KinoKultura: Issue 30 (2010)

An Artistic Diagnosis of Modern Russian Cinema: The Little Man vs. the Big Other

By Tat'iana Kruglova (Ekaterinburg)

L’enfer, c’est les autres (J.-P. Sartre)

At the beginning of the 21st century an abrupt change occurred regarding the subject of artistic searches in Russia: traditionally, Russian art was interested in human nature embedded in a social context, which could be treated quite concretely so the work of art would acquire features of some kind of artistic-sociological research; or it could be treated in a more abstract manner, as a certain modern universal social environment. But films such as The Return (Vozvrashchenie, 2003) and The Banishment (Izgnanie, 2007) by Andrei Zviagintsev, Pavlov’s Dog (Sobaka Pavlova, 2005) and Once upon a Time in the Provinces (Odnazhdy v provintsii, 2008) by Katia Shagalova, Euphoria (Eiforiia, 2006) by Ivan Vyrypaev, and The Captive (Plennyi, 2008) by Aleksei Uchitel’, as well as Wolfy (Volchok, 2009) by Vasilii Sigarev and How I Ended this Summer (Kak ia provel etim letom, 2010) by Aleksei Popogrebskii put the critics on high alert: they frequently cause irritation through the extremely hermeneutic artistic world. This reproach was often made in discussions in the television program Closed Screening (Zakrytyi pokaz), which acquaints the spectator with the most problematic films of modern cinema.

plennyThe source for such disputes are the authentic, realistic aesthetics, the concrete details and the recognizable texture of a certain objective reality of usually small towns, factory settlements, military divisions, or a meteorological station: locations which with a precise geographical and everyday connection that leads to their perception as part of the “documentary” aspect of the unfolding events. The document—even if it is a question of its artistic equivalent—certifies that everything that is shown actually happened; it certifies through the factuality and reliability of details, the texture of the external world, its visual details, tactile sensations and even smells. But this impression is deceptive. Spectators and critics alike begin to compare the characters and the circumstances of their life to real social events and discover discrepancies that generate accusations of the filmmaker’s “ignorance of life”, “distortion”, etc. If we were dealing with a clear parable, a grotesque, a farce, or any other genre that would distinctly specify the conditional nature of the action, then that would reconcile the spectator with the filmmaker’s approach. The demonstrative conditionality (or stylization) of the artistic world allows us to adjust our perception towards the modeling of a reality whose laws of existence essentially differ from the daily life in which the spectator or addressee lives. In other words, we are dealing with another reality that is not connected to “ours” by similarity. Yet that is precisely the point: these films show no playful engagement with the given circumstances; they insist that the horror of the heroes’ existence is normal, ordinary, and quite likely in the here-and-now, in this—and not some other—reality; and the films leave no doubt (as a consolation) that something similar could not happen to us, too.

euphoriaThus, the problem of traditional philosophy about the art of opposition—“real truth vs. artistic stylization”—should be rephrased. In my opinion, the basis for a fresh wording could be the found in the reactions of the public, which does not pay attention to the credibility of details. The same “Closed Screening” often exaggerates the reproach that films do not have a wide enough semantic horizon: dissatisfied, people ask whether this is the truth and whether there is really nothing else. They wonder about the hope that “genuine” art must offer. Everything resembles life, but there is not enough air in this artistic reality; it is dense and offers no way out into another reality. The spectators would like to localize the depicted horror in some concise place, for example, in the Russian provinces, in a madhouse, in the Chechen war. Then the artistic image could acquire the status of something limited in space and time, and both reason and emotions could cope with that diagnosis: in fact, this is not entirely about me, but about some social “others.” The documentary aesthetics is by nature always a variant of artistic sociology. In other words, art—from which we traditionally expect to receive answers to real questions from within the imagined world—does not perform this shift towards the Other reality. Before us there is a single, homogeneously structured reality that is no longer familiar but that points beyond its limits, to the world of the Other. Art has lost its symbolical dimension, or deliberately rejected it. For this reason the world is perceived so hermeneutically that around and beside it, there is nothing: it is compressed to a degree of maximal density.

