All the shallowness of modern mass culture began in avant-garde art 40 years ago

Andy Warhol Retrospective, London 2002

A spectator walks past Andy Warhol’s Campbells Soup Cans (1962) at the Tate Modern, London. Photograph: Sion Touhig/Getty Images

No sphere of high culture is implicated in the fall of the affluent society in the same way art is. Yesterday I commented on the resistance to melancholy, the flight from reality, that enabled art in our time to promote the fantasy of an unlimited market. Some have called the system that has now fallen “offshore capitalism”; perhaps another description is “post-modern capitalism”. In post-modern capitalism, secondary markets created a counter-reality that was unfettered by production. The economy was run like a theme park. It’s obvious how deeply involved in that daydream was the art of the last 20 years, which so gleefully rejected anything that might tie it to the slow, patient, tedious stuff of real creativity.

Drama, the novel, even cinema have all kept a safer distance from the booming monster of modern capitalism than artists did. What I want to ask now is – why? What happened? How did art become the mirror of fraud? It is not a story that starts with Damien Hirst’s diamond skull but one that goes back to the very origins of the consumer society.

After the second world war artists were steeped in history and introspection. Art has never been more serious in its view of life than it was in the era of Mark Rothko and Francis Bacon. But even as modern painting reached such heights and depths, western society was going through an epochal transformation. The power of the capitalist economies in the postwar era was unprecedented in world history. An entirely new lifestyle, that of “consumerism”, was born.

Consumerism instantly inspired artists. Pop art in America and Britain took the surfaces of objects, the instant appearances of the new bright world, as its subject matter. Everywhere, emotional depth in art was censored. Abstract Expressionism had to die. Art could teach people to look at the world in a new way: to embrace the cool. Pop art taught everyone to enjoy money and the mass media and 1980s post-modernism taught the same lesson again.

These emotional styles have long since been so popularised that even intelligent people accept that reality television is a form of culture and celebrities fit receptacles for our ephemeral floods of feeling. All the shallowness of modern mass culture began in avant-garde art 40 years ago. We’re Warhol’s ugly brood. Art has even fed the unsustainable appetites that are destroying the planet by constantly telling everyone cities are better than the countryside, culture more real than nature. It has become the enemy of truth, the murderer of decency.

The modern world has screwed itself and art led the way.



2 days ago by Maryanne Lee

Singapore has never been known for games.We are well renowned as a country that prizes academic qualifications and material possessions over the less tangible things in life. Engaging on volunteer work to get our children into ‘better’ schools; aspiring towards a condominium, country club membership and a car; even picking paper over professionalism when it comes to jobs.

It is not often that a Singaporean is lauded for his or her achievements that aren’t financially or academically oriented.

But we’re doing that today.

Canada Cup 2011, a fighting-game tournament that is considered the equivalent of the World Cup, was held last weekend. Participants from all over the world convened in Calgary to duke it out against the finest fighting-game players in the world. Street Fighter, Marvel vs Capcom, BlazBlue, Mortal Kombat, Tekken, they played it all.

Reputations were built and torn down over the weekend. Fans of the games who weren’t able to go to Canada cheered their favourites – and their countrymen – on through the online live stream.

Singapore was no exception. From Beach Road to Bukit Batok, members of the local fighting game community gathered around computers and television screens to watch the Singapore contingent win and lose.

Team Singapore lost the international five-on-five exhibition. The crushing defeat was dealt by USA (5-1 their favour) and Europe (5-2 their favour).

But it was the same Team Singapore from whom these champions emerged:

David ‘RealDeal’ Sim combo-ed his way to a stunning first place victory in Street Figher 2: HD Remix

Leslie Cheong beat the odds to emerge overall second in Super Street Fighter 4: Arcade Edition. We’re talking about beating some of the international players here.

One might assume that these two are sponsored, paid pro-gamers like many of the US and Japanese players participating in the tournament. In reality, they’re no different from any average Singaporean picked off the street.

David holds a full time job, while Leslie is a full time national serviceman. All the practice they get is from their local arcade in Bugis, where the skilled players only emerge during the weekends. Many of the players they had to face on their tournament conquests included world-famous, sponsored players who draw a salary from fine-tuning their game day in, day out.

But they beat them anyway.

Asked local player Soon Yong, who was supporting them from home: “who still thinks that Singapore is a small country and we have no local talent?” David and Leslie’s victories sparked an emotional Facebook post from Soon Yong, who passionately lauded his friends and the rest of Team Singapore.

Unfortunately, the heroes’ welcome for David, Leslie and the rest of their team will be limited to one held by a small clique of gamers. eSports, or competitive gaming, is not something that holds clout with Singaporeans, and only their friends will greet them at Changi Airport, unlike when the Singaporean table tennis contingent returned from overseas.

Is it time for Singapore to step up?

Many professional gamers feel it is. Earlier in the year, competitive Fifa player Aeriel ‘Flash.Xtr3me3’ Phirkhan wrote an impassioned note on Facebook that caught the attention of the entire gaming landscape. In it, he asked for the government for the support of eSports in Singapore, so that all the effort poured into their respective games can get them the recognition they rightfully deserve.

