28 February 2006

Revolutionary Vampire Hunters of the World Choose Nokia Cellphones

Last night, as I was about to close the irritating MSN Today pop-up window after signing onto the instant messenger, I caught the mention of last year's Russian fantasy blockbuster Night Watch with the corner of my eye. I was aware of the fact that the movie is currently being released in theaters around North America, but the amount of press it is receiving is a surprise nonetheless. After all, it is one of the best Hollywood mimicry films that Russia had ever produced, rather than the "artsy foreign film" stereotype that the West is more accustomed to.

More specifically, MSN's pop-up window featured a review of Night Watch by Angela Baldassarre. I present her article below in its entirety:

Entertaining fantasy film
Night Watch (3 out of 5 stars)
Starring Konstantin Khabensky and Aleksei Chadov. Directed by Timur Bekmambetov.

Comparing Timur Bekmambetov’s “Night Watch” to Russian films of the past, you can’t help but notice a sea of change in Russian cinema. Whereas films like “Russian Ark,” “Burnt by the Sun” and “Prisoner of the Mountains” drew on Russian history and literature, “Night Watch” is inspired by comic books, video games, and fantasy films. And with audiences making “Night Watch” the #1 box-office movie of all time in Russia, it appears the nation is embracing the change.

The film rests on the premise that among regular humans live people called “Others” who have supernatural powers. These “Others” side with either the forces of light or the forces of dark. Centuries ago, after a cataclysmic battle, the two sides signed a truce. Since then, the day is the realm of the light forces, akin to angels, who protect the world from the dark forces that rule the night, who are essentially vampires. Move to modern Moscow, and enter Anton (Konstantin Khabensky), an unwitting “Other” who joins the “Night Watch” — a kind of supernatural police force. While in charge of saving a young boy from vampires, Anton upsets the balance of power and sets off a chain reaction of epic proportions. If you’re confused enough by the back-story, then the plot of the film, involving shape-shifters, a cursed woman and a vortex that threatens to break the truce between light and dark, might not be worth getting into.

But “Night Watch” is a film worth getting into. It obviously owes much of its mythology to “The Lord of the Rings,” with an art direction that resembles the bloody comic-noir of “Blade,” but director Bekmambetov injects dollops of original style — with the help of one of the biggest budgets in Russian film history. From his swooping camera, to ghostly computer effects, to video game sequences, and an ingenious flipbook animation sequence, “Night Watch” is cool and creative. As is the trend with films of this ilk, it’s heavy on atmospherics and chilly on emotion. Khabensky, in particular, is nearly a zombie in shaggy hair and sunglasses. One surprise is that given all the Other-worldly atmosphere (and requisite heavy metal score), “Night Watch” is light on action, something that might disappoint North American audiences. Yet the film does end in a sort of cliffhanger that certainly leaves room for further installments, and maybe more action to come.

“Night Watch” is an entertaining fantasy film, one that benefits from its Russian perspective while still feeling familiar enough for most fans of the genre. More importantly, Bekmambetov’s cultural coup may be a sign of cooler things to come in the stodgy former Soviet Union.

The principal reason for citing a complete movie review is clear enough: it happens to be one of the most blantantly stupid articles I have ever read. I know nothing about Miss Bald-ass-arre, but her iditiotic commentary gives me no desire to change this fact. I am fairly confident, however, that she happens to be a critic of Hollywood movies, rather than an actual film scholar. The latter implies a thorough understanding of the genre.

The former does not.

This author's mention of a "heavy metal" soundtrack that Night Watch supposedly uses is a tell-tale sign of the utterly oblivious nature of the rest of her review. Apparently generic downtuned, chunky guitars are the only requirement for "heavy metal", just as technologically advanced special effects constitute an entire "cultural coup" for one of the largest and oldest countries in the world! And it just so happens that it is Miss Bald-ass-arre herself who took note of this revolutionary transformation - she deemed herself Cruiser Aurora for Russian film, no less!

In reality, she is the equivalent of a pimple-faced scrawny International Relations college student, whose uniform includes Fidel's hat, "class war" patches (nevermind that his father is a CEO of a medium-sized corporation) and New Democratic Party pins (Vladimir did not have the luxury of Crest White Strips like Jack!) and a growing collection of Che Guevara t-shirts in various colors, which he proudly wears on his daily trips to Starbucks, where he discusses Hegel or Sudanese torture methods over four-dollar coffees.

He missed the boat, while this misplaced Cruiser Aurora sank even before it fired blanks. Miss Bald-ass-arre's recipe for a cinematic paradigm shift is simple: a foreign "entertaining fantasy film" with "ghostly computer effects" that seems "familiar enough" to your average spoiled North American Attention Deficit Disorder teen - the kind of teen our Starbucks Marxist was two years ago, in fact. She almost makes Bekmambetov sound like the new Eisenstein.

