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Andrei Proshkin: The Play of Butterflies (Igry motyl'kov) (2004)

reviewed by Elena Monastireva-AnsdellŠ2004

The Play of Butterflies, or Scarecrow 2, as it is frequently referred to in the press, is the second feature by Andrei Proshkin (born 1969), who graduated in 1999 from the Moscow Higher Scriptwriters' and Directors' Courses. Like his award-winning debut film Spartacus and Kalashnikov (2002), his second feature film examines the life and fate of teenagers in contemporary Russia. Vladimir Zheleznikov, a prominent scenarist and writer of children's prose, whose novel Scarecrow (1981) provided the story and the title for Rolan Bykov's 1983 cinematic hit, helped to write this script, which is based on the novel's 2001 sequel. Together with the author and co-scriptwriters, Proshkin reworked the original, initially set in the late 1980s, to reflect and explore the problems and choices facing Russian youth in the 21st century. Although there is no character or plot continuity between Bykov's youth cinema classic and Proshkin's film, their themes are quite similar: teenagers' largely unassisted search for an authentic set of values in a troubled society. Within post-Soviet cinematography, which has paid little attention to the moral guidance of its younger audiences, Proshkin's films help to revive a well-established tradition in Soviet children's and youth cinema, a tradition that ranges from such optimistic "school films" of the 1960s as My Friend, Kol'ka (Aleksei Saltykov and Aleksandr Mitta, 1961), The Republic of ShKID (Gennadii Poloka, 1966), and We'll Survive Until Monday (Stanislav Rostotskii, 1968), and to such critical portraits from the late Soviet era as Scarecrow, Is It Easy to Be Young? (Juris Podnieks, 1986), Little Vera (Vasilii Pichul', 1988), and Intergirl (Petr Todorovskii, 1989).

The film's didactically prophetic title sets up the central conceptual metaphor for what happens on screen. Kostia Zotikov (Aleksei Chadov, the lead actor in Aleksei Balabanov's War [2002]), an aspiring sixteen-year-old rock musician from a provincial city in the Urals, yearns for success and recognition in an entertainment scene dominated by glitzy and politically complacent pop-groups from Moscow. Despite the obvious socio-economic gap that separates the capital from the industrially and culturally depressed provinces, the superficial system of values cultivated in thriving Moscow's mass media shapes, in the absence of any other guiding principles, a sort of new ideology. This point is best visualized in the scene where Kostia's friends gather in an abandoned factory to watch him become famous: they view his performance, broadcast on national television, on a TV set that stands in front of a dusty bust of Lenin. These neglected teenagers, children of workers who have lost their jobs in the local factories, hold drinking and dancing parties ā la Strelki (the popular Moscow group in the film, modeled on The Spice Girls) in deserted factory halls (an ironic twist on The Factory of Stars?), hang out on the rooftops of garages that store commodities that are financially prohibitive for their families, and flock (far too easily) to the "blue light" of an omnipresent TV screen that offers simplistic identities and easy solutions to life's problems. This is a new context―at least for Russia―in which Proshkin plays out the otherwise traditional theme of "singed wings."

Within the thematic framework of Soviet youth cinema, which deals with teenagers discovering and affirming genuine moral values, rather than corrupted or superficial ones, Proshkin's opposition of Russia's center and periphery becomes especially important. His super-real city, Zlatoust, with its defunct factories and dilapidated housing complexes, vast mountain vistas, and all-too-human inhabitants, strikes the viewer as ultimately more authentic than new capitalist Moscow with its TV studios replete with palm-trees and pineapples, its busy streets swarming with western cars and cluttered with advertising, and its imitative celebrities who have become successful by capitalizing on western models. A site of multiple distractions and temptations, this Moscow provides limited space for the focus or contemplation necessary for soul-searching and building a true identity. While the film's central character makes the traditional pilgrimage to Moscow that was characteristic of Soviet cinema―prominent, for example, in Volga-Volga (Grigorii Aleksandrov, 1938), The Radiant Path (Aleksandrov, 1940), Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears (Vladimir Men'shov, 1980), or later appearing in a subverted form in Scarecrow, Little Vera, and Brother (Aleksei Balabanov, 1997)―he does not find there the foundation for an authentic existence. As in Scarecrow, where a cancelled trip to Moscow forced a group of troubled provincial teenagers to make discoveries about their inner selves, the protagonists' quest for self-fulfillment in The Play of Butterflies is projected as a journey of discernment rather than a journey through space. In both films, the characters' awakening to a previously overlooked local heritage or to natural beauty signals the inner path to their roots.

