Issue 36 (2012)

Sergei Loban: Chapiteau-Show (Shapito-Shou, 2011)

reviewed by Tat’iana Kruglova, Liliia Nemchenko © 2012

The Solidarity of Clowns: Instructions on Survival in modern Russia

chapiteauAt the end of 2011 Sergei Loban’s film Chapiteau-Show, consisting of four novellas, got into Russian distribution after having premiered at the Moscow IFF in June. The four novellas titled “Love”, “Friendship”, “Respect”, and “Cooperation” can, according to the filmmakers, be watched in any order. A conversation on serious matters is announced: about relationships shared by all mankind, which cannot be challenged under any circumstances. The faith in such relationships is the only thing that unites all of us, irrespective of our cultural or ethnic background, of citizenship and social status. Before us we have something the titles of manifestoes of new moralists, which feel a bit like the era of Enlightenment. The chapter titles also stand in apparent dissonance with the film’s title. The word chapiteau, apart from its literal meaning of a travelling circus, has a rich semantic field in Russian. In ordinary speech it is often used as less vigorous synonym for such terms as “buffoonery” (balagan) or “chaos,” “mess” (bardak). This is about a world where everything is upside down, where there is no order, where nobody takes anything serious, where chaos and irresponsibility reign. In the semantics of the word “chapiteau” the comic accent is foregrounded. Apparently, then, we are dealing with a frank and cheerful game, which does not demand from the actors what Boris Pasternak has called “full destruction seriously”. So it is appropriate to consider theatre as a metaphor for this world, but not in the Shakespearian sense—“the whole world is a theatre, and the people in it are all actors”—but in the sense of Aleksandr Blok’s play The Fairground Booth (Balaganchik), where Pierrot exclaims: “I’m dying! I’m bleeding cranberry juice!”. However, before us we have a different part of the Great Game: the circus, which is also governed by a set of given circumstances—very extreme circumstances; yet within those circumstances the artist has to live not his role and a conditional life, but he has to take a real risk, putting at stake such human attitudes as love, friendship, respect, and cooperation. It is no coincidence that it was precisely the circus that excited the great humanists of the last century, Charles Chaplin and Federico Fellini.

chapiteauEach protagonist has to perform his number in this fairground booth, and they are all directly connected to the world of game: to the imagined and genuine realities of theatre, cinema, and television. Vera is a graduate of the Theatre School; the pioneers’ leader is a student of the Theatre Institute and a pupil of Petr Nikolaevich (Mamonov), the cult actor and musician; other members of the group work for television; there are sound producers and a deaf baker who participates in the vocal show; Aleksei and Roman work as stagehands at the theatre; Nikita, the son of Petr Nikolaevich, dreams of becoming a film director; Sergei Popov is a producer. But as participants of this performance of life they play the roles of losers: the witty project conceived by Sergei Popov of a “substitute star” fails; the link that has been formed in the virtual world between Vera and Aleksei cannot develop into real affinity; the deaf man does not belong to the world of those who can hear; the game of “dad the guru and the son-pupil” nearly ends in the death of both. The symbol of the “unsuccessful show” has become the “chapiteau-show” itself, staged by a director who constantly exclaims how he has raised the benchmark, but in his circus acts tightrope-walkers fall down and trapeze artists fly off into the audience.

Why does that happen? Apparently the heroes play different games, in which they are directors both of their own and other peoples’ lives, using others as characters in the performances they direct. In the first novella, “Love,” Vera and Aleksei take a risky step when they meet each other, leaving the cosy the limits of their virtual world and planning a journey together. They genuinely try to guess each others’ desires, but nothing comes of it. Their dialogues go around in circles all the time: “Maybe we’ll go for a walk?”—“Do you want to?”—“I thought you wanted to”, which gradually leads to a collapse of communication that ends in hysterics. In the second novella, “Friendship,” the deaf hero also genuinely wants to change his life, find new friends, live by different rules, leave the limited circle of his deaf-and-dumb community, but he cannot be part of the strange world of the “pioneer group”, where everything is relative: it is not clear who is gay and who is straight, who is a friend of whom, and who is the lover. His old friends play their own game of true Indians and swear eternal friendship to each other. He returns, kneeling down when begging for forgiveness. In the third novella, “Respect,” the son honestly and industriously tries to live up to the model that his father creates for him, but he doesn’t know the script. Yet it is clear that the role of a true man, a hunter and rock-climber, a man of courage and macho, is not for him. The father, too, it transpires, is no macho, but an aging actor who is forever captivated by illusions and who—in a moment of creative crisis and fear of old age—needs the son as a character in his play with the title “return of the prodigal father.” Finally, in the novella “Cooperation,” the motive of manipulation of someone else’s life becomes transparent. The ambitious producer-debutant Sergei excitedly initiates his game, in which the carpenter Roman and amateur songwriter “à la Tsoy” is given the role of a Tsoy-double. When Sergei’s creation—the protagonist of his show—Roman breaks off his links and signs a contract with the director of the Chapiteau-Show, that is—exits the game, Sergei’s concept about pleasure derived from being just a copy is smashed into smithereens.