pavlovs dogThe space where the action unfolds is organized and marked by trajectories and attitudes of a very small circle of people. As a rule, these are not casual characters, but they are closely connected with each other through a shared experience of their (not other’s) close (not distant) relatives. They do not choose each other as close and favorite ones, but they have become close and beloved through the place where they find themselves and where they are forced to be. These are the young men and women from Once in the Provinces, the workers of the meteorological station from How I Ended this Summer, the patients of the psychiatric ward from Pavlov’s Dog, the inhabitants of a steppe settlement from Euphoria. Of course, there are other characters in the background, who also populate these places, but they have neither meaning nor influence. The threads that connect the heroes with social institutions—such as school, authorities, society—are all severed. Moreover, the filmmakers consistently cleanse the frame and the action of everything that is “distant” or “remote”: for example, in Wolfy the action takes place in a village in the Urals, but it is always empty and deserted. Even in the scenes at the railway station, in the leisure park, in the streets—we see only those characters who are necessary for the further development of the plot: militiamen, workers of a children’s shelter, the men who visit the mother. They are passive and dumb. The characters are closely linked to each other, entangled in numerous dependences from which they cannot extract themselves without causing pain. They live in an everyday and habitual hell that has no external source, but they all want to extract themselves from that world: the dissolute mother from Wolfy, the young man and the girl from Pavlov’s Dog, the sisters from Once in the Provinces, the lovers in Euphoria. But nobody manages to do so. Significantly, many heroes lose the desire to extract themselves from their entrapment: they adapt to the horror of everyday life, have lovers and children, and an inconsistent but somehow familiar life. The apotheosis of such an attachment to a place, to the degree of hopelessness, is the act of the heroine in Yuriev Day who voluntarily remains forever in the small town where she looks after tuberculosis patients and sings in the church choir.

provincesNevertheless, it is possible to extract oneself from that world, at the price of one’s life. On the whole, death usurps an important place in the work of the filmmakers discussed here. With the possible death of the son begins Yuriev Day; the heroes of Once in the Provinces die in an accident, while the lovers perish from the shots of the husband’s rifle in Euphoria, and the father of the boys in The Return dies as a result of the son’s disobedience; suicides occur in The Banishment and Pavlov’s Dog, and the young man in The Captive dies, while the characters of How I Ended this Summer live on the border between life and death. These different deaths share one feature: they are never the result of a thought-out plan, they are in nobody’s interest—as in the crime genre, and they are no projection of a fatal coincidence or extraneous forces: death always has a concrete reason, connected with the unconscious actions of close people. Some strange, but sound logic forces the heroes to test the presence of death: to die a violent death, to witness or cause the death of other people. There is a constant sensation, even confidence, that death is necessary. Its relentlessness, which seems like an accident, makes the space of life seem so compressed. 

I would describe as artistic discovery what seems like a gap to critics and spectators. The hermeneutics and density are necessary so ensure that there really is no way out: we find ourselves face to face with problems that have to be solved here and now. Nothing can be postponed, nobody will help, no recipes are available, neither advice nor help can be sought. We are locked up in a room and will not be let out until we turn from observers into participants. We have no chance to adopt a morally or epistemologically superior position. In my opinion, this corresponds precisely to the condition of today’s world, where there are no guarantees—of life, safety, meaning, or prospect. Modern people live “on the pulse”.

Therefore we are not dealing with the social realism of the past. For classical realism and, indeed, for classical modernism, the artistic world was structured by a larger Other: people, the nation, authority, God, cosmic space, etc. This big Other has its value in another, extraneous instance, ontologically primary in relation to the events and actions of the heroes. In this sense, art has always been understood as an entity of two worlds. The characters, with a varying degree of independence in different poetic systems, nevertheless projected certain forces that differed in their origin and characteristics. These could be social or natural laws, divine or cosmic forces, rational and unconscious will of a greater mass of people. The big Other functioned both as reason and rescue, hope and recipient of indictments, and—in the most radical case—it could explode. In the above-mentioned films such a force is absent, or at least has no effect. There is nobody with whom one could engage in a dialogue-competition. The small “collective” of people is self-sufficient, even an active source of events. People design their own life without understanding how they do it, while superficially the place where they find themselves is to blame.

The hell in which the heroes live is entirely of their own making, and social circumstances do not change this situation. The social world is close-by, not distant. The position of extraneity is scrutinized: the System cannot be blamed as the place of the event. There is no other life, and there will be no other life than this one. There is no way to escape from relatives: they cannot be abandoned or betrayed. It is important to adjust one’s vision from a large-scale view of modern life and focus on the small and local. The filmmakers carry out an experiment with man, immersing him in a forced neighborhood of people, thus exposing their isolation from the world at large: then people discover unexpected sides in their nature, which would never be visible in another foreshortening.

summerSuch a condensation of social problems into the micro-cell of the family, an apartment, a settlement, determines the emotional register of such feelings as guilt, pain, compassion. All this demands a new way of aesthetic experience. The actors render precisely and subtly this fine line between love and hatred, without lapsing into over-acting, farce, or caricature. The traditional psychological realism is inappropriate here, but a style of acting on the border of experience and representation, transformation and estrangements is necessary, and the actors cope with this admirably. The question whether the actors condemn or condone their characters does not even arise, because it is irrelevant. The heroes actually do not have what we tend to call character. They all have a life story, which is what the actors play. On the screen these life-stories collide, and we see results of these collisions and intersections. The filmmakers and scriptwriters tell not so much about individual heroes (in general, modern art is not about heroes: there are no heroes any more), but about the organization of life and its threads that resemble a spider’s web.

