FILM OF THE WEEK: Hipsters
by Vadim Rizov
For the past six weeks, at least 10 million Americans have been turning to CBS Monday nights to hear hipster jokes. "I wear knit hats when it's cold out," Kat Dennings nonsensically told a "hipster" in the pilot episode of hit sitcom 2 Broke Girls. "You wear knit hats because of Coldplay." It's unclear what a band that's sold over 50 million records worldwide has to do with self-conscious pursuers of the obscure and impractical, but the animating impulse is clear: Dennings is struggling to get by on a lousy diner waitress job, and all these jobless brats are getting in her face. This is apparently a message American TV watchers can relate to.
2 Broke Girls takes place in the badly remembered "Brooklyn" of exponentially more dangerous past years, with subway segments shot on a subway car out of The Warriors; Hipsters, the very real title of Russia's 11th-highest grossing film of 2008, also addresses everyday workers' hatred of impractically dressed layabouts, glancing back a little further to 1955. "Hipsters" is the closest translation of stilyagi, a temporally specific movement of (essentially) rockabilly-fetishizing Russians existing in a cultural bubble. The USSR would never be a totally safe place, but the mild, post-Stalin, Khruschev-era cultural thaw allowed for non-conformist clothing that was, in reality, still baggier and less neon-shocked than those of this film's characters, who dress in outsized jackets and tasteless color palettes like '80s video refugees. Their parents scream at them about the sartorial affront to all their hard work and a potentially life-threatening provocation of the regime; tram cars of weary proles, young and old, begin angrily cross-talking at a traveling hipster. Little kids kick rubber balls at the youths' backs while chanting "Hipster!"
Faithful Komsomol youth Mels (Anton Shagin) falls for rebellious Polly (Oksana Akinshina). Mels' union of youth communists like to raid hipster gatherings with large pairs of scissors: they don't just trim off aberrant hairstyles but snip girls' pantyhose and grope their asses. Mels chases Polly only to have her throw him in the lake; from this baptismal imagery, he emerges a fully reborn "stilyaga" (singular form), inflating his hair into an impressively puffy make-do pompadour, strutting around with one less letter in his first name in what's effectively a leisure suit. Courting Polly with a sax solo leads to a magical night in a bedroom tucked away in a communal apartment ("don't use the bathroom," he's told).
These 1955 Soviet rockers indulge a funhouse image of American rockabilly, swiveling their hips to sax solos closer to AM sleaze than the explicitly name-checked jazz/early rock reference points (most notably a neon billboard reading "Sarah Vaughn" during a dream sequence). The music is often tasteless, but director Valery Todorovsky's visual imagination is undeniable. Hipsters arrives in Los Angeles this weekend, just a few months after the 30th anniversary of MTV's first broadcasts, and its ideas of visual sophistication owe a lot to anachronistic Music Video Greatest Hits tropes: Polly changes out of work clothes and zips her colorful skirt in a slutty take on video softcore. (With lots of gratuitous nudity, the movie's cheerfully oversexed.) Mels' expulsion from the Komsomol takes on surely deliberately echoes of "Another Brick in the Wall," with grey-coated indistinguishable youth screaming in a school auditorium about moving forward as one chain in unity, etc. Constant excesses make monochromatic socialist realism the starting points for over-the-top imagery: an MGM-style musical number in which men shop for Communist-era versions of grey flannel shots in only slightly differing shades of grey and black gets the period color palette exactly right, with elaborately choreographed dances dispelling the drabness.
In Karen Shakhnazarov's 2009 The Unexamined Empire, there's an early '70s scene where nervous young men walk through a Moscow park in broad daylight, asking men in trenchcoats for Pink Floyd albums and scattering when the police arrive. Such low-key scenes are hyperbolized in Hipsters, where the trenchcoated men now stand in dark alleyways (often in the rainy night) and serve as black market conduits to instrument bootleggers, tie-mongers and hoarders of 45" records. One minute Mels is on the street, the next in a pub where beer swillers (their Adam's apples swallowing in synchronized foley'd unison) dance as a sax dealer sings "Jazz is seen in this country as an enemy force/I'd keep on filling her tanks up with wine and vodka." Hipsters is as bizarrely constrained in its lyrics as any of the weird, officially sanctioned Communist musicals excerpted in the 1997 documentary East Side Story. Where once chirpy Youth Brigade members sang about meeting their production quota and searching for the housing superintendent, here history (not censorship) dictates the lyrical subject matter and guides it along the same channels: for perhaps the first time, a youth Communist party meeting expels a member in song.
Over two lengthy hours, the film rises and falls on the strength of its musical numbers, which occasionally rise to tour-de-force status, culminating in a dreamy, non-literal shot of Mel triumphantly striding down Moscow's present-day streets, jumping 40 years of history as a crowd of mohawked punks, slovenly ravers and other future hipsters cheer him down the street. It's a foolishly jolly leap from one sanitized past to an even more sugar-coated present. An instant kitsch classic, Hipsters layers schlock on top of painful history to often disorienting effect.