I concluded ‘The World Tasted’ (1), a discussion of Dušan Makavejev’s controversial film, Sweet Movie (1974), with the director’s proposition that “we have to accept life as something which is beautiful, painful and challenging.” Here I want to recapitulate some of the sensations and issues conjured up in Sweet Movie in order to extend them in relation to the notion of disgust. This will lead into a discussion of a more recent, but equally controversial film, Chetyre, (4, 2005), directed by Ilya Khrzhanovsky and written by Vladimir Sorokin. Like Sweet Movie, 4 is unclassifiable genre-wise, and has shocked and disturbed audiences with confronting nakedness, uncivilized behaviour, and dark visions of human deeds in history. 4 is also highly sensuous, visceral, and deals with what we commonly regard as disgusting. I want to use these films however, to consider what is truly worth of our critical disgust.
Yet there was a sequence in Sweet Movie that rivalled the child seduction scene for its controversy. Once again it involved scenes that were regarded as particularly disgusting, in which, as Jay Cocks put it, the inhabitants of a commune performed “assorted atrocities with food.” (2) At the Therapy Commune of psychoanalyst filmmaker, Otto Muehl, we watch a staged feast, where members of the commune plop their faces into their food, smear others with it and disgorge it onto their neighbours. A man appears to pull out his penis from inside his pants, but as he chops it, we see it is a large animal tongue. If by now, some of the males in the audience feel faint in their seats, participants in the film are vomiting on one another and the exposed man throws chunks of the tongue to people who gnaw at it. Then, kneeling at the table, the traumatized and anorexic Miss World, whom members of the commune are trying to nourish back to health, takes out the man’s small, real penis, holding the vulnerable piece of flesh, cradling it in her hand like a tiny bird or animal, then, moves it over her lips and cheek.
The action escalates. People retch, a man urinates on the table. People shit on plates, their ‘audience’ urging them on, congratulating them on their ‘achievement’. This ‘shitfest’, as Makavejev called it, is accompanied by Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’, and to this symphony, the film cuts to old footage of German babies being taken through gymnastic drills. These Nazi babies have now grown up, and are trying to unmake their fascist-inherited bodies. One of the men regresses to being a baby, and is suckled by one of the women. Cleaned and powdered after peeing, he awkwardly moves his limbs before finding his feet, and stands up to bow to general applause. Then cutting to the accordionist, who is playing the Internationale, we see commune members, shaven-headed and nude, dancing. When we return to the group after an intervening scene, they stand around the musician, now playing the organ and form a chaotic chorus. They dance like Lars Von Trier’s Idiots—not rejecting the beautiful workers’, then Russian, anthem, but desanctifying it.
Evidently, much of Sweet Movie is not sweet. And already in championing Makavejev’s earlier films, Amos Vogel had written of the director’s “constructive cruelty”, his “visual shock and cruelty” that were used ‘in the service of humanism’. (3) After this film’s release, Makavejev suggested to critics Robert Benayoun and Michel Ciment, however, that it was impossible to invent more terrifying sequences than those contained in certain documentaries. Threaded throughout Sweet Movie is footage taken by German soldiers in 1943, during World War II, of the exhumation of Polish officers, privates, engineers, doctors and teachers, who were assassinated by Russian soldiers in 1939 in the Katyn Forest. This strand begins after Luv, bursting with life, is being bathed by Anna Planeta, who warns him: “Don’t stay here. This boat is full of corpses”. Then we are exposed to the bodies of humans who did not die peaceful deaths. Faces are blown out, skulls and bodies encrusted with mud. The camera pans across some bodies while others have been propped up as if to sit, in a macabre fashion, and pose. The material is accompanied by an intertitle: ‘Let us think of these things always and speak of them never’. The sentence was written by Sir Owen O’Malley, British ambassador to Poland, to Anthony Eden, the British Foreign Minister, on February 11, 1944. After the war, President Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Joseph Stalin, forging a political agreement among themselves, betrayed the Poles who had fought with them against Hitler with their decision never to speak of the murder of the ten thousand innocent people. In an irony of history, mixing heroes and villains, it is those falsely blamed for the deaths, the Germans, who exhume the bodies, measuring and cataloguing the human remains, removing personal effects that show that the slaughtered people had lives and loved ones. Marsha Kinder noted that at an early screening of Sweet Movie at Berkeley, among the “uniformly passionate” responses of this “unconventional audience” was an attack on the film as “an homage to Hitler.” (4) Such a segment contained an uncomfortable mix of categories for some on the New Left in the 1970s.
Stanley Cavell, who shared my revulsion in relation to the film before more viewings, and coming to trust Makavejev as an artist, placed Sweet Movie among the director’s ‘films of excavation’, excavation which includes the unearthing of layers of the psyche. (5) He suggests that the conscience of the film “is most hideously captured in [the] sequence of literal excavation in Katyn.” (6) For Makavejev, writes Cavell, the “conspiracy of silence”, the “mass hypocrisy, is a prescription for self-administered death. Mere film alone cannot prove who caused and buried the corpses in the Katyn Forest, but this film directly refuses the conspiracy of silence about it.” (7) This silent complicity, ‘invisible murders’, recorded nowhere, is surely worthy of our disgust.
As Makavejev put it: “All these…unrecycled corpses [are] something against nature. Corpses have to moulder, to be eaten by worms, to turn into flowers and fruits and plain dust and we have to understand and share in this process.” (8) One of the facts made public since Sweet Movie appeared is that many of those foot-soldiers who took part in the killings that never happened subsequently committed suicide. Even if the public had been forced to swallow the lies dished out to them, those men were unable to live with themselves.
