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Evgenii Iufit, Bipedalism [Priamokhozhdenie] (2005)

reviewed by Thomas Campbell©2005



Fig.1: Bipeds on the Loose

When the hero of Evgenii Iufit’s new film Bipedalism remarks, “I have the feeling that I’ve seen this somewhere before,” viewers familiar with Iufit’s distinct body of work will nod in agreement. Bipedalism, Iufit’s fifth feature film, shares not only the distinct look of his previous four features (a past-perfect tense stuck somewhere between the death of Stalin and the Stagnation period), but their thematic concerns as well. [1]  Two of Iufit’s earlier films, Silver Heads (1998) and Killed by Lightning (2002), are meditations on the meaning and direction of human evolution. In an obvious parody of high-Soviet chronotopes, their heroes are scientists ready—like Aleksei Batalov’s character in Nine Days of One Year (dir. Mikhail Romm, 1961)—to sacrifice body (and mind) to achieve a more perfect human being. Bipedalism revisits this theme and combines it with reflections on the role and responsibility of the artist, thus echoing Iufit’s two other previous features, Daddy, Father Frost Is Dead (1991) and The Wooden Room (1995). In these films, a writer and a filmmaker, respectively, are thrust into strange, parallel worlds that defy their skills of comprehension and representation.

In Silver Heads, a trio of courageous scientists, led by Vladimir Maslov (Iufit’s late writing and directing collaborator, and the star of The Wooden Room), tries to improve on frail homo sapiens by creating a hybrid between man and tree, using themselves as test subjects. Their efforts are stymied by the suicidal melancholia provoked in them by the violently administered injections of cellulose, as well as by the predations of the so-called Z-individuals, outlaw byproducts of the previous (failed) experiment, who are on the loose in the densely wooded testing zone. These scientifically engineered “hippies” infect everyone they encounter with the quintessential “early necrorealist” disease: the unconquerable desire to frolic half-naked with others of their kind.

In Killed by Lightning, a young female scientist advances the hypothesis that evolution is both wildly discontinuous and reversible. Sudden leaps between the inorganic and the organic (for example, from stone to man) or from the more advanced to the primitive (from man to ape) are possible, she argues, within the lifetimes of individuals. As she communicates these findings to her skeptical colleagues in cyberspace, she is haunted by visions of simian-like humans grazing in primeval forests and glades. These reveries are punctuated by childhood memories of her father, a submarine captain who disappeared, along with his crew, under mysterious circumstances. It begins to dawn on the heroine that their sad fate was due to precisely the sort of sudden devolutionary leap that is at the heart of her bold hypothesis.

Bipedalism, to all appearances, is the last in this series of films, which we might dub Iufit’s “Crackpot Evolutionary Theory Trilogy.” Its hero is a prize-winning painter of insects (Viktor Mikhailov) who uses the money he receives as a state prize to buy a half-ruined house in the country, which he hopes to turn into a summer studio. At first, the artist is confused about why he feels such a strong connection to the house. Soon, however, his children unearth a treasure trove of dusty film reels, primate skulls and bones, research reports, and photographs—relics left behind, as it turns out, by their grandfather—in the house’s cellar and in a dilapidated outbuilding. The artist discovers that his father was the central figure in a Soviet-era eugenics program known as the Bipedalism Project. The goal of his research was to recreate, in lab conditions, the primeval natural catastrophe that, allegedly, shocked the distant ancestors of homo sapiens into standing upright. The program was co-opted by the Soviet military and secret police during the height of the Great Terror; the artist’s father was arrested, and the artist, then a young boy, was dispatched to an orphanage, where he forgot his real identity.


