Alexander Shapiro: HappyPeople (2006) and Casting (2008)
reviewed by Svitlana Matviyenko© 2009
The films of Alexander Shapiro definitely stand out in the context of Ukrainian film from the last decade. The novelty of his work has provoked the attention of viewers and film critics alike. Indeed, before Shapiro, the niche of underground and experimental film remained vacant. His work was a perfect fit. Shapiro’s rough style of editing—which comes from his background in music videos—his interest in disturbing topics, his tendency to philosophize and his attention to localities have all contributed to making his work recognizable and distinctive in Ukraine. However, some critics say, it is only because he is “home alone.” As Dmytro Desiateryk has pointed out, Shapiro’s work is a case of “uniqueness among ruins” and that the lack of context and competition makes his work somewhat tedious and predicable. Despite criticism, the director successfully manages to remain marketable. More importantly, he offers an alternative to the works of those coached at the film institutions and the recognized maîtres funded from the state budget.
In a way, Shapiro’s film challenges your ability (or willingness) to pursue an alternative logic of his collage of shots. He does not seek to achieve consistency of the film’s narrative. Even his most smooth storytelling has constant injections of visual and sonic clamor, just as in music videos, where the rhythm, and not storytelling, is a priority. Such is his 2006 film HappyPeople and even more so, his 2008 Casting.
To tell the story of HappyPeople, Shapiro employs a number of techniques that literally imply disjunction—jump cut, crosscut, intercut, which make the flow of the narrative extremely punctuated. He purposelessly collages high angle and low angle shots, close-ups, medium and long shots. One may assume Shapiro’s stumbling cinematic language renders the confused state of mind of the main characters, or maybe, on the contrary, our inability to access their thinking or their version of reality, both of which are removed from us by the screen. Any reading is possible.
Each of Shapiro’s films portrays the life of the imagined or real underground and its different marginal subcultures—drug users, “happy people,” or even actors. All are marginal, or isolated from reality, and everyone’s existence appears pointless. Shapiro’s characters are alienated from the “normal” majority outside the frame, which makes them awkward insiders of some sort of suppressed realm of being. It seems after his 2002 film Cicuta—a film that depicts obsession with different types of drugs—he approaches any social group with the intention to show its isolation and the lack of not only the means to communicate with the rest of the world, but even such intentions.
HappyPeople provides a look into the life of a Kyiv businessman Herman (Kostiantyn Zabaikal's'kyi), when he meets an obscure character, a sort of a new age guru Sasha Bambizo (portrayed by Vitalii Linets'kyi). Sasha introduces the businessman to a spiritual practice presented in the form of a game. In the course of this game, the two men assign each other absurd tasks which they call “instructions.” These tasks are risky and have the potential to hurt their social reputation and business. They call their risky competition “the Buddha game.”
The film begins with imagery suggestive of interactive gaming. This one minute twenty seconds long opening sequence consists of 52 randomly collaged shots. The audio that goes with the imagery is a fragment of a song by a famous Russian rock band Auktsyon. Shapiro picks exactly the lines in which Leonid Fedorov, the band’s front man, demands: “Stop the plane, I want to get off.” The logic suggested here seems to be that just as there is no way to escape a plane after it has taken off, there is also no way to escape the game once it has begun. In fact, Herman can never understand what exactly keeps him arrested in the game when he is so well aware of its absurdity and danger. Competitiveness? Death drive? The pleasure of a risky challenge? Or some sort of enclosed meaning that he is hoping to grasp despite the danger and absurdity? By the end of the sequence, the camera cuts into the sky and peers into it for several seconds reflecting, perhaps, on the impossibility of escape.
Right after the opening scene, Shapiro cuts into the serenity of the countryside and we see a grass field that strangely reminds us of the field of “unhealthy” grass from the opening and closing scenes of Antonioni’s Blow Up. At the beginning of Blow Up the grass appears as merely a background for the credits, yet it is significant, as is everything in Antonioni’s films. It sets up an uncertainty with which the director also closes the film. However, in the end, the uncertainty reaches the point of overwhelming the film after Thomas, the film’s main character, has witnessed the miming of a tennis game played without a ball. The pretend game achieves the illusion of reality when the players—all of them—pretend they can see the ball. In other words, when a group of people agrees that something is true or significant, it becomes true and significant. Thomas is shocked to have learned this, but he, nevertheless, obeys the group and pretends the ball exists. Antonioni’s tennis game without a ball and Shapiro’s senseless “Buddha game” have much in common, especially when the films’ characters end up accepting the absurd because it seems closer to the truth for them than a rational rejection.
Overall, the film is full of quotes and allusions, some of which the director seems to be not entirely aware of. Alexander Shapiro is not somebody who cares about the intellectual interplay of allusions or the intertextuality of his films. He employs what works, what is productive or effective in terms of its appeal to the audience in many different ways—via nostalgia, actuality, affect. The film contains intertextual elements from Tom Tykwer’s Run, Lola, Run, the lines from the well-known Soviet TV miniseries from the 70s, Tatiana Lioznova’s Seventeen Moments of the Spring, surreal monologues and dialogues as well as the entire performance style of the films of Kira Muratova, the most renowned Ukrainian director today, and, of course, the genre of music video, with all it has taught us to see and enjoy.