A group of older gamers, previously hailing from Unreal Tournament clan X3M, have also stepped up for future generations. In 2008, they formed Singapore’s Cybersports and Online Gaming Association, an organisation that hopes to push for more rights for local gamers. Their primary goals are to help players with school or national service commitments to get to tournaments.

Local business Rapture Gaming has also tried to do its part with the formation of the E-Sport Singapore Association. Their goal is to encourage professional growth for the eSports community and industry in Singapore by building relationships between people and organisations that are interested and involved in eSports.

In fact, support for local competitive gaming and the Singaporean eSports community seems to be mushrooming everywhere. Many gamers, competitive or not, feel that, an international win on Singapore’s behalf is still a win, whether in Street Fighter, table tennis, swimming or StarCraft II.

“People in the states have sat up and taken notice of our Singaporean players,” said Kenneth ‘Spore’ Lim, a 22 year old Singaporean and Street Fighter player studying at New York University.

“It’s time Singapore does the same.”

What do you think of our Street Fighter achievements in the Canada Cup? Is it time for more fellow Singaporeans to show awareness and support our growing influence in eSports? Let us know us through your comments.



By David Bandurski

In an interview with Southern Metropolis Daily, Han Han (韩寒), the widely popular blogger and cultural critic who doubles as a race-car driver, offers his views on China’s domestic film industry. Earlier today, the culture section ofSouthern Metropolis Daily shared portions of the interview through its official Sina Microblog account, pulling out Han Han’s choice quote on censorship.

It may be the case that the government in a country with cultural censorship no longer has to fear criticism or satire at the hands of its own creative works. But then the whole world subjects it to criticism and satire.

A portion of Han Han’s interview follows, but readers of Chinese are encouraged to read the original (and offer any pointers on our hurried translation).

Southern Metropolis Daily: Here’s a pretty cliche question, but can you talk about how you view “Lee’s Adventure” (李献计历险记)? Did you buy a ticket and see it? What kind of score do you give this film?

Han Han: This is a really tough question to answer. I bought a ticket at the theater to watch it, and before it came out I really wanted to see it. But during the first few days it was out I was racing, and there weren’t any theaters where I was. This is a film with the potential to become really great, but it falls short. I feel like the film actually could be made into three separate films. The first would be a fully animated “Lee’s Adventure,” nothing but animation; the second would be a youth film called “Lee’s Adventure”; and the third would be “Lee’s Adventure” the romantic adventure story. When all three of these are all put together, added to the narration bits that have a really distinct Beijing quality, a really sincere film with everything there falls a bit flat. But it’s still worth going to the theater and buying a ticket to see.

Southern Metropolis Daily: In the past you’ve commented on and graded a number of films, from “On His Majesty’s Secret Service” (大内密探零零狗) to “Founding of the Republic” (建国大业) and “Confucius” (孔子). You tend not to pull your punches. But lately you’ve not said very little about domestically-made films (国产电影), and we’ve not seen you scolding them much either. Is this because you’ve simply lost hope, or because you now know too many people in the industry and feel bad about being too critical? Can you talk about what films you’ve seen this year on your own dime that have really made a deep impression on you?

Han Han: I’ve not had contact with too many people in the film industry. It’s just that film criticism is something I’ve done in my spare time. I’ve not seen many good domestic films this year. “The Piano in a Factory” (钢的琴) was one, and while the part imitating Yugoslavian film and the totally unnecessary song and dance was a bit affected, the principal male character and the director held it together. “Lee’s Adventure” was another. Both films were filmed in a very lofty style, but both fortunately came back down to earth. Both films pushed hard to be moving and tragic but ultimately failed the audience.

Southern Metropolis Daily: Hong Huang (洪晃) once said that China doesn’t have independent film critics and needs more Han Hans. What did you think after hearing that? You’re not a film critic by trade, but many people (including the one sitting next to you right now) would read your reviews and weight them as they considered whether or not to go and see a film. Does knowing that make you more cautious in reviewing films?

Han Han: I do feel some caution about it. Every film, even the totally stupid ones, are the product of a lot of work and at the very least mean a whole crew has to get up early every day for three months. So sometimes I don’t have the heart [to be too critical]. I’m not saying though that work and effort are necessarily a good thing and should earn forgiveness. After all, killing and plundering, robbing and looting, are all a lot of hard work too. The efforts of others can’t become an excuse for forgiving [mediocrity].

Southern Metropolis Daily: You’ve started becoming involved with films in various ways, and sometimes you can be seen “standing up” for certain films. So are you planning to throw your strength in with filmmaking, or is this just out of friendship? And what if it’s you who are criticized once these films hit the screen?

Han Han: Basically it’s out of friendship, but these are all people I’ve picked out as people I can trust. I’m a pretty thin-skinned and soft-hearted person, but when I come across idiots my skin still thickens right up and my heart grows hard. So these are basically friends that I know won’t let me down. Fortunately, I don’t know that many. So I can preserve my independence.

Southern Metropolis Daily: You once had a director fire back at you, saying if you know so much about film why don’t you try making one yourself? You’ve talked before about how you have played with the idea of directing. So why have you not started? These past couple of years, film has been hot, and the money has flowed. On the surface, it seems to be flourishing, with box office numbers breaking hundreds of millions. Do you think there is a higher proportion of good films on the silver screen today?

