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Aleksei Uchitel: The Stroll (Progulka) (2003)

reviewed by David MacFadyen©2004

 

Aleksei Uchitel'’s film The Stroll (2003) is a satisfyingly atypical work, yet the reasons for which it might it strike a Western viewer as inventive have occasionally incurred a less than welcoming journalistic response in Russia, to say the least. Whilst Nikita Mikhalkov has declared the movie a breakthrough in Russian cinematography, journalists in Moscow and St. Petersburg have dismissed it as derivative of the very feature film that began Mikhalkov’s career, I Stroll about Moscow (Ia shagaiu po Moskve [Georgii Daneliia, 1963]). Other points of comparative, condescending reference have been Russian Ark (Russkii kovcheg [Aleksandr Sokurov, 2002]), Of Freaks and Men (Pro urodov i liudei [Aleksei Balabanov, 1998]), and the Dogme95 "Vow of Chastity." These incongruous and often petulant parallels are used to characterize a film that lasts 90 minutes and (with minor deviations) takes place over the same time along the blistering summer streets of St. Petersburg.

Until its closing scenes the film concentrates its undivided attention upon two young men (played by Pavel Barshak and Evgenii Tsyganov) together with an unexpected female acquaintance (played by Irina Pegova). The heroine (Ol'ga) is dropped off by a male companion on Nevskii Prospekt and here begins the stroll around St. Petersburg. She is immediately and somewhat arrogantly accosted by one of the two men (Aleksei) and he begins flirting furiously with her as she makes her way down Nevskii towards the Neva. Aleksei is so impressed by Ol'ga that within minutes he telephones his friend (Petia) in order that they should all meet on Palace Square. The relationship between an extremely self-assured young woman and two equally pushy paramours leads to several tense moments, even fisticuffs and quite a few shouting matches. Over the course of these often dramatic, shifting scenes, the threesome slowly winds its way towards a bowling club, where the reason for Ol'ga’s long promenade and interest in the two men is suddenly revealed.

This use of urban walking space by young people is the clearest motivation for parallels with Mikhalkov’s acting debut in film; the comparisons with Russian Ark result from the fact that the movie is shot, as noted, virtually in real time. The first twenty minutes following the opening credits, in fact, are one unbroken sequence, beginning with the moment when Aleksei introduces himself with debonair fervor to Ol'ga; we then stay with them, step by step all the way from Anichkov Bridge to the Griboedov Canal, at which point Aleksei leaves Ol'ga briefly to inquire about railway tickets to Moscow. At that instant the continuity is broken and we cut to a series of historical, regally attired figures (including Peter the Great) who are arguing over where to stand and make the greatest revenue from camera-touting tourists. Fluidity, à la Sokurov, is curtailed at the very point where his historical figures are presented to us. Yet here they embody not the folded, peripatetic wanderings of frequently and fondly-remembered cultural history, but a much less attractive (and poorly dressed) version, out to make a little cash from the city’s most profitable clichés.

Although several similar and specifically local issues are addressed in the film (i.e., in a movie that is not about "strolling around Moscow"), the most striking echo with Sokurov is that here, too, the film’s chronotope is its plot. Russian Ark juxtaposes the linearity of a historicized existence with the baroque, aimless flourishes of carefree dance and music, and a more emotive (or less logocentric!) way of being. As Sokurov’s motion picture points out the "inevitable," nearing gunfire of a revolution that aims to rewrite history, even the most condescending, "progressive" foreign visitors would prefer to stay and dance in the ballrooms of the Hermitage, rather than be channeled by its long corridors towards an ugly uprising. In a similar way, The Stroll pits a directionless amble against both the linear, severely classical streets of Petersburg and a day that draws inevitably to a close, when sunshine becomes torrential rain and an initially happy story turns very nasty indeed. When plotted on a map, the movement of these three walkers begins on Nevskii, scribes a charming little circle around Palace Square and heads off across two bridges onto the Petrograd Side of the city. As the 90 minutes pass, however, Ol'ga, Petia, and Aleksei begin to curve back towards their starting point. What looked like a leisurely walk now becomes a vicious circle or dead end.

This juxtaposition is nicely hinted at in the opening credits, as the dulcet tones of Nina Simone accompany a series of lazy, skyward shots from the back of Ol'ga’s car, with ornate buildings seen upside down (presumably by somebody lounging on the back seat). Electrical power lines, long, straight streets, and architectural flourishes interweave. Yet, just as Simone declares "We’re creatures of the wind," something boorish (or brutish, even) underlies this early, urban elegance. Here The Stroll departs from Daneliia’s wit and Sokurov’s restrained elegance, for this is neither a cheerful nor a pleasant film to watch; the inverted sophistication of the credits, if anything, recalls another cinematic classic, the "overturned" metropolis (reflected on water) from The End of St. Petersburg (Vsevolod Pudovkin, 1926). Ol'ga’s sullen voice—before she is even on screen—complains that the Simone track always irritates her, suggesting that something destructively insistent appears to lie in wait.

