The New Positive Hero: Masculinity and Genre in Recent Russian Cinema
Symposium 2009

Русская Версия

At the center of this year’s Symposium is an examination of the interrelationship of two recent, seemingly unrelated developments in the Russian film industry: the emergence of genre cinema and the reconfiguration of masculinity on-screen. Russian screens for the past decade have presented viewers with a wide array of genre films: adaptations, historical and costume dramas, melodramas, romantic comedies, buddy films, re-makes, war films, social satires, etc. While the term “genre film” is still treated with caution by most Russian directors (some of whom vehemently deny they have ever made a genre film), the overwhelming body of evidence points to the fact that Russian cinema has moved away from the art-house/festival circuit to a domestic, viewer-friendly format with embedded predictability.
This emergence of genre cinema, in turn (or rather in tandem), has resulted in a more nuanced representation of masculinity on-screen. Genre conventions are quite inflexible (something that Russian film directors are still struggling to implement): comedies, for example, tend to eschew violence, romantic comedies rarely include a negative protagonist, etc. As a consequence, the representation of masculinity (as with all characterization) has to be tailored to the genre.

The roots of both of these developments extend back to the crisis and collapse of the Russian film industry in the mid-1990s: annual film production dropped from more than 300 films a year in the early 1990s to fewer than 50 by 1995; Mosfilm Studio was renting its stages and sets to western film companies but not producing any films of its own, Lenfilm Studio was being used as a parking lot and storage facility, Gorky Studio was declared bankrupt; annual per capita visits to movie theaters dropped to 0.25 from 16 during Soviet years; etc. While many explanations have been offered to explain this crisis and collapse—the absence of the profession of “producer”; the dilapidated infrastructure both of the studios and movie theaters; the rise of competing home-viewing visual technologies (video, DVD, and television); the use of film production for outright “money laundering”; etc.—what is significant from the point of view of the topic of this year’s Symposium are the aesthetics of on-screen representation during the Yeltsin-era (chernukha) and the virtually exclusive dominance of the gangster-film.

Chernukha (literally “blackening”) was the deliberate focusing on the darker, seedier side of everyday life, the daily grind (byt); the relentless exposé of Soviet-era abuses and their continuing impact on the intolerable conditions of the post-Soviet present. Most film scholars point to Vasilii Pichul’s Little Vera (1988), Petr Todorovskii’s Intergirl (1989), and Pavel Lungin’s Taxi Blues (1990) as the beginning of this trend in Russian cinema. By the mid-1990s, however, it was a characteristic feature of almost all films being produced and released in Russia. At the same time, the Yeltsin-era period of Russia’s Klondike capitalism was marked by an explosion of corruption and criminality, frequently featuring representatives of the state. The pervasive view of the state-as-criminal found expression on-screen (first in television serials, then on the big screen) in the image of the criminal-as-hero (that is, living by a different ethical and moral code, but one that was preferable to the absence of ethics or morality in representatives of the state). This image of the criminal-as-hero received its most socially acceptable incarnation in the underworld machismo of Danila Bagrov, the unreflective avenger-as-hero in Balabanov’s Brother (1997). Bagrov (as much as Sergei Bodrov, the actor who played the role) became a national icon, a new yardstick by which to measure both Russian-ness and masculinity.

In his speech at the1998 plenary congress of the Russian Union of Filmmakers, Nikita Mikhalkov, then the newly elected President of the Union, screened a series of clips from Russian films since the fall of the Soviet Union. All of the clips featured scenes of violence, cruelty, and criminality?the defining features both of the gangster-action film, which had held a virtual monopoly in the Russian film industry throughout Yeltsin’s presidency, and of the aesthetics of chernukha. Much ridiculed at the time was Mikhalkov’s closing appeal for a “positive cinema,” one that would create a new Russian national hero on-screen and provide a new social model to be emulated by the people—a modified and updated version of the Soviet mandate for a “positive hero.”

In the decade since this congress, much has changed in the Russian film industry: the construction of new cineplexes with state-of-the-art technologies, a significant increase in annual per capita film attendance, the emergence of professional production studios and distribution networks, and (perhaps most importantly) a reinvigorated film production schedule (with more than 150 films released in 2007 and more than 200 in production in 2008). An inevitable consequence of this expanded film production schedule has been the rapid decline in the number of gangster-action films released in movie theaters (although the genre continues to dominate television screens).


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