Slava Ross: A Dumb, Fat Hare (Tupoi, zhyrnyi zaiats, 2007)

reviewed by Mark Lipovetsky© 2008

The Necessity of a Middle Ground

A Dumb, Fat Hare, a low-budget film by Slava Ross, a recent (2004) graduate of the State Institute for Filmmaking (VGIK), whose debut short Meat (Miaso, 2002) has already won several festival awards, appeared at the right moment. It fulfilled the longing for a “normal” comedy—with characters comic, yet sympathetic; with whom viewers could identify—that is, not gangsters or bums, but “former intelligentsia people,” more losers than winners, but still with heart and aspirations. A Dumb, Fat Hare is comedy with a touch of melodrama, with farcical situations and nostalgia for a “high culture” interspersed with contemporary music (Shnur, Nogu svelo, and 5Nizza contributed to the soundtrack) and age-old fairy-tale motifs. In short, this film caters to the middle intelligentsia's taste and even suggests a playful compensation for the symbolic losses and failures of the former “bearers of the torch.” Although this diagnosis may sound condescending, I believe that Ross' film offers a little more than just a well-done lyrical comedy that pours balm onto the traumas of the former Soviet intelligentsia.

Slava Ross, who is also the author of the original screenplay, tells the story of a provincial actor in the Theater of Young Spectators (TIuZ), Arkadii Sapelkin, brilliantly played by Aleksei Maklakov, whom Ross has known since the time when both of them played in the Novosibirsk experimental theater Red Torch (Krasnyi fakel) and Maklakov simultaneously worked in the local TIuZ playing various fairy-tale animals and even a talking water-lily. Divorced and hard-drinking, Arkadii is type-cast as a yellow and ugly hare, the star of the Forest Tale, which has been performed more than 300 times. He hates his role and dreams of playing Hamlet and King Lear. This is why, on any available occasion, Arkadii inserts Shakespearean monologues into children's plays—for which he is customarily reprimanded. Indeed, he has a dream, and in this dream “Nikita Sergeevich himself” (a cameo appearance by Nikita Sergeevich Mikhalkov) offers him the part of King Lear in his newest production. However, instead of King Lear, Arkadii receives the role of Vampire in a play that looks like a fabulous parody of post-Soviet glamorous attempts at the goth-erotica genre, written by a local sausage manufacturer, the theater's sponsor (hilariously played by Aleksandr Bashirov). For this favor, the sponsor not only fills the theater's halls with his production, but also demands that the actors serve as entertainers at the wedding of his partner, which is also conducted in the theater. After a short rebellion headed by the Hare, the actors cave in; yet Arkadii cannot tolerate the humiliation any more and bites the sponsor on the nose. After this, in despair, he climbs on the top of the theater and delivers Lear's monologue, which raises an actual storm in the neighborhood, yet leaves the public walking by the theater unimpressed. In a suicide attempt, Arkadii jumps from the roof but is saved miraculously by the love of a young actress, the Mushroom Girl (Sonia Oleinik), and … a truck full of eggs—the “payment” for the work of his colleagues in the countryside—onto which he falls down.

Certainly, this retelling does not do justice to the film, since its most interesting and funny aspects are created by recognizable cultural types and their interactions—that is, the petty crook/administrator of the theater (Vladimir Dolinskii); the sausage king who suddenly decides that now he will be a cultural authority; the “experimental” director (Sergei Bekhterev) who imitates Treplev and is eager to seek “deep philosophic meaning” in simple children's tales; Arkadii's fellow-actors; and especially the traveling troupe presenting a Russian fairy-tale to the people, while gradually fading into a drunken stupor (their efforts are rewarded with life-saving eggs—which refer both to Koshchei's phylactery egg and the golden egg from the toddlers' story “Little Hen Riaba”). Even the consistently drunken actor in a goat mask, who does not say a word yet manages to express all his frustrations with moans (played by Ross himself), becomes a memorable character.