Han Han: Films aren’t the work of a single person. If a film can’t make it into theaters, there’s no way I can face my investors and partners. The film market is flourishing, but it’s even harder to make decent films in China. The quality of Hong Kong films has been pulled lower as cooperation has been sought [with mainland film partners to reach both markets]. The film censorship system means current material [relating to life today] is avoided altogether. And many people who really should be in the field of television drama, or telemarketing for that matter, have entered the film industry — all of these are reasons the quality of filmmaking has gone down.

Southern Metropolis Daily: Do you think the film censorship system is the chief reason we have so many bad Chinese films?

Han Han: It’s an extremely important reason. When I was writing my book I found myself self-censoring, taking a lot of content out myself. And then the editor would take out more. This is even more the case with film. It may be the case that the government in a country with cultural censorship no longer has to fear criticism or satire at the hands of its own creative works. But then the whole world subjects it to criticism and satire.


October 27, 2011, Posted by Richard Brody


What we, thanks to Andrew Sarris, call the “auteur theory” was called by its French proponents (the young critics at Cahiers du Cinéma who would become the New Wave filmmakers) the “politique des auteurs”—not a theory but a policy, or even a “politics.” Jean-Luc Godard has said that people talk about the auteurs and forget to mention the politique; here’s how Godard described the politique to me when I interviewed him in 2000:


We saw that we had to continue the Resistance against a certain type of occupation of the cinema by people who had no business being there. Including, at times, three-quarters of the French [directors].


They were seeking, by means of criticism, to clear space—practical and intellectual—for themselves in the world of filmmaking. They were both pushing their way into the French film industry in order to take it over, and they were priming the public, and critics, to watch the films they’d eventually make. (I’ve written in my book about how it was, ultimately, actual politics—the 1981 election of François Mitterrand, a Socialist, as President of France—that brought about the New Wave’s definitive centrality to the institutions of the French cinema.) This is a circuitous way of saying that criticism—like most public affairs—is not just a matter of ideas but also of power. It’s not an accident that the habitual critical vocabulary calls works of art “powerful,” “convincing,” even “compelling”; criticism, like art, doesn’t seek to describe the world but to change it, and, in considering the legacy of a critic, it’s worth considering the nature of the changes it involves.

Pauline Kael and her legacy have been the subject of a great deal of recent discussion, owing to the publication of Brian Kellow’s biography of Pauline KaelJames Wolcott’s memoir (in which Kael figures), and the Library of America selection of Kael’s writings (a trio of books that Nathan Heller reviewed in the magazine). I’ve been calling particular attention to the question of her judgment and taste, but I think it’s also important to consider the political aspect of her career; it’s one of the things I was most eagerly anticipating in Kellow’s biography, and I think that the book somewhat glosses over it. Kellow doesn’t present a sufficiently detailed portrait of Kael’s relationships with younger critics or a sufficient consideration of those relationships as a circle; there’s little about the discussions that took place, the inductions and exclusions, the rivalries and the alliances, the helping and the hindrance, the desire to use her influence to place friends and allies at other publications.

One of the most remarkable and salient aspects of Kael’s career is that she didn’t get a position worthy of her talent (with her hiring at this magazine) until she was almost fifty. By then she had, as Kellow makes clear, known plenty of turbulence and plenty of scuffling, and it’s worth considering that she was self-consciously building herself a fortress of allies and disciples who could serve as a strike force against her detractors and could, in case of disaster, insure an easy landing. Unless, of course, she was just doing what people tend to do everywhere—to help those they like and admire and to foster the talent of up-and-comers they feel in sync with. In any case, Kellow, in his biography, doesn’t go very far into the matter. It would have been of interest from several perspectives—intrinsic interest in Kael’s own activity as it connected with her critical point of view and with her view of the purpose of criticism, as well as how the critical landscape was (and, to some extent, remains) shaped by her influence.

It’s interesting to contrast it with the story of André Bazin, who, as the editor of Cahiers du Cinéma, brought in (or let his colleague Eric Rohmer, also an editor there, bring in) the brilliant and passionate young crew of auteurists with whom he openly disagreed—and let them disagree with him openly and vigorously in the pages of the magazine itself. For instance, Godard’s 1952 review of “Strangers on a Train” concludes with a note stating that “the reader will have noticed that all the points of this article are aimed against the editors-in-chief”—in particular, against Bazin, who was a well-known detractor of Hitchcock. Godard aimed barbs at Bazin on the subject of Bazin’s championing of long takes in lieu of editing, and, in 1956, the magazine featured the two of them in a pro-and-con pair of articles—Bazin’s was titled, “Montage Interdit” [Montage Forbidden]; Godard’s is called “Montage, mon beau souci” [Montage, My Fine Care].

Two critics. One influenced the future of criticism; the other influenced the future of the cinema.

Richard Brody

Richard Brody is the movies editor for Goings On About Town and the author of “Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard.”



