Issue 66 (2019)

Anna Matison: Pushkin Hills (Zapovednik, 2018)

reviewed by Anna Nieman © 2019

Solo on a Shovel

Pushkin Hills, billed as a “lyrical musical comedy,” is loosely based on Sergei Dovlatov’s short novel by the same name. Boasting a widescreen format and im/op/pressively long (110 minutes) running time, Pushkin Hills is, at its heart, a scaled-up Instagram fantasy. Directed by Anna Matison, it stars her husband, Sergei Bezrukov. Produced by Bezrukov’s production company, Pushkin Hills is their third collaboration, following Milky Way (Mlechnyi put’, 2015) and After You’re Gone (Posle tebia, 2016).

The film lists Dovlatov as one of the screenwriters, but takes several liberties with the source material. Events depicted in the book are excised from the late 1970s, the times of Stagnation, and inserted into the present day with the daftness of the Muscovite beautification efforts. The script reorders and edits the text, revealing a significant misunderstanding of Dovlatov’s brand of eccentric storytelling, which can turn from bawdy to poignant within the space of a sentence. To be fair, before Matison and Bezrukov, Dovlatov and his prose eluded filmmakers far more nuanced and skilled. Both Sergei Govorukhin’s adaptation of Compromise as The End of a Beautiful Epoch (Konets prekrasnoi epokhi, 2015) and Aleksei A. German’s biopic Dovlatov (2017) struggled to capture the conflict between the writer and his alter ego and the absurdity-rich artifice of the post-Thaw Soviet society. Instead, both filmmakers took a nostalgia-filtered approach to the subject. Comedy of the Strict Regime (Komediia strogogo rezhima, 1992, dir. Mikhail Grigor’ev and Vladimir Studennikov), a freewheeling interpretation of The Zone (1982), gets much closer to Dovlatov’s tone and the skaz-like cadences of his work.

Bezrukov is a well-connected, politically safe, and establishment-friendly entertainer. His desire to tackle Dovlatov could be explained on the one hand by the same trendy Soviet-era nostalgia that marks both Govorukhin and German Jr.’s films. On the other hand, Bezrukov may have been enticed by the accessibility and broad popularity of the writer’s persona as an accepted representative of the Soviet cultural “resistance.” It's no wonder that the book's frustrated and unsuccessful writer, Boris, transforms, in the film, into a declaratively “rock-n-roll” musician Kostia posed to adapt Dovlatov’s version of “turn on, tune in, drop out” for 2018 Russia. By assuming the role of an outsider, in its most conventional interpretation, Bezrukov treads familiar territory.

Bezrukov achieved stardom as the charismatic anti-hero Sasha Beliy in the popular TV series The Brigade (Brigada, 2002). Later, the ever-popular actor made his mark by becoming a biopic go-to. Bezrukov, who in the 90s voiced the exaggerated characters of Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Zhirinovskii on the political satire show Puppets (Kukly, 1995–2000), found himself enthusiastically donning a span of characters as diverse as Boris Godunov and Sergei Esenin, Yeshua and Aleksandr Pushkin. His CGI—and prosthetic makeup—enhanced incognito take on Vladimir Vysotsky in Vysotsky: Thank God I’m Alive (Vysotskii. Spasibo chto zhivoi, dir. Petr Buslov, 2011) delivered the much-needed press buzz, but buried the beloved singer-songwriter deep in an uncanny valley.

The film’s original title, Pushkin, Whiskey, and Rock-‘n-roll, exposes the bad-boy rock-‘n-roller fantasy at the core of the production. Later the title was changed to underscore the connection to Dovlatov’s original. The film’s intent to accommodate the star's musical ambitions represented in his character, Kostia, (Timur Ezugbaya, Matison’s regular script collaborator, composed the soundtrack) remained unchanged. In the opening scene, Kostia is shaken awake by Polina Gagarina, a showbiz personality and a one-time media surrogate for President Putin. Once a brilliant guitarist who recorded with Stevie Wonder, Kostia drank himself out of favor with the music business. All that's left from his glory days is a blindingly white guitar bearing an awkwardly careful signature: “Stevy Wonderr” (sic.) Our hero awakes, intoxicated and unable to play, collapses before setting his foot on stage. His career is as good as over. At home, things are not much better. The long-suffering ex-wife, Tatiana (Evgeniia Kregzhde), has accepted a promising job offer in Canada and is preparing to take the couple's young daughter (Iaroslava Diagtereva) along. Kostia is at a loss: his career is in the dumps, his family is in shambles, his hangover—raging. He grabs his guitar and his whiskey and decides to find a job, any job. Soon enough he ends up in the village of Mikhailovskoe. Having blown the opportunity to play in the local restaurant, Kostia becomes a tour guide in the museum complex dedicated to Alexander Pushkin.