The film opens in Kostia's hometown with an overcrowded Strelki concert, at which his own rock group, Spasibo, svobodnyi, plays a fifteen-minute slot as the opening act. The clash of musical styles and messages on stage perfectly captures the discrepancy of lifestyles and opportunities available to privileged Muscovites, but not to ordinary residents of Russia's "regions." Kostia spares neither his guitar strings nor his voice when he sings his locally inspired music of social protest (composed for the film by the non-mainstream musician Sergei Shnurov of Leningrad, who also plays the keyboardist John in Kostia's band). The song's refrain about an ever-busy telephone line introduces the film's larger theme of the provincial artist's frustrated attempts to break into showbiz. Strelki, who next take the stage, are, by contrast, a classic example of a consumer-oriented concoction catering to the public's baser instincts. They gyrate their erotically packaged bodies while lip-syncing an upbeat tune that hammers the idea into their predominantly teenage audiences that many bright roads are open to them; all they simply have to do is choose. This conceptual duel of styles soon descends into a physical encounter off-stage, when a small group of Kostia's admirers, the kids from the city's depressed working district, start a fistfight with the Strelki fans, inhabitants of the wealthier downtown area. This episode brings to mind the discotheque stand-off in Little Vera. But what Pichul's film presented, first and foremost, as a conflict between teenagers and a repressive system (embodied by the police who violently break up the brawl), Proshkin casts as a clash between the local youth's true, svoi, concerns and the imported superficial solutions propagated from the center.

While Kostia's talent and ambition set him apart from other Zlatoust teenagers, he is not immune to the seductive message of TV crime dramas or game and reality shows with their cult of quick success without effort, freedom without responsibility, and material advancement without spiritual growth. Nor does the protagonist's real life offer any worthy role models. Another fatherless child of Russo-Soviet cinema, Kostia becomes a witness and silent accomplice to his mother's (Maria Zvonareva of Trio [Aleksandr Proshkin, 2003]) manipulative use of men for the purpose of survival in the new post-Soviet economy. Rather than relying on hard work and slow but consistent progress―values that are advocated by his keyboardist John, but disregarded elsewhere―Kostia places all his hopes for career advancement on a one-time TV competition, which, were he to win, would make him famous overnight. The organizer of the competition is none other than Dmitrii Dibrov, a prolific talk-show host and the original founder of Aren't You Lucky!, the Russian knock-off of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. In anticipation of his likely change of fortune and bathing in the popularity he enjoys with his local fans, Kostia enacts a TV-inspired joy ride in a stolen car. The results are predictable: an injured pedestrian, a crashed vehicle, and a police investigation.