Jeffrey D. Sachs, Project Syndicate, New York | Thu, 11/03/2011 7:26 AM

The past half-century has been the age of electronic mass media. Television has reshaped society in every corner of the world. Now, an explosion of new media devices is joining the TV set: DVDs, computers, game boxes, smartphones, and more. A growing body of evidence suggests that this media proliferation has countless ill effects.

The United States led the world into the television age, and the implications can be seen most directly in America’s long love affair with what Harlan Ellison memorably called “the glass teat.” In 1950, fewer than 8 percent of American households owned a TV; by 1960, 90 percent had one. That level of penetration took decades longer to achieve elsewhere, and the poorest countries are still not there.

True to form, Americans became the greatest TV watchers, which is probably still true today, even though the data are somewhat sketchy and incomplete. The best evidence suggests that Americans watch more than five hours per day of television on average — a staggering amount, given that several hours more are spent in front of other video-streaming devices. Other countries log far fewer viewing hours. In Scandinavia, for example, time spent watching TV is roughly half the US average.

The consequences for American society are profound, troubling, and a warning to the world — though it probably comes far too late to be heeded. First, heavy TV viewing brings little pleasure. Many surveys show that it is almost like an addiction, with a short-term benefit leading to long-term unhappiness and remorse. Such viewers say that they would prefer to watch less than they do.

Moreover, heavy TV viewing has contributed to social fragmentation. Time that used to be spent together in the community is now spent alone in front of the screen. Robert Putnam, the leading scholar of America’s declining sense of community, has found that TV viewing is the central explanation of the decline of “social capital,” the trust that binds communities together. Americans simply trust each other less than they did a generation ago. Of course, many other factors are at work, but television-driven social atomization should not be understated.

Certainly, heavy TV viewing is bad for one’s physical and mental health. Americans lead the world in obesity, with roughly two-thirds of the US population now overweight. Again, many factors underlie this, including a diet of cheap, unhealthy fried foods, but the sedentary time spent in front of the TV is an important influence as well.

At the same time, what happens mentally is as important as what happens physically. Television and related media have been the greatest purveyors and conveyors of corporate and political propaganda in society.

America’s TV ownership is almost entirely in private hands, and owners make much of their money through relentless advertising. Effective advertising campaigns, appealing to unconscious urges — typically related to food, sex, and status — create cravings for products and purchases that have little real value for consumers or society.

The same, of course, has happened to politics. American politicians are now brand names, packaged like breakfast cereal. Anybody — and any idea — can be sold with a bright ribbon and a catchy jingle.

All roads to power in America lead through TV, and all access to TV depends on big money. This simple logic has put American politics in the hands of the rich as never before.

Even war can be rolled out as a new product. The Bush administration promoted the premises of the Iraq war — Saddam Hussein’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction — in the familiar colorful, fast-paced, and graphics-heavy style of television advertising. Then the war itself began with the so-called “shock and awe” bombing of Baghdad — a made-for-TV live spectacle aimed at ensuring high ratings for the US-led invasion.

Many neuroscientists believe that the mental-health effects of TV viewing might run even deeper than addiction, consumerism, loss of social trust, and political propaganda. Perhaps TV is rewiring heavy viewers’ brains and impairing their cognitive capacities.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recently warned that TV viewing by young children is dangerous for their brain development, and called on parents to keep children under two away from the TV and similar media.

A recent survey in the US by the organization Common Sense Media reveals a paradox, but one that is perfectly understandable. Children in poor American households today not only watch more TV than children in wealthy households, but are also more likely to have a television in their room. When a commodity’s consumption falls as income rises, economists call it an “inferior” good.

To be sure, the mass media can be useful as a provider of information, education, entertainment, and even political awareness. But too much of it is confronting us with dangers that we need to avoid.

At the very least, we can minimize those dangers. Successful approaches around the world include limits on TV advertising, especially to young children; non-commercial, publicly-owned TV networks like the BBC; and free (but limited) TV time for political campaigns.

Of course, the best defense is our own self-control. We can all leave the TV off more hours per day and spend that time reading, talking with each other, and rebuilding the bases of personal health and social trust.

The writer is Professor of Economics and Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. He is also Special Adviser to United Nations Secretary-General on the Millennium Development Goals.


Five years ago, a relatively unknown (and unhinged) director began one of the wildest experiments in film history. Armed with total creative control, he invaded a Ukrainian city, marshaled a cast of thousands and thousands, and constructed a totalitarian society in which the cameras are always rolling and the actors never go home

November 2011

The rumors started seeping out of Ukraine about three years ago: A young Russian film director has holed up on the outskirts of Kharkov, a town of 1.4 million in the country’s east, making…something. A movie, sure, but not just that. If the gossip was to be believed, this was the most expansive, complicated, all-consuming film project ever attempted.

A steady stream of former extras and fired PAs talked of the shoot in terms usually reserved for survivalist camps. The director, Ilya Khrzhanovsky, was a madman who forced the crew to dress in Stalin-era clothes, fed them Soviet food out of cans and tins, and paid them in Soviet money. Others said the project was a cult and everyone involved worked for free. Khrzhanovsky had taken over all of Kharkov, they said, shutting down the airport. No, no, others insisted, the entire thing was a prison experiment, perhaps filmed surreptitiously by hidden cameras. Film critic Stanislav Zelvensky blogged that he expected “heads on spikes” around the encampment.