Mikhailovskoe is depicted as a tourist trap taken over by a Pushkin-themed festival, Pushkinworld. A collection of colorful characters populate the grounds. In quick order, we meet the reserve’s director, Galina (played with tenderness and humor by Anna Mikhalkova), and Kostia’s hard-drinking buddies: the erudite sloth Mitrofanov (Aleksandr Semchev), Pushkin look-alike Markov (Gosha Kutsenko), and the old drummer-buddy Pototskii (Sergei Vershinin). Most of Pushkinworld’s inhabitants are based on the characters created by Dovlatov, but mixed and rearranged to suit the new narrative, such as it is. A new character joins the mix, the confused and overdressed BBC reporter with a toothy smile (Maria Bogdanovich, diligently working at sounding American).

So Kostia’s tenure in Mikhailovskoe commences. Soon he is overtaken by genius loci. After a nighttime chase that includes a carriage, a hare, three middle-aged men, and cans of condensed milk, Kostia takes respite by a lake. There among the well-lit fog, he sees a white horse, looks up at the starry night and quite literally hears the music of the spheres. Touched by the Muse, our hero rushes back to record his new song. He goes big: in the pouring rain, he climbs on top of a giant top hat that serves as a stage. Once there, risking certain electrocution, he sets up the equipment, from the drum set to the laptop, and records a fresh demo on the spot.

zapovednik Things begin to look up for the erstwhile guitar hero. Kostia jogs in the morning while smoking a cigarette. He captivates the tourists with an easy charm; he even signs up to perform at a concert. In the interest of establishing dramatic tension, Kostia’s determination is challenged twice. First, he finds out that the concert performance must use Pushkin's lyrics. Despite appearances, Kostia is not that familiar with the great poet's work. Fortunately, Mitrofanov finds a poem our hero is sure to remember: the first chapter of Eugene Onegin, the bane of every Russian ninth-grader. The second setback is more serious: in an accidental fall, Kostia lands on his precious “Stevy Wonderr”-autographed guitar and breaks it to pieces. Upset but undeterred, he channels Leskovian savvy to craft a new guitar out of a shovel. When it's time to perform, Kostia takes his guitar-shovel to Pushkin’s meter and rhyme and rearranges it entirely to the deafening sounds of pop-rock. The audience is thrilled...

It is tempting to make fun of the project’s “poignant” panning over machine fog-filled “typical Pskovian expanse” and its mediocre pop-rock soundtrack. Or to lament the hack job it performs on the source material, disrupting the precision of Dovatov language and rearranging the lines so they lose any context and meaning. Or to blame it for shrinking the larger-than-life character of Mikhail Ivanych Sorokin, the local alcoholic from whom Kostia rents a room, down to a superfluous presence of a heavily made-up Viktor Bychkov.

Pushkin Hills skirts the heavier themes of art, state, love, and destiny. Instead, it wanders deep into the territory of its hero’s ego. The film severs the story from its historical context, diminishing the significance of the central conflict between the hero and his social environment. Kostia lives in a society that is generally friendly to him. His talent is recognized both by a Western reporter and by colleagues from the allied Belarus. He is a patriot who loves his country in the same way he loves Pushkin. He rejects the idea of moving to Canada, citing his love of “the birches.” He claims knowledge of the poet’s works, but, when it comes down to it, can’t recall a single poem.

Kostia’s creative and personal problems fail to scale up to the level of the existential crisis facing Boris in the book. Dovlatov turns a critical eye inward and a curious one outward, weaving a narrative fabric rich with unexpected yet precise phrasing and unforgettable characters. The narrative of the book is mercurial and free-flowing. It presents a stark contrast to the stasis of the Soviet society of the late 1970s, exposing its artifice and absurdity. The film presents the authenticity of its hero as a rebuttal to the spurious nature of Pushkinworld, but it is the park and its employees who seem more authentic and “real” than Kostia. The candy-colored preserve does not pretend to be anything other than what it is: a content-generating selfie event. “Hashtag Pushkinworld,” whispers pushy Galina to the picture-taking guests. #Pushkinworld does not claim authenticity. It is, just like its boss, joyfully and openly a campy pastiche of the poet’s cult. Kostia, with his propensity to throw the “rock on” sign every time a picture is taken, is more at home here than he might want to admit. The effect that Bezrukov has on Pushkin Hills is not unlike the one he had on Vysotsky. As the camera pulls in for a close-up of Kostia’s suspiciously smooth visage and unnaturally blue eyes, whatever was still alive and breathing is snuffed out of the frame.

zapovednikThe expanse of Kostia’s ego is reflected in cinematography: a majority of the film’s scenes are composed with Kostia as the center, the edges of the frame lost in a blurred vignette. In the moments of supposed introspection, usually tied to the relationship with his estranged wife, the hero is cloned into several versions of a past self. As the current Kostia remembers the past, the “past Kostia” too, manifests a flashback self. Matison, who also edited the film, uses split-screen to place all Kostias side by side within the wide frame of the screen. The environment of each flashback is so decorative and staged that the scenes do not look like memories, but like re-enactments. In one of the later episodes four different pairings of Kostia and Tatiana, each representing different periods in their relationship, are sensually embracing on a dance floor, making an already awkward scene even more absurd.