In the obscene feast and shitfest at the commune, the participants are attempting to undo the terror that has blocked their bodies and minds. Makavejev’s criticism here was not “specifically against this or that monster”, he said, but against authoritarianism:
As soon as they start playing with the food, you understand that they are doing something that is highly unacceptable… You are not supposed to throw up… Whatever you eat, you have to digest. So even if you get the most poisonous ingredients—food, ideology, anything that is against what your being represents—you are not supposed to throw up… You are supposed to digest, even at the expense of some part of yourself. (9)
Benayoun suggested there was a “terrorism of style” in the film that had not been seen before, the director’s inspirations having been a long way from some kind of intentional or deliberate discourse. (10) John Gianvito noted that in “the process of watching Sweet Movie the relationship one is having to what is taking place on screen is constantly being subverted.” (11) Virtually every sequence “is deftly built to pivot in emotionally unexpected ways…” (12) The viewer can move from a moment of comfortable laughter, notes Gianvito, to have the scene that caused it topped by something that disturbs you: ‘You gag on the gag’:
With Sweet Movie Makavejev exploited the window of opportunity that still existed in the early seventies for such experimentation. In a world far more insane and maddening than any one film could render, Makavejev lovingly prepared a film to implicate us in the complex of our own manias, to throw us inside our own soups so we might get a taste. It is the work of a master chef preparing the ultimate bouillabaisse, a psycho-sexual one. Unfortunately it is also a film that has proven perhaps too meaty for the hyperglycemic audience for which it was intended. (13)
Kinder wrote in a similar vein:
We feel terribly uneasy because we are not sure how we are supposed to respond—to anything. We cannot revert to neat formulas or political rhetoric because they, too, seem to be under attack. Like Swift, Sterne, Buñuel, and Godard, Makavejev forces us to explore our own judgements and instinctive responses to the images he presents; it’s impossible to have a passive response… So some viewers in the Berkeley audience wanted to reject the film completely by vomiting in disgust or seeing it simply as a pile of shit, yet no one could deny that it served up weighty matters that were hard to digest. (14)
In 2001, Julien Suaudeau, a champion of Makavejev’s work, and an advocate for its contemporary relevance, was nevertheless repelled by what he called the ‘Pasolinian delirium’ of the commune sequence. (15) He encapsulated well the way that he believed Sweet Movie went too far. In the director’s radical going beyond cultural taboos, he suggested, “the pursuit of a physical cinema finds its limit at the same time as it reaches its height.” (16)
Makavejev shared Wilhelm Reich’s valuing of autonomy, not as an abstract ideal, but as a somatic-emotional experience—that of setting one’s own limits in relation to others. Like Reich, he was convinced of the dangers of servility, of raising human beings who do not know their own nature, and who can become prey to the call of tyrants with the promise of wholeness, happiness and empowerment. John Stuart Mill articulated something of this idea long ago, when he wrote of people from the highest to the lowest classes of society, who live “as under the eye of a hostile and dreaded censorship”, until “by dint of not following their own nature, they have no nature to follow: their human capacities are withered and starved.” (17) These capacities, often less-than-heroic, and by no means all attractive, are exercised and performed in Sweet Movie, where physiological revolt is acted out, provoked, and experienced, one way or another, by the viewer him- or herself. The commune sequences, writes Cavell,
are, among other things, revolting. Placed in general adjacency with the sequence of the Katyn massacre, which is also revolting, we are asked to ask ourselves what we are revolted by… If rotting corpses make us want to vomit, why at the same time do live bodies insisting on their vitality? But the members of the commune themselves display images of revulsion, as if to vomit up the snakes and swords and fire the world forces down our throats. It is on this understanding that the sequence strikes me as one of innocence, or of a quest for innocence—the exact reverse of the unredeemable acts of tyrants, under whatever banner. (18)
Cavell’s ‘innocence’ here, like that of the poet, William Blake, is not related to ignorance or denial. It is intense, fulsome and complex, opposed to a cynical and sour experience. “The road to excess leads to the palace of wisdom”, was one of Blake’s proverbs from ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’. Called ‘mad’ by some of his contemporary artists and political radicals, he might have envisioned such scenes as we have in this film in some of his wildest hallucinations. Said Cavell, wisely:
Sweet Movie [is] in effect the most concentrated work I know that follows out the idea that the way to assess the state of the world is to find out how it tastes (a sense modality not notably stressed by orthodox epistemologists but rather consigned to a corner of aesthetics)—which means both to find out how it tastes to you and how it tastes you, for example, to find out whether you and the world are disgusting to one another…
The film attempts to extract hope…from the very fact that we are capable of genuine disgust at the world; that our revoltedness is a chance for a cleansing revulsion; that we may purge ourselves by living rather than by killing, willing to visit hell if that is the direction to something beyond purgatory; that the fight for freedom continues to originate in the demands of our instincts, the chaotic cry of our nature, our cry to have a nature. It is a work powerful enough to encourage us to see again that the tyrant’s power continues to require our complicitous tyranny over ourselves. (19)
Early in the commune sequence, before Momma Communa (outrageously) suckled Miss World, when she was feeding her own baby, we watched something not often seen in (civilised) public spaces. The camera didn’t cut away from the baby withdrawing itself from her nipple, which in its elongated shape, looked something like a dagger—or a penis. In a way, the act of nourishment and nurture can have a discomforting edge to it, a seeming ‘indecency’, as if we are exposed to what Mary Douglas called “matter out of place.” (20) In nature as in life, nothing is pure. Once we let natural vitality into our picture, we must also let in decay; when we admit the reality of birth and death. The ‘theatre’ of the commune scenes doesn’t let us escape the realities of bodily functions, the breakdown of boundaries between solids and liquids, inside and outside, cultural and biological. And the performance is unapologetic and even aggressive, certainly on a first viewing, when we are unprepared and often overwhelmed. For members of the film’s audience, Cavell’s “cleansing revulsion”, the purging “by living rather than by killing” are probably far harder for us to take because we are not actual participants. There is perhaps a feeling of helplessly watching a difficult birth. The shaved heads and nude bodies of the participants perhaps conjure up Auschwitz, especially in this film where we have watched unearthings of victims of a war massacre. But more than this, in this spectacle that we are (as if) locked into, the regressing participants clearly don’t become babies but appear as infantile, less than attractive, adults. As their bodies seem to take on their own wills, with their uncoordinated movements, and lack of boundaries and protocols for bodily substances, more than adults undertaking a certain kind of liberation, they conjure up the disturbed and the sick, the dying—humans who are losing ordinary ‘civil’ controls and proprieties they struggle to keep with age and illness. Their carnal humus is revealed, the evidence that they, and we, are in the end, degradable matter.
