The director Ilya Khrzhanovsky (1) talks about change happening very fast and very contingently in the new Russia and some of its former satellite states. It’s as though it demands a different form of narrative and a different approach to character. This approach means narrative can never quite develop and the characters can never quite be revealed because there is no clear sense of motivation. If we frequently expect motivation to be vital to western cinema, where there are also assumptions about the control we have over our lives, and out of this belief in our own agency can come narrative, can come stories that characters drive, in the sort of cinema Khrzhanovsky and others have been trying to evolve, character and narrative collapse because of the over-arching sense that motivated acts are always going to founder under the force of external circumstances.
Khrzhanovsky also talks about a more obviously western and affluent problem: the problem of cloning. He’s not to much concerned about its physical existence – though it serves a useful and apocryphal anecdote in Chetyre (4, 2005) – but much more its psychological manifestation.
Concerning our conscious – I think there’s a lot of identicalness in the world. People listen to the same music. Wear the same clothes […] It’s the same with everything and everything else. I feel this. That’s why I personally experience boredom.
He goes on to say that
the possibility of becoming the same as everyone else, not only in my behaviour, but in my inner structure would make me unable to feel real things, and would formalise everything. (2)
Taking into account our own introduction, and Khrzhanovsky’s comments, 4, is in many ways a twofold film, telling a story not just of a blasted ruralism that would perhaps demand the narrative collapse suggested above, but also of a nation split asunder between that ruralism and a new atomised wealth. For example, in the early stages of the film we see the three leading characters going about their business in Moscow: Marina (Marina Vovchenko) works as a prostitute, Volodya (Sergey Shnurow) as a piano tuner and Oleg (Yuri Laguta) in the meat industry. Yet, when they meet late one night in a bar, they all create elaborate alter egos for themselves. This is courtesy of the atomised culture in which they live, where people do not have identities given to them by the immediate culture, which would happen in a rural village environment, but where they have such a high degree of apparent agency that they can create and re-configurate their identities at will.
If in the urban instance people can create their identities to the point of dishonesty and beyond, then in the rural situation presented in 4 we sense people cannot even hold onto their original identity, let alone create an alternative one. In the second half of the film, Marina goes to a small village where her sister lived and where she recently passed away. It turns out that most of the locals have gone half-mad and get drunk on local moonshine so strong that Maria and her sisters almost immediately bring it up. As we see Marina walk to the village a little earlier in the film, so we see a decimated landscape that constantly brings to mind the post-industrial. It’s as though nature in its cyclical form has given way to what Martin Heidegger, in an essay called “Building, Dwelling, Thinking”, calls “enframing”, where nature gives way to technological ‘progress’. It is as if rural characters cannot any longer find an identity through the land, because the focus has so clearly shifted to a post-industrial city environment, where one’s sense of self isn’t given; it is pragmatic. Thus, we have the identity we need for the given occasion. If the rural characters can no longer ‘dwell’ in their environment, can no longer think and feel their environment, because it’s lost its cyclical unity, but neither have they, nor can they, suddenly adopt a post-modern protean identity, a ‘pragmatic identity’, then what do they have to centre them? Heidegger writes, in another essay called ‘The Question Concerning Technology’, that we have to watch over technology: “How can this happen? Above all through our catching sight of the essential unfolding in technology, instead of merely gaping at the technological.” (3) It is as though Soviet Russia gaped at the technological, and left a landscape hollowed out and ruined by this insistent faith not so much in technology, which Heidegger links to the Greek term techne, and which can incorporate being, but in the technological. The technological, we could say, enframed the land and destroyed it, and now the people on that land show the very signs, in their own fragile identities, of that destruction.
In “Building, Dwelling, Thinking”, Heidegger also says that “building is really dwelling”, “dwelling is the manner in which mortals are on the earth” and “building as dwelling unfolds into the building that cultivates growing things and the building that erects buildings.” (4) This is obviously quite abstract, but Heidegger is concerned, it would seem, with some emotional notion of building, so that we do not build to build but build to dwell; the first principle lies in occupying over building. But what often happens in the technological is that the building has little to do with dwelling, it becomes “housing”, “development” and “investment”, so that in a post-industrial society you are in danger of ending up with two things. On the one hand, you have urban properties that are not designed for the person, for the purposes of dwelling, á la an igloo, a cave house or a wigwam, but for the purposes of building, so that then people occupy the lifestyle-built property that they adjust to, to live in. It is not designed out of inner necessity, but external desire. The property is built as speculation and lived in as lifestyle. This is evident in the ever-increasing number of luxury apartments. But at the other extreme you have the ruinous dwellings on show in the villages in 4. Built as if out of the materials around them, but now with so little cyclical existence left that the houses themselves have gone to wrack and ruin like the surrounding landscape, we can see at work the collapse of dwelling.
