Sunday, September 21, 2014

it squelches

         Fitting that Hard to Be a God (2013), the movie Aleksei German spent most of this century making (he died late in the editing process, age 74), and several decades before that dreaming of, takes place on another planet, considering that his penultimate work, Khrustalyov, My Car! (1998), makes Stalinist Russia resemble a rundown colony on the barely-terraformed third moon of something-or-other. In fact, that's vastly understating the strangeness of a movie where, to pick one inexplicable moment out of several hundred, a small dog in a cage zips through an apartment on a wire in the blink of an eye, to the surprise of no one in the scene; a movie whose baseline for dialogic normality is "Boys, come over here and piss on my dog" (another dog in a movie of many dogs, canine and otherwise, this one scalded by "the whores"--or were they gypsies?); an often hysterically funny movie which also features a scene in which the protagonist is horrifically violated in the back of a prison transport; a movie in which almost nothing makes sense until the last reel, when suddenly everything does; a movie that could make you believe every one of those tired "In Soviet Russia, [noun] [verb] you" jokes actually happened to someone under Stalinism; an impossible movie and an essential one, because it lends a whole new resonance to the sentence, "History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake."

         When Stephen Dedalus speaks those words in Joyce's Ulysses, he hasn't bathed in a while. While Don Rumata (Leonid Yarmolnik), the central figure of Hard to Be a God, is allowed the privilege of bathing, most of the people around him don't look like they've ever bathed, or even so much as thought of it. Rumata is fully enmeshed in the nightmare of history, but it isn't his native history. He's a historian from Earth living on Arkanar, another planet that developed in much the same way as ours, save that its history remains mired in an interminable Dark Age, prolonged by the slaughter of artists and intellectuals (Stalin's purges come to mind). Rumata would like to snap awake, but unlike Dedalus, he can't stand at an intellectual remove from the nightmare. He's forced to accept its terms, to be as barbaric as everyone else in this world where so much shit fills the streets there are devices bolted to the floors of houses for scraping it from one's boots.

         Hard to Be a God is a septic masterpiece, containing images so repulsive you either can't quite peg what they are or wish you couldn't, but not one of them in all its three hours feels gratuitous, and they're interspersed with many images that astonish. Sometimes they pop up in the same shot: a track through rotting corpses hanging from a scaffold gives way to a fog-shrouded vista straight out of Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev (1966); a sequence shot begins with a close-up of the giant penis of a donkey, pans upward as the donkey trots off to reveal a man stepping out of a latrine, then alights on a girl whose beauty registers in this squalid context as a visitation. The plot and dialogue are frequently impenetrable, but German's vision is far too consistent, too thought-through, for the movie to feel incoherent. When we lose the thread, it's because the world he's painstakingly invented is so stubbornly, grotesquely alive that it can't sustain the illusion of a clean, straightforward narrative. German makes Swiss cheese of the fourth wall, with characters constantly looking into the camera as it passes by, which simultaneously recalls the political docudramas of Peter Watkins, and the uncanny way NPCs turn to look at the player in certain video games,* as well as that line from Chris Marker's film essay, Sans Soleil"Have you ever heard of anything stupider than to say to people, as they teach in film schools, not to look at the camera?" 
         Why isn't Hard to Be a God, a long, grody swim in the muck, unbearable to sit through? Why could I watch it again right this instant? Besides the fact that its sheer visual density would be the envy of Terry Gilliam and Erich von Stroheim, there's German's sense of humor. Maybe to some "Your grace, somebody saw a dude with gills in the creek," won't register as the funniest line of the decade so far, but that's their loss. Then there's the constant sense of non-sequitur from which much of that humor arises, and which functions as an implicit rebuke of any attempt to boil the movie down to a condemnation of the bestial ugliness of humanity. We might be nasty, venal creatures one missed Renaissance away from rolling around in our own excrescence, but you never know what we're going to come out with next.

*There is actually an Hard to Be a God game, based on the same 1965 novel by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky, as well as another movie adaptation from 1989 by Peter Fleischmann, neither of which bear much resemblance to what German gives us here. The game looks like a sanitized snooze (judge for yourself), though a Metacritic user avers that while "you will find a game that is first very confusing," if you "keep on playing... the storyline unfolds to reveal a plot that rivals neverwinter nights one," so it's maybe not nothing. And I must concede the Fleischmann version has a superior theme song.

No comments:

Post a Comment