As Herman continues playing the “Buddha game,” his suspicion and uncertainty grows and he hires an investigator (Katia Vinogradova) to collect the information on his guru. Eventually, the investigator presents to him many eerie details from Sasha’s biography. As it appears, Herman’s guru is somehow related to the strange cases of suicide or disappearance of several rich or gifted—“happy”—people who had ended up miserable losers after they had been converted into the philosophy of Sasha Bambizo.
Having learned all this about Sasha, Herman, however, does not follow the investigator’s recommendation to leave the game. “It was my own decision to begin it,” he claims. Despite the investigator’s attempt to persuade him that the guru influences people’s decisions, Herman continues the game and follows the guru. In the end of the film the two leave the city and we see them approaching the green field of the opening scene. They walk hand-in-hand, step in and disappear in the grass field.
Casting has a very different structure. At the very beginning, the viewers are provided an explanation, following the credits, that “this film was assembled of materials of casting for film Rules of play, and represents an allegoric comedy without edification and advice.” Indeed, the film is a sequence of “screen tests,” when each of them is a scene consisting of one or several shots. Jump cut, minimal crosscutting, and slow zooming—in this film the inventory of techniques is minimal. Instead, Shapiro’s fixed camera peers into the speaking beings in order to either accept or reject them (it is casting!). The nameless characters recite the monologues that may look like the stream of consciousness or unbound speech, something private, bizarre, and shameless in its hysterical explosion. However, once in a while we hear some of them utter identical lines, which makes us realize their fake confessions are written and installed in their memories by someone they do not even know. Eventually, the continuous utterance—as a kind of prosthetic consciousness they share—pieces the disjoint scenes of the film together.
The film is entirely shot in a studio. It is a film about making a film. Its apparent self-referentiality makes the set and characters look kitschy. The viewers do not merely witness the procedure of casting. By crosscutting between the shots of the same monologue performed by two different actors, the director makes the viewers judge them and “choose” the one who better fits the part, of which the audience knows literally nothing.
Unlike Casting, HappyPeople is one of Shapiro’s films that make critics admit that his commitment to local scenery, which for the most part is represented by Kyiv streets and parks, clubs, restaurants, offices and apartments, is one of the distinctive features of his work. He employs the viewer’s recognition of local geography to serve an important function of identification if not with the characters then with the site itself. Shapiro’s decidedly simplistic and, at times, amateurish-looking footage allows the viewers to identify even more easily with the video stream, which in so many ways reminds them of what many record with their camcorders and cell phones or watch on YouTube every day. By means of the familiar local scenery, the director creates a sense of realness and gives the viewer the feeling that he or she belongs to the story, is standing right there, but off-frame. Shapiro’s “actualities” do the work they are supposed to do.
Alexander Shapiro is a director who does not neglect raw scripts and prefers to “fix” bad acting with the help of editing rather than reshoot scenes (Kurina interview). It reveals his attitude to the material: for the most part, footage, for him, is what needs to be assembled in a collage of different shots that he treats like bricks joined to make a film. If a viewer cares particularly strongly about narrative, he or she may have a hard time interpreting the connection between the shots and the scenes.
Shapiro’s discontinuous editing creates a sensation that viewers will be familiar with by merely living in today’s world of media noise. An uncertain, sketchy, interrupted continuity of being emerges through the contingency of sense and sensation in the visual flow of his films. The director cares very little about the sense of cinematic space either—the shots are flat, simple, and random. Shapiro counts on a viewing audience that is familiar with receiving multiple technological re-mediations of sense and experience: a viewer, for example, who is used to hearing a sound track via his headphones that fails to coincide with the rhythms of the reality he is in; a viewer for whom the time may go by at a different speed from the one suggested by that of the clock; a viewer who is obviously somewhat lost in chaos, but who would be even more disoriented if the pervasive media environment disappeared.
Svitlana Matviyenko, University of Missouri, Columbia
Desiateryk, Dmytro. “Unikal'nist' sered ruiny,” Kino-Kolo 17 March 2006.
Shapiro, Alexander. “Ia podoroslishav” (Interview by Aksin'ia Kurina), Kino-Kolo 20 June 2006.
Casting, Ukraine, 2008
Color, 117 minutes.
Director: Alexander Shapiro
Script: Alexander Shapiro, Anatolii Sloiko, Oleksii Serdiuk
Cinematography: Michael Tonkonogov
Sound: Myroslav Kuvaldin
Music: Serhii Ozerans'kyi
Cast: Oleksandr Kanevs'kyi, Viacheslav Nikanorov, Alenka Vardakova, Oleh Tansura, Vasia Frolova, Shasha Ukrei, Snezhana Chivildeeva, Larson, Justino, Svetlana Vol'nova, Vitalii Linets'kyi, Katia Vinogradova, Kostiantyn Zabaikals'kyi, and others
Producers: Serhii Lytvyn, Kirill Petrov, Alexander Shapiro
Production: Pattern Film, Technomedia
HappyPeople, Ukraine, 2006
Color, 103 minutes.
Director: Alexander Shapiro
Script: Alexander Shapiro
Cinematography: Mykhailo Tonkonogov
Music: Ievhen Kekukh
Art Direction: Ivan Levchenko
Cast: Kostiantyn Zabaikal's'kyi, Vitalii Linets'kyi, Katia Vinogradova, Fedor Bondarchuk, Aleksei Gorbunov, Maksim Konovalov, Aleksandr Bashirov, Heorhii Drozd, Alla Serhiiko, Ostap Stupka
Production: Panopticum, Lazaretti
Alexander Shapiro: HappyPeople (2006) and Casting (2008)
reviewed by Svitlana Matviyenko© 2009