Although the film's comedic language and imagery are reminiscent of too many precedents (and intentionally so), Ross never slips into vulgarity and/or sentimentality. Furthermore, I would argue that the significance of this film lies in its ability to create an acceptable and—what is even more important (and rare!)—self-reflexive middle ground .

The Russian tradition of comedies about actors, since Aleksandr Ostrovskii's play Forest (1871) and up until Leonid Filatov's film Children of Bitches (Sukiny deti, 1990), is marked by a passive-aggressive depiction of “theater people” as amicable scum, which is still better than “philistines” because these drunkards and petty manipulators are able to create “eternal art” and strive for beauty. Yet, when this pathos is applied to the actors of a children's theater—who through at least half of the film remain dressed in cheerful animal costumes or as fairy-tale characters—the effect is self- ironic from scene one. It is obvious that A Dumb, Fat Hare presents a subtle and compassionate parody of this discourse rather than its renewed reproduction. Yet, in order to feel the power of the deconstruction, the viewer has first to swallow the bait of a recognizable discourse.

A similar principle can be seen in the film's approach to the conflict between “high culture” (or rather its myth) and the invasion of low-taste popular culture, which, since the early 1990s (as Lev Dubin and Boris Gudkov have demonstrated), has constituted the most widespread basis for the intelligentsia's resentment and nostalgia. Ross' Hare definitely employs this theme, but in a truly postmodernist way. Shakespeare's monologues acquire a new and fresh resonance precisely because they are delivered by a fat and funny yellow hare in comically improper contexts—this apparently is the only way to save “high culture” from petrifying nostalgic veneration.

In this context, even the worn-off baroque metaphor of “life as theater” and “people as actors” obtains a new meaning in Ross' film: life is children's theater with intoxicated actors playing hares and mushrooms, yet dreaming of Shakespeare and Chekhov. While promoting this grotesque and inevitably absurdist worldview, the film avoids another trap: it does not humiliate its heroes. Maklakov plays his Hare as a person who is ready to accept a lot, but not everything, who guards his dignity even in the least dignified situations. His dignity is not based on the intelligentsia's symbolic capital—just on his personal self-respect. And this is another value that has been long forgotten in Russian comedy films.

Even the film's finale, which at first glance seems to be an artificially designed happy end, attains a metaphorical meaning. The final take of two yellow hares lying on top of a heap of half-broken eggs, suggests the bitter-sweet magic of failure. Although the fairy-tale is brutally downplayed and none of the eggs contains Koshchei's soul or even gold, they still come from the world of fantasy—and, thus, can save the protagonist's life. And although the love of a charming young actress for the old “Akter Akterych” can only lead to her future doom, it still creates the illusion of happiness. Isn't this what art, and especially the art of theater (or film), is about: the creation of brief illusions of happiness from ordinary things and personal failures? This understanding of art is different from the intelligentsia's traditional expectations of transcendental truth revealed in art, as well as from the mass-cultural reductionism focused on weightless entertainment. It is the middle ground—a necessary level of compromise between the stereotypes and their problematization, as exemplified by A Dumb, Fat Hare itself.

Mark Lipovetsky
University of Colorado, Boulder

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A Dumb, Fat Hare, Russia, 2007
Color, 90 minutes
Director: Slava Ross
Scriptwriter: Slava Ross
Cinematography: Maksim Shinkorenko
Production design: Aleksandr Kovalev
Music: Petr Chaikovskii, Maksim Pokrovskii, Sergei Shnurov, 5Nizza
Cast: Aleskei Maklakov, Sonia Oleinik, Sergei Dolinskii, Aleksandr Bashirov, Nikita Mikhalkov, Sergei Bekhterev, and others
Producer: Igor' Chekalin, Slava Ross
Production: Tundra-Film



Slava Ross: A Dumb, Fat Hare (Tupoi, zhyrnyi zaiats, 2007)

reviewed by Mark Lipovetsky© 2008

Updated: 20 Mar 08