Timur Bekmambetov: Day Watch (Dnevnoi dozor, 2006)

reviewed by Victor Matizen© 2006

Is a Russian Hollywood Possible?

Released on 1 January 2006, Timur Bekmambetov’s Day Watch broke all box office records for Russian film distribution, earning more than 30 million dollars and surpassing all of the leaders of previous years―Fedor Bondarchuk’s Company 9 (2005), Dzhanik Faiziev’s Turkish Gambit (2005), and Bekmambetov’s own Night Watch (2004).

When Night Watch was released in 2004, viewers who did not like the film attributed its success to the intense and hitherto unprecedented advertising campaign on Russia’s main television channel. This view met with the standard objection: advertising only helps to increase box office receipts during the first week-end of a film’s release; after that “word of mouth” kicks in―the unmediated impact of those who have seen a film on those who have not. So if the first wave of viewers had left the film disappointed, box office receipts should have dropped significantly over the second week-end. This, however, did not happen. It follows from this that the advertisements were not misleading.

This objection had one drawback: it was not based on the prior operation of Russian film advertising, which did not exist at the time, but on foreign practices. And so, skeptics did not accept it. Now Day Watch has dotted all the “i”s: most viewers went to see the film not because they were motivated by the advertisements, but because they had enjoyed the first film. For this reason, the basis of the success of both Watches should be sought not in the way they were advertised, but in the films themselves—that is to say, in their consumerist properties rather than in the aesthetic qualities of the film products, which are easy to criticize.

It is only possible to summarize the content of these films approximately because their plots are so thoroughly confusing and self-contradictory. The main characters of both films are “Others”—people possessing supernatural powers, able to pass into other dimensions and to battle each other with blasts of energy. These “Others” are divided into the Forces of Light and Dark. At some point in the distant past, these Dark and Light “Others” fought to a stalemate—either in hand-to-hand combat or in the wars they waged on earth through the agency of ordinary mortals—but then grew tired and called a truce. Under the terms of the truce, each side has the right to monitor the other by the use of the notorious “watches,” with the Forces of Light operating as the night watch and those of the Dark as the day watch. Anyone who remembers the recent past will easily recognize this is a reflection of the confrontation between the KGB and the CIA in the late-Soviet period.

The main character in both films is Anton Gorodetskii, a mid-level Light “Other,” who sinned in the past and then had a son, who now poses a threat: he can mature into a Dark mage of incredible power, capable of shattering the established balance and plunging the world into the abyss of war and chaos. There is only one way to prevent this from happening: to return to the past and to change the course of history. The role of the Time Machine in films of the fantastical genre made in the West is fulfilled in Day Watch by the “Chalk of Destiny.” This shift of mechanisms to a writing implement is very telling: history in Russia was changed by rewriting it. After overcoming innumerable obstacles (which there is no sense in describing), Gorodetskii finds the “Chalk of Destiny” and restores the balance of opposing forces.

For starters, Watch is the first film-myth created in Russia that can legitimately aspire to be universal. This myth belongs to the category of global sagas, insofar as the term saga is used to describe multiple-episode narratives extending across historical time and depicting the lives of some family or clan, whether novels—John Galsworthy’s The Forsythe Saga, Mario Puzo’s The Godfather—or films—Sergeo Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America (1984). Global sagas include the Star Wars series (dir. George Lucas, 1977-2005), Lord of the Rings (dir. Peter Jackson, 2001-2003), and The Matrix (Andy and Larry Wachowski, 1999-2003).

The Matrix occupies a special place in this list of films. Unlike Star Wars, where the action is projected into the future, or Lord of the Rings, where it is projected into a fantastical space—that is, a “there and then”—The Matrix is set in the “here and now” and strives to make sense our surrounding reality, representing it as a global illusion generated for us by some super-machine, as powerful as God.