Things go downhill from there. After Kostia's band finishes third in the TV competition, the prospects of a career in Moscow vanish, while the corrupted reality of the justice system sets in with full force. Attempting to save Kostia from prison, his loving mother, Liza, prostitutes herself to investigators and judges, and his devoted girlfriend, Zoia, (Oksana Akin'shina of Sisters [Sergei Bodrov Jr., 2001] and Lilya 4-Ever [Lukas Moodysson, 2002]) commits a robbery to get ransom money for him. What started as a demonstration of limitless freedom, with "beer, girls, and rock-n-roll," snowballs into the injured man's death and a series of ugly moral compromises. Trying to escape this moral quagmire, Kostia confesses his guilt and goes to jail. Upon his return a year later, he indiscriminately annihilates everything that connects him with his pre-prison past: he breaks up with his friends who are involved in shady business practices, leaves his band (which now plays in a local restaurant), confronts and humiliates his mother who shortly afterwards moves to her mother's house in the countryside, rapes the innocent and faithful Zoia, and contemplates suicide. This cruel and painful destruction of past commitments has, surprisingly, a cleansing effect, allowing Kostia to realize his true allegiances, those necessary for starting a new life. The director does not show us this new life, but when Kostia gets on a tram in the film's finale and invites Zoia, who by some stroke of fate is in the same car, to follow him to his mother's country house, the viewer understands that this life will include his mother, his true love and ... his life's calling. The initially timid chords that go through Kostia's mind when he spies Zoia, grow into a new song about the nonexistence of death.

Along with depicting an individual's path to self-knowledge in the poorly charted moral landscape of a new capitalist Russia, Proshkin claims to express "the feelings of our society, which, like a teenager, now searches for its roots" (interview with Nikolai Dobrotvorskii ). Although the director offers no easy answers to Russia's identity problems, he suggests that one must look beyond the veneer of today's false values to such basic human ideals as a strong nuclear family, freedom combined with commitment, and creativity nourished by work and suffering, all of which can be pursued locally. Kostia's return to life starts with his awakening to the deeper motivations that lie behind Liza's and Zoia's moral compromises for his sake. The painful experiences of his own life provide him with the inspiration for his first mature song. Liza's move to her family house in a depopulated village brings her a long way towards embracing her mother's maternal ideals (a calendar with an icon of the Virgin Mother in the house reminds us that Kostia's grandmother persuaded Liza not to abort him and to take on the responsibility of motherhood).

While the film's hopeful finale may strike some as abrupt and unmotivated, a careful viewing yields a number of auditory and visual signs that prepare for it. Vladimir Chekasin's haunting music marks the rare but crucial moments when characters' profound emotional shocks and revelations unearth humanity and depth in the most callous of them. Additional energy, suggestive of the characters'―and the society's―untapped potential, radiates from Yurii Raiskii's inspired cinematography. The opening panoramic shot of the city, while recalling the soulless industrial landscapes of Little Vera's Zhdanov, also features scenic waves of clouds that meld with the misty ridges of the Ural mountains to intimate a deeper dimension to life on the land. The setting of the picnic held in honor of Kostia's return from prison, an open bluff overlooking a vast lake, symbolizes the characters' yearnings for new beginnings. The final tracking shot of the tram moving past a rocky mountain background pans back to reveal the scene's reflection in the mirror-like surface of a nearby river, yet another visual representation of life's inner richness and depth. In contrast to the high-speed Zlatoust-Moscow train that crossed rivers and cut through the mountains earlier in the film, the local tram tracks, merging with the river's flow, take the characters on their joint journey to their source.

Elena Monastireva-Ansdell, Oberlin College


The Play of Butterflies [Игры мотыльков

Russia, 2004, 

105 min. Color

Direction: Andrei Proshkin

Script: Vladimir Zheleznikov and Galina Arbuzova, with the participation of Andrei Proshkin and Vladimir Kozlov

Camerawork: Iurii Raiskii

Art Director: Aleksandr Giliarevskii

Music: Vladimir Chekasin and Sergei Shnurov

Starring: Aleksei Chadov, Oksana Akin'shina, Maria Zvonareva, Aleksei Shevchenkov, Andrei Smoliakov, Iurii Kuznetsov, Sergei Shnurov, Daria Ekamasova, Polina Golovina, Iulia Lomakina, Dmitrii Dibrov, Bari Alibasov, Arkadii Ukupnik

Production: Globus, with support from the Film Department of the Russian Ministry of Culture


Andrei Proshkin: The Play of Butterflies (Igry motyl'kov) (2004)

reviewed by Elena Monastireva-AnsdellŠ2004

12/09/04