The ornate or baroque aspect of Uchitel'’s film is what recalls von Trier’s and Vinterberg’s "vow of chastity," since the Russian director (best known for the Oscar-nominated His Wife’s Diary [Dnevnik ego zheny, 2000]) shot The Stroll on a Mini DV camcorder. The tiny dimensions of this machine allow for a dizzying series of circles and sweeping movements around the flirtatious couple, time and time again. Uchitel', given his extensive background in documentary filmmaking, used this technique for several reasons: cost, ease of outdoor organization, and, perhaps most importantly, the ability to shoot without hoards of gawping onlookers falling constantly into the frame, especially on a busy summer’s day. The overlap of documentary and fictional narratives is at time successful, but at others distracting. Operating at a maximum distance of 300 meters from the actors and cameraman, Uchitel' was at times in control of their movement by headphones alone, having lost visual contact with the plot. The tiny crew is forgettable as their reflection passes across the glass panes of a bus shelter or unlit storefront, but people in the street are more distracting. Occasionally a pedestrian stares at the camera and one young man even sticks his tongue out on St Isaac’s Square. When Ol'ga faints from vertigo at the top of the nearby cathedral viewing gallery, however, tourists are, on the contrary, visibly worried by the sudden infirmity of a local girl. Perhaps the most touching interpenetration of city and screenplay comes when a bride, engrossed in her wedding celebrations at the foot of the Bronze Horseman, is manifestly flattered by the attention of an unknown cameraman on her special day! These overlaps are not just visual; they are audible, too: when the film’s sound was redubbed, due to excessive white noise from the real-life traffic, the actors would stride several times around the studio before reading their lines, so that "actual" rates of breathing were brought into line with the broken, constantly troubled phrasing of the film’s perspiring walkers.

This issue of welding fact and fiction emerges yet again with regard to several editing decisions. For example, as Petia and Aleksei compete over the girl with increasing bitterness towards the end of the afternoon, they stride out onto an embankment, and all of a sudden a late sunny afternoon has become an inconceivably dark sky prior to a major downpour (and the heroine’s initial sensation that a dead-end is nigh). Whether this is a deliberate attempt to call our attention to the very nature of "continuity" (by making it false) or simply an instance of lazy, amateurish montage is hard to say. In either case, though, the narrative flow is noticeably broken with unpleasant crudity. Similarly odd juxtapositions were evident in interviews conducted in the Russian press with the screenwriter (Dunia Smirnova) and Pegova; the former expressed her wish to counter clichéd, rather "grim" representations of Petersburg in standard cinema with a summertime scenario, whilst Pegova said on several occasions that she found Ol'ga an ominous, often unpleasant figure to play.

 

The competition between themes cheerful and grim, directionless and goal-driven emerges with increasing coarseness. At several points in the film reference is made to animals, to beasts of burden, prey and sacrifice (horses, pigs, pelicans, cats, camels, lambs, and chickens). Malicious forms of competition slowly displace anything resembling the city’s purportedly European flair. A wedding party heads out onto the Neva in a speedboat, amid quips that all people and cash end up in Moscow; Petersburg’s football team "Zenit" is on the warpath against Moscow’s "Spartak" and the three protagonists are quickly caught up in a crowd of marauding fans (who, in fact, are a combination of hired actors and actual fans prior to a real match, just as the three main actors—all from the Petr Fomenko theatrical studio—needed to conceal or downplay their real-life acquaintance). When the theme of competitive lovers is transferred to thousands of antagonistic football fans, the field of vision switches with great speed and sudden elevation to a traffic journalist’s helicopter, high above the city. Three people abruptly vanish in a sea of blue and white banners, shirts, and scarves.

This blue flood sadly is guided by the streets towards its starting point, a bowling club where Ol'ga goes with Aleksei and Petia to meet her fiancé, the very existence of whom is a shock for the two young men. It transpires that Ol'ga is to be married in a week, and to prove the seriousness of her desire for a Himalayan honeymoon, she had told the fiancé (Evgenii Grishkovets) that she could walk for two hours non-stop and could find two innocent "witnesses" of this feat. Only now do we realize that the black car which had almost run down the three protagonists on St. Isaac’s Square was driven by this future husband, playing a cruel joke upon Ol'ga whilst reminding her of his surveillance. Likewise, we now see why Ol'ga, as the day ended and the club was growing closer, had told the young men "everything is my fault" or had insisted with odd, almost desperate volume that the day had made her very happy. Through these closing scenes she appears lazy, spoiled, arrogant, and manipulative.

 

Aleksei declares his disbelief that people such as Ol'ga "can even exist," and the return of these evolutionary, bestial metaphors epitomizes a film that unifies two cities, two sets of cultural clichés and their presumed differences in an unattractive, common struggle of the strongest, where gain (be it financial or emotional) determines social value. Peter the Great is a bad actor in a bad wig on a hot day; "Spartak" and "Zenit" struggle over the same turf for the same prize; and "stronger," more forceful couples leave straight from the embankment at Decembrists’ Square for the waters of Moscow. The very fact that this film floats so uneasily between documentary and narrative invention, between fact and fiction, makes it even harder to watch. For all of Ol'ga’s declarations that she "loves to dream" and our anticipation that aimless, jazzy whims can be satisfied on a sunny day, the story’s movement and denouement were determined from the moment the credits started rolling. In the competition between the formless "wind" and the muscled "creatures" of Simone’s signature tune, the latter appear much more established, even in the "cultural capital."

David MacFadyen, University of California, Los Angeles


 

The Stroll (Russia, 2003)

Color, 90 minutes
Director: Aleksei Uchitel'
Script: Dunia Smirnova

Cinematography: Iurii Klimenko, Pavel Kostomarov

With: Irina Pegova, Pavel Barshak, Evgenii Tsyganov, Evgenii Grishkovets
Production: Studio "Rock" and the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation


Aleksei Uchitel: The Stroll (Progulka) (2003)

reviewed by David MacFadyen©2004

14/07/04