The Once and Future Living Dead: A Fast Walk with Zombies and Other Revenants through CINE FANTOM Times

Considering the Russian Orthodox obsession with the spirituality of the material world, the confrontational quality of godliness, it’s not too surprising that death’n-decay’re at the core of all things underground in the Soviet Union as well as Russia. Or: In the netherworld of all things post – from Communism to Modernism to the office – the post-mortem is the sole sign, even proof, of life; the underground, the beyond has to be the zone of aliveness when daily life, as such, is dead. Zombies walked, ghosts spectred, cinema that made real(ist?) sense – avant-garde?, retro-garde?: fuck! that! in this fecund constant becoming – had to be a phantom.

Originally, CINE FANTOM was a somewhat samizdat, homemade film magazine published for the first time in Moscow supposedly in 1985 by the late Igor Aleinikov. He and his younger brother Gleb were part of the Conceptualist Art circles of the day, tinkering around with notions / practices like mail art, etc. – and filmmaking, in a way nobody in the Soviet empire ever had made films, yet, too, in a way that didn’t feel alien in its obsession with violence and morbidity, as well as its absurdist sense of irony found when looking at things from just the opposite mind-angle. Just like, unbeknownst to them, several other people at that time did, most importantly: Yevgeny Kondratiev (nom de guerre: Debil), Yevgeny Yufit and the (rest of the) NekroRealists in then-Leningrad-now-Saint Petersburg, and Boris Yuhananov in Moscow.

All these people learned about each other mainly through their audience, common lore has it: they showed their works in all kinds of off-off- spaces/venues – (their own) apartments more often than not – where, sometimes, they were approached by viewers who told them about some other mad mavericks in this town or that, or just one ward away. Their backgrounds as well as artistic foundations were varied: the Aleinikovs, as mentioned, had a solid basis in the world of arts, ditto Jufit (painting, photography...) and Kondratiev, whereas Juhananov, more a video than a film guy, came from the theatre (and psychiatrical work); as filmmakers, they’re all autodidacts, although Jufit and the Aleinikovs later were for some time adopted by major film studios: Jufit and the other NekroRealists, whose first essays were produced via an independent studio called Mžalalafilm, found shelter in an Aleksandr Sokurov-supervised experimental wing of Lenfilm, while the Aleinikovs were granted sanctuary in a somewhat similar arm of Mosfilm – alliances both doomed to fail, which they did, although they produced some of strangest works both fractions came up with: Jufit’s Rycari podnebesja (1989) and the Aleinikovs’ Zdes kto-to byl (1989) and Tractor drivers-2 (1992), the latter being one of the most ‘generally readable’ works from the Parallel Cinema trenches.

It took until 1987 for CINE FANTOM to become more than a notion: Starting for real with the first festival of independent cinema called, surprise!, CINE FANTOM, it developed into an ever more officially recognized – if not necessarily but then again totally sanctioned – magazine-cum-screening-organiser which served as a forum for all kinds of shadow film and video activities in the Soviet Union – all that which is usually referred to as Parallel Cinema, a term coined by Igor – some say Aleinikov, others Pospelov (a nowadays somewhat forgotten original fantom). That said: For all its trans-USSR’ish attitude, as well as its part-rootedness in the Leningrad / Saint Petersburg underground, CINE FANTOM was more a creature of Moscow than anything else: the alliances of the Moscovites with folks from anywhere else were mainly of a tactical nature – while the NekroRealists in their aloof less-being!-more-nothingness!-ways cum rather more classically materialist approach to cinema probably didn’t mind using the more klischee-clusterfucking, hypersurrealism-prone dudes from the capital whose sensibilities seemed better synched to words and metaphors than images and the false safety of surfaces...

Over the decades, Leningrad / Saint Petersburg developed its very own underground idiom, quite independently from the Moscovites – just take the experimental animations of Boris Kazakov, an epigone in the noblest and truest sense of Yevgeny Kondratiev, Oleg Kotel’nikov and many another tinker and thinker of things scratch‘n painted onto celluloid, who – might have – belonged to the legendary group avant-garde outfit Severnyj poljus... CINE FANTOM’s heydays were the early Perestroika years when exploring new ideas and aesthetics was something of a national pastime: Everybody incl. granny and her goat, they fondly remember, checked out these weird experiments in subversion, just to know what it is, this strange creature developing in their midst, this freedom thing a lá Wäst.

The Aleinikovs as well as Jufit became international cause célèbres, while at hom Sergej Solovev knighted Parallel Cinema in his classic AssA (1987): the title itself is already an homage (-by mimicry/appropriation) to Yevgeny Kondratiev and Oleg Kotel’nikov who in 1984 made a short named AssA in which a dead chicken is ‘resurrected’ by running the material backwards (which, again, goes back to at least Vertov, etc.); more importantly, there’s a sequence for which Solovev re-mixed Kondratev’s Nanajnana (1986) with footage from Kotelnikov sporting shakily shot scenes of performances at Puškinskaja 10 (Leningrad / Saint Petersburg’s legendary colutural center) vis-à-vis weird hand-drawn and -painted images suggesting dreams and nightmares. (In 2009, Solov’ev presented 2-ASSA-2, a sequel to his cult classic that took a long, hard look at what had become of this underground’s dreams and hopes 20 years later – which is little, and most of that is the stuff too much of modern event culture is made of... Call it: a film-implosion.)