Most of us will experience people we love cross these boundaries, and we can be appalled at our own unwished for disgust at the sights, smells and sounds of the ill and the dying; not knowing what to do with this emotion that seems so cruel at a time when we would want our compassion to be untainted. Most theorists agree that disgust is one of our most visceral emotions and it can come unbidden. As William Ian Miller argues, this emotion demands reference to the senses. (21) He also notes that while disgust may be in part culturally and historically determined, cultures “have much more leeway in admitting things or actions to the realm of the disgusting than in excluding certain ones from it.” (22)
What we call ‘physical’ disgust tends to be linked, and is often harnessed to ‘socio-moral’ disgust. And here is the rub—this can happen with unfair, destructive and sometimes frightening results. (In relation to film, of course, as Carlos Platinga notes, eliciting disgust can be a way of manipulating “the spectator’s stance toward characters and narrative events.”) (23) In Hiding From Humanity, Martha Nussbaum writes of the problematic nature of disgust, in that it can come with ‘magical ideas of contamination’ and ‘impossible aspirations’ to purity, to not being an animal, to be immortal. Cognitive and emotional, these are aspirations that often project onto other categories of people the impurity, frailty and mortality that is part of our human condition. (24) The products that are disgusting, she argues, “are those that we connect with our vulnerability to decay and to becoming waste products ourselves.” (25) She quotes Miller: “[U]ltimately the basis for all disgust is us—that we live and die and that the process is a messy one emitting substances and odours that make us doubt ourselves and fear our neighbours.” (26) And she finds Ernest Becker’s argument convincing that it is not only our reminder of our animality that is at stake when we feel disgust, but that “after a certain age, human disgust reactions are typically mediated very powerfully by the awareness of death and decay. In developing a disgust toward bodily wastes, a young human is reacting against ‘the fate as well of all that is physical: decay and death.’” (27)
Disgust as an instinct can of course have a primary purpose—to protect us from dangers of literal contamination from germs and disease. Nussbaum also suggests that the function of hiding from us problematic aspects of our humanity is probably useful, since “perhaps we cannot easily live with too much vivid awareness of the fact that we are made of sticky and oozy substances that will all too soon decay.” (28) A simple relationship to the brevity of our lives and our bodily failing is too much to ask of us, since to ask of humans ‘that they not have any shrinking from decay or any loathing of death is to ask them to be other than, possibly even less than human.” (29)
However, the denial of our substance and fate can have and has had disastrous and tragic consequences. Nussbaum quotes Klaus Theweleit as he typified the ethos of letters and memoirs of members of the German Freikorps, who waged an impossible battle in World War II, sacrificing millions of lives in the struggle:
The most urgent task of the man of steel is to pursue, to dam in, and to subdue any force that threatens to transform him back into the horribly disorganised jumble of flesh, hair, skin, bones, intestines, and feelings that calls itself human—the human being of old. (30)
Not a mere human who is feminine, Jewish, gypsy or homosexual. Nor could the pure, hard and strong German man resemble those we are exposed to in the Otto Muell commune—vomiting, urinating, defecating, and acting like babies and idiots. Here a man has a mere penis, not a Phallus. And it is small and vulnerable—but enough for Miss World’s tender caress as she places skin on warm skin.
Nussbaum’s concern here is with law, the way disgust has been used to justify the marginalisation and exclusion of people who come to embody a dominant group’s loathing of its own animality and mortality. Her book was inspired, she says, “by Rousseau’s profound contention that political equality must be sustained by an emotional development that understands humanity as a condition of shared incompleteness.” (31) She shares with Rousseau and Mill the idea that just institutions require support from the psychology of their citizens, along with their emphasis on the role of education in producing “a society decently attentive to human equality.” (32) She calls for a society,
that acknowledges its own humanity, and neither hides us from it nor it from us; a society of citizens who admit that they are needy and vulnerable, and who discard the grandiose demands for omnipotence and incompleteness that have been at the heart of so much human misery, both public and private… Such a society remains elusive because incompleteness is frightening and grandiose fictions are comforting. (33)
Such a society is unlikely to be fully achievable, she knows, but what is crucial is that self-deceptive fictions that deny the nature of our humanity do not rule in law. In “crafting the institutions that shape our common life together” we must “admit that we are all children and that in many ways we don’t control the world.” (34)
Some delusions are more dangerous than others. Among people with an uncommon awareness of our connection with the natural and animal world, there was an attempt to change the world into one based on justice and equality, to build a radiant future, with reason and ideology. However, concerning any attempt to forge new men in a new society, Makavejev argued in 1967: “we need first of all to understand human nature and not try to escape from our skin or our mind.” (35) People who want to change the world “must have a profound knowledge of man—and then a certain dose of modesty. Otherwise, you are heading towards terrible consequences.” (36) The film 4 comes after the end of the Soviet dream-nightmare, and after more than a decade in which the relationship between film and reality was a particularly fascinating one.
