Made in Crimea: ASSA (1987)

The first installment in our new section ‘Made in Crimea’ is dedicated to ASSA (1987) – the example of the 1980s counter-cultural cinema and the ultimate Soviet rock music film.

poster-assa

In ASSA, the young rock singer Bananan (Sergei Bugaev) falls in love with Alika (Tat’iana Drubich), the mistress of the Soviet mafia lord Krymov (Stanislav Govorukhin). This love triangle with a tragic end is explored against the winter landscapes of the resort city of Yalta during Brezhnev’s time. The timeline of the plot is broken up by the scenes of the last days of Tsar Paul I before his assassination in 1801. The film is accompanied by the songs of once-banned rock groups, namely Akvarium, Kino and Bravo.

snowy-yalta

Brezhnev’s stagnation in the wintry city of Yalta, 1980.

There are five layers that can be distinguished in the plot of ASSA. The first one is a criminal/detective story, in which Krymov is the central character. The second one is a melodrama that revolves around the love triangle among Krymov, Alika and Bananan. The third one is of rock music culture: it includes the soundtrack of the film, the musical performances, the design of Bananan’s room with all its rock culture artefacts, and Bananan’s dreams – short avant-garde style inserts disrupting the narrative flow. The fourth is a historical one and depicts the last days of Paul I and the coup d’état of 1801. The last layer, is ‘created of the whimsical combination of all of the preceding: not a historical anecdote, but our recent hilarious history, a tragifarcical image of Brezhnev’s “stagnation” as seen in the southern city of Yalta, buried under the snow in the winter of 1980’ [1]. This fifth layer of ASSA employs all the preceding layers not only to present an image of Brezhnev’s stagnation, but also to depict a sharp conflict between the old regime and the forces of change.

Krymov and Bananan

Krymov and Bananan

This conflict is primarily expressed through the antagonism of the two main male characters, Krymov and Bananan. Brezhnev’s stagnation is a persistent leitmotif of ASSA, and it is the character of Krymov, who is a tangible embodiment of the forces of stagnation in the film. First of all, Krymov is a representative of the older generation and is often referred to as papik or papa, ‘dad’, in the course of the film. The derisive song ‘Starik Kozlodoev’ (The old man Kozlodoev) performed by Bananan and his band is dedicated to Krymov. Another characteristic feature of Krymov is his frightening omnipotence: until the very end of the film he is the one who has all the strings in his hands, using either money or his authority to take control over the situation. Although Krymov is far from being an exemplary advocate of socialist values, it is exactly through his repressive power that the grip of the old regime is represented in ASSA. As the director Sergei Solovyov puts it:

It was so important for the viewer to feel Krymov’s totalitarian criminal governmental infernality. It has to be some special, Russian imperial infernality, a natural awareness of the fact that the fate of a rather significant human population of some geographical locality depends on a simple raising of his eyebrow [2].

The rock tusovka

The rock tusovka

In relation to Krymov, Bananan (and his rock tusovka) is a diametrically opposing force: these characters embody the Soviet counter-cultural identity, claiming a role that is beyond socialist society and producing a sense of self outside the one dictated by Soviet reality. Bananan literally lives beyond the Iron Curtain (the metallic sheet he uses as a door to his room). His room is a ‘museum of Soviet underground counter-culture of the 1980s’ [2], its walls are covered with portraits of rock musicians and avant-garde paintings, it contains various musical instruments, an antique statue wearing a gas mask and a foil palm tree. He wears a hand-made earring made of Alika’s photo. He plays in a rock band that, due to shortage of the artists in the socialist meaning of the word, is paid to play their songs of a dubious content in restaurants of the wintry resort city.

Bananan has two dreams during the course of the film that that are separated with intertitles (‘Bananan’s dream №1’ and ‘Bananan’s dream №2’) and are accompanied by songs of the Akvarium. If the first dream is a colourful abstract animation (made by Sergei Bugaev himself), the second one is actually a 1984 short film made on the underground film studio Mzhalalafilm by Evgenii Kondrat’ev, one of the filmmakers of the parallel cinema movement. Bananan’s dreams are very important counter-cultural elements within the narrative of ASSA, first of all because they have a function of being pure experimentation with film form, as well as because on a larger scale they are a spit in the face of socialist realism and the film-making of the older generation. Apart from that, the choice of what to use as Bananan’s dreams was obviously dictated by Solovyov’s wish to showcase examples of Soviet underground art.

