Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Generation P (orig. Generation П) [2011]

MPAA (R)  Roger Ebert (2 1/2 Stars)  Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing
Kinopiosk.ru listing [Eng Trans]
Roger Ebert's review

Generation P (orig. Generation П) [IMDb] [KP.ru] [KP.ru-Eng Trans] directed by Victor Ginzberg [IMDb] [KP.ru] [KP.ru-Eng Trans] is a Russian language (here English subtitled) comedy based on the 1999 Russian cult novel by Victor Pelevin by the same name published in English translation under the title Homo Zapiens.  Set in the 1990s during the Yeltsin Era in the decade after the fall of Communism in Russia, the film's (and presumably the book's) style reminds me very much of '60s American/English "counter-cultural" classics like Clockwork Orange (book / film) or Catch 22 (book / film).

The story is about 30-something Moscovite Babylen Tatarsky (played by Vladimir Epifantev [IMDb]).  He  explains that his name came from his parents' creative conflation of Babi Yar with Lenin (though the obvious play on the "Tower of Babel" /  "Babylon" becomes increasingly important as the story progresses).  At the beginning of the film, Babilen narrates to the audience that he had gotten a degree "in poetry" during the Communist Era. With the fall of the Communists, however, he could no longer find a sustainable job "as a poet," and given that "he didn't have any connections" he got the only job that he could get at the time -- working in a Kiosk for a "Chechen" (read basically "Mafioso...") boss.  In 1990s Moscow, a Kiosk was basically one of multitudes of 10 ft by 10 ft wooden boxes standing along busy city streets, each kiosk with a metal mesh security window through which one transacted money for cigarettes, newspapers and other nicknacks.  Babilen noted that his human contact during that time would basically be glimpsing the hands feeding him the money for the nicknacks that he was selling.  And he noted also that he soon "became proficient at his job, knowing from that glimpse of each customer's hand exactly how much [he] could shortchange him ... ;-)"  It was not much of a life but it did pay the bills...

However, Babilen did get a break afterall.  Leonid (played by Mikhail Efremov) a friend from university days, recognized Babilen's voice even if Babilen would not necessarily have recognized his hand ... ;-) ... and knowing Babilen was a "wordsmith" offered him a job where he had found work -- in still nascent but increasingly important world of Russian advertising.  Why would advertising be a burgeon field in the years following the fall of Communism in Russia?  Well, as Leonid explained to Babilen a "flood" of Western products was about to arrive in Russia but Russians would have to be introduced to them using Russian cultural syntax/symbols.  (Perhaps who better than a "poet" could do this kind of work ...).

So a good part of the rest of the movie becomes Babilen and his colleagues seeking to "translate" American/Western products into the Russian cultural context with much humor, often (and I know it's fair, but one also winces at times...) at Westerners expense.  For instance, Babilen is given the task of writing an ad for British "Parliament" cigarettes.  Playing around with the white rectangular box with a picture of the British Westminster parliament building on it, he comes up with a the idea of making the box of cigarettes rise up out of the ground like the giant, white (and recently smoldering...) Russian Parliament building (because Yeltsin had famously come to bomb it) with the slogan "Support Democracy, Support the Rule of Law, Support your Parliaments."  You get the picture ...

In perhaps the most appalling case (to us Americans, but honestly, I do understand why it would probably be funny in Russia), the team at the ad agency where Babilen worked is given the task of writing an ad for Nike (an American company making shoes in Vietnam).  So Babilen's coworkers come up with an ad featuring still imprisoned American POWs working at a Nike plant "demanding to see the (new) U.S. Ambassador."  A Vietnamese guard comes in, hits one of the American POWs over the head with his still Soviet-era Kalishnikov, and pointing to the shoes, repeats Nike's slogan: "Just do it ..."  One of the managers at Babilen's firm asks "Wouldn't an ad like this offend Nike?"  The response: "What would they care?  We've been given the task of selling their shoes in Russia, and _our consumers_ will like this kind of ad."  Again, you get the picture ...

As it becomes challenging to be continuously "creative," Babilen finds himself going out increasingly to the outskirts of Moscow to both visit a friend who had already "escaped" into Buddhist mysticism under the Communist era (mostly by consuming home-grown Russian hallucinogenic mushrooms ...) and "contemplating" a never completed Cold War era Anti-Ballistic Missile system tower, one that looked like a modern spitting image of the Biblical Tower of Babel.  While hallucinating under the influence of "home grown _Russian_ LSD" and contemplating this Tower he had conversations with both Che Guevara and goat-fleece donning Babilonian priests of Ishtar.  Honestly, the film's a trip ... ;-).

What then to say of the movie?  I enjoyed seeing what seems to me to be an authentic if rather cynical contemporary Russian comedy.  I also found the film challenging and a reminder that Americans are not the only ones that often think of themselves as "Exceptional."  Indeed, the primary theme of this film seemed to be that of  "Russian exceptionalism" declaring to the West: "We _are_ different from you.  To successfully talk to us, you're going to have to refer (and respect...) our cultural points of reference."

More positively, the film was also offering western viewers a window into how marketing imagery and techniques that work quite well in the West / United States can be manipulated (and subverted) elsewhere to some really scary ends.  Near the end of the film, Babilen finds that the "ultimate marketing campaign" is really a political campaign ... and that in creating an effective marketing strategy for a political campaign the human candidate him/herself can become irrelevant. (The suggestion is made that footage showing Yeltsin "dancing" at various political campaign events never occurred ... that simply a CGI-Yeltsin was spliced into footage from a popular rock concert ...).

Who to recommend the movie to?  In the United States, I do think that young people and intellectuals (coastal liberals ...) in general will probably appreciate the film.  Others may in fact be offended.  But then I would imagine that American films like "Red Dawn [1984] [2012] probably don't go over well in Russia (except as a joke ...) either...

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