The Sound of ‘Glamur’ Dying

Following is the first of my Theater Plus blogs. I don’t seem to have an image for it. Maybe this one ran without, although I loved putting images together with what I wrote, so that doesn’t sound right to me. But this is from the deep, dark past. I’m lucky to have the text.

13 February 2009
By John Freedman

Glamour: that Russian invention of the 2000s. Hip, hot, slick ‘n’ rich. That’s Moscow now. That’s Russia today. Or, at least, it has been until recently.

The Russian language gobbled up that English word at the beginning of the millennium and you’d think it’s never looked back since. I’ll never forget my first conversation using the word in Russian. A friend, a theater director, called me and asked what “glamour” meant in English. I hemmed and hawed and said something about Audrey Hepburn, Cary Grant, class and sophistication. My friend harrumphed and said, “Yeah, well, it means something else in Russian.”

I’m not sure I’ve ever entirely learned just what “glamur” means in Russian, unless it is the exact opposite of everything “glamour” means in English. Crass, loud, cheap, garish, gauche and — arguably the most important quality — fake. But the world spins just fine without my understanding it, and there are few Russia observers who would deny that “glamur” has been one of the culture’s driving forces this decade. (For the Russian-deprived, it’s pronounced “gla-MOOR.”)

But have you ever wondered what the sound of “glamur” dying is like? Listen closely.

It’s not only Davos in the dumps or Wall Street CEOs having to pass on that extra Lear Jet, or boutiques going empty and dark in Moscow’s Mega Malls. You can also hear it in the huffs and puffs of actors on and off Moscow’s stages.

If you didn’t know it, take in some of the pictures of reality. Mosfilm has shut down dozens of film projects. Actors (who don’t make much to start with, except for a very small handful) are facing the minimum of a 30% cut in salaries. Film studios are closing. Theaters failed to make their payroll on time at the end of January. Word is the money will be there soon, but there’s no guarantee.

But these are all the obvious things. What I’m looking for — and what I think I’m beginning to see — is a more subtle kind of change.

Arguably the hippest new show of the theater season is a down-home kind of thing with a couple of big movie stars playing country bumpkins. I’m talking about Alvis Hermanis’s production of “Shukshin’s Stories” for the Theater of Nations. It’s packing in the audiences, drawing rave, even sycophantic, reviews, and is being hailed as that amorphous animal — The Next Great Thing. All this on the back of a show whose heroes and heroines are uneducated, rural, moneyless and utterly lacking in status of any kind. Now could that just be the real sound of the times?

Or take Andrei Zholdak’s production of “Medea. Psycho” at the Contemporary Play School. Zholdak has exhibited a curious relationship with “glamur” over the years. He has a way of using it to make it incriminate itself. He has done that in “Phedre. The Golden Collossus,” a show about a well-heeled woman cracking under the pressure of her life, and he did it in “Carmen. The Outcome,” a piece about a beautiful but unruly woman who learns the hard way that freedom does not mean “I can do whatever the hell I want.” (In other words, what most of Moscow’s “glamur-ous” people do on a regular basis.) “Medea. Psycho” is still another play on “glamur.” Zholdak leans on ultra-hip scenes from Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” not only imitating them in the performance but actually showing some of them on screen. But in this drama of a Medea-like woman scorned, Zholdak puts forth a whole dysfunctional, appalling, endlessly flashy but undeniably stupid world of glamorous people slumming around in the pop music industry. They are the ones who encourage the destruction of Medea’s marriage and life.

It’s worth pointing out that both of these shows went into rehearsals before the current economic crisis became a perpetual headline. Ay, but there’s the rub! You see — art tells us where the world is going before it gets there. Another of my friends, the musical scholar Lyudmila Bakshi, has said it concisely and precisely: “All changes in the world happen first in the minds of artists. Only later are they realized in the real world.”

Now let’s think back about 18 months. Andrei Konchalovsky unveils his latest film. It’s called “Gloss,” a reference to the “glamur-ous” world that Moscow became in the 2000s. Did you watch this brilliant film about a rags-to-riches girl from the provinces all the way to the end? No, I mean to the very end? Konchalovsky played a little game with his audience there. I know that when I watched the film with my wife in a near-full movie house near the Paveletsky train station, only a few people were left in the house when the film actually and truly ended.

Ending One: a jilted lover carrying a pistol follows the heroine into the woods. Through the rustling of leaves and the squawks of birds we hear a gunshot. So she was killed, we think.

Oops, no. Ending Two: cut to a glamorous party at which our provincial girl is now the wife of a prominent crook-in-government and the belle of the ball. Ah, so she’s alive and well and the Cinderella story is intact. Our heroine is rich and famous and on the cover of every glossy magazine in the country.

Here the exodus from the theater begins. On screen beautiful people are doing beautiful things in a beautiful setting. The movie theater is emptying out. My wife and I are almost the last ones left in the hall.

Aha! Ending Three: the sounds of grinding and scraping and crunching. Trash trucks are scooping up tens of thousands of copies of the glossy magazines bearing the portrait of our heroine and dumping them into enormous piles of waste. Yesterday’s gloss is tomorrow’s trash.

I don’t know if anybody noticed, but in August of 2007, Konchalovsky was already sounding the death knell for “glamur.” If I’m not mistaken, Moscow theaters are beginning to pick up on it too.

Stay tuned for developments.

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