What a country!

In formerly repressive Soviet Union, vampires is so crazy! Is like whole country a battleground–between good and evil!

I should do all my posts in Yakov Smirnoff’s voice. So, like, Jeff and I saw Night Watch, which was kind of deliriously fun. I’m going to cautiously draw a comparison with Von Trier’s The Kingdom, because both films have a loopy laughing-gas good time reinvigorating some pretty standard cliches. (The caution is: no way no how does Watch approach Lars-ian lunacy. But it’s at least far afield from the somber darkness of much “horror/fantasy”.) Will it appeal to D&D players? You’ll have to ask Bruns, but for those of us who can’t tell this world-building mythos from that one, I heartily recommend it.

Three quick things, beyond the exhilirations of its hyper-plotted oddness:
1. The look of the film–from its frenetic but very fluid editing, to its skanky post-Soviet production aesthetic–is a kick in the eye; even as a fan of Jackson’s Rings trilogy, I am flat amazed at the richness of the settings and imagined universe here. (And I probably prefer its recognizable grunge to the archetypal Ardens and hells of Middle Earth.)

2. The lead is a find. World- and other-world-weary, he drags himself through action sequences as if barely able to raise his arms, and when he gets the snot smacked out of him, you feel the impact, short- and long-term. In other words, like the look, the lead grounds us in an everyday quality that anchors the overdetermined ambitions of its alternate-historical grand mythology.

3. I will see the sequels. Or at least the next one, and gladly–in fact, I’ll probably catch this one again, at least on dvd.


10 thoughts on “What a country!”

  1. Here, here . . . one of the most kinetically exhilerating films I’ve seen in a while (Arnab your $9 windfall will be well spent). The plot is confusing initially but I found I just didn’t care (there was too much to look at; the screen seemed to be bursting with cinematic inventiveness), but after a while the characters begin to provide enough exposition to fill all of the blanks . . . and though Reynolds danced around it, this is a strangely funny film (dark and absurdly caustic but humorous all the same). And it also serves as an allegory for contemporary Russian national identity if you want to go there: an innocent, beatific twelve-year-old holds the key to the future between the forces of light (the good guys) and the forces of darkness (vampires who have been held in check by a centuries old truce). I won’t even go near the “gloom.” Whichever side the boy chooses will triumph. As one character says: “And so it will be, until a man emerges who is meant to become the Great One. And, if he chooses the side of Light, then Light will win. But, those, to whom the truth has been revealed, say that he will choose Darkness. For it is easier to kill the Light within oneself, than to scatter the Darkness around . . . The prophecies are coming true.” This smacks of all things cheesy in phantasy pics but when the film lurches to its concluding moments, I was hooked and, oddly, emotionally involved. I definitely want to return for the second installment. Oh, and did I mention the film cost 4 million to produce. Every penny is up there on the screen.

  2. i have a date with two colleagues to see this on saturday afternoon. if it leaves town early to make room for re-runs of crash i may have to go russian gothic on someone’s ass.

  3. i return from night watch completely puzzled but yet entertained. i can’t say, however, that i was blown away by the “richness of the…imagined universe here” as mike put it. seems pretty by the numbers for the genre–i don’t see how much richer this universe is than that of the underworld movies, for example (or constantine). i was struck by how specifically russian this was not. apart from the fact that the actors were speaking in russian and the signs were in russian this could have been anywhere. this is not a criticism, merely an observation that even if the film is, as pointed out, far rougher around the edges than your average hollywood entry in the genre, it nonetheless feels very familiar; in a way that contemporary action films from hong kong or korea don’t. as i say this i realize that there are a number of things here that a similar hollywood blockbuster would be unlikely to have: a hero with no particular powers, no particularly attractive people, no big fights or showdowns etc. etc. so maybe i’m wrong. discuss.

  4. Well, let’s talk about a broken down, post-Soviet Moscow. I felt the film captured the city as some kind of grand guignol spectacle in decline–taudry and decaying, yet reinventing itself through the mystical powers of consumer capitalism. Whether the city and, therefore, the entire country chooses light or darkness appears to be still up for grabs (fictionally and, sadly, for real if all the stories about government corruption, organized crime lords, underground child pornography mills, mail-order brides/prostitutes, drug runners, gun dealers, and a wide variety of terrorist cells are true).

