‘Hey Gavrilo,’ I call out to my partner, who is busily scrubbing himself in the shower. ‘Would it be wrong to title my next post ‘Stalin Was a Party Pooper? The industrializing Soviet leader was, after all, a mass murderer. ‘Hell no,’ he replies. ‘Honey badger don’t care.’ So there you have it: his fault. I was about to ask him another question, but finally decided against it. The purpose of his new Old Spice shower gel, suspiciously called ‘The Playmaker,’ is his business. Honey badger don’t care about that either. She is nevertheless intrigued by the poetics of both historical and contemporary displays of manliness, scented or otherwise. More about that below.
First let’s explore my subtitle: ‘Russian Celebration.’ Is that phrase also potentially offensive to millions? Not at all. It refers to a remarkable moment in Sergei Eisenstein’s 1938 Soviet film, Alexander Nevsky, which features a thirteenth-century prince who defended ‘Mother Russia’ against invading Swedes and Germans.
My partner and I went to a screening of this well made propaganda movie on Wednesday evening. It was a full week of cultural whoring for me, involving operas, films, and art galleries, in addition to my usual philosophical reveries and literary adventures. I found Alexander Nevsky to be visually stunning, with battle scenes, organ-playing villains, and stylish caps that gave the Lord of the Rings trilogy a run for its money (http://youtube/jxlLbKspcQQ). [Not comrades, that money is the best measure of anything]. Best of all was the party held by the pre-Russian people after they had fought and watched fellow rebels die to defend their lands. In his victory speech, the stiff-shouldered Prince Nevsky first praises the warring peasants, then threatens those who might think their days of patriotic sacrifice are over, and finally spreads his arms wide to declare: ‘Now it is time to celebrate!’ The shot suddenly breaks from his face to show a close up view of an elderly, gray-bearded man. He feebly raises one arm in an arc over his head and shouts ‘Hooray!’ Luckily a subtitle beneath him spells out the word ‘Hooray!’ for the benefit of such anglo capitalist swines as myself. Another aggressive film edit returns us just as suddenly back to the steely gaze of Nevsky. The party is over. Yep. That was it. I imagine that Stalin put an end to the drunken medieval shenanigans that Eisenstein had originally scripted, shouting ‘put those lazy peasants immediately to work. Or else!’ After all, the moustached five-year-planner had appointed a ‘watcher’ designed to keep the filmmaker in line while he produced this state sanctioned film, to ensure that he would not relapse into excessive formalism. Alexander Nevsky is a rather narrative and unsubtle work in certain ways, but this abrupt and awkward ‘party’ montage represents, in my opinion, a political instance of resistance, calling attention to the censorship that the filmmaker had endured. Maybe. I am probably just being romantic in the banal and predictable way that is so popular during this time of the year. In addition to purchasing expensive restaurant meals, unfragrant bouquets of roses [ugh], and cheap diamond trinkets, people like to imagine that artists are rebels who resist regulations, and buck the system, when of course it is always the system that enables, inspires, and limits what they can do. I find this admission of temporary idealism embarrassing, for as you know I would proudly stab Cupid in his mass-produced tinfoil-covered heart. Need more proof of my callous disregard for annual displays of heterosexual love? Well, instead of our usual fiesta of nothingness, on February 14th my alluringly spiced partner and I will face each other, shout hooray while raising our arms in the air, and then get on with the mundane labour that fills our everyday lives. It’s a Russian Celebration bitches!
Will this entire post be about a communist movie made in the 1930s? I’m afraid so. But let me assure you that Alexander Nevsky contains many themes in keeping with recent Hollywood films: fleeting scenes of empowered women that are swiftly displaced by affirmations of traditional gender roles, calls for unthinking obedience to the government, and, of course, the glorification of dominant norms of masculinity. The standards of manliness have nevertheless changed. For instance, the figure of Prince Nevsky is played by a strapping middle-aged barrel-chested male who stands in front of crowds with hands on hips and chin in air. He is a take charge kind of guy, and will happily kick your ass for free. Just look at that tousled mop and fur cap!
His moralizing assertiveness is nothing like current media displays of desirable man musk. Consider a recent western battle that I like to call the Super Bowl. [Well that is kind of its official name]. Did anyone catch the David Beckham underwear ad for H & M? Unfortunately, I did not. Happily, during my French conversation lesson, my solemn tutor—you know, the one originally from Uganda—showed me the print version of this ad and demanded ‘Pourquoi?’ That was a damned fine question and I did not have an easy answer to it, or at least not one in flowing French. In keeping with our previous discussions of scantily clad models, I suspected that she was appalled by Beckham’s tight shorts, complete with prominent basket area. ‘Huh,’ I said in impeccable French. ‘This is actually a pretty interesting critique of gender, revealing him to be an objectified puppet who exposes his vulnerability in an effort to sell overpriced underwear to straight women intent on decreasing the flow of blood to their lover’s man parts. This constriction could, however, undermine the Valentine’s fuck fest in which they hope to participate.’ I pause: ‘Many gay men could also enjoy this image.’ Oh, how I wish that I had requested that poster to take home, for that particular shot is not available anywhere, and is certainly not online. In it, Beckham grins like a court jester, while posing with one arm raised and bent behind his head, perhaps in joking reference to his earlier Armani spread. Despite what you are thinking, the footballer is not celebrating á la Russe, but is rather adopting a conventional lady pose that declares: ‘my body is an aesthetic object that exists for your pleasure and can be reinscribed with meanings that circulate beyond my personal control.’ That’s right Pontiac, Beckham is feminized, and it is indeed rather appealing. Alas, the H & M photographs online show him standing solidly and gazing back in a more forceful way. Yet the TV commercial is a bit more gender-bending and I link it here. Just ignore the sound track that begs ‘please don’t let me be misunderstood.’ Your misunderstanding of his identity and sexuality is precisely the point. So go for it! http://youtu.be/eQb_-OY7Z0E
The willful refusal of gendered expectations is also found in Alexander Nevsky. When the peasants finally accept the Prince as their ruler, they suit up, getting ready to meet the invading huns. Women are not excluded from military battle. In fact, the character of Olga Danilovna waits in line [!] to have her everyday dress replaced by chainmail and a helmet [investiture alert]. Then she grabs a sword and heads into the fray. This useful action provides a nice contrast to her earlier objectification by two male friends, Gavrilo Oleksich and Vasili Buslaev, who both vie for her hand in marriage. For some reason, she has a hard time choosing between them, even though Gavrilo, who has dark eyes and hair, promises that she would be ‘mistress of her own home,’ whereas Vasili is a blonde buffoon intent on manhandling her. I think you can tell which one I would prefer. As Olga ineffectually waves her sword around [in the same lame way that I brandish a hockey stick] she vows to wed the man who is most courageous in battle. Sigh of disappointment. In the end, women are again portrayed as prizes to be claimed by the strongest man. Women are themselves judged on their appearance, not their actions or character, and are thus pretty much interchangeable. For when Gavrilo wins Olga as his wife—he has been stabbed and is near death—Vasili simply selects another fair maiden with breasts of approximately the same grandeur as those of Olga. It is the same old, same old: dashing heroes are rewarded with pussy. As for the ladies, any old man will do, as long as he still has breath in his lungs. Just like in today’s internet dating world. Happy V-Day everyone.