Issue 28 (2010)

El’dar Riazanov: Carnival Night 2 (Karnaval’naia noch’ 2, 2006)

reviewed by David MacFadyen © 2010

PART ONE: An Active, Forward-Looking Conservatism in 1956

karnavalMuch has been made in the Western press of Russia’s recent penchant for remaking, updating, or simply remembering Soviet cinema of the past few decades. As an extended form of quotation, perhaps, entire features such as El’dar Riazanov’s 1975 Irony of Fate are dragged into the next century, reshot with all living, amenable, or affordable cast members and then crow-barred into a modern context. In the case of this particular Riazanov “remake” (or prodolzhenie) of 2009, we are offered the entire original cast, many of whom are now pensioners, as they quietly observe their onscreen offspring enacting variations on a very old theme.

This slow, lazy slippage into remade, re-imagined narratives, especially from Riazanov’s catalog, is usually discussed without reference to one of its most striking instances: a 2006 television version of the director’s 1956 comedy, Carnival Night. The basic plot of that original feature might be retold as follows:

A group of enthusiastic students plan songs and skits for a New Year’s ball. Two of them, Grisha and his sweetheart Lena, struggle against the bureaucratic meddling of the club’s director, Ogurtsov. To the sounds of Ogurtsov’s constant posturing and dogmatic utterances, Grisha also tries hard to tell Lena of his affection. Ogurtsov censures all these innocent, heartfelt acts of ardor and the stage as “indecency,” though an undaunted Cupid also strikes some of the elder members of the club’s organizers. The director’s ideological zeal is inspiring nobody, to the point where he is actually kidnapped and locked away during the show itself. Only then is the real, original program of song and dance quickly reinstated. An aged, respectable band of pensioners hired by the director immediately reveals itself as disguised students, and light-hearted jazz fills the hall. Grisha unexpectedly becomes compere, thus boosting his confidence soon after to tell Lena he loves her. Ogurtsov is now utterly ignored as balloons and lovers spin across the dance-floor.

karnavalThe camerawork of the original famously helped to underscore this tale of rapid social change. The movie’s opening, establishing shot is one of brave, radically angled framing; we look up at heroine Liudmila Gurchenko on a slide, down which she flies, and then on a long dolly shot we follow her (with few words) through a crowd of many acquaintances. She pushes the camera constantly backwards as the speed of her assertiveness is felt spatially. This busy, multidirectional technique is juxtaposed to that of the bureaucrats, of whom there are less—yet they fill the frame more with close-ups. A slow speed of editing at this point does little to make the contrast theatrical; in fact the initial scenes take place virtually in real time.

The small bubbles of experience through which all these characters pass are made personal, and personally significant in real time, by allowing the intrusion of virtually no noise from outside the frame: the public context impinges very little upon the private. What, however, is emphasized is the empty social space in which that self must realize itself; the depth of field in this film is often rather great, even though it is all shot indoors. Small, fleeting groups of friends try to fill the big, empty and parqueted spaces of Stalinist architecture. The small project in 1956 must fill the architectural space designed for grand public functions.

karnavalActivity within these small groups is epitomized by the speech of its members; the speed of editing increases with the rapid speech of the youngsters as they converse. The crosscutting between those enthusiastically interacting is much greater than slow, long shots of droning, uninterrupted bureaucrats. Against the same gray backdrop of today’s bureaucracy under Putin or Medvedev, another injection of jollity was needed, perhaps. Riazanov’s film seemed a logical candidate for promoting modest change, given that—in essence—it concerns a nervous entrance into society, rather than the rejection of social norms with which it is often associated. Although a breakthrough comedy of post-Stalinist cinema, the film is as conservative as it is “contrary.” It speaks to enduring forms of social respect.

karnavalThat enduring philosophy, as one of the film’s songs performed by Gurchenko has it, “will never leave you” and is founded quite simply upon a “good mood” (khoroshee nastroenie). Since the mood is social, and everyone is already a member of a social(ist) collective, shyness over entering society is in fact a more pressing concern than privacy. This film has a bold subplot—the private love interest between Lena and Grisha – but that theme is downplayed by Grisha’s simultaneous and equally pressing need to find a “assistant” for a proper, responsible carnival organization. Love, happily, will in this instance serve the interests of the collective. Here we see the inconvenience of timidity, not the more radical sadness of emotional adventure. Its failure in ‘56 is laughed off.

