The movie “Heights” is an adaption of Milen Ruskov’s novel by the same name.
It has been adapted a little more faithfully to the original than necessary in order to ensure the modern feel of the story about two friends who are trying to find their place in midst of confusing and troubling times. By leaving themselves in the hands of rousing but dimwitted leaders our protagonists get involved in events which will fundamentally transform them to such a degree that when the moment of their own personal choice finally arrives they will act in complete contradiction to it. By utilizing a part of our history which we are sort of familiar with from movies, books and textbooks “Heights” tracks the fate of ordinary people on the backdrop of big events by creating a parabolic, paranoiac and heroized parallel between the fates of our most distinguished national heroes and our most despised traitors.
Unfortunately, Ruskov’s personal and quite colorful writing style has been overly reduced in the transition to the big screen. It extends only to old dialectal renditions of words such as “revolution”, “our freedom depends on us” and to the wholehearted phrase “Fuck yourselves”. It must be noted that in the novel the last of these expressions is not aimed at the oppressors (the turks) but mainly at the reader towards whom the whole narration is directed.
When Gicho, the protagonist of the novel, who tells the story of his trials and tribulations from the first person, turns to his future readers in a fit of unfounded but prophetic rage, he angerly professes: “But I here convey to you the essential, so you can understand what all the talk is about… By the bye look at the things I do for you when who knows what kinds of idiots you are. Although whoever reads these patriotic writings can hardly be such an idiot. Am I mistaken? Hell, there really are so many idiots! And how idiotic! Even harmful! And every one of them pushes out from one side what they have stuck in from the other “
It turns out that whoever likes patriotic writings (and films) has a significant advantage in comparison to everyone else and in turn receives a sort of condescending indulgence. But unfortunately, in the movie the viewer is left out as the direct recipient of this message. He is confined only to observing the protagonist’s elated ascension to the coveted heights while the colorful language keeps getting more and more depersonalized and castrated. “Let them ascend, how did we ascend?!” says Asen, echoing Gicho’s thoughts but in reality, the audience is left out of the joke but also out of any of the events as the immediate recipient of their underlying message.
As compensation for this, many of the more humoristic episodes from the novel are transferred to the big screen – for example someone’s slapstick fit of uncontrollable diarrhea or а penis measuring contest on top of an old map of Bulgaria. At the same time the mental bankruptcy of the main heroes who really are just quasi-thieves and quasi-revolutionaries, is reduced to cursing what means to be Bulgarian. “To be Bulgarian, that’s a sickness.” Exclaims the protagonist rhetorically when the wheel of his wagon breaks of and his written proclamations (because he decides that he can write in addition to wandering and thieving) are all lost in the stream of a lake. Enraged Gicho starts cursing everything that hе has romanticized and dreamt about up to this point and as a result this comes off as one the most authentically funny parts in the movie. Greatness and depravity go hand in hand, the comedic and the tragic are locked in some sort of paradoxical dance.
But while the novel talks to the reader and tries to analyze him at least trough the eyes of its protagonist, the movie stumbles in trying to please the audience hoping that it won’t be misunderstood even on a superficial level. The author’s freedom is subverted and subdued as it often happens in cinema.
The soul of the story is sacrificed most likely in order to preserve the consistency of other important themes like ones pertaining to the relevancy of the film in the context of our current way of life. These themes are more dense, nihilistic and value-forming than the others. The otherwise eloquent tale of a robbery, the subsequent division of the profits and the transformation of a seemingly patriotic act into a personal one sounds relevant albeit somewhat deliberately dumbed down because of all the background noise. Patriotism and greed are woven together and it seems like there will always be talk about money and who will take or give how much. The movie also gives the viewer the opportunity to follow the story line of the revolutionary leaders’ fall although it is in itself quite superficial in comparison to the story line of the main heroes to which it runs parallel. Delicately, but clearly enough, the ghostly character of the real leaders among them is revealed. And as a final conceptual crescendo the naïve/worthless pseudo-romanticism and justified superficiality of the leaders are revealed to be just a pretext for the betrayal of others who will never be like them. The protagonists either let themselves be misled by false leaders, or find in the act of betrayal a way out of every dilemma. On top of that betrayal, like any widespread practice, is contagious. This is especially the case when propagated by popular leaders like Dimitar The Common, who proclaims that everyone can be like him, as long as he wants to. But that’s the thing that in the end nobody does.
In his novel Milen Ruskov, is not actually looking for a new perspective. He’s just bringing things down to the realm of the personal/private “ascension” of every individual in times of complete ambiguity and deceit. The common struggle must also become a personal one if it has any hope of leaving a mark that will last throughout the ages. But this hasn’t happened before and it won’t happen today. We will collectively love the movie and glorify it and then after the first wave of adoration, we will group together again but this time to criticize it – in both cases we will be at a complete loss of objectivity and the desire to discern the real meaning and context of the film.
