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Society. It’s like Tetris.

August 13, 2010

A couple of days ago, I was introduced to a video rejoicing in the title of “The Complete History of the Soviet Union set to the Melody of Tetris”. It does what it says on the tin, really: it’s a comedic potted history of the USSR from creation to fragmentation, set to the Tetris* theme tune (otherwise known as the Russian folk tune Korobeiniki) and with the Tetris theme extending into the art. The video is on YouTube here; bare lyrics here; a full transcript and description are at the bottom of the post.

I have no idea what particularly convoluted train of thought led to the creation of the song and, later, the video: it’s a hell of a jump from “This game was written by a Russian and uses a Russian folk tune as its theme music” to “Let’s make a Tetris-themed video about the fall of the Soviet Union!” I suspect that intoxicating substances of some variety were involved at some point. I also have no idea whether any of the themes I see in the song/video were actually intentional on the part of the writers, or whether this is classic Death of the Author-style reader-created meaning. (I don’t think it actually matters either way.)

First and foremost, it’s a reasonably accurate and very funny speed-run of the history of the USSR, whether or not you pay attention to the way the Tetris imagery is integrated into the story. It covers the period from the last Tsar to the arrival of Putin in six and a half minutes, and offers a tongue-in-cheek prediction of what might happen next. The singing and acting are good, the lyrics are hilarious and the animation is brilliant. What I’m more interested in, however, is the political undercurrents of the lyrics and imagery, and what they imply.

Our narrator, our protagonist, is “the man who arranges the blocks”. He never has a name, or indeed any kind of identifier other than his Russian accent. He is an everyman, a generic stand-in for the experiences of anyone or everyone. We meet perhaps half a dozen different versions of the character as history progresses; but they are all played by the same actor, and clearly their experiences form a common thread.

The only thing this man offers us by way of identification is his job: he is the man who arranges the blocks. Before the Revolution, he arranges the blocks. After the Revolution, he arranges the blocks. After the fall, he arranges the blocks.

Hang on a minute – aren’t things supposed to be different after we have the revolution?

The number of regime changes in human history that have substantially altered the way the country runs is very, very low. Not the way the country is run; the way the country runs. Because no matter who’s in government, the crops need to be planted and harvested, the roads need mending, and there have to be people at the mines and the power stations and the oil rigs or wherever the fuels that power your infrastructure are currently coming from, or sooner or later everything falls apart.

In other words, you always need somebody to arrange the blocks. The job will never be complete, and it will never be obsoleted. There’s no such thing as perfection or even stability where societies are concerned. You just have to keep at it and at it and at it and maybe things will hold together a bit longer.

Tetris is an excellent if depressing metaphor for the continuous demands which societies place on their people, because unlike a lot of other games, it’s impossible to win at Tetris. Your success is measured only by how long it took you to fail and how well you did in the interim. The same goes for civilisations: you can’t win at running a country or an empire, no matter how hard you try, because once you’ve achieved a state of tidiness – an empty screen, perhaps – stuff persistently keeps on happening that has to be cleared up. The effect scales downwards to individual people, too: you can have a long life and a good life, but there’s no way to beat the game.

Our block-arranger is one of many other workers, who all wear similar or identical costumes and wield big, stylised hammers. In a pre-CGI film, that alone would be enough to signal that they’re supposed to be read as a homogenous class with similar experiences. Thanks to the magic of modern animation, all of the dozens of workers you see in some of the shots are also played by the same actor, making that particular kind of unthinking rhetoric – one of us, one of them, they’re all the same, sheeple – into creepily literal reality. I think that one of the reasons that it’s so easy to class large groups as ‘all the same’ is because most of us don’t have any kind of actual reference point for what ‘all the same’ is like, and so blithely misapply the concept. But actual sameness tends to freak us out, as plentifully evidenced by the bizarre reactions people have to identical twins. (See also the use of sameness as a marker of alienness in The Midwich Cuckoos/Village of the Damned and in Torchwood: Children of Earth – vocal unison in the latter case, but same principle.)

