Issue 34 (2011)
Viktor Ginzburg: Generation P (2011)
reviewed by Anthony Anemone © 2011
A surprise hit of the spring and summer of 2011, Viktor Ginzburg’s Generation P has proven wrong those who thought Pelevin’s 1999 cult novel about the rise of the advertising industry in Post-Soviet Russia was simply unfilmable. The film not only generated larger box office receipts ($4.3 million) from domestic theaters than any other Russian film this summer, it also had a successful run at numerous film festivals, including Moscow, Kinotavr, Toronto, Serbia, Mumbai, and Karlovy Vary, where it won a Crystal Globe in the competition for new films from East and Central Europe. The film’s success, in all senses, is even more remarkable when one realizes that this is Ginzburg’s first full-length feature film. Generation P should vault its director Viktor Ginzburg, to the top rank of filmmakers working in Russian today.
Born in Moscow in 1959, Ginzburg emigrated with his parents to the US at the age of 15. Educated at The New School and the NY School of Visual Arts, Ginzburg now lives in Los Angeles, where he is a successful director of commercials (e.g., soft drinks, jeans, bank cards, shampoo), music videos (for Belinda Carlisle, Pat Benatar, Lou Reed, Gorky Park, and others) and documentary features (Hurricane David, 1980; Alien Probe, 1985). In 1993, Ginsburg visited Russia, where he made his first full-length documentary, The Restless Garden (Neskuchnyi sad, 1994), a scandalous pseudo-documentary about the sexual revolution in post-Soviet Russia and its underground pioneers, which Russian critics panned as “typical pornography.” Ten years later, when Ginzburg secured from Pelevin the rights to adapt Generation P for the screen, no Russian film studio would agree to back the project. Although the movie was completed and released under the auspices of the Gorky Film Studio, Ginzburg was forced to finance the film independently, which accounts for it taking five years (2006-11) to reach theaters. Happily, it was worth the wait.
As readers of the novel know, Generation P tells the story of Vavilen Tatarskii (Vladimir Epifantsev) as he tries to make his way in capitalist Post-Soviet Moscow. Born in the last years of the Soviet Union, the members of Generation P like Vavilen, (the name is an acronym based on Vasilii Aksenov and Vlad Lenin), grew up believing in the promises of both communism and the Pepsi lifestyle. But when the Soviet Union and its subsidized high culture collapsed, an entire generation found itself stranded in a world of rampant criminality and unrestrained capitalism. In adapting to the new economic and social realities, Generation P had to become cynical pragmatists in order to survive. After graduating from the Literary Institute, for example, Tatarskii is forced to accept work selling beer, candy, cigarettes and prophylactics from a street kiosk run by the Chechen mafia.
Tatarskii is introduced into the world of advertising by an old college chum, Mordovin (Andrei Fomin), who explains the need to translate the ubiquitous western brands flooding into the market for Russian consumers. Advertising is not only, as our hero eventually discovers, where the money is, but it also contains the key to real power in contemporary Russia. The film follows Tatarskii as he moves from commercial advertisements to nationalist ad campaigns, including an abortive campaign to discover a Russian idea to replace the discredited Soviet ideology, and, finally, to the fabrication of compromising political propaganda (“Black PR” and “Compromat”). As Tatarskii rises in the world of advertising, he simultaneously conducts a parallel existence with the help of another old friend, the Buddhist non-conformist Gireev. Searching for inspiration and insight into the new world, and using Gireev’s hallucinogenic mushrooms, Tatarskii constantly encounters images from Mesopotamian religion and mythology that mysteriously hint at a connection between the ancient Babylonian cult of Ishtar and contemporary Russian life.
Vavilen’s search for happiness and the meaning of the post-Soviet world, stimulated by copious amounts of alcohol, cocaine, LSD and mushrooms, provides the director ample opportunities to visualize his character’s visions, fantasies and hallucinations in striking ways. As we follow Vavilen’s rise from kiosk vendor to successful advertising man to the head of the advertising agency, we see not only the criminal nature of Post-Soviet commercial life, but the absurd aspects of commercial advertising (the “Wow” effect), and advertising’s role in manipulating the economic and political lives of their customers. This theme culminates in the transformation of the chauffeur Kolia into Nikolai Smirnov, a presidential candidate whose election is manufactured by the advertising agency. By the end of the film, Vavilen has become the head of the advertising agency and the goddess Ishtar’s consort, while his digital image has become ubiquitous in hilarious commercials on Russian television for Head and Shoulders featuring Stenka Razin (slogan, “After your head has been cut off, they won’t cry about your hair”), Coca-Cola (slogan, “There they are in great dread, for God is with the Righteous Generation”), American Express (slogan, “The world—where business meets money”), and Tuborg beer (slogan, “Sta, viator!”).
The difficulties of adapting cult novels to the screen are well known: stay too close to the source and be accused of lacking imagination, stray too far from it and be criticized for insufficient respect for the original. Although much of Pelevin’s endlessly inventive novel had to be jettisoned in order to keep the film’s running time below two hours, the movie’s plot and language follow the novel quite closely. Through the creative use of computer graphics, Ginzburg succeeds in visualizing long stretches of text that simply cannot be included in the film (e.g., Che Guevara’s speeches, and the ideology of ORANUS). And Ginzburg’s main invention – the digital transformation of the straight-talking chauffeur Kolia (Andrei Panin) into a leading contender for the presidency - is a brilliant, and logical, extension of the novel. Some might even argue that Ginzburg’s version is clearer and more effective than the much longer and digressive novel.
While the parodies of commercial advertising are brilliant and hilarious (my personal favorites include the ads for Parliament, Tic-Tacs, Head and Shoulders, and God), both novel and film are dedicated to making visible the vague feeling of so many dispossessed people, not only in Russia, that the levers of power in their worlds are controlled by mysterious forces beyond their understanding. Tatarskii's hallucinations about Babylon eventually merge with reality and we learn that modern devotees of the cult of Ishtar control Russia's economic and political life. Viewers familiar with Pelevin’s stylistic quirks and thematic obsessions (e.g., simulated reality, altered consciousness, Buddhism, ancient mythology, conspiracy theories) will readily understand that the secret elite could have just as easily been called the Trilateral Commission, the Freemasons, or the Illuminati.
One final way of approaching (and enjoying) Generation P is as a satirical version of Mad Men, set in Russia during the 1990s. Ginzburg shows the ad men seeking inspiration, researching campaigns, pitching ideas to potential clients, storyboarding and animating commercials, before he shows fully realized TV ads. But if Mad Men’s criticism of American sexism and racism is sometimes lost under the nostalgic and attractive image of life and work in the 1950s, Ginzburg’s criticism of the criminality, commercialism, greed, and brutality of Russian life in the 1990s cannot be missed.
The New School
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Generation P, Russia, 2011
Color, 112 minutes
Director: Viktor Ginzburg
Scriptwriters: Viktor Ginzburg, Gina Ginzburg
Cinematography: Aleksei Rodionov
Production design: Nina Kobiashvili, Dmitrii Petukhov, Petr Prorokov
Music: Kaveh Cohen, Alexander Hacke, Michael Nelson
Cast: Vladimir Epifantsev, Mikhail Efremov, Sergei Shnurov, Andrei Fomin, Aleksandr Gordon, Ivan Okhlobystin, Roman Trakhtenberg, Vladimir Men’shov, Andrei Panin, Oleg Taktarov, Renata Litvinova.
Producers: Stas Ershov, Aleksei Riazantsev
Production: Gorky Studio, Room s
Viktor Ginzburg: Generation P (2011)
reviewed by Anthony Anemone © 2011