If “Heights” achieves something it’s to direct our gaze towards the middle-man/hero whose simple characteristics are very far away from those of an “authentic” and ecstatic leader but at the same time are light years away from those typical for a traitor’s primitive nature. He is a hero in the process of overcoming the imaginary, inconceivable whim of what is happening around him. He’s supposed to personify most of us. Namely a semi-intelligent, semi-enlightened person, who sweetly and thunderously preaches to the readers from the pages of Ruskov’s novel. At the same time nobody is telling us (the viewers) more than we have already inferred and understood – neither the movie which runs like a confession, nor the novel which shows the much talked about ascention as an imitation of heroism that has become а true form of the heroic not by internal necessity, but due to external conditions.
Everything written up to this point doesn’t necessarily entail that the movie isn’t the product of scriptwriters who were trying to embroider a flag rather than a simple tapestry. And those viewers who see in “Heights” only a basic reimagining of a road trip movie (people jumping from meadow to meadow, and one town square to another) will be at least entertained by the glorious struggle of the actors with their roles and the paradoxical references to our modern times. Unfortunately, the balance between the old and the new is lost in favor of more present-day themes. We shouldn’t underestimate this debatable decision of the authors because this conceptual “risk” seems more like an insurance policy.
Yes, the film isn’t an unapologetic defamer of myths but rather an entertainer dressed in Levski’s or Gicho’s clothes who is intelligently revising the stories and history of the Bulgarian Revival with the help of common, widespread knowledge which acts as a crutch to the movie’s meaning and mission. More often than not the film tries to bargain with the viewer by providing him with the cheap thrill of vulgar gestures and outright debauchery. It is sad to think that this could have been an elated but also pensive requiem which could have united us for more than a couple of weeks.
But for this we can blame only our attitude towards art and cinema in particular which in Bulgaria is still e medium immune to ambitious and complex ideas. The talented people in this country some of which are authors and actors taking part in this very production are forced to conform to our needs, the needs of the “idiots” from the quote in the beginning. They can only laugh at our stupidity but in doing so they only stoop down to our level and become painfully nihilistic. In such an “uncreative”, and unthankful symbiosis no one wins – the intermixing of debt with duty, of dedication with obligation and of the artistic mission of the author with a simple message geared more towards the masses.
Besides, our forests and mountains are shot more modestly than with a hollywood-esque grandeur and ambition to evoke admiration and adoration. They don’t look particularly awe-inspiring but rather somewhat obscure and uninviting, realistic and prosaic as if they’re also on the same path to ascension as the heroes. The camera “ascends” to the sky only once in the middle of the movie as a premonition and a sign of the impending threat and once again in the end when it rewards the viewer by lingering a bit longer in the clouds. But unfortunately, the final act of the film is long and strenuous. In it the supporting characters escape from their anonymity at the cost of their agony and untimely undoing but it’s too late for them to become identifiable centerpieces in the story so they ultimately fail in invoking any compassion. The traditional music doesn’t help. It aggressively tries to anticipate and strengthen the feeling of fatefulness and sinfulness, of the culmination and the exposition.
In doing all of this the movie tries and fails to rouse any real feelings of empathy which it seems to demand only on the merit of the subject matter and themes that are treated in it. In all honesty in the end the things that happen on screen seem sort of mundane and uninteresting. Any conscientious viewer will probably find it hard to carefully track all of the obstacles the protagonists must go trough as well as their subsequent fate. Everything is decided and respectively doomed from the beginning – we should be ready to respect what’s happening but not to get excited by it, to admire but not to take part in someone else’s cathartic struggles by turning them into our own. If the director’s cut which we are probably going to see soon is shorter maybe that will fix some of the problems with the adaptation. It will also mitigate the feeling that we are forced to take part in a painfully long anticipation of events which aren’t all that interesting.
As is the case with most works of art the personal fears and concerns of the authors are apparent, but at the same time the reception of the film reveals a set of national/collective anxieties. This isn’t the only instance in which a Bulgarian movie has been crippled by the hyperbolized praise that ultimately left it totally debased in the eyes of the deceived masses and baited intellectuals. This is what happened for example with “Eastern plays” – a movie prematurely sentenced to death by its own advertisement campaign and the overexposed story of one of its actors/heroes as well as the “critical” reviews that were able only to hysterically and incontinently shower it with praise and adoration. Let’s hope that we won’t reach such a low point again.
It would be wise to just perceive “Heights” as a dressed-up movie which actually has more to do with the current state of the world. It’s a movie which purports to orient us in this world in a rather complaisant and moralizing manner. In more of a deliberate, encapsulated and ridiculous way than in a direct and responsible one. And that’s exactly why we shouldn’t close our eyes to the hidden signs which such a movie offers and we should evaluate them on the basis of their merits.
For now, however we are still at the stage of extensive screenings and tremendous encouragements. There are viewers walking out of the cinema citing quotes from the time of the Revival and praising the film to high heaven – situations reminiscent of our time under socialism. This sends a threatening and false signal to our moviemakers to overcome the long years of artistic ascetism in favor of direct cheap attacks against the public subconscious. The audience wants movies that will manipulate it and a certain degree of virtuosity and recklessness is needed on the part of the auhors to give them what they want.
This is probably why the creators of “Heights” call their movie a “product” while serving pop-corn before screenings in boxes that carry the faces of the main heroes on them – beheaded but not by the turks.