Pavel Ruminov: Silent Man (Chelovek, kotoryi molchal), 2005

reviewed by Anindita Banerjee © 2006

Not until the very end of the film does the viewer, navigating through the strangeness of Pavel Ruminov’s second directorial venture, become aware that The Silent Man is an extremely self-conscious engagement with an emerging genre that I will call “horror vérité.” Both parts of this definition are easily identifiable in the film, but what makes their fusion especially unsettling is the level of reflexivity informing the use of familiar tropes from each.

The core narrative is essentially a stalker-and-slasher story, in which a young web-designer is relentlessly pursued by a mysterious cyber-persona, “Donald D.” In increasingly threatening terms, the cyber-stalker keeps ordering him to be “silent” about something he cannot even guess at. As he begins to obsess over Donald’s identity and motives—is his co-worker his persecutor? is his former girlfriend’s mysterious death after “falling in the bathroom” somehow linked to his predicament?—the protagonist’s world shrinks backwards from “real” relationships and spaces until it boils down to the computer screen glowing silently from a corner of his claustrophobic one-room apartment. The impasse is broken when, remembering his childhood desire to become a filmmaker, he decides to go back into the world with a digital camera bought, ironically, over the web. But this, too, becomes a life-threatening endeavor.

The camera, now a diegetically separate entity, follows the “silent man” in his quest for something unknown—Donald? the real world? himself?—outside the boundaries of LCD screens in a forest. As it acquires a life of its own both within the narrative and in the viewer’s eye, the handheld camera inflicts the ultimate physical blow from which the protagonist wakes up in the opening scene “in a pool of [his] own blood.” The circular narrative only reinforces the viewer’s consciousness of the chosen medium and method for this film: a handheld digital camera and, concomitantly, the absence of both picture and sound editing.

Right on the surface, therefore, the film constructs a moebius strip in which the technologically mediated frames of digital camera and computer monitor pry open a number of ontological boundaries: between the fictive and the real, the human and its Others, onscreen space and places of everyday life. Not coincidentally, it is in exactly the same set of instabilities that we can also locate the radical potential of digitization on both conception and reception of “horror” and “vérité.” As the venue of the horror film shifts to ever more “lifelike” home-theater systems, the uncanny, like the cyber-stalker, has indeed stepped over the threshold of our most intimate private spaces. The Silent Man seems acutely aware of this potentiality, and indeed constructs its own commentary through a clever set of references to aesthetic and thematic precursors within the narrative frame. The depth of field afforded by the digital camera is exploited in the very first shot—an almost still representation of a vaguely biomorphic form whose contours are deeply etched in black and white shadows—through a simultaneous invocation of German expressionism. But this very ambiguity is then amplified through a series of jerky renditions of wine, tomatoes, and spaghetti, transforming them momentarily into potential blood and entrails that eventually recede back into the realm of the everyday when the camera rights itself. Indeed, the protagonist’s bathroom, featured prominently throughout the narrative, becomes a sort of “cabinet”—not with any Dr. Caligari as its agent of horrors, but by the sheer intensity of expectation that inflects every mundane faucet and tube of toothpaste in its unrelieved windowless interior.

But the greatest “cabinets” from which the uncanny is forever poised to spring, of course, are the two seemingly innocuous screens transmitting analog data: the computer and—as both protagonist and viewer become aware of it gradually—its technological kin the camera. It is between the programmer and a new breed of semi-sentient “things” that the drama of suspense, contestation, and abject fear are ultimately played out in the film. As the protagonist sits staring at his computer in his completely darkened apartment day in and day out, this drama supersedes the quest for Donald D. Thus, at the climax we do not find the hero pitched against the stalker, but rather succumbing to a camera unregulated by human hand. While conflicts between human and humanoid entities, including machines and cyborgs, are not new, Ruminov’s film straddles the edge of a millennial sub-genre of horror films whose agents of fear are technologically-mediated representations. If the exemplar of this new repository of the uncanny is the videotape in the Japanese cult classic Ringu (dir. Hideo Nakata, 1998), a Hollywood remake of the film and its sequel appeared under the titles The Ring (dir. Gore Verbinski, 2002) and The Ring Two (dir. Hideo Nakata, 2005), The Silent Man engages with a new set of uncertainties engendered within the next generation of images: unlike the tape, they are completely disembodied, infinitely reproducible, and accessible at a moment’s notice through the global data-stream.

“I am mechanical and today I am breaking free from human immobility. I am in continuous movement, I come up close to things, I withdraw from them, I nip in and out of them”: this tantalizing reversal of normatively human subjectivity and agency was articulated by Dziga Vertov, whose term “kino-pravda” inspired the name of the postwar movement of cinema vérité. [1] As historians of the movement have demonstrated, the breakdown of boundaries between the camera and the human eye—and, one might add, the camera and the “I”—can be traced directly to ever-increasing portability, affordability, and accessibility of both movie cameras and the moving image. [2] Through self-conscious engagement with its own medium at both the narrative and metanarrative levels, The Silent Man seems to be asking whether the conjuncture of digital cameras and the World Wide Web might not be unfolding a coeval ontological shift today.

Even before the narrative is put in motion, this conjuncture already provides the frame through which the protagonist—a member of a new economy and a new network society—negotiates the real through cheaply constructed simulacra endlessly emanating from a thousand digital cameras and data-ports from around the world. Embodied, relational notions of both space and subjectivity are not so much extinct as irrelevant in this context. On breaks from creating a web-entity for a fictitious Russian expatriate organization in Australia, the programmers watch “international” porn sites. Their music is culled from illegal downloading software and the chief subject of office gossip is about personal web-pages of celebrities rife with streaming videos showing prurient details from their “private lives.” The cyber-stalker and the evil camera—two stock elements of horror reanimated by the new technologies of vérité—seem not only ironically to reflect back Vertov’s glee at being able to film people “unawares, unconscious in their daily lives … and letting the camera strip their thoughts bare.” [3] They also represent a new, frightening intimacy between our machines, our images, and our selves.

Anindita Banerjee (Cornell University)


NOTES

1] Dziga Vertov. “The Writings of Dziga Vertov.” Film Culture 25 (1962): 55.

2] M. Ali Issari and Doris A Paul. What is Cinema Vérité? London: Methuen, 1979: 7-8.

3] Dziga Vertov. “Fragments.” Artsept no. 2. Le Cinema et le Vérité (April/ June 1963): 20.


The Silent Man, Russia, 2004
Mini-DV, Color, 85 min
Director: Pavel Ruminov
Screenplay: Pavel Ruminov
Cinematography: Anatolii Litvak
Editor: Pavel Ruminov
Sound: Aleksei Samodelko
Composer: Oleg Chubkin
Cast: Ol'ga Bondareva, Mikhail Dementi'ev, Natal'ia Gudkova, Regina Miannik, Dmitrii Shvadchenko, Nikita Tarasov, Ivan Volkov, Mikhail Efimov
Production: Central Partnership and Pro-Cinema

Pavel Ruminov: Silent Man (Chelovek, kotoryi molchal), 2005

reviewed by Anindita Banerjee © 2006

Updated: 27 Mar 06