Russians in Hollywood films: breaking the stereotype

Despite the fact that the Cold War which lasted between the United States and Russia ended more than twenty years ago, Hollywood still finds a way to portray Russians as villains in their movies. As a Russian-Canadian, I have no problem with Russian villains – after all, Russians aren’t the only anti-heroes in Hollywood films. However, I do have a problem with the fact that they are consistently portrayed as only one archetype.

These villains always have very thick accents (not all of us do, thank you), a lot of stubble (Russian men know how to shave) and sometimes even tattoos (not fully accepted in Russian society). What bothers me the most is that the actors that are hired to play Russians can’t even speak the language! Sometimes, it is is so incomprehensible that I have trouble understanding if they are even speaking in Russian or another incoherent language.

Below are just 5 popular films which come to mind. Screened offers a list of 53 movies with bad guys as Russians. Complex Pop Culture also offers a list of the 25 most memorable Communist villains in movies.

As I stated before, countless other nationalities appear as villains in Hollywood films. So next time you catch yourself watching a movie that has a villain from another country, remember that it’s just entertainment and that it does not necessarily reflect that culture accurately.

Image credits: Meme generator

5 of my favourite shows from NY Fashion Week fall 2013

With a whopping 181 designers walking their models down the runway during New York Fashion Week fall 2013, it was hard to pick the ones I like the most. However, I do have a few favourites.

1. Marc by Marc Jacobs. The Marc by Marc Jacobs show got moved because of delays thanks to the blizzard, so extra anticipation hung in the air before this show even started. I like Marc’s use of prints (where would he be without them?), and prints like Etta and Tulip were used frequently throughout the show. This time, Marc took the audience to the 1970s, which was evident throughout the hair and makeup. However, my favourite thing about this show is the bags, and I’m sure you can agree with me.
Image credits: Fashionista

2. Reem Acra. If you read my previous post on why I like femme fatales, you won’t be surprised that this made my top five as femme fatale women were seen everywhere in the show. Acra also said that she was inspired by Japan and specifically, the works of Daido Moriyama. This was also evident in the details and embroidery that she used in some of the pieces. However, you can’t talk about this show without discussing the use of fishnet, which was done tastefully.
Image credits: Style.com

3. Thakoon. Despite the fact that it’s February and there was a snowstorm looming over New York, Thakoon emerged with a youthful collection that made me feel like it was already spring, especially evident in the dandelion print. The show also had some pieces to keep you warm, including some with fur shawls.
Image credits: Vogue

4. Marchesa. Chapman and Craig never disappoint, and this time was no exception. Their take on fall included the colour oxblood which was also seen on the likes of brands like Burberry and Daks. The gowns were stunning as usual, and similar to Reem Acra there was a lot of intricate detail, but without the fishnets. The biggest surprise came from the fact that Georgina and Keren also presented us with pants, which, much like their gowns also had intricate details and a feminine ease.
Image credits: The Fashion Spot

5. 3.1 Phillip Lim. This season, there was lots of leather, zippers and that bad girl slouch which can only mean that Lim was inspired by bikers. Yet, Lim offset this a bit by offering layers in every look – and lots of them. There were also more polished looks which included suits and trenchcoats. My favourite part about this collection were the oversized leather gaiters, which came in black and various shades of brown, perfect for fall weather.
Image Credits: Fashionologie

There are  plenty of other Fashion Weeks to keep me occupied, and I can’t wait to see what some of my other favourite designers come up with. Who were some of your favourite designers for fall 2013, either from New York or other cities?

Femme fatale: From black-and-white to full colour

Kim Novak in ‘Vertigo’.

Call me old-fashioned, but I have been watching black-and-white movies for as long as I can remember. Every time I watch an old film, I feel like I am transported into another world, not unlike the characters in the movie Pleasantville (1998). Particularly during the film noir era (1940s to 1960s), I notice that the more things change, the more they stay the same. A lot of the same plot lines remain, such as romantic conflicts between men and women in films like Gaslight, The Hands of Orlac (1935) and Dial M for Murder (1954). The character archetypes in films are also similar, such as the hard-boiled detective, the anti-hero and of course, the femme fatale that emerged in popular culture during this time.