Seeing legions of workers moving in perfect unison, making identical movements with their identical hammers in their identical uniforms, is eerie, just as it is when a group of these clone-actors intone together “Long live Stalin! He loves you!” But it’s important to notice that the workers don’t become identical when the video moves onto the communist era – the workers under the Tsar are all identical as well; and at the end of the video, in the shiny new capitalist Russia, the same office-drone’s face is endlessly replicated on stacked screens.

Intentional or not, I like that the video doesn’t try to situate the erasure of individuality as solely a failure of communism – it wasn’t. Stalinist Russia enforced it rather harder than a lot of regimes, but the difference between the mandatory workers’ uniforms of the USSR or Maoist China and laws being seriously considered in France is one only of degree. People are freaked out by too much sameness, but also by too little – hands up, people who’ve ever been abused or assaulted for sticking out. I know J’s been harassed and on one occasion knocked unconscious for being a goth as a teenager, and others were less lucky still. It’s not only governments who enforce conformity.

Finally, I think that the video’s speculative ending is interesting. The TV presenter who is the final character suggests that “once again the Left will rise / Prepare the flags to be unfurled / ‘cos we’re seceding from the world”. I doubt that Russia has the stability yet to adopt isolationism, but the idea that the Russian left might have another shot at government is an interesting one. There’s increasing disaffection there with the relentless Westernisation of the country and its attendant problems – as the video has it, “the US gave us crystal meth”. For Russia to start drifting seriously leftwards would have . . . interesting global consequences, considering that currently the core UN Security Council are centrist (us), right-of-centre (France), worryingly rightwing (the US) and totalitarian (China). We could do with a genuinely leftwing political voice with veto power, though whether they’d use it is anyone’s guess.

*

*For those unfamiliar with Tetris, should there be anyone, it’s a game where tetrominoes – blocks made of four squares linked in various shapes – fall from the top of your screen, and you have to rotate them and move them so they slot together into rows. Completed rows disappear and you score points. As you go on, the pace of the game gets faster. It was initially made in 1985 by a Russian designer called Alexei Pazhnitov, has been reimagined many times since, and is simple, colourful and remarkably addictive for something which can be completely comprehended in a few minutes. You can play it at almost any gaming site on the Internet or on the official website here.

*

TRANSCRIPT

[Black. Sound of a film projector spinning up. A white/grey blob appears in the middle of the screen and expands into a blurry and oversaturated picture of St Basil’s Cathedral. The film is black-and-white and has archive-like scratchiness. A male voice starts singing in a (passable) Russian accent as the picture zooms out to show the singer, a white guy with short dark hair, sitting on a wall in workman’s clothes and playing the accordion.]

To Moscow I came seeking fortune . . .
But they’re making me work till I’m dead;
The bourgeoisie have it so easy;
The Czar’s putting gold on his bread.

[Picture moves down to show miserable-looking people passing by in the street overlooked by the wall.]

The people of Moscow are hungry,
But think what a feast there could be

[Picture moves back to the singer. Superimposed on the left, as if in a thought-bubble, we see archive footage of Lenin giving a speech, then a rally of some sort, then another speaker.]

If we could create
A socialist state
That cared for the people like me . . .

[Cut to Cyrillic text: “Vsya istoria Sovyetskovo Soyuglazami skromnuii rabotnik.” A moment later it’s overlaid with a text box giving an approximate English translation: “A complete history of the Soviet Union through the eyes of a humble worker”.]

[Text fades. A moment of black with scratches. Cut to the singer, in work clothes and holding a hammer, standing atop a grey L-shaped Tetris block as it plummets through the clouds. Other blocks can be seen falling in the background.]

I am the man who arranges the blocks
That descend upon me from up above;
They come down and I spin them around

[the block he is standing on reorients itself]

Till they fit in the ground like hand in glove.

[A T-shaped block falls perfectly into a T-shaped gap. Cut back to singer, then to an aerial view of a tower of Tetris blocks to which the singer’s block is falling.]

Sometimes it seems that to move blocks is fine
And the lines will be formed as they fall
Then – I see that I have misjudged it,
I shouldn’t have nudged it after all.

[View of the same tower from the ground. It is surrounded by scaffolding; in the foreground is a man looking at a large set of blueprints or plans. A tall, narrow gap in the tower is prominently visible.]

Can I have a long one please?
Why must these infernal blocks tease?

