Shock and Allegory in Balabanov’s Cargo 200

The problem with Cargo 200, in a sentence: it wants to maintain the shocking locus of the film as both a thematically coherent linchpin of events, characters, narrative strands, etc. and as a decidedly “meaningless,” shocking violence that cannot be articulated, grasped, or accounted for “finally” by the film in which it appears.

Accordingly, the literature that attempts to negotiate or justify this rhetoric of shock – that is, where the shock must both “exceed” and “express” meaning – finds itself in a tight spot. Gregory Carleton’s article in Studies in Soviet and Russian Cinema, “A tale of two wars: sex and death in Ninth Company and Cargo 200,” seems to me representative in this regard (and there don’t seem to be all that many English language essays on Cargo 200). On the one hand, he writes, Cargo 200 is “groundbreaking precisely because of the visual explicitness of sexual scenes”: which is to say, it is the “explicitness” and “excessiveness” itself that becomes meaningful through its negative, transgressive gesture. This is also to say that the “content” is both relatively unstylized and of secondary importance. What matters most is the raw, visceral shock of the scenes: for this reason, “the graphic scene is essential, especially as it plays on audience expectations.”

It is thus first and foremost a matter of “affect” and moving the spectator, of which “shock,” in this view, occupies a privileged relation, as the first affect amongst affects. (Much could be said of the literalist, direct, and unmediated character attributed to “shock,” and how this “ground for the real” itself piggybacks off conceptions of the body as “corporeal” and “material” – or in any case, self-identical.) The proximity of discourses of shock to discourses of physiology should in this respect be questioned. I mean, are “quieter” responses the less affective for it, or for that matter the less shocking? Can love shock? Can laughter? If shock is nothing more than the “touching” of the subject, as told through a discourse of physiology, then it becomes difficult to assign a magnitude or threshold past which a given affect breaks free of the pantheon of responses to become a more direct, visceral elicitation. It seems to me that everything said of shock could just as well be said of jokes and laughter.

That being said, this logic of shock is in actuality only strategically (and rather disingenuously) dispensed, if only for the reason that, paradoxically, it is the shock itself that is supposed to express, or bear the weight of, determinate, historical themes. Which is to say, shock cannot remain an exclusively affective phenomenon if it is to find historical or cultural justification. To become allegorical, it must move beyond this simple, reductive “explicitness.” So after describing the rape scenes as “groundbreaking” for their “visual explicitness,” Carleton turns to their “symbolic conceit,” though it’s never said how the one is able to suddenly, if selectively, coextend with the other. The “explicit” is after all directly opposed to the “symbolic” and the “allegorical”; where the former claims to require nothing of the viewer, of culture – it circumvents the interpretive process, which is why it’s presented as “affective,” i.e. direct, unmediated, ‘of the body, not the mind’ – the latter suggests a specific critical or allegorical motivation at work in its presentation.

Though the affective, unmediated character attributed to shock is able to secure for itself a “ground” for inquiry, it also, for the same reason, cuts itself off from history, politics, culture. How can the explicit, the unmediated, the direct, be made to link up with the broader, and certainly “mediated,” problems that surround it? Carleton seems to be struggling with this problem when he writes:

“Moreover, visualized sexuality in each [Ninth Company and Cargo 200] is not a coincidental occurrence but connects the films in an intertextual relationship and broader meta-narrative. It draws from and informs the legacy of the Soviet war in Afghanistan, in particular how the war’s figuration has been shaped by glasnost/early post-Soviet representations. Central to this meta-narrative is rape, as a symbolic conceit of the anti-epic and its themes of violation and betrayal.”

In a way, Carleton here simply repeats the question. Even his language for describing the relationship between the rape scenes and the historical forces represented in the film carefully maintains their distinction (“connects,” “draws from,” “informs,” etc.), no doubt because the relationship between them is tenuous, unmotivated, and difficult to locate. In which case, it becomes difficult to describe the shockingly violent center of the film as an allegory for anything, if only because it is what it was meant to be: arbitrary, gratuitous, and non-symbolic.

