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.