Fig. 2: The Nuclear Family                                     Fig. 3: In the Test Zone                                            Fig. 4: The Secret Archive

In his quest for the truth about his past and his father’s research, the artist stumbles upon a group of scientists in the present day (led by Nikolai Marton, who essentially reprises his role in Silver Heads). These “new Russian” scientists plan to market his father’s findings as a form of gene therapy. Meanwhile, the last specimens of the Bipedalism Project have escaped from their dormitory. Like a band of latter-day partisans, they have begun wreaking havoc on the railways. The artist is nearly paralyzed by his sense of guilt for his father’s sins. A number of clues—for example, his Rousseauesque affinity with the natural world and his seemingly psychic connection with the hybrids—lead us to wonder whether he himself might also be a (more successful) product of the experiments. At the film’s close, he abandons his old/new home and his family, and sets off to subdue the marauding ape-men. The film’s double ending leaves us in doubt as to whether he intends to destroy them or join them; whether he perishes in his attempt or is released into a higher form of freedom.

Such are the bare outlines of the film’s plot, but an equal part of its appeal—as is always the case with the films of Leningrad necrorealism’s founding father and only surviving exponent—lies elsewhere. What strikes the veteran necro-viewer in his encounter with Iufit’s latest feature is the degree to which the trademark elements of old-style necrorealism—wild, slapstick-like chases and fistfights, mock-homosexual orgies, actors in various states of crudely depicted “undeadness,” a defiant plotlessness—have receded even further into the background than they had in Killed by Lightning. José Alaniz and Seth Graham have described early necrorealism as a “rural fight club.” [2]  But now, with the female protagonist of Killed by Lightning and the framing device of the voiceover narrative provided by the hero’s wife in Bipedalism, we are confronted, it would seem, with a necrorealism gone semi-respectable, a domesticated necrorealism, even (God forbid) a feminist necrorealism.

                              
Fig. 5: Man in Nature                                                                             Fig. 6: The women

Perhaps this “domestic turn” reflects Iufit’s newfound status as a husband and father. In any case, the nuclear family of Bipedalism brings with it all the trappings of a gothic family novel—a haunted house, skeletons in the basement, and a nearly coherent albeit fantastic storyline.

Iufit himself is notoriously reluctant to explain the intent of his films, asking his viewers instead to yield to their powers of “suggestion” and to construct their own meanings. [3] His escape into the charms of the family romance and his turn to a new screenwriting partner (Igor' Khadikov, an ex-physicist and longtime participant of the Leningrad/Petersburg alternative arts scene) have enriched and clarified—aesthetically and ideologically—the suggestive field of his new film. Bipedalism not only has more dialogue than all of Iufit’s earlier films combined, but it also brims with a literariness that was likewise absent from those films. When the hero exclaims à la Mandelshtam, “U menia est' adresa ” (“I have the addresses!”), or his wife reflects in a voiceover that “stupni bogov obernuty sherst'iu” (“the feet of the gods are swaddled in fur”), we realize we are in the presence of a more articulate, philologized necrorealism. Where Killed by Lightning lightly invoked Homer’s Odyssey in support of its maritime motif, Bipedalism weds the Old Testament and Oedipus with the utopianism of Soviet science.

                                                
Fig. 7: Father and Son                                                                                               Fig. 8: The Burning Bush

During a post-screening discussion after the film’s Moscow premiere at the Cine Fantom Club, one moviegoer hypothesized that the film is an allegory for the disastrous attempts of economists to graft Russia onto the west. [4] While this is an unnecessarily reductive reading, it reminds us how the persistence of this motif in Iufit’s films—of the search for a new, improved man, immune to the stresses of modern life—is not merely an accident of genre. At the heart of the Bipedalism Project is the theory that—to paraphrase the narration of the 1930s newsreel the artist finds amid the skeletons in his cellar—fear causes “men to crouch, while primates stand upright.” What are the effects of ninety-some years of political and economic terror? “The new people are already a reality,” Nikolai Marton’s hawk-like scientist replies coldly to the artist’s incoherent question about the ethical implications of his research. While the artist sets out to correct the after-effects of his father’s arrogance, his own motives are suspect. He wants only, he explains to his wife, to eliminate the monsters of the past and then to return to the safety of family life, where he “will live silently.” And where, we imagine, he’ll finally get around to carrying out the repairs his old house so badly needs, thus succumbing to the consumerist quietism exhibited by so many of today’s “new (Russian) people.”