I think that these characters were created in response to the society in which they were produced, and especially in response to the Second World War. While men were out fighting, women were working in factories to make clothing and ammunition. During this time, movies such as Double Indemnity (1944) and The Maltese Falcon (1941) started to portray women who are not confined to their previously traditional roles as homemakers. In fact, they seem to reject the notion completely.

While some movies punish these women for their strength, I admire them for this reason. Watching movies like Les Diaboliques (1955) and Dial M for Murder (1954), which have weak female protagonists, makes me want to tell them to be more assertive about their lives and stand up for themselves. Of course, femme fatales also have their share of problems. Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard (1950) and Madeline/Judy in Vertigo (1958) do not meet happy endings, but I admire them all the same.

Fast-forwarding to today, one of my favourite shows currently playing is Mad Men (2007). When I first saw it, I felt like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz (1939) when she first steps from her black-and-white world into one full of Technicolor. To me, this is comparable to watching my favourite genre come to life in a time and place that is similar to, but not quite like the one I live in.

Even though Mad Men is set in the 1960s, all the problems the characters face are relatable to today’s audience. My favourite character on the show is Joan Holloway, who plays the office manager. On the surface, her character starts as femme fatale who everyone in the office either wants to be or be with. However, beneath the appearance her character has many problems, such as being confined to her role in the office and ending up as a single mother. Despite these problems, I think that Joan’s character – and the femme fatales that came before her – is still a force to be reckoned with.

Image credits: Dr. Macro’s high quality movie screens

Top Five Recent Fashion-Themed Shows

With all the fashion shows that are happening right now, such as the couture shows in Paris and Milan as well as the menswear collections, I was inspired to write a piece on the top five (recent) shows where what the characters wear is is just as important as they are. Here are my top five, from first aired to last aired.

1. Sex and the City (1998 to 2004): For many women, myself included, the show (and the books) defined fashion. Despite being off the air, the characters and the show still continue to do so. (Having two movies also helped.) When the show was still playing on TV, I watched it at least six times in a row.

 2. Lipstick Jungle (2008 to 2009): This was another great show based on a Candace Bushnell book, but this time about three women. Due to some bad luck with writer strikes and moving its airtime, Lipstick Jungle got cancelled after only two seasons. However, to me it felt like an updated version of Sex and the City. Whereas the former focused on the single lives (and various relationships) of four friends, Lipstick Jungle was about the powerful women of New York (according to the New York Post) who also had the same romantic partners throughout the show.

 3. Gossip Girl (2007 to 2012): Whereas the TV series based on Candace Bushnell books were about women who had it all, Gossip Girl was about privileged high-school kids who live on the Upper East Side. Based on the books by Cecily von Ziegesar, the show gives a modern take on growing up in the age of social media and a place where rumors fly faster than ever. To me, watching high school kids attend A-list events, ride in limos and shop on Fifth Avenue felt surreal, but that’s also part of the show’s appeal. 

4. Mad Men (2007 to present day): “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Even though the show is set in the 1960s, the problems the characters face are still relatable to a modern audience. I love watching film noir and classic films in general, so seeing it in colour for the first time felt like Dorothy stepping out of her black-and-white world and into the magical world of Oz.

5. Pretty Little Liars (2010 to present day): Based on the books by Sara Shepard, this show is what Gossip Girl fashion looks like on your average  high-school girls in a small town. An anonymous person also follows their every move and threatens to reveal all their secrets (maybe it’s Gossip Girl from the show of the same name?). This article on Fashionista rightly points out that their wardrobes would feel more at home on the cover of a magazine, but I think that they should stay where they are — on the show.

While these are my favourite fashion-themed shows of the moment, I know that more fashion-themed shows have yet to come. Until then, I will have to wait and see where Carrie Diaries and Girls are headed.

Image credits: Sex and the City, Lipstick Jungle, Gossip Girl, Mad Men and Pretty Little Liars.

Self-driving cars are soon starting their engines

I remember watching sci-fi movies and shows when I was younger, my eyes filled with wonder. Some of my favourites of the time were Star Wars, Babylon 5 and The Jetsons. Even though the flying cars (and spaceships) that I was promised by The Jetsons are not  yet here, I remain hopeful, in part due to the annual International Consumer Electronics Show (CES).