The film begins as Kostia opens his eyes to face the angry Gagarina hovering above. It is clear that the film, like the novel, tells the story from the point of view of its hero. But unlike Boris of the book, Kostia lacks self-awareness. At times it is difficult to discern which part of Kostia’s story is “real”, and which is a dream, a trip, or a memory. The critic Egor Belikov (2018), not without irony calls this “a magical realism, though not so magical and not so realistic.” Does Kostia really record his first original song in five years in the pouring rain? Is his Putinesque physique achieved by smoking while running? These scenes and many others intended to demonstrate our hero's talent and sex appeal are so overwrought and contrived that they can easily pass for a dream sequence. Dovlatov’s antihero was grappling with whether or not his talent is worth the family and the life he sacrifices for his writing (“With your vices, you should’ve been a Hemingway,” says Boris’ wife). Dovlatov’s Boris imagines his messy life as a minefield with him standing in its center. He begins his attempt at redemption with a stated purpose: “it was time to divide this field into lots and get down to business. To break the chain of dramatic events, to analyze the feeling of failure, to examine each aspect in isolation.” (Dovlatov 1983, 15) Kostia is free of such doubts. In the film, the “minefield” metaphor is represented literally by an actual field, segmented by an animation of crisscrossing of dirt roads and “mines” drawn on. The squares are titled “Wife,” “Debt,” “Creative Crisis,” “Hangover,” and … “Not getting published,” whatever that could mean to a musician. “It was time to divide this field into lots and get down to business…” soulfully whispers Kostia as the rock chords swell and his bus quickly rides by.

zapovednikOne of the characters who suffer the most at the hands of the Matison-Bezrukov crew is Tatiana. The central driver of Dovlatov’s narrative is Boris’ attachment to his wife, which is motivated in equal measure by love and guilt. In the book, Boris describes Tatiana as “illogical” and “mysterious,” an unknowable woman. Yet she has a strong and independent voice, and as Boris frets about losing her, he begins to attempt to connect with and understand his wife. In the film, Tatiana mostly gazes upon her husband with varying degrees of adoration, worry, or mild, loving contempt. In Kostia’s visions of happier times, Tatiana is still, silent, looking directly ahead or up at him. For those happy times to continue, Tatiana has to maintain her adoring passivity. Instead, she is Skyping in English and plans to make a career move to Canada. Of course, the film reassures the viewer that at her core, Tatiana is a good wife and mother. She stops the Skype call and quickly returns to making breakfast. Kostia’s love of his wife and daughter is less convincing. Every conversation he has with Tatiana is about his own ambitions. Every call he makes to his daughter is about her following in his footsteps.

Eventually, the film rambles toward the inevitable airport farewell. Suddenly deus ex machina in the shape of another pop-star, Leonid Agutin, appears to deliver a happy ending for Kostia. Instead of the desperate hero struggling to fall asleep “in an empty and stuffy room…,” the credits for Pushkin Hills roll next to the footage of a rock concert with the audience cheering and our hero taking the stage. The footage is documentary, shot at an actual event, where Sergei Bezrukov and his band Krestnyi Papa (Godfather) newly formed for the occasion, performed the songs from the film. The amalgamation of Kostia and Sergei is now complete, rendering the rest of Pushkin Hills’ narrative redundant and irrelevant. With an ego the size of Bezrukov’s, who is to say where it ends and the alter ego begins.

Anna Nieman
New Haven, CT

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Works Cited

Dovlatov, Sergei. 1983. Pushkin Hills. Translation: Katherine Dovlatov. 2013. Alma Classics.

Belikov, Egor. 2018. "<Zapovednik>: Ne vlezai - spoet." Iskusstvo kino. 7 December.

Pushkin Hills, Russia, 2018
Color, 110 minutes
Director: Anna Matison
Script: Sergei Dovlatov, Anna Matison, Timur Ezugbaya
DoP: Sergei Trofimov
Production Design: Nazik Kasparova, Yana Pavlidis
Editor: Anna Matison
Music: Timur Ezugbaya
Cast: Sergei Bezrukov, Maria Bogdanovich, Iaroslava Diagtereva, Evgeniia Kregzhde, Gosha Kutsenko, Anna Mikhalkova, Aleksandr Semchev
Producers: Sergei Bezrukov, Maria Karneeva, Natalia Lavrova
Production: Sergei Bezrukov Film Company, WDSSPR

Anna Matison: Pushkin Hills (Zapovednik, 2018)

reviewed by Anna Nieman © 2019

Updated: 2019