I take that back.

I don't think Miss Bald-ass-arre knows who Eisenstein is.

Furthermore, I don't think Miss Bald-ass-arre knows much about her profession, vocation, calling. She calls Soviet film "stodgy".



Stodgy - in stark contrast to the kind of market research-based, substance-lacking, shit-in-a-cookie-cutter eyecandy that the Hollywood machine had been churning out for over thirty years?

Similar computerized eyecandy within Night Watch does place it closer to the filmic ideal described above, but its fantastic story line is too complicated, according to Miss Bald-ass-arre. To quote Canada's recent inept Liberal Party attack ads: "We did not make this up":

"If you’re confused enough by the back-story, then the plot of the film....might not be worth getting into", Miss Bald-ass-arre reassures the viewer. "Night Watch is light on action, something that might disappoint North American audiences", she continues. In other words, if you are too dumb or bored (I am sorry - you have A.D.D.) to follow a 114-minute movie about vampires and their hunters with too few explosions, you may still find it "cool and creative". Then you can prove to all your Starbucks comrades that you are for real - you just saw a foreign film.

A non-stodgy foreign film!

(Shouldn't stodgy films temper your steel character, comrade?)

Naturally, Miss Bald-ass-arre is in possession of vast knowledge regarding the stodgy filmic multitude produced in the Soviet Union over the seventy four years of its existence. She is obviously saving all the examples for the publication of her future revolutionary oeuvre on the "cultural coup" d'├ętat that the Russian "nation is embracing", all thanks to the move towards Hollywood within Night Watch!

I can only guess what type of film qualifies as "stodgy" in the author's misguided view. In the 1980's, for instance, USSR released such movies as Heart of a Dog, Little Vera, Cold Summer of 1953, and Come and See. These highly acclaimed works are widely studied and are available for purchase in large video stores. Of course, Miss Bald-ass-arre must be more informed than successful corporations and university professors.

In the 1970's, we were bombarded with Irony of Fate, Afonja, Kindza-Dza, Twelve Chairs, Stalker, and Solaris. Twelve Chairs inspired Mel Brooks thirty years ago, while Solaris led to the recent Hollywood remake. Evidently, stodgy movies often function in an inspirational capacity. Curiously enough, North American press christined the new Clooney-starred Solaris a remake of a Russian novel and film, shamefully mistaking famed Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky for famed Polish author Stanislaw Lem.

Close enough, they were both from the Eastern Bloc!

Was it you who penned that article too, Miss Bald-ass-arre?

Moving further in reversed chronological direction, in the 1960's the Soviet state filmed the likes of Diamond Arm, Hussar's Ballad, and Lady with a Dog, followed by 1950's Ballad of a Soldier and Carnival Night. The latter along with Diamond Arm remain timeless comedy classics.

Enough, enough! We're almost at the height of stodgy stalinist social realism! Did they even have cameras in the Soviet Union at the time?

Let's ask Starbucks' clientele.

He pulls Fidel's hat over his eyes. His comrades shrug.

Let's tell them. Let's tell her too.

Despite the total devastation of the Great Patriotic War, in the early 1940's and late 1930's, Sergei Eisenstein filmed Alexandre Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible, respectively. Not only do they represent a focal point of basic film studies and can be obtained in remastered DVD format at your local HMV, but they are also frequently shown and viewed on television - if you've been feeling particularly stodgy, that is!

In the 1920's too, Eistenstein struck again with Battleship Potemkin along side Dziga Vertov and his Man with a Movie Camera. Both are consistently considered to be some of the most important films of all time, and their ongoing eighty-year old analysis even crosses over into other disciplines - from the history of photography to various cultural studies.

Is this resume reasonably substantial, Miss Bald-ass-arre?

I do have to disappoint you with the absence of computer effects or video game sequences that the "nation is embracing" as a "cultural coup", although there is a scene with a self-animated film camera in Vertov's project - "cool and creative" enough for the birth of modern cinema? Scholars around the world happen to think so.

Do you?

Regardless of seemingly typical ignorance of an entertainment critic, Night Watch is a somewhat above-average fantasy film created for pure entertainment purposes. It obviously aims for Hollywood, which it achieves by drawing from Lord of the Rings' battle scenes, as Miss Bald-ass-arre correctly notes, countless generic vampire movies, and maybe even Ghostbusters, with a more modest budget, funded by overt Nokia and Nescafe ads throughout. She incorrectly (surprise!) states that Night Watch is inspired by comic books and video games, which may be the case visually, but its literal source is not a comic book, but a novel by Sergei Luk'ianenko.

In addition to technological prowess, Night Watch also features original moments in the style of classic Soviet traditional animation, thematically tied to an actual Soviet cartoon of considerable fame - House Gnome Kuzia, which one of the main characters watches on television.