  5. it seems to me that what you’re mostly describing is the allegory. i don’t know how different the look of moscow in this film is from los angeles in constantine or even the new york of after hours. where did you see the “mystical powers of consumer capitalism” at work?

  6. The vampires in the glitzy pop/rock concert–a snapshot of the new era, but you’re right, the “mystical powers” line was a bit cheesy. Yeah, the film was fun but the allegory was also intriguing (can you generate decent allegorical readings in a film without actually engaging the allegorical at some visual/aesthetic level?).

  7. More on capitalism in Night Watch: I still want to argue that a visual vocabulary of consumerism and capitalist enterprised is utilized. The Night Watch leader is figured as some sort of CEO with his office and the use of a boardroom as a backdrop for a couple of scenes. But more specific, I think, is the apartment in which the little boy lives with his mother. She is mostly absent from his life and he is surrounded by seemingly high end consumer items, alone and cast adrift in a sea of commodities (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer”–a nice touch–keeping him occupied on the big screen television). And the film is very self-reflexive about its appropriation of the generic conventions of Hollywood blockbuster films like The Matrix (or gamer culture) as you so smartly point out Arnab.

  8. Well, I’m not going to spend so much time defending it. I liked, not loved, and haven’t got much riding on my appreciation.

    But comparisons to Underworld or Constantine … see my note about self-seriousness. NW‘s greatest strength is its loose, shaggy-dog feel, wit rather than whimsy; I think it’s a HELL of a lot more fun than those others. (My exceptions are those couple of actors who pop in and rip the screen up–Nighy, Swinton, Stormare.)

    As to the look, well, I sort of see your point, Arnab. There’s a kind of generic seedy city feel that we’ve seen before. I did, however, pick up on the high-rises–the sites of a lot of crime in Moscow, the products of the worst problems (corruption, poverty, marginalization of various populations) of the Soviet era and now the foci for many of the worst problems of the post-Soviet era (the list is pretty much the same, but add in a steep inflation in crime and violence). Even this midwestern Americano picked up on the potential resonance of that location… and I’m betting that many of the sites and scenarios will have a bit more cultural resonance for Moscow/Russian viewers. (And I did get just enough sense of the space to feel some specificity.) But, again, you make good points, and I’m not going to argue much.

  9. i agree that this film is less serious about its mythology than the ones i mentioned, and perhaps that’s an important distinction: the hollywood motherlode yields mostly more portentuous fare, whereas here all that potentially portentuous stuff is merely an excuse for a lot of high-energy hijinks. it even winks at us from time to time: for example, the scene in yegor’s flat where a dubbed episode of buffy the vampire slayer is playing on the tv–which works both as a signal of the register in which the film operates and as a clever meta comment about american culture being re-translated elsewhere.

    the allegory is pretty clear: the child who will tip the balance between light and dark is born in 1992 etc. etc.. my point is not that the allegorical significance is not specifically russian, but that very little in the form or visual cues in the film is. to illustrate the bit about form, consider the difference between a tarkovsky and an antonioni or a bergman; you feel something while watching tarkovsky that you do when reading dostoyevsky. perhaps this film’s nervous-jokey-twitchy approach to potentially portentuous material comes out of a particular russian sensibility, i don’t know.

    the visual cues also seem to me to be anonymous in the way that a hollywood blockbuster’s are: whether it is true lies or s.w.a.t the (putative) global blockbuster doesn’t want to lose the global viewer (or even the midwestern viewer) in local specificity. so it is for this russian movie, i think: this moscow is only incidentally moscow–that vampire rock-concert shtick could be any movie filmed in prague (for example, xxx). sure there’s an allegorical weight that these things have in this movie that they might not if they were rematerialized in the next vin diesel starrer but that’s sort of beside the point i’m trying to get at. of course, our vast russian readership may differ.

    this is one of the ways in which the majority of bollywood is different: its aesthetic makes very few concessions to any audience but its own. i’m less qualified to comment on other asian cinema but i’d say that it probably applies in varying degrees in other places as well.

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