Thursday, May 23, 2013

Obscure Oddities: TOWN ZERO (1988)

As an American, getting into Russian cinema can be as near a fatalistic experience as the films themselves. Your choices are limited and in the end, no matter what you do, they lead you down an ever narrowing path to the solitary, inescapable conclusion of nothingness. If you read film books and have been to some sort of remedial film class, you'll be introduced to the works of turn of the century filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein (inventor of the "bedhead"), without whom the 1980s American comedy and romance films would simply not be. You will also be introduced to Andrei Tarkovsky who seemingly picked up the slack after Eisenstein's death. Yes, for one hundred years, Russia only had two filmmakers. Then in the past 30 years, it's been nothing but embarrassing Hollywood clones like NIGHT WATCH (2004) and the astonishingly blatant, but fun D-DAY (2008). Right? Well, it sure seems that way in America.

Of course, Russian cinema has had a rich history, but unlike Hollywood, what few pre-modern Russian films I've been able to see have been rather personal, in a cultural sense. Russians made movies for Russians. Sure they let Hungarians see them, and the Polish had no choice, but it seems like the Russians in their imperial arrogance felt that no one else would appreciate their pains, their delights, their mindboggling bureaucracy. To an extent, they may very well be right.

An average middle management type, Aleksei Varakin (Leonid Filatov), travels by train from his Moscow factory to a small town in order to have a meeting with the head of an air conditioner manufacturer. After finding that security doesn't know anything about his arrival, he discovers the receptionist is completely nude. The factory head (Armen Dzhigarkhanyan) has no knowledge of this fact, nor of Varakin's arrival, in spite of the fact that blueprints and phone-calls had been exchanged in prior weeks. This of course can be all squared away if they get the plant engineer up to the office. As it turns out the engineer has been dead for eight months after drowning in a lake. The best thing to do at this point is set up another meeting in two weeks.


Perplexed Varakin decides to go out to dinner before catching his train back to Moscow. After Varakin finishes his meal, the waiter brings him dessert, which turns out to be a cake replica of Varakin's head. When Varakin refuses to eat it the waiter tells him that if he doesn't, the cook will shoot himself. Thinking this to be a twisted joke, Varakin attempts to leave, only to hear a shot and see the cook fall to the floor with a crimson stain across his chest.

So starts Varakin's quietly desperate efforts to escape the town which is seemingly populated entirely by people who seem normal from a distance, but get very strange once you get up close. In an early part of of the film, Varakin finds himself at a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere after a taxi dumps him off (the driver is unable to leave the area surrounding the town - shades of Alex Proyas' 1998 film DARK CITY). While sitting at the table in the farm house, a young boy stares him straight in the eyes and tells him "you will never leave our town" and predicts the date of his death. As it turns out, creepy kids are the least of his problems.

Later in the film Varakin is hauled into the police station and interrogated about his relationship with the dead cook. He is shown a picture of himself that the dead man possessed with an inscription in Varakin's handwriting that claims to be the cooks son! At a later point the local prosecutor (Vladimir Menshov) tells Varakin that he believes that the cook may have been assassinated and Varakin used as a witness, with grave political repercussions. At this point you start feeling a bit comfortable. You start feeling like you have a plot to grasp on to. This is when director Karen Shakhnazarov yanks the carpet out from under you. Not only is there a suicide, or maybe murder, but that dead cook was actually a great historical figure... well, in that town's proud and rich history. He was the first person to "dance rock and roll"! While this "plot" is explored a bit, it really has nothing to do with the film's modus operandi, which is to satirize Russian political and social mentality with the incredibly elaborate history of this small town.

Feeling something like what would come out of a brief romantic liaison between Alejandro Jodorowski and Terry Gilliam in a Bolshevik prison, this is essentially a pitch-black surrealist comedy that underplays every bizarre moment. This is one thing that I think makes this somewhat unpalatable to North America and the English. There's no crying, no yelling, no hysteria. Varakin finds himself following a path that he cannot change, all he can do is shoulder his burden and push forward. So very Russian.

Also, the second act has a very long sequence in which Varakin finds himself in the local museum which has been set up in the remnants of the old coal mine. During his guided tour he is shown elaborate, life-size wax dioramas depicting significant events in the town's history. Since my knowledge of Russian history is only slightly more advanced than what I learned in high school ("commies are bad, ummmkay?"), a substantial portion of this scene went right over my head. On the other hand there is so much to appreciate here that transcends the culture gap. A scene where a major character ludicrously fails a public suicide attempt is both darkly hilarious and at the same time rather pitiable. There are endless details to muse over, rife with symbolism and outright surreality. Why do we get musical cues only when Anna (a very minor character) shows up? Why is The Prosecutor wearing a rather loud suit instead of his uniform at the end? Why did the jazz band start to play at exactly that time, indeed?

The sense that something is not at all right starts with the first shot of the movie. Shakhnazarov has apparently made a small but well-received career out of making moody, semi-surreal movies. This is a mid-career film for him, but it feels experimental, like an early film for someone else. On the other hand, he is completely confident and does not hesitate to open the film with a two-minute sequence in which the camera dolefully views a fog-shrouded train station in utter silence. Eventually the train begins to move, picking up speed and leaving the station as the camera slowly cranes up until the platform is empty and a solitary figure walks across the tracks. This sort of sequence evokes a sense of fatalism and isolation that permeates the entire film. Even when Varakin is in a room full of people, he is completely alone. Mainly because everyone else is a complete loon operating on a wavelength he cannot begin to fathom.

This style of fish-out-of-water film had been done in Ray Lawrence's BLISS (1985) and Martin Scorsese's AFTER HOURS (1985), but while the latter was a frantic, sweaty, and very American style experience, this is very much a low-key exercise in minimalism with lots of lingering shots and subtle facial expressions to convey alienation, manipulation, conformity and fate. Perhaps the Russians are right. I can't imagine this playing at a multiplex in 1988 right next to DIE HARD, BEETLEJUICE and COMING TO AMERICA... but I really wish it had.

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