Russian cinema today is, like Russia itself chaotic, unpredictable and full of contrasts. No one can tell if the country will become an equal among equals on the world's professional stages by the beginning of the 21st century, casting off its poor role as a supplicant to Western artistic leaders.
Anyone who knows even a little history is aware that Russia was virtually outside European civilization for 75 years of XX century. The Communist regime firmly controlled all spheres of life for a sixth of the planet's citizens. In spite of totalitarian pressure, however, Russian culture managed to survive. The best books of Mikhail Bulgakov and Anna Ahmatova, the symphonies of Dmitry Shostakovich and Alexander Prokofiev, the films of Andrei Tarkovsky and Vassily Shukshin were created in the years of the most rigid censorship.
Despite bans, prisons and gulags, the artists leaned to speak to their readers and spectators in some sort of «language of initiates». Music, without clearly defined plot, made it much easier to do this. Writers, directors and actors were forced to talk about many things in hints and symbols, taking advantage of legends, fairy tales and parables.
Russian authorities of the 60-s through the 80-s officially supported the publication and distribution of classical literature - the works of Lev Tolstoy, Alexander Pushkin, Nikolai Gogol, Ivan Turgenev, Anton Chekhov, etc. The best film directors knew this, and were aware of weakened censorial control applied, at times, to screen adaptations. Consequently, the period saw The Nest of Noble Family(1968) based on Turgenev novel and Uncle Vanya(1971) based on Chekhov's play, directed by Andrei Konchalovsky.
There were also Station's Employee (1972, using Pushkin's prose) directed by Sergey Soloviev, Dead Souls (1984, from the Gogol novel) directed by Mikhail Schweitzer, and others. Nikita Mikhalkov, making films based on Chekhov (Unfinished Piece for Mechanical Piano, 1976) and Ivan Goncharov (Several Days in the Life of Oblomov, 1980), succeeded in telling more about the situation in Russia - and the national character - than the majority of his colleagues whose pictures dealt with the country's modern life. Oblomov embodies the paradoxes of mysterious Russian soul: intelligence, talent and an innate sense of beauty go poignantly hand in hand with passivity, laziness, sleepy inaction and abstract dreaming...
The Russian cinematic fairy tale also has old traditions, founded by Alexander Row (The Frosty Fire, Water and Cooper Trumpets, Morozko, etc.) and Alexander Ptushko (The Stone Flower, Sadko). Until recently, however, fantasy films had to submit to two unwritten rules: all except a few were made for a children's audience, and the action had to take place in ancient times, in a faraway kingdom. The first rule dictated an understandable style for the fairy tale, with vivid, clear pictures and vocabulary, and villains looking not very fearful but on the contrary, usually, funny and harmless. The second rule was very seldom infringed, because magicians, witches, demons and other fairy characters - according to «highly placed» thought - could be perceived as an embodiment of the authors' mysticism intruding on a modern background. In these cases, when magic and witchery were admitted into our days (as in The Snowy Fairy Tale by E.Shengelaya and A.Saharov), unintended associations and parallels appeared.
In the word, the production of films similar to The Omen by Richard Donner and The Shining by Stanley Kubrick for the Russian screen couldn't be even imagined until 80-s. Now the situation has turned 180 degrees. Russian screen are full of foreign and indigenous horror films and fearsome tales that chill the blood. Vampires, demons, witches and others evil spirits have become frequent guests on video and cinema circuits from Moscow to the very frontiers...
Remarkable Russian actors - Oleg Dal (1941-1981), Vladimir Vissotsky (1938-1980), Anatoly Solonitsin (1934-1982), Vladislaw Dvorzecki (1937-1978), Nikolai Grinko (1920-1989), Alexander Kaidanovsky (1946-1995) - very often played heroes who stood beyond the usual circle of life on the screen of the 60-s and 70-s. The Fairy Ivans, fools and intelligent outsiders of Dal. The hot-tempered, contentious, furious romantics of Vissotsky. The inspired, always doubtful or cynical, devastated heroes of Solonitsin (Andrei Tarkovsky's favorite actor)... These were in opposition to the artificial characters distilled in the retort of Socialist Realism.
