' ' Cinema Romantico: Red Penguins

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Red Penguins

The title of Gabe Polsky’s documentary “Red Penguins” refers to an uneasy joint venture between the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins and the Central Red Army hockey team of Moscow in the early 90s, after the Soviet Union had fallen apart and capitalism was trying to worm its way in. At one point in a talking head interview, then-Penguins owner Howard Baldwin references the mid-90s action thriller he produced, “Sudden Death”, where Jean-Claude Van-Damme fights off a terrorist threat at the Stanley Cup. If the unexpected mid-movie stock image of Van-Damme pummeling the Pittsburgh Penguin mascot might make you laugh, what stands out is the moment’s lack of absurdity in comparison to everything else you have already seen. Essentially Polsky is repurposing footage from “Sudden Death” to visually evince the old chestnut: truth is stranger than fiction. Alas, the remainder of Polsky’s work here is not quite at the level, alternating between talking heads and stock footage that underlines what’s being said without ever quite saying it itself. Still, “Red Penguins” is a galloping history lesson, the swiftness of the edits matching the Russian folk music-heavy soundtrack, moving so fast that the underlying tension and grave resolution seem to be getting a pass until the very end, when Boris Yelstin steps down and Vladimir Putin is named acting President and the whole bloody point is just dropped in your lap like a ton of bricks. 

In many ways, “Red Penguins” picks up where Polsky’s “Red Army” (2014) left off. There he charted the rise and fall of the eponymous Russian hockey team, its splintering and its players being dispersed to America and the NHL where they found a rougher, uglier game. In “Red Penguins”, on the other hand, American entrepreneurs go to a post-Communist Russia seeking to install a version of their preferred Capitalist Democracy, while self-servingly hoping to install a convenient pipeline to Russian hockey talent along the way, buying a half-share in the Red Army team and trying to turn into a thriving overseas business. The country they find, however, is not quite the one they expect, the cross-cultural divide comically and precisely laid out in the dueling reactions to the historical Moscow Ice Sports Palace housing a strip club in the basement and the subsequent crude marketing tactics enlisted by the yankee doodle businessmen. The Americans can’t believe a hockey rink would have a strip club; the Russians can’t believe the Americans would enlist the strippers as cheerleaders on the ice. In other words, how do you take your societal vulgarities: out in the open or behind closed doors? Strippers on the ice, though, proves a less extravagant stunt than bringing in a real-life bear to chug beer on the ice. The bear ends up biting off someone’s finger, half-bringing to life one of the most preposterous passages of the 2008 Will Ferrell comedy “Semi-Pro.” That’s pretty remarkable. 

The American marketer leading this Russian charge is Steven Warshaw, a gregarious interview who has no trouble retelling every story, at one point stopping a story in the middle when, as a Jewish man, he wants to confirm certain Christian terminology, restarting the same story, word for word, with nary a prompt, like he’s been telling it all his life. He talks like the avaricious American Dream and is juxtaposed, astutely and humorously, against the Red Penguins’ general manager, Valery Gushin. Every horror story told by Warshaw about imposing Russian mafia, men with machine guns under their trenchcoats, or Gushin and his allies pilfering profits is met in an ensuing frame by Gushin cracking up, as if remembering the funniest thing that ever happened, as if he were Wayne Arnold recalling beating up little brother Kevin. If Warshaw has a small smile in these present-day passages, it is nevertheless the small, hesitant kind of smile, one of still lingering fear but also incredulity, like the world of the Red Penguins remains foreign to him. Near the end of the documentary he explains that the Russians never got it, though by this point it is clear that Warshaw is the one who never got it, not the way the Russians did business or lived life. “You want democracy?” asks Alimzhan Tokhtakhunov, the then-Central Red Army team President who looks during his entire interview like he is deciding whether or not to order Polsky be offed. “It will be our democracy.”

At one point, Warshaw remembers how Gushin installed a spy in his office. When Warshaw pressed Gushin on this he remembers being told “Don’t ask questions or you’ll be hanging from your thumbs at the top of the arena.” Polsky then cuts back to Gushin, being reminded of this warning, who erupts into laughter. He laughs and laughs, for a full minute, literally dabbing at tears that form from guffawing so hard. As he tries to calm himself, off-camera Polsky can be heard trying to pin him down about this and that, seeking to grasp Gushin’s motivation. Finally, Gushin quiets down and his nigh-omnipresent smile vanishes. He says, soberly: “We will decide everything ourselves.”

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