Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Mar 19, 2012 12:21 pm 
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Publicity, politics, and drugs in Nineties Russia

A wealth of witty ideas, mostly from the much admired source novel by Victor Pelevin, enliven this fantasy about advertising, media, politics and business in Nineties Russia, This Brazil-like miasma is admirable for a degree of ceaseless invention in preposterous "what-if" and "wow factor" scenes that, despite deep immersion in matters locally Russian, may gain the film some western cult value. Rich period detail and elaborate production values are big pluses: some real time and substantial rubles went into this production. But this is a virtually plotless film -- except for sticking with its amiable but neutral protagonist (who narrates) and being pulled together by some far-fetched business about the worship of Ishtar. The consequent lack of clear direction tends to make P wearying, at least for non-Russian viewers.

As with many overly energetic films this one is probably most memorable at the outset, when we meet aspiring poet and recent university graduate Babylen Tatarsky (Vladimir Epifantsev) taking what advantage he can on his own from the fall of the Soviet Union. What he learned in college is useless so what this means is selling contraband cigarettes and condoms and other trinkets behind a keyhole window in a dark kiosk controlled by Chechen mafia. He learns to up his profit by short-changing customers selectively according to how he sizes them up. Into this bleak world his old pal Morkovin (Andrey Fomin) appears and introduces him to the grandiose prospects of building an advertising business reframing American product promotion and brand names for the Russian customer base. It emerges that for some reason the whole nascent free market Russian media world is controlled by followers of the cult of Ishtar.

The symbolic product inspiring the generation of nouveau-capitalists is a bottle of Russian-made Pepsi, because it was originally given to "Bab" and his generation as Soviet Young Pioneers as a symbol of the possibility of a better world coming, if the nightmare ever ended. Presumably that better world doesn't come, only a succession of governments and product knockoffs and absurd promotion campaigns for both. This is the story of Generation P (for Pepsi). In the ad world, Bab's and his colleagues' game is to get paid by their customers before they go bust, because gangsters are taking over everything and nothing lasts.

As one absurd and sometimes hilarious advertising campaign after another unfolds on screen, there is also stuff about the impeachment of Yeltsin and his attempt to take over the Russian Parliament, cleverly interwoven with alternative ad campaigns for Parliament cigarettes. An ad for a Christian church promotes it as “a first class Lord for first class people.” A funeral parlor Bab sells with the slogan, “Diamonds are not forever.” The recreation of a suitably gruesome medieval Russian beheading drives home a pitch for Head and Shoulders with the punch line, ”Keep them together.” The interweaving of ad ideas and political events is intriguing but hard to follow, and things aren't much helped by the fact that Bab consumes massive events of alcohol, mainly vodka (and a fake political candidate is marketed under the name of Smirnoff) with other mind and body altering substances including cocaine, super-strong Acid, and piles of magic mushrooms provided by another school friend, Gireev (Sergey Shnurov), which lead the hero with his oddball spiritual guide toward eastern mysticism. Acquisition of a Ouija board leads to communication with a mad Che Guevara. The cult of Ishtar being Babylonian, Babylen's odd name makes him feel a special connection -- aiding his rise in the Russian media world. Reaching the apparent peak of that world, Bab joins Azadovsky (Mikhail Efremov), head of The Beekeeping Institute (cover name for a mysterious publicity syndicate), who has the peculiar habit of appearing on the TV under different identities, and is so rich he's quite indifferent to the fact that he's wearing a $170,000 Patek Philippe watch.

The combo of tongue-in-cheek ad campaigns, politics, drugs and spirituality causes the film very quickly to lose all contact with the real world. Even rides in Mercedes Benz's and Labmorghinis can't bring it down to earth. This seems unfortunate in a story that aims to comment on recent history in some detail. Ginzburg, who partly grew up and was educated in the US, West, is tireless in recreating fantastic sequences from the novel, but the story line doesn't make enough cohesive sense, especially not to anyone non-Russian. It doesn't help that most of the cast isn't particularly memorable, including the appealing but bland Epifantsev: Ginzburg has put most of his eggs into the mise-en-scène basket, at the expense of plot, argument, and character. Given a novel source of this complexity and all the wonderfully absurd scenes to recreate, that was perhaps an inevitable compromise.

Ginzburg, who is a graduate of the School of Visual Arts in New York, has done music videos, documentaries and short films. This is his feature debut. Generation P has been shown at several festivals, including Moscow and Toronto, and it was watched for this review in a screening for the MoMA and Film Society of Lincoln Center joint series, New Directors/New Films, whose public showings for the film are:

Friday, March 30th | 6 PM | FSLC
Sunday, April 1st | 1:30 PM | MoMA

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