Film Review: Can Generation P’s Cultural References Play Abroad?

September 3, 2011
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Generation P

Most scholars of media have at some point stumbled onto something from another country without the proper frame of reference and been utterly bewildered by it, perhaps resulting in amusement or fascination.  Generation P, a Russian film released this April now making some appearances on the film festival circuit, seems to be an example of a film that is consciously playing up this experience as part of its appeal for a niche foreign market. As Variety put it in its recent review, “A bit too inside-Russia for commercial export, this local indie hit still feels Western enough to build something of an underground aud abroad.”

The film is adapted from a well-known novel by Viktor Pelevin, which has been translated into English first as “Bablyon” in the UK, then later as “Homo Zapiens” in the US — why a title originally in English needed to be changed is anyone’s guess. The novel is a thick slice of literary postmodernism, appropriately adapted to screen in a hallucinatory, effects-heavy style.

Vavilen (the unusual and rather embarrassing name, created from Vasily Aksyonov, and Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, instantly pegs his parents as members of the idealistic 1960′s Soviet generation, and also is a homonym for “Babylon.”) Tatarsky, a former literature student in a dead-end job shortly after the USSR’s collapse, chances into work at a firm that creates Russian-themed advertisements for Western companies trying to make inroads in the new market. It is hoped that he will tap into the Russian psyche through the right “cultural references” — the Russians use the English loan word instead of trying to translate this concept. Vavilen tries to uncover the secrets of marketing by binging on magic mushrooms, LSD, and, yes, vodka. The experience with altered states of consciousness proves to be adequate preparation for his gradual discovery of the secret forces at work behind this paranoid, Baudrillardian vision of post-Soviet society.

Of course, outlandish advertisements are a running gag:

Here’s an attempt to sell motorcycles by playing on anti-Semitism.

Foreigners will undoubtedly recognize the products, and the Slavicized spellings will add to the humor, but what might get lost is the film’s satirical edge. For Russian viewers, these ads might call to mind the types of advertisements that ran in the 90′s, which sometimes were equally bizarre miniature movies devoid of information about a purported product.  Generation P is social commentary with historical sweep.  Parts of it, such as a long-winded diatribe about the evils of television by the disembodied head of Che Guavara, might even seem overly moralizing if not for the film’s general irreverence.

Vavilen hunts for mushrooms

The psychadelic plot elements of the novel are a fortuitous circumstance. Many of its jokes could still land for an American viewer, but more at the level of stoner humor — the cultural disconnects actually can work to the film’s advantage. After all, stoners don’t care if they get the joke, so long as it “blows your mind.”

In my mind, the film is significant and notable for being one of the few recent Russian movies that might garner descriptors like “cool,” “hip,” “edgy,” or “pop literate” — even outside of its country. The Russian film industry has managed to develop a modest, but healthy commercial cinema based on Hollywood’s model, of which Night Watch was a surprise hit abroad. A more typical example might be Piter FM, which follows the conventions of the Hollywood romantic comedy to a T. Foreign audiences on the festival circuit also know art-film directors like Aleksandr Sokurov, who make self-consciously serious cinema for cultivated audiences. But Generation P seems to be something different from both these trends, more akin to, say, Videodrome, Fight Club, or more recently Gamer — films which strive, perhaps desperately, to make statements on contemporary society, but also offer good old-fashioned entertainment to those who want to turn off their minds or do not find their ideas particularly revelatory. The result may be hard to follow, but it is certainly an exciting development, or as a Russian acquaintance put it, “a welcome break from so much chernukha.” Try it, if it makes it to your country.

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