Censorship was ruthless to the filmmakers. Important scenes, phrases and frames were cut out of many movies. Yet Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev (1966), despite all the alterations, extolled Russian culture and closely connected with the Orthodox faith, while Elem Klimov's The Parting (1981) remained an angry accusation of the political system of the time, aspiring to destroy this same culture and religion.
After the widespread destruction of temples and churches in the 20-s and 30-s, Russian culture became a peculiar national religion; as the only source of spirituality, it allowed people who could not stand slavery to maintain a dream of Beauty during the hardest years.
Indisputably, politics had a highly negative influence on the development of Russian culture and education, but the classical legacy of art helped people to survive. Every new truthful book or film of the masters was perceived throughout the country as a desirable breath of cool wind. I remember how the books of Alexander Solzhenitsyn were handed around, how the films of Marlen Hutsiev or Gregory Chuhrai, in the '60s, were discussed till voices became hoarse. And what events for Russian viewers in the '70s were screenings of masterpieces by Federico Fellini (Amarcord, Orchestra Rehearsal)! Another paradox of Russian life is that all people hoped for and aspired to the «light future», yet their ranks included dissenters who were Slavophiles, craving a return to the Russia of 1913, and dissenters of Western orientation who wanted a rapprochement with America, while the majority of the so-called «common people» faithfully waited for a near-Socialist paradise of well-being and, in the name of this, were ready to tolerate «temporary» hardships. Today a lot of Russian politicians try to find some «middle way» between capitalism and socialism where, to trust the premises of fashionable leaders, harmony will reign. In the political, economical currents some Russian filmmakers thoroughly lost their bearings, becoming victims of the whirlpools, submerged stones and shallows. Having got rid of censorship and having been given «carte blanche» in freedom of thought, they began to throw onto the screen what they apparently believed were commercial and brave statements, but which in fact were monotonous, non-competitive films. The freedom didn't evoke the expected abundance of masterpieces, because bitter truth alone isn't enough for the creation of a work of art. Talent is also needed, and it is everywhere in deficit.
More and more Russian cineastes, finding it harder and harder to work in the Motherland in a condition of permanent economic crisis, are gathering under Western’s roofs. Almost all Russian masters (Nikita Mikhalkov, Pavel Lungin, Ivan Dykhovichny, Valery Todorovsky, Gleb Panfilov, Andrei Konchalovsky, Alexei German and others), even if they make films in China or in Moscow, nevertheless do it with the help of U.S. or French money, on Western film stock, with the Western sound system. Western producers willingly stake these talented directors who capture prizes at prestigious festivals. For nearly a year the preeminent actor of Russian cinema - Oleg Yankovsky (Nostalgia by Andrei Tarkovsky)- appeared on stage in a Paris theater. It is rather logical: Russian filmmakers hope that West will become a gate to the world screen for them; at home indigenous movies are being forced out by American production everywhere. Only the most entertaining Russian films manage to survive the competition in such conditions, but they, as usual, copy U.S. pictures and don't hold any special interest as art. Undoubtedly, such work in the West (by Andrei Konchalovsky and Nikita Mikhalkov, for example) requires a certain attention to the producers' wishes and an orientation toward middle-of-the-road European and American viewer's tastes. Well, don't judge and you will not be judged...
The words of Russian great writer Gogol about the «Bird-troika» - Russia - therefore turned out to be really prophetic: «Russia, where are you rushing to? Give the answer. No answer».
9.9.3.Phenomenon of Russian Cinema-Hits
Modern screen art over its success to the use of folklore, myth, synthesis of the natural and supernatural, and a consistent orientation toward the most popular plot schemes. Their metaphorical appeal is not to the rational but to the emotional. through identification with the magic power of heroes and standardization of ideas, situations, characters and so on In compensation for dreams not realized in life, there are illusions - happy endings. In movies, TV shows, and music videos' rhythmic organization, viewers' feelings are influenced as much by the order of changing shots as by the content of productions.
American critic Richard Corliss notes that for the creators of many Hollywood movies plot is a thing of past, and these movies are more thrilling than satisfying. Their main impact on most of the youthful public lies in the expect special effects making spectators gasp in surprise or freeze with fright. this «dynamic cinema», according to Corliss, put higher demands on viewers, because we have to follow every frame of a shot waiting for the trick. These features of mass culture reveal themselves in some favorite movies of the Russian audience. They are clear embodiments of the above-mentioned «phenomenon of mass success» tendencies.