Therefore despite the attempt to adapt Hollywood to Russian sensibilities, Night Watch does not venture beyond its genre and makes no claims to doing so. It certainly makes no claims to cultural revolutions. We'll leave that to Tarkovsky and Eisenstein.

("We'll leave that to Mao!", our International Relations student begs to differ.)

And we'll leave quality film reviews to someone other than Miss Bald-ass-arre.

12 February 2006

A Nameday or a Coffin on Wheels

Every year on January 27th I celebrate my nameday. While namedays are an integral part of Christian belief, it seems that in this day and age Slavs, both Orthodox and Catholic, are most familiar with this tradition. In contrast, many local Christians, regardless of their background, react with a polite clueless smile and a blank stare when asked. In Russian specifically, this celebration is customarily called an "angel's day", referring to a “guardian angel”, of course, although defined properly, it is a "saint's day" instead.

Who gets to have a nameday?

As long as one's given name possesses certain hagiographic relevance, one is bound to qualify. Of course, several Christian names are rather common and are shared by more than one saint - Catherine, for example. In turn, such nominal popularity translates into numerous calendar days dedicated to various saint Catherines. In this case, her mere mortal namesake must choose the closest date following her birthday as her official nameday.

In the olden days, when masculinity was not penalized, when women actually had concern for fulfilling their biological roles, and when honor had a higher price tag than life, namedays held greater value than the most selfish holiday of all – a birthday. Recently I unintentionally came across a material testament to this convention, when I was looking through my extremely disorganized photographic collection - a collection of proofs, rather than fewer professional prints I’ve produced, to be precise, stored in often-mislabeled envelopes. This was a usual search for certain live shots from a metal festival I had attended a couple of years ago. Instead, the first plastic container I checked included several pre-Revolutionary family photographs - the only ones my mother allowed me to grab from home, because they were duplicates.

"You'll get the rest when I die", she explained.

She has always been rather morbid.

I also came across a clear plastic sleeve used to store a single fragile sheet of paper yellowed with age. It was folded in half, because it was too large for the sleeve, and because I was too disrespectful to find the time to purchase something more suitable. I noticed the elaborate inked imperial emblem glued to the back of the sheet – Russia’s two-headed eagle with various heraldic symbols drawn inside its wings. It only took a century to abolish it and to reintroduce it, to strip it of its coats of arms and to cynically and at the same time affectionately call it “the chicken”. The “chicken’s” appearance is just as outdated as the more elaborate alphabet used inside the page. We simplified that too.

Dead letters revealed the document’s content: this was a hand-written telegram receipt - that much I remembered - dated 10:45 am of July 25th, 1907. Wide, easily legible despite the outdated alphabet, hundred-year old pencil (!) strokes revealed the occasion - my great-grandfather's wedding felicitations mailed by his brother. He also sent good wishes to an undisclosed female for the occasion of her angel's day.

I quickly searched the online Eastern Orthodox nameday database to determine which family member the wishes were meant for. There was only one suitable candidate - Olympiada, my great-great-grandmother. She was a quintessential citizen of the Great Russian Empire - a Belorussian woman who lived in Georgia. She had piercing blue eyes, big hair, and wore frilly dresses. Her nameday was on August 7th.

Growing up, her grandson - my gradfather too upheld our ancestral spirit by emphasizing the continued importance of a nameday.

"Your great-grandmother Nadia – the one who attended Sorbonne – do you know where that is, Ninochka? In Paris!"

My mother was a fairly late second child, so my grandfather seemed even older than a regular grandfather would. His countless stories about an erased culture that a normal Soviet child had little comprehension of outside the context of Marxist class struggle made it seem even more so. Of course, at this age, children consider thirty-year olds to be quite elderly.

"Were you aware of the fact that Sorbonne was one of the most prestigious educational institutions in Europe, Ninochka? Even more prestigious for a woman and a Russian citizen. Before the Revolution, naturally."

"She was beautiful and spoke flawless French, you know. Taught it too. And in her old age she walked around with a cane with the grace of a queen."

I was then told that this almost-royal great-grandmother of mine entertained her guests in a more grandiose manner than her birthday celebrations. I did not mind the continued focus on this concept: what little girl would complain about one additional reason to receive regularly scheduled gifts and loads of attention?

Nearly two decades later and an ocean away, only close relatives and friends convey their nameday wishes to me and perhaps offer a present or two. Someday I might attempt to elevate this date's status in my life, but this year I simply decided to visit the church and greet Saint Nina, the Enlightener of Georgia and my personal intercessor. When I first began attending, I was pleasantly surprised to find her taking up a prominent position on the south wall, next to a number of other female saints and in the close vicinity of our last czar - recently canonized Nicholas II.

