Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Mar 03, 2013 6:10 pm 
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The Color of the Chameleon

The crazy scheming of a nonentity in the almost-post-communist world

Blurb: "Batko Stamenov (Ruscen Vidinliev) is the ideal secret agent. Orphaned at an early age, he was adopted by his aunt, who later confessed to having been his real mother. But when she passes away and the doctor informs Batko that she died a virgin, it becomes clear to him that lying is a family trait. So when he’s approached by a member of the secret police who wants to recruit him as a spy, he’s more than happy to oblige. For his first mission, he is assigned to infiltrate the so-called "Club for New Thinking." This subversive student group meets to discuss a pseudo-philosophical novel called Zincograph, which tells the story of a raving lunatic who works at the Royal Zincography by day, and by night creates an ever-expanding — and wholly fictional — web of spies and saboteurs that bamboozles the country’s actual secret police." I might add that Batko winds up doing much the same himself, learning zinc litho printing, and reporting on the book club's members to his security boss.

Christov's Color of the Chameleon/Tsvetat na hameleona is a deliberately surreal -- and elaborately droll -- depiction of the simultaneous breakdown and perpetuation of the practices of the communist security and espionage bureaucracies after the fall of the Soviet empire focusing on the odd career of one ostensibly vacuous and unimportant man, albeit one with a zest for life and his semi-imaginary espionage roles -- who attempts to seize significance, as it were, from the jaws of nonentity. All this is in a scenario adapted by Vladislav Todorov from his own 2010 novel Zincograph, centers on young misfit/perfect fit Batko Stamenov (Ruscen Vidinliev a generally appealing tongue-in-cheek protagonist). This is an elaborate, ingenious, and beautiful film, something of which Bulgaria, which hasn't dominated the international film festival circuit of late, may be justly proud -- or might be, if it did not all seem so trivial, somehow. That is perhaps the fault of Comrade Todorov. It all seems like a droll game to him. And one does see its absurdity. But then one remembers Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's devastating study of the secret police in East Germany The Lives of Others, also just a few years before the fall of communism, and one realizes that this stuff was pretty serious and pretty awful, and Christov's and Todorov's farce seems a tad insensitive. And some of the archness seems heavy-handed from the outset: how funny can you find the protagonist's excessive masturbation, or the State's theory that it can lead to epilepsy? Still, there is fun to be had, and this is an awfully good-looking film much of the way.

Unfolding in the years just before and just after the fall of Communism, this black comedy about an irrelevant but enthusiastic secret police informant "goes down a rabbit hole into a realm of twisted absurdity," says a festival blurb -- a description that could easily be the opening of a damning review. Another blurb enticingly, if over-enthusiastically, suggests Christov has made "a black, absurdist riff on the dank literary labyrinths of Kafka, Le Carré and Don DeLillo, by way of the cinematic influence of David Lynch and Bernardo Bertolucci." Well, now. Actually Le Carré is mentioned in the dialogue, but not those other guys. And the thing is, Le Carré has had some interesting things to say about the post Berlin Wall world. If Todorov is trying to make his way from Le Carré to DiLilllo by way of Kafka, that may be his problem. But all this makes more sense than some viewers seem to have thought, even though the basic idea is a little too easy: that cold war paranoia was so absurd, after the time passed it made just as much sense to invent new security games of nothing. Hence when Batko Stamenov is fired by his state security boss for his irrelevant and self-indulgent reports, he invents his own agency of "SEX" and hires young intellectuals he knows from the book club, mimicking his rituals with them from those of his own former boss.

By this point and indeed long before -- Todorov could have done a good deal more paring down of his novel's elaborate details -- things are becoming an intricate network of absurdist filigrees, creating an effect that some viewers find wonderfully hip, while others see it as increasingly devoid of sense. In either case, Bulgaria is back with its first film at at New Directors/New Films in New York, it's reported, in thirty-five years. Reviews by from Toronto came from David Nosair, who loathed this film (and seems not to have understood it), and James McNally, who found a number of things to admire, but not all. An online review by Joe Bendel provides some insights too. Add one to the cinematic chronicles of communist nuttiness.

The Cholor of the Chameleon, (2012) 114mins., was shown at various festivals, including Toronto. It was screened for this review at the New Directors/New Films series, a joint presentation of FSLC and MoMA, New York, March 2013.

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