It would be an exaggeration to say this is the theme of the film, but, if we contrast Marina’s purpose built – though very un-luxurious – high-rise flat to the village huts, we can see that both arrive at the same muddy despair from completely different angles: the former seem in endless construction; the latter in complete disrepair. What has happened to dwelling we might ask? We could answer, taking into account the director’s comments quoted above, that for the urban comfortable it lies in psychological cloning, in giving oneself over to a sort of semiotic conformism. In the latter, it lies in the collapse of identity altogether. In the semiotically confomist we accept that personality is an endless compromise, that it demands, in Tim Parks’ words:
one stays silent and polite. Such is the nature of consociativismo, the sad glue that keeps couples and countries and coach parties together. (5)
Hence, we live with agency, perhaps, but not really identity. Is this the inevitable consequence of a pragmatic identity? But in the latter we live without an identity at all, for, if our sense of well-being is not that of agency, of propulsion, but of the cyclical and the cycle has lost its balance, then the individual loses his or her balance also.
Now there is a key scene in the film that explores this problem of agency and its absence, of pragmatic identities and inevitable identities. At one stage, one of the leading characters from the bar, Volodya, expresses his belief in his own agency to an older man (Alexei Khostenko) in a night club. The older man, who’s obviously himself been broken by some catastrophe, insists that Volodya is living with a false consciousness.
We could easily become anything or anyone […] In just half an hour you could become a stray dog. Or a rag, that nice girls use to wipe the floor. Or just a piece of live meat.
Volodya insists, “that’s not true. You can decide to turn into a dog, or a rag. Or a piece of meat. There’s always a choice.” The old man disagrees: all it would take is one minor event to greatly change one’s existence. And, sure enough, that is exactly what happens, as later that night Volodya is carted off to the police station and interrogated in connection with an incident. It’s all very well, the film seems to propose, to have a pragmatic identity, but a pragmatic identity, though it assumes itself so often to be the height of sophistication, can often turn out to be the height of naïveté. After all, neither tied to the cyclical aspect of nature, nor the political, social and intellectual world of the urban notion of enlightenment possibilities, the individual is, if you like, stranded in individualism, in an individual sense of agency that can easily be removed.
This is the desperate individualism Anna Politkovskaya elucidates in her book, Putin’s Russia, with its extreme winners and extreme losers. A former friend of the writer, Tanya, became one of its extreme winners. Undeniably working very hard from 6.00 in the morning through till 11.00 at night, Tanya went on to make her fortune on the free market, and, from living with barely enough to eat, now lives in a fine apartment, wears chic clothing, and possesses elegance and poise. This is a woman who years previously had a miserable life as an engineer in a research institute: clearly the move towards individualist capitalism has worked. And yet, for all her luxuries, Politkovskaya makes clear Tanya’s life is still problematic: “the bribes. The endless bribes you have to give everyone. Just to keep hold of my shops, I pay up. Who I don’t give bribes to?!” When Politkovskaya asks Tanya if she can publish the article abroad, she says, “Go ahead. Let them know what our money smells of.” Even a successful business-woman in the New Russia can’t help the feeling of bitterness. Later in the book, the writer tells the story of an old man who was found dead in his flat in the town of Irkutsk in Siberia. It was during the winter of 2002-3 and the pipes burst, and there was no way of replacing them that winter. This eighty year old was found frozen to the floor: the old man was “hacked with crowbars off the icy floor by the other people living in his communal flat” (6). Here we have the physical manifestation of our earlier contrast: the haves and have nots at extreme ends, and the price to be paid for a no-holds barred individualism.
Now if Tanya were not so aware of the corrupt nature of Russia, and of her good fortune at being in the right place at the right time, then she would share the naïveté of Volodya. But because she doesn’t share his naïveté, then she’s still left with a sense of national despair. And perhaps this despair resides in the fact that, whether one’s at the top socially or not, there is a sense of precariousness that makes a sense of well-being hard to attain, unless one is oblivious. So, we can attach social precariousness to personal precariousness and see how they are interlinked. Both the urban identity and the rural identity are obliterated, and the urban and rural societies absent. The best one can hope to do in such unfixed social co-ordinates is to believe in one’s own good fortune, or to collapse if you’re one of the recipients of that absence. Now there are certain paradoxes 4 touches upon, because to believe in one’s good fortune is an act of faith in a ruthlessly secular society that has little respect for social equality; people now have to believe in capitalism with all the fervour they might previously have believed in theology or communism. But this is a belief system where it’s easier for a rich man to pass through the eye of the needle and enter into the kingdom of heaven (which just so happens now to be on earth) than for anyone else. If theology worked with a false consciousness and offered only opium to the masses, then at least they had an opiate. Does a capitalist belief system not even offer that? The poor, at least, could before live with a degree of hope in this life with the potential of a better one in the next.