Carleton’s attempt to find a “symbolic conceit” in the rape scenes, after having presented them as “explicit” and ahistorical in their “affect,” seems to me symptomatic of the methodological problems within the film itself. But even if we were to give generous readings of Carleton and Cargo 200, the allegorical reading suggested would be just as problematic. I mean, if, as Carleton argues, “Central to this meta-narrative is rape, as a symbolic conceit of the anti-epic and its themes of violation and betrayal,” then it would be like comparing the relationship between the Soviet people and its government to the rape of an adolescent girl. So, even if we did grant this film the allegorical status it seems to desire, we would be confronted with still more problematic metaphors and analogies, none of which seem particularly insightful or sophisticated.

After all, the film is titled Cargo 200, which suggests that the true concern of this film is the death of soldiers in a needless, foreign war; in which case the rape of Angelika would stand in for the “rape” of Soviet men by the Soviet state? That the corpse of Angelika’s fiance is rolled into bed with her suggests as much, symbolically-speaking, but why these two acts – rape and war – should be drawn as homologous is left unexplained, assumed. (That both are horrible seems to me the thinnest of possible relations. By this logic, any horrible act could serve this narrative just as well.) In any event, the rape of Angelika would in this sense appear as a rather curious, and it would seem inappropriate, symbol for what “cargo 200″ represents: the murder of young men by the state. That said, we are never really told why this young woman’s body has been made the site for the suffering of innumerable symbolic violences, why this body should be made to bear the problems and violences of the nation in its entirety – from religion to politics to the military to pop culture. However, as soon as the question becomes too irritating to turn away, the film is of course able to fall back on the “shock” alibi, according to which the film’s own inability to explain itself is supposed to be the explanation.

Bollywood, Rick Astley, and the Israeli Arms Industry

Amid growing international concern over the India-Israel arms trade, the Israeli firm Rafael unveiled the below marketing video — described by Stephen Trimble of The Dew Line as a “catastrophic collision of Bollywood and the arms industry” – at the Aero India 2009 defense convention in Bangalore. In the months since its posting, the video has become the errantposter-child — even earning a reprimand from The Jerusalem Post — for the new age of covert international arms trading.

Noah Shachtmann of Wired‘s DangerRoom has deemed it “the most atrocious defense video of all time, just days into the Iron Eagles — our celebration of the awesomely bad videos of the military-industrial complex”.

Every element of the promotional film is just plain wrong. The sari-clad, “Indian” dancers look all too ashkenaz and zaftig. The unshaven, hawk-nosed, leather-clad leading man appears to be a refugee fromYou Don’t Mess With the Zohan. Then of course, there’s the implication that the Indian military is somehow like a helpless woman who “need(s) to feel safe and sheltered.”

But for my rupees, the worst thing about the video is the damn theme song they’ve concocted for the thing. To pimp its weapons, Rafael produced a sitar-heavy twist on Rick Astley’s love letter to Satan, “Together Forever,” complete with a new chorus: “Dinga dinga, dinga dinga, dinga dinga, dinga dinga dee.” The rest of us now have to suffer for that bad, bad choice.

The video may be as offensive to our tastes as to our morals, but it’s also, perhaps, a sign of things to come. As a kind of post-modern pastiche of traditions and fads, light-hearted pop songs and mechanistic war, the video seems to embody perfectly the brazen disregard — where anything goes, and nothing is sacred — that we would expect from an arms dealer. Even more remarkable is the fact that these videos are themselves the product of a formula of sorts, where diverse archetypical cultural affects are combined, to easy effect. Saurabh Joshi of StratPost, the South Asian Defense news site, inquired further into Rafael’s marketing practices:

StratPost spoke to Assy Josephy the Director of Exhibitions for Rafael about how this video came about. “In Israel we have Jewish people from India, so we know about Bollywood and the song and dance numbers. Israelis are generally aware of Indian culture. This video is to help build familiarity between India and Israel and Rafael,” he says.

But this is not the first time Rafael has exhibited something of the sort. Josephy says Rafael has displayed such videos in many countries with various themes customized to the culture of the locations. “In Brazil we did a video of football. Football is very big there. In Paris the video had a theme that included Napoleon and the Renaissance. In Poland our video had themes of Chopin and Copernicus. In England it was about Shakespeare,” says Josephy.