I have ample time and incentive to rerun these snatches of gossip in my head as my rickety Saab prop plane makes its jittery approach to Kharkov. Another terrible minute later, it’s rolling down an overgrown airfield between rusting husks of Aeroflot planes grounded by the empire’s fall. The airport isn’t much, but at least it hasn’t been taken over by the film. And while my cab driver knows all about the shoot—the production borrowed his friend’s vintage car, he brags without prompting—he doesn’t seem to be in the director’s thrall or employ.

I’m about to write the rumors off as idle blog chatter when I get to the film’s compound itself and, again, find myself ready to believe anything. The set, seen from the outside, is an enormous wooden box jutting directly out of a three-story brick building that houses the film’s vast offices, workshops, and prop warehouses. The wardrobe department alone takes up the entire basement. Here, a pair of twins order me out of my clothes and into a 1950s three-piece suit complete with sock garters, pants that go up to the navel, a fedora, two bricklike brown shoes, an undershirt, and boxers. Black, itchy, and unspeakably ugly, the underwear is enough to trigger Proustian recall of the worst kind in anyone who’s spent any time in the USSR. (I lived in Latvia through high school.) Seventy years of quotidian misery held with one waistband.

One of the film’s 210,000 extras.

The twins, Olya and Lena, see nothing unusual about this hazing ritual for a reporter who’s not going to appear in a single shot of the film—just like they see nothing unusual in the fact that the cameras haven’t rolled for more than a month. After all, the film, tentatively titled Dau, has been in production since 2006 and won’t wrap until 2012, if ever. But within the walls of the set, for the 300 people working on the project—including the fifty or so who live in costume, in character—there is no difference between “on” and “off.”

One of the twins admiringly touches my head. Before coming to wardrobe, I’d stopped in hair and makeup. My nape and temples are now shaved clean in an approximation of an old hairstyle called a half-box. All to help me blend in on the set. Only, from here on, I can no longer call it that. According to a glossary of forbidden terms posted right in front of me on the wall, the set is to be referred to as the Institute. Likewise, inside the Institute, there are no scenes, just experiments. No shooting, only documentation. And there is certainly no director. Instead, Ilya Khrzhanovsky, the man responsible for this madness, is to be referred to as the Head of the Institute or simply the Boss.

Khrzhanovsky greets me in wardrobe dressed in a black vest over a dark gray shirt, tousled 1950s hair, and decadeless Ray-Bans with a strong prescription. He leads me down one of the endless hallways of the Dau compound to the Institute and, en route, spots a female extra being made up in one of the many makeup rooms.

“Tear off her eyelashes,” he says without breaking stride. “She looks like an intellectual whore.”

“Well, that was the idea!” the makeup artist yells to his back.

“Sure,” says Khrzhanovsky, pivoting on one heel like an ice dancer. “But try to make her look less whorish. Impossible, I know.”

A few moments later we reach a passageway between worlds: the door connecting the film’s modern production offices, where people are free to eat junk food and peck at laptops, with the time warp of the Institute. A silent guard observes my typewritten pass bearing the Soviet hammer and sickle and date-stamped April 28, 1952. Another frisks Khrzhanovsky, without betraying any deference or even recognition. After a security wand roughly passes over my back—a cell phone; sorry, can’t have that inside—I finally step through the door and onto the set. I’ve heard the tales and seen some pictures. I still gasp.

Before me is an entire city, built to scale, open to the elements, and—at 1 a.m. and with no camera in sight—fully populated. Two guards walk the perimeter, gravel crunching under their boots. Down the fake street, a female janitor in a vintage head scarf sweeps a porch.

The set is roughly the size of two football fields, surrounded by a five-story fantasia of oppressive architecture. One edifice, a woozy take on Lenin’s tomb, has an irregular ziggurat leading up to it. A coliseum-like stadium looms over two drab residential buildings. Atonal cello music squalls across the city, issuing from pole-mounted loudspeakers. The sole purpose of it seems to be to make one tense, uncomfortable, on edge.

“Are you going to augment the city with CGI later?” I ask, just to ask something.

Khrzhanovsky jumps in place and winces. “See, if one of the guards heard you, he would fine me a thousand hryvnias [about $125],” he says. “Because you’re my guest. It doesn’t matter that I am the boss. I get frisked like everyone else. You can’t use words that have no meaning in this world.”

“Like CGI?”

“Now he would fine me twice.”

The fine system is the Institute’s latest innovation. Khrzhanovsky decreed it a few months ago, fed up with staffers smuggling cell phones and talking about Facebook. Other finable offenses include tardiness, which costs a whole day’s pay, and failure to renew the fake Institute pass. The program has been a hit. Not only has morale improved, a whole new euphemistic vocabulary has sprouted up. (“Google” is now “Pravda,” as in “Pravda it.”) The fine system has also fostered a robust culture of snitching. “In a totalitarian regime, mechanisms of suppression trigger mechanisms of betrayal,” the director explains. “I am very interested in that.”

