Issue 26 (2009)
Boris Khlebnikov: Help Gone Mad (Sumasshedshaia pomoshch’, 2009)
reviewed by Marcia Landy © 2009
Help Gone Mad directed by Boris Khlebnikov is a testimonial to the emerging innovative (and intellectually challenging) character of contemporary Russian cinema exemplified by such filmmakers as Aleksei Balabanov, Kira Muratova, and Aleksei German Jr. among others. Their films are neither conventional historical films nor biopics characterized by a monumental “epic” style, conventional generic nor obscurely avant-garde filmmaking. But these films are clever, critical, and erudite. The filmmakers engage with Russian culture through allusions, directly or indirectly to media, by a complex treatment of narrative and image. Avoiding didacticism, they figuratively probe madness and politics, war, the effects of mindless and soul-destroying bureaucracy, thwarted desire, the deleterious consequences of a lack of belief in life, and the uses and abuses of the past.
Similar to Free Floating (Svobodnoe plavanie, 2006), Help Gone Mad is an eclectic work that merges silent cinema, comedy, satire, realism and fantasy, pantomime, and allegory to entertain a number of motifs that bear on the evolution of recent Russian cinema: regionalism, pastoral and urban life, the law, police, madness and bodily existence. Narrative is fractured and subordinated to the film’s allegorical treatment of character and other visual (and auditory) emblems. Its uses of allegory are of a critical and speculative character consonant with Gilles Deleuze’s descriptions of Walter Benjamin’s conception of modern allegory: “Walter Benjamin … showed that allegory was not a failed symbol, or an abstract personification, but a power of figuration… uncover[ing] nature and history according to the order of time. It produces a history of nature and transforms history into nature in a world that no longer has its center” (Deleuze 1993: 125). This form of allegory, offers a vision (through thought) of decaying structures, ruins that “no longer hold away over the collective imagination” and thus it becomes possible “to recognize them as … illusory dream images” (Buck-Morss, 159), forms of magical thinking.
Help Gone Mad is such an allegory, undertaking a de-centered examination of contemporary culture and history. Albeit by indirection, the film offers the spectator an investigative cinema in which language, sound and silence, visibility and invisibility, are emblematic of the precariousness of seeing, naming and acting. Disdainful of conventional realism, the film selects three allegorical male figures: a childlike (porcine) Evgenii (Evgenii Sytyi); an unstable delusional old man, retired and claiming to have been an engineer (Sergei Dreiden); a hallucinatory policeman, Godaev (Igor’ Chernevich) identified by his colleagues as a veteran of the war in Chechnya.
Female figures are featured less prominently: a young peasant Belorus woman, Evgenii’s sister, in the prologue who initiates his journey; a cosmopolitan woman for whom Evgenii works briefly; a silent woman married to Godaev (Tatiana Tokareva) who is oppressed by the old man and Evgenii; an old woman who dies as a consequence of the “engineer’s” intervention; and the old man’s daughter (Anna Mikhalkova) obsessed with his health, insisting on his taking pills that render him sleepy, forgetful and irritable. At the film’s conclusion, she silently accompanies Evgenii toward an unknown future.
The most sustained character is Evgenii. He is identified by his bodily needs, severely limited verbalization, eating, and narcoleptic behavior, and by his position in the film as an onlooker to his immediate world. He appears as both character and viewer surrogate, presenting an interrogative rather than expository (explanatory) perspective on events. In his journey to Moscow after his train ride from Belorus and his temporary work as a house painter, he is warned not to “get lost,” but the allegory requires that he not only get lost but that he lose what little possessions he has. Similarly the spectator is invited to lose his way on this journey and to re-view habitual forms of cinematic reception.
In the vein of Menippean satire, the film’s prologue invokes resemblances between human and porcine bodies, connects bodily functions (and their cessation) to the film’s exploration of a tension between visual image and spoken language (and vocalization) in anticipation of its existential explorations of language, of the precariousness of received meaning concerning identity and agency. The lengthy close-up of the sleeping Evgenii and the parallel cut to the sleeping animal, creating confusion about the identity of the young protagonist and a hog, is comical, if not proleptic. The hog, sold to pay for Evgenii’s trip to Moscow, is awakened by his sister, who subsequently leads the unsuspecting animal to its unseen (but heard) slaughter as an overture to Evgenii’s comic and surreal journey from Krupki village in Belorus to the urban milieu of Russia.
His journey becomes more erratic and unfocused until he encounters an elderly engineer, who “adopts” this “orphan,” bereft of shoes, traveling bag, and telephone. Robbed, beaten, and homeless Evgenii succumbs to his favorite pastime: sleep. Undaunted, he wraps his bare feet in plastic bags taken from a trash can and sets off to explore the terrain, the tunnel under the stations in which earlier he had (through a small hole in a cloth partition) observed men working, and the viewer is given a close-up of his porcine scanning eye. After the workers are gone, Evgenii avails himself of a small dry area to catch more sleep. Similarly, the engineer spies Evgenii through the peephole and takes him home.
