This essay was written for the American Cinema course with Prof. Richard Nowell.
White nights. What an extraordinary phenomenon. Sleep is an elementary need of every human in the world. Whatever insecurities and uncertainties you challenge through the day, you can always count on the fact that the sun will set in the evening, the day will end, and the new dawn will bring new hope. In Soviet Russia, however, the nights are white. The sun doesn’t set in the evening and there is no darkness deep enough for you to hide away from Big Mother’s always watching eye. No matter how far you run, one day the demon will catch you in his claws once again. He will knock you down from the skies and lay his vengeance upon thee.
Such may have been the thoughts of Nikolaj while he was desperately trying to tear his passport apart with mortal fear in his eyes. The dramatic emergency landing sequence evokes the trope of an airplane crashing in the middle of a jungle where the passengers will have to fight for their lives while being gradually hunted down by the hostile tribe inhabiting the land. This notion is reinforced by Stephen Prince’s characterization of New Cold War Cinema. If this film was a typical example of his view on this era, the viewer would certainly be justified in believing that the passengers are doomed even after they manage to land.
In general, Prince describes the films of New Cold War Cinema as ideologically conformist to the new political course of the US government – a shift from a passive Jimmy Carter era with human rights being in its core towards an awakening of power, striving for military dominance for the sake of peace preservation promoted by the new president Ronald Reagan. According to Prince, the tendency of the mainstream films was to reproduce the ideology of the US government – depicting the USSR as a dehumanized, demonized entity searching for ways to disrupt the world peace and its citizen as brainwashed puppets loyal to the system so much that they would die and kill for it which makes them all the more insane and dangerous (even though US citizens are celebrated for such a relationship with their motherland at the same time).
Nikolaj’s fear of getting back to the USSR and his long gaze upon the Siberian from the distant safety of the plane corresponds with this idea of a superhuman demonic entity. After all, he comes from Russia so we can rely on him to have adequate reactions. However, once the plane crashes, there is no hostility towards the passengers on display. They are medically treated soon everybody is transported back home. Everybody except for Nikolaj who is forced by Chaikov to stay in Russia.
Nikolaj is our first proof that Russia is not a merciless nation who knows nothing but aggression. In the beginning we witness the magnificent beauty of a ballet performance. The viewer is presented with the art unprejudiced. We find out later that the heartfelt dancing was performed by a Russian. We can also see that his art is appreciated by the western audience. On the other side of the iron curtain, there’s Raymond – an American stepper performing an American play who is also appreciated by the Siberian audience. It is a display of equality rather than difference. Russians are culture-loving people as well. Even Chaikov is familiar with and even fond of western culture. The effect of these scenes is the humanization of USSR citizens and a split of culture from politics. The greatest honor for Nikolaj is to dance in Leningrad where he would be appreciated the most, but freedom is an absolute necessity and so he must choose.
What really demolishes the notion of a pro-Reagan ideology is the landlady who helps Nikolaj and Darya escape. It undermines the perception of Russian citizens as brainwashed fanatics serving the system. Such a cognitive dissonance – ordinary people who just want to live happily and the same time USSR as USA’s biggest threat – was probably undesirable by Reagan’s government. Focusing on the USSR as a single entity instead of taking into account regular individual people is a more compatible with the military growth and activity.
While the people are as human as anywhere else in the world, it is the government whom the film blames for limiting human rights which is a position more compatible with the era of Jimmy Carter. The film barely touches on the poor living conditions in the USSR – it rather focuses on the oppressing control, pressure and paranoia. However, it also contrasts these issues with the problems of USA – a society which is not spotless itself. Raymond is a curiosity until he grows up and becomes a burden. He lives in a society which is hostile towards his race, he can’t find a job. While his freedom is guaranteed by the constitution, his security is not. When he joins the army, he’s asserted it is an absolutely morally good position, but later he finds out it is not as black and white. He’s supposed to kill often innocent people, steal and destroy. All for the greater good. The implication is that the American military rhetoric is similar to that of the Soviet regime. It is Nikolaj who criticizes the poor living conditions in Siberia epitomized by the pickled herring he eats. Raymond makes a point that Nikolaj doesn’t know America. He is rich, he is used to eating caviar. He has never been to Harlem where the living conditions are not much better.
Another trend of a New Cold War Cinema that Prince mentions is that of a captive being held on the hostile territory who is than rescued by a heroic intervention. To an extent we can see this in White Nights too and the implications are interesting. The Americans do what they can to get Nikolaj out from Russia, but at the same time Raymond who is guilty of basically the same crime as Kolja is repudiated by USA and cannot return. The difference is that Nikolaj is a megastar who is capable of generating great profit. Hence, he is pardoned by the Soviet regime and offered a second chance. He even confirms that there is the same decadence in the higher layers of society in USSR as well as anywhere else. An interesting twist on the captive rescue trope is the fact that in White Nights, the Americans are trying to rescue from Russia Russia’s own citizen. The implied message of this might be that Russia should be helped to rehabilitate itself according to the USA’s example rather than suppressed as a threat – a theory in agreement with the film’s ending.
The main villain in the story is Chaikov who represents the government. He is threatening, manipulative and corrupted by power. Throughout the film we see Raymond and Nikolaj slowly find an understanding. Both of them criticize their respective countries. In the beginning they despise each other. Their difference is even paralleled in the way they dance. Chaikov is trying to exploit the tension between their differences in order to divide them and ensure Nikolaj’s stay. He’s trying to appeal to his patriotism and presumed racism but overestimates such traits. Towards the end we see Nikolaj and Raymond dance perfectly synchronously and they form a connection, an understanding between them (and the two nations) despite Chaikov’s (the government’s) best effort to divide them.
The connection between the two nations is sealed when Raymond and Darya conceive a child. But for the child to live a normal life, Darya must leave Russia with Nikolaj. Perhaps the child symbolizes a hope for a better future. For the hope to grow, Russia must adapt to the western way of living and America must abandon the politics of military interventions and embrace pacifism. Why else would they exchange a valuable Russian captive for a rejected criminal who has so far been despised by his nation and even his own father – another twist of trend mentioned by Prince – patriotism and a father figure. The exchange itself is a twist on the aforementioned trend of a captive in the New Cold War Cinema. Instead of an American captive in a hostile territory we have two powers in balance neutralized and the tension is relieved by both sides opening up. After that, everybody can sleep in peace, the white nights are over.
In conclusion, I would argue that White Nights is a solid counterexample of Prince’s account of the New Cold War Cinema similar in its message to Rocky IV. It brings up the problematics of (a lack of) basic human rights guaranteed by both the USSR and the USA, but it also demonstrates the value of free choice. It doesn’t antagonize a nation but puts the blame on all individuals and parties who exploit their power over people. If this film is supposed to be reproducing an ideology, it is not the one promoted by Reagan’s office. Rather it is more consistent with Jimmy Carter’s Human Rights Policy. While one film is not merely enough to disqualify Prince’s position on the New Cold War Cinema, it is a film with a production value as high and its themes as relevant as to make the certainty of his claims at least questionable.
Prince, Stephen. Visions of Empire: Political Imagery in Contemporary American Film. Praeger, 1992.
Published: 8 months ago
Naposledy editováno: 8 months ago
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White Nights show there are people everywhere
Analysis of White Nights as a film going againts the notion of Hollywood films reproducing the government agenda during the era of Ronald Reagan's presidency.
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