KinoKultura: Issue 31 (2011)

Signs of the Everyday in Post-Soviet Cinema

By Liliia Nemchenko (Ural State U)

bubenThe end of the first century of cinema coincided with disintegration of the Soviet Union and the collapse of the Soviet film industry. The experience of changing paradigms of the view of the world, of a way of life, of values; the experience of a search for identity, often in negative terms (as argued by Lev Gudkov); the continuous reassessment of the past, along with nostalgia and ruthless criticism—all these factors had to be assimilated by contemporary cinema. Naturally, various artistic strategies from the past are needed to assimilate such a huge complex of problems. One of these strategies lies in the investigation of the social stratum and the individual in the context of everyday practice. The cinema of the previous century discovered everyday practice as a generator of meanings. The visualization of the existential experience (as, for example, in Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante [1934], in the films of Italian neo-realism, in the works of Michelangelo Antonioni and Ingmar Bergman, or in the works of the French “new wave” and Russian poetic cinema) was impossible without the thorough assimilation of the everyday, of our prosaic, modest existence. Since everyday occurrences are always close to hand, they are always with us, as it were, “without our knowledge” (Heidegger), silently manifesting themselves in objects and realities of everyday life. In order for everyday practices to be articulated, artists had to adopt certain procedures: first, they had to find or invent a new hero, an average “small” man in prosaic circumstances (as was the case in Vigo’s L’Atalante) and place him in a situation where he had to make a choice and act; secondly, they had to create a special vision through the investigative camera, thereby also changing the pace of the narrative “attraction” from presto to lento; and finally, they had to adopt a position of distance, or alienation. This latter aspect is connected with the special semantics and pragmatics of the everyday. The semantics of the everyday consist of workdays, when nothing special happens (if we disregard the first days of creation, which are not directly connected to the average person). The everyday world is predetermined; it is a surface on which the cultural and natural are barely distinguishable (“everything in nature must repeat itself”); regularity and repeatability (in Husserl’s words, “and so forth”) are inevitable, hence the everyday is defined as reality par excellence, i.e. a “supreme reality” (Alfred Schutz). In this reality it is not important whether man—loved or despised—is in touch with the world and alive, because the everyday contains certain safety rules for finding the here-and-now, which are rooted both in the cultural-historical and in the individual-natural existence. Thus the everyday points directly at the fact that we are alive and in relative safety. The experience of the everyday suggests fundamental traditions of ordinary existence; their banality is connected with the constant inclination towards the stable and recognizable. The pragmatics of the everyday lies in the creation of rules. However, in the framework of this stream comes a moment that is articulated as “once:” once we reflect; once we realize the vanity and emptiness of the everyday; once we lose; once we make a decision; once we perform an act; etc. (Samuel Beckett remarked upon this pattern in his play Waiting for Godot). This “once” interrupts and changes the syntax of the everyday; accordingly, it creates new pragmatics and gives rise to a new meaning. Thus, the everyday functions as a field for every possible “once.” The everyday as the realm of work and the phenomenological world does not disappear, but the artist adjusts his lens in such a manner that things we know acquire a variety of shades; this process causes amazement, admiration and questions. The formula of the everyday as given by Maurice Blanchot (the everyday is when “nothing happens”; p.15) collapses.

Thus, by the end of the first hundred years of cinema, the everyday had been legitimized as a subject of art and subjected to aestheticisation (poetic cinema), to the assimilation of the experience of alienation (Antonioni), the experience of existential choice (Iosseliani) and of totalitarianism (Aleksei A. German), and so forth. How are the old formulae of working with the everyday used in the new socio-cultural conditions?