Khrzhanovsky throws open the front door of one of the residential buildings, and here I gasp again. The guts of the set are as elaborate as the set itself. There are hallways that lead to apartments, and in the apartments there are kitchens, and in the iceboxes food, fresh and perfectly edible but with 1952 expiration dates. Again and again, Khrzhanovsky opens cupboards, drawers, closets, showing me matchboxes, candles, loofahs, books, salami, handkerchiefs, soap bars, cotton balls, condensed milk, pâté. He proudly flushes at least three toilets. “The toilet pipe is custom width,” he says, “because it makes a difference in the volume and the tenor of the flushing sound.” He looks completely, utterly delighted.



Khrzhanovsky came up with the idea of the Institute not long after preproduction on Dau began in 2006. He wanted a space where he could elicit the needed emotions from his cast in controlled conditions, twenty-four hours a day. The set would be a panopticon. Microphones would hide in lighting fixtures (as they would in many a lamp in Stalin’s USSR), allowing Khrzhanovsky to shoot with multiple film cameras from practically anywhere—through windows, skylights, and two-way mirrors.

The Institute’s ostensible goal was to re-create ’50s and ’60s Moscow, home to Dau‘s subject, Lev Landau. A Nobel Prize–winning physicist, Landau significantly advanced quantum mechanics with his theories of diamagnetism, superfluidity, and superconductivity. He also tapped epic amounts of ass. Landau’s views on sex and marriage anticipated the Summer of Love by decades. (He and his wife, Kora, lived in an open arrangement he called a “spousal nonaggression act.”) His life, ready-made for a biopic, received a nightmarish final act after he crashed his car near Moscow in 1962. The physicist spent two months in a coma. The Nobel Prize ceremony was moved to his bedside.

Before reading about Landau, Khrzhanovsky didn’t know a thing about physics, but the story, with its rich currents of sex, genius, and doom, mesmerized him. He promptly formed a production company with the express purpose of bringing Landau’s life to the screen. Around the same time, his first feature film, a Béla Tarr–like fever dream called 4, won a surprise victory at the Rotterdam film festival, and, based on that success, Khrzhanovsky negotiated for total control on Dau. His contract with the film’s Russian and European producers gave him final cut, no deadline, and the ability to fire anyone without explanation. Most of the crew would consist of people from the art and theater worlds who had the right “energy.” The only acting professional in the cast is Radmila Shchegoleva, who plays Landau’s wife; before shooting began, she spent a full year working at a chocolate factory and a hospital, a regimen devised by Khrzhanovsky to beat the actress out of her. For the lead role, he had one stipulation: It had to be played by an actual genius, regardless of the discipline. “I needed people who would have those energy levels,” he reasons. “Geniuses to play geniuses, the powerful to play the powerful.” He ended up casting Teodor Currentzis, a lushly maned Greek pinup of a classical conductor, even though he had a busy touring schedule and his Russian was shaky at best. “All geniuses are foreigners,” Khrzhanovsky tells me cryptically.

Olya, a cafeteria worker, gets her Stalin-era makeover before going on-set.

Professional extras didn’t suit Khrzhanovsky either; instead, a team of photographers roamed the streets of three cities looking for fresh faces. Their efforts resulted in a database of 210,000 candidates. When the cameras aren’t rolling, this is all Dau‘s costume and makeup departments do: process extras. Fifty a day, day in and day out. Each one gets costumed, made up, photographed four ways, and—Khrzhanovsky’s idea—videotaped answering the questions “What does happiness mean to you?” and “What do you live for?” It’s hard to say whether this is busywork to stay sane between bouts of actual filming or genuine work. One by one, the director’s cohorts take offense when I ask them this. Attempting to distinguish between the film’s photography and everything else that goes on around the set, I am told, is a “philistine,” “cynical,” and finally “American” thing to do.

From the beginning, Khrzhanovsky knew he was doing something crazy. “Taken one by one, all these details are pure delirium,” he told me on my first night, fanning out a stack of crisp prop rubles with Lenin portraits, each note individually numbered. “Taken together, however, they create an otherwise unachievable depth. When you get paid in this money, and you know it has buying power and an exchange rate, you start treating it differently when the cameras are on. When the cleaning lady had to mop the same toilet floor every day for two years, she will do it differently when she’s doing it on-camera.”

Life on the project has a way of sucking people in. Since 2008, more than a few crew members stopped pretending this was a temporary gig and have moved to Kharkov. Most are fresh out of film school, but several have left behind serious careers. Some moved their families to Kharkov. Others started new families right here. Anton, a sad-eyed, bearded young man who minds the project’s database of extras, has spent two and a half years on the project. His wife, whom he met here, had given birth two weeks before I arrived.

People come and go in disorienting waves. When Khrzhanovsky likes someone—more often than not a young woman—he offers them money and an important-sounding title at once. When someone rubs him the wrong way, he fires them midshot. Sveta, the film’s comely “executive producer,” came here two years ago to interview Khrzhanovsky for a book on young Russian directors and stayed, divorcing her husband soon after. When I meet her, Sveta has just returned from a ten-day trip to Warsaw—the longest she’s been away from the set since moving here. “I had to go see my parents,” Sveta says, sounding irked. “It is sooo good to be back.”