And where, we might ask, does the system leave identity? If we could say that theology allowed for a false consciousness of individuated man being created in the image of God, and communism a de-individuated man but socialized toward the betterment of mankind in the presence of socialism, what sort of identity can we expect in capitalist Russia? This is where the pragmatic identity comes in, where one doesn’t especially believe in oneself, in the integrity of one’s being, but much more in one’s capacity to reconfigurate at will, to create the being that others demand given the particular situation. This is a sort of sorrowful post-modernism, taking into account some comments from Jean-Francois Lyotard, in “Defining the Post-Modern”, where he says
after two centuries, we are more sensitive to signs that signify the contrary [of progressiveness]. Neither economic nor political liberalism, nor the various Marxisms, emerge from the sanguinary last two centuries free from the suspicion of crimes against mankind […] So there is a sort of sorrow in the Zeitgeist. (7)
Out of this sorrowful post-modernism comes the pragmatic identity which accepts, rather like Tanya, that the world isn’t a slow-burn exercise in amelioration, but a hard-and-fast existence of winners and losers. To possess a principle in such a world is wrong not for any moral reasons, but for practical reasons, and for practical reasons of pace, which is finally far more significant than morality. A principle in such a world is too slow, it requires too much thought, too much reflective energy. Much better than a principle, it would seem, is an improvisatory zeal, the capacity to make oneself up as one goes along, which is exactly what the characters do here in that lengthy early scene. They are exemplary post-modern beings, ironic, detached, functional. Their essence is so unconnected to what they do that they can easily while away an evening having a decent conversation fictionalising their own existence.
But where we might ask does this leave the young Khrzhanovsky, a filmmaker with much to say in interviews about the state of contemporary Russia and the wider world? It leaves him, perhaps, clinging to æsthetics, but not in an empty way, but as the one remaining hope for people living in a sorrowful zeitgeist. How, the director seems to have asked himself, can he make creative meaning out of chaos? Let’s say in 4 it’s a threefold process. That its narrative, cinematographic and aural as the director tries to give the notion of chaos æsthetic form. Taking the aural, Khrzhanovsky doesn’t offer a verisimilitudinous soundtrack; instead, he wants to capture the sounds of a world that is halfway between a subjective madness and a world that presently exists. Sometimes this approach to sound will just be an amplified reality, as in the scene where Volodya gets carted off by the police and we hear barking dogs on the soundtrack and the sound of the snow-ploughs passing through the streets. But, on other occasions, during Marina’s walk to the village, we hear a combination of owl-like sounds, percussionist echoes and what sounds like a door constantly creaking back and forth. It’s as if Khrzhanovsky is looking for a soundtrack that is both real and imaginary at the same time, taking into account another young filmmaker’s useful differentiation between objective and subjective sound. For Carlos Reygadas, subjective sound is first and foremost the character’s sound: the sound inside a character’s mind that a filmmaker tries to capture. Objective sound is the sound that we would all generally hear in a given situation. Reygadas, in Jápon (2002) and Batalla en el cielo (Battle in Heaven, 2005), moves between the two. But Khrzhanovsky seems almost to suggest that the ‘objective’ sound has become unhinged, unattached to human subjectivity or objectivity, and just becomes naturally alogical. It’s as if, just as in the wake of technological chaos, nature loses its naturalness, where it might snow in summer, or rain acid in winter, or create bastardised crops in autumn. So, why can’t the aural as well as the visual collapse into a kind of anaturalness? It’s as though the director is asking, “Why shouldn’t we hear sounds that ‘objectively’ have nothing to do with the world in which they’re emanating, but anaturally make perfect sense?” For example, when Marina walks along the roads, paths and muddy ground towards the village where her sister has died, we could easily watch and listen to the film without finding the soundtrack particularly fantastic: the director has tweaked it in such a way that it’s interstitial: it’s somewhere between verisimilitudinous sound and a musical sound. Khrzhanovsky said that, though he composed a soundtrack for the film, he didn’t use it: he thought the general sounds would be much more effective. In some ways, Khrzhanovsky’s approach to sound is a little like Michelangelo Antonioni’s use of, say, grey fruit in Il Deserto Rosso (The Red Desert, 1964). He wants to capture an element of post-industrial despair, but is, however, less likely than Antonioni to suggest a subjectivity that could be credited to the central character’s perception – that to some degree this most neurotic of Antonioni’s heroines perceives the world as readily as she’s part of it. The grey fruit might actually be grey, but she’s undeniably perceptually disturbed enough to see grey fruit that isn’t actually itself grey. Khrzhanovsky wants to use sound, though, to suggest it is very much the world that has gone a little mad, so that when Marina walks we’re not witness to her half-mad subjectivity (we perceive her as pretty sane, and certainly much less neurotic than Antonioni’s heroine), but the outside world is chaos and madness. Khrzhanovsky’s soundscape is ‘mad’, rather than his leading characters, though they must pass through this mad soundscape. The characters, shored up by their pragmatic identities, are almost oblivious to the insane sounds that surround them.
