Going to the Movies in Russia

Benjamin Carlin ’16

A double major in Russian and Global Studies, Carlin will spend a year studying abroad in 2014-2015: a semester in Irkutsk, Russia, and a semester in Israel.

Like so many aspects of modern Russian life, cinema is in transition. Russian cinema in the post-Stalinist Soviet Union was characterized by a lighthearted exploration of Russian life.  Typical of this genre is Eldar Ryazanov’s new year’s classic, The Irony of Fate (1976), a comedic story of mistaken identities. The Irony of Fate is still nostalgically broadcast and eagerly viewed across the former Soviet republics annually on New Year’s Eve.  In the1980s period, especially under Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost’, more sober portrayals of the social ills beleaguering the country began to appear. Then, following the 1991 dissolution of the U.S.S.R., a big question emerged. What would happen to the film-viewing tastes of the Russian public when they were no longer determined by state control?

Having taken a course in contemporary film at Colby with Professor Ansdell, I was lucky and pleased to receive funding from the Goldfarb Center and the Internship Office to pursue a JanPlan 2014 opportunity in Moscow where, among other things, I could attempt to answer this question myself, by interviewing Russians (mostly in English—I’d had less than two years of Russian); and, yes, by going to the movies.

I knew that post-Soviet cinema in the 1990s diverged significantly from the nationalistic, whimsical nature of Soviet-era films—put was suprised to find that many Russians still pine for that quality homegrown entertainment tradition. A few films from the 1990s still remain popular.  Russians speak fondly of films such as Alexei Balabanov’s Brother (1997), about a naive young man who gets caught up in mafia doings, and Nikita Mikhalkov’s historical drama The Barber of Siberia (1998).  Both were well received in Europe and the United States, which seemingly signalled the birth of a robust new Russian film industry.  But even if finances had been available to support such a thing, one factor mitigated against it.  Russians had been cut off for almost a century from the cheap pleasures of American popular culture, and they took to it with enthusiasm.

I thought I was going to Russia to watch Russian films, but the Russian market is flooded with foreign films.  During my month in Moscow (January 2014), movies such as The Hobbit47 Ronin, and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty opened to commercial success.  In fact, many cinemas show as many American as Russian movies.  These releases were extremely well financed and publicized; elaborate posters bearing Smaug’s countenance advertised The Hobbit at bus stops, metro stations, and were sometimes even plastered up on large billboards.

Ticket prices contribute to the similarity between Russian and American audiences.  The average movie ticket price surpassed eight dollar in America in FY 2013, and continues to increase rapidly.  The cinema is even more expenisve in Russia, where  tickets can cost 300 rubles, or around $9.00.  This is a hugely more impactful sum for the average Russian household than for the American middle class.  Only people with ample leisure time and money keep up with big releases.

The typical audience at a showing of a Russian blockbuster would be familiar to an American.  I went to a showing of  Christmas Tree 3 (Ёлка), (2013), which led the Russian box office while I was in Moscow.  The audience was mostly comprised of older adults, some with children, and a few younger adults here and there.  On the surface—with the exception of subtitles—everything seemed the same. And yet clearly these viewers enjoy an elite economic status, if not an elite cultural status.  Unfortunately, higher education in Russia does not correlate with higher salaries. But it does correlate with intelligentsiastatus, a category of intellectual prestige that has always meant much more in Russia than in the United States.  Just as Colby faculty are likely to eschew Flagship cineplex in favor of films at Waterville’s arthouse cinema Railroad Square, so respondents to questions at Moscow State University’s Faculty of Journalism disparage popular blockbusters from anywhere. Professor Mikhail Makeenko regards Spanish, German, or French blockbusters with the same skepticism that he harbors toward big-screen American films.

While Hollywood’s bluster and wealth are especially conspicuous in Moscow, Russians are ambivalent about the films themselves.  Every student and professor with whom I spoke expressed admiration for certain aspects of American cinema.  Denis Dunas, a research fellow, associates exquisite special effects, big name actors, and in some cases, talented artistic direction with American films.  Yet overall, blockbusters are not met with much admiration.  They are products of American mass culture, which educated Russians see as superficial and low quality.

