Friday, February 19, 2010

The Hippest Film Ever Made!

My favourite Portland tradition has arrived in full force: The Portland International Film Festival. This is the 33rd year. I've attended a few films each year since 2007. Unfortunately, the organizers of this festival did not take into account the Winter Olympics, as both started on the same day and covers the same number of days. Didn't they realize that some people might be interested in both? What's an internationalist like me to do?

Well...unfortunately, I am not able to go up to Vancouver BC for the weekend during the Olympics like I had originally wanted to when I moved out here in 2006 (another failure in my big plans for a new life in the PacNW...as nothing I had wanted to accomplish has come true). To me, Vancouver BC is the perfect city to host the Olympics (either summer or winter). If it was an American city, I would have moved there instead of Portland in 2006. It ranks in the top 3 of my favourite cities that I've been to. Though its only a 6 hour drive from Portland, I couldn't find anyone who was willing to make a day trip. The cost of going increases dramatically if you add in overnight lodging, thus I would have preferred a simple day trip. Even if I couldn't attend any events, there's still a vibe to tap into. Plus, its the best opportunity to meet with people from around the world. The Olympics truly transformed Atlanta during the period it was going on...but once it was gone, Atlanta was back to its Southern provincialism. I'm still amazed sometimes when I think about Atlanta winning the right to host the 1996 Olympics.

Anyhow, though I can't experience the Olympics in person, I am enjoying it on television and will write a post about my thoughts later. For now, there's the Portland International Film Festival, which is undoubtedly my favourite tradition in Portland. I start craving it after the holiday season ends. The guidebook to the hundred films is published in early February and its great simply to sit down and browse through the short descriptions of each film, trying to decide which ones I want to see. I usually have a preference, which goes like this: I'll consider the country first, which means that France, Australia, Germany, Italy, South Africa, and Thailand will be considered first. Next, I look at the subject matter. This means anything dealing with Nazis, fascists, communists, history, spirituality, or travel is high on my list. Finally, the story has to be compelling or intriguing. This year, there were ten films I wanted to see. However, that would be a major expense, so I had to pare down that list to an affordable four. This is where I had to weight options using my standards of logic and biases. Logic in terms of what is worth the admission price and what may end up getting a longer run in regular theaters this spring. Bias, as in...Australia gets the absolute must see vote.

On Monday, I did see an Australian film, which I will write about later, once I have seen my four selections. The other film selections I made is a Russian film set during the height of the Cold War period (1955), an Italian film about the rise of Benito Mussolini, and a German film about a couple on vacation in Sardinia (how could I resist that? I hope the town I lived in from 1991 through 1994, La Maddalena, has at least a cameo appearance).

Last night, I went to see Hipsters, the Russian film. Man, I was completely blown away by its spectacle and brilliance! The wow-factor is HUGE for me. This movie better be available to buy on DVD in the USA at some point because I'm definitely owning this one. I've only seen a few Russian films and thought they were okay, nothing to get excited about. This one, though, is definitely the one Russian film people should see. Based on the description in the PIFF booklet, Hipsters is about a young man who is part of the Communist Youth group that goes around raiding "decadent parties" where "hipsters" are present. This young man, Mels, finds himself smitten with a hipster girl and soon gets involved with her social group. They stand out from the crowd with their strange clothing (really bright colours, often clashing outfits) and pompadour hairstyles.

This is 1955, where conformity was king (Soviet citizens wore a uniform gray), yet these rebels were enthralled with the American culture they imagined it to be. In reality, American culture was just as conformist as Soviet culture in the 1950s. That's what's so fascinating about this movie for me. The ironies abound. Our two countries may have been in a Cold War, viewing the other as an enemy not to be trusted, but the reality is that we had more in common than most people realized. In the U.S., accusations of being a communist ruined careers in Hollywood and the government. In the USSR, accusations of being a hipster or being too interested in American culture could get one thrown in jail. The irony is that the most conformist minded anti-communist in the U.S. would most likely be the most pro-Soviet citizen had that person been born in the USSR instead of the USA. Most people don't seem to realize that they are conformist minded to the culture they were born in. The true rebels are those who, like me, are fascinated by other cultures and even adopt foreign styles as their own. Lord knows, I've been accused of being a commie all my life. I wear it as a badge of honour, because I know the truth. Had I been born in the USSR, I would have been a hipster, like these young people in this ultra-cool movie.

Pictured above is the lady whom Mels falls for. Like Avatar, all it takes is a woman to lead a man astray. Its more than that, though. What repressives don't seem to understand is that when you restrict another person's freedom by banning things, it only makes the forbidden item that much more alluring. In contrast to the dull gray world of the Soviet Union in the 1950s, the colourful clothing, the doo-wop jazz, and the unrestrictive dancing proves too much to resist.