If the soundscape is mad and anatural, the camera is a mixture of the wide-angle, the classical and the handheld, a kind of cinematographic pragmatism in keeping with the pragmatic identities the leading characters themselves possess, for different ends. The director hired, out of necessity, three different cameramen and the film manages to work in to the film different styles in relation to different stages of the work. So, in the lengthy bar sequence where the characters discuss their alter-identities, the wide-angle lens gives the impression of a bar much bigger than it happens to be. Actually, the characters are sitting quite close together, but the lens suggests a degree of distance that’s metaphorically true as they all tell each other falsities. Later, at the funeral of Marina’s sister, and in the scenes where Oleg is at home with his father, the approach is much more painterly. In the former, the director give us Tarkovskian images of loss and grieving as the mist gathers when the characters leave the graveside. In the latter, the dark, oak-toned and beige Rembrandtesque look gives us a doleful, isolated sense of domesticity as Oleg and his father go about their business, with the father looking more like the house servant than the parent. The third style is tight and handheld, as the director and his cameraman ferret around the run-down village, and sway with the characters’ drunken body language as the characters eat and drink themselves into a stupor whilst commiserating the sister’s death. It’s as though the film at this stage has gone a little mad, got caught up in the village idiocy, rather like Marina’s sister. Where earlier in the scene between father and son there’s a sobriety in the style that captures well the absurdity in front of the lens, here the absurdity seems part of the filming in the performatively chaotic manner familiar to us from Dogme films by Lars Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg.
The third element concerns the story. Employing the enfant terrible of Russian letters, Vladimir Sorokin, to write the script, Khrzhanovsky offers a tale that is somewhere between madness and chaos, as if any symbolism the film accesses isn’t to assure meaning but instead to keep it tantalizingly out of reach – most obviously in relation to the title and the way four keeps cropping up throughout the film. That could be the four dogs who scarper from the four giant mechanical legs at the film’s opening, the four characters in the bar, that Marina’s one of four sisters, or the four planes at the end of the film that take off into the sky. It’s the sort of meaning beloved of paranoiacs whose grasp on reality, on the interconnection of things logically, is so precarious that they over-determine meaning in a small area of their lives. 4 has an element of this giddy, tenuous logic, while its wider purpose is less to contain meaning than to contain that which does not have meaning. Khrzhanovsky sees the “whole film’s situation as about turning into chaos” (8) and the style is a little like that of an art work teetering on the brink of chaos itself. It’s not quite following the principle of Harmony Korine (Gummo, 1997) of starting and ending a scene wherever you like, but it works its story with some of the same skittish sense of flitting from one scene to the next. We never really understand the domestic situation between Oleg and his father, and we never really quite know why by the end of the film Volodya will be sent off to fight in what is presumably Chechnya. The film works very well with what are called aporias, with gaps in the narrative that won’t eventually be filled in by the filmmaker, the way we expect in conventional narrative, but will be left dangling.
