Reviews

Tsoi, Drugs and Soviet rock

The Needle and the Kazakh New Wave in the context of late Soviet cinema

To follow up on the film and music event dedicated to the legendary Soviet musician Viktor Tsoi and his band Kino, Inese Strupule from Obskura discusses The Needle (1988), Tsoi’s rock persona, the Kazakh New Wave, and their place in the cultural scene of the late Soviet Union. 

The Needle/Igla (1988, directed by Rashid Nugmanov) tells a fragmented and eclectic story of the hero nicknamed Moro (Viktor Tsoi), who arrives in his home town Alma-Ata (a Kazakh city now known as Almaty) to collect an old debt and finds out that his ex-girlfriend Dina (Marina Smirnova) is addicted to morphine. The title and the synopsis of the film falsely suggest the drama of drug abuse that shamelessly takes advantage of the glasnost policy and indulges in graphic portrayal of the drug addiction consequences. However, the film is more sophisticated than that; instead it presents the viewer with an image of aesthetically stylised world, achieved through spectacular cinematography and mise-en-scène, and the last performance of Viktor Tsoi. The Needle is accompanied by Tsoi’s music, so integral in the film’s narrative that it almost becomes a character on its own.

As noted by Vostok Cable editors, and unusually for a Soviet-era film, The Needle has barely any authority figures on-screen, save for a train conductor to whom Tsoi gives the finger.

As noted by Vostok Cable editors, and unusually for a Soviet-era film, The Needle has barely any authority figures on-screen, save for a train conductor to whom Tsoi gives the finger.

The protagonist of The Needle, Moro, represents the 1980s Soviet counter-cultural identity largely through Viktor Tsoi’s rock icon persona. As put by Lawton (2002: 204), Moro is ‘a positive hero, not in the socialist sense, but in the romantic sense of the word – free from all the ties, material and psychological, a lone wanderer possessing innate dignity, honesty, an unerring sense of justice’.

Through his cinematic journey, Tsoi’s character confronts the forces of stagnation represented by the criminal underworld and ends up being stabbed by one of the drug lords. But defying the dogmas of Socialist Realism and the logic of the physical world, Moro stands up from his knees, lights a cigarette and, bleeding, walks away along an infinite snowy valley to Tsoi’s own song ‘Gruppa krovi’ (Blood Type). The message of this episode, not being necessarily positive in the diegetic world of The Needle, is definitely positive in the context of the new Soviet cinema, as it can be read as a break with the socialist paradigm and the stagnation era within Soviet cinema. This is reinforced by the film’s epilogue: a message ‘Dedicated to Soviet television’ appears on the screen, and is followed by a compilation of censored shots from the film, which can be naturally read as a sarcastic comment about the Soviet censorship. This playful epilogue is in line with the rest of The Needle, highly experimental on the level of form.

The opening sequence of The Needle features clever intercuts between the shots of the setting sun and Tsoi walking towards the camera, accompanied by Kino's famous song A Star Called The Sun.

The opening sequence of The Needle features clever intercuts between the shots of the setting sun and Tsoi walking towards the camera, accompanied by Kino’s famous song A Star Called The Sun.

The Needle is a prominent example of the Kazakh New Wave, a term first applied to Kazakh films at the 1989 International Film Festival in Moscow. Unlike the ‘parallel cinema’ as the Soviet samizdat films of the 1980s  are known, the Kazakh New Wave has been described as ‘zigzag cinema’, because its filmmakers used official state studios. However, the new wave directors saw their films as a result of long-term effort that started in 1984, when Sergei Solov’ev, the soon-to-be director of another emblematic, Kino-featuring perestroika film, Assa (1987), organized a cinematic workshop at VGIK (All Union State University of Cinematography) to provide training to young and talented filmmakers. Many future representatives of the Kazakh New Wave, Rashid Nugmanov among them, joined Solov’ev’s workshop. For Rashid Nugmanov, The Needle was an experiment similar to the one his tutor undertook in Assa a year earlier – the director was determined to achieve ‘a film structure in which the how would always dominate the what, the language would conquer the substance’ (Brashinsky and Horton, 1994: 129).

In The Needle, Nugmanov bombards the viewer with information on different levels, and indeed at times ‘the what’ of the film is lost in this audiovisual cacophony. The director is obsessed with reproducing the media: the characters’ dialogues are overlapping with the sound of radio or TV broadcast almost constantly throughout the film. At one point, Moro turns on a TV out of boredom; the camera zooms in on the TV screen, and the viewer is presented with a number of unrelated sequences of video mingled with TV static, starting with a detective film, followed by a documentary and an action film (all these are also at times fast-forwarded and rewound).