chapiteauHamlet’s sacred line “you cannot play upon me!” springs to mind, which sounds right, but only in part. In fact, in this epidemic game people are not divided into villains-directors and artless actors-puppets. At the end of each novella the rebellious players in the game fall into a frenzy and accuse the others of deception. The final monologue is repeated almost literally in the novellas: “You are the most awful person I ever met. You have ruined my life. I don’t understand how I could believe you?” But the effect—either from the quadruple repetition or from the obvious blinding of the heroes—is not one of tragedy, but comedy. And even the fire in the end, when the heroes of all fours novellas are in the same place, does not scare the viewer but creates a sense of necessary and salutary discharge: salutary, because it is the end of the game, the end of the show; and comic, because the show goes on.

The finale of each novella takes place at night, when the sea—where the heroes live temporarily—is beaten up by a storm, which is both shock and clarification. As a result, the characters are literally thrown out of the game into real life, which is full of danger. The moments when Aleksei is sucked down by huge wave and thrown back onto the pebbles, or when Nikita’s boat is thrust up in the dark, are genuinely scary (and the rules of the genre are observed here). But already in the following frame the sun is shining, the heroes are alive, and life is buzzing with everyday pleasures and trifles. The filmmakers perform dizzying somersaults from serious to ridiculous, from imagined fear to serious threat. Moreover, in the moments of extreme tension (for example, in the novella “Respect,” when the son runs for help to rescue his sick father) there is a sudden relaxation: Nikita comes tearing back with helpers to find the father eating porridge. We remain clueless as to what actually happened: was this all a joke, a hoax, a test? Everything is possible if the father is Petr Mamonov, half playing himself: a cult character of modern Russian art. The film makes it almost impossible to draw a line between authors and players: the director of the chapiteau-show, Shpagin, is played by the eccentric film historian Aleksandr Shpagin; the producer Sergei Popov is played by Sergei Popov; the composer and songwriter is one of the holidaymakers; the gays are play by gays, and the deaf by deaf.

chapiteauThat’s just the point: you can jump out of one game and into another, but all the time the filmmakers don’t believe that you can live without any games. Their film is constructed like a nested doll where one game is inside another. In each novella the protagonist is given a place for direct self-expression, where he can pronounce a monologue and be just himself. This profoundly intimate space is the small stage in the Chapiteau, where characters are singled out of the darkness by a theatrical projector. All these small monologues are touching and naive, but here the heroes are free: they are not afraid to appear ridiculous in the songs and dances. This freedom is granted by a mystical and even cosmic darkness (the theme of the cosmonaut is not accidental and the backdrop purposefully shows stars and the moon), whence they all disappear once they have played their role. Strange transformations occur in this space of the stage/arena under the cupola/cosmos: two characters live and rule here. We see them only in this space and they never leave the chapiteau. They are elderly actors: a gray-haired man in a tailcoat, who sings in an operatic voice à la Elvis Presley and Freddy Mercury, and an elderly lady. Who looks like an aged travesty actress from a children’s theatre, with a sonorous voice singing à la Marilyn Monroe. They are permanent attributes of the circus: a pair of clowns playing the role of an antique chorus, the voice of fate.

