Issue 65 (2019)

Mikhail Idov: The Humorist (Iumorist, 2018)

reviewed by Tatiana Efremova © 2019

humoristFollowing the plight of a Soviet comedian before perestroika, Mikhail Idov’s The Humorist concludes with an apt flash-forward scene from 2018. After we have left the protagonist in 1984 crushed and nearly suicidal, in the closing shots we see him back on stage, with the neon sign “Take Off 2018” in the background. Sporting a monochromatic look in a cream-colored suit, the character’s older self looks respectable in his prescription aviator glasses. A token of 1970’s-80’s fashion, the aviators appear in The Humorist earlier on: we see similar frames in Idov’s world of the Soviet 80s at least twice. Yet unlike the vintage items in earlier episodes, the glasses in the final scene present a contemporary take on the original design, reflecting recent eyewear trends. This choice gives a taste of the film’s central idea (showcasing continuity between Stagnation and the present moment) and Idov’s method (an immaculate, almost manic attention to detail).

Although The Humorist is, in fact, Idov’s directorial debut, he has been known as a screenwriter for Kirill Serebrennikov’s Summer (Leto, 2018) and Aleksei Popogrebskii’s TV drama The Optimists (Optimisty, 2017). Both productions focus closely on the trials of gifted individuals struggling with the Soviet bureaucratic system, a conflict that Idov revisits in The Humorist. Another signature element of his approach is a taste for a cinematic game of references, which one can see in full force in a music video Idov produced for the millennial indie-star Monetochka: made with the passion of a cinema buff, the video reenacts the most memorable sequences of Aleksei Balabanov’s Brother (Brat, 1997). A similar touch is prominent in Idov’s first motion picture. Referencing Ridley Scott and Armando Iannucci in one and the same sequence, The Humorist is a cinematically clever movie that tries to get everything right—from the dire consequences of censorship to the polka-dot cups on the table, to the timely final song by the popular Russian rapper Face.

humoristThe Humorist is focused on a fictional Soviet comic, Boris Arkad’ev, convincingly played by Aleksei Agranovich. While Arkad’ev has no direct prototype in the Soviet satirical arena, the sources of the image are easily located: his name is a reference to Arkadii Arkanov, the monkey from his monologue vaguely calls to mind Gennadii Khazanov’s parrot, his signature messenger bag (as well as a plot twist with Soviet cosmonauts) alludes to the public persona of Mikhail Zhvanetskii. Performing in 1984 at the famous concert hall in Jurmala, Latvia, the traditional venue for Soviet and post-Soviet comedy festivals and shows, Arkad’ev is a fictional peer of the real Soviet comedians Khazanov, Zhvanetskii, and Vinokur. The movie shows about a week in the character’s life as we follow him on tour in Jurmala, back in Moscow performing at a local palace of culture, on a transformative secret mission to the Soviet spaceport Baikonur and entertaining military officials at a private bathhouse against his will.

humoristParadoxically, Idov’s humorist is not supposed to be funny. Arkad’ev has his moments of wit but his humor quickly becomes sardonic whenever his ego is under threat. He can be a mean friend, a pain of a husband, and a randomly ballistic father, and yet we cannot help relating to him. The strong acting of Aleksei Agranovich reveals sincerity and unconditional appeal in the otherwise disagreeable character. One can probably see it best in the episode when Arkad’ev is taken to Baikonur to fulfill what might be the last request of a Soviet cosmonaut in outer space. In this ten-minute sequence, the humorist talks to the cosmonaut via a loudspeaker in a minimalist setting of an empty room. Arkad’ev fails to help the man trapped in an air-free space to find any sense in life; he himself feels trapped in the airless realm of censorship and surveillance that deprives him of meaning. With nothing else in the focus, this existential problem is played out through close-ups of the actor’s face.

humoristWhile Agranovich is brilliant in the leading part, the supporting cast choices, too, seem perfectly coherent with the expectations of the Russian audience. Thus, the role of Arkad’ev’s wife El’vira is played by the daughter of the Soviet comedian Gennadii Khazanov, Alisa Khazanova. Iurii Kolokol’nikov, known as the only Russian to star in the legendary HBO show Game of Thrones (as Styr), plays the part of a Soviet actor who has recently returned from a trip to California. These fitting parallels would have been even more interesting had there been a little more for the actors to play. Unfortunately, The Humorist hardly allows for the supporting characters to go beyond the recognizable stereotypes: a caring and respectful wife, a shameless social climber, a rebellious teenage son, a young, sexually unfettered art student create a sketchy background for the more subtly rendered Arkad’ev.

humoristOne of the strongest points of the film is the director’s work with sound. Whether it is a minimalist instrumental piece or a new orchestration of a famous song by the Soviet composer Aleksei Rybnikov, the original soundtrack by David Mason seamlessly underscores the visual imagery. Yet besides non-diegetic music having mostly a complementary function, the The Humorist uses sound to strengthen the dramatic and conceptual appeal. The film raises or reduces the volume depending on the goal of the sequence.