Their pairing is reminiscent of the carnivalesque world of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza in the pairing of idealist and realist figures. Their relationship also evokes Pinter and Beckett’s characters in the treatment of paired and homeless characters allegorizing physical and spiritual oppositions, disjunctions between language and behavior, and a deflation of clichés involving pompous illusory ambitions and futile desires. Similarly in cinema, this form of a theater of the absurd is found in the independent films of Jim Jarmusch and Aki Kaurismäki with their nonsensical treatment of logic and reason, that focuses on dislocated and limited characters who are, as in allegory, de-individualized and more broadly typical in their dismantling of traditional conceptions of historicism and ideology.
Similar to these other works, the Khlebnikov film is not a-historical. Though rooted firmly in a contemporary setting and avoiding documentation, history is present figuratively. The past erupts in fragmentary allusions to the Chechen War (“To Hell with Chechnya”) as articulated by the police, to prominent national heroes of the past exemplified by the old man’s fashioning male genitalia and attaching them to columns supporting busts of anomalous Soviet figures, residual signs of a former “potent” world. Hence, the engineer’s daughter’s focus on controlling her father’s “aberrant” behavior (in her attempts through medication under guise of concern for his physical body to restrain his delusions) might also invoke in a satiric vein repressive strategies identified with the European and Soviet past, and also with the biopolitics of a culturally turbulent present and uncertain future.
If Evgenii appears to be naïve and inarticulate, his actions nonetheless mark him as a wily survivor who refuses to acquiesce to the daughter’s plea by offering medication to his newfound patron. His mode of escape from the violent and banal is recourse to sleep, whereas the engineer’s is unceasing, if not manic, activity through filling his time with projects that, Quixote-like, portray him as a savior of the oppressed, with Evgenii as his Pancho-like (and passive) assistant. The old man sees the world, an urban world, as melodrama. He inveighs against the squalid and uniform apartment buildings with their barred windows as imprisoning the inhabitants and lectures Evgenii on the damage done to those who live inside.
Thus, his first quixotic projects are to free an old woman who, he claims, is a prisoner of a young couple and also to save a young woman from poisoning by her husband. Both enterprises end badly. He terrifies the young one, seizing her and cutting her hair off (reminiscent of the humiliation suffered by female collaborators after the European War?). The old woman dies following a comic misunderstanding over a bench moved by the engineer in his misguided efforts to save her. The policeman Godaev had physically threatened the old lady who complained to him about the removal of the bench. The engineer, through an open window, later observes her on her deathbed with Godaev in attendance, presumably in his official capacity.
A second sortie involves a TV program he and Evgenii observe involving ancient Greek culture and mythology. The program, dedicated to portraits of nude and manly Greek heroes, impels the old man to embellish the desexualized statues of prominent figures from Soviet history with clay penises so as to present them as “greater than Gods,” endowing them with magical properties (a consistent allegorical strategy in the film).
The pair also plots to save an illegal Tajik immigrant hiding from the authorities. Believing that they will provide air to a man hidden below ground, the old man releases propane into the basement hideaway, and the gas drives the illegal immigrant from his refuge. Another quixotic project involves a small duck house on the water (near a movie theater) that is, the old man claims, a repository of secret information. This episode ends in Evgenii’s destruction of the ducks’ shelter. The old man’s final act is fatal as he attempts to provoke Godaev to battle with only a small rubber tube.
The intercut episodes with Godaev, though arbitrary and fragmented, are linked to several allegorical motifs of the film involving law and war. A veteran of the war in Chechnya, he is described by his colleagues as complaining that he was cheated of his full payment by the government for his military service. The scenes introducing Godaev are focused on his upcoming dismissal from the police for dereliction of duty. His character is not initially related to the apartment complex and to the old man and Evgenii, but connections gradually manifest themselves and are intercut with those of the quixotic pair.
Godaev is presented as increasingly isolated, deprived of contact with others, leaving him to enact his resentment on the old man, a relic of a past world as Godaev is of the present. But the climactic event involves the direct physical confrontation between Godaev and the engineer. Blandishing a limp tube that he perceives to be a dagger, the old man fearlessly confronts the policeman in an unequal fight. Godaev uses the lethal force of his police weapons to counter attack, and the brutal beating leaves the old man dead. During this mock epic battle, Evgenii has been asleep on a bench, thus reinforcing the oneiric character of the film. He awakens and finds the bloodied dead man, caresses him, leaves the scene bereft of his companion and is once again on the road. Having been compared to a hog at the outset, associated throughout with eating, unreflecting submission to others, and being an onlooker to events, his enigmatic character provokes questions about causality, the aporias of history, physical life, agency, spectatorship, and consciousness.
