P is for Pepsi, and Putin, and Psychedelia

Generation P

dir. Victor Ginzburg (Karlovy Vary International Film Festival)

Generation P is adapted from the much-praised much-translated novel by Victor Pelevin, a plot-less fragmentary book which was reputed to be unfilmable.  It’s now a wildly satirical movie.

Victor Ginzburg’s film, which made its international premiere at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in the Czech Republic, has a plot – a young man’s ascent (or descent) from a claustrophobic street kiosk into the world of consumerized sloganeering in the Russian advertising industry.

An Ad-Man in Moscow (Vladimiir Yepifantsev) Reaches for Wisdom from Nature in Generation P

It also has something of an argument, which shouldn’t be held against it – that the creation of a message in advertising involves the same kind of work as the creation of a message in politics. We’ve seen that here in the US. (Just go back to Joe McGinnis’s brilliant Nixonology, The Selling of a President 1968, for a great Roger & Me {Ailes,that is} adventure. Let’s not forget that it was Nixon who arranged for Pepsi, led by his friend and financial supporter Donald Kendall, to be the US Cola of Brezhnev’s USSR.) That was the soft sell. In Stalinist times, artists were called the engineers of human souls. Bear in mind that when persuasion falls short in Moscow, the Russians tend to shape popular opinion with tanks.

The director of Generation P seems anything but Russian. Victor Ginzburg looks and talks like someone who lives in Venice Beach, California, where Ginzburg resides. But Ginzburg is Russian – just as Russian is Victor Pelevin’s book that reaches for entropic hallucinatory roots in Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita – an underappreciated novel that’s more cited than read. There’s a modern Russian literary tradition of things coming apart, and Generation P makes its own contribution.

Another extraordinary novel adapted for the screen and shown at KVIFF 2011, Marketa Lazarova by Vladislav Vancura, is described as untranslatable. It is set among the warring clans of medieval Bohemia, which makes Moscow of today look civilized. The epic film in stark black and white by Frantisek Vlacil was released in 1967, around the same time as Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev. Guess which one is better known? Marketa Lazarova remains the most popular Czech film ever made. The restored print should be touring the US sometime soon.

Back to Generation P – the tale of Russia today follows a street vendor, Babylen Tatarsky (Vladimiir Yepifantsev), who enters the world of advertising after meeting an old friend who has struck it rich in the art of mass persuasion. He flees the kiosk, clips off his mullet, buys new clothes and “creates” campaigns for Marlboro (“we need a guy with a cowboy hat and lots of oppressed people”). He also fuels the sale of Harley-Davidsons with anti-Semitic footage of a Hasid riding a motorcycle that’s anything but politically correct (“we can’t let David’s sons drive our Harleys – Russian people, awake”).   Conspicuous consumption is leveraged in the slogan that calls Durex prophylactics “the Jaguar of condoms.”

Generation P - A Tour through a New Russian Culture Under Construction and Under Siege

There’s plenty about Generation P on YouTube, including an interview with the author of the novel.

You’ve seen the satire of Madison Avenue before – although not too much on US commercial television, which lives off advertising. Russia was late to the game here, and there’s plenty to be mocked there these days. Think of jokes directed toward communism in the stand-up comedy of the underappreciated Yakov Smirnoff.  (Where is he now?) Then think again. Think of a Russian Monty Python — on LSD.

It’s logical that the explosive look of Generation P lurches into territory between collage and kaleidescope.  Don’t forget that some extraordinary Russian works of art of the 20th century are collages. Some of the hallucinations of the 21st century are, too – like Generation P.

Generation P can veer toward the sophomoric, in the same vein that MAD magazine and The Simpsons and John Stewart do. And why not? The new Russia seems to be a place run by Young Men with huge adolescent appetites for money, women and fame.

Ginzburg’s odyssey among oligarchs, autocrats and consumer serfdom won’t induce you to book a vacation in Russia – where more than 500 prints of Generation P were released in April – but you’ll be struck by its visual energy and imagination.  You don’t see many Russia comedies, and this is one that’s not holding back. Who said that cutthroat capitalism couldn’t be funny?

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