This is central to modernist art and Gilberto Perez paraphrases Jose Ortega y Gasset in relation to it. Perez says that for Gasset modernist art is an art that is
difficult on purpose, an art that demands of its audience so as to divide it into the appreciative few and the uncomprehending many, an art that creates, is meant to create an aristocracy of taste. (9)
But this needn’t always be the case and Perez mentions Abbas Kiarostami’s films as examples of deceptively simple modernist art, and it’s not quite the case, if for very different reasons, in Khrzhanovsky’s film. We might think he’s not so much making the art difficult, by utilising the aporia, but making art crazy. The aporias aren’t invitations to elitism, as Ortega y Gasset would say, but an invite into the tantalizing possibilities of chaos. This brings us back to some of our original points and also to the type of cinema Khrzhanovsky can be seen to fit into: not an élitist modernism but a ‘irrationalist’ modernism. Like works by Sharunas Bartas, Fred Kelemen, Béla Tarr and other fimmakers of Eastern and Central Europe, the gaps can’t be filled by any knowing comprehension, but instead by a knowing incomprehension, through our understanding that the rational has little place in the world. If, on the one hand, in 4 we have the pragmatic identities that believe in rational thought, if not always a ‘sincere’ notion of identity, we also have, on the other, a writer and director who are not so willing to give them, finally, the agency the characters’ apparent pragmatic rationality demands. As we’ve seen, Volodya’s quickly proven wrong by a man who already accepts life is chiefly about defeat, and the dog-loving Oleg finally comes to a nasty end after swerving to avoid a dog. If, in the former instance, Volodya ends up fighting far from Moscow for no apparent reason, Oleg loses his life in a moment of unfortunate contingency. If we tried to link the various events in the film together, we would be as well searching out the symbolic significance of the number 4 as we would searching out plot developments and character intricacies. And this isn’t especially because the director and writer would want us to search out hermeneutically the former, it’s just that the symbolic nature of 4 helps underscore the absurdity of the hermeneutic search in the first place. “What is the film about?”, we might ask. If we really wanted an answer we could say the importance of the number four, but our answer would point up the irrationalism at the core rather than any sense at its centre.
But, of course, this doesn’t mean the film is without sense at all. The film makes, if you like, symptomatic sense. It is trying to sense something, comprehend something, instead of making sense. So often we expect our art to make sense diegetically, inside itself, but, of course frequently why art matters is because of the sense it makes outside, of itself, its skill in symptomizing problems in the world. This shouldn’t be taken to mean they’re just ripe for sociological interpretation – not at all – but that they maybe need to be understood on the basis of their capacity to sense the world as readily as understand it. There is a nice phrase from the source material for Béla Tarr and Ágnes Hranitzky’s Werckmeister harmóniák (Werckmeister Harmonies, 2000), where the writer László Krasznahorkai says,
no wonder […] that after thousands of years of the earth spinning about its axis people should find themselves somewhat disorientated, since their whole attention is devoted to simply remaining on their feet. (10)
It is as though, with the collapse of various belief systems, that if we’re not careful all we’ll be left with is this awareness that the world spins on its axis and the best we can do is try to remain on our feet. But if we need something else, something to allow us to forget the spinning axis, whilst at the same time constantly keeping in mind the irrationality of the universe that the pragmatic characters here forget until they’re confronted by it, what form should that sense/nonsense take? Khrzhanovsky would presumably suggest the art work, the coming together of a sense within the nonsense, an æsthetic, formal demand for sense evident in the threefold exploration here: through inventive use of sound, image and narrative, without diegetically determining sense, wins out. One of the key things for Khrzhanovsky is the recent
processes in East Europe. They are taking place more dramatically than in the West. The number of shocks the Eastern people have undergone has been much greater than in the West.
The film’s skill here lies in managing to combine this socio-specific reasoning of recent history, with a more cosmic angle proposed by the Krasznahorkai quote. It makes the film timely without being modish, pertinent but not fashionable. It is a work of tradition – as we’ve proposed above in relation to its Rembrandtesque, Tarkovskian imagery and its irrationalist modernism – but equally fresh as it searches out new ways to give us a sense of being. As the world spins on its axis and Russia spins out of control (11), the young director æsthetically captures the form of chaos.
- Editors: the name is also spelt Khrjanovsky, the variant chosen by Senses in its 2005 poll (see previous issue).
- Ilya Khrzhanovsky, ICA press notes.
- Martin Heidegger, Basic Writings (London: Routledge, 1993), p. 337.
- Heidegger, p. 350.
- Tim Parks, Europa (London: Vintage, 1998), p. 133.
- Anna Politkovskaya, Putin’s Russia (London: Harvill Press, 2004), p. 196.
- Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Post Modern Reader (London: Routledge, 1993), p. 172.
- In conversation with the author, Edinburgh, 26 August 2005.
- Gilberto Perez, The Material Ghost (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press), p. 265.
- László Krasznahorkai, The Melancholy of Resistance (London: Quartet Books, 1998), p. 98.
- Joseph Stiglitz, Globalization and its Discontents (London: Penguin Books, 2002). In one passage, Stiglitz insists “Russia’s transition has entailed one of the largest increases in poverty in history in such a short span of time (outside of war and famine)”, p. 182.