If Roger Ebert were more familiar with Iran’s rich cultural history and its cinematic traditions, might he have given Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry more than a contemptuous one-star review that referenced the emperor’s new clothes? Indeed, Godfrey Cheshire’s extensive coverage of the Iranian New Wave in Film Comment and New York Press allowed viewers philosophical entryway into films that may have, to some, seemed inscrutable. That conundrum ran through my thoughts throughout Aleksei Balabanov’s “Russian New Wave” crime movie Dead Man’s Bluff, which is ironic, politically incorrect, and anarchic, with characters wandering around waving two guns in the air like Eastern European Quentin Tarantino creations, spewing motor-mouthed dialogue that references fast food and the shitty economic state of post-Communism adjusting to a new capitalism. (It’s not taken seriously.) The film opens with a schoolteacher addressing a classroom of bored college kids, discussing how a free-market economy allows unscrupulous thugs to rise to the top of the financial food chain. Then it shows some down-and-out errand boy thugs working for a provincial gangster, and a botched drug deal, and along the way a series of comically ironic brutal killings where the thugs blow away their ridiculous enemies after tying them down in chairs and pistol-whipping them. This is accompanied by deadpan back-and-forth banter. Somewhere amid the would-be hip western gangster tale lurks a hollow Russian laugh, the philosophy being that the worn-down walls and beaten up streets and trolleys of Russia are too absurd to function as “mean streets,” and that the unscrupulous criminals and cops can all be lumped in the category of “no good, just the bad and the ugly.” Is there something in here about the fabric of Russian social life, some commentary that eludes me beyond the obvious post-1990 after-the-wall politics? Or is Tarantino with a rough-and-tumble Russian twist simply not funny? Everyone hailed Q.T. as the second coming with Pulp Fiction before realizing he was a one-trick pony. Village Voice critic Dennis Lim hailed Balabanov’s previous as the most remarkable Eastern Blok film at Rotterdam 1999, and J. Hoberman cited Balabanov’s Brother (Russia’s biggest box office hit in 1997) as, “The best Russian movie I have seen in years.” Maybe we simply disagree on the quality of this guy’s movies, or maybe I simply don’t get the intricate subtleties when one character is gleefully pressing a gun against his enemy, whose mouth is taped shut, and we’re supposed to giggle at the farce of it all. Or maybe in this case, the emperor really has no clothes.
For Kino on Video, the image and sound quality is pretty good, and a step above foreign releases from New Yorker Films and Facets.
Maybe an interview with the director or some commentary might have allowed us to touch on some of those mysterious cultural insights that eluded me. You’ll have to settle for a theatrical trailer and stills gallery.
I don’t get it.