- Contemporary Russian Cinema Symbols of a New Era by Vlad Strukov
When attempting to make sense of contemporary film industries, film movements, and national cinemas, one runs certain temporal risks. Unlike historical moments, which provide more opportunities for categorization and narrativization of events, contemporary moments can be more slippery. How can one define or analyze a narrative that is still in the process of evolving and unfolding? Such analytical challenges seem especially germane for contemporary Russian film, both film texts themselves and the culture into which they provide a window. Fascinating filmmakers like Andrei Zvyaginstev, Sergei Loznitsa, and Kirill Serebrennikov are in their prime, and the pernicious international aggression of Putin's government is not appearing to abate. How can one effectively write about contemporary Russian film when new chefs d'oeuvre and geopolitical intrigue could render an analysis obsolete in the space of even a year? Vlad Strukov manages to evade this problem altogether in his new book, Contemporary Russian Cinema: Symbols of a New Era, by analyzing contemporary Russian film not as a story still being told but as an ideal platform for the establishment of an ambitious theoretical framework.
At the outset of Contemporary Russian Cinema, Strukov takes great pains to orient the reader to the kind of analysis he wishes to perform. His goals are not to provide "an historical or thematic survey of current trends in Russian cinema. … [The book] does not privilege a particular filmmaker, nor does it seek to consider a few filmmakers as a distinct group, school, or wave" (15). Strukov is more interested in analyzing a set of twelve contemporary Russian films—all made by different directors—through the lens of "the symbolic mode," a term he borrows from Umberto Eco. Within this analysis, however, Strukov evolves Eco's definition of the symbolic mode by putting it in conversation with the work of the thinker whose presence is most clearly felt throughout the work: Alain Badiou. For Strukov, the symbolic mode involves "significative [End Page 73] resemblances (appearing) that suggest a particular orientation of the consciousness (subjectivity) required to reactualize the presence of appearing in the current world" (24). In other words, Strukov is interested in determining how symbolic imagery found in twenty-first-century Russian films radically transform the nature of the subject position within a narrative. He defines certain extreme subject positions, achieved through the symbolic mode, as demonstrating "non-knowledge," a kind of unattainable knowledge (e.g., imagining or even experiencing a subject position after death, a narrative choice Strukov explores often, especially in chapters 1, 7, 8, and 9). Though Badiou's work seems to have the most influence on Contemporary Russian Cinema, Strukov puts his ideas in conversation with an impressive array of philosophers and film theorists, including Deleuze, Derrida, Lacan, and Nietzsche, among others.
The arguments put forth in Contemporary Russian Cinema are most convincing when Strukov blends different kinds of research and analysis when showing how the symbolic mode is at play in Russian films. In chapter 4 Strukov offers a theory of the symbolic mode and "flattened discourse" as demonstrated by Zvyaginstev's Elena. He contextualizes his argument by citing Deleuze's preference for interpreting images within the world of a film instead of finding more outward representations within images. He goes on to link these ideas to the director's aesthetic preoccupations; by drawing from Zvyaginstev's published diaries along with commentary from the director and his long-time cinematographer, Mikhail Krichman, Strukov establishes tangible intentionality behind the use of symbolic imagery in Elena, thus giving real-world heft to the argumentation. From here, Strukov effectively shows how the film establishes motivic construction via images of sheets and screens that establish the presence of various cultural divisions within the film (i.e., gender, class) along with transforming the film's subject positions. Though Strukov often favors analysis of images as motivated by narrative, he also includes formal analysis in chapter 4 as well, discussing how Zvyaginstev's use of raking focus can transform...