All posts tagged “Russia

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Leviathan, Andrey Zvyagintsev (2014)

4Extremely Russian. We meet an unremarkable, basically decent guy, and then watch as everything that could go wrong in his life does, all before a moody arctic backdrop of blue-gray mist, gray-green ocean, black basalt, winter-battered buildings, rusty machinery, and weak light from oil lamps.

Why would you put yourself through this? Well, if you are someone who doesn’t believe that the contemporary world is run by a transnational kleptocratic cabal, this might help you see the light. If you’ve already got that message, then you watch this for the spectacular acting and the grandeur of the landscape. I also think it’s just salubrious to sometimes take in some culture that doesn’t apologize for being serious. We don’t get a lot of that out of Hollywood.

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Black Sea, Kevin Macdonald (2014)

x900Longtime readers know I have a thing for submarine movies. It’s a subgenre (ha) with such a specific set of conventions that watching the movies is almost like reading sonnets; you marvel to see how the author finds freedom within the boundaries. This isn’t one for the ages, but it has its moments of interest. Typical motifs include:

– The guy who’s never been on a submarine before
– Uncontrolled dive and ensuing tension over whether the hull will collapse, punctuated by bolts shooting out of the hull sporadically
– Captain exhibits savant-like ability to navigate through narrow passage (cf The Hunt for Red October)
– Crew threatens mutiny
– Saboteur on board
– The old rustbucket sub turns out to be more durable than everyone expected
– Gruff but incredibly competent and creative mechanic keeps engine running against all odds
– Having to shut compartment doors on still-living crew members, guaranteeing they’ll drown, in order to save the ship

Less formulaic aspects:

– This isn’t a war movie or a sci-fi movie, which are by far the two most prevalent types of sub movies. It’s a movie about undersea salvage. I can’t think of another.
– Escape suits. I don’t remember ever seeing escape suits in a sub movie before.
– Businessmen screwing over workers. I can’t recall any other sub movies I’ve seen that have put me in mind of Marx.
– Divers going outside the sub to move around on the sea floor. That’s more unusual than you’d expect.

Pretty relentlessly grim and dark movie with an excess of turns for the worse and not a good one for the claustrophobic to watch, even by sub movie standards, but a worthy little bit of filmmaking nonetheless.

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The Master of Petersburg, J. M. Coetzee (1994)

Coetzee Master of PetersburgNot my favorite of Coetzee and not his best, but a remarkable book, amazing to me not least simply because he manages to accomplish here such a complex braid of the historical, the personal, and the imaginary without losing his head. It’s nervy enough for a novelist to take up Dostoyevsky as a protagonist and presume to present the Master’s interiority. Coetzee goes a good deal further by transposing elements of his own relationship with his son onto Dostoyevsky’s with his. He further presumes to write in manner instantly recognizable as Russian-esque, as if he’s working on a kind of stylistic etude. Scenes oscillate between metaphysical speculation and intense sensory realism; the eternal questions of class, religion, and revolution are constantly in play; a chained dog in an alleyway or a battered white suit in a musty valise become occasions of terror and pity.

 

Coming to this straight from Pelevin’s Omon Ra, I’ll say a word about sentences. In Pelevin the sentences always seemed to be slipping through my fingers, never quite meaning what they seemed, often seeming to mean something other or more. What a contrast to Coetzee, whose sentences seem built stone by stone, every one a kind of temple with the aura of having always existed. I know such authority is a species of illusion, or worse, but the tiny fascist in me (almost everyone has one) does thrill to it.

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Omon Ra, Victor Pelevin (1992)

omon raThis is a brilliant and heartbreaking little novel which I first read years ago and enjoyed just as much the second time around. Omon is a postwar Russian kid who dreams of transcending the banality of his circumstances by becoming a cosmonaut. The Soviet state is happy to help him do so, since his desire dovetails perfectly with the state’s desire to project an image of achievement and glory to the world. In the end it turns out all parties have been deluding themselves and each other; transcendence and glory turn out to be induced hallucinations. In the sacred profane tradition of Gogol, the story’s both tragic and comic, naturalistic and fabulous.

And to extend that last point, from a writerly point of view, I marvel at the way Pelevin segues seamlessly from the realistic to the absurd and back again, so that as a reader, you find yourself in a sort of hall of mirrors, where the unbelievable seems inevitable and the simplest explanation impossible. I wouldn’t know for sure, but it seems a perfect stylistic match for what life must have been like behind the Iron Curtain.

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Lilya 4-ever, Lukas Moodysson (2002)

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When we first see Lilya, a sparky-looking Russian sixteen-year-old “born the same day as Britney Spears, only four years apart,” she’s preparing to throw herself off a highway overpass. Lilya! What could have brought you to this?! Jesus, where to begin. You’ve grown up in a depressing post-Soviet housing block. Your chief entertainment with your so-called friends–some of whom will later rape you–is huffing glue and listening to terrible techno music. Your best friend is a a little homeless kid who lives in an abandoned military facility. Your mother contrives to move to the USA with her pig of a boyfriend, promises that you’re to go too but at the last moment literally leaves you behind in the dirt, and then later writes a letter to social services formally renouncing her guardianship of you.

To top it off, some Moodysson-ofabitch Swedish director shows up to document all your troubles with a horrifically depressing script for you to slog through and a super-verite handheld camera that bounces around so much you need two Dramamine just to get through a scene.

Thus the first seven minutes of our evening’s entertainment. It gets way, way worse.

When the promised letters and money from mother never arrive, Lilya goes to see her elderly aunt, who kindly advises, “Do what your mother did: Go into town and spread your legs.” This Lilya does, as a last resort. At the club, between tricks, she meets a seemingly nice guy who takes her on innocent dates (bumper cars! McDonalds!). He seems like a Prince Charming, but in fact he’s setting her up to sell her into slavery in a Swedish housing block that looks a hell of a lot like the one in Russia she’s “escaped” from.

This was one of the most difficult movies to watch I have ever encountered. The DVD case said it was 1:49 long; at 1:00 I was already feeling sick to my stomach and at 1:25, after what might be the most disturbing sequence I’ve ever seen in a movie–a series of johns in extremis shot from Lilya’s POV–I had to turn off the set and take a walk around the block.

This movie isn’t a a documentary, but everything it shows is happening right now, all over the world. The only implausible part is that Lilya and her friend get to play basketball in heaven when their suffering ends.

P.S. When you search for “human trafficking” on Google, this ad pops up in the sidebar:

Human Trafficking
Whatever you’re looking for
you can get it on eBay.
www.eBay.com

Creepy.