Issue 59 (2018)

Ivan Shakhnazarov: Rock (Rok, 2017)

reviewed by Rita Safariants© 2018

rockRock, the directorial debut of Ivan Shakhnazarov, is a road movie that centers on the convoluted and largely preposterous misadventures of three provincial rock musicians as they make their journey from a nameless small town to a prominent Moscow radio station in the hopes of making it big. As Vida Johnson rightly points out in her Kinotavr-28 report, the film is yet another installment of VGIK’s “legacy” productions, which have experienced a recent uptick after Il’ia Uchitel’’s feature Big Village Lights (Ogni bol’shoi derevni, 2016) (Johnson 2017). Ivan is the 24-year-old son of established filmmaker and director of Mosfilm studio, Karen Shakhnazarov, and in addition to promoting the ethos of post-Soviet cinema as a family business, the two projects share a production company (VGIK Debut) and a lead actor (Kirill Frolov), which doesn’t do much to dispel suspicions of nepotistic collusion between the two films. But perhaps these overlaps are simply serendipitous twists of fate, which also just happens to serve as Shakhnazarov Jr.’s overarching theme in Rock, since the Russian word rok can refer to both the popular music genre, and to destiny.

With wordplay informing the primary thematic arc of the film, Shakhnazarov organizes his picaresque adventure narrative as a karmic chain reaction, in which every new turn of events is a seemingly predestined consequence of the last. The film opens on the train platform of a nameless provincial town still donning vintage Soviet signs. The restaurant and music venue where we first meet the band One And A Half Cats (Poltora Kota) spells out “Il’ich” (Vladimir Lenin’s patronymic) in vertical neon letters. As drummer Seva, lead singer Gosha, and bassist Frisk (Shmon) meet up in the greenroom before their set, their interactions reveal a clear-cut character matrix, which Shakhnazarov relies upon to provide a semblance of psychological verisimilitude for the band’s subsequent shenanigans. Gosha (Ivan Ivashkin) is the archetypal hyper-ambitious front-man of the band, whose no-nonsense practicality and opportunism sustain the trio’s meandering journey. Frisk (Dmitrii Chebotarev) is presented as the token “stoner” bassist and marked as the one that makes the most impulsive decisions: he shows up to the restaurant with a narcotics cop on his tail, to whom Gosha has to pass a bribe so Frisk can be left alone. Seva (Kirill Frolov) is the uncharacteristically wholesome drummer, who studies at university, brings his own lunch to band practice, and never misses a phone call from his mother, despite his band-mates’ sneers. As a band, One And A Half Cats is really a personified version of Freud’s psychic apparatus, with the id (Frisk), ego (Gosha), and the superego (Seva) in constant battle and negotiation for the duration of the film.

rockIn an interview with the online journal ProfiCinema, Shakhnazarov said that Rock “is a movie about what I would like to have happen, but something that will never come to be.” (Ivanova 2017). A similar sentiment is likely to be felt by Russian rock and cinema fans alike after watching the film. Shakhnazarov’s chosen genre of the rock film provides a fertile ground for experimentation within a post-Soviet context. Despite a rich legacy of fellow VGIK graduates making significant splashes in the history of Soviet cinema with the rock film genre—Sergei Solov’ev with Assa (1987), Rashid Nugmanov with his short Ya-kh-kha and the feature The Needle (Igla, 1988), Aleksei Uchitel’ with his rockumentary Rock (Rok, 1988)—Shakhnazarov seems to ignore his predecessors and makes only cursory references to rock music’s legacy in Soviet and Russian cinema. One such instance is One And A Half Cats’ performance at “Il’ich.” The scene is reminiscent of Solov’ev’s cult classic Assa, which also begins in a Soviet-style restaurant with an avant-garde performance by Sergei “Afrika” Bugaev of Iurii Chernavskii’s “Zdravstvui Mal’chik Bananan” (“Hello, Bananan boy!”). In his film, Solov’ev deliberately uses rock music to highlight the increasing cultural obsolescence of the Soviet system while foreshadowing its inevitable demise. Shakhnazarov mimics this dynamic, swapping Sovietism for Russian provincial conservatism as he pans the camera to the stunned faces of restaurant patrons after One And A Half Cats performs its experimental art-rock piece “The Day of the Fool” (“Den’ dury”), recorded by the Moscow-based band The Twelve (Dvenadtsat’). Prior to the performance, the restaurant soundscape is dominated by the mainstream classic of post-Soviet mass-produced pop, “What a woman” (“Akh, kakaia zhenshchina”) performed by Sergei Kuznetsov and the band Freestyle. One And A Half Cats subverts the romantic sentiment with The Twelve’s song, which contains the refrain, “wittingly or unwittingly, you are a [female] fool” (“vol’no, nevol’no, dura ty”), channeling Bob Dylan’s biting “Idiot Wind” (“you’re an idiot, babe / it’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe”), highlighting (most likely unwittingly) the problem of Russia’s persistently male-dominated rock music landscape. In signaling to the viewer that this provincial performance venue does not match the band’s experimental style, Shakhnazarov sets up the momentum for his road movie, which quickly abandons the theme of rock music in favor of a wholly ludicrous and vexingly predictable series of calamities that the band fumbles through on its pilgrimage towards fame and fortune.