Fig. 9: The Hero and His Long-Suffering Wife

And yet, even the competing allegorical meanings at play in Bipedalism fail to exhaust its charms. Iufit claims to have absolutely no interest in contemporary cinema. He does, however, confess his attraction to the avant-garde cinema of the 1920s and 1930s—to the work of Vertov, Cocteau, and Murnau. Necrorealism, he now suggests, is a deliberate regression into cinema’s roots—a combination of silent film, German expressionism, French surrealism—leavened with a heavy dose of Soviet black humor and late-romantic grotesquerie.[5]  Bipedalism confirms this allegiance to the past by consciously celebrating cinema’s status as both a technology of spectacular control and surveillance, and as an art form with the power to provide us with a fuller, transforming purchase on reality—in Iufit’s formulation, with the power to “deform” reality (see Becker).

Much in the manner of Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929), Bipedalism is replete with close-ups of various “camera eyes.” The film opens with a scene of ships at anchor shot through a porthole, and this sets off an expanding series of other such meta-reflections: camera lenses, computer monitors, light-boxes, TV and movie screens, mirrors, and projectors real and figurative (for example, a train’s headlights at dusk). Film as a physical medium is foregrounded in the artist’s discovery of the film archive that enables his tentative reconstruction of the past. The “fragile” filmstrip he examines in the light of day bears the same image—a total eclipse of the sun—that he sees in his dreams. Cinema is not only a dream factory, however, but also a means of altering consciousness. The “Bipedalism effect,” we learn, is an intense, paralysis-inducing burst of light and sound; thus, the first primates to stand upright were also the first moviegoers.

       

Fig. 10: At the Movies                                      Fig. 11: The Primeval Eclipse                                            Fig. 12: The Filmstrip  

       

Fig.13: Opening Scene: The Porthole                               Fig. 14: The Camera Eye                                       Fig. 15: The Cinematic Apparatus


Iufit also returns us to the sound-image experiments carried out by Vertov in Enthusiasm (1930). The soundtrack of Bipedalism is a rich symphony—chattering computer hard-drives, creaking floorboards and doors, rustling grass and chirping crickets, clothes whipping in the breeze, soccer balls bouncing off walls, and children screaming—that constitutes its own semantic register, its own source of satisfaction. One of the peculiarities of the film’s plot is the way the artist’s search for the truth is interrupted by scenes of his indulging in life’s “simple” pleasures: pouring a bucket of cold water over his naked body, baking a potato over an open fire, etc. It is this strange preference for sensual purposelessness—for aural and visual pleasure—over discursive meaning that, perhaps, caused a fellow spectator to comment to one online reviewer: “After a film like this, you begin to feel you have the right to live and even hope for something.” [6]

Fig. 16: Aural Pleasures

In a review in Kommersant, Inna Kulik argues that Bipedalism, a film about hybridization, is itself a peculiar hybrid of The X-Files and The Mirror. [7] Critic and filmmaker Oleg Kovalov stretches this comparison even further. Iufit, he claims, is not the hooligan or madman of necrorealist legend and lore, but a “conservative” innovator, a “dusky, metaphysical, terribly tender artist,” who has come to occupy the place once held in Russian cinema by Tarkovskii. [8] While we might want to argue with the particulars of this comparison, there is no doubt that it holds true in one important respect. As Tarkovskii in his day was subject to severe ideological pressures, Iufit in our day is forced to create his miraculous “minor” art on a shoestring budget that would reduce other, less hardy, filmmakers to despair (see Becker). This poverty of means is, unfortunately, on display in several of the film’s obvious shortcuts and lapses. [9] Such are the film’s overpowering virtues, however, that even those shortcomings can be read as Iufit’s attempt to underscore cinema’s ontological status as artifact, as an always-already failed resistance to representational falsity.

