Blockers

Some recent films have shown us the other side of public masculinities, placed firmly back in the present and in their domestic environments, deprived of their nostalgic glow, often in gendered confrontation with women and at a generational war with their adolescent offspring. It is no coincidence that this group of films has had better success at addressing adolescent audiences, who tend to be consumed by identity crises raging within their own personal spheres. In Eastern Europe, the socialist decades generated universal skepticism toward political action. The corruption of postsocialist party politics, made more conspicuous to the public eye in an era of media proliferation, has done little to revive civic enthusiasm. The adolescent population of the region appears to be especially apathetic toward matters of national and international concern.10

The first internationally recognized film that spoke of the unspoken lives of Russian teenagers was Little Vera (1988), a film best described as a perestroika melodrama. While the film gained notoriety because its onscreen nudity broke the representational rules of Soviet prudishness, its honesty about a family trying to survive in the dehumanizing blocks of flats omnipresent behind the Iron Curtain lent the film relevance far beyond the sensational, and crossed the boundaries of its national cinema. In Little Vera, as well as in the number of subsequent transitional adolescence melodramas, the feminizing effect of the transition finds representational expression in young female characters. The primary experience of the teen girls in these films is confinement, producing a desire to escape. The confinement is both physical, represented by the crammed living spaces in blocks of flats, and symbolic, manifest in suffocating families with abusive, alcoholic fathers and submissive, masochistic mothers. These are families whose members can only speak in agitated tones, always on the verge of verbal and physical violence.

Vera makes the choice to seek liberation in sexuality, spending her time

This Russian poster for the "perestroika melodrama'' Little Vera (1988) features the title character (Natalya Negoda) in a remarkably salacious manner.

in bed—or on the beach, in the absence of domestic privacy—with her rebellious boyfriend, Sergei, who is despised by her father. After much violence, a suicide attempt, and the death of her father, Vera is no closer to escaping her victimized condition than she was at the beginning of the film. In an even more devastating version of Vera's story, Lilya-4-Ever (2002), the protagonist, 16-year-old Lilya, who lives in a rundown post-Soviet Baltic industrial town, does not even have a family anymore. Her single mother unexpectedly abandons her to join her boyfriend in New York. Lilya's situation goes from unspeakably bad to worse, rendered even more horrific by the film's documentary-like realism and the certainty that there are many actual girls in analogous situations.

Lilya is forced out of her small apartment into a filthy hole where, after being brutally cast out of school and block communities, she isolates herself from the outside world by sniffing glue and finding a younger boy, Alyo-sha, whose own abusive father forces him to live in the street, for a companion. Lilya soon resorts to prostitution to survive. Her fate seems to take a more fortunate turn when a dashing young man picks her up one night and promises to take her to Sweden, where he has "connections." After this omi-

In Lilya-4-Ever (2002), Lilya (Oksana Akinshina) suffers a terrible adolescence that leads to prostitution and suicide.

nous event, there is nothing to save Lilya from the traffic in naive and hopeless Russian women. The director relentlessly subjects the viewer to such an escalation of suffering and humiliation that Lilya's suicide—introduced by her dream of an angel-winged flight with her only human connection, Alyo-sha—comes as a relief.

Teenage prostitution is also the theme of Wiktor Grodecki's three films, set in Prague. Not Angels but Angels (1994) and Body Without a Soul (1996) feature interviews with teen boy prostitutes in the streets of Prague. The look into their world is almost sensationally candid. The boys, most without families, fleeing to the city from crammed blocks of flats, sell their bodies predominantly for German tourists. The sex is unprotected and the living is precarious. Mandragora (1997), Grodecki's third feature film about teen prostitution, focuses on Marek, who tries to make it in Prague after running away from his small Czech town and tyrannical father. Within a short time, he winds up destitute, drugged out, and infected with AIDS, dying next to a public toilet. This is almost too much to bear, not the least because Gro-decki's naturalistic treatment of sex and drug abuse, along with the stilted dialogue, verges on sexploitation. As Andrew Horton argues, the director's failure to go beyond shocking and simplistic moralization turns the film into a "mockumentary."11