rockThe journey begins when a producer from the capital misses his train and is forced to spend the evening in the provincial town where he hears the friends play and invites them to audition for Moscow’s Radio Rock program “Make Way for the Young” (“Dai Dorogu Molodym”). In the meantime, however, the young must first make their own way to Moscow. In their first attempt at hitchhiking, Gosha, Frisk, and Seva encounter a long-distance trucker carrying fish, a migrant worker who is learning Russian by listening to books on tape. Shakhnazarov doesn’t mince literary metaphors when the audio book in question just happens to be Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, a classic nineteenth-century meditation on fate, spirituality, and the human condition. The already heavy-handed foreshadowing device amplifies the sense of mystical predestination by Native American textiles and dream catchers somewhat incongruously adorning the inside of the truck. Needless to say, the first calamity of many occurs within minutes: the trucker gets implausibly trapped under a pile of frozen fish, and the bandmates decide to flee the scene. Hyper-logical Gosha reasons that the accident was going to occur anyway, and despite Seva serving as the band’s largely ignored moral compass in suggesting they call for help, Gosha retorts that they all would surely wind up in prison if they call an ambulance, as the police would certainly suspect them of foul play. Here Shakhnazarov makes a half-hearted nod to Russia’s problem with corruption in law enforcement and its increasing profiling of politically active young people, but is much more concerned with the theme of predetermined cause and effect. The band’s decision to leave the trucker for dead sets off a series of karmic calamities. As the trio runs off into the cornfields, a policeman spots them as a radio call is received by the patrol car about a runaway convict from a local prison.

rockKarmic calamity number two occurs at a provincial bus depot. Paranoid that the police are trailing them, sober-minded Gosha tells the perpetually stoned Frisk to get rid of his drugs. Reluctant to waste his perfectly good marijuana, Frisk proceeds to smoke it all in a dilapidated toilet stall of the bus depot’s men’s room. While there, he discovers a plastic bag full of thick rolls of five-thousand-ruble bills. Being the id of the band, Frisk naturally pockets the money in yet another act of moral transgression. Just as Frisk is about to flee the men’s room, he is intercepted by The Hungarian (Vengr), a Mafioso criminal in search of his cash (played by established crime actor Vitalii Kishchenko). The crook quickly locates Frisk in his cubicle, and the bassist barely escapes death when Gosha serendipitously rushes in to fetch his friend, scaring off The Hungarian in the process.