The Jetsons

The 2013 CES show started yesterday  and one thing that is on everyone’s minds is the self-driving cars being unveiled by Audi and Toyota. According to the Toronto Star, Toyota’s luxury line Lexus car was unveiled yesterday. John Hanson, the safety and quality control manager at Toyota says that at this point the car is purely a research vehicle and that there is still a long way to go before it trickles down to the consumer market.

The cars are being made because having a computerized driving system takes the human error out of driving. In part due to Google’s efforts, the state of Nevada also passed a law that allows self-driving cars to be on the road.

Would you ever take a ride in one of these self-driving cars?

The new Lexus at the CES 2013 show.

The year of the image: 2012

Perhaps it’s not surprising that because of an increase in the use of two image-sharing websites, the year 2012 is the year of the image. Before Instagram changed its policies, it overtook Twitter in daily users, having 7.3 million daily active users as opposed to Twitter’s 6.9 million. Pinterest also surpassed Tumblr’s unique visitors amount.

While we share memes and pins without thinking, we should not forget there are also a lot of fake images. Does everyone remember when Hurricane Sandy hit New Jersey and everyone rushed to share this image and six others?

Since the Stone Age, images have been used to tell stories both true and false. Sometimes, we take real stories to be fake and fake stories to be real. Other times, we want to make up our own interpretation, such as the story of a photo capturing a police officer buying a homeless man boots.

One of my favourite stories about images is Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. In the story, prisoners are chained to a wall all their lives. They are bound by shackles and are forced to watch shadows dancing on the wall in front of them, but they think that what they are watching is real. One prisoner is able to escape the cave and ultimately see the Sun. Upon returning to the cave to share his new knowledge, he finds that the other prisoners only want to look at the shadows in front of them rather than face the truth.

As images get more sophisticated and it becomes harder to separate real ones from retouched ones, our critical eye must only be more critical in the coming year.

Communist posters: propaganda or art?

I was born in Russia a year before the Soviet Union fell. Because Communism is a part of my family’s history, Russian propaganda posters have always fascinated me both as a snapshot into my history and as art. My interest is also fueled by the fact that last year, I received a book for Christmas called Soviet Posters: The Sergo Grigorian Collection.  It contains over 200 posters from their early beginnings before the 1920s up until 2001. Most importantly, the book contains a small preface with the posters’ rich history, which I will share below.

If you don’t read books, you will forget your grammar.

While Russian posters existed as early as the 1800s, it was not until the October Socialist Revolution in 1917 that the propaganda poster was born. With the formation of the new country, the Soviet Union, a new genre of art was born and existed until the Perestroika in the 1980s. Why posters? The Communist Party of the time thought it to be a powerful medium to communicate the new ideology and culture to the masses (think of an age before the Internet).

Have you enlisted in the army?

Early beginning
The first years of the posters introduced the “aims of the new Soviet government”. The poster transformed into an art form that could persuade people. Most of the working class at the time was illiterate, but the images were easily understandable.

An advertisement: Lengiz books available in all bookstores.

Takeoff
After posters advertised the government, the main themes consisted of literacy, healthcare and education. Most importantly, the posters of this time targeted women, who, for the first time gained an important role in the Soviet life. After Lenin’s death in 1924, the focus shifted on developing the country. Images of people working, construction sites and industrial plants dominated.

Women have equal rights in the USSR!

World War II
During World War II, working people became replaced by war, with the country working against Nazism. Mothers called their sons to action, and posters of soldiers dominated the streets.

The Motherland is calling!

Post-World War II
Posters announced the country’s victory and showed the value of work. Unfortunately, as drinking problems rose in the country, this is also the time that anti-alcoholism campaigns became very prevalent. However, this is also the time that Yuri Gagarin became the first man to be launched into space, and posters reflected this by showing high achievements and the country’s rising wealth.

1: Without words. 2: Rich inner substance.

Even though the posters disappeared around the time of Perestroika in the 1980s, they still continue to be studied both as art and a cultural artifact.

April 12, 1961: The dream came true

Source: Maria Lafont’s Soviet Posters: The Sergo Grigorian Collection (2007).