Though we can only hope to one day get our hands on the Shakespeare defense video — an odd phrase to be sure — the greater point to be taken here is that even arms dealing can be “Epcotized”. The Rafael video is, no doubt, a classic case of a capital enterprise creating an image of cultural understanding that disguises its opposite, a generic, reproducible schema that can be ‘customized’ to capture any given culture. Only in this case, the product is a missile, not international cuisine, and the means for marketing — “culture” in quotes — is also the target.

The Art of the Commercial Break

Now that I’ve switched from Comcast to AT&T, and seem to only watch pre-recorded programs off the DVR, I’ve become a little more attuned to the importance of the commercial break. We may say we hate it, but when it’s gone, or artificially eliminated rather, it’s hard to shake the feeling that something important is missing. And sure enough, in  two new studies reviewed by The New York Times, researchers who study consumer behavior argue that, in fact, “interrupting an experience, whether dreary or pleasant, can make it significantly more intense”.

“The punch line is that commercials make TV programs more enjoyable to watch. Even bad commercials,” said Leif Nelson, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of California, San Diego, and a co-author of the new research. “When I tell people this, they just kind of stare at me, in disbelief. The findings are simultaneously implausible and empirically coherent.”

Whether or not Nelson’s findings are intuitive on some level — our anticipation for the commercial break to end does, after all, reinforce its existence — it’s the interpretation that really matters. Now, one could of course read these results as evidence of some ‘deep’ psychological function that thrives on “interruption”, which seems to be Nelson’s perspective, but even if this is the case, generally speaking, it shouldn’t be forgotten that the TV drama itself is written for commercial breaks — which is to say, the commercial’s interruption is less random and disruptive than strategic and productive.

As a matter of fact, every guide to writing for TV spends considerable time discussing how to account for the commercial break in the structure of the plot and timing of events. (Which perhaps explains why the researchers found little variation in results across all kinds of content. In this regard, the interruption is hardly an interruption.) So, technically speaking, the commercial break itself is built into, on a deeper level than otherwise suggested, the story it’s supposed to ‘interrupt’.

In this guide, for instance, Evan Smith devotes a chapter to negotiating the distinction between ‘dramatic structure’ and ‘broadcast format’. The tension between them — irreconcilable, to be sure — in many ways reproduces the familiar struggle between commercial conditions and artistic endeavors (–which despite their presumed animosity must ultimately come together). As Smith puts it, rather succinctly:

“Here is where things get confusing. The timing of commercial breaks does not necessarily coincide with the transitions between threedramatic acts in a typical episode.” (99)

As TV watchers, we know this intuitively. How many times have we seen an old movie written in anticipation of its eventual consignment to TV, only to find that the commercial break structure they expected has since changed? The awkward flash-fades to black peppered throughout (almost unnoticeably), followed by cuts to a resumed action that the writers clearly wanted us to have to anticipate, are in this regard strange, archaeological signs of a former age, not evidence of a permanent, evolutionary form of ‘interruption’.

It’s this kind of subtle, almost meaningless, dissonance that reveals just how conventional, and non-interruptive, the commercial break really is. There’s an art to it, after all. So much so that it’s practically a credit and a compliment to the writers that their work is now attributed to our brains instead of theirs.

Abel Gance’s 1922 epic “La roue” now available on DVD

La roueIn a post praising Flicker Alley’s continual release of otherwise unavailable films, Kristin Thompson reminds us that Abel Gance’s 1922 epic, La roue, long overdue on DVD, was released last year. Though Gance is most well-known for his Napoleon, La roue is often thought of as his greatest picture.

A case in point is the new DVD version of Abel Gance’s 1922 epic, La roue (”The Wheel”), which the enterprising company Flicker Alleyreleased last year. In its short existence since 2002, Flicker Alley has done exciting work. Its recent “A Modern Musketeer” collection finally makes a selection of Douglas Fairbanks’ pre-swashbuckler comedies and dramas available. I personally prefer these lively, witty, imaginative films to Fairbanks’ 1920s costume pictures. Flicker Alley’sGeorge Méliès set is one of the great achievements of DVD production and deservedly won last year’s prize for the best silent DVD set at Il Cinema Ritrovato. Other highlights include F. W. Murnau’s rare psychological drama Phantom (1922) and Louis Feuillade’s serial,Judex (1917). I wrote about Flicker Alley’s release of Discovering Cinema, on early sound and color.