Ruptures and Continuities in Soviet/Russian Cinema
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Ruptures and Continuities in Soviet/Russian Cinema

Styles, characters and genres before and after the collapse of the USSR

Birgit Beumers, Eugenie Zvonkine, Birgit Beumers, Eugenie Zvonkine

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eBook - ePub

Ruptures and Continuities in Soviet/Russian Cinema

Styles, characters and genres before and after the collapse of the USSR

Birgit Beumers, Eugenie Zvonkine, Birgit Beumers, Eugenie Zvonkine

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About This Book

This book, based on extensive original research, examines how far the collapse of the Soviet Union represented a threshold that initiated change or whether there are continuities which gradually reshaped cinema in the new Russia. The book considers a wide range of films and film-makers and explores their attitudes to genre, character and aesthetic style. The individual chapters demonstrate that, whereas genres shifted and characters developed, stylistic choices remained largely unaffected.

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Information

Publisher
Routledge
Year
2017
ISBN
9781317194705
Edition
1
Part I
Styles
1Perestroika and Parallel Cinema
Boris Yukhananov
Parallel Cinema and Cine-Fantom
The journal Cine-Fantom emerged, as it were, within a single family: it was established in the first half of the 1980s by the Brothers Aleinikov (Gleb and Igor') as a domestic journal devoted to issues of cinema.1 At the time, the Soviet Union was still an empire, and officially independent publications were not allowed, so the Aleinikovs started to make the journal for their friends, as samizdat. It was a hand-made art journal, which did not represent an act of political dissidence, but was just an art publication devoted to cinema. The country’s external borders were closed then and people could only see bits and pieces of world cinema, here and there; and even that was possible only for genuine cinephiles, a group of which I count myself a member, and of course the Aleinikovs. We would often watch films in embassies on 16 mm: knowing the general situation, some embassies organised special screenings for people who were passionate about film. In that way we watched the French New Wave, new German cinema, the films of Jean-Luc Godard, and a lot more.
The journal Cine-Fantom circulated among friends and caused, as we say in Russian, a big splash in small circles. The subsequent issues appeared under the headship of Igor' Aleinikov, who was the soul and the organisational centre of the two brothers, an amazingly organised and at the same time very radical man – a rare combination of character traits. While absolutely open-minded and charming, he would always be dressed in suit and tie, in the style of a Soviet bureaucrat. Yet this helped the cause and soon Cine-Fantom reached the next stage: an editorial office was set up in 1985, which was populated by cinephiles, independent film-makers and those who wanted to write about cinema; all of this activity was underground. At approximately that time I joined the editorial board and began to write for the journal. Although the journal remained a samizdat venture, it no longer circulated in some ten copies, but 30 to 100 copies were type-copied; and the trademark blue cover appeared. In the second half of the 1980s Cine-Fantom was already available across the whole of Russia. On the journal’s pages the term ‘Parallel Cinema’ first appeared, taken simply from an encyclopaedia.
At that time various underground groups sprang up, among them the Petersburg Necrorealists. The Brothers, on the other hand, were closely connected with the Moscow Conceptualists, and they staged actions and performances peripheral to film art. In 1986 I obtained a video camera and, as a man from the theatre, I immediately realised that this was an entirely different and separate art form. So I established the All-World Theatre of Theatre-Video (Vsemirnyi teatr teatr-video) and made the first films on a video camera in a complex cinematic language. Simultaneously I started to work on the theory of video, because I realised right away that this was the future: it was a different art form, which needed to be set apart from cinema and theatre. I explored the archaic forms of video art, where vision and sound overlap, and I called this ‘slow video’. Several film-makers emerged at that time, making films outside of and independent from the Soviet production system. As the group had formed around the journal, Cine-Fantom naturally supported them and acted as organisational centre for a first festival, where people came together from all over Russia to show their underground and independent films. It soon became clear that this was a whole movement, not something that had been created or announced, but something that had formed by itself and just existed. It was held together by the time and people from the same generation, but not united through a single style or a specific message. Parallel Cinema was made by different artists, often incompatible with each other, and from across different spheres of art – some from the theatre, others from literature, some from visual art and some from music. They were united by their negative attitude vis-à-vis the Soviet system of film production. Ultimately, the term Parallel Cinema stands for a great number of very different people. Of course, people would begin to connect and interlace their art projects, as is typical for the 1980s; they would come together in life, form friendships, share aesthetics, cast each other in their projects. So, for example, Evgenii Iufit appeared in my films; I acted and did some voiceover in the Aleinikovs’ works; Petr Pospelov, who came from a musical background, and I also worked together: there were many different people. Then, in 1988/1989 video art emerged, and the Conceptualists brought about even more diversity. By then I was using performances and object installations in my films, even though I did not make them the subject matter of the film, but I incorporated them in my video-novel, which I recorded over four years with my company All-World Theatre of Theatre-Video in the work entitled The Mad Prince (Sumasshedshii prints, 1986–1989).
Initially, Parallel Cinema referred to the organisation, the production, the making of films. There was no ideological unity in this opposition to the established production structures, but rather a dissonance with the official discourse, which served as common ground for the ‘movement’, if we can call it that. We all wanted to leave the Soviet system of film production. Beyond that, everyone had their own interests and agendas. There was no manifesto, as was the case for the Dadaists, for example; it was simply a loose union of different artistic groups.
Doubtless the video camera as a new medium helped the emergence of such an alternative form of cinematic production. Before the video camera arrived, people would often snitch film stock from the big studios, snippets and clips, and glue them together; or they worked with 8-mm or 16-mm cameras, which many people had at home. The means of production had no importance, since this was a non-commercial art form and no-one cared much about quality. We knew the production means that the people around us were using: they turned those conditions into their very own aesthetic. A draftsman can take a pencil and make a nice drawing, but he will never produce a fresco or a great canvas unless he gets different tools. Nevertheless, you can adequately express your artistic vision and your worldview.