Such an organization of life leads to a new interpretation of the heroes’ behavior and their motives. The so-called “knowledge of psychology” does not help Popogrebskii, a psychologist by training. His film How I Ended this Summer is based on the method of isolating the heroes from the big world of other people. The motive of forced isolation has long been known in art, from the “island” literature of the 18th century, where a limited number of people are placed on a desert island to take part in an artistic experiment to discover their true nature. For such an experiment one has to be certain that each individual has such a nature and, accordingly, harbors his own truth. The collision of these truths and natures has become the subject of artistic psychology. Through this experiment we discover quite rational characters, decipherable in terms of cause and effect. However, this rationality is artistic and not scientific, but this does essentially not change anything.

In the case of Popogrebskii’s film the situation is quite different. The motives of the heroes and their actions are as unexpected for them as they are for us. At first sight, they can be qualified as irrational. “Irrationality” in the world of modern art is a name for powerful forces that are not subject to man’s control, but that occur in the form of symptoms, as pain. Therefore the interpretation of modernism through the metaphor of “illness” and a psychoanalytic discourse is so productive. In the world of Kafka and Kharms, Camus and Beckett, man is a captive of a certain System, whose rules he does not know. The task of the author of such a narration is to reveal the “physiognomy” of the irrational, to represent its absurd phenomenology. The main thing in such a kind of art is the confidence in the ontological roots of these forces—in other words, the source of the characters’ motivation, which resides outside psychology.

summerIn Popogrebskii’s artistic reality there is no basis for such confidence. Neither the circumstance of life on the northern meteorological station nor the climate and nature become a source of absurdity. There is no relentless force pushing the heroes to commit strange actions. We might suppose that a source could be the fatal incongruence or mismatch of characters, social status, and innate dispositions, but the narrative offer no basis for such an interpretation of the conflict. The distinction between the heroes is certainly made both through age and life experience, but ultimately their behavior breaks away from our expectations, which are based on what we could learn about the participants in the drama.

So what drives the plot in this case? What is cause and what is effect? I would suggest that the heroes do not control the situation, allowing it to develop in any direction at any moment. The inability of both the young and the older man to shape the situation with a view to the next step, to predict consequences, to plan result is quite striking. So long as their life is ordered by the precise work schedule and the radio transmissions, there is no reason for concern. But as soon as there is a small deviation from the usual schedule, not even a system failure requiring responsible action, a painful choice requiring the display of initiative—and a whole range of troubles begins, order collapses, the downward spiral towards catastrophe cannot be stopped.

The driving force of the plot is a misunderstanding that acquires a fatal dimension. Each act of the heroes is clear within the limits of the situation localized in time, but the transitions from one situation to another are not determined by the heroes’ actions: the plot tumbles, and a chain of episodes follows where one scene triggers another. The young man fails to inform the older man about the death of his family straight away, and everything is out of control for both participants. At each turn of the plot we wait for the state of affairs to change, and that chance remains up until the end, but the heroes seem to have conspired to make the situation only worse. We are let into a world where nothing is predetermined: neither characters nor circumstances, nor existential forces; apparently, man still has a range of opportunities to change his existence, but at the same time for some reason this goes fatally wrong. Everything ends in global failure.

volchokThis artistic reality gives evidence of world where a certain openness to new opportunities, an unprecedented degree of freedom, a high level of mobility, an infinity of contacts is paradoxically linked to an increasing uncertainty, a lack of assurances, an irresponsibility when man does not know himself, does not understand his interests, does not know what to wish for. The only salvation lies in the routinized ritual of the everyday. It is for a good reason that the skilled meteorologist carries out the procedure of removing tabs like a sacred act. The everyday is the place which remains after the downfall of Grand narratives. The everyday, as defined in modern theories, is organized by typical and habitual actions which—by virtue of automatism—precede the understanding of a situation, because “people act not because they understand, but they understand because they act” (Lev Gudkov in a lecture at the X Conference of the Humanities University, entitled “Human Life, the value of the everyday in socio-cultural programs and practices”, 5-6 April 2007). Thus a closed, hermeneutic circle of reality is formed if the actions of greater social structures that arch over the everyday are blocked, or social institutions do not correspond to the growing significance of the everyday.

It would appear that modern Russia needs such artistic narratives and views, otherwise it runs the risk of remaining inside the illusion that good will come about somehow, sooner or later, somewhere, sometime, somehow. 

Translated by Birgit Beumers

Tat'iana Kruglova
Ekaterinburg, Russia

Tat'iana Kruglova © 2010

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Updated: 07 Oct 10