street daysI shall here leave aside the cinema of the 1990s as a period that demands separate analysis and focus on some films of recent years. My choice is determined by the presence in the film-texts of signs of the everyday, not only in the representation of life, but also on the metaphysical level, which generates meaning. A circle of authors and films dealing with the post-Soviet, i.e. contemporary, everyday life, has established itself; in such films the everyday becomes a source of analysis of anthropological issues. This circle comprises, above all, the films of Boris Khlebnikov, Aleksei Popogrebskii, Vasilii Sigarev, Aleksei Mizgirev, and also the first Georgian film taken into Russian distribution after the disintegration of the USSR: Street Days (Quchis Dgeebi, Georgia 2010) by Levan Koguashvili. The common denominator for all these films is the attention to details of everyday life: with neo-realist precision the production designers go to work at Help Gone Mad (Sumaschedshchaia pomoshch’, dir. Khlebnikov, 2009), Simple Things (Prostye veshchi, dir. Popogrebskii, 2007), Wolfy (Volchok, dir. Sigarev, 2009), Buben-Baraban (dir. Mizgirev, 2009), and Street Days, creating an atmosphere of documentary authenticity. The Georgian everyday life of the post-perestroika era—the apartment of Chekie’s former wife, the corridors and the toilet in the school—do not differ at all from the hostel where the protagonists of Buben-Baraban live, or the communal apartment of the anaesthesiologist Sergei Maslov from Simple Things. The commonality of the everyday generates a commonality of the tragedy of existence. If previously dealing with the everyday assumed reconciliation, in the new cinema the everyday becomes a tragic space. In these run-down interiors the tragedy of life occurs under conditions of tectonic shifts, the demolition of its foundation. Not even Merab Mamardashvili could have foreseen this shift when, comparing the Russian and the Georgian, he insisted that “the conditions, the environment, reflect my attitude to my self, my self-esteem. I put a tablecloth on the table, not a newspaper. A Russian can eat a herring from a scrap of newspaper. A normal (not a degenerated) Georgian cannot do this.” In Street Days, the grown-up children of Iosseliani’s heroes and the street workers of Rezo Gabriadze are able to eat without a tablecloth, and even without a newspaper. Thus, a strange story emerges: the dirty walls of the Russian hostel, Moscow’s five-storey blocks of the 1960s, or Petersburg communal apartments cannot cause so much drama as the same detail of the everyday life of a Tbilisi interior. Levan Koguashvili destroys the myth—common for the Russian viewer—about the special Georgian local color which, certainly, has been preserved in aesthetic terms, but has ceased to fulfill the function of constructing life. The collapse of the periphery only strengthens the tragic commonality of the fate of the Russian, Belarusian (Help Gone Mad), and Georgian heroes.

bubenThe details of everyday life in a contemporary urban landscape in the films mentioned above are rendered with an absolutely new intonation. There is no emotional explosion and tendentious condemnation, as was the case for the neo-realists; there is no playful irony that explodes the repeatability of the everyday which was so typical of the “new wave”, and later of the films of Kira Muratova, Iurii Mamin, and El’dar Shengelaya; here we have stoical alienation, or— to use the words of the heroine in Mizgirev’s Buben-Baraban: “if you cannot live, don’t live.”

The daily life—the remedial side of the everyday—demands independence from the heroes who have been thrown out of the Grand ideological space and time. The absence of the Grand Style in the face of the State, the Father, the Older Brother leaves to man only the private space of everyday routine. Precisely here he can make choices and decisions, or accomplish a feat. The above-mentioned films are populated by adults with a common Soviet past. Mamardashvili was one of the first to call infantilism the defining characteristic of Soviet man. He confirmed that Soviet man had chosen the condition of an embryo (we recollect the ending of Dream Flights [Polety vo sne i naiavu, dir. Roman Balayan, 1982] and Oleg Iankovskii in the pose of a baby); this condition is characterized by the obligatory search for protection and a feeling of innocence. The negative circumstances of life reproduced in the routine of the everyday (hated work, poor life, lack of things) relieve the hero of responsibility. Having extracted himself from one ritual action, he immediately lapses into another routine. But alongside the routine there was always another life, outside the bracket: a romantic or heroic life. And one only had to make an effort and await the necessary assistance or meet the requirements.

