September 26, 2004

Spiderman and Russia

By Jason Boog

Clusters of chattering Russian school kids moonwalked into the movie theater, back-peddling to get a better view of lonely American me outside. I’m living in Rostov, Russia, spending Fourth of July weekend a thousand miles south of Moscow or American tourists.

To celebrate, I invited my friend Alyia Medvedeva to the movies. She’s a fluttery English professor with a strange British accent; we both loved Amalie and I held my own in a Tarkovsky discussion. Hoping to simulate the strangest cultural car-crash possible this patriotic weekend, we watched Spiderman 2.

Inside the Rostov Theater, kids shuffled past a pyramid of promotional beer bottles and an ashtray outside the stadium-sized screening room. The p.r. manager, Mila Kuzmina, told us that Spiderman 2 sold out ten shows in a row since it opened—filling 630 seats each time. “80% of our films are American,” she explained, “and I can count our Russian films on one hand.” The last Spiderman broke box office records here.

So, the movie was dubbed. Each character sounded like a grumbling and bored Russian imprisoned inside a tin can. I know two Russian words: “thank you” and “Thank You!” so we hunched in our seats so Alyia could whisper dialogue-fragments in English. Luckily, Hollywood blockbusters don’t require the largest vocabulary, and she kept me informed. I followed along in dialogue bursts: “Spiderman makes a joke” and “Dr. Octopus is upset,” she said.

Partway through, Spiderman and Dr. Octopus fought inside a fancy-looking bank, slinging bags of gold like studio-prop boulders from Star Trek. Director Sam Rami sneaked this blockbuster budget metaphor right under Sony’s nose, and it only improved filtered through Alyia’s commentary and my befuddled brain. “Look at them throw money, in Russian!” I said, in awe.

By the end, Spiderman makes up with his girlfriend in a painfully slow sequence of undoubtedly pulpy dialogue. I felt like I was woozy-drunk at a party, trying to convince a stranger to marry me. “She says that she can’t live without him!” Alyia giggled. “Thank you, Mary Jane,” says Spiderman, and I poked Alyia in the arm. “I understand! I understand!” I cheered.

We had talked books before the movie. “Russian heroes are very clever intellectuals,” Alyia told me. “We have no modern heroes, where good is only good and evil is only evil like America. We have no pure things like that in Russia.” I told her how I saw the first Spiderman movie in Guatemala, July 2002.

I’d been away from home for a long time, and seeing a skinny boy with glasses turn into a superhero was just what I needed to feel better. When Spiderman perched on a flag at the end, and I almost cried. Just thinking about it makes me write dangly and huffy American sentences, writing and writing but never quite explaining that perfect moment in the movie theater.

“Wait for the American flag!” I told Alyia at the end, “Just wait!” Indeed, in that last overbaked frame, a CGI Spiderman swooped past the final American flag in a movie crammed full of flags and the sun shined in a digital sky; that goddamned sky where a videogame character gleamed with something like patriotism and joy in a sepia-tinted approximation of New York City; I sucked on those pixilized pictures my city like a pacifier; imagine a comic-book movie adaptation version of home flickering on a Russian movie screen, the kind of simulated simulation experience that only America can sell the world; it befuddled me in Guatemala, it befuddled me in Russia, I just don’t know why I get goose bumps every time Spiderman whooshes through the movie sky; I was so far away from home but I felt pure.


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