The biggest surprise for me was that this film is actually a musical. The singing is in Russian, but the melodies are pretty catchy and the lyrics quite funny. I generally don't like musicals, but I love good music, which this film has plenty of. Standouts include a scene where the female Communist Youth leader (who I thought was way more beautiful than the lady Mels falls for) sings from a podium to the Communist Youth sitting before her. Its reminiscent of a scene out of Evita, though the song had hints of Eminem. It was simply hip that way. The closing scene in the film was quite simply a HOME RUN! As the protagonist sings his way on the streets of Moscow in his 1955 attire, Russians of all kinds (punks, anarchists, goths, regular types) walk along side him. The scene is meant to convey how much Russia has changed, where individual expression is the norm thanks to hipsters of the 1950s who dared to dress differently despite the ridicule, harassment, and threats of arrest. The song is beautiful, but the scene is perfect. No wonder why this film won the Russian equivalent of the Oscar for Best Picture. It presents a great message about the new Russia that emerged from the death of communism in 1991.

Those who fear the reemergence of a communist empire in Russia are probably a little too paranoid to face reality. Once people have the freedom that they do, its hard to imagine them ever wanting to return to the repressive era of the 1950s. Its like in the U.S. Sure, we have some die-hard conservatives who dream of returning America to the "good ole days of the 1950s", but the majority of our country was born after that era and we're used to integration and diversity. There's no path leading backwards. Yeah, there might be some moments where we allow a reactionary government to raise a nationalist impulse, but for the most part, Americans...like the Russians, love our individualism. There is no going back to the 1950s for either nation.

One of the funniest moments in the movie is when Fyodor returns after a year in America and he tells Mels that to his disappointment, "there are no hipsters in America." Mels doesn't want to hear it, because he's so invested in this lifestyle that liberated him from his Communist Youth loyalties. I'd say that Fyodor didn't look very hard. All he had to do was hang out in Greenwich Village in 1955. He might have come across Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Eartha Kitt, Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer, and others who were challenging the conformity of American corporate culture. The Beat Generation was on the verge of becoming well known (Kerouac's On the Road was published in 1957 and the press derogatorily called the Beat Generation "beatniks" to imply a Soviet influence).

The Russian hipsters dig their saxophone jazz, swing dancing, outrageous clothing (they'd fit in well in the 1930s Harlem), and freedom. They even adopt American nicknames, as Fyodor becomes Fred, Kataryn is Katie, Paulina is Polly, and Mels is simply Mel. This name change outraged the Communist Youth lady who has a crush on him. As she pointed out to members of the Communist Youth, Mels is a sacred name because its a tribute to the Soviet founding fathers: Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Stalin. By dropping the S from his name, he's denying the glory of Stalin. Of course, these days, Stalin is properly viewed as a villain on the scale of Hitler and in terms of number of people whose deaths he's personally responsible for, he far surpassed Hitler.

When I left the theater, I was beaming. I haven't felt this great about a movie in a long time. I was similarily awed after seeing the German film Goodbye, Lenin in 2004. I guess part of this stems from an idea I had as a boy in elementary school. I never understood why other classmates hated the Soviets so much. I used to pretend that I was a kid in the Soviet Union just to try an understand how they might have viewed us. Thus, the reason why I've been called a commie since the first grade. That's okay, though, because I know I'm right on this. The Russians were people like us. They had little power in what their government does and they were just as conformist in their culture as Americans were in ours. They were quick to apply labels on anyone who dared to think differently and take an interest in the foreign culture they were taught to hate. Russian hipsters might have been called decadent American wannabes, just as I was accused of being a commie. The awesomeness is that the hipsters and the nonconformists knew better. We didn't allow our governments to tell us who to hate. We just embraced the best ideas and lived our truth the way we see it. And guess what? We won! The hipsters helped break the conformity of the Soviet Union and the hippies helped end the war in Vietnam. Who'd you rather be?

So...if you really want to see an awesome movie with some fantastic music, a dazzling visual style, and an ultra-hip vibe, you must see Hipsters if and when it plays in an upscale theater near you. It is perhaps the hippest film ever made. I LOVED it! In fact, if I take all the films I've seen at the Portland International Film Festival these past four years, I would say that Hipsters is far and away the best of them all. Its seriously that great. Americans will learn a lot about Russians and of ourselves if they dare to watch this film. The parallels between our two cultures is too important to ignore. Let's reject the conformity of communist and corporate capitalistic cultures and allow a less restrictive culture to take its place. Of course, not everyone can be a hipster. There will always be conformist-minded folks in both societies who follow the dictates of their chosen leaders. But if you want to be different, Hipsters definitely shows you how to live a life true to your inner being.


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