Monday, April 18, 2011

Target, the Movie (Alexander Zeldovich and Vladimir Sorokin)

March 25. Berkeley

I saw The Target (Мишень) two nights ago (dir. Alxander Zeldovich, script by Alexander Zeldovich and Vladimir Sorokin. Ren Film, 2011). My friend Tom Luddy was kind enough to lend me a copy after he returned from the Berlin Film Festival where the The Target premiered.

The Target may be strong stuff for some but, I am not among them. For me, this is a visually grating (on purpose, of course) art-house film. Thought provoking? Yes, by the ton, and here is what it has provoked me into thinking.

I understand Vladimir Sorokin's thing, which Zeldovich chose to explore cinematically. It is to puncture the romantic illusion, whether the "good, true, and beautiful" of the 19th-cetury intelligentsia ideology or its later incarnations in socialist realism, and post-Stalin critical art and fiction (say, Solzhenitsyn). But if what you aim at is art, you cannot actually destroy illusion, because in art, illusion is indispensable. What ultimately happens when you try to do away with illusion is that you either stop producing art and have an analytical critique instead, or you simply replace one illusion with another, most likely, the opposite of your original target (pun intended). 

Let's consider the first possibility: The Target is a kind of an allegorical analysis of the human condition in the hydrocarbon-dependent and criminally corrupt Russia of the not-so-distant future. Those deluxe Russians, who have risen to the top of the pyramid and who think they are smart, beautiful and (this is the sci-fi twist, the dystopian part) entitled to eternal youth, are, in fact, ugly, stupid, and have a remarkable short life-expectancy. The sex scenes are abundant, in-your-face graphic, and telling - less fun to watch than a barn yard romance. 
They are Sorokin's version of an old school Russian literature teacher's question to an eighth-grade cretin.

The dialogue goes something like this: 
Tell me, Volodya, did Onegin really love Tatyana? 
Like, teach, I haven't like finished the book yet but I think he like just wanna hump her, you know, like a dog, like from behind...

What these Russian creatures call love, Sorokin and Zeldovich seem to be saying to us, is nothing but an animal urge, not even to procreate, though the central couple (an oil minister "Karenin" and his bored wife "Anna") are trying to conceive - need I say, unsuccessfully - but to dominate, to crush your partner. 

OK. We get the allegory: Putin's or Putin-Medvedev's Russia is nothing but a criminally corrupt enterprise that has no future or, rather, one like the present only slicker and bleaker than today. One of the male characters, played by Vitaly Kishchenko is a sex maniac mafioso and a biker (a "Vronsky" stud type), who looks suspiciously like Putin, especially as he rides his futuristic cruising bike or is transported to his death after his criminal enterprise crashes. 
Kishchenko and Zeldovich
To add a bit of complexity, the framing message is that USA is nowhere to be seen and the dominant cultural and everything else power is - you guessed it - China. There is an occasional Chinese face but, for the most part, the them is felt through Leonid Desyatnikov's minimalist score, with a bit of a Chinese musical lilt grafted onto it. A lot of people hold similar views, and as they watch this film, I imagine while checking email on their iphones, they may nod approvingly to having their thinking confirmed by the flickering screen.

But if we consider the second possibility, namely, that Zeldovich and Sorokin tried to make an art film (emphasis on art), then the result is a bust. What Target offers is an inverted romantic illusion. In our post-everything age, this means they are preaching to the converted. Indeed, it would be easier to find a snow ball in Hollywood than a potential member of the Target audience who considers the romantic illusion to be true (in a way that, say "money makes the world go round" is true).

My educated guess is that most people, nevertheless, find romance and romantic illusion pleasing. We like romance in the same way that the people who do not believe in Santa find Christmas trees pleasing. Ditto sex. We all know that sex, when seen by an uninvolved spectator, looks ugly - ugly enough, as Freud pointed out at length in The Wolfman, to traumatize a child for life (a Russian child no less!). But most would agree, our voyeuristic inclinations aside, that "doing it" is another matter. This is why the film's dis-illusion,  its attempt at disenchanting the magic of romance, makes for an unsuccessful artistic illusion. We already know: (1) "sex is ugly" and (2) life is ugly, too, not to mention brutish, short, and solitary. The author of Anna Karenina thought so following Hobbes, except unlike Hobbs, he thought that it was the state, not nature, that "made us do it." 
The art historian Ernst Gombrich once quipped that in engaging with art one can either immerse oneself in an the illusion induced by a work of art or subject it to a rational analysis; but it was impossible to "watch oneself having an illusion." The film Target by Zeldovich and Sorokin invite us to watch ourselves being disabused of the illusion that we do not have. 