In 1990, the 17th issue of CINE FANTOM appeared – the last one. Other attempts at a CINE FANTOM-magazine would follow. All things CINE FANTOM petered towards the mid-90s, with the plane crash-death of Igor Aleinikov in 1994 as a crassly slashed exclamation mark: End!; only Jufit developed a career inside his own system and aesthetic, even if his latest work, Pryamohoždenie (2005), a(nother) speculation about strange Stalinist experiments in quadruple-cloning (cf. 4, d: Ilja Hržanovskij, 2004), shows signs of an irritating interest in coming to terms with a wider arthouse audience.

Otherwise, other folks took over organising the unorganisable: from 1993-5, eg. a festival of underground cinema was held under the umbrella Exotica. That said: As cinema was always only one of several arts in which most of the fantoms created, they didn’t really go astray, just shifted focus – Yukhananov, e.g., became a kind of counter-paragon of Russian theatre whose experimental offerings, adaptations of classics like Chekhov’s Vishnevyi Sad (The Cherry Garden) as well as his own works like The Story of the Erect Man, folks still talk about; his theater group MIR, again, proved to be a breeding ground for new underground hopefuls, like Alexander Doulerajn who’d develop into a key-figure of Russian Parallel Cinema, or Andrey Silvestrov who’d turn into one of the most interesting video artists of the new millenium’s beginning, or Olga Stolpovskaya and Dmitry Troitsky whose co-directorial feature debut effort You I Love (2004) became an international break-through film for a contemporary Russian indie-cinema (early Sundance cool with a Moscovite lip...).

In 1995, CINE FANTOM was resurrected for the first time under the aegis of above-mentioned MIR’ean plus Gleb Aleinikov – as something like the experimental film-arm of the Moscow Cinema Museum. This went on till 2000. In the early third millennium, 2002, to be exact, the Fantom was back again – and stranger then ever: First, CINE FANTOM tried to re-group in the Moscow Cinema Museum, but after a famously scandalous screening session head-lined ‘Better Porn than Never,’ officialdom’s mighties turned uncollaborative. So, CINE FANTOM became a non-structure: It exists as an idea plus social network that occasions events – an already established organisational force cum klischee, supported in this way or that by STS-TV where several of its key players could carve out (at least for some time) fat careers for themselves (above all Gleb Aleinikov who stopped filmmaking and serves now as the Fantom’s organisational mastermind, Alexander Doulerajn and Ol’ga Stolpovskaja); fittingly, some of the most fascinating and old school-CINE FANTOM’y productions from the last years got made for TV, cf. Dulerajn’s full frontal trashy-nuts 20-part series Bunker (2004) – Lloyd Kaufman of Troma who’d been a guest of CINE FANTOM would surely approve of this gem.

The development inside CINE FANTOM, the whole Parallel Cinema-world, well, Russia in general, come to think of it, is probably best hinted at by looking at two quasi-remakes, the Aleinikovs’ seminal Tractor Drivers-2 and Pavel Labazov & Andrey Silvestrov & Vladislav Mamyshev-Monroe’s irreverent masterpiece Volga-Volga (2006): The first, a true Perestroika-beast – and the Brother’s already second assault on the sacred tractor – plays with, twirls, jerks around motives from Ivan Pyrev’s classic of Stalinist enterganda Traktoristij (1939), while the latter invades Grigorij Aleksandrov’s Volga-Volga (1938) by taking this darling of Sovtainment as such and changing only a few things around, like replacing the head of the film’s star, Ljubov Orlova, with Mamyshev-Monroe’s impersonation of her... The Aleinikov Brothers, during the years their country changed around and around, contemplated the notion - echt Russian: the folly - of change as such: Tractor Drievrs-2 is a sequel-as-remake, a study in aesthetic haunting, and how one can’t just shed some old skin for a new one – the past is a construction one needs to work with - ever so gleefully iconoclastically - in order to get a grip on it; or: Even taking the piss is work. The film’s cast presents something of a stand-of between the Old Guard and the avant-garde, with several Soviet stars in the lead side by side with icons of the underground – and it works, as a confrontation, with no quarter considered by any side.

Seventeen years later, it has become possible to campolustily indulge in the kind of aesthetics the Aleinikov Brothers needed to question: Labazov & Silvestrov & Mamyshev-Monroe reclaim the Soviet era for themselves, an impossible thing to do without taking an ever so pranksterish critical stance towards it, but also a necessity, for it would be a waste of history/lives/possibilities if one just wanted to forget about it; in a certain way, their Volga-Volga does similar things as a bunch of film historians and theoreticians have been doing in the last about-decade when they worked on reassessing the œuvres of masters like, well, Pyrev and Aleksandrov.

