time, let’s go out with a bang!” In the midst of a gasoline explosion in the middle of a pond, Pashka lies in the water, bloody and presumably dead. The camera then cuts from Pashka to show his car being lowered from the sky, on fire, amidst the wailing of the sirens from a neighboring shanty. Though Natasha, her husband, and her father have brought the fuel and the lighter to Pashka’s camp, it is the family’s dog and his teddy bear who have tried to killed him: the dog has spilt the gasoline, while the bear has initiated the explosion. In the closing scenes, Detkina provides her final distortions of the human figure. Pashka body has disappeared from the scene of the explosion, while Mashen'ka’s hair, styled by Pashka into dreadlocks, must be cut from her head. 

There is nothing about Pashka’s character that is particularly rascal-like. This might be due to the fact that the English translation of Pakostnik as “The Rascal” does not capture the true implication of the word. While “rascal” implies mischief, or a source of evil and irritation, the root noun, pakost', means literally “a dirty trick.” The makes sense in light of the film’s sentiment, one that is devoid of any evil altogether. Pashka plays a dirty trick on the family, leaving his explosive teddy bear behind to kill their dog. The dog returns the favor, blowing up Pashka with the same bear. The real trickster, however, is Detkina herself. She disorients the viewer with a misleading poster, a cryptic plot, and malleable bodies, while at the same time ensuring the viewer’s interest with absurd scenes and masterful camera work, testaments to the ability of art to defy coherence.

Alyssa DeBlasio, University of Pittsburgh


The Rascal (Pakostnik), Russia, 2004

Black-and-white, 80 minutes

Director: Tania Detkina

Screenplay: Tania Detkina

Cinematography: Dobrynia Morgachev

Art Director: Marina Zubkova

Music: Iurii Leikin, Sergei Detkin

Sound: Anton Semenov

Editing: Leda Semenova

Cast: Maksim Roganov, Svetlana Malysheva, Anton Privalov, Aleksandra Il'enko, Iana Galina, Sergei Vishnevskii, Vladimir Bublikov, Ol'ga Rychashkova

Production: Viacheslav Maiasov, Aleksandr Gerassimov

Distribution: Cinema without Borders


Tania Detkina, The Rascal [Pakostnik] (2005)

reviewed by Alyssa DeBlasio©2005

09/10/05