The action in these films moves form one short episode to another (in order not to be boring to viewers) with sensational informativeness: event take place at various exotic locations in a cruel world of pirates drug dealers, Mafia men, racketeers and prostitutes. Psychological pressure is active - throughout the stories the idea that sly enemies (inner and external) are scheming is repeated over and over. Now something mean is planned, now somebody is robbed; now positive heroes are attacked...
The main hero of these movies is an almost magical, fairy-tale character. Cute, strong and smart, he comes out of al supernatural situations safe and sound (an excellent motif for identification and compensation). Many episodes touch human instincts and emotions (such as fear). There's even continuity, as each story supposes an endless number of sequels. In spite of an absence of technical shine and the presence of numerous mistakes of taste or sense, the common components of these motives are rather professionally presented: fights, chases, shootings, pretty women, alarming music, strong feelings, a minimum of dialogue, a maximum of movement, and other attributes of action films. Other favorites of Russian public are made with similar attitudes and qualities...
Much more firmly than in cinema, these features of mass culture show themselves on Russian TV. Ideally, television should be various, unobtrusive, rich in visual information, and pluralistic without dull teaching and officiousness. Only lately has Russian TV started developing aesthetics for its entertainment packages, rejecting the different demands of the public. There are some intellectual and game shows - even some mass-culture programming - made on professional level. But the border between artistic and inartistic is often erased in a tendency toward documentary, one-day value, «open» formats that reproduce something in its process of becoming an event. This peculiarity of mass communication is an obstacle in determining the aesthetic distance. For examples, platitudinous music videos are show all the time on Russian TV; if a viewer didn't have taste preferences; this could penetrate deep enough into his mind to unconsciously determine them...
9.9.4. The Gloom of Russian Fantastic Movie-Land
One might think, after the gloomy films of Constantine Lopushansky (Russian Symphony, Letters from a Dead Man) and other supporters of the genre usually called futuristic fantasy with element of horror, that the fashion would have faded. Russian cinema and video viewers prefer the technically perfect American scare movies to our boring and indistinct mix. In contrast with the old Romantic stories about men-fish and astronauts, however, the heroes of many Russian films of '90s continue their agonizing, hard traveling across «The Zone», and if they leave the surface of the Earth, they do so only to hide in another planet's gloomy caves or dungeons. Often the action of these pictures takes place under some dictatorship. On the land and in the air the «services of liquidation» move, armed with lethal weapons. For photography dirty and deserted streets are chosen, with decayed houses, the walls of which are covered with mold as turbid water slowly drops from the ceiling. Hysterical characters with matted hair and eternal bags under eyes rush about the ruined labyrinths and sandy ridges. They may keep silent for a long time, staring into cracked mirrors or, contrariwise, burst out in endless superintellectual monologues. Here dark old oaken doors creak vilely and swampy puddles stick underfoot (a variant: the unsteady sand is creaking). The beautiful and mysterious women from time to time throw off their covers, and their naked bodies shine in the semi-darkness...
Central scenes of such films are episodes of contact with the strange and forbidden Zone where, in imitation of Andrei Tarkovsky's works (Solaris, Stalker), a lot of extraordinary things happen to the heroes. There is uncertainty at every step: malicious mutants, werewolves, dog-cannibals, maniacs, and so on.
The motives «inspiring» authors of this «Russian fantastic movie-land» are understandable. They want to create something epochal on the theme of humankind's responsibility for its actions on the planet; to condemn the principle of «the end justifies the means»; to think about the problems of ecology and nature, psychology and intellect. As a rule, however, philosophical concepts are hardly visible through the steam of cinema clichés, rented for the occasion.
The authors of such films often claim famous literary origins. But their modest «based on» postscript only affords an opportunity to make a middling movie out of any original story or novel once it is provided with meaningful pauses. These, deprived of a psychological basis, serve only to lengthen the picture.
It's hard for even talented actors to play in these films, because their heroes are submitted to the firm laws of the marionette. It's easier for less-gifted actors but that, obviously, doesn't add artistic pluses. Perhaps only cinematographers and designers feel themselves free there, hoping to surprise spectators with defined compositions, whimsical plays of light and color. Unfortunately, poor budget are quite clearly evident. The technical backwardness of Russian cinema is obvious in the productions' primitive shooting; their horrors don't frighten. Fantasy today can't be made with ancient means: the gap in effects, tricks and technology is too great between Russian «fantastic movie-land» and any of the works of Robert Zemeckis, James Cameron or John Carpenter.