Fig. 17: Before and After Our Era

One obvious parallel between Bipedalism and the larger cinematic canon that seems to have occurred to no one thus far is the film’s striking similarities to Kubrick’s The Shining (1980). [10] Like Jack Nicholson’s character, whose entire output in his mountaintop creative retreat is endless typewritten variations on the phrase “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,” Viktor Mikhailov’s prize-winning artist is reduced, in his dacha idyll, to producing one and the same crude charcoal sketch of his “future studio.” This sense of artistic dead ends—figured by Iufit’s hero, but belied by the opaque, anachronistic beauty of the film he inhabits—was voiced by the many distinguished Russian film critics who attended the screening of Bipedalism at the 2005 Pittsburgh Russian Film Symposium. One of them complained that Iufit’s work was merely a “drawn-out anecdote” (and thus not worthy of further discussion), while another bitterly rejected any suggestion of more than an incidental connection between Petersburg’s great maître Sokurov and his erstwhile student Iufit. [11]

                             
Fig. 18: The (Same) Old House                                                                 Fig. 19: A Portrait of the Artist  

While all this might smack of a local settling of scores, it reminds us of the precarious position of the auteurship represented by a filmmaker like Iufit. Today’s Russian culture—lowbrow, middlebrow, and highbrow; political as well as artistic—is a culture of big names, big money, broad gestures and spectacular events; of massed forces and top-down discursive control. It is the culture of Putin and Pugacheva, of Gergiev and Piotrovskii, a culture of generals where even a superb chamber artist like Sokurov is moved, for some reason, to reflect on the lives of “great men” like Lenin, Hitler, and Hirohito. Where, in the midst of all this “greatness,” is the place of the cinematic guerilla Iufit? Is the bewilderment and shellshock of his latest artist-hero a direct reflection of his own predicament? Or is it, rather, a metaphor for our current stupor? True partisans of Iufit’s unique, lonely cinema will hope that the answer—to the second question, at least—is no.

Thomas H. Campbell, Yale University


Bipedalism (Russia and Netherlands, 2005)
Black-and-white, 94 minutes
Director: Evgenii Iufit
Screenplay: Evgenii Iufit, Igor' Khadikov
Camera: Evgenii Iufit, Dmitrii Alekseev
With: Viktor Mikhailov, Elena Sapozhinskaia, Nikolai Marton, Aleksei Tarasov, Valerii Krishtapenko, Stanislav Il'iushin, Aleksandr Anikeenko, Sergei Chernov, Iurii Zverlin
Producers: Sergei Selianov (STW Film) and Igor Kalenov (Nikola Film); with support from the Hubert Bals Fund of the International Film Festival Rotterdam


Endnotes

1] Iufit himself reports that several viewers at the 2005 Rotterdam Film Festival, which featured the world premiere of Bipedalism, as well as a complete retrospective of his earlier films, approached him after the screenings to express their surprise that he was alive and that his films hadn’t been made fifty years ago. “Priamokhozhdenie v Rotterdame,” Cine Fantom Week 4/16 (16 February 2005): 4. 

2] José Alaniz and Seth Graham, “Early Necrocinema in Context.” In: Necrorealism: Contexts, History, Interpretations. Ed. Seth Graham (Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh Russian Film Symposium, 2001): 9. 

3] See, for example, the transcript of the post-screening discussion at Moscow’s Cine Fantom Club: “Ia rezhisser, ia kino snimaiu, filosofiiu ne budu rasskazyvat'” (16 February 2005).  For a fairly extensive round-up of the meanings Russian critics have found in the film, see Arthouse.

4] See, again, “Ia rezhisser…” (16 February 2005).

5] Maria Becker, “Vsemirnaia prem'era film'a Priamokhozhdeniia,”  BBC.

6] Lev Pirogov, “Priamokhozhdenie Evgeniia Iufita,” Live Journal

7] Inna Kulik, “Priamokhozhdenie Evgeniia Iufita,” Kommersant (18 February 2005). 

8] Oleg Kovalov, “Eto chelovek, kotoryi zaimet mesto Tarkovskogo,” Cine Fantom Week 4/16 (16 February 2005): 6. 

9] This is especially the case with the overdubbing and, in the subtitled version of the film, with the appalling mismatch between text and dialogue. 

10] Several of the film’s scenes also invoke Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). 

11] In the interests of full disclosure, I should confess that, as the presenter of the film at the Pittsburgh Symposium, I was on the receiving end of these comments.

Evgenii Iufit, Bipedalism [Priamokhozhdenie] (2005)

reviewed by Thomas Campbell©2005

09/10/05