SIFF 2010: Valery Todorovsky rocks on in ‘Hipsters’

[Originally published in Queen Anne & Magnolia News, June 9, 2010]

When it comes to cinema, for some of us (not naming names here), the terms “Russian” and “lugubrious” tend to be interchangeable. So encountering a movie like Hipsters is either liberating or deeply unsettling to one’s core values. This rollicking musical comedy, or comedy with lotsa music, is a hoot.

It’s 1955, and Moscow—or at least a portion of its teens verging on 20somethings—does not believe in tears. On the other hand, quite a few party-line Communist youths do, and some of them are marshaling to conduct a night raid: a group of self-styled “hipsters” their age have gathered in a remote outbuilding to play jazz and dance. When the celebrants twig to the raid and try to escape, scissors-wielding apparatchiks lay hold of them and set about shearing their hair, which is done up in decadent fashion perceived to be Western. One gorgeous blonde (Elena Glikman) breaks free and runs into the adjacent park, with fervent reformer Mels (Anton Shagin) in pursuit. Even though the dance has been broken up, rambunctious jazz music continues on the soundtrack and scores their chase through the trees, tracked by a rushing camera in CinemaScope ecstasy.

Actually, Mels isn’t necessarily all that fervent in his commitment to repression. It’s more a matter of his having been browbeaten into it by his party supervisor and sorta-girlfriend Katya (Evgeniya Khirivskaya), a dark-haired zealot who gives every indication of being a stunner if only someone were to melt her severity a little. He catches up with the fleeing blonde, who identifies herself as Polza, which a second later isotopically transmutes into “Polly.” Even nicknames are vehicles for decadent Western influence, and it’s not long before Mels has become (say it isn’t so, comrade!) “Mel.”

Hipsters is one of two films representing SIFF 2010 Emerging Master Valery Todorovsky. The other, the 1998 Land of the Deaf, was not available for preview.

The term “master,” emerging or otherwise, doesn’t seem to apply to any of this year’s SIFF candidates (Kathleen Murphy has written about Mohamed Al-Daradji and Ana Kokkinos in previous issues), but in Hipsters Todorovsky unquestionably musters considerable stylistic bravura and infectious energy. His camerawork is ambitious and exuberant—at one point, looking down from directly overhead as it tracks above the warren of small, shabby rooms constituting one Moscow apartment building. SIFF publicity has been pushing the notion that this is a movie in the style of classic MGM musicals, but in scenes like that one especially it feels closer to the more realistically grounded epic impulses of Julien Temple’s Absolute Beginners.

Some of that also comes through at several points when Todorovsky cuts away from a character in musical transport to show the person in the mundane reality of the daily life from which hipsterism provides a reprieve. These glimpses last too long to be described as subliminal, but not long enough to take on more than caricaturish value. In short, they’re mostly distracting—and in the case of Mels’ good-natured, salt-of-the-earth proletarian dad (Sergey Garmash), who gets a wartime flashback rather than a window on workaday reality, we mostly are made aware of how much that character is being shortchanged by the narrative design of the film.

OK, so much for sober critical carping. Mostly, Hipsters reaches for and entertainingly sustains a note of eternal-adolescent glee. And it’s kidding on the square, never losing sight of the fact that its cool kids are grasping at the consolation of an ideology—a “costume”—as reflexively as the other sort of Party animals with their rigid adherence to state orthodoxy. But they have a lot more fun with it.