While 4 was director Khrzhanovsky’s first feature, its scriptwriter, Vladimir Sorokin, is one of the best-known artists in the country, a “deeply controversial figure, admired and reviled in equal measure.” (37) Sorokin wrote the script for Aleksandr Zeldovich’s film, Moskva (Moscow, 2000), which, like many Russian films of the decade before, used the gangster genre both “as a metaphor for processes in society”, and because the “inclusion of the crime elements was an essential part of the film’s realism in the portrayal of the preceding decade.” (38) Some were disgusted when they saw the film, and its producers were sued by a Moscow newspaper “for the negative depiction of the city as a capital of filth, lust and profanity.” (39)
Sorokin’s 1999 novel, Goluboe Salo (Blue Lard, or Gay Lard), had depicted clones of Stalin and Kruschev “whispering endearments to each other while engaging in anal sex.” (40) For this, ‘Isdushchie Vmeste‘ (Forward, or Moving Together), the pro-Putin youth group, brought (unsuccessful) criminal charges against him for the promotion of pornography and homosexuality. After the Bolshoi Theatre commissioned Sorokin to write the libretto for the opera, Rosenthal’s Children, which featured clones of Wagner, Verdi, Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky and Mozart, the young protesters “rigged up a huge toilet bowl as an improvised monument to the writer. Books were torn up and thrown in there too, followed by chlorine, poured in as disinfectant.” (41) But Sorokin’s infamy hasn’t only been among conservatives. While 4 was very successful at festivals internationally, some Russian festival-goers were appalled by the director’s depiction of contemporary Russia, while other critics “subjected Khrzhanovskii to a mock trial, debating whether the criminal should be hanged or just shot.” (42) Sorokin didn’t deny the film’s difficulty. It wasn’t “fast food or an entertaining cinematic-stroll.” (43) The Russian audience, he believed, needed
the kind of sweet-and-sour sauce you get in European adaptations of Chinese restaurants. Khrzhanovsky presents the audience with a piece of fresh meat, seeping with warm blood…Domestic critics still prefer steamed meatballs in a Stalin-Brezhnev stew. But this is food for religious pensioners. (44)
I agree with Sally Laird that Sorokin’s own work is marked by a ‘pitiless’ realism, and that the same underlying themes have remained: “on the one hand, entrapment in a society steeped in violence, brutality, hypocrisy, and sham; on the other, the search by ‘unfortunates’ for an exit—salvation.” (45) They are evident and alive in 4, and they relate closely to the question of what is really worthy of our disgust.
When we watch the DVD version of the film, something grotesque appears on the screen. In the course of 4, we will find out that the image is of four ready-to-cook ’round piglets’, the sort that Oleg (Yuri Laguta), one of our protagonists, will be offered as a dish at a restaurant—the kind of animals that are not supposed to exist. When Oleg tells the waiter that he has never heard of such a phenomenon, though he has been in the meat business for seven years, he is taken to the kitchen. At the end of a corridor, four lights shine down as if onto a puppet-show stage. With Oleg standing on one side and the waiter, the other, ‘onstage’ the chef uncovers the restaurant specialty. We cut to Oleg’s face, then the grotesque tableau of the piglets, which look like they have swallowed large, pumped-up balls. They have been bred that way at a ‘kommunarka’, Oleg is told, and delivered to the restaurant for the last two years.
The film proper begins with an assault. It’s night-time and four stray dogs are on a street. A light by a shop window flashes on and off and we can hear rattling, mechanical sounds off-screen. Suddenly, four giant steel machine claws break into the ashfelt, startling us and the dogs with a loud clang. The dogs scatter, and from around the corner, come four snow-ploughs with red flashing lights, the cacophony of machine noise becoming intolerable. After the film’s titles, something we can’t identify fills the screen. It’s like an abstract painting, or a land- or moonscape, but as the camera pulls back, we see ’1969′ stamped on it, and that it’s a frozen carcass of meat. Oleg and a foreman are in an underground refrigeration plant, and as they hurry past piles of carcasses, the latter says that there are eighteen tonnes of meat, some even there since 1965. But Oleg doesn’t care if they’ve been there since 1941. The chunks smell alright. He does have limits, however. He won’t work with minced meat.
The film then cuts to a scene of piano tuning, discordant music, and we meet our second protagonist at work, Vladimir (‘Volodya’, played by singer Sergei Shnurov). Finally, we meet Marina (Marina Vovchenko), whom we first glimpse as part of something that’s also at first hard to identify. It’s like we’re in amidst sections of naked bodies, and on the soundtrack, people are engaging (or pretending to engage) in sex. As Marina gets up and dresses, takes her money, and applies lipstick to leave, we assume she is most likely a prostitute. But not in the bar at three in the morning, where our protagonists will meet and where identities can be freely invented. “What kind of a bastard would run over a dog at night!”, Marina exclaims as she enters, after we’ve heard a car breaking and a dog yelping outside. “People are arseholes.”
“So are dogs”, says the barman…”They throw themselves under cars…”
“Themselves?”, asks Marina, “Cos a dog’s life is shit?”
“Because man’s is.” says the barman…
Our animal nature and fate are implied and asserted from the beginning of 4, just as they are in each of Makavejev’s films, where animals often function as a non-verbal commentary or chorus, though their skins and fur tend to adorn the walls, floors, or bodies of the rich. In 4, though, there’s a further twist—reduced to commodities, their very nature can be altered.