Such is also the myth in the Watches, where the present-day world is represented as the outcome of the fragile balance between two opposing forces. While this myth makes use of the realia of Russian everyday life, it remains essentially international insofar as it combines cultural ingredients taken from around the world: European legends about vampires; Eastern conceptions concerning the energies that permeate the world; popular beliefs in wizards, mages, and Unclean Powers; occultist ideas about other dimensions in the universe; the political realia of the recent past; and conspiratorial beliefs about clandestine plots by all-powerful security agencies. In Russia, where mysticism was forbidden for a long time, such myths are especially powerful. But such an encompassing myth—entangled and yet capable of providing an explanation for the course of history—must simultaneously be apprehended as “one’s own” (in order not to be repudiated) and as “alien” (in order to satisfy the craving for something new that is present in every person), even in the most remote corners of the world, within any local culture. The film’s universal acceptance is assisted by its contemporary visual form (rapid editing and lots of special effects) and apocalyptic orientation, allowing for the unfolding of images of catastrophe—the destruction of Moscow as the result of actions by otherworldly powers. It is important to acknowledge that nothing comparable existed before in Russian cinema in either content or form.

In the entire previous history of Russian filmmaking, only two films had a realistic chance of achieving international success: Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925) and Sergei Bondarchuk’s War and Peace (1965-67). Battleship Potemkin was revolutionary in form and contained an agitational-revolutionary content that was highly relevant for the 1920s; War and Peace was an example of a historical saga, like Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. All other Russian films, regardless of the level of their artistry, were too local and too linked to Soviet ideology to be of interest to the entire world. Watches, therefore, is the first Russian product of the new age, which can be called “Hollywood,” in the sense that it is intended for the whole world.

Boris Shumiatskii, the first chief administrator of the Soviet film industry, thought it was possible to establish a Soviet Hollywood—a factory for the production of films with international appeal. He thought somewhat along the following lines: why did films with international appeal arise specifically in the USA? Because the USA is the most “international” country in the world, whose culture is a Babylonian mixture of the cultures of different countries. And what is the USSR? A multicultural government with the most advanced and exemplary ideology. So it followed that Soviet cinema, international in spirit and based on Soviet ideology, had all of the possibilities to become the most demanded cinema in the world.

The bankruptcy of communist ideology does not erase the accuracy of the rest of the assumptions. Russia, a historic bridge between East and West, is a multicultural country with cinematic landscapes, responsive (as Dostoevskii observed in the 19th century) to a variety of cultural influences. It is easier in Russia than in a monocultural environment to create visual myths with universal appeal, uniting various cultural components. The American film industry was established for the most part by immigrants from Europe who were culturally receptive businessmen with cosmopolitan ways of thinking. The USA had its Americanized Jews—Goldwyn and Mayer, while Russia has its Europeanized and Russified Asians—Faiziev and Bekmambetov. And so, the dream of a second Hollywood—somewhat like a reincarnation of the old dream of Moscow as the Third Rome—has begun to construct the story of its own foundation.

Translated by Vladimir Padunov

Victor Matizen
President, Guild of Film Scholars and Critics (Russian Union of Filmmakers)

Day Watch, Russia, 2006
Color and black-and-white, 140 minutes
Director: Timur Bekmambetov
Screenplay: Sergei Luk'ianenko, Timur Bekmambetov, Aleksandr Talal
Camera: Sergei Trofimov
Cast: Konstantin Khabenskii, Mariia Poroshina, Vladimir Men'shov, Galina Tiunina, Viktor Verzhbitskii, Zhanna Friske, Dima Martynov, Valerii Zolotukhin, Aleksei Chadov, Gosha Kutsenko, Igor' Lifanov, Nikolai Olialin, Mariia Mironova, Nurzhuman Ikhtymbaev, Aleksei Maklalov, Aleksandr Samoilenko, Egor Dronov, Rimma Markova, Anna Sliu, Sergei Trofimov, Sergei Ovchinnikov, Anton Stepanenko, Irina Iakovleva
Producers: Anatolii Maksimov, Konstantin Ernst
Production: Channel One and Bazelevs Production

Timur Bekmambetov: Day Watch (Dnevnoi dozor, 2006)

reviewed by Victor Matizen© 2006

Updated: 04 Jul 06