Issue 39 (2013)

Mikhail Segal: Short Stories (Rasskazy, 2012)

reviewed by Lilya Nemchenko © 2013

“Tell me what you know about Russia?”

“Talk so that I can see you” (Socrates)

The writer Boris Vasil’ev once defined cinema as follows: “Cinema for me begins when I cannot tell with words what I have seen; everything else is literature.” The writer Mikhail Segal has given his film a simple and simultaneously provocative title, proposing a text, whose narrative quality is already designated in the title, while it is meaningless to tell the plot of Short Stories. The narrative here is not linear; the text of Short Stories is a story which can be told in different ways. From this interpretation of a continuous process where the author and the hero constantly change places stems also the film’s dynamic and energy. As a matter of fact, the film “grows” from a waste paper basket where the story is thrown after being rejected as a manuscript by an unknown author that lacks topicality. The secretary of the publishing house (Dar’ia Moroz) “kicks off” the engine, getting out the first short story and recognizing her own.

rasskazyThe waste paper basket and toilets (as disposal units) are prominent trash elements which serve as a background for the conversation “about the main thing,” as in medieval carnival the use of excrement in the script of a holiday specified the value of life; and “the main thing,” of course, is choice: marriage, life, death, and love.

In three of the four stories the “places for public use” have no utilitarian purpose at all. In “The World of Fixtures” (Mir krepezha) the toilet in the cafe is the place where the Moroz’s heroine remembers an important moment of her life: when he proposed to her, and they exchanged desires and wishes, but this contravened the main principle of her life: No improvisations!—and that proposal came without any precaution. The filthy toilet of the military enlistment office (the story “Circular Movement” [Krugovoie dvizhenie]) is a place for the exchange of money that does not smell. The carnivalesque element in this episode is amplified by an incident as a result of which, alas, money may well stink. Finally, the European-style office toilet is a place of erotic fantasies and peaceful rest after stormy sexual encounters for the aged hero-lover, the editor of the publishing house who has rejected the book for publication, but who has become the hero of the last story. In this ambivalence lies Segal’s talent: extremely serious and boundlessly ironic. The author operates within the rules of certain genre (“Circular Movement”), and can easily play with the limits of genres (“Energy Crisis” [Energeticheskii krizis]). Segal masterly knows the laws of classical literature and no less masterly uses the narrative strategies of post-classical novels. The director authentically recreates the circumstances of life in modern Russia, taking on the role of a sociologist-positivist and a cultural anthropologist, yet he is not an artist raised on classical realism and classical philosophy, but a practitioner and designer of transgression, of “a gesture concerning the limit”, to speak with Michel Foucault. He takes a recognizable situation up to a limit, up to the “impossibility” which possesses the quality of the ontological characteristic of existence. Modern Russia and its inhabitants as presented in the film are not objects of critical analysis, but natural givens who cannot be used in any gnosiological procedures. Not accidentally is the story “Energy Crisis” a mix of detective story and mystical thriller, where the deductive method fails.

The four stories of the film are connected not only through the waste paper basket, whence appear the heroes and circumstances of life; each part of Short Stories tells about mutually exclusive choices of life strategies.

rasskazyThe provincial couple that starts a new phase of their life in “World of Fixture” is the product of a mass culture with its advice-compulsion and pseudo-rationality. The project business for the arrangement of one’s life thus finds understanding from the representative of a new Russian trade: the event manager. The life strategies of the soon-to-be-married couple and the manager (Andrei Merzlikin) coincide: one is assured of the necessity to plan for everything, the other of the possibility for foresee everything. The world is presented as a simple system of linear dependencies, with simple plots—a wedding with a bestowal, a planned extra-marital affair, children in a special school with English and a small variety for the ending (cremation or burial). In general, the variety of choices is reduced to the world of fixture, where the main thing is the correct selection of materials and sizes; moreover the mythical European quality (the samples of rice offered to the pair instead of the traditional millet, as in the story from Twelve Chairs with the offer of the tea strainer for the cannibal Ellochka).

Segal masterfully shows the logic of the absurd when the Apollonian beginning ignores the challenges of the Dionysian chaos. The event manager, like a classical artist, arranges the mise-en-scene, moving the pair away from the window and showing his skill not only in riddles and competitions, but also in designer thinking as he easily handles the laws of light exposure (at 15.00 there is a shadow, at 17.11 sunset, therefore we organize a hearth). After the place change, the spectator looks at the sad urban landscape with a high-voltage line, which does not look creative at all. In this case one even feels sorry for the couple as they strip themselves of the secret of the project called “life”. The professional manager, an expert in psychology, masterfully manipulates the consciousness of the young people, putting them before a choice of minor things and thus creating the illusion of independence. The jazz music chosen by bride and groom in the end shows at first good taste, but Segal is ruthless: the singer who has come with heavy bags, efficiently and wearily putting them down, starts to sing in English with a school Russian accent. Alas, jazz—that lives basically on improvisation—has no place in the world of fixture…

rasskazyThe rational strategy of the first story is taken to the point of absurdity and then tested in the other three stories. In “Circular Movement” cultural phenomena acquire once again the character of natural phenomena. A bribe, like a drop of water from the lesson about the atmosphere, triggers movement in this world. In this story Segal transforms rhythm, music, and image into a single whole, expressing the tragic discrepancy of a grandiose, perfect nature through nasty and trivial matters of human culture. The cameraman Eduard Moshkovich has “pushed” the real landscapes into bright light (as did the Russian painter Arkhip Kuindzhi) with a glamorous simulacrum in the form of the governor Egor Sergeevich (Sergei Fetisov) and the President (Igor’ Ugolnikov). The camera plays with general takes and panoramic views of East European plains, as well as the awe-inspiring quality of Russian nature. That’s how the actor and writer Evgenii Grishkovets would remember things, reflecting on what each Russian should feel when looking at birches through the window of a train. According to Grishkovets he must say: “How beautiful!” So, a white horse, a white suit, white shoes with white socks, thin white porcelain of the tea cups, and volumes of Karamzin and Tolstoy, and some casually dropped volume of Kliuchevskii on the grass are images of cleanliness and chastity, of natural and cultural richness. The white color emphasizes the sacredness of authorities, which is elevated just as the fields, the lakes, the rivers. Dirty money with which imperfect people potter and authority in snow-white clothes make a harmonious pair symbolizing the nature/culture of Russia.