[The singer’s block lands behind the narrow gap – he has his accordion back. A long narrow block slots into the gap from above, blocking him out.]

[Cut to what seems to be a factory – the singer is standing with his hammer at the top of some stairs. Behind him, L-blocks go past suspended from cables. At the bottom of the stairs is a crowd of other workers.]

I am the man who arranges the blocks
That continue to fall from up above.

[Cut to the workers. They are all the same man, in slightly different costumes]

Come, Muscovites! Let the workers unite,
A collective régime of peace and love!

[Workers with hammers walk in line past a dirty, barred window. Pan to a closer view through the window. The singer is standing at a table in a dingy room – there is a small stove in a corner and trousers on a line overhead.]

I work so hard in arranging the blocks,
But the landlord and taxman bleed me dry.

[Shot of the same crowd of workers as before, brandishing their hammers in sync.]

But the workers will rise – we will not compromise!
For we know that the old régime must die.

Long live Lenin!

[Picture of Lenin haloed amidst clouds]

Kill the Czar!

[Picture of the Czar. It goes up in flames]

We salute the sickle and star!

[People watch as a large block emblazoned with the hammer, sickle and star crashes down in front of the palace.]

[The workers are now all wearing identical uniforms and standing in neat rows in front of an enormous sign saying “LENIN” in Cyrillic. They make hammering motions in perfect unison.]

I am the man who arranges the blocks
That continue to fall from up above.

[Singer in the new uniform, standing on a descending block.]

The food on your plate now belongs to the state,

[A plate with four slices of black ryebread arranged in a T-block]

A collective régime of peace and love.

[Singer starts to eat.]

[Cut to the eerily synchronised workers again.]

I have no choice in arranging the blocks,

[Singer standing with hammer at the front of the frame. Identical blocks go past in the background, with identical hammering figures standing on them.]

And the Bolsheviks rule – what they say goes.

[Identical workers standing in long rows, doing a sort of Mexican wave with their hammers.]

The rule of the game is we all are the same,

[Five clones of the singer singing together, facing camera.]

And my blocks must create unbroken rows.

[The construction site from before. A block falls out of place and crushes a worker in a cloud of dust.]

[Snow falling in front of camera. Several of the singer are looking directly at it, with wild eyes and nervous fixed smiles.]

Long live Stalin! – He loves you . . .

[Shot of Lenin from earlier, knocked out of frame by a picture of Stalin arriving from the right.]

Sing these words or you know what he’ll do . . .

[Workers trudging through snow. A sign pointing to Siberia.]

[Film becomes sepia-tinted. Close-up of the singer’s face as glowing white blocks fall down in front of him.]

I am the man who arranges the blocks
That are made by the men in Kazakhstan.

[Group photo of twenty or thirty men in manual- or farm-labourers’ gear and hats. Close-ups of various sections of the photo.]

They come two weeks late and they don’t tessellate

[Man holding clipboard looks up to see a long block plummeting out of the sky. It ploughs into the ground at an angle.]

But we’re working to Stalin’s Five-Year Plan.

[Long blocks chugging through a tunnel like train carriages.]

I am the man who arranges the tanks

[Soldier pointing to the left. Tanks roll past him in the direction he points.]

That will make all the Nazis keep away.

[Plan view of animated grey tanks arranged in a T-shaped block meeting some black tanks. The black tanks disappear in a flash of light.]

The Führer is dead – and Europe is red!

[Map of Europe with Germany marked by a large swastika, which comes apart as the map becomes red.]

Let us point all our guns at the USA.

[Tanks cross the screen to the right.]

We shall live for evermore –

[Small animated tanks roll left-to-right along the stripes of a US flag]

We can start a nuclear war!

[Singer in a plane’s bomb bay, sitting astride a long Tetris piece. The bay doors open and he rides it to earth as if it were a missile, a la Dr Strangelove. There is a small mushroom cloud.]

[Singer in naval uniform – peaked cap, trenchcoat – standing in a room festooned with TV screens. There is a bright light behind him: his face is invisible.]

I am the man who arranges the blocks
That are building a highly secret base

[Singer-as-officer’s face on a TV screen]

Hip-hip-hurrah! for the USSR
We are sending a man to outer space!

