Deep Thoughts on 'Dozor'

The 2004 blockbuster "Night Watch" (Nochnoi Dozor) and its sequel "Day Watch" (Dnevnoi Dozor) heralded a new era in the development of the Russian film industry. The two movies broke all previous box-office records, and "Day Watch," which came out Jan. 1, 2006, and grossed over $30 million, remains Russia's all-time box-office champion. But while viewers turned out in droves, critics had a mixed reaction to the films, directed by commercials veteran Timur Bekmambetov and based on the novels by fantasy author Sergei Lukyanenko.

Lately, however, some critics have been taking a second look at the Dozor phenomenon. In the new book "Dozor as a Symptom" (Dozor kak Simptom), a number of well-known intellectuals have tried to explain the success of the two supernatural blockbusters -- attributing it to various cultural, social and even political factors -- and to assess what it means for Russia today.

Books of this kind are rarely seen in Russia, not least because "serious" writers tend to dismiss films like the Dozors, seeing them as purely commercial mass-culture phenomena, not worthy of any serious analysis. In this sense, the publication of the book is an important event, and its editors seem to understand that. "We believe that analysis of day-to-day events and mass culture is an intellectual's task," they declare in the preface.

Published by Falanster last month, "Dozor as a Symptom" is a collection of essays written by experts from a broad spectrum of fields, including film history, sociology, cultural studies and philosophy, as well as by fiction writers and poets. The contributors vary greatly in their understanding of the Dozors, as well as in the level of seriousness with which they approach the task. For example, poet Vsevolod Yemelin wrote a funny poem about the Dozors rather than an analytical article; most of the contributors, however, are much more serious.

Sociologist Alexander Tarasov discusses the differences between the Dozors and the Wachowski brothers' Matrix trilogy, a comparison that often popped up in reviews of Bekmambetov's films. He argues that both franchises contain some ideological message, but while the Matrix films are based on a traditional paradigm of good vs. evil -- the underground human resistance vs. "the Matrix, an enslaving machine of the ultimate level of capitalism" -- the lines are not so clear in the Russian films. "There is no good and no evil in the Dozors," Tarasov writes. "Instead, there is a competition between similar forces: the Light (our secret services) and the Dark (those against whom our secret services are fighting)."

Although Tarasov never suggests that the Dozors were inspired by Kremlin spin doctors, he charges that the films' message is totally in line with the ideological agenda of the present-day Russian government, advocating quiet submission, unlike the Matrix trilogy, which calls for a revolt against the stupefying reality created by the mass media, PR and advertising. "While 'The Matrix' tells the audience, 'See the light and rise up,' the Dozors say, 'Sit quietly and trust the authorities,'" the sociologist concludes.

Channel One
The Dozor films portray a supernatural struggle between good and evil in present-day Moscow.
The book's contributors did not overlook the fact that the movies were produced -- and heavily promoted -- by state-owned Channel One. In his essay, film critic Daniil Dondurei points out that by 2004, Russian television channels had learned to produce big-budget shows and were prepared to take this expertise to the realm of feature films while, simultaneously, the number of movie theaters equipped with Dolby sound had reached 1,000 nationwide, and a new generation of movie-goers had formed, becoming a target audience for the Dozors. "Add to this the fact that in today's Russia, television can achieve a lot, like persuading the whole country to go and watch both Dozors," Dodurei comments.

Literary critic Viktor Toporov takes a far more pointed approach, accusing the Dozors of simply brainwashing their audiences. He notes that Channel One is controlled by the state and has a noticeably pro-Kremlin political stance: "Don't forget that this film is produced, advertised and brought to millions by Channel One, whose main task, above all, is brainwashing its audience on a daily basis," he writes. Toporov concludes that films like the Dozors make their audiences numb and receptive to anything the government wishes to feed them.

Meanwhile, some contributors found much deeper meanings inside the films. Art critic Boris Grois writes that the Satan's ball scene in "Day Watch" -- a postmodern rendition of a famous episode from Mikhail Bulgakov's novel "The Master and Margarita," which happens to feature some well-known pop stars playing themselves -- shows that the mass consciousness of contemporary Russians is shifting frantically "between cheap mass-media entertainment and an irrational drive toward total destruction."

Channel One
Several critics compare the Night Watch and Day Watch patrols of the films to real-life security services such as the FSB.
Cultural anthropologist Yelena Petrovskaya finds even more links between the fictional world of the Dozors and contemporary Russian reality. She argues that the filmmakers unintentionally created a work that reflects the "historical trauma" experienced by people in the former Soviet Union over the last decade and a half, and she makes bold associations between the films and Russia's recent past. For example, she writes that the film's "vampire world is part of that emptiness of the 1990s -- [the era of] another experiment, this time a democratic one, and a complete loss of values."

Meanwhile, film critic Vadim Agapov analyzes "Day Watch" on the level of references and hidden meanings. He finds a complicated game that mass audiences might fail to notice, but that critics can explore, discovering layers upon layers of irony and parody. For example, he argues that the opening credits of "Day Watch," which the audience sees as reflections in a van's windshield, can be interpreted as a hint that the film's subsequent events will play out purely within the protagonist's mind, which becomes a sort of post-Soviet "through-the-looking-glass."

Agapov also says that the scene in which the film's hero, Anton Gorodetsky, breaks through a poster for the Afghan war movie "Company 9" can be seen not just as a pledge to break that film's box-office record -- which "Day Watch" eventually did -- but also as a reference to the early French New Wave films of the early '60s. Looking elsewhere, the critic finds references to well-known music videos; the scene where Zavulon doesn't move after a clash with a bus, for instance, is supposedly a direct reference to the video for "Rabbit in Your Headlights" by the British electronic band UNKLE. Details of this kind, Agapov writes, make the film a postmodernist work and "a not quite successful, but productive attempt to apply the aesthetics of music video for the solution of serious creative tasks."

Which should be more than enough proof that the book offers plenty of food for thought on issues that go far beyond the two Dozors.

"Dozor as a Symptom" (Dozor kak Simptom) is published by Falanster. Vladimir Kozlov is a Moscow-based fiction author, journalist and filmmaker.