Thursday, June 11, 2009

of freaks and men

In a remarkable passage in Fallen Leaves, Rozanov describes the God’s relationship to the world in these terms:

Expansible matter embraces an unexpansible object, no mater how much larger it seems. It – is always “larger”. A boa constrictor as thick as an arm, at most as big as a leg at the knee, devours a small goat. This is the cause of many strange phenomena and of the appetite of the boa and the goat. Yes, it hurts a little, is tight, but – it worked… It is remarkable to put on a kid glove, how it lies there so narrow and ‘innocent’ in the store box. But when it’s put on, it forms a firm grip. The world gravitates metaphysically towards a “firm grip”. In a “firm grip”, God holds the world.”

As Olga Matich, who quotes this passage in Erotic Utopia, says, “the passage first depicts the expansion of a vagina, erection of a penis (even though it is called an ‘expandable object’).” Matich is being delicate – I can think of cruder terms for this metaphor.

Rozanov was a Russian decadent – and a fierce critic of the Russian decadents. He proclaimed himelf a philo-Semite, but this just meant that the took the anti-semitic stereotypes about Jews – including, especially and notoriously, the notion of blood offerings extracted from little Christian babies – and used them to effect an inversion of values. Matich quotes Bely’s portrait of Rozano: ‘his devious little eyes seemed to be brown morsels…[Rozanov cooked his ideas] which he would bake somewhere (in a sacred place), where he would produce the shameless bodily function of his shameless thought.” Bely did not like Rozanov, but as Matich points out, his portrait is accurate, down to the equivalency between excretion and thought – Rozanov himself emphasized that his writing was full of his sperm.

It is hard to know what attitude to take to a writer who strips himself with such gusto. Who is shameless.

Which brings me to the contemporary film director, Alexie Balabanov. My friend Masha thinks Balabanov is an extremely clever and extremely nasty film-maker. I had only seen Brother 1, which didn’t strike me as anything clever, although the nastiness – particularly the anti-semitism – was there. So I went and rented Of Freaks and Men. And I saw what Masha was talking about.

Of freaks and men is filmed in a golden sepia – as though the shots had been drenched in Catherine the Great’s amber room. But it is typical of Balabanov that this beauty is twisted – the collector’s fetish for sepia is mocked in this sepia, which never was nor will be. Collecting is what the film is about – briefly, a man in a turn of the century city (St. Petersburg, although the name is never mentioned in the film) runs a pornography operation that involves photographing the bare bottoms of women getting whipped or spanked. He has a sinister assistant, who delivers the postcards to two customers – one, the maid of a doctor who has married a blind woman and adopted a pair of Siamese twins, and the other to Liza, the daughter of a prosperous engineer. As it happens, the maid in the engineer’s house is both the lover of the engineer and the sister of the pornographer. The assistant is attracted by the freaks and the blind woman in the doctor’s house – he uses the latter as a model bottom, and kidnaps the children and photographs them nude in his basement studio. One of the twins he debauches with alcohol. Meanwhile, the maid shows the engineer, who has a heart problem, the photographs his supposedly innocent daughter has bought. This brings on a heart attack and death. The pornographer then moves into the engineer’s apartment and makes Leeza one of his models. For good measure, he throws in the freaks.

From one end to the other, this is a repulsive world, shot in beautiful sepia. If, indeed, some deity is putting its penis into the tight grip of this world’s cunt, you can be sure it is not the god of love. It is a gangster god, a thief god, a god who can conceive of love only in terms of terror and compulsion. And, indeed, the movie ends with Leeza making a brief fugue from her apartment, only to end up being spanked, once again, in a brothel.

We all know that shock is at the center of the modernist aesthetic. But repulsion is a modernist reaction, too. Not just in horror films. It’s ideological meaning is harder to penetrate. Masha, with good reason, sees Balabanov’s films as an extension of his ultra-right politics. It is the politics of Limonov, the writer turned nationalist. According to this reading, it is enough to show the decadence of the pre-revolutionary intellectuals to condemn them. But repulsion is an overdetermined reaction. Just as the assistant (a repulsively pale, completely bald man with spaces between his teeth, a sort of cleaned up Nosferatu, played by Viktor Sukhorukov) is fascinated by the freaks beyond any economic need or even apparent erotic function, so, too, Balabanov is much too fascinated with this world he has conjured up to condemn it crudely. Like Rozanov, he plays with his own disgust – and makes the viewer complicit. In fact, infects the viewer, which is of course the primal and fearful trait projected on pornography – that to watch is to be infected, to be possessed. This film has been compared especially with David Lynch. But Lynch is working in a culture in which camp has been a long established feature. Imagine a Lynch working in a culture in which camp had never existed, and you get close to the sensibility here.


Anonymous said...

I've only seen a couple of Balabanov's films, one of them being Of Freaks and Men. From what I have seen, I would agree with Masha that he is a nasty, if clever film-maker, and one with ultra-right politics.
I think you touch on something by raising the issue of fascination and the overdetermined pulsion of attraction-repulsion, one from which there is no issue or exit in the film. As you say, Balbanov is too fascinated with (t)his world to condemn it and makes the viewer complicit in his own disgust. And I would add, this is the cleverness perhaps, he knows the pull and effect of such fascination, and even presents it in the film when the man - with a "heart problem" - dies of an heart attack when confronted with the pictures. I just saw another film the other day, Trier's Antichrist, where something similar is at work.
No, I don't mean to compare Balbanov to Trier. But I do like that you bring up the question of camp in mentioning the comparisons which have been made between Lynch and Balbanov, which are quite the stretch. For it brings up the question of laughter. For laughter can blow up representations, it's not just Freud who knows this, and shatter fascination. Laughter can be a defensive mechanism, but it can also explode representation, which is to say fascination and identification, undo projections. In a film theater the film is projected from behind your back. You might be fascinated and identify with what is being projected before you even while you are being whipped in the butt. Laughter is the moment of turning around and confronting the fascination, identification, projection. Oh, you really want to show me something, well take a look at this. The laughter of the Medusa.


Roger Gathmann said...

Amie, these comments overflow into my obsessive thread at Limited Inc right now. At the moment, both of these blogs seem to be converging.

Your remarks about camp make me think of the diverging social paths to a certain stylized irony. The joke, in camp, I think, is that the bully, the torturer, is, when stripped of his equipment - an ephemeral strength - still simply a child or a goof, with the belief that the truth can be extracted from a person like a dentist takes out a tooth. The truth that, say, I am a swine because I am such a such - a jew, a homosexual, a woman, a freak. In American culture, I think, camp arose in the gay underground - whereas the ironies at play in Balabanov's film arose in the thief's world.
Of course, I'm pretty ignorant of the gay underground in Russia, so I don't know if this is just a stab in the dark. But it is out of the mouth's of thieves, it seems, that the truth is spoken in Balabanov's film. Thieves are, after all, the most ardent defenders of property - without property, there is nothing to steal and fence. This might be a camp paradox - but it is outside of the bounds of the codes in this movie.

The two most horrid scenes in Of fr

Anonymous said...

Yes, I can sort of see the Zona and Limited Inc threads converging. And your comment above re thieves makes me think of threads that your prior quote from Rozanov should already have reminded me of.
It makes me think - of course! - to Genet. To the numerous places where Genet writes of gloves, to the many passages Genet where turns the phrase, se retourner comme un gant.
I can't believe this didn't occur to me earlier, but I'm not going to try and quote some of those passages. You know them as well as i do if not better and I wouldn't be at all surprised if you weren't thinking of them while writing this post. I do think that they relate to your posts and questions.