After Oleg tells the others about his government job (he says he works for the FSB in the Lubyanka, supplying water), Marina says she is in advertising, selling a Japanese device that can make the atmosphere in a place more pleasant, and make people feel better. In this other world, she has a secretary. But Volodya’s occupation is the most significant for us. He is an organic chemist, working in a top-secret department. When he starts to talk about ‘doubling’, the equivalent of what in the West is called cloning, his bar friends protest that this procedure is banned as far as humans are concerned. But they forget what country they’re living in, Volodya replies, and he proceeds to tell them some ‘history’, beginning with the first cloning experiments in 1947. In secret government projects, some around Moscow, people were grown in incubators, then placed in society. There were already doubles among us. The tabloids had even featured an article on a ‘Twins Village’. Here people were diseased. They were in fact, production waste. Volodya’s tale mounts as he drinks, telling Marina and Oleg about drinking with some of the ‘doubles’ in the Krasnoyarsk slum, something like a transit prison. Type-four cloning, which began in Stalin’s time, was found to produce fewer errors, he tells them. As he describes giving vodka to and drinking with the 4′s, Marina perks up at his story. Her face is fresh, open and smiling as she listens to his imaginings. Her close-ups make me think of Béla Balázs, and the mysterious ways good close-ups can “radiate a tender human attitude in the contemplation of hidden things, a delicate solicitude…, a warm sensibility”, (46) and of Stanley Cavell’s affirmation that we may not be able to understand exactly what it is that is up there on the screen when we see a person, but it is “a human something.” (47) We will need this strangely comforting something more and more as 4 unfolds. Volodya’s stories become increasingly obscene as he talks about personnel working at the Pushkin holding having to pass a test after five years, which involved being thrown in alone with ‘nigger’ 4′s, who had to ‘fuck’ them. Disgusted, Oleg tells him to ‘shut up’, pays his bill and leaves. Marina, however, has been amused and entertained. She and Volodya kiss, but they’ll never meet again. Before they part, she asks him to finish his story, but he tells her he was only joking with the whole thing. He’s a piano-tuner.
When we see him next, Volodya is dancing, bouncing up and down and losing himself to the music in a crowded disco. He goes into a room where lights shine down over fish tanks, and a man (Aleksei Khvostenko) is attending to fish and turtles. It’s a musician’s room, the man tells Volodya, who replies that he was once a pianist.
“And I was a person once”, says the man.
“And now?” asks Volodya.
“God knows”, the man replies.
He pulls out a turtle to illustrate his point:
“A turtle’s a turtle. Glass is glass. A floor is a floor. They’ll always be that. They’re already made. Finished. But we—not yet. We could easily become anything or anyone. That’s why a person doesn’t yet have a name.”
Volodya introduces himself. “Actually”, he’s “Vladimir.”
“So what?” the man says. “In just half an hour you could become a stray dog. Or a rug, that a nice girl uses to wipe her feet on. Or just a piece of live meat.”
Volodya believes this not to be true, that we can decide not to be these things. But others will decide what he is in just a few moments.
He walks through the street, dogs yelping by shop windows that contain tableaux of parts of shop dummies, suspended from the ceiling. ’40% reduction’ is written in red across the glass. A car pulls up, and ‘Senior Sargeant Nikonov’ asks for Volodya’s identification, pushing him against the windows in front of the unassembled copies of humans on sale at cut price. He is to be taken to the station where things will be explained.
Our strange triple journey into contemporary Russia deepens, becoming less transparent and more murky as it goes along. And the director’s shots, the cinematography, remind us of Andrei Tarkovsky, and more recently, Béla Tarr. In a beautiful clean cut into an ugly, open space, Marina is walking towards us out of a ghostly fog. As Manohla Dargis put it, in 4, the “terminally bleak meets the hypnotically beautiful.” (48) She also suggests that the film’s beauty goes a long way towards keeping our spirits raised. We could be in Stalker (1979), with man-made pools and their beautiful reflections of ugliness amidst heaps of mined dirt, the sounds of machinery and electronic music combining in a song of desolation. Marina’s tiny figure can be seen in the big picture, going up a hill in the back of the frame. She walks across the screen, in medium close-up, with the ever-present noise, the wind blowing, and under light snow, we see sharp, pointed edges of things dumped, telephone wires, towers and smokestacks—a spoiled earth. But her flesh is robust, her breasts big, her hair long and healthy, and her skin, which we have time to contemplate, is unblemished. In the next shot, we cut to her head and shoulders, sleeping. Her body is clean. She lives here, far from the old centre, little green pot-plants lining her window, protesting the vista of the foul landscape. When she wakes, we almost relax to unaggressive music until she accesses phone messages. Sandwiched between messages about clients is one from Maly Okot that the train conductor was asked to give her, telling her that her sister, Zoya, is dead.
On her way to the funeral, she walks in bright orange jacket and black pants and scarf through grey, God- and man-forsaken landscapes, past soulless apartment blocks and cranes, to the rhythmic sounds of industry and alarms. The journey is worthy of Tarkovsky, but it’s Elem Klim I think of here, the way in his film, Idi i Smotri (Come and See, 1985), he captured people in a landscape of war and devastation—somehow able to get to the animal, organic, electro-chemical being of his young main protagonist, who, in a world gone terribly wrong, sees and experiences things no person ever should. Here in 4, it’s like human significance keeps being threatened to be annulled by a pervading spoiling and distortion. The junk and noise are encompassing—and the truth, of course, is such land and soundscapes can be found all over the world, the former Soviet Union having a greater share of them than some countries. On the train Marina takes, people encourage her to take vodka and eat with them as they gnaw at the flesh and bones of animals, eat eggs and drink Coke. One gestures that she’s mad when she tells them that her narcologist recommended that she go to the Polygon. (49) Operating rocket launchers gets you higher than heroine, she tells them; it calms your nerves and puts paid to suicidal feelings.
While Marina is on her way to her sister’s funeral, we cut back to Oleg, entering the hallway of his house and calling out to ‘Misha’ that he is home. An old man (Aleksandr Adoskin) wearing gloves and an apron greets him, and wraps his shoes in plastic bags as he takes them off. On his knees, he embraces the younger man’s legs. Oleg is his son. When Oleg protests that he doesn’t have to wash garbage bags every day, his father replies that the son “can’t imagine how strong the microbes are today.” Irritated, the son says it’s time for an ambulance to come for the mad old man. He can’t keep living like this. He wants a simple steak, but his hands are washed in alcohol, and he is having his meat steamed for the seventh month in a row. Misha sprays and wipes (including a statue of a charpé) and Oleg watches television (something about a dog!). Obsessed with order, Misha wants to go to his wife’s grave, which like all else in his world, is being desecrated. The walls of their home, however, are sterile and white: “You can’t even imagine the power of hell”, Misha tells his son, who falls asleep under a volume of fairy-tales.