Love is gently, if not coyly proposed in a manner that hopes to transform the collective from within. There is no contradiction between the ideological and introverted forms of society. They may disagree on the definition of that society, and Ogurtsov may in fact disavow this “mess” of an emotional, affective public, but he will not leave it. The students’ love is both within, and ultimately respectful of, Ogurtsov’s “other” collective.

PART TWO: A Passive, Retrospective Conservatism in 2006

This same narrative emphasis of endurance and social respect informs the new TV version. Whatever the possible parallels (or self-plagiarism), Riazanov claimed at the time of this project’s inception that his new feature was not a “remake.” One of his main actors, Sergei Bezrukov, also maintained that mere themes of continuity were prevalent, rather than repeated chunks of dialog. Those themes were simplicity, happiness, naivety, and sentimentality. Today’s pressing need for such emphases is seemingly felt from the outset; as the credits roll, Riazanov directly addresses the viewers in ways he never did in the feature films of his lengthy catalog. He turns directly to the camera and says: “Well, then. We should probably start, eh?” Indeed we should.

karnavalIn essence, this film follows at least the basic plot of the original. An elderly, grumpy administrator attempts to spoil the New Year’s fun and games of a younger generation as a variety show is planned. Now Sergei Makovetskii plays the role of that contrary bureaucrat, Mr. Kabachkov. We soon learn that the entire theater in which the film takes place has been named in honor of Comrade Ogurtsov. Not only does Kabachkov have strong professional and emotional ties to old-school Stalinist egotism; he is just as uncultured. He may bemoan the fact that Russia, a land once filled with the “world’s most voracious readers” is now awash with “the world’s most active traders,” but he knows precious little about Riazanov’s back catalog. He is impressed by prestige, but knows not what cultured achievements led to that same status.

On top of this pen-pushing arrogance, Kabachkov has no problem accepting the kind of backhanded bribes that determine which performers will grace the stage. The first “artiste” to win Kabachkov over is a singing dentist, whose “profoundly dramatic lyrics” are approved for the evening’s line-up only after she pays a hefty fee, hidden in a book of amateurish verse. Thus her “Ballad about Teeth” makes its way to the front of the line.

karnavalIn essence, since it plays upon the heritage of a musical comedy, the entire film is concerned with one central issue: which songs deserve to grace a remake of Carnival Night, fifty years later? Interestingly enough, one of the first options to be cancelled out is an imaginary “King of Russian Chanson,” played by Sergei Mazaev. Despite the love for (and commercial success of) this genre today from Kaliningrad to Magadan, it is mercilessly lampooned here as the tasteless choice of cultureless thugs. And so we move on, in search of a proper, historically respectful register. In the meanwhile, comic turns come and go from stars such as Liia Akhedzhakova, who herself pays a few bribes in order to guarantee a muscled, tanned dancing partner on stage.

Nonetheless, for all its rejection of recent musical trends, this film shows no real desire to rummage through contemporary culture in search of an alternative. Take, for example, the cameo by Valentin Gaft, playing a painfully tedious bureaucrat who insists on giving a talk—in the middle of a variety show—about the hard life of people in distant Russian villages. In a dark reflection of the famous “Martian” lecture from Riazanov’s original movie, Gaft wanders on stage in a state of advanced inebriation. His overconfidence soon turns to excessive cockiness; he lapses into a rather unfunny “parody” of Michael Jackson’s choreography. Satire, it seems, is not willing to seek its targets anywhere beyond primetime TV. The resulting humor is lazy and the laughs almost nonexistent.