Godaev’s character offers another perspective on violence and brutality: violence in war, violence to women, verbal violence, and state violence. Similar to the other character types, he is not treated in terms of realism but as emerging from a surreal landscape. His character is unexpectedly rendered invisible to his superior officer, his colleagues and also to his wife; however, he is visible to the viewer and to the old man. Rather than being presented merely as brutal, he is a figure of pathos, a victim as well as an oppressor, immersed in his own delusions. He ignores his job, refusing to address problems and complaints by members of the community. Instead he sits alone in his office drawing a man-woman figure with breasts and a prominent erect male sex organ (a parallel to the old man’s altering of the statues of heroes by adding a penis to them). If the statues that the old man recalls, admires, and adorns ironically hark back to “the era of the gods,” a “golden age” of national life, then the figure of Godaev recalls the manifold troughs of that same period and also of the present, also raising questions concerning memory and comprehension of contemporary events particularly relating to what can and cannot be seen, remembered about the past, and, hence, contemplated about the present world.
The film’s self-conscious focus on vision, turning on the eye itself, serves to highlight the milieu that extends beyond naturalism. Housing projects, the interior of the old man’s apartment, Godaev’s office and home are not sociological but existential visions; they are not explanations for the delusions of the characters so much as they investigate the relation between exterior and interior “reality.” The figuration of space and the material world are particularly emblematized through the reiterated appearance of a dumpster that takes on the qualities of magic, particularly evident in the film’s last enigmatic and humorous image of it.
Other objects in the film are also magical, including emblems such as children’s books, toys, and the gambling contrivance that retrieves stuffed toys at the old man’s touch but eludes Evgenii’s efforts. These objects along with pills, torn photographs thrown from a window, food, garbage receptacles, and the telephone that fails to reach Evgenii’s contact in Moscow embroider the film’s critical and affirmative surreal and philosophical core. Indeed, the film enhances its humor and satirical allegory through a comic focus on the emblematic and misleading character of the commonplace, involving distinctions between human and animal, youth and age, logic and intuition, madness and sanity. The film does not end apocalyptically but ambiguously, magically, as the engineer’s daughter joins Evgenii on the road when he leaves the telephone exchange after his last unsuccessful attempts to call Moscow after his return to Belorus. Evgenii hesitates then walks together with her in silence in a scene that cuts to the image of the dumpster, mysteriously with its lid open.
The film’s allegory thus proceeds through the characters’ appearances and gestures, more than their words and their actions of various sorts all of which engender misperception and confusion. The characters and their milieu might seem to be familiar, commonplace and banal, but they are quickly transformed to a dreamlike landscape. The film’s emphasis on different forms of visual and verbal language (Russian and Tajik) and silence (Godaev’s inability to be heard) serve to render the film’s allegory as surreal, discontinuous, and fragmentary, the silence and enigmatic visual images generating ambiguous interpretation rather than closure in meaning. However, through the heuristic affirmation of allegory, the film serves to open rather than foreclose possibilities for thinking arising from inhabiting the world without illusions about deliverance.
Help Gone Mad might thus seem to bear the imprints of neo-realism, sharing distant conceptual characteristics with Fellini’s and Rossellini’s work that are themselves investigations into the nature of the ”real.” But the film is not a neorealist text in the formal sense that critics often describe this form of filmmaking. Rather, Khlebnikov’s film draws on many cultural and stylistic strands, situated in what Gilles Deleuze terms the “time-image” (derived from the neorealist aesthetic). According to Nancy Condee, “a common feature of these recent films [of which Help Gone Mad is a remarkable instance] is the juxtaposition of two registers of time: the on-screen time during episodes, when very little ever happens; and the off-screen time between episodes, when something has happened that remains unexplained. This device deepens the narrative line and enriches the visual field” (Condee 2009).
In his Cinema 2, Deleuze brings the viewer into the realm of the “mental image,” presupposing a different, concept of characters, landscape, cinema, and even of the filmic spectator. Identification with the characters is actually inverted from classical cinema: the character “becomes a kind of viewer. He records rather than reacts. He is prey to a vision, pursued by it or pursuing it, rather than engaged in an action” (Deleuze 2005: 3). The role of the child, or childlike characters (particularly Evgenii) becomes important, in his being affected “by a certain motor helplessness but one that makes him more capable of seeing and hearing” (ibid.). What exemplifies this cinematic milieu is a build-up of optical and sound situations that are descriptions whereby this “new breed of signs differs from the old realism that was a functional reality; it is as if the action floats in the situation, rather than bringing it to a conclusion or strengthening it ... since it is no longer optical or sound, invested in the senses before action takes shape in it, and uses or confronts its elements” (Deleuze 2005: 4). The characters and situations belong to this type of cinematic regime.