When we cut back to Volodya and Marina, it seems like hell is exactly where they are going. Volodya is being interrogated by the police, charging him with taking part in a crime in a place he’s never been to. But a ‘hunchback’ has given testimony against him. Marina is again in the mist and rain and four figures are walking towards her, as she veers left to pass them. Once again, the compositions of her journey in this industrial (and probably, nuclear-chemical) wasteland are superb, with derelict fences, rough surfaces, and loud and jarring noises. She passes a truck, on whose side appear happy, pink, cartoon-drawn ’round piglets’ from the Kommunarka, advertised in the bright yellow of the sun. A rainbow over little cottages amidst green landscapes under a blue sky illustrates the fantasy of where the meat comes from. There’s a Hitchcockian scrape of a violin, the creaking of we don’t know what on the soundtrack, and sounds that are like the clicking of insects, or a Geiger-counter. The hand-held camera holds close on Marina’s face, as it follows her past boarded- and bricked-up houses and buildings, barbed wire fences, signs warning of danger and high-voltage, and the ever-present dogs yelping inside fences. In this strange, spoiled cosmos, Marina appears substantial and vibrant, her being and purpose ajar with all we see and hear. It’s as if hope is indeed a physical thing. And somehow Vovchenko, her character, and the magic of film, give it to us, though the logic of the film and its narrative are against it.
Marina finally meets up with a group of old ladies and a man praying over Zoya’s grave. The woman in the picture on the cross looks exactly like Marina. The grizzled babushkas wail, and we have the impression these may in fact be locals, as some glance or smile towards the camera. They sing in a rough, melodious folk chorus and amidst them, we see two blonde Marinas. Marina herself is one of four. (Irina and Svetlana Vovchenko play the remaining sisters). If the film has been strange and somewhat chilling until now, a cocktail of grim realism, half-realised abominations and horrible possibilites, it becomes something like a demented ethnographic experiment here in the countryside. Nor are we granted any sentimental feelings towards the elderly women, who don’t seem from some better past or to embody better human relations in the present. There isn’t a green world.
Walking up hills through bare branches and ruins, over ground that’s burned and devastated, we go on to the wake, in the izba, where there’s warm light, baked bread and vodka, presumably home-distilled. The legs of dolls hang down over the table from the ceiling. On the way here the young women tell Marina how Zoya died; that she choked while helping the old women chew the bread into crumbs to make the faces for the dolls they produce, faces only Zoya could shape. Now bread isn’t life-giving, and communally binding, it’s killing, and some of the old crones are already accusing others of being ‘scum’, ‘screwing things up’ for them all. Dolls sit at the table with the people, their faces not dissimilar to those of the old ladies. Likewise, when a drunken Marat (Zoya’s mourning husband, played by Konstantin Murzenko) takes dolls to the distillery with him (one is a priest, another a horned devil), he props them up to sit and talk to them like he would to people. It’s unsettling, eerie. “Doubling is invariably a theme of horror”, Miller has said, and asks:
What is it about effigies, wax museum figures, just plain dolls that are not toylike enough, that makes them sources of fear, nervousness or fascination? Even God is nervous about it: he feared images of Himself and prohibited them. (50)
While the crones’ moonshine makes Marina’s sisters vomit, they themselves are emboldened. They pull down body parts, and throw them at each other, sexually taunting Marat. We’ll find no keys to mysteries here as the three remaining sisters walk hand-in-hand together and talk. Marina never forgave Zoya, who was somehow implicated in Marina having bits of her own baby cut out of her. In a later extreme close-up of Marina’s face, bare of all make-up, she cries for Zoya’s forgiveness.
While Marat is asleep, having run away from the ‘metal scum’, dogs chew at the dolls, which lose noses and eyes, Zoya’s precious faces. There are no children here to take a cast from, only the crones, who, as they sew new dolls, sing about their country, where “The young can travel any road/The old are honoured everywhere.”
Meanwhile, Volodya, we see, is in prison. With his face stripped of the personality we saw earlier, what is he becoming? Mark Lipovetsky tells us that Volodya is polishing wooden symbols of the state. When a fellow prisoner tells him to sing, he sings (which implies his prison role as ‘petukh’, ‘a rooster’). He has probably been raped and indeed transformed into the ‘human rug’ the old man in the club talked about as a possible fate for the incomplete human. Here, says Lipovetsky, Mikhail Bakhtin’s idea of ‘incompleteness’ as a central characteristic of a human self and the main foundation of freedom, “acquires a terrifying dimension.” (51) (2005, 2). In 4, incompleteness involves the absence of any protections, “the openness of a character to any—even the most unexpected—metamorphoses.” (52) Sorokin, as is his wont, “couples Bakhtin with Kafka.” (53) In the same way, our expectations are turned on their head in the wake, which Lipovetsky notes,
seemingly contains all of the markers of another traditional archetype: the carnival. Excessive eating and drinking, cursing, obscene gestures, unrestrained sexuality—all these elements are reminiscent of Bakhtin’s famous descriptions of the medieval carnival. Moreover…Bakhtin mentions terracotta figurines of pregnant and laughing old hags from Kerch, preserved in the Hermitage. For Bakhtin, this is a model of the carnivalistic grotesque body: he interprets it as a fusion of death and new life… Khrzhanovskii’s crones…are of the same nature. However, new life or even its possibility is excluded from the film’s perspective. (54)
Unfortunately, Khrzhanovsky seems to lose his way here in the countryside. When Marina’s sisters fight in the mud, I suspect this is for us to watch the spectacle of female mud-wrestling and the girls subsequently going to the baths, to end their quarrel, washing under their ample breasts, their nude bodies being followed by the camera as they leave the room. The spectacle of the babushkas-gone-deranged seems equally gratuitous, as they throw wine on each other, looking to the camera as they pull out their old breasts and flap them, comparing them to each other. (And by now, Lipovetsky confirms, this is Khrzhanovsky, since the whole drunken orgy comes out of two brief remarks in Sorokin’s original script, which mentions drinking, a song that can’t be distinguished, and dancing with a pig’s head.)