The past is also one of the many subjects of Boris Yuhananov’s hopeful monster Mad Prince (1986/2006), an everything-at-once of documentary, fiction, essay, and if one can think of something else, just add it. The project, a video-roman of 20 chapters, was started in 1986, principal photography ended about ‘89, the basic conceptualization of how to deal with it all fixed in the mid-90s – and then, Yukhananov stopped (and did other extraordinary videos), hundreds of tapes were lying around and starting to fade, some got lost, among them the chapter Godard (yes, there is significance and justice in decay).

It was only in 2005 that Yukhananov started to finish his opus super- magnum – and what a whatthefuck!soever it became: A memorandum to an era whose protagonists are by now more often than not dead - that the image is so statograiny and already magnetopaled gives the whole damn thing a ghost photography charm -, as well an an exemplification of that era’s theories/notions/ideals, in particular chapter #5, Nipponese, an exercise in what Yukhananov calls ‘fatal editing’. Two of the four chapters Yukhananov was able to finish first are, quite simply, extraordinary: #2, XO Game, and #3, Esther. The latter is a lamento-variation on the biblical story of Esther done as an allusion to the Chechen catastrophe(-to-come back then) as well as an essay over the ever-latent antisemitism in Russia and beyond (the credits quote Luther’s ranting against the canonical status of the Book of Esther). As always, Yukhananov took only a few choice elements - ranging from a Falco’s Austro-pop-paean to a serial killer to a discussion with a Cecen writer going nationalistoballistic - and arranged them in such a way that they open each other up: The whole thing goes BOOOM with meaning and poetry.

XO Game, then, feels - looks, sounds, stinks really - as if someone just vomited out his soul-guts: It’s a thick, rawest slice of Fuck You!, an acting-out of a sense of lostness in a country that’s just not able to take whatever any more – Russia as a prison cell and a bomb is ticking, with people hemorrhaging words, walking blind in a visionless world. The main thing here, as well as in the other chapters so far, is the editing, live-giving however fatal it might be. Yukhananov has a fine sense of rhythm as well as the kind of artistic ego that’s capable of creating-by-chopping: Each cut is so decisive that everything happening in the image always feels just and there for a reason, no matter how amateurish it all looks – it’s really more Punk than anything else, SovPunk, therefore inyerface’r than anything those Western sissies could ever gob up. Besides all that, XO Game is a most haunting experience: not only are the images sometimes bordering on gone - cheap technology that took a hard hit from time and its desolate frolic: destruction - but quite a lot of people seen are: gone. XO Game is the head stone of CINE FANTOM.

These days, CINE FANTOM is more a brand than an organization: a celebration of a fascinating past whose values and ideas/ideals shan’t have been in vain. Besides having more or less regular shows with excessive after show-discussions (especially whenever über-orator Yukhananov shows up...), CINE FANTOM features all kinds of media works ranging from videos by artists like Juri Leiderman or Olga Cernisheva to low-budget feature films like Petr Hazizov’s forgettable Manga (2005). The presence of Hazizov shows quite well the kind of cultural/industrial ley lines along which the revenant CINE FANTOM moves: Hazizov owns one of Russia’s biggest CGI-outfits and is, like Gleb Aleinikov or Dulerajn, something of a force in the new world of Russian media.

Fittingly, CINE FANTOM is mellowing a bit towards the middle ground and -brow, it seems: Dulerajn & Sergey Koryagin’s feature-length grotesque Ivan the Idiot (2002) eg. feels, for all its bite and often cruel jest, positively charming and almost mild-mannered in its view of the world, while the CINE FANTOM Screenings during the XXIX Moscow International Film Festival consisted mainly of works one finds in competitions of places like Locarno or Rotterdam (the most outré work on offer was easily Nina Šorina’s Nietzsche v Moskve, a fantasy about the Tyrant of Torino’s visit to nowaday’s Moscow). One should also mention that CINE FANTOM isn’t cinema/video avant-garde’s centre anymore, but one of several players in the field – let’s only mention the International Kansk Video Festival (aka The Thinking Man’s Cannes aka The Eastern Kanne) which established itself as a prime force in underground cinema, CINE FANTOM’s partner eg. at a Russian Avant-garde Film festival in London, 2009; fittingly, CINE FANTOM doesn’t seem to be interested in supporting as vast a range of experimental film or video modes of expression, their makers, even if they’re from around the corner – the works of Moscovite Viktor Alimpiev and his epigones like Marian Žunin and Sergej Višneskij eg. seem to mean precious little to them, ditto the mad movideo outbursts of Svetlana Baskova whose Zelenyj slonik (1999) shall for all eternity be considered a world underground art axiom...

Let’s say: CINE FANTOM is the Russian avant-garde’s arrière-garde – they keep the overall project alive from the back and side-lines. As paragon of artistic disobedience, they cast an almost impossibly long shadow over Russia’s alternative arts and media – essentially, they’re still the measuring rod.

Olaf Möller is a film critic, writer and curator based in Cologne