It is worth pausing for a moment to consider the fact that we started not with some acts, but with a journal, with reflection: this important process happened in parallel to the artistic and creative production, to film-making. Reflection is a key concept, requiring conceptualisation; what matters is not just the creation of a work, but also the theoretical framework in which it exists. This process of self-reflexivity was a result of the old, imperial Soviet lifestyle, as paradoxical as that may sound: the importance of words, of language, of text and the role of interpretation, thought and philosophy, and the recognition of the other had been firmly imbued in our generation. This self-reflexivity is important for an understanding of the level of consciousness to which we had been raised, which is part of the best traditions of Russian and European culture. The Homo Sovieticus, or rather the person under the mask of the Homo Sovieticus, was in fact a well-educated European. If you do not comprehend the other, then you cannot understand your Self. There was a longing, a desire, a thirst to understand what had been done before us. We could not just stand in an open field, without any context: this contextualisation was a very important element, and it had to do not with rejection and negation, but with a learning process, with a degree of respect before European and Eastern culture, designed to simultaneously preserve and protect our own world, our own dying and crumbling empire.
Suddenly and abruptly, a whole other culture became available in translation – we could devour the entire history of a genre all at once, because everything would be immediately available – say, the whole of foreign science fiction. This was a complete shock to the system. It was not that some windows opened, but a whole set of doors swung open with an almost nuclear force that scattered all the information behind it immediately. It was a joy, this explosion, although maybe some people were drowned by the wave, while others rejoiced. After all, many people in the underground were prepared and those who knew how to handle this cultural explosion not only survived and learned from it, but they also assimilated new technologies – from which nowadays civilisation thrives or suffers, depending on the perspective.
Films of perestroika were never cult films for my generation – we know our film history. They were temporary echoes of a new time. We took this as ersatz of perestroika. We did not identify with it: we understood but kept our distance, which is a quality of the educated and reflective mind. This distance allows one to acquire an individual language. However, this parallel movement was obviously not disconnected from existing cinema and culture. Like Cahiers du Cinéma in the 1950s and 1960s, people studied the works of the old masters, without necessarily respecting hierarchies. It was a way of testing out possible ways for a cultural rebirth, which involved different forms of intellectual games: for example, the game of degustation, of tasting – a strategy that I employed. Then there was a group called ‘Med-hermeneutics’,2 who suggested a different strategy – of inspection, as a parody on Soviet times. During the Stalin era there were numerous inspection commissions, including one for clouds; so one group, which emerged in the early 1990s, called itself ‘Cloud Commission’,3 where the inspector had to figure out how to perceive the world. My strategy was tasting, which relied on the fine and sensitive perception of the world and a reflection about this process. There were a lot of humorous strategies also, such as ‘Superior Michurin System’ (vysokoe michurinstvo), where a group of people would come to Mosfilm at night and walk onto the set for some film, where they would shoot an episode on 16 mm or video, enacting their little plots, and leave. They turned this into cinema, or just played it as a game. These people acted like parasites on a corpse: they would feed on another form, using someone else’s set and someone’s wasted film stock to make their own film.
The death of a political system
Cine-Fantom has always witnessed and experienced politics, but never participated in political processes. We never considered ourselves dissidents or rebels. We did not want to participate in politics, because this means being inside or outside. It is a serious loss of freedom, a level of manipulation, an infernal passion – whichever side you stand on. We stuck to the principle of compassionate observation. Our openness is expressed in our works, and it involves neither criticism nor fight. It is a compassionate experience, often containing an irrational position on the part of the artist. For me, a political statement always had to do with the state of affairs. Let’s say, today I make something about ethnic minorities; the next day someone wants to badmouth Putin – so I make a project about that? That’s unpleasant, and I don’t like offending people. For this reason I also personally dislike parody. So Cine-Fantom remained within the artistic framework and conceptual structures, leaving politics out of the equation. Of course, social critique is an important element of art. But that does not mean that as an artist I play the wolf in hunter’s clothing.
Although politics were important in perestroika culture, a critique of Soviet values and Soviet society would have been similar to continually hitting a corpse. We did not do that: what is the purpose of a critique of a dying old man? We talked about the atmosphere, the images and the situations of a scenario where the chief is dying. We expressed ourselves through forms and emotional aggregates, but we did not say: ‘Old man, you’re a bastard, let’s finish you off.’ That would be inhuman and senseless – it is an exercise that belongs to market systems.
Of course, our generation was also united by its very own sense of death, which is a key theme of the 1980s; hence the Necrorealists. I also went through a whole series of death themes in Mad Prince, and the Aleinikovs touched on the theme in their films. After all, the Soviet empire and its language were dying; it was impossible to use concepts from the Soviet era, since they had become empty and meaningless. Therefore death was a crucial theme for many artists: the death of language, the death of Soviet cinema – moving away from narrative to new forms of expression. All this was happening in the mid-1980s and the process was subjected to analysis in articles. Cine-Fantom had an important function here, namely to open up to people interested in art, cinema and animation; it was a kind of research work, where we tried out different possibilities, discovered a range of new names and debated on the pages of Cine-Fantom, which had a tremendous impact and resonance precisely because of the push away from the system, from the prohibitions, towards a new idea for life – after death, as it were. ‘Our corpses are eaten by fat beetles, after death life will be as it should, lads’, as a poem by the Necrorealists reflects this energy.4
The theme of death, of zombies, of corpses in the films of the time confirms this concept of passing through death towards something new. It’s like a mystery play. The late 1980s represented the death of the Soviet empire in a natural manner; but the ...

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