When we next cut to Oleg, it’s back underground, with huge, bloody carcasses. Above ground there’s a van of round piglets—a worker tells him they’ve been in another refrigerator for three years. They’re a regular delicacy. But when this man kicks a stray dog, Oleg throws him to the ground. A dog is man’s best friend. With faster cutting now, we go to Marat and Marina, trying to arrange with some parents to take a mask of their child. He too is hit to the ground. He will hang himself, and when Marina finds him, she’ll smash the unsuccessful new mould he’s made and gather all the doll parts into bags, his lifeless feet hanging down in the shot—just as the dolls’ feet had earlier, over the table. Dragging the remains to Zoya’s grave, Marina adds kerosene and burns them all. The last we see of her, she’s again on the horizon, leaving. But it’s not a landscape of gravel and mud this time. There are some trees in the shot and she’s crossing a green field, something fertile.
Volodya, on the other hand, is at the airport, lined up with other young soldiers boarding huge transports. Their homeland is giving them the chance to atone for their sins, to redeem themselves as a heroes who serve the interests of their country in one of the ‘hot spots’ where the blood of innocent Russians is flowing, the propaganda over a loud speaker tells us—as the hungry metal whales swallow row upon row of young men. When we come back to Oleg speeding along the road, he’s talking on his mobile about a delivery of ‘good canned ground meat.’ It’s nine years old but has been kept at minus 28 degrees. Now, he tells the person on the end of the line, he sells ‘anything that smells of meat.’ Oleg is angry and overwrought, and all too quickly his tale too is wrapped up as he crashes his car into a barrier when he swerves to miss a dog. Though a bum runs to him in the car, he merely steals something from Oleg’s pocket. The dog runs after him as he runs away down the road while our four familiar snow-ploughs once again come toward us. The film ends with an extreme close-up of the hunchbacked lady singing direct to camera, a mysterious song about a black cat—that will take to the road with us all. The film’s titles roll down in silence.
Working in Moscow in the mid 1990s, Owen Matthews was struck by the city’s vulgarity, venality, and violence. Russia seemed “not just another country, but a different reality.” (55) But he also knew that Russia had “caught a viral dose” of what was “the century’s chaos.” (56) Interestingly, Matthews is the one person I’ve met who has seen 4, since on each occasion I’ve watched it, just as terror is struck into the dogs at the beginning, I lose my viewing companions. They doubt they’ll be able to tolerate what’s to come. While much of the world of 4 is already with us, if we’re privileged enough, and living in the right places, a lot of it happens ‘off-screen’.
Nussbaum noted that “an essential mark of human dignity” everywhere we know “is the ability to wash and to dispose of wastes.” (57) People forbidden these actions “are soon perceived of as subhuman by others, thus as easier to torture or kill.” (58)
Of course, most of the animals we eat are tortured in this way. Genetically engineered and unable to reproduce naturally, for most of their short lives, they’re deprived of their natural habitat, injected with drugs, and shaped for profit. Most are bred on ‘farms’ which Jonathan Safran Foer suggests, look “like something out of Blade Runner”, rather than “Little House on the Prairie.” (59) A proportion of those transported to slaughter are already dead on arrival—they’re ‘production waste’ And most of us already know that “if someone offers to show us a film on how our meat is produced, it will be a horror film.” (60) The shit which our commune members were so proud of, something stinking and unpleasant but recyclable, when produced by large numbers of animals herded together in factory farms, becomes toxic, something against nature. It seeps into rivers, lakes, and oceans, kills wildlife, pollutes air, water and land—“in ways devastating to human health.” (61) We and our children are at the end of this hidden chain, taking in the disease, the drugs, and the growth hormones—ingesting the misery of other unloved and disrespected animals.
Neither Sweet Movie nor 4 are treatises on disgust, or on our ‘entrapment’ in societies “steeped in violence, brutality, hypocrisy, and sham” that Laird identified as a continuing theme of Sorokin’s work. Rather, the films’ arguments are constructed “physically, out of their primary data”, as David MacDougall so nicely puts it, enabling forms of knowledge that can emerge through the “grain of filmmaking’ itself.” (62) Film, he believes,
seeks to retrieve certain abandoned habits of our prelinguistic life, the perceptions which as children were part of our bodily awareness of others and the physical world. It thus regenerates a form of thinking through the body, often affecting us most forcefully at those junctures of experience that lie between our accustomed categories of thought. (63)
Perceptions and forms of thinking we should not be too ‘smart’ to take seriously.
Edgar Morin suggested that the “obscure obviousness” of film, mixed “with our own human substance—itself obvious and obscure, like the beat of our heart, the passions of our soul.” (64) He agreed with Cornelius Castoriadis, that “an is a mad animal whose madness invented reason”, and that homo demens must be a dimension of any adequate model of the human we work with, in there with homo sapiens, homo faber, homo ludens and various feminae. (65) We live affectively, never successfully fashioned into wholly secular beings, and evidently this can have profound implications, including harmful ones. Yet we are also capable of reflection, and can learn to question harmful fictions about total control. With enough hardihood, the sort Marina had an abundance of, we might acknowledge, instead of running away from the complex nature of our humanity. This nature also, it should be noted, has great positive possibilities, mutual sympathy and love amongst them. We might do better if these constants were acknowledged and worked with, instead of relegated to some supposedly secondary, animal or ‘feminine’ realm. Then we might be able to consider more clearly what is truly worthy of our disgust—and even make this the basis for action in the world.
This article has been peer reviewed
- Cocks, Jay (1975) ‘Pleading Insanity’. Time, November 3: 71.
- Vogel, Amos (November-December 1973) ‘Makavejev: Toward the Edge of the Real…and Over’. Film Comment, v. 9, n. 6: 54.
