Issue 30 (2010)

Aleksei Popogrebskii: How I Ended This Summer (Kak a provel etim letom, 2010)

reviewed by Mark Lipovetsky and Tatiana Mikhailova © 2010

Without Language

popogrebskyThe latest film by Aleksei Popogrebskii (Roads to Koktebel, 2003, with Boris Khlebnikov; Simple Things / Prostye veshchi, 2007) depicts a two-men (and all-male) drama that takes place at a small sub-polar meteorological station, located on a remote island lost in the cold northern sea. Here, a seasoned, tough and not very loquacious, 40-something-year old professional Sergei Vital’evich (Sergei Puskepalis, who also played the central role in Simple Things) coexists with a 20-something- year old, initially cheerful and not excessively responsible intern, the young specialist Pasha (Grigorii Dobrygin). When Sergei goes fishing, Pasha receives a radiogram about the sudden death of Sergei’s wife and their child. When Sergei returns, Pasha fails to break the tragic news to his boss, especially after he had overslept and subsequently fudged the data in the meteorological report just before the boss gets back. Sergei goes off fishing again, while the superiors at headquarters are worried when they do not hear back from Sergei, suspecting that he lost his mind from grief. They send a plane to pick him and Pasha up from the place where Sergei is fishing. This plan fails, too, and only when Sergei returns to the station Pasha tells him what happened to his family. After this confession, the most dramatic part of the film begins: Scared of Sergei’s anger and rage, Pasha fires at him from a rifle, but misses and runs away. Sergei grabs the rifle and fires a shot at Pasha, but obviously aims above the boy’s head. Thereafter Pasha hides in various places on the island, while Sergei seemingly chases him. Pasha’s animosity grows and he exposes Sergei’s fish to radioactive contamination, attempting to poison his boss, only to appear at the station once Sergei has eaten one of the fish to tell him that they are radioactive. Sergei barfs, but strangely shows no aggression towards Pasha any more – strangely, because in the first part of the film he did not hesitate to hit the “greenhorn” even for less significant misgivings, literally beating Pasha for falsifying data. Eventually, the station is closed, Pasha leaves the island and tries to convince Sergei to leave too—at least so he can be examined to assess the level of radioactive contamination. But Sergei refuses, saying: “Don’t you understand that I need to stay alone” – which in the film’s context reads: I want to die alone.

summerThe plot is intentionally punctuated by two significant “gaps”—two omissions in the narrative where facts that are crucial for the film’s logic are not clearly explained. One cannot help asking why Pasha did not say anything to Sergei about the tragedy that happened to his family earlier, right away after Sergei returns from fishing. Another knowledge gap is associated with the abandoned, yet still functional nuclear reactor that plays a significant role in the film’s plot. When hiding from the enraged (as he believes) Sergei, the freezing Pasha tries to warm up near the reactor; he falls asleep and apparently receives a significant dose of the radiation. Desperate and at the end of his tether, Pasha intentionally holds fish from Sergei’s supplies inside the reactor to contaminate it, before putting it furtively back to the place where Sergei keeps his food. As a result, Sergei is also contaminated and therefore Pasha insists in the finale that he should go to the mainland for a check-up. Yet it remains unclear what the small reactor does on this uninhabited island, in the midst of stunningly beautiful nowhere. These two “holes” inevitably force the viewer to keep them in mind and, thus, acquire additional, perhaps, symbolic, significance.

To begin with Pasha’s silence: this obviously points at a gap in communication not just between the two characters, but between the two generations they represent: the last Soviet generation (Sergei) and the first post-Soviet generation (Pasha). Some reviewers have interpreted the film as a lamentation about vanishing dignity and the disappearance of a sense of duty embedded in the Soviet past, as well as a lament about the irresponsibility of the young generation, who fails the simplest tests, let alone can be trusted with this noble, yet heavy burden of tradition. Is this indeed so?

summerSergei Puskepalis masterfully, yet without any signs of ironic playfulness, plays a tough guy surrounded by an aura of stoical, everyday heroism akin to that glorified by the polar narratives of the 1930s and 1960s. However, in today’s context, the service of the ancient meteorological equipment, performing functions that could be done by a few machines—should the state spare a few thousands to obtain them—looks like a ritual that has to be performed because of some sacred meaning, which is nowadays lost and forgotten even by the most avid fanatics like Sergei. Pasha also tries to perform this ritual: even his voice changes when he transmits the data by the ancient radio; however, he is too young, too playful, and too immersed in today’s world to be taken by the monastic isolation on the island and the solemn ritual performed by Sergei. This is emphasized in a scene where Pasha jumps from one empty barrel to another, using them as toys, while Sergei seriously and stoically collects the remainder of gasoline from the barrels’ bottoms (a metaphor for the financing of science in oil-rich Putin’s Russia). It is equally noteworthy that Pasha uses his spare time to play computer games, while Sergei hardly knows how to operate a computer.

summerThese are just a few indicators of the complete lack of communication between the two film’s protagonists: Sergei can speak of their work only; he pontificates about it, acts like a monk who demands from a novice not just respect for his faith, but full and complete obedience. This is why he does not think twice before hitting Pasha for a job done badly. And Pasha, who tries his best, is quite aware that he cannot reach the level of devotion expected by Sergei. Therefore he is afraidof his boss. It is this fear that prevents Pasha from telling Sergei the terrible news – especially after falsifying data. Pasha’s fear signifies the lack of a language that could connect both generations—in the film, they literally have nothing to talk about. It is only violence that can substitute the absence of (verbal) language. Therefore, perhaps, Pasha is so scared of Sergei’s reaction after bringing him bad news that he shoots at him. Yet, Sergei also shoots twice in Pasha’s direction, when he actually needs to talk to him.