In a way, Khrzhanovsky’s life story mirrors that of his subject, with its mix of the lofty and the louche. His father is a well-known animation director, his grandfather was a famous painter. The young Khrzhanovsky grew up with a direct line to the best in Russian art and culture. “I was a late child, so I mostly interacted with my parents’ friends,” he says. “Those interactions shaped me.” As he openly volunteers, he lost his virginity at 13. A few short years later, he was a dedicated club kid and one of Moscow’s premier pickup artists. The legends of his exploits still make for party-chat fodder. One friend recalls the 16-year-old Ilya approaching strange women, on a dare or a bet, and saying in his soft voice, “Come suck me off in the bathroom.” (It somehow sounds even worse in Russian.) And they would. Some of them, anyway. Khrzhanovsky hit on everyone. It cost him friendships. But it also got him laid, again and again. “His main driving force in life is crippling, animal lust,” one Moscow friend says. To his male peers, Khrzhanovsky’s sex appeal seemed incomprehensible, a cosmic joke: He was a slight and homely Jewish boy, given to wearing terrible crushed-velvet jackets. Round glasses dominated his round baby face; you could draw a decent likeness of him using nothing but circles. It was obvious, though, that Khrzhanovsky possessed an unruly magnetism.

For someone so clearly questing after control and adulation, Dau was the best thing that could possibly happen. Building the Institute gave Khrzhanovsky more than a film to shoot. It made him king, with all the kingly prerogatives—like picking his court. A typical case is Yulia, a wispy, beautiful graduate of a prestigious directing workshop who was brought to Kharkov to interview for one of Khrzhanovsky’s seemingly limitless “assistant director” jobs. What her duties would be remained unclear. Once at the compound, Yulia waited for over six hours; finally the director showed up. “Hi,” said Yulia, “I’ve been waiting for you the whole day.” “Thank you,” answered Khrzhanovsky, “I’ve been waiting for you my whole life.”

They had a two-hour conversation about art, after which she was sent to the wardrobe department to be dressed in 1952 garb. (“Make her a beauty,” ordered Khrzhanovsky.) The hairdo alone took two hours. Finally, by 1 a.m., Yulia was shown the set.

There they talked for two hours more, until 3 a.m., this time in private. The questioning quickly switched from art to sex. When did you lose your virginity? Can you come up to a guy in a club and fuck him without finding out as much as his name? Are any of your friends whores? (“I couldn’t understand whether he meant professionals or just slutty,” Yulia says. “By that time, I was well into my second sleepless night. I just wanted it all over with so I could go to sleep.”)

The director wouldn’t make an actual move—that wasn’t his style—but clearly expected her to throw herself at him. “When I got out,” remembers Yulia, “everyone was like, ‘Did he ask you about sleeping with other women?’ That seemed to be an important part of his interview process.” In the morning, when she saw Khrzhanovsky, she started uncontrollably shaking with disgust. Soon after, an assistant curtly told her to leave: “You and Ilya have very differing outlooks on life.”

People like Yulia number in the many dozens. Some lasted a day, others a month. Some say they’d happily work with Khrzhanovsky again, others claim something akin to PTSD. “It’s almost slavery,” writes one former crew member in a blog. “But Ilya managed to make everyone think they were part of something truly great.” “Working here,” notes another, “is like being that guy who wanted to be killed and eaten, and finding a maniac who wants to kill and eat you. Perfect reciprocity.”



A day into my stay at the Institute, I begin to feel its pull. The repeating rituals of dressing up and passing the checkpoint lose their absurdity and become something like a fact of life. A reminder of the outside world arrives that morning in the rotund shape of the GQ photographer. He is a squat bearded man named Sergey, fizzing with cynical mirth. He’s shot everyone from Putin to Castro. Right away there’s trouble. Sergey’s modern camera will not be allowed inside unless it’s covered with some sort of period-appropriate cloth: leatherette, linen, burlap. Four hours pass while a workshop fashions a black skirt for the camera. Sergey simmers. This is his hazing stage, like my haircut. When we meet Khrzhanovsky, I find out just how much of a panopticon the set is. Everyone I had talked to on the first day has ratted me out to the boss. The twins mentioned that I had qualms about the costume. Another employee reported that I showed little interest in mood boards—one of which catalogs hundreds of Soviet manhole covers. Khrzhanovsky, taking visible pleasure in the situation, casually lets me know that he has been duly alerted. “You must be interested in the same things everyone else is,” he says derisively. “How much money I have spent, and when will I be done.”

There is even worse friction between Khrzhanovsky and Sergey. Once inside, Sergey refuses to take the rules seriously; forbidden words—”shoot,” “scene,” “lighting,” “makeup”—fly out of his mouth by the dozen. I suddenly realize that each of his anachronisms is making me cringe. Less than twelve hours at the Institute and I’ve already accepted the rules of someone else’s game.