One of the film’s strengths is its cinematography. Evgenii Musin’s camerawork effectively captures the natural beauty of the Russian countryside with meticulously composed horizon shots that pepper the band’s travels. Shakhnazarov admits to have borrowed much of the film’s visual style from The Twelve’s music video for “Day of the Fool,” which features three young men in traditional Russian felt boots running through meadows and cornfields, and hiding in trees to escape a lace-clad enchantress that follows their every move. Shakhnazarov employs the melodic arc of “Day of the Fool” as the film’s sole instrumental leitmotif throughout the picaresque visual narrative, invoking a mystical folkloric tonality.

rockMuch of the film also inhabits the Bakhtinian chronotope of train travel interspersed with pseudo-folkloric meanderings through the forest. In an attempt to escape the mobster, the bandmates manage to get lost in the woods. This particular detail is unconvincing, since the young men supposedly live in the rural provinces and theoretically should have some sense of direction. A product of the Moscow intelligentsia, Shakhnazarov clearly models his heroes on his own personal experience, and One And A Half Cats are presented as clueless urban hipsters, unable to navigate Russia’s natural landscape. While walking along some wooded train tracks, they meet an old man, slightly resembling Leshyi, a woodland creature from Russian folklore, who gifts the boys a handcar. This results in one of the most comical scenes in the film with the trio screaming AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” as they zip along the train tracks only to be ambushed by The Hungarian. As the Mafioso is about to shoot them, a train arrives and the band is once again saved from an untimely demise.

rockIn the open cargo wagon of this serendipitous locomotive, the rockers meet a man who introduces himself as Konstantin, “a professional tourist” (Evgenii Stychkin). The audience is right to suspect him to be the escaped convict referenced during the frozen fish incident. The Moscow-bound train trope is a staple of Russian literature, having been immortalized by the likes of Radishchev, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Venedikt Erofeev among others, and is often used to bring together people of different walks of life to diversify Russia’s cultural discourse. A diligent student of Russian literature, Shakhnazarov capitalizes on this device to craft his own philosophical interlude. When Gosha asks Konstantin where he is headed, the convict replies: “just somewhere. I’m just on my way. It’s enough for me”—and proceeds to pontificate on the meaning of movement as the ultimate manifestation of freedom. He explains the physics of sound travel and invites his fellow travelers to join him in screaming from the moving train. “[It’s] moving 60 kilometers per hour and my shout is already 200 meters behind us…and I am not there…I can do just about anything.” In his usual impetuous manner, Frisk screams first and the rest soon follow. The gesture creates instant camaraderie among the men, and Kostia relaxes enough to tell the band about the time he set a Swedish toilet shop on fire in St Petersburg, foreshadowing a series of infernos for the band’s journey with a distinct Chekhovian flair.

The train buddies finally part ways to escape a police canine unit that has surrounded the train during the night, obviously deployed for Konstantin, while the bandmates assume it is searching for them. After this close call, Seva opts to abandon the trip to find his way home, much to the chagrin of Gosha and Frisk. The two young men continue their journey through the woods, and in the best traditions of a picaresque Russian folktale, encounter a pagan cult ritual in their attempt to ask for directions. The cult leader, a disabled old man in a wheelchair, decides to make an example of them in front of his much younger followers and proceeds to burn all of the band’s possessions (including their instruments and Frisk’s cash from the toilet cubicle) as a way to cleanse them of earthly ills. Shakhnazarov’s unrelenting theme of karmic connections results in a large-scale fire on the commune property as a stray five-thousand-ruble bill makes its way from the ceremonial flame pit onto a wooden porch of a nearby house. The flames, predicted by convict Kostia, put an abrupt end to the pagan ceremony and the bandmates are once again able to escape in the nick of time, albeit without their possessions, comically clad in linen robes. Sadly for Frisk and Gosha, their good fortune is short-lived. As they make it out of the clutches of the religious zealots, they once again have to face The Hungarian, whose efforts in trailing the band had not waned one bit. “But this can’t happen!” an incredulous Frisk exclaims when he sees the criminal in a cringe-worthy sentiment that has undoubtedly been on steady loop in the audience’s minds for at least thirty minutes.