Deleuze is contemplating transformations symptomatic of a current engagement with the politics and aesthetics of cinema. These transformations in cinematic form inhere in reactions against nationalism, against particular articulations concerning tradition and modernity, and against existing doxa concerning politics and aesthetics. Khlebnikov’s film achieves what certain Russian filmmakers have attempted in the last decades of the 20th and in the present decade of the 21st century. Indeed, recent Russian cinema has struggled to create “a new breed of signs,” and the uses of allegory have contributed to a further dismantling of national and international cinematic forms.
Modern allegory self-consciously raises the issues of language, forms of narration, and meaning. It introduces the issue of belief in a world in which state media (cinema, journalism, radio, and television) have offered undigested and repetitive information, repetition, and clichés that produce cynicism, negation, but not thought. According to Deleuze,
The modern fact is that we no longer believe in this world. We do not even believe in the events which happen to us, love, death, as if they only half concerned us. It is not we who make cinema: it is the world which looks to us like a bad film . . . Restoring our belief in the world—this is the power of modern cinema (when it stops being bad). What is certain is that believing is no longer believing in another world, or in a transformed world. It is only, it is simply, believing in the body. It is giving a discourse to the body, and for this purpose, reaching the body before discourses, before words, before things are named ... (Deleuze 2005: 172).
As must be evident, these assertions underscore a host of conceptual problems relating to what Deleuze means by “another world,” a “transformed world,” issues that bear, I believe, directly on an assessment of recent Russian films that engage critically with spirituality, if not with formal religion (e.g. Four Ages of Love). Deleuze (and this film) offers a different, non-nostalgic and non-nihilistic, response to doctrinal forms of belief, involving traditional faith in a "better world to come” and a conviction of the “finality of universal history.” By contrast, the world he is describing relies on “the necessity of a belief more difficult than the old one[s]—without a horizon of redemption, purely immanent, with no other object than creating new forms of life, of reestablishing the conviction that we can inhabit the world” (Maratti 2008: 108).
Help Gone Mad confronts the viewer with the ruins of Russian and particularly Soviet culture. The film invokes narrative relics of a world destabilized by war, biopolitics, the failure of traditional institutionalized forms, and the invasion of the public into private life. The film is a direct and indirect response to both the demise of Soviet culture and to the new globalized order with its monetary systems, deregulation of constraints on capital, virulent military conflicts over regional, national, and imperial boundaries including gendered and sexual identities, the monopolizing effects of advanced and proliferating technologies, and the reign of personalities.
Khlebnikov’s film resists the tendency to provide familiar and reductive explanations for the ills of contemporary Russian life. In contrast to earlier forms of allegory, the form of Help Gone Mad is fragmentary, elusive, and self-conscious in its exploration of common sense, beliefs, and myths of national origin and causality through the cinematic medium. However, the film’s allegory is an invitation to literally view the world in its imperfections as preliminary to a belief in the thinking body by addressing the dilemma “of reestablishing the conviction that we can inhabit the world” without promises of salvation.
University of Pittsburgh
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1] See interview with Condee 2009: 32. In response to the question, “Is it correct to say that the new generation has replaced the Old Guard.” Condee cautiously responded, “not yet,” that “the apprenticeship is complete. But the Old Guard still comprises a wide range of generations.”
Buck-Morss, Susan, The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project (Cambridge, Mass; The MIT Press, 1997)
Condee, Nancy, "Imperskii sled: geroi novogo rossiiskogo ekrana (tochka zreniia amerikanskogo eksperta)", interview with Oleg Sulkin, V novom svete 24-30 July 2009: 32.
Deleuze, Gilles, The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque, (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1993).
Deleuze, Gilles, Cinema 2: The Time-Image, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005)
Maratti, Paola, Cinema and Philosophy, (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 2008)
Help Gone Mad, Russia, 2009
Color, 118 minutes
Director: Boris Khlebnikov
Scriptwriters: Aleksandr Rodionov, Boris Khlebnikov
Director of Photography Shandor Berkeshi
Costume: Svetlana Mikhalkova
Sound: Maksim Belovolov
Production Design: Olga Khlebnikova
Editing: Ivan Lebedev
Cast: Evgenii Sytyi, Sergei Dreiden, Anna Mikhalkova, Igor Chernevich, Kirill Kiaro, Aleksandr Iatsenko, Nikita Emshanov
Production Company: Koktebel, with support from the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation
Producers: Roman Borisevich, Ruben Dishdishian
Boris Khlebnikov: Help Gone Mad (Sumasshedshaia pomoshch’, 2009)
reviewed by Marcia Landy © 2009