Issue 25 (2009)

Iurii Mamin: Don’t Think about White Monkeys (Ne dumai pro belykh obez’ian, 2008)

reviewed by Greg Dolgopolov © 2009

monkeyWhatever happened to social satire and our search for enlightenment? Over the past decade the space for a comic approach to social analysis on Russia’s big screens has disappeared. After a silence of ten years, the great glasnost’ era satirist Iurii Mamin returns with a baroquely extravagant verse musical lampooning new Russian business and the oligarch’s search for enlightenment.

The film’s prologue baits the audience with an animated Confucian parable about a young disciple who embarks on a journey of discovery to reveal his “third eye.” He seeks advice from a guru who explains to him that, if he overcomes his flaw, the key to enlightenment is easy. All he has to do is to never think about monkeys white as snow. The young disciple claims that he has never thought about white monkeys and the guru commends him, advising him to keep doing so. But he can’t, and all he does is think of the white monkeys; not thinking about them proves his greatest lifelong challenge.

The thematic focus of this stylish, fantastical satire is the ongoing clash between the spiritual and the material worlds. Naturally, the path to salvation and enlightenment for hardened materialists is paved through engagement with suffering artists, high culture and alternative communities. Mamin’s somewhat predictable position is that, because money cannot buy happiness, within all the glass towers and glamorous banquets there is burning desire for that traditional Russian spiritual, sexual, phantasmagorical freedom that has been crushed by cash, but which bounces back to dance on the rooftops of St Petersburg.

monkeyIn its psychological archaeology of the recent post-Soviet past, White Monkeys challenges the maxim that what you don’t know can’t hurt you; that ignorance is bliss and it is a folly to be wise. It could be read as an examination of the oligarchs’ myth of origins and a study of their troubled subconscious. Many commentators have noted the striking resemblance of the actor performing the lead role of the young entrepreneur Volodia/Vova (Mikhail Tarabukin) with today’s most prominent oligarch, Roman Abramovich. The physical likeness was allegedly the primary reason for his casting, but that would deny a powerfully charismatic performance. Yet it is this likeness and Vova’s self-conscious recognition that, despite all the trappings, he still has the face of a lackey that helps fuel the satire. The perverse dualism of White Monkeys suggests that, for all their resentment and opposition of one another, materialism and spirituality are inextricably bound together.

The action takes place during the wild 1990s when greed, muscles and cocktail parties ruled and money was the supreme social value. Vova, a pushy young waiter, the epitome of the new Russian entrepreneur, gets his start in life from his wealthy future father-in-law, Gavrilich. He is given a flooded cellar in a ramshackle apartment building in the centre of St. Petersburg to convert into a restaurant and an abandoned attic as an office. Vova responds to Gavrilich’s test by ingeniously exploiting State institutions to clean and paint the cellar for a minimal outlay. He is in his element, wheeling and dealing with mainstream society, but is taken aback when he discovers three escapees from the mental asylum living in the attic apartment. This unusual trio is comprised of the totally uninhibited free spirit, Dasha, an alcoholic artist, Gena, and an Eastern mystic who wears nothing but a loincloth and a small lock on his mouth that he removes only to eat. Vova soon turns his surprise into creative utilization. In exchange for not sending the colorful bohemians back to the asylum, he employs them on the cheap to transform the decrepit cellar into a classy new restaurant. Vova’s initial plan is for a clichéd realist design. He locks Gena in the cellar to complete the decorations. But as the artist-alcoholic is suffering from drunken delirium, he discards the realism and paints a grotesque Bosch-inspired universe from the hallucinations that crawl around him. Far from despairing, Vova abandons his plans for a fancy restaurant and capitalizes on the grotesque cellar’s underground exoticism, charging enraptured tourists exorbitant fees for visiting. But Gavrilich is enraged by the artwork and storms the cellar, ignoring its promise of hard currency and destroying it with his henchmen, while beating Vova senseless as a punishment for supporting inappropriate cultural values.

monkeyMeeting the three representatives of alternative consciousness radically overturns Vova’s values and outlook. This chance encounter teaches him about beauty, love and freedom, and thereby unexpectedly opens his “third eye.” (You’ll be surprised where he finds it.) He experiences a more humble life, very different to what he had previously aspired . But then, unexpectedly, he is shocked out of its ethical mist by a hint of hypocrisy that he suspects in this spiritual world. Having experienced a different, more ethical alternative community allows Vova to choose his future path. His materialist values and tastes have been challenged, but will he be able to change himself, his lackey’s face and his fate? He chooses, but can never stop thinking of the white monkeys.

The themes and style of Don’t Think About the White Monkeys continue many of the concerns explored by Iurii Mamin in his earlier work that mined an explosive, ideological, comic dualism in his satirizing the Russian national type. In the late 1980s and early 90s he became one of the most important glasnost’ era satirists, carrying on the traditions of his teacher, El’dar Riazanov, by starting with a comedy of manners before splashing into the absurd, dipping into surrealism, and then plunging luxuriously into the grotesque.