These media reproductions appear to have no purpose until the moment Nugmanov actually employs them to serve the film’s narrative, and this is when his formal experiments acquire meaning on the level of content. For instance, a sweet radio voice-over (mimicking Soviet children’s programmes) is used to introduce characters and comment on the plot. Similarly, when Moro is watching TV, a shot of Moro and Dina walking on the beach appears after the succession of the aforementioned video sequences. This shot is a flash-forward, as the characters indeed go together to the sea later in the film and this exact shot is used to introduce the episode.

Tsoi was a huge fan of Bruce Lee, and as some of his contemporaries testify, would spend hours in front of a VHS player, watching bootleg copies of Bruce Lee's films, rewinding back to the best bits and mimicking the actor's movements and combat manoeuvres.

Tsoi was a huge fan of Bruce Lee, and as some of his contemporaries testify, would spend hours in front of a VHS player, watching bootleg copies of Bruce Lee’s films, rewinding back to the best bits and mimicking the actor’s movements and combat manoeuvres.

 Nugmanov employs a variety of genres – martial arts film, melodrama, crime film – and masterfully plays with their clichés, leaving gaps in place of all the anticipated action climaxes. The stylized world of The Needle, its cinematography and mise-en-scène make the film akin to a comic strip; this feeling is reinforced by Tsoi’s character Moro, who, with his exotic looks, physical strength and panther-like grace, black attire and sunglasses, looks more like a comic book than a film character.

The Needle contains a number of references to world cinema – from Jean-Luc Godard’s Au bout de souffle (1959) and the on-screen persona of Bruce Lee, to a quotation of an episode from Tarkovskii’s Zerkalo/Mirror (1974). In the high time of perestroika, when the democratization of culture had just begun, such pluralism of expressions was more than healthy for Soviet cinema, which throughout its history had been overwhelmed by subject matter and ideological conceptualization, whereas the usage of artistic devices was labelled as formalism and largely unwelcome.

Despite the diversity of the Kazakh New Wave directors’ backgrounds, the  techniques they employed had a lot of converging points. Pruner (1992) mentions the themes of lost generation and alienation, light irony, cinematic quotation and parody, absence of didactism and simplicity of the plot structure as characteristic features of the Kazakh New Wave films. Interestingly, the Kazakh New Wave directors tended to abandon epic tradition and orientalism for a more universal, i.e. Western, mode of film language, and, indeed, nothing in The Needle is Kazakh, apart from the location. Subject matter for the Kazakh New Wave films varied a lot, however. Trending themes of the perestroika period, like a critical revisiting of the Stalinist past, sex, drug abuse and violence in youth subcultures, or obscure avant-garde narratives were deliberately avoided. In the end Kazakh New Wave had the same origins as almost all new waves in film history: these films were a rebellious response to the filmmaking of the older generation, in this case dictated by tradition of Socialist Realism and largely shaped by Brezhnev’s stagnation.

When Tsoi's character Moro confronts his debtor Spartak, he drops a phrase that has become a saying among Russian speakers: “There are two kinds of people in this world: those, who sit on the pipes, and those, who need money. In our case, you're sitting on the pipe”. Across the post-Soviet space, the phrase quite quickly acquired a new meaning: there are two kinds of people in this world, those who are in oil business and those who live in poverty.

When Tsoi’s character Moro confronts his debtor Spartak, he drops a phrase that has become a saying among Russian speakers: “There are two kinds of people in this world: those, who sit on the pipes, and those, who need money. In our case, you’re sitting on the pipe”. Across the post-Soviet space, the phrase quite quickly acquired a new meaning: there are two kinds of people in this world, those who are in oil business and those who live in poverty. 

Pruner’s interpretation of the role of the Kazakh New Wave in the late Soviet cinema is useful in placing it on the map of Soviet cinema history as a manifestation of counter-culture. In the second half of the 1980s, Soviet audiences witnessed the production of films with bold statements and politically controversial content, the impact of which was often described as shock therapy with a purpose of cultural renaissance, which called for the destruction of socialist ideological mythology. The author maintains that mainstream Soviet cinema, in an attempt to reflect social and political change, very soon exhausted its potential; this repeated shock therapy popularized chernukha (grim films depicting bitter realities of Soviet life), as well as contributed to the invasion of the Soviet film market by cheap westerns, martial art movies, pornography and violence (1992: 797). It is in this critical moment that the new wave from the periphery appeared on the cultural scene.

Further reading

Brashinsky, Michael, and Horton, Andrew (eds). 1994. Russian Critics on the Cinema of Glasnost (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Brashinsky, Michael, and Horton, Andrew. 1992. The Zero Hour: Glasnost and Soviet Cinema in Transition (Oxford: Princeton University Press).

Lawton, Anna. 2002. Before the Fall: Soviet Cinema in the Gorbachev Years (Philadelphia: Xlibris).

Pruner, Ludmila. 1992. ‘The New Wave in Kazakh Cinema’, Slavic Review, 51(4), pp. 791-801.

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