After Arkad’ev, presumably arrested by the KGB, leaves with the guard, the camera lingers in the hallway on his wife El’vira. As we see her struggling to hold back the tears we suddenly hear with perfect clarity the children playing in the other room. The elder son tries to distract his younger sister suggesting they should play Chapaev, a popular checkers game named after the Soviet military hero. The girl’s audible excitement about the figure of Chapaev accentuates her mother’s visible despair and brings forward the memories of the 1930s, the decade both of Chapaev’s mythologization and the mass arrests of the Great Terror. The amplified volume in this sequence allows for a contrast that produces new meaning, not unlike the contrapunctual use of sound Eisenstein dreamt about in 1928 (Eisenstein).

humoristIdov’s work with sound becomes even more interesting when the film signals the presence of censorship by not allowing the viewer to hear things properly. Thus, delivering his monologue on stage Arkad’ev mentions the patronymic of his monkey character when the camera captures a woman in the audience whispering something into her friend’s ear. The noise of the concert hall absorbs the secret message, making the furtive shot of the two women feel like a camera slip. We understand the significance of the whisper later on as we learn that Arkad’ev had to change the monkey’s patronymic to the random Ivanovich from the original Il’ich, alluding to Brezhnev, as the latter did not pass the censor. Withholding sound in this sequence draws our attention to things that cannot be said out loud and require lip-reading.

Another powerful example occurs when we hear a news report about the progress of the space mission Topaz-11. Taken to Baikonur to entertain a cosmonaut after what might have been a fatal accident, Arkad’ev continuously asks for updates on the crew’s fate. In fact, we get one towards the end of the movie: the television calls the mission triumphant and the ship is said to have landed on the territory of politiсally friendly Tanzania. The plausibility of the story is not entirely absolute and indeed, the film wants us to remain doubtful: when the newsreader is about to assure us of the wellbeing of the crew, Arkad’ev’s daughter asks her mother to pass the bread, blocking the background sound of the TV-set for the viewer. The muted volume in this sequence prevents us from trusting what might be a cover-up; instead, we are forced to never know for certain the details about the crew. The way The Humorist encourages us to hear what is unsaid is similar to reading between the lines, an essential skill that the readers of Iurii Trifonov and Vladimir Makanin adopted in the 1970s.

humoristConsidering this level of nuance, it seems odd that The Humorist does not quite do justice to the language of Soviet humor. In his introduction to the journal cluster “Soviet Jocularity,” Serguei Oushakine notes that besides being clearly repressive, the system of censorship could be seen as generative of a particular “lexicon of expressive means” that became the defining original aesthetic quality of the genre in the Soviet Union (Oushakine 2011: 249). Negotiating the balance between the corrective, the acceptable, and the edgy, Soviet comedians from Arkadii Raikin to Mikhail Zhvanetskii managed to stay funny in a way that is hardly accessible in The Humorist.

Arkad’ev is far from being hilarious not only because his jokes are fittingly dated but also because he laughs at people far more than he laughs with them. He quickly gets offended when his actor friend brings up the American comedy of insult in a dinner conversation. An aspiring heir to the tradition of Nikolai Gogol, Anton Chekhov, and Arkadii Averchenko, Arkad’ev does not want to be associated with something so kitschy. Provoked, he pungently insults everyone at the table, but this improv is hardly funny. For obvious reasons, Arkad’ev is no Eddie Murphy (whose unlicensed recordings he watches) but he does not quite speak the subtle language of quality Soviet comedy either.

humorist In “Laughter under Socialism: Exposing the Ocular in Soviet Jocularity” Oushakine talks about the importance of the visual aspect of the comic performance in the situation when text was subjected to censorship. According to Oushakine, “while the text often provided a streamlined narrative backbone to the comical performance, it was nonverbalized imagery that effectively undermined the ideological predictability of narrative canons, producing a situation of laughable incongruence” (Oushakine 2011: 253). In fact, one of the funnier moments in The Humorist - by accident or intuition featured in the movie trailer - is based on such incongruence. After his Jurmala concert Arkad’ev has an amusing exchange with one of his fans, a cordial middle-aged Soviet woman (Iuliia Aug). The woman wants Arkad’ev to sign his unsuccessful novel for her daughter when he ironically remarks that he now knows who bought that lonely copy. Trying to boost his ego, the woman mentions that in him they lost a truly serious author. Unfortunately, the finality of her judgment produces the opposite effect and even though she tries to fix things, the snarky Arkad’ev is unleashed. The comedian politely asks for the woman’s and her daughter’s names and composes a sweet message that he pretends to write with a lot of elegance. A few seconds after, the woman reverently opens the book and gasps at the sight of a winged penis gracing the page. The drawing stands for an affect that indeed cannot be verbalized within the frame of the acceptable narrative canon. The incongruence between the text he said he was writing, his civil mannerisms, and the sassy visual image we see in the end points at the inter-medial quality of Soviet humor discussed by Oushakine. One keeps wishing the protagonist’s jokes throughout the film had more of that energy.