- Kinder, Marsha (Winter 1974-5) ‘Life and Death in the Cinema of Outrage, or, The Bouffe & the Barf’. Film Quarterly, v. 28, n. 1: 4-10.
- Cavell, Stanley (Winter 1979) ‘On Makavejev on Bergman’. Critical Inquiry, v. 6, n. 2: 312.
- Ibid, 313
- Cozarinsky, Edgardo and Carlos Clarens (May-June 1975) ‘Dusan Makavejev Interview’. Film Comment, v. 11, n. 3: 51.
- Simon, Elena Pinto (December 1975) (‘”I Have Been Fighting Narrative for Years…”: An Interview with Dusan Makavejev’. University Film Study Center Newsletter (Supplement), v. 6, n. 2: 2.
- Benayoun, Robert (June 1974) ‘Candy et le soldat de chocolat (sur sweet movie)’. Positif, n. 160: 13. My translation.
- Gianvito, John (Spring 1995) ‘Gaga’ in Makavejev Fictionary: The Films of Dušan Makavejev. Ed. Gerald O’Grady. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Film Archive and American Museum of the Moving Image at the Public, p. 22.
- Ibid, 23
- Kinder, 5
- Suaudeau, Julien (December 2000) ‘Dusan Makavejev, l’enfance de l’art’. Positif, n. 490: 60. My translation.
- Quoted in: Cavell, Stanley (Winter 1979) ‘On Makavejev on Bergman’. Critical Inquiry, v. 6, n. 2: 205.
- Ibid, 316
- Ibid, 319
- Douglas, Mary (1984) Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. London: Ark.
- Quoted in: Platinga, Carlos (2009) ‘The Rhetoric of Emotion: Disgust and Beyond’ in Moving Viewers: American Film and the Spectator’s Experience. Ed. Carlos Platinga. Berkeley: University of California Press. p. 210
- Ibid, 207
- Ibid, 212
- Nussbaum, Martha C. (2004) Hiding from Humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the Law. Princeton: Princeton University Press. p. 14
- Ibid, 89-90
- Ibid, 90
- Ibid, 91
- Ibid, 14
- Ibid, 121
- Ibid, 108-9
- Ibid, 31
- Ibid, 16
- Ibid, 17
- Ibid, 17
- In: Delahaye, Michel (June 1967) ‘Dusan Makavejev: Une affaire de coeur’. Cahiers du Cinéma, n. 191: 37. My Translation.
- Ibid, 39
- Laird, Sally (2008) ‘Preface’ to Vladimir Sorokin’s The Queue, vii-x. Trans. Sally Laird. New York: The New York Review of Books.
- Horton, Andrew James (2001) ‘Moscow Believes in Tears’. Central Europe Review, v. 3, n. 11, 19 March, p. 2 [http:www.ce-review.org/01/11/kinoeye11_horton.html]. Accessed 1 September 2009.
- Prokhorov, Vadim (2005) ‘Genetically modified Mozart’. The Guardian, Wednesday 16 March, p. 2 [http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2005/mar/16/classicalmusicandopera.russ…]. Accessed 1 September 2009.
- Laird, viii
- Yermolov, Fedor (2002) ‘Free Speech and the Attack on Vladimir Sorokin’. Russia and Eurasia Review, v. 1, issue 6, p. 2. [http://srkn.ru/criticism/yermolov.shtml]. Accessed 1 September 2009.
- Lipovetsky, Mark (2005) ‘Of Clones and Crones’. Review of Il’ia Khrzhanovskii, 4 [Chetyre]. KinoKultura. [http://www.kinokultura com/reviews/R10-05chetyre-1.html]. Accessed 1 September 2009.
- Sorokin, Vladimir (2004) ‘Nye fast-fud’. Modern Russian Writers. [http://www.russianwriters.eu/archives/sorokininterviewfour.pdf]. Accessed 4 May 2009. My Translation.
- Laird, viii
- Balázs, Béla (1970) Theory of the Film: Character and Growth of a New Art. Trans. Edith Bone. New York: Dover. p. 56
- Cavell, Stanley (1979) The World Viewed: Reflections on the Ontology of Film. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. p. 26
- Dargis, Manohla (2006) ‘A Russian Noir, “4″ Is Bleak and Brooding, Naked and Sweating’. The New York Times, April 7. [http://www.movies.nytimes.com/2006/04/07/movies/07four.html: 1-2]. Accessed 18 September 2009.
- In 1949, the Semipalatinsk Polygon on the steppe of northeastern Kazakhstan became a nuclear test site, hosting 456 atomic explosions over its forty-year existence. Among three generations of people exposed to the effects of the nuclear radiation, there is a high rate of thyroid and cardiovascular disease, cancers, birth defects and deformities, as well as premature ageing.
- Miller, William Ian (1998) ‘Sheep, Joking, Cloning and the Uncanny’ in Clones and Clones: Facts and Fantasies about Human Cloning. Eds Martha C. Nussbaum and Cass R. Sunstein. New York: Norton, 84. Also, Lipovetsky points out that in Russian wonder-tales, dolls were communicators with the world of dead ancestors. While in Romantic and Modernist interpretations they may be a manifestation of standardization and mechanical life, the dolls here, he suggests, possess more individuality than the people.
- Lipovetsky, 2
- Idid, 4
- Matthews, Owen (2009) Stalin’s Children: Three Generations of Love and War. London: Bloomsbury. p. 147
- Ibid, 135
- Nussbaum, 90
- Foer, Jonathan Safran (2009) Eating Animals. Australia: Hamish Hamilton. p. 85
- Ibid, 143
- Ibid, 174
- MacDougall, David (1998) Transcultural Cinema. Princeton: Princeton University Press. p. 76
- Ibid, 48-9
- Morin, Edgar (2005) The Cinema, or The Imaginary Man: An Essay in Sociological Anthropology. Trans. Lorraine Mortimer. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. p. 3
- Ibid, xxxiii