[TV screen cuts to a diagram of a shuttle. Zoom out to show evening sky behind the TV: a real rocket launches from behind the the television, gantries falling away on either side, as the animated one disappears upwards.]

[Cut to singer in yet another character, walking through a snowy construction site made of blocks.]

I work so hard in arranging the blocks,
But each night I go home to my wife in tears.

[Singer standing in the dingy room from earlier, striking the table in frustration.]

What’s the point of it all? When you’re building a wall,
And in front of your eyes it disappears?

[View out of the window of a partial line of blocks. A new one falls into place and the line vanishes in a flurry of snow.]

Pointless work for pointless pay –

[Cuts back and forth between the man in the construction site and a man hitting a block with a hammer. At the end of the line, the block shatters.]

This is one game I shall not play!

I am the man who arranges the blocks!

[Black, music cuts out. Resumes a second later much more slowly. Singer is standing in a queue of identical citizens in hats and coats facing left, with Lenin’s mausoleum and its Cossack guardsvisible in the background.]

. . . But tomorrow I think I’ll stay in bed.
The winter is cold – I’ve got plenty of gold –
And I’m standing in line for a loaf of bread.

[Music regains previous speed]

Maybe we’d be better off
If we brought down Gorbachov!

[Music gets even faster. Singer is now in a smart shirt, tie, and braces, his face on dozens of small square screens arranged as Tetris blocks. A different man’s face on some of the other blocks. Garish yellow-green and orange lighting. In the background of some of the squares, columns of numbers arranged into Tetris-block shapes fall downwards]

I am the man who arranges the blocks
That continue to fall from up above.

[The picture starts to rotate dizzily.]

The markets are free – so much money for me!
Tell me, why should I care for peace and love?

The markets are free – so much money for me!

[Singer throws up a wad of cash that cascades down]

Tell me, why should I care for peace and love?

[The wall of screen-blocks comes apart. Blocks start to tumble and crash into one another. Something catches fire.]

Peace and love – peace and love!

[black]

[A different singer – another white guy, with messy jaw-length brown hair – is a television presenter, against a blue background, scan lines showing across the picture. Music switches to the Tetris “Game Over” theme. The singer is wearing a Western-style shirt and leather jacket and is now singing in his native British accent. Throughout this entire segment he maintains an earnest and slightly worrying expression.]

And now the wall is down, the Marxists frown,
There’s foreign shops all over town.

[Gucci, Prada, Armani & Chanel logos cross the bottom of the screen]

When in Red Square, well don’t despair,

[picture of Red Square, showing St Basil’s Cathedral, behind singer]

There’s Levi’s and McDonald’s there.
[Logos appear on singer’s left]

The US gave us crystal meth,

[pictures of white powder appear on left side of screen]

and Yeltsin drank himself to death,

[singer makes drinking motions]

But now that Putin’s put the boot in

[series of pictures of Vladimir Putin behind singer’s head]

Who gets in our way?

So we reject free enterprise, and once again the Left will rise,

[small picture of the Communist Manifesto, title clearly visible, appears to the singer’s left and zooms upwards. Background turns red]

Prepare the flags to be unfurled, ‘cos we’re seceding from the world.

[a small map of Russia appears and shatters into fragments, which disappear]

We shall regain the Georgian soil, we shall obtain the Arctic oil,
[animated oil spurts up around the singer]

We shall arrange the blocks of toil
For ever and a day.

[A stack of Tetris blocks with windows and doors added, a la a colourful and oddly-shaped tower block. The pixellated words “Game Over” appear over the picture. Screen darkens.]

Game . . . over . . .

[Credits (white and grey lettering on a black ground): music by PIG WITH THE FACE OF A BOY written and performed by DONALD NEWHOLM and DAN WOODS, with MALCOM GAYNER & ROBIN HARRIS photographed by TIM JORDAN costumes by LUCY NEWHOLM production assistant NICOLA LINCÉ special thanks to JAMES LAMONT and REMY LAMONT produced by CHRIS LINCÉ and DAN WOODS for the MUSICAL COMEDY LAB directed, animated and edited by CHRIS LINCÉ]

[Pig with the Face of a Boy, 2010]

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