Exploring the intersections of ecology, technology, and ideology: Marx, machines, Gibson, and Shanghai.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Eastern Promises (Warning: Spoilers ahead!)


One of my initial responses to David Cronenberg’s latest film, Eastern Promises, originated before the film had even made its limited release debut on September 14th: this response was the noteworthy parallel running between Cronenberg and Wm. Gibson as two of the highest significance figures in cyberpunk fiction and technoculture both having taken lateral shifts in the last 2 texts each has produced. Furthermore, within these lateral movements into new realms that depart from conventional notions of cyberpunk genre, both Canadians have figured Russian mafia as a vital component in the movements of their contemporary world imaginings. As a Gen-X child of the Cold War late years—I was 16 when the Berlin Wall fell and the tanks drove into Tian An Men Square—I am provoked to wonder at this reinsertion of Russia by two of the most celebrated sniffers of pre-emergent zeitgeists, especially at a time when mainstream mass-media cannot stop thinking Middle East.
Perhaps a key to this resides in Cronenberg’s referral to a book he read while prepping the film: Violent Entrepreneurs by Vadim Volkov, a text that simultaneously investigates the specific context of violence and the Russian mafia in the construction of Russian capitalism that emerged after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and which uses this specific context to draw provocative speculations about the nature of 21st century late capitalism and violence in general. It is possible that by looking awry from the current ‘Endless War’ in which we feel hopelessly enmeshed anyhow, Gibson and Cronenberg offer insights into the structural realities that enabled this war and continue to profit from it. They show us a reality similar to Pynchon’s ‘Endless War’ in Gravity’s Rainbow: a world which is never not at war—violence is a chronic state of being within increasingly globalized capital—and the perception of war only as the discrete events punctuated by state-based declarations and surrenders/treaties are disdainful illusions.

Regarding the film as such, it fulfills the Cronenberg Promises of brutality that evokes visceral audience response, and because of this I am thoroughly pleased with the decision not to cheapskate a matinee, but shell out for opening night prime time showing: being in a packed cinema for the bathhouse attack scene was an unforgettable experience. Cronenberg has lured all of us in (and it was a surprisingly older crowd) with a certain seductiveness that is attached to mafia intrigue, but, as in Videodrome, when the audience gets all of what it bargained for, we cannot help but squirm in our seats, feel sweat on our foreheads, empathize with those who groan out load, and we all end up uttering a mixed groan/laugh as the absurdity of the violence and our fulfilled desire of it ending up in that confusingly complex and paradoxical emotional response of enjoyment at the promise being fulfilled and disgust at what fulfills it!!

In addition to violence—not a new issue for Cronenberg even though there seems to be a proliferation of chatter that includes Eastern Promises in discussions of a surge in Hollywood violence, masculinity is one of the most interesting issues the film raises in subtly crafted ways. The relationship between Kirill and Nikolai is represented as potentially homosexual, yet with Nikolai’s multiple motives of manipulation in every action, we are left very unsure as to their feelings for each other and their history of prospective intimacies. This mystery is counterpoint to the Father, frustrated at the queerness the London weather has induced in his son and who provides the example of being a man by raping the 14-year old prostitute his son will not (again, whether out of a moral character he at moments seems to display, out of homosexual orientations, or a combination is unclear).

Also, the “Eastern Promises.” The false promises of a better life in London that inspired Tatiana to leave her village in the first place, only to end up a mafia-property child sex worker. The multiple betrayals throughout the plot trajectory within the mafia members and associates. But especially the revelation that Nikolai is a mole working for the Russia Desk at Scotland Yard. The final scene of the film is a voice-over narration of the deceased Tatiana’s voice reading the words of her diary that refer to that promise of a better life in the West with the visual of Nikolai sitting in the restaurant, playing with his watch, thinking deeply, but on what. Now that Nikolai has the tattoos and is in a power position to be mafia king, but has spared Anna’s uncle Stipan and Tatiana’s baby (the latter for more pragmatic reasons), the last scene seems to leave open the future. To whom will Nikolai have made an Eastern Promise: the mafia that he will proceed to sabotage from not only the inside but the very top echelon; or, Scotland Yard, now that he has an opening to virtually unlimited power???

My only reservation about full laurels for the film: Cronenberg simply did not take advantage of Naomi Watts’s astonishing acting range—she was underutilized by a lack of dramatic opportunities to perform anything close to her hospital scene in 21 Grams.

Otherwise, my vote thus far for Best Picture 2007.

1 comment:

wangzi said...

And that somehow "inspired" fake watch just to acquaint from the day and the night. I don't buy it for a second. Romain Jerome acquaint some nonsense on their website about how how perpetually in the cosmos there has existed two armament angry for ascendancy in the sky alleged the sun and moon.