Clad in lengthy garments of a standard female saint in fresco format, she carries the living grapevine cross with which she singlehandedly christianized the ancient land of Georgia - Sakartvelo, around the time of Rome's official acceptance of Christianity; her peaceful, even stoic face gazes far ahead and looks nothing like me. In contrast to many saints, Nina did not die a dreadful tortured death of a martyr, but instead joined the One whose teachings she earnestly propagated in her old age, after a life full of good news and good deeds.

Not like me at all.

Nonetheless, I decided to visit her and to let her know that she still speaks for Georgians around the world, even if not full-blooded, even if mostly Russian, like me. She and I not only share our culture and our name, but so did my grandfather’s wife – grandmother Nina – a woman I had never met. Beautiful like her mother Nadia, she too spoke and taught the language of aristocracy, but was born too late to attend distinguished European schools. And there was one other Nina in our family's recent history - Olympiada’s second daughter, who evidently died in early childhood, as my unfinished genealogical tree indicates.

My good intentions did not crystallize until two weeks later. I blamed my busy, awkward work schedule, drastically fluctuating weather patterns, and everything in between. "At least I made it at all". I chose a quiet Sunday evening, knowing the church would not be full of nosey fanatics, overheated by their massive numbers and religious zeal. I chose an ankle-length skirt and properly covered my hair, thereby reluctantly equating myself to the plethora of Muslim females in the downtown Toronto as well as to Saint Nina herself. I checked my wallet for change to buy candles. I walked in.

I stormed out ten minutes later.

Not even.

There was a coffin in the very middle of the church, and there was a dead man inside it! Not that coffins serve many other purposes, excluding the misguided vampire subculture, whose members enjoy using them as bedding (Sleep Country may discover an entirely new market opportunity here!), but I certainly did not expect to find one during a public service. And not on the night I planned to pay homage to my famed guardian.

To make matters worse, this coffin was on wheels! My astonishment quickly turned into rather inappropriately timed and uncontrollable humor, as I immediately recalled childhood jokes about coffins on wheels. I then blasphemously imagined this coffin rolling through the church like a bumper car. By itself. I also developed an unsettling feeling that the inhabitant of the coffin-on-wheels, which was apparently fashioned out of expensive red wood, will rise any second now and join the evening mass. Like Lazarus or a generic zombie. Do clerical living dead abound in horror film culture?

I should ask the vampires.

This one wore what looked like a bishop’s crown and clutched a small bible and a large cross – signs of his ministry - in each hand. His face was concealed by a cloth, which was periodically removed by the parish members, who evidently arrived to pay their tribute by kissing his forehead and his hand. Did they know him personally, or was this another sign of their fanatic devotion, which usually includes slobbering all over every icon in sight, expensive candles, high intensity workouts consisting of the sign of the cross and ground-level bows on repeat, and last but not least – actively correcting every individual in their path who allegedly fails to follow the ritual impeccably.

“We are not that different”, - I tried to convince myself. “I am here to light a candle for a two-dimensional depiction of my guardian saint, while they kiss the old dead man’s hands as if they were relics, and relics belong to saints.”

Most relics of interest are also several hundred years old. So how long has this deceased been inside the church? One day? Two? Three?!

Despite the absence of electric lighting, I stood close enough to notice how rigid and frozen the man’s hands appeared as he grasped his insignia.

I then recalled my last year’s visit to the touring Body Worlds II exhibition of the works created by German “plastinator” Gunter von Hagens. It was not the artfully dismembered corpses, including a female with a five-month old fetus inside her eviscerated womb, or the ability to see certain specimen’s real faces that disturbed me. It was their hands. Waxy complexion with shrunken skin to reveal long, yellowish, chipped fingernails. Precisely like the lifeless cleric’s hands. The hands that zealous churchgoers were currently slobbering over - transferring living saliva drops to the tiny dead gray hairs protruding from the cleric’s fingers and in turn ingesting dead man’s arid epithelials mixed with previously deposited fanatical spit.

Perhaps those jokes about coffins-on-wheels were not jokes? Perhaps they were stories meant to scare children!

Flickering candlelight’s mystical accents on the gold-plated iconostasis and the otherwordly liturgical songs I usually live for now seemed ominous and a suitable counterpart to this ritual of death. Suddenly, the entire scene turned into a vision of Bosch’s Ghent version of Christ Carrying the Cross: an endless horde of mad bulging eyes, oily gangrenous flesh, greasy hair, putrid teeth, with no room left to breathe.

I could not breathe either. I dashed toward the exist near the south wall, receiving mob’s disapproval along the way despite my clear effort to tippy toe, made an even quicker apologetically distorted sign of the cross as my eyes met Saint Nina, and hopped down the stairs out into the cold winter night.

Saint Nina did not seem to mind my escape. Her expression even appeared indifferent, but she was probably just preoccupied with overseeing the cleric’s lengthy entrance into the next world.

Next time I will visit her on an “off” day.