Pasha is no better: he does not know how to communicate beyond the realm of violence. Characteristically, the games he is playing are shooting games, which foreshadow his future radioactive contamination. He is the first to fire at Sergei, and he cannot find a better way to connect to his boss than by trying to poison him with radioactive fish. This gesture, however, can be read as symmetrical to those of Sergei’s: these are all desperate attempts to connect with the other by sharing—aggression and the death threat.

Here the second “gap” comes into play. The radioactive station on the island is indeed the trace of the imperial power and grandeur: it is either a remainder of the former atomic arsenal or a sign of the state’s generosity when a nuclear power generator was the cheapest available device to supply a lighthouse with energy. But in the film’s fabric, this generator—unnoticeably inscribed into peaceful and solitary, almost mystical panoramas of the North—becomes a powerful symbol of Soviet heritage: contaminated beauty, harmony charged by the energy of destruction; a nuclear bomb in the backyard, continuously irradiating and ready to explode at any moment. In short, a radioactive, destructive past which spreads its malevolent power invisibly and quietly even decades after the end of the USSR—a country which is now so nostalgically remembered by many people as the land of dignified heroes.

summerPopogrebskii plays with this mythology but, in fact, his film rather deconstructs than endorses it. Characteristically, the film’s plot seems to refer to various tropes of Soviet cinema. For instance, the radiogram falls under the table and remains unnoticed and unread. This is a clear homage to Chuk and Gek¸ Gaidar’s famous story that served as the basis for Ivan Lukinskii’s famous film (1953). When Sergei goes fishing for the second time, still not knowing what had happened to his family, Pasha tries to catch the plane or stop Sergei before he returns to the base, and hikes across the island; however, he misses the plane in the thick fog. The young man tries to atone for his mistakes by making a heroic trip across dangerous lands— another trope of Socialist Realist cinema. But scared by a polar bear, Pasha slips down the steep shore and loses consciousness.

Apparently, the Socialist Realism references misfire: they appear only to prove their irrelevance. This epistemology does not seem to be working: things have changed fundamentally. Even a happy ending—when the reactor, the main source of danger, is removed—does not bring the needed catharsis. Firstly, the reactor has already done its deadly work and it is unclear whom it might damage now that the station is closed. Secondly, the protagonist does not want to be saved. Finally, the embrace between the former enemies can be easily confused with another beating of the youngster.

summerNeither Socialist Realism nor Hollywood conventions are at work here: there is no catharsis, no relief, no answer. How I Ended this Summer surprisingly reminds of Andrei Zviagintsev’s The Return (Vozvrashchenie, 2003). Surprisingly, because—except for beautiful landscape panoramas and the relatively slow rhythm of both films—they have little in common. Zviagintsev’s film tells of a dramatic encounter between a father who returns after twelve years of absence to his two teenage sons and dies as a result of his attempt to turn them into real men. The Return relied heavily on Christian symbolism, while Popogrebskii definitely does not. Nevertheless, How I Ended this Summer can be read as another version of the “cinepaternity” theme (to use the title of a volume edited by Helena Goscilo and Yana Hashamovsa), while radically subverting the “foundation myth” used in The Return.

The isolation of the island (a motif also used in The Return) creates an ideal liminalcondition for the rite of passage—a symbolic act of the introduction of the young generation to adulthood through an encounter with death: their own “temporary death”, first and foremost. However, if in The Return a tough father (Konstantin Lavronenko) paid for his sons’ transition to adulthood with his own (sacrificial) death, in Popogrebskii’s film the situation is quite different. First of all, the father-figure (Sergei) does not know how to deal with death; he appears to be equally lost when faced with the challenge as the child (Pasha) he is expected to induce to adulthood. Secondly, the maturation appears to be achieved when Pasha is capable of killing the “father”; this is probably why Sergei does not articulate his rage when Pasha tells him that the fish was contaminated. Finally, in the film’s finale the “father” and the “son” appear to be standing on the same level only when both of them are irradiated, i.e. both have absorbed death (through contact wit the reactor) and internalized it.

Popogrebskii’s film displays an existentialist rite of passage, yet there is no sense of freedom attached to the characters’ encounter with death. The sense of death emerges as the sole positive value, one that at least can support communication between the film’s protagonists and fill the emptiness that remains after the disintegration of rituals that are rooted in the Soviet past. This transformation of the rite of passage into a sober celebration of death probably also suggest a clue to the irregularity of the film’s title. How I Ended this Summer is not only an ironic distortion of a typical title for a school essay, but it also suggests an omitted direct object. Kak ia provel smert’ (death) etim letom would be more correct grammatically, and symbolically.

Mark Lipovetsky and Tatiana Mikhailova
University of Colorado at Boulder

Comment on this review via the LJ Forum

How I Ended this Summer, Russia 2010
Color, 124 min.
Director and Scriptwriter: Aleksei Popogrebskii
DoP Pavel Kostomarov
Editing Ivan Lebedev
Sound Vladimir Golovnitski
Music Dmitri Katkhanov
Production Design Gennadi Popov
Costume Design Svetlana Mikhailova
Producer Roman Borisevich
Cast: Grigorii Dobrygin (Pavel); Sergei Puskepalis (Sergei)

Aleksei Popogrebskii: How I Ended This Summer (Kak a provel etim letom, 2010)

reviewed by Mark Lipovetsky and Tatiana Mikhailova © 2010

Updated: 01 Oct 10