They look for quality elsewhere. And of course technology has made things available that in the not so distant past would have had to be smuggled into Russia in tourist suitcases. Netflix’s series, House of Cards, is a poignant counterexample to the reputation  of American blockbusters.  The series is wildly popular in Russia among educated viewers.  It portrays exciting, brutal aspects of American political culture that are very new to the Russian viewer. (Who knows? Maybe this makes Russians feel better about living under a government rampant with corruption?)   Moreover, American arthouse films are quite popular among young Russians.  Student-respondents praised Sam Fleischner’s Stand Clear of The Closing Doors, which won awards at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival.  Independent, arthouse, lowfi films—whatever one chooses to label them—are popular in Russia due to their creativity and unordothodox directors.  This seeking of deeper aesthetic experience is perhaps, the definition of the Russian intelligentsia.

Russians who watch American independent films online rarely go to the cinema at all.  VK (V Kontakte, or In Contact), the largest Russian-language social network, picks up the slack.  VK’s media content is largely unregulated, easily accesible, and profoundly diverse.  VK media users represent a separate community of film enthusiasts, distant from contemporary Russian cinema hostile to Hollywood style films.  They resemble the troves of American youth who prefer the small screen to the large, watching online a variety of independent, arthouse, and cult movies, and discussing them through social media sources with a national audience.

Meanwhile, back to popular culture. The prospects for the future of Russian-made big-screen films seem dim at this time.  The financing and technology gap are at the heart of this.  Christmas Tree 3 ironically demonstrates the backward state of technology in contemporary Russian cinema.  Nearly every character uses a popular piece of American technology—iPhones, Androids, Facebook, Skype, Macs, PCs, etc.  The film’s incessant focus on relationships constructed through modern technology highlight that Russian cinema is still in transition, and as of yet not as wealthy and technologically advanced as Hollywood.

The fact that Russian films try so hard to demonstrate their modernity ironically proves that they are not modern at all.  The special effects in the films that I saw were not bad, but nothing like what one expects from a big budget American or European film.

But for better or worse, the Russian film industry is becoming more like Hollywood.  There is an influx of former ad men into contemproary Russian cinema.  These new directors make big-budget films that present as technologically advanced, but are not intellectual or substantive (the legacy of the best of Soviet and Russian Cinema).

Timor Bekmambetov’s thriller Night Watch (2004) exemplifies this attempt to grab a share of Russian audiences and profits.  The Kazakh Bekmambetov, who is best known for directing the American films Wanted and Abraham Lincoln:Vampire Slayer, began his career directing commericals.  Night Watch grossed $16.7 million in Russia alone, and almost US $34 million worldwide, making it the highest grossing release Russian film, and it remains in the all time top five  To put its success in the Russian box office in perspective, it grossed more in Russia than Peter Jackson’s The Lord of The Rings: The Fellowship of The Ring.  Though Night Watch enjoyed extraordinary commercial success, it received mediocre reviews.  What if offered Russian viewers, however, was not grim urban-scapes, contrived scenes and clumsy technical effects.  Russian viewers saw their own streets, buildings, apartment interiors, clothing and speech on screen, and that translated into industry profit.  There may be a future for Russian made blockbusters, after all.

As Russian cinema continues to transition, film-going occupies a role in the lives of Russian urbanites that increasingly resembles the role played by Hollywood Cineplex movies in American lives.  A less intellectual segment of the population with money and leisure, glad for some relaxation, seek out big screen entertainment with enthusiasm. A smaller, more intellectual segment of the population that is skeptical of the full-blown arrival of popular Western culture, watches a more elite foreign films, but online.  The infusion of money and technology into Russian cinemas themselves—state of the art projectors, comfortable and lavish seating, concessions, and so forth—has made movie-going more similar to its American counterpart.  Russian popular tastes have fast transitioned to a Hollywood standard in a way that is exacerbating some of Hollywood’s major flaws.