monkeyIn his first film, Neptune’s Holiday (Prazdnik Neptuna, 1986), Mamin satirized provincial bureaucracy and its absurd clash with traditional Russian village life through its pathological need to impress Swedish visitors with a staged exhibition of Russian potency—swimming naked in icy water. The cultural clash between Russia and the West is an ongoing theme in Mamin’s work. Internationally he is best known for Window to Paris (Okno v Parizh, 1993), an endearing, absurd cross-cultural comedy that caricatures extreme Russian and French national stereotypes. The inhabitants of a communal apartment in St Petersburg discover a hidden window in the back of a wardrobe that magically transports them to Paris. The binaries are stark. In contrast to the spiritual, but decaying Russian culture, Parisian culture is cast as materialistic and decadent. Petersburg is represented as filthy, deceitful and discordant in contrast to the bright and joyous atmosphere of Paris. Russia’s backwardness and drunkenness are the source of most jokes. Most of the Russian characters are depicted as wannabe materialists who expose themselves as too inept to succeed. However, it is Russian high culture, as represented by the music teacher, Nikolai, that is shown to be worthy of saving. The film culminates in a plea for Russians to deal with their problems rather than escaping to the West. Similarly, Sideburns (Bakenbardy, 1990) tackles the anti-Western materialist theme head on. This punk film in verse, Mamin’s most vicious and grotesque satire, examines Russia’s need for the tyranny of strong leadership and the rise of nationalist forces. A gang of teenaged, muscle-headed Pushkinists is dedicated to the great Russian poet. They attach mutton chop sideburns and dress in 19th century garb before going on a rampage to eradicate all Western influences. The local Party initially enlists their services but, once it realizes that they have become too powerful, the Party stages a massacre of the Pushkin gang, shaving off their sideburns. But fascist tendencies are not easily destroyed and the gang returns as followers of Maiakovskii. The film was incredibly prescient of the rise of Russian right wing forces in the early 1990s and the culture wars that ensued.

monkeysAfter a long absence from the big screen (he did make a spoof horror series for TV in 2003), expectations were high that Mamin would produce another epoch-defining satire. Over the past decade the absurd and grotesque have become marginalized in world cinema. In Don’t Think About the White Monkeys Mamin reinvigorates his style with new technologies, a sumptuous baroque aesthetic and an original, rap musical soundtrack. The script continues Mamin’s long-term creative collaboration with writer Vladimir Vardunas and poet Viacheslav Leikin, who rendered the original prose dialogue into sparklingly witty verse that is potently sustained throughout. The rhyming slang is mixed with an inventive, non-stop musical score composed by the director, that produces an exhilarating sonic effect of plenitude. The unexpected dramatic dynamism of the contemporary slang interweaves with the elegant lightness of the original scoring, highlighting the film’s exuberance. It’s the sort of highly stylized, absurdist, mannered filmmaking that is now so rare. It possesses the gorging visceral qualities of La Grande Bouffe (Ferreri 1973), the tactile sumptuousness of Peter Greenaway’s 1980-90s films such as The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover and A Zed & Two Noughts, and the trippy surrealism of Terry Gilliam. It is stylized and mannered in a way that few films these days dare. It is most pleasing when it junks reality, confuses points of view, or descends into the grotesque.

Mamin’s formula for satire is to establish dynamic binary oppositions and striking collisions between stereotypes. Attaining an effective balance between the absurd world and social commentary based on reality is essential to making satire work. However, it would seem that the surfeit of audiovisual “reality” has made audiences more adept at reading its narrative and thematic cues rapidly than in deciphering the symbols of dreams and carnival. The surrealistic impulses in White Monkeys were far more compelling than the depictions of the realistic world that became the conduits of the social commentary. The editing highlights magical passages between the dream, memory and the real. The clever mix of animation, green screen, special effects, live action and CGI hallucinogenic creatures keeps the illogical and symbolic viewing experience alive and separated from the pointedness of the satire. The color palette is light and sumptuous, showing Petersburg at its most vibrant. Aleksandr Gusev’s cinematography frames the city at its best: high up on the roofs of the old buildings peering down. The film is a celebration of St Petersburg’s alternative cultures and clearly the debates between spiritualism and materialism are particularly relevant there.

monkeysDespite Iurii Mamin’s fame as a high concept satirist and White Monkeys winning the Grand Prix from the independent International Film Clubs Association as the best film of the Russian Film Festival program at the Moscow Film Festival in 2008, it is disappointing that the film only picked up $22,000 at the Russian box office (Kinopoisk). For such a stunning conceptual satire of the oligarch’s self-consciousness, released at the height of the global financial crisis, it should have found a bigger audience. Stylistically, it is by far one of the most adventurous films of recent years. However, thematically, with its stark binary oppositions, it was perhaps more relevant to the 1990s, as now the choices are more varied than being either a grass-eating artist or a filthy trader. Like many of Mamin’s earlier films, it may do better internationally with its unique energy and strident approach to explaining contemporary Russia. (It is a shame that the vibrancy of the verse dialogue will be lost in translation.) I had never thought about white monkeys before seeing this film, even though I had spent six months living with them, so I was surprised at how often I thought about them afterwards. Not thinking about white monkeys presupposes thinking… thinking of whether knowing that I am thinking this will hurt or bring enlightenment or end up in a holiday at the insane asylum… and if indeed it is possible not to think about white monkeys at all.

Greg Dolgopolov

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Don’t Think About the White Monkeys, Russia 2008
Color, 120 min.
Director: Iurii Mamin
Script: Iurii Mamin, Vladimir Vardunas, Viacheslav Leikin
DoP: Aleksandr Gusev
Cast: Mikhail Tarabukin, Katerina Ksen’ieva, Aleksei Devotchenko, Anvar Libabov, Sergei Iurskii, Oleg Basilashvili.
Producer: Liudmila Samokhvalova, Aleksander Girda
Russian Release: 22 January 2009
Distribution: Paradiz

Iurii Mamin: Don’t Think about White Monkeys (Ne dumai pro belykh obez’ian, 2008)

reviewed by Greg Dolgopolov © 2009

Updated: 11 Jul 09