The publicity materials for the new Russian movie Generation P describe it as William Gibson meets William S. Burroughs. Which is a pretty bold claim. But with its strange drug trips, ancient conspiracies and computer-generated politicians, this weird satire of Yeltsin-era crony capitalism almost lives up to those two names. Almost.
In any case, there's enough cleverness buried in Generation P's insanity to remind you of the masters — and to leave you with lingering flashes of paranoia. Spoilers ahead...
Generation P is based on the 1999 novel by Victor Pelevin, which merges meditations on capitalism and advertising with copious drug use, Babylonian mythology and bizarre conspiracies. By all accounts, the novel is as much a philosophical text as it is a story with a clear plot.
And the book is also pretty hard to summarize — but here goes. Babilen Tatarsky is a young poet who's broke after the fall of the Soviet Union, until he gets hired to work in advertising after the fall of the Soviet Union and discovers that everything is even more fake than you might have realized. The world of advertising depicted in the film doesn't even make sense as a twisted satire of advertising — it's literally absurdist, with the fake ads presented in the movie including decapitations, terrorist bombings and grotesque murder. The higher Tatarsky rises in the ranks of advertising execs, the less any of it makes sense and the more nightmarish and bizarre it all seems.
The "Tatarsky works in advertising" storyline culminates in a scene where he meets the uber-boss, who has an elaborate rug whose pattern has been traced with lines of cocaine. Tatarsky snorts large amounts off the "cocaine rug" and then tells the exec that he things life is best when it has big tits, like Immanuel Kant. Actually, he adds, the best breasts are Feuerbachian breasts. They both agree about Feuerbachian breasts, and Tatarsky is invited to join the inner circle. It's the sort of scene that you don't know whether to roll your eyes or applaud the nuttiness.
Meanwhile, Tatarsky is also doing copious amounts of non-cocaine-related drugs, including LSD and magic mushrooms. He experiments with a Ouija board and sees a weird vision of Che Guevara warning him about television. He climbs a ziggurat (that's actually an abandoned radar station) and learns about the Babylonian goddess whose worshippers control the world. Sweaters come to life. The forest is alive, man. Tatarsky's frequent hallucinogenic drug trips lead him closer to an understanding that sinister forces control everything — until at last he enters the Golden Room and sees the real truth.
And in a third weird subplot, it turns out that none of the leading politicians and "oligarchs" in Russia are actually people at all. They're all computer-generated, using motion-capture technology and computer simulations of faces and expressions. (This is probably the most overtly science fictional idea in the movie, especially since they've somehow leapt over the Uncanny Valley and created a virtual Boris Yeltsin who convinces everybody he's real. People even think they've met Boris Yeltsin.)
The whole thing bears a superficial resemblance to Branded, another movie about a Russian dude who works in advertising, has trippy experiences, and discovers a sinister conspiracy to control everything. Except that this movie has a cleverness and a lightness of touch that lift it way above the preachier Branded — and I guess Generation P actually came first, both the novel and the movie. I was also somewhat reminded of Holy Motors, that other weird, slightly aimless foreign movie that just came out in the U.S. — except that Generation P is funnier and looser, with more subversive ideas.
Generation P is certainly not a perfect movie, or even necessarily a great movie — it's often really kludgey and obvious, full of messages about capitalism and politics that feel a bit obvious to anyone who's sat through the past few decades of U.S. media. At the same time, its joyfully nonsensical quality actually works in its favor, because every time it starts getting too obvious or clichéd, the story takes another ridiculous, surreal turn. And unlike a lot of other similar movies, Generation P is fast paced — none of its scenes, ideas or subplots outlives your attention span. If anything, this movie has a fairly glorious case of A.D.D.
I guess in the end, Generation P is paralleling Tatarsky's quest for his own identity with his attempt to create new "brand identities" for the products he's selling. The products showcased in Generation P are invariably American, and they represent the American dream of democracy and individualism. Tatarsky tries to craft messages for these jolly American products that make sense in Russia, but increasingly all he can come up with is weird scenes of bloodshed and chaos. Advertising isn't even about selling products, it's about fortifying the ego — both the ego of the consumer, and the egos of the producers. Meanwhile, Tatarsky's drug explorations show him that even the fakery of advertising and CG politics are fake, with something even weirder and more sinister behind it.
Why would you want to see Generation P? If you miss the absurdist films of the 1970s and 1980s and want to soak your head in a really strange subversive trip. If you have a Terry Gilliam jones and can't wait for Zero Theorem.
To some extent, all dystopias are about absurdity — they're about imagining regimes that are both oppressive and nonsensical. Because when you hold up a really nonsensical, totally controlling regime to scrutiny, you can start to see the illogic in all our real-world governing institutions. Most of our latter-day dystopias are bleak and contrived and sometimes nutty, but they stop short of out-and-out blathering absurdity. Which is one reason why a film like Generation P, as flawed as it is, still feels pretty satisfying in the end.
Generation P is opening in theaters in San Francisco and Berkeley this weekend, and I know it's out in a few other cities right now.