One way out for Russian fiction is as old as cinema world - studying the films of Spielberg and Lucas - but the disorder of our economics does not evoke optimism...
9.9.5. From Boarding School to Nuthouse
(Domestic and Other Violence on the Mirror of Russian Screen)
Recently I found a new hobby: collecting stereotypes of Russian cinema plots. For examples, the theme: "Domestic & Non-Domestic Violence on the Mirror of Russian Screen".
1. Public schools, boarding schools, children's shelters, educational-training establishments.
Action of films in this category always alternates between bathroom and punishment room, between ruined shed and small, dark cell. Under the narrator's "My address is neither a house nor a street..." there is violence, drug addiction and cruelty - when a teacher, knowing the customs of his group, prefers not to notice fresh blood on the dresser mirror in a child's bedroom, or when the strong mock with pleasure the weak. Somebody stark naked is sitting on the toilet, somebody in the same state of dishabille is running down and up stairs...
Russian moviegoers once watched sentimental, touching stories about careful, kind tutors trying to create an illusion of homey coziness for poor orphans. That was ages ago. Now, whatever the film, it's a severe and ruthless accusation, saying we can do nothing - over the last 80 years the whole country turned into an unfriendly state institution whose inhabitants, from early childhood, are doomed to endless humiliation, indignity, discomfort and stress, poverty and constraint. In the boarding school, as in a drop of water, all the evils and vices of life are reflected, where a 15-year-old boy knifes to death a strong, drunken man. This is not only revenge for the raped girl of the same age, it is furious and irrational retaliation for a crippled childhood, for a friend who became the victim of drugs, for the false slogans of adults, for their indifference, for...
The teachers in Category N 1 are only administrative appendages of the formal mechanism of management. Hypocritically, they can suddenly cry with the power of a fire-engine siren then, in a moment, smile as if nothing had happened. By the way, this is a fact noted by authors of the pictures' source books: workers in Russian boarding schools, with the help of a system of instruction in "standard educational training", acquired the strange – for normal people - ability to drive themselves almost to hysterics (outwardly) with absolute coldness and indifference in their hearts. On screen, portraits of these tutors are well matched by characterizations of the destitute boys' and girls' parents. They don't mind letting fall a tear - over glasses of vodka - to lament a son or daughter given away to the boarding school. Audiences pity the children, abandoned by this scum to live at this scum to live at the expense of the weak Russian state, as they pity some mad father, drunk, wandering at night under the windows of a boarding school in order to see his child.
2. Sanitariums, hospitals and other medical establishments
"All the world's a nuthouse, and all its people are mad". Rephrasing Shakespeare is probably the best way to express the main idea of film in this category.
For example, all characters - wives and children, neighbors and passersby - cooped up in their communal flat wish the main hero to kill a bureaucrat who for years hasn't maintained normal housing It is for this mission the hero is brought from a mental hospital: a psycho is a psycho, he can't answer for his acts. Once freed, however, the hero finds himself still in a world of madmen: there is the former cavalryman with naked sword, the bald athlete who is glutton and drunkard, some mountaineers, some people from an underground organization singing a song about "the black raven", etc.
Having got into the office of the hateful chief at last, our hero is again part of a crazy-show, this one scripted by the sly bureaucrat. There are machine-gun firings and explosions of grenades, poisoned coffee and the staff's pretended pity for the freezing children. The film ends with the escape of the real psychos who capture the main municipal building while troops and tanks are called against them, and demagogic speeches are made. In a word, everyone wears fashionable political dressing; with their exposes and social accusations, cinema mediocrities - who were quietly making nonsense films before this time - now are trying to dash forward as leaders of the "fighters" and "truthful people". Their operative principle is: I'll roar, if nobody will hurt me.
The setting for these films from my second category are, as a rule, unpleasant interiors... dirty walls painted with cheerless colors, semi-submerged basements, filthy hospital cots and soon. Numerous conversations are staged, but their dialogue is empty and unintelligible for viewers with more or less stable nervous systems. Indisputably, the nuthouse as a model for the totalitarian state, were every display of normal mentality and human individuality is suppressed, is good material for the creation of gloomy parables, pathological visions, shocking naturalistic images and surrealistic symbols. If only these films had less of the epigone's features.
