Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
February 2013

Generation P

Grand illusion

Reality is an advertisement in Victor Ginzburg's surreal, messy, unwieldy satire 'Generation P'

Generation P
New World Distribution
Director: Victor Ginzburg
Screenplay: Victor Ginzburg and Djina Ginzburg, based on the novel by Viktor Pelevin
Starring: Vladimir Epifantsev, Mikhail Yefremov, Andrei Fomin, Vladimir Menshov, Aleksandr Gordon and Oleg Taktarov
Rated R / 1 hour, 52 minutes
Now playing in limited release
(out of four)

Generation P has so many great ideas, I really wish it were a better movie. I kept trying to convince myself to love it - even feeling that I should love it, should love its transgressive spirit and go-for-broke surrealism and brutally cynical satirical gusto - but instead found myself frustrated by its sloppy craftsmanship.

The filmmaking seems jumbled enough that I feel confident my response to the film is not simply a result of its many references to Russian culture going over my head. No doubt there are a few pieces to this satirical puzzle I happen to be missing simply on account of not being Russian. Were that cultural gap bridged, I may have a firmer grasp on the full satirical weight and have greater admiration for it than I already do.

Having said that, the bulk of the film's ideas will be clear to anyone. Sometimes director Victor Ginzburg (working from a 1999 novel* by Viktor Pelevin) pulls them off brilliantly, sometimes clumsily.

*If nothing else, this movie succeeded in getting me extremely interested in reading the book (published in the U.S. under the title 'Homo Zapiens').

It might be easier to forgive the haphazard discipline of the film's rapid-fire approach to satire, if the film itself weren't explicitly about effective messaging, and how ideas are created, sold, transmitted, commodified and exploited. Generation P revolves around the advertising industry, beginning in the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union and diverging into a kind of absurdist parallel reality of the decades since. One can't escape the feeling that the characters in the movie could have done a better job getting its point across than the filmmakers themselves.

Just as it may be a trick to try to sell Generation P to non-Russian audiences, the trick for our protagonist Babylen Tatarsky (Vladimir Epifantsev) - a failed poet recruited into the cutthroat world of advertising - is to sell Western products to Russian consumers. But he finds he has something of a knack for it, and is quickly propelled into a hallucinogenic corporate culture where everything from major catastrophes to politicians themselves is created by an ad agency.

The most remarkable thing about Ginzburg's approach is the matter-of-fact way he presents a world in which political and economic realities are manufactured from the ground up. You might expect him to hedge his bets, to pull things closer to reality. Instead, he does the opposite, creating a sense of dreamlike, sci-fi mayhem that never stops to wink. It trusts the audience to take what we're seeing at face value.

What first begins as manipulation of words and images to sell products evolves into all-out construction of cultural and political messages - often from scratch. Need a politician in your pocket? You don't buy one - you create one. We see technicians sitting in front of computer screens creating "people," and Babylen and his cohorts plugging those creations into the real world. Putting them on the news, getting them into the public conversation - even, if need be, assassinating them. I was reminded of Barry Levinson and David Mamet's great, dry satire Wag the Dog, in which political operatives distract from a sex scandal by inventing a entirely new narrative, complete with the help of a Hollywood producer.

In Generation P, there's no need for Hollywood's hired hands - the ad execs can do it all themselves. The underlying conceit is that anything and everything can be a product - any idea can be created, designed to "be" what you want it to be, and you can wholesale it to an entire country if necessary, rubes and skeptics alike. Reality is an illusion created to be packaged and sold, and by nature the illusion itself becomes reality. Who's pulling the strings? Well, Babylen quickly discovers that's a question you never, ever ask. The film floats the implication that the ad men fill a clergy-like function, though what master(s) they serve specifically is something of an abstract concept. (In this regard it reminded me of Guy Ritchie's Revolver.)

Like any effective satire, there are kernels of truth in all of that, and in theory Ginzburg seems to have the right approach - it's all very funny when you think about it, and uncomfortably close to home. The problem is, as a whole, the film feels like a mass of ideas simply plopped onto the screen for our consumption, rather than any kind of disciplined critique. The end result is something that - while sometimes thrillingly twisted - feels like a collection of satirical ideas rather than an actual satire.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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