Bezrukov’s character tells us at one point that “we used to have a real tradition of light entertainment. What’ve we got now? Just show business. The business of shows.” Slowly those performers who feel equal dislike for the status quo start singing older songs as they build a sense of collective protest against Kabachkov and his dodgy colleagues. With increasing references to the loveable, laudable original of 1956, gypsy romances (from Valentina Ponоmareva) and even the “thespian” café tunes of Aleksandr Vertinskii ring out. This a-historical hotchpotch or sense of comfy nostalgia increases with the inclusion of verse read by Aleksei Batalov and visual references to the war films of Mark Bernes… Where, amidst this jumble of reference points, back and forth across the socialist calendar, do our characters feel most at home?

karnavalThe one song that brings the most honest, forthright emotional response comes from a lowly boiler man, working in the basement of the theater. Here, surrounded by low-grade vodka, limp pickles, and stale bread, he sings a stirring acoustic number called “Raise the Bonfires” (Vzveites’ kostrami). Tears appear in the eyes of all present. Why the poignancy? The song is not new; it was written in 1922 and reads, in rough translation: “Dark blue nights! Raise the bonfires! We are Pioneers, the children of workers. The time is approaching of radiant years. The Pioneer’s call is to always ‘Be Prepared!’”

When it was first written, its composers were given only 24 hours to turn out a half-decent draft for official perusal. Pushed for time, they stole their initial melody from Charles Gounod’s opera Faust. Although, even today, the song tells of hope for new social connections, its initial symbolism did not help to foster optimism in its listeners. Indeed, the demonic paternalism of some Soviet decades even found expression in “improper” versions of the lyrics. Ungrateful members of Soviet society would sometimes whisper an alternative line about “Pioneers, the children of Georgians.” By the late 1980s, all hope was lost and whispers had become howls of complaint: “Raise up the bonfires! Barrels of petrol! We are Pioneers, children of Georgians! Our father is approaching, leather belt in hand. The Pioneer’s call is to ‘Always Die!’”

The striking manipulations of this “sentimental” text are testament to the equal insistence with which its contrived jollity was forced upon Soviet reality; parody pushed back hard against propaganda. To use the same text now, as an invocation of “youthful reverie” suggests that modern life in Moscow is treating Mr. and Mrs. Average very poorly indeed. Desperate times lead to equally desperate searches for past “stabilities.” How have things reached this miserable point and who is to blame?

karnavalWe may remember the famous closing line of Riazanov’s original movie, in which Ogurtsov refuses “all responsibility” for the film’s chaos. Makovetskii’s Kabachkov does exactly the same and thus—in a most unfestive manner—he throws all guilt back on the audience. The poem read out loud by Batalov, which was written by Iurii Levitanskii but is often associated with Sergei Nikitin, begins as follows: “Everybody chooses for himself… a woman, a faith, and a path. We all decide whether to serve the devil or [a/the] prophet. Everybody chooses for himself.” Hardly the stuff of holiday cheer—and an ironic accusation from anybody who steals the melodies of Faust.

These calls for moral rectitude even win over some camouflaged representatives of the Moscow Police Special Operations Unit (OMON). Originally brought into the theater to close it down at the whim of a mobster, they, too, end up singing along. The film ends, of course, with a return visit from Liudmila Gurchenko. Showing her usual flair for good taste, she intones: “I’m still laughing and crying, old hag that I am.” What’s strange, though, is that this old champion of festive frivolity and unexpected changes over “five minutes” now appears to be playing for the opposition. She appears in a closing celebration of a riskless past, not the future. In his final address to the audience, Riazanov likewise tells us in resigned tones that “happiness is the mere absence of misfortune.” The best way, it seems, to guarantee that dizzy sense of holiday glee is to call in the Pioneers and OMON. Ogurtsov would have agreed.

David MacFadyen

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Carnival Night 2, TV 2006; DVD release 2009
162 minutes, color
Director: El'dar Riazanov
Scripwriters: Sergei Plotnov
Cinematography: Igor' Rukavishnikov
Composer: Oleg Mitiaev, Iurii Laktionov, Iurii Poteenko
Cast: Alena Babenko, Sergei Bezrukov, Sergei Makovetskii, Mariia Aronova, Inna Churikova, Roman Madianov, Valentin Gaft, Dmitrii Pevtsov, Liudmila Gurchenko, El'dar Riazanov, Aleksei Batalov, Sergei Mazaev, Mikhail Derzhavin, Oleg Basilashvili, Aleksandra Pakhmutova, and others
Production: Telekompaniia VID, Pervyi kanal, Gulliver

El’dar Riazanov: Carnival Night 2 (Karnaval’naia noch’ 2, 2006)

reviewed by David MacFadyen © 2010

Updated: 25 Mar 10