rasskazyThe bribe is like a divine watchmaker-creator, who sets the entire world to work. Thus the ward starts working, where the old mother of the university professor is hospitalized without any hope for surgery. Later, the tempo-rhythm reminds of Vertov’s aesthetics in The Man with the Movie Camera (Chelovek s kinoapparatom), when—at the nod of the Creator—the gates of the Bakhmet’ev bus park open. Likewise for Segal: the professor meets with the head of the ward; the bribe (a pack of money) is put in the table drawer; a call is made to the anaesthesists and surgeons; the camera flies downwards into the hospital square, where the surgeons—as if on command—throw away their unfinished cigarettes and get up; then the light of the operating theater. And all this is shot without a single word. The emotional and graphic dominant here is the music by Andrzej Petras, which precisely transfers the pressure of the disaster to come and the happiness when the tragedy is averted.

rasskazyThe simulative nature of all kinds of activity from “Circular Movement” (from the car mechanic to the governor and higher) is taken to the absurd in the third story, “Energy Crisis.” Segal here works with the Soviet myth about Russia as a country of bookworms. This myth incorporates also that of the valorous Russian detectives and the story about the “unknown force” of the provincial librarian Anna Petrovna (Tamara Mironova), investigating all complex cases in the area. The imitation of activity by a crowd of uniformed people (inspectors, the police), who intensely and attentively listen to the lofty style of Russian poetry (an excellent stylization à la Pushkin) is one of the most absurd scenes. The inspectors and the policemen receive a translation from Russian into Russian of what Anna Petrovna says.

rasskazyThe search for the missing girl turns into a concert of Russian poetry in the open air, but even this concert comes to a close. The symbolical capital of Russian culture is exhausted, and Anna Petrovna senses this perfectly well. She can find maniacs and murderers, swindlers and thieves; she can help victims of violence, but once the girl has set fire to the volume of Pushkin, the librarian takes upon herself the role of the victim and her energy expires. In this story, too, Segal resorts to the demonstration of an exchange: the girl, who saves her life by making a fire in the cold, and Anna Petrovna, who is consummated by the flames of the tragedy of the destruction of last, even mythical, cultural capital. The time when “manuscripts don’t burn” has come to an end, and this precisely is the “energy crisis.” No consumer society can find a way out. The simulation continues in the last story, “Inflamed” (Vozgoritsia plamia). 

rasskazyIn “Inflamed” the editor (Konstantin Iushkevich) is himself the protagonist. The flame of passion has flared up in a traffic jam, continued along several Moscow locations (the cafe Jean-Jacques, the Arts Cinema), and ended in the apartment of the elderly bachelor who has grown up on Vysotsky and “Murka.” His incredibly sexy and charming girlfriend at first completely satisfies him (a term from the world of consumption), but then… The conflict, which starts with her not knowing some words (like handball and Cheka) grows into a clash of worldviews, which cannot be resolved even through excellent sex. The leitmotif “we should talk more” leads to the comprehension of an insurmountable precipice, not so much generational as anthropological. The heroine is quite honest: “I don’t know much, but you can fuck me.” Iushkevich’s hero, ready and willing to give and spend, gets little pleasure; the laws not only of consumer culture with its dialectics of production and pleasure kick in. The conflict of different discourses begins: “I know, the Germans didn’t get as far as IKEA,” and “What can we fuck about?” The connection of questions on Russian history with desperate, heavy petting in the car is the last attempt at sublimation before the hero’s return to his coeval, with whom he can, after all, talk about Trotsky.

All the characters of Short Stories are formally united through the location, and conceptually through the absence of a common language, not on the level of semantics and syntax, but on the level of contextual memory. No fixtures will help here: “The link of time is out of joint.”

Mikhail Segal has made an absurdist comedy, which makes pleasant viewing and entertains through the language of the protagonists (their ability to not hear each other), the ingenuity of the plotlines, the author’s fine irony and self-irony. Segal does not assume a position of “You can’t live like that!”; rather, his intonations remain soft and therefore dramatically authentic.

Translated by Birgit Beumers

Lilya Nemchenko

Comment on this article on Facebook

Short Stories, Russia, 2012,
105 minutes, color, 1:1.85, Dolby Digital
Director and Scriptwriter Mikhail Segal
Director of Photography Eduard Moshkovich
Production Design Vitalii Trukhanenko
Costume Design Vladimir Kuptsov
Music Andrzej Petras
Sound Konstantin Stetkevich
Editing Mikhail Segal
Cast: Vladislav Leshkevich, Dar’ia Nosik, Andrei Merzlikin, Igor’ Ugolnikov, Konstantin Iushkevich, Andrei Petrov, Liubov’ Novikova, Tamara Mironova
Producers Anastasia Kavunovskaia, Sergei Kretov
Production Film Company RUmedia

Mikhail Segal: Short Stories (Rasskazy, 2012)

reviewed by Lilya Nemchenko © 2013

Updated: 05 Jan 13