In the credits the entire film crew—heroes and authors, actors and directors, gaffers and producers—cheerfully sing and dance, leaving behind the taste of good wine. The question arises: why are the losers happy? Why does the dialogue in the end of the novella “Love” (“You love me?”—“I don’t love you either.”) not frighten and not disappoint? I think that it is the pleasure of solidarity of those who are already sick of the ideology of success; those who at least tried to become different and understand others, people who are different. These people cannot be called losers: they are just not winners. They are certainly funny, just like a defenceless, weak and awkward person is funny. But art knows different kinds of laughter: one can laugh at someone with a feeling of superiority, or laugh about oneself. The latter is more like Chaplinesque laughter, the laughter of a mask with a human core.

chapiteauOn the whole, the filmmakers reveal a predilection for the poetics and aesthetics of the masters of world cinema: for Fellini’s carnivalesque beginnings (the final show “Eight and a Half”), for Lynch’s fascinating poly-stylistics, for Tarantino’s drive and free breath, and for Jarmush’s plot repetitions. Obvious and less obvious quotations provide extra pleasure for the spectator, and in this sense Sergei Loban’s film may be of interest as hypertext, in which Russian cinema and its mythologies take a special place. A turn towards the big world (the heroes all feel comfortable in the global network) and to domestic culture (an almost documentary truthfulness to time, place and physical action) is quite natural. The authors, as well as the majority of viewers, are shaped by Soviet and post-Soviet experiences. The first (Soviet values with a romantic note) appears in the second (unexpectedly commanded post-Soviet experience) as a set of myths connected with the dream world in a space of absolute necessity. “Nostalgia for the present,” typical for all the film characters, unfolds in a concrete place: a village in the Crimea. The Crimea is more than a geographical location: it is a symbolic place of freedom that Vasilii Aksenov has written about; it is Artek, the meeting place of the world’s youth (including Samantha Smith, the American teenager who wrote a letter pleading for peace to Andropov in 1982 and was subsequently invited to the summer camp in Artek)—where Artek stands for strong friendship, mass entertainment, and first love. Hence the pioneer theme, the debates and dances that belong to the “life of holidaymakers.”  Therefore the conversations on friendship sound so organic, even if nowadays they can only be friends with people with limited abilities: the “asthenic syndrome” of the 80s has left its trace. And the jobs of those who are able to be friends belong to the “real” world, i.e. they are not producers, PR managers and other creative, but bakers etc., who set basic conditions for the subsequent games.

chapiteauDespite the densely populated character list, there is no accidental character in the film, as might happen in visionary and mythological practice. In this respect, superficial analogies between the romantic and pragmatic worlds of Sergei Soloviev’s ASSA (1986) are irreconcilable, but in Chapiteau-Show they are practically indiscernible. Serezha (Sergei Popov) is a bad/good person; Senia with his friends from the Samantha-Smith-Group, the cyber-wanderer, and Roma are all real and mythological simultaneously. The film not only creates a powerful semiotic field of quotations from Russian cinema (Sergei Soloviev, Andrei Zviagintsev), but adds generational culture signs as can be found in Michael Jackson, Viktor Tsoi and his double, Petr Mamonov and the pirates of the Caribbean, VHS tapes in Nikita’s room and Kodak, film cameras and gasoline canisters, Borges and Levi-Strauss, names from Senia’s cheer-leaders: Stanley Kubrik, Todd Solondz, Gus van Sant, Roman Polanski, Elvis Presley, John Lennon, Curt Cobain, Vladimir Vysotsky—and names from textbooks on history of culture: Sophocles, Shakespeare, Schubert, Marilyn Monroe, etc.

Chapiteau-Show is not only an auteur film that draws the spectators into a desirable coexistence of “ersatz-stars” in the world of poverty and glamour, but it is also a reflection on the nature of art. Cinema began in the era of “attractions,” and the shadow of George Melies’s Journey to the Moon (Voyage dans la Lune, 1902) is literally there on the screen: cinema is searching for new opportunities in the art of the circus, and—overburdened with psychologism, dramatism and other intellectual discoveries—once again suggests a return to the roots. Such a return implies not a repetition of the past, but a Nietzschean revival, a recipe for finding a new breath of air—because if that can be found, one can live.

Translated by Birgit Beumers

Tat’iana Kruglova, Liliia Nemchenko

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Chapiteau-Show, Russia 2011
Color, 100 minutes
Director: Sergei Loban
Scriptwriter: Marina Potapova
DoP: Ivan Mamonov, Evgenii Tsvetkov
Composer: Zhak Polyakov
Production Design Alena Kudrevich
Editing: Sergei Loban
Cast: Petr Mamonov, Vera Strokova, Sergei Popov, Aleksei Podol’skii, Valerii Zavodovskii, 
Producers: Ekaterina Gerasicheva, Aleksei Ageev, Mikhail Sinev
Russian Distribution: 68 prints, 77,000 viewers

Sergei Loban: Chapiteau-Show (Shapito-Shou, 2011)

reviewed by Tat’iana Kruglova, Liliia Nemchenko © 2012

Updated: 09 May 12