how i ended the summerThe world of post-Soviet reality does not forgive infantilism, and formulae of the past no longer lead to success. Evgenii, the gastarbeiter from Belarus in Help Gone Mad, cannot get away from the slot machine with the toys where nothing can be won. He finds shelter with the former Soviet engineer, who has been ejected by the Grand Time and remembers only the childhood of his daughter, but this engineer will be killed and the big child that Evgenii Sytyi plays will not find the will and courage to tell the daughter of her father’s death. A similar infantile powerlessness can be found in the young hero of Popogrebskii’s film How I Ended this Summer. The over-aged, jobless addicts from Street Days are constantly drawn to the school—not the safest place for junkies who are being sought by the police. Their comic skirmish with the school’s headmistress and the claims addressed to her in Russian strengthen the dramatic nature of the events. Drama is impossible without playfulness. The teenagers play as much as the adults. Using what he learnt in class about kidnapping, a schoolboy suggests to Chekie, the addict and father of his friend, that they should abduct the daughter of a rich man. Chekie agrees to play in this dangerous game to get the money that would allow him to repay the debts of his ex-wife. The abduction itself is carried out in the costumes of a wolf and a rabbit, snatched from the school’s drama circle. However, here the Georgian lightness ends and existential despair begins. As Otar Iosseliani once enabled his hero in the industrial drama Falling Leaves (Listopad/ Giorgobistve, 1966) to break through the daily routines of lie, so Levan Koguashvili allows his hero to experience tragedy. An analogy to another film by Iosseliani arises: Lived Once a Song Thrush (Iko shashvi mgalobeli, 1970): there is the same haste; the same desire to help everybody, except himself; the same squandering—only in the first case it is stifled by everyday promises and plans, and in the second by their frequent breaking. For Iosseliani the daily life of heroes was written onto the streets of Tbilisi, and the various landscapes rhymed with improvisation and a range of strategies for life. For Koguashvili there is nothing in the frame that reminds us about Tbilisi: no familiar monument, no vistas. The absence of panorama shots creates a closed, uncomfortable space that lacks life. It is from such a closed space that the dealer’s father throws himself onto the street—and this is the only overtly emotional episode of the film. The narrative intonation is restrained, and this provides another link to Lived Once a Song Thrush. The tragic endings of both films highlight different paths for tragedy: as the tragedy of a blind case, or of a conscious choice. Chekie deliberately chooses death, thus confirming his status as a hero “worthy of human tragedy” (Mamardashvili), who does not betray friendship. This finale brings out the basic difference between the heroes of Help Gone Mad and Street Days. The infantile Evgenii safely returns home to continue his life along the usual lines: a house, work, family, and the household; the existential drama will fade away and turn into a farce. Chekie’s story is a tragedy; and like any tragedy, it appeals to the liminality of human existence, to the realization that loneliness is the true human condition. The director purposefully leaves the hero before the television set in the end, just before the shot; on television we see an energetic Soviet news chronicle that allows man to lapse into infantilism. Koguashvili final frames contain a Chekhovian intonation. The shot sounds, the girl behind the window opposite methodically varnishes her nails, and the children—including Chekie’s son—joyfully sing with their teacher at school.

help gone madRemaining firmly inside Soviet interiors, the heroes of Mizgirev, Khlebnikov, Sigarev, and Koguashvili live in a space and time where the everyday is total, impenetrable, and unstructured (the heroes of Wolfy have no names; the Belarusian migrant worker Evgenii of Help Gone Mad has no documents, while the Moscow engineer uses obsolete speech). The communicative failures in the relations between the heroes and the spectators are restored thanks to a detailed investigation of the material environment. Items of Soviet life—toys, calendars, checkered thermos flasks, posters with Pushkin’s profile, refrigerators and other artifacts—become units of communications and signs of commonality. This commonality can be explored in different ways: sentimentally, nostalgically, critically, and stoically alienated. The directors discussed here all deploy a quiet, distanced intonation and thus develop a very important strategy of assimilation of the collective past by means of the visualization of everyday practices. The past, presented through signs of the everyday, shows a formation where the verbal is replaced by the material, and artifacts acquire the status of ethnographic exhibits. Such an approach is constructive since it makes impossible any nostalgia for the Soviet past so deliberately created in mass culture and the media.

Translated by Birgit Beumers

Liliia Nemchenko
Ural State University, Ekaterinburg

Works Cited

Blanchot, M. “Everyday speech,” Yale French Studies 73 (1987), pp. 12-20 (originally published 1959).

Gudkov, Lev. “Kompleks ‘zhertvy’,” and “Ideologema ‘vraga’,”, in Negativnaia identichnost’, Moscow: NLO, 2004, pp. 83-120 and 552-649.

Mamardashvili, Merab. “Kak ia ponimaiu filosofiiu. Zhizn’ shpiona.”

Liliia Nemchenko © 2011

Comment on this article on Facebook
Updated: 13 Jan 11