The film that popularized the name "blockers" (blokerski in Polish) to describe an emerging group of lower-class postsocialist youth whose existence is defined by the depressing, faceless blocks of flats emblematic of the socialist era,12 is the Polish Robert Glinski's recent black-and-white documentary-style feature Czesc, Tereska (Hi, Tereska, 2001).13 Both the plot and the semi-documentary presentation are eerily similar to those of Little Vera: Tereska, who lives in a Warsaw tenement with an unemployed, violent, and alcoholic father and an uncommunicative, church-bound, factory-worker mother, has all her angel-dreams crushed by loveless circumstances. Under peer influence, she drifts toward cigarettes, alcohol, horny teenage boys, and petty theft. She strikes up a friendship with Edek, a handicapped factory doorman; when Edek reveals his own emotional-sexual desperation, she murders him. In Poland, the film became a much-discussed social document about a new generation of hopeless young people and rising adolescent crime. It also made international media news by virtue of the fact that the actress playing Tereska, whom Glinski found in an institution for juvenile delinquents and whose performance won numerous festival awards, disappeared after the film was completed to resort to her old criminal habits. They found her a year later and placed her in another institution.14

Glinski admits that the film was inspired by Polish newspaper reports about growing teenage violence and that he consciously situates his work in a realistic, documentary tradition.15 Yet the degree of intimacy and permeability between life and fiction grows beyond the socially committed artistic desire to document slices of reality unseen by propaganda cameras and mainstream fiction films. It owes something to the global postmodernist aesthetics of media simulation that increasingly encompass postsocialist societies. Similar to Grodecki's Mandragora, Glinski's film has more to do with reality television than the filmmakers would have us believe. Even though the grim image of hopeless and murderous Polish Gen-X-ers is as true as the utter vulnerability of teenage prostitutes in Prague, they also make for newsworthy stories and ideal media spectacles. It is no longer possible to effect a neat barrier between noble artistic intentions and less noble journalistic intentions in the postsocialist media world.

The Hungarian Krisztina Deâk's film Miskolci Bonni és Klâjd (Bonnie and Clyde of Miskolc, 2004), currently in postproduction, is probably the latest case of sensationalized youth violence in point. The film narrates the recent criminal adventures of a real-life couple from the gray industrial town of Miskolc. Admittedly inspired by film and television models—hence the title—the couple has gone on a bank-robbing spree. After they eventually get caught, the man kills himself in prison, while the woman writes a memoir about their adventures. This makes her famous in Hungary, and their story is turned into an action-adventure thriller that promises to be rather profitable when released, not the least because its media-inspired real-life-turned-into-media reputation guarantees it a continued media spotlight.

1 Y budapest

While films about "blockers" may not be the entertainment of choice for most Eastern and Central European teens, at least they engage with the actual lives of a significant group of "transitional" youth, even if their interest is often limited to shocking, media-worthy desperation. It appears that some acknowledgment of the particular postmodern ethics and audiovisual sensibilities of this in-between, "alpha-omega" generation 16—the inheritors of socialist memories and the pioneers of a globalizing Eastern Europe—is indispensable for films in order to reach teen audiences at all. Director Ágnes Incze's first feature, I Y Budapest, is among the few recent films that have recognized this necessity.17

The film opens with the camera tracking along a beige-colored texture with vertical lining. It is impossible to tell if this is an aerial shot of wheat fields, an extreme close-up of a knit pattern, or something altogether different. As it turns out, this playful confusion about truth and appearances, or, more specifically, about the manipulative nature of mediated experiences, is a central theme of the film, evident in all of its registers. The credit sequence continues with a few shots that seem to be mocking TV commercials. Two women are shown from behind, walking hand-in-hand to a light techno beat on the sound track, introduced by close-ups on various body parts that feature the women's matching clothes items and accessories: platform shoes, jeans skirts, shoulder bags. When the camera cuts to a frontal long shot, the tone of satire overwhelms the commercial cool. The two women turn out to be a mother-daughter pair. The twin outfits emphasize the mother's less-than-glamorous figure next to the attractive teen daughter's, especially in the marked absence of supportive bras: the camera is mesmerized by breasts playfully bouncing to the extra-diegetic rhythm. The environment—a dirt road with power lines above—could still maintain the impression of a chic commercial until a bright-red truck intrudes into the frame from behind the women and covers them with dust.