rockAfter forcing them into the trunk of his car and driving to an unspecified wooded location, Kishchenko’s almost painfully type-cast Russian provincial Mafioso orders the bandmates to dig their own graves after he learns the sad fate of his cash. In a valiant effort to take the blame for stealing the money and save Gosha, Frisk gets shot in the leg. Just as Gosha prepares to suffer an even crueler fate, the two hostages are miraculously saved by their own prodigal drummer Seva, who somehow manages to run over the mobster with the crook’s own truck. After abandoning The Hungarian’s stolen car, a newly reunited and determined band is finally able to hitch a ride all the way to Moscow—only to find that Radio Rock has burned down after a lightning storm. In a wholly predictable twist of fate, their final driver turns out to be the same migrant trucker whom they left for dead under a pile of fish at the beginning of the film. With his head heavily bandaged, the man doesn’t seem to recognize the boys, but instead seems offended when Gosha compliments his accent-less Russian, which Shakhnazarov implies was the pleasant side-effect of the migrant’s head injury. This is a particularly uncomfortable scene in light of Russia’s persistent problems with discrimination, profiling, and xenophobia directed at working migrants in the country’s urban centers.

The film concludes with the dejected bandmates picking up the scorched, yet miraculously intact instruments at the burned-out radio station and performing The Twelve’s ironically titled second single “I believe” (“Veruiu”), which sounds more like a song of resignation than a generational anthem of Solov’ev’s time. Having replaced their instruments with the slightly crispy variety they acquired at the now defunct Radio Rock, the three friends head home the very same way they got to Moscow in the first place: in a cargo wagon of a long-distance train. Yet the adventures of the band are far from over. The very last sequence of the film shows the badly bruised and bloodied Hungarian walking along the side of a highway.

rock With three assassination attempts, one gun injury, three fires, three brushes with the law, and an ultimately futile end to the band’s journey, Rock can easily be read as a commentary on the largely fruitless quest of the first post-Soviet generation for self-actualization in the twenty-first century. Shakhnazarov’s narrative relies on sequential connections between seemingly unrelated split-second decisions made on a whim, painting Russia’s millennials as rudderless and impulsive. The urban-rural divide also seems to be almost as palpable in the film, as it was during Radishchev’s 1790 journey from St Petersburg to Moscow. The provinces are presented as backwards, stuck in a pseudo-Soviet cultural stagnation, while the capital is as indifferent to newcomers as ever. The police force is presented as largely inept—taking The Hungarian at his word that he is on his way to his granddaughter’s birthday in the middle of the night, when he points to an oversized stuffed duck that’s hiding his gun from view. Family connections are almost entirely absent from the narrative. Seva’s mother is a clichéd earworm of female hysteria, while Gosha and Frisk’s families are not mentioned once. Even the redemptive spirit of Russian rock makes only a cursory appearance in the film. The musicians’ repeated incantation, “Glory to Ozzy Osbourne!” to signal an exciting turn of events during their journey, casts their own nation’s rock heroes as largely irrelevant. Meanwhile, Russia itself is presented as a volatile and dangerous land for the young generation, whose dreams could quite literally go up in flames.

Rita Safariants
St. Olaf College

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Works Cited

Ivanova, Aleksandra. 2017. “Rok – kino o tom, chego by mne khotelos’, no chto nikogda ne sbudetsia.” Interview with director Ivan Shakhnazarov. ProfiCinema 19 May.

Johnson, Vida. 2017. “Kinotavr 58: Genre, Variety, Relevance.” KinoKultura 57.

Rock, Russia, 2017
Color, 87 minutes.
Director: Ivan Shakhnazarov
Scriptwriters: Ivan Shakhnazarov, Ivan Zavaruev
Cinematographer: Evgenii Musin
Production Design: Nina Vasenina
Music: Iurii Poteenko
Sound: Anna Zobova
Cast: Dmitrii Chebotarev, Kirill Frolov, Ivan Ivashkin, Vitalii Kishchenko, Nikita Tarasov, Evgenii Stychkin, Valerii Zhukov, Georgii Pitskhelauri, Evgenii Mundum, Polina Severnaia, Elena Safronova
Producers: Vladimir Malyshev, Fedor Popov
Production: Mosfilm

Ivan Shakhnazarov: Rock (Rok, 2017)

reviewed by Rita Safariants© 2018

Updated: 2018