3. Prison colonies and other reformatories
A typical scheme: some sort of remake of action pictures of the '60s-'70s about war. Added will be homosexual passion and, certainly, scenes of cruelty and violence with dozens of accusatory speeches. But today's on-screen "bad guys"(fascists) and "good guys"(heroically struggling prisoners preparing a protest action or an escape) are caricatures. In short, after watching several of these films, you could easily gain the impression that all of them make up one gloomy and monotonous serial about the Russian State House. It can be located anywhere, the main point is the same. But the stream still flows, as Russian screenwriters and directors continue to gladden our hearts with cinema theses about what is wrong. All this makes me sick. Yet in spite of it... we live! I wish, though, that my collection of Russian State Institutional Films didn't keep replenishing itself.
9.9.6. America, America…
Consider these titles – I Want to go to America, We Are Going to America, The American Boy, Our American Borya, The American Grandpa, The American Daughter, The Groom from Miami…
These are the titles of a few of the many Russian films of the 1990s that have the ‘American Dream’ as their theme. Basically, these are entertainment films that are not made for festival awards or critical acclaim, but deal with the dream of many Russians to visit the U.S. one day.
In Russia now, as in the West, directors and producers must find money to produce a movie. Having announced their intention to make a movie that takes place in New York, Miami, or Hawaii, Russian filmmakers of this ‘American Series’ assume that they will more easily find a backer. For one thing, a backer is more likely to think that an American theme will bring theatrical success. Also, filmmakers themselves want to visit the world across the ocean. Besides, shooting on location in the U.S. encourages the participation of popular Russian actors, who like to have a good time for free.
The basic interests of these Moscow film crews, then, are from art and close to partying and shopping. Russian actors waste little time in America. Aside from making the movie, they get a tan, go shopping, and put on some shows for Russian immigrants living in Brighton Beach or in other parts of New York and U.S. It’s kind of funny that the plots of some of these ‘American Series’ Russian films are about the adventures of Moscow actors, artists, singers, et al., who come to the U.S. to make money by any means.
Other plots are popular as well: an ordinary Russian guy gets an inheritance; or a Russian guy gets an inheritance; or a Russian returns from America and learns that a gang has killed his best friend, and now he must seek revenge. But probably the most popular stories are about prospective grooms (less frequently, brides, grandfathers, and grandmothers) who come from the U.S. to Russia searching for a loving and faithful spouse. This is certainly understandable – it’s much cheaper to make such movies because the action takes place principally in Moscow. Comedies about American grooms (as a rule, of Russian origin) come in two basic varieties. In one version (e.g. Our American Borya), a shy young man comes to Moscow from the U.S. to visit his relatives. His hosts begin searching for a bride at once. Almost immediately, young women are besieging ‘the man of their dream’ and he tries to get rid of them. In another version (e.g. The Groom from Miami), a self-confident young man comes to Moscow to visit relatives. He begins a search for a young woman himself, and ends up finding the woman of his dreams.
Name actors are what filmmakers bank their money on. And sometimes this works. In The Groom from Miami , L.Udovichenko, with her uniquely naughty, diva-like manner, plays a sly woman who attract men with her classy appearance, then robs them of everything. There is a lot of charm and irony in her performance. On the whole, however, such comedies resemble amateur drama-club productions in which the quickly-written then acted script seems like a collection of pointless, often vulgar episodes. Sometimes not only professional actors performs in these films, but also their wives, children, and other relatives. It’s as if the filmmakers have decided that, since the relatives have traveled to America, why shouldn’t they appear in the movie, too?
Having had a lot of fun on location, filmmakers of this ‘America Series’ often like to show off their patriotism. Their characters reject the American dream in the film’s finale, and choose to stay in unlucky and troubled Russia. But by the mid-1990s, when this kind of plot became a cheap cliché, Russian directors started to change the minus sign to plus more frequently. The makers of The Groom from Miami, for example, frankly suggest to Russian audience that they leave for U.S. Forever. Not a bad suggestion, perhaps. But if they were to follow it, who would be left in Russia?