The conflict between the forces of stagnation and change is reinforced by the episode of Russian history that ASSA makes use of. The assassination of Paul I is introduced into the narrative by the means of the book Gran’ vekov (Edge of Centuries, 1982) by Natan Eidel’man, a copy of which Krymov is reading. These episodes portray the last days of Paul I, his assassination and the coup d’état of 1801. Paul I is sensing that the end of his rule is near, and it can be argued that Krymov identifies with this sentiment, seeing that the KGB is forcing him into a corner, as well as Alika is more and more attracted to Bananan. Although the assassination of Paul I and the coup d’état is visually paralleled with the murder of Bananan by Krymov’s men, it is the later murder of Krymov that Paul’s assassination alludes to. Both murders obviously have a symbolic meaning of change: the collapse of the old values and the beginning of the new time.

Cikto

Viktor Tsoi: “We want changes!”

After the episode of Krymov’s murder the intertitle appears: ‘But this is not the end of the story. It would not be fair to tell you, what came after. However, everything has just begun’. The title is followed by the epilogue featuring the spectacular cameo of the Soviet rock icon Viktor Tsoi. He attends a job interview for a position of restaurant entertainer (possibly vacant after Bananan’s death), ignores tedious instructions of how an artist must behave on stage, climbs to a bandstand (that then with the help of editing becomes a stage in open air concert hall filled with several thousands of people) and performs his now trademark song ‘Khochu peremen’ (I want changes):

Changes! – our hearts are demanding.
Changes! – our eyes are demanding.
In our laughter and in our tears,
And in the pulsation of our veins:
Changes! We are waiting for changes!

If the main body of ASSA is only suggestive of the failing socialist paradigm and the changes around the corner, its epilogue is clearly an overt and verbalized political statement. Many films in the second half of the 1980s including ASSA, were made under the auspices of perestroika and with the support of Mikhail Gorbachev. However, even in the atmosphere of glasnost, ASSA faced difficulties upon its release. Along with the alternative vision to the socialist ideal that ASSA offers on the levels of form and content, the contexts of its production and distribution can be viewed as a good example of the shifting attitude towards counter-cultural activity in the late Soviet Union, as well as of contradictions regarding Soviet counter-culture in the 1980s.

[1] Timofeevsky, A. 1994. ‘The tenderest shroud’, in Brashinsky, M. and Horton, A. (eds) Russian Critics on the Cinema of Glasnost (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), pp. 89-93.

[2] Solovyov, Sergei. 2008. Assa i drugie proizvedenia etogo avtora. Kniga vtoraia: Nichego, shto ia kuru? (Sankt-Peterburg: Amfora/Seans).

9 Comments

  1. Pingback: Happy birthday, Viktor Tsoi! | Obskura

  2. Noiryaguara

    There are two kinds of imaginative realms depicted during the film. I find remarkable the difference between them, as they come from opposite characters.At one side, you have Bananan’s dreams, totally experimental and autonomous; at the other, Krymov’s reading of Eidelman’s novel, very classic and grandiloquent, stylistically closer to the standards of historical epic films. He describes it as “boring but educative” (as a lot of them are). That stylistical choice and the foreshadowing of his treason through the book, confirms Krymov is a part of a bigger and older way of defending and executing power; while Bananan is the outsider, the one who isn’t interested in those games, and that represents a menace for that established order, because he’s out of its reach.

  3. Noiryaguara

    I feel this is a way to say “to experiment with art is such a natural thing as dreaming”. Also, I really like when Bananan wakes up and says he was dreaming and one of the mob guys replies something as “I like to dream too”. Is a weird warm moment of empathy before what’s going to happen.

  4. Pingback: Obskura film event: ASSA at Pushkin House | Obskura

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