Vol 2, No 2
17 January 2000
No More Childhood
Aleksei Balabanov's Schastlivye dni
Andrew J Horton
To his clinging middle-aged landlady, he is Sergei Sergeiovich. To the blind man who is afraid of the dark, he is Piotr. To Anna von Storkh, an impoverished descendant of an old aristocratic family reduced to prostitution, he is Borya. But he himself does not know his real name.
The hero of Balabanov's Schastlivye dni (Happy Days, 1991) is an amiable dimwit whose only possessions are his clothes (given to him on his discharge from hospital) which he never takes off, the bandage wrapped round his head and a musical box with a dancing ballerina in. In perpetual bemusement, he wanders the crumbling streets of St Petersburg in an existential search for a room, friendship and his galoshes.
Although he finds all three, they seem to be elusive entities. "I had a friend once," says the blind man as he discusses friendship with the man he calls Piotr. It's a phrase that sums up the mood of film, loosely inspired by the works of the Irish writer Samuel Beckett, including his play Happy Days.
The bleak lives of Balabanov's down-and-outs are beautifully captured in the film's black and white photography, which brings out the decaying textures of St Petersburg in exquisite detail. The city has long been used as a back-drop for films, stretching right back to the early Soviet classics, such as Sergei Eisenstein's cinematic recreation of the Russian Revolution Oktyabr' (October, 1927).
But whereas for Eisenstein the city was a heroic and revolutionary city, Balbanov's vision owes more to the 19th-century author Nikolai Gogol. Gogol's St Petersburg is the city which lies and deceives - a vast metropolis that dwarfs the ordinary individual. Eisenstein shot the raising of the city bridges with a falling horse symbolising the start of political struggle; Balabanov, however, presents the more Gogolian image of his hero crossing a city bridge on a donkey. Although Gogol was writing about the St Petersburg of over 150 years ago, his vision seems eminently suited to the city of post-Communist times.
Visually, the film is inspired by Gogol too, albeit indirectly. Gogol's frequently absurdist and irreverent stories have a long tradition of being rendered on screen (even in Stalinist times) but Schastlivye dni is particularly indebted to Grigori Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg's experimental classic Shinel' (The Overcoat, 1926), nominally based on the story of the same name by Gogol, but in fact incorporating elements of all his major short stories. Kozintsev and Trauberg effectively used the city, its architecture and a thick blanket of snow to oppress the hero of the story with the aid of camera and some shots in Schastlivye dni seem to be a direct quotation of similar effects in Shinel'. (Balabanov's latest film Pro urodov i liudei (Of Freaks and Men, 1998) also harks back to the world of silent cinema, even using intertitles).
Schastlivye dni's comic effect is aided by its use of musical motifs - three in all: the tune from the ballerina muscial box, a scratchy recording of an old jazz tune, Too Many Tears, and an equally lo-fi recording of some Wagner opera. Like most things in the film, the Wagner is ironic. Wagner conceived of titanic clashes between mythic good and evil and Eisenstein saw St Petersburg (or Leningrad as it was then) as a battlefield of the politically just and iniquitous. Both men saw the struggles of life in terms of right and wrong. But for Balabanov, there is a far more fundamental struggle than this basic dichotomy - the struggle to stay alive. However much we may want to cling to our innocent memories, Balabanov reminds us that our childhood is no more.
Andrew J Horton, 17 January 2000
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