And yet, the film is worth seeing. I was taken by a few scenes  that experts with a taste for Sots-Art, the post-modern legacy of the Stalinist aesthetic, may find amusing enough to endure the rest of the feature. The shots of the over-the-top affluence of the nouveau Russian country estates evokes the canvases extolling the abundance of Stalin's collective farms and the corresponding Stalinist celluloids. And the village that specializes in selling rejuvenation and life eternal looks suspiciously like Brat's native realm. So, there are a few worthy nuggets in dem da hills, even if it takes a bit of sweating and digging to get to them. A juxtaposition of another political heavy hitter, Balabanov's Cargo 200, and Target would make for an interesting essay (Balabanov's Putin-like biker Alexey Poluyan v Zeldovich's Putin-like biker Kishchenko)... As would juxtapositions of the film adaptations of the greatest nihilistic novel of all times, Oprah's favorite "Anna Karenina." I may actually show Target in class next year when I teach the novel.

PS. 9/5/11. Target has just been screened at the Telluride Film Festival. The NYT critic A.O. Scott called it "an astonishing piece of visionary futurism" and one that caused him to experience "sublime puzzlement." I hope this billing will elicit in some American distributors an equally sublime desire to show Target in the US. 

PPS. September 27, 2011. The film will be shown at Stanford, with a round table discussion to follow on November 10 at 6 pm (venue TBD). Discussants: Alexander Zeldovich, Vladimir Sorokin, Gregory Freidin (Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures, Stanford), and Tom Luddy (Director, Telluride Film Festival).

Friday, April 15, 2011


I am writing a book about a Russian Jewish writer, Isaac Babel, who thought that art could serve as the solid inner core of one’s identity, that the power of art is sufficient to redeem violence, revolution, and all possible human transgressions against morality, faith, loyalty, and plain human empathy.
This attitude was rather typical for the generation of avant-garde artists to which he belonged, men and women who had gained renown as poets, writers, painters before the 1917 Revolution but whose career matured in the Soviet era. Although in a less extreme form, intellectuals both in Russia and the West, myself included, carry the vestiges of this attitude or, rather, faith.

My self-imposed biographer’s immersion in this mind-set made it all the more interesting for me to see, if only for the late-night relaxation, the latest HBO mini-series, “Mildred Pierce,” a high-class soap about an American woman in the 1930’s Los Angeles, modeled to a degree on the 1945 eponymous film with Joan Crawford in the lead role.  Although it uses the trappings of the Great Depression America, Director Todd Haynes’ “Mildred Pierce” tells us a story about the American dream as it tumbled down from the summit irrational exuberance to its low in the Great Recession, walking-wounded, self-medicating U.S.A. of our own day.
Played by Kate Winslet, Mildred is a strong woman from Glendale and a “straight shooter” in all matters, except two things that thicken the plot: her guilt-ridden relationship with her daughter and her occasional indulgence in good sex, per HBO conventions, with Monty, a playboy character of Guy Pearce. After her double-timing husband of eleven years walks out on her, this suburban housewife picks up the pieces and eventually succeeds by turning her home-spun passion for pies into a lucrative chain of pie shops and restaurants.

In the soap opera tradition, things get really bad, then they get really good only to get really-really bad before a reversal so spectacular that it could only be followed by an all-out crash which, in deference to the conventions of a melodrama, touched by a refreshing brush of the noir, leads to a partial and not entirely satisfactory rescue.

Melodramas are a bourgeois genre, one that arose at the time when the bourgeoisie was vying for supremacy with the aristocracy. The secret of success of those who belonged to this rising class lay in their ability to take advantage of a chance opportunity offered the dynamic society and economy of their time, and melodrama, the TV series of its time, was meant to teach a moral lesson. Melodramas are different from tragedies in that they promise a good life if the characters mend their ways – something that tragedies, and their cinematic noir equivalents do not. To give an example, “Law and Order,” a deeply noir TV series, begin with a wolf’s  howl and ends its story on a note of a howling poetic injustice, as in a tragedy, with the final shot of a black screen with the two monosyllables of the series producer’s name, Dick Wolf. Subliminally they rhyme with the archetypal monosyllabic coupling of “fuck you,” each word pronounced emphatically, a condensed and effective diagnosis of the human condition seen through a tragic or film noir prism.