As the ensuing brief dialogue informs us, mother and daughter are parting: the daughter, Anikó, is off to a new adventure in the capital. Escaping the backward, suffocating rural home to seek one's fortune in the city is a familiar theme from other East and Central European films. In this case, however, the daughter has a harmonious relationship with her plump but youthful mother, while no tyrannical father complicates the picture. Aniko is simply lured by her old high school friend, Monika—whose promises of adventure and money can only be found in Budapest.

What follows in the rest of the film is summed up by an American reviewer this way: ''What if Dawson's Creek took place in urban Hungary and all its stars were factory workers, sluts, and crooks!?''18 It quickly turns out that it is not enough to be young and pretty to have fun in Budapest, and that Aniko's romantic idealism makes her profoundly unfit for the world of crime and prostitution that Monika prescribes as the bitter pill to swallow in order to be able to afford push-up bras and attract wealthy boyfriends. Yet, Aniko does not end up a junkie or a prostitute, as the rules of other realistic teen representations would have it. The director manages to save some of her protagonist's idealism—even if this requires a flight from the street police into the realm of the fantastic in a magic car at the film's conclusion.

This film constitutes a refreshing new cinematic look at East and Central European youth precisely to the extent that it keeps its distance both from the gritty allegorical narratives of blockers and angels and from the glamorized soap-opera passion of Dawson's Creek. The film employs elements of both genres: Aniko and Monika chat about Madonna's lifestyle, are obsessed with stylishly revealing clothes, and dream about a real man, but they are also shown doing demanding physical work on the assembly line of a factory, where an older woman, exhausted and desensitized by mere survival during socialism as a working-class mother and wife, instructs Aniko that she must ''bear it; struggle on.'' While Aniko's relationship with Miki, the security guard, has its own satisfying romantic moments, there are just as many ways in which the film's realism punctures spectatorial idealism, sometimes quite literally: Miki gets a flat tire while on a secret job mission; while the couple wade into a lake one night to bond in the water, the camera, with help from a car's headlights, focuses on a sizable hole in Miki's underwear.

It is in the representation of gender roles that Incze's sense of humor most effectively creates a more true and up-to-date image of contemporary East European teens than the stereotypes offered either by local poetic-allegorical realism or global soap-opera realism. Aniko's girly naivete, small-town ideas of family idyll, and the nurturing role she assumes in relation to Miki (''you need to water him like a flower,'' she says in defense of her patience toward Miki's brutish masculinity to Monika) are just as painful to bear as Monika's increasingly desperate attempt to project an image of tough worldliness to support her denial about being exploited by a jerk of a boyfriend. The film makes it clear that the Budapest cool that Monika compromised her way into is sustained by the glamorous allure of media consumption. Its temples are fast-food establishments with blinding neon lights and nightclubs where young drug lords greet each other with gestures borrowed from Hollywood youth films while cramming as many swear words as possible into their incessant cell-phone conversations.

But Aniko turns out to have an inner strength and wisdom, and Miki's uncivilized manners turn out to hide a sweet and loving personality, even though their happy union is only conceivable in this film in a car flying over the same unidentifiable beige pattern with which the film opened. Incze refuses to yield either to the pull of the local cinematic tradition of the past or to the glittery, imported media vision of the future. The former is often more concerned with finding a proper allegorical impression for the plight of the nation or the struggles of the intelligentsia during an ongoing historical crisis than with representing a unique generational identity, while the latter's stilted exaggeration of youthful self-absorption exploits the narcissism of teen viewers for better box office success. Ultimately, both approaches deprive teens of their generational agency. Of course, the price to pay for making films that reflect the postsocialist teen generation's peculiar confusions is the films' limited appeal outside of Eastern Europe. Yet, I Y Budapest, with its mocking commentary on how media globalization permeates both backward rural purity and rotten cosmopolitan hipness, is probably the closest to an indigenous youth film and a rich source of material about the generational sensibilities of postsocialist teens.

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