humoristThe way Idov chooses to render the atmosphere of the Soviet 1980s is through acute attention to detail. In one interview he takes pride in being on top of the calendar: in the world of the film, the things discussed on August 5th, 1984 are the breaking news of the real August 5th, 1984 (Idov 2019). This precision is even more conspicuous when it comes to material objects: the trends of early 80s fashion, details of interiors, numerous teacups, wine glasses, and bottles of soda are flawlessly and lovingly reproduced throughout the film. The goal, however, is not to document the era but rather to activate the viewer’s affective relationship with the past. The choice of the artifacts is both accurate and aesthetically determined. The camera of The Humorist loves the surfaces and textures of the Soviet vintage objects: the light, the focus, the muted retro tinting create a cozy stylistic unity that wraps the viewer like a patio blanket on a cool Jurmala night.

humoristThis approach is in line with Mark Lipovetsky’s definition of retrotopia, an aesthetic utopia about the past that has an affective appeal (Lipovetsky 2019). Borrowing the term from the Polish philosopher Zygmunt Bauman, Lipovetsky develops the idea of retrotopia looking at contemporary prestige TV-dramas set in the Soviet past: Valerii Todorovskii’s The Thaw (Ottepel’, 2013), Aleksei Popogrebskii’s The Optimists (Optimisty, 2017), and Egor Baranov’s Black Market (Fartsa, 2015), among others. Like The Humorist, these cultural productions are critical of the flaws of the Soviet system while producing an affective origin myth of the contemporary society. As Lipovetsky explains, retrotopic dramas focus on the rebels of the past who beat the system only to realize they have become a part of it themselves (a trajectory we may also recognize in The Humorist). The now cynical troublemakers help trace the genealogy of the contemporary system and oftentimes legitimize it (Lipovetsky 2019). Aesthetically, retrotopias present a stylistically perfect (utopian) version of the past, seducing the viewer with the brightness of the colors and the mildness of the lampshade light. Thus, the language of the affective retro stylization has been adopted by the Russian television scene that lulls the viewer with the vision of a mythically beautiful past.

While The Humorist exhibits some qualities of a retrotopia, it does transcend this formula thanks to its more distinct critical stance. The ending of the movie clearly visualizes the connection between Stagnation and the contemporary moment but does not legitimize the present. The final scene feels more poignant than optimistic: as Arkad’ev performs the old threadbare monologue about the monkey in 2018 we feel that the legacy of censorship and surveillance has completely ruined his creative ambition. The song accompanying the end credits strengthens this cautionary appeal. Written by the rapper Face, the song presents a terse statement against censorship, lawlessness, and policing. Considering that Russia’s leading rappers (Huskie, Face, Allj) faced the notorious cancellations of concerts in the fall of 2018, the parallel between the plight of Arkad’ev and the struggles of the younger generation is conceptually effective. Stylistically, however, the song feels foreign. It might be the only thing that feels foreign in the otherwise perfectly balanced world of The Humorist.

Idov has produced a well-made and timely film that illuminates the analogy between the Stagnation era and the present moment by raising the issue of censorship and self-censorship. Unsurprisingly, this agenda has resonated with many Russian voices, from the film critic Anton Dolin to the YouTube journalist Iurii Dud’ to the rapper Face and the new generation of Russian stand-up comics. Yet when we think about Stagnation lingering in our present (and in our imaginary) the question that inevitably comes to mind is how this phantasm operates beyond the structure of direct state control. Why does the audience in 2018 laugh at the protagonist’s old unfunny monologue from 1984? How much do we benefit from treasuring an affective, stylistically perfect version of the past? To these questions The Humorist does not offer any easy answers: no matter how strong and trendy one’s aviator glasses are, one thing you cannot see clearly in them is the frame itself.

Tatiana Efremova
New York University

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Works Cited

Eisenstein, Sergei. Pudovkin, Vsevolod. Aleksandrov, Grigorii. 1928. “Statement on Sound.”

Idov, Michael. 2019. Interview: “I “Optimisti” i “Iumorist” - bezappel’iatsionno antisovetskie proizvedeniia.” 27 February.

Lipovetsky, Mark. 2019. “Bolshe, chem nostal’gia: pozdnii sotsialism v serialakh 2010kh godov.” Talk at XV Malye Bannye Chteniia. Saint Petersburg, 24-25 May.

Oushakine, Serguei. 2011. “Laughter under Socialism: Exposing the Ocular in Soviet Jocularity.” Slavic Review 70.2: 247-255

The Humorist, Russia, Latvia, Czech Republic, 2018
Color, 100 minutes
Director: Mikhail Idov
Script: Mikhail Idov, Lili Idov
Cinematography: Aleksandr Surkala
Producer: Artem Vasil’ev, Andrei Savel’ev, Aija Berzina, Alise Gel’tse, Artemio Benki, Sergei Kornikhin, Gleb Rudenko, Viktoria Shamlikashvili
Production Company: Metrafilms
Music: Dave Mason
Cast: Aleksei Agranovich, Alisa Khazanova, Iurii Kolokol’nikov, Polina Aug, Semen Shteinberg, Iuliia Aug

Mikhail Idov: The Humorist (Iumorist, 2018)

reviewed by Tatiana Efremova © 2019

Updated: 2019