“Mildred Pierce,” its two extra syllables notwithstanding, resonates with the noir genre but only up to a point. On the whole, it stays within the boundaries of the melodrama, and as such, delivers a moral message. It is the singularity of this moral message, suggestive perhaps of a change in the cultural Zeitgheist,  that has prompted me to put these few thoughts on paper.

The first such message is that good – beach-house throw-all-caution-to-the-wind – sex  and sex and sex is not only overrated but is well-nigh lethal, especially, for a mother of a small girl. While Mildred is enjoying herself with Monty, her younger daughter is suddenly hospitalized with pneumonia and dies soon after her sexually sated mom arrives at the hospital. Good sex, including cunnilingus performed by Monty later on as the two resume their relationship, is also bad for business as it clouds Mildred’s judgment condemning her eventually to a financial and emotional doom.

The second moral message should give pause to the ambitious middle-class parents who instill in their children a desire to transcend the boundary of their class. Herself upwardly mobile off-spring of a garage mechanic, Mildred programs her daughter – with music lessons, concerts, inspirational tunes, and constant subliminal messaging – to aspire to an upper-class status. The result is a young woman who has no respect for the ingenuity and effort her mother invested in the well-being of her family and utter contempt for the middle-class virtues of modesty, chastity, thrift, work ethic, and the like.

Finally, saving best for last, the series deals a shattering blow to the middle-class faith in the redemptive power of art. Vida Pierce, Mildred’s wayward and estranged daughter, is suddenly discovered to possess the rare gift of a coloratura soprano and without, it seems, much effort makes a spectacular singing career (there is no hint of this story line in the 1945 film). Vida’s coach and conductor, an Italian maestro from the old world, tries to disabuse the naïve American Mildred of her belief that Vida’s great artistry has redeemed her daughter’s meanness and would make it possible for them to reconcile. As the maestro puts it in his Hollywood Italian accent, Vida is an attractively colored “poisonous snake,” a creature to be admired as an exhibit in a zoo but under no circumstances to be taken home.

Alas, this old-world, European wisdom, falls on deaf ears (as it did in Europe among those who could not believe that the heirs to Goethe and Beethoven would preside over mass exterminations). A reconciliation between mother and daughter follows soon thereafter. It crests in the LA Philharmonic, all gold, brocade and red velvet, the bourgeois equivalent of a royal court, that the bourgeoisie so much dreams about. Gilding the lily, Vida delivers a performance of a lifetime, including singing her mother’s lullaby as an encore. Mildred is smitten and proceeds to take the poisonous snake home.

Now Mildred is set up to lose it all, and she proceeds to do so with dispatch. Soon after her investors confront her and threatened with bankruptcy unless she recovers the  corporate money she had showered on Vida. She rushes to her home, no longer in the prosaic Glendale but in the high-flying Pasadena of her new husband Monty, and discovers Vida, yes, in Monty’s bed.
Melodramas cannot end on a tragic note, and in the final segment Mildred picks up the pieces again, not all of them by a long shot, but enough to stand on her feet, remarry her first husband, and yet again send her daughter packing. The last frame shows her and her husband, disenchanted at last, self-medicating their pain with hard drink.
That love, even mother’s love, not to mention sex, turns out to be a dangerous illusion and a trap is a melodramatic message even older than Jane Austen. But to be using the same brush to tar both the aspirations for upward mobility and high art turns a new page in the annals of bourgeois drama. The director Michael Curtiz, it seems, tells his viewers to forget about upward mobility and not worry much about the lack of support for the arts as they do not contribute to the moral betterment of society, perhaps, even lead to the opposite result.

He is right, of course, in decoupling beauty from truth and justice but I would rather stay with Isaac Babel and be wrong than be right in Director Curtiz’s conventional middle-class Glendale box without even an illusion of an exit, except through the neck of a liquor bottle.