P is for punk-spirited, post-Perestroika pastiche in Victor Ginzburg’s dauntingly ambitious if somewhat ill-conceived adaptation of “Generation P,” a sprawling, largely plotless sociopolitical satire by postmodern Russian novelist Victor Pelevin. Published in English under the titles “Babylon” and “Homo Zapiens,” the unconventional tome was deemed impossible to film by many, including its author, and yet Ginzburg seems to have cracked it, emerging with a virtuoso “Brazil”-like look at what followed after capitalism won the Cold War. A bit too inside-Russia for commercial export, this local indie hit still feels Western enough to build something of an underground aud abroad.
That unique East-meets-West sensibility owes to Ginzburg’s own background: As a Russian expat who found his voice working in Venice, Calif., the helmer had every reason to identify with Pelevin’s protag, frustrated poet Babylen Tatarsky (compelling, vaguely Russell Crowe-like thesp Vladimir Yepifantsev) whose creative skills are redirected into advertising brand-name Western products to Russian consumers after the fall of communism during the early 1990s.
Babylen begins his heavily self-narrated tale working a grim cigarette kiosk, where the born hustler has learned to short-change customers by sizing up their appearance. His own look will transform radically over the course of the picture, which chronicles the unlikely path by which this bohemian artiste goes from long-haired freaky person to muscled demigod, privy to the innermost workings of the new Russian political machine.
While his compatriots are busy buying previously off-limits American consumer goods, Babylen belongs to the cynical elite responsible for positioning these brands in the new open market, giving him a bird’s-eye view of the sociological circus that ensues (the title “Generation P” actually refers to those who embraced Pepsi Cola as the official taste of their newfound freedom). The film’s first half concerns this crazy transitional period, humorously depicted as Babylen shows a natural gift for this sort of product-oriented propaganda — a callback to 1959’s Kitchen Debate, in which President Nixon equated American color TV with Russian rocket science.
During this revolutionary period, which the film convincingly re-creates onscreen, Babylen’s biggest problem is getting paid before his clients bite the dust in a system where gangsters pull the strings. As the bodies fall, the reluctant company man finds himself thrust upward in a system that aims to employ the same brainwashing tricks used to move products in an effort to manipulate the public will. With this new agenda in mind, Babylen’s team creates a puppet politico using a body double and computer tricks.
Where Pelevin’s pop-philosophical mumbo-jumbo was merely perplexing at first, here it becomes downright impossible to follow as mass-media manipulation techniques too sophisticated even by contempo standards are used to cast a conspiratorial pall over the last 20 years of Russian politics. It doesn’t help that Babylen has been dabbling in some pretty serious mind-altering substances along the way, including fly agaric and LSD, as he seeks communion with the Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar.
Together, these two threads — Eastern mysticism and heavy drug use — lend the film a wild, psychotropic quality that will challenge any non-native viewer to make sense of how the movie connects to the real world. With its heavy-metal soundtrack and mind-bendingly impressionistic style, Ginzburg’s gonzo approach calls to mind “Natural Born Killers”-era Oliver Stone. “Generation P” brings a similarly subversive appeal to Pelevin’s revisionist history of Russia’s recent coming-of-age, boasting impressive production values for a story that demands period detail and significant visual scope. While the result may not exactly make sense, Ginzburg certainly hasn’t skimped in adapting the novel’s iconoclastic themes.