Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Gentlemen of Fortune

Have you noticed that people from different nations have a different sense of humour? This is not only about what people consider as funny, but more about how do people generate jokes. Some cultures prefer jokes that are based mostly on the background that is common for a large group of people. Such jokes are hard to translate, they need to be followed by commentaries and references. And vice versa, some jokes are context-free and can be easily translated into various languages without any additional comments.

Mr. Edward T. Hall, an American anthropologist and cross-cultural researcher, developed the concept of "high context culture" and "low context culture" in his book Beyond Culture. He explained that high context cultures leave many things unsaid, because members of the high context society normally share the same experience, knowledge and expectations. There's no need to articulate everything, you may use the “cultural hypertext” instead and you will be understood. In the low context cultures, the communicator needs to be much more explicit. In other words, in a low context culture, you are not supposed to know everything that your interlocutors know. This is why jokes produced in a high context cultures can be rarely heard outside the culture of their origins, while low context humour is more or less translatable.

The Russian culture is defined as a high context one. A true sign of this is the Russian love for quotes and citations. If Russians love a book, a movie or a song, they parse it into quotes; and the more quotes, the more popular the piece of art is. A movie The Gentlemen of Fortune (Russian: Джентльмены удачи, translit. Dzhentlmeny udachi) is one of such sources of citations. The comedy was filmed in 1971, so the generation that was born after the collapse of the Soviet Union has not watched the movie, but youngsters still know and use quotes without even knowing their origins.

The Gentlemen of Fortune is “a story of an amiable kindergarten director named Troshkin who looks exactly like a criminal called Docent (Доцент, literally associate professor) that had stolen Alexander the Great's helmet at an archeological excavation. Docent and his gang are caught by police, but Docent is imprisoned in a different jail than his mates. Since Troshkin looks identical to Docent, the police puts him in prison with the real criminals to get information about the stolen helmet. He must pretend to be the real felon Docent, so in order to be convincing, Troshkin, a well-educated and good-natured man, has to learn slang and manners of criminals.” (cited by Wikipedia) I believe this was the first Soviet movie depicting criminal subculture.

Shortly after the premiere, the movie became very popular. In 1972, the comedy had more than 65 million viewers. Scalpers (ticket touts) were selling tickets for Gentlemen of Fortune up to 15 times the original price. What was the secret of this tremendous success? The movie benefited from a brilliant cast, thrilling story, an inimitable mild humour, as well as its unreserved authenticity. The film was directed by Aleksandr Seryj who had just came out of prison. Georgi Daneliya, the famous director and film producer, assisted him to return to the profession. Seryj used his prison experience to design many situations in the movie, and he also wanted to introduced numerous expressions from Russian criminal slang, however, the authorities suggested to replace the real slang with the pseudo-slang, at least in some cases.

People's love for the movie have remained strong in coming years. The quotes has been incorporated deeply into the Russian discourse, so you may hear them in everyday talks or read them in on newspapers titles. Some modern movies also cite this famous comedy, which is easily and often immediately recognizable to viewers. The music from this movie is familiar to every Russian (some remixes were issues recently).If you live in Russia or plan to live in Russia, The Gentlemen of Fortune is one of the key movies that would bring you closer to understanding a Russian cultural background. You may watch it in Russian at Google Video or at YouTube with English subtitles.