Our program for today is a dinner at the Institute’s fully functioning cafeteria and a tour of the physics laboratories. As befits our status as guests of a totalitarian state, Sergey and I are surrounded by minders and stoolies every step of the way. At the cafeteria, we find an oasis of Commie opulence—period-accurate sweets, Soviet versions of Roquefort and Swiss cheese, and a lovely counter girl named Olya. Olya has been living here “since 1949,” a pat answer everyone gives this week; in reality, she’s been on the set for four months. She works at the cafeteria from noon to 10 p.m. and spends the rest of her time in a communal apartment she shares with a “physicist” named Konstantin. On what I imagine is Khrzhanovsky’s signal, she invites us over later that night. Outside for a quick Soviet cigarette, far from the director’s gaze, Olya doesn’t let the facade crack for a second. “Do you want to be an actress?” I ask. “What? No! I want to be a scientist.”

At Olya’s on-set apartment, the party starts around midnight and consists of Olya, Konstantin, Khrzhanovsky, his two female aides, Sergey, and me. For two incredibly awkward hours, we make stilted 1952 talk. Sergey has a trove of photographer’s war stories, all wildly anachronistic (“When I was in North Korea…the north part of Korea, I mean”). Sometimes all of us—including Khrzhanovsky—crack up, and sometimes we don’t; Olya holds the facade the best. When the vodka bottle is empty, Olya pulls me aside and shows me her room, with a lonely cactus and a nightgown thrown over the narrow bed just so. It’s an intensely erotic and odd moment, this tiny pet showing off her cage. She asks me to write in her journal, and I scribble four rhyming lines in English. Pleased, she invites me to come back and see her tomorrow. Alone. This is a setup, the crudest and most obvious setup of all. And against all reason—there is a microphone in the ceiling, for fuck’s sake—I consider it. For a second. The cello blares from the outside.

“Doesn’t it drive you mad? This constant music?”

“No, I like it. Sometimes I even sleep with windows open.”

Of course you do.



Clearly, Khrzhanovsky is not the first filmmaker to go off the cinematic deep end. The Runaway Film Shoot is, by now, a staple of cinematic lore. Without the occasional director growing a beard and heading into the jungle, our relationship with the movies would be poorer: We need these stories to remind us that film is art, after all, and can drive its creator to madness. Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now shoot lasted only 238 days—mere moments compared to Dau‘s. Kubrick had Cruise and Kidman sequestered for fifteen months for Eyes Wide ShutDau, by comparison, is entering its sixth year; the money well has run dry several times. Each time, Khrzhanovsky managed to sweet-talk another investor into adding more, ending up with a salad of money from Russia, Ukraine, France, Germany, and Switzerland.

The director himself told me the project is 80 percent done. He even permitted me to watch about an hour of its raw footage, in a room under the set reachable only via a staircase from his office. The bunker featured a digital editing bay and a caged live dog. What I watched was a vertiginous mix of avant-garde sensibilities, Hollywood sweep, and reality-show techniques. One sequence, a riot at a train station, looked like Michael Bay crossed with Hieronymus Bosch—a long, tightly choreographed journey through a massive crowd in tumultuous motion. Another piece was a forty-minute-long improvised squabble between Landau and his wife. The film that will someday emerge from this footage can be anything—a great historical epic or a tedious tone poem—or nothing at all. Because Dau is not just a runaway shoot. It’s a shoot running away from itself: the first film project in history whose director doesn’t seem to want to make a movie. “What’s going to happen to the set after the shooting is over?” I asked Khrzhanovsky once, and watched him plunge into an instant funk. “I don’t know,” he said, caressing a faux-marble wall of the cafeteria. “Right now, shooting is the only thing that justifies the enormous costs of keeping it up. I don’t know what to do later.”



By my third day on the set, the dress-up no longer feels like dress-up. I expertly tug on my suspenders, work the cuff links into place, and head in: I have signed up for a massage at the barbershop. This, of course, is the most seductive part of totalitarian living: Once choice has been taken away, you quickly readjust to be grateful for the little things on offer. Mmm, cheese! Classic prison mentality, and I’ve developed it after all of forty-eight hours. Khrzhanovsky stops me just as I’m about to dive into the tunnel separating the wardrobe from the set. His face is deep red, with a violet tint. He is midscream.

“I don’t give a shit about GQ, I don’t give a shit about America,” Khrzhanovsky yells. “He is asking people to pose. He is not observing life, he is staging it. And I can’t have that. My people are not puppets!” It seems that Sergey has asked to shoot Olya taking a bath. That was apparently fine. But Sergey asked her to take a bath wearing a towel as a turban. Khrzhanovsky throws himself down onto a chair and slams his fist against a lace-covered tabletop. Various underlings look on from the corners, a silent chorus.

“Olya,” he says emphatically, “does not bathe in a turban.” Khrzhanovsky takes a breath and switches to a polite half whisper. “We are ending our collaboration,” he informs me. “Let me finish, and then you can riposte in any way you see fit, not that it matters, because it’s my decision. You are, after all, on my territory. In short, please leave.”

And this is when it happens. My brain turns off with a dry click. I am halfway through my answer before I realize what I’m saying.

“I understand,” I answer calmly. “I agree completely. I am not this man’s colleague. I don’t know him. I’ve only met him yesterday. If you feel that you need him out of here, I have no objections. All I care about is the article. If you have some file photos of the set we can use, then there is no need for the photographer.” Yes, I have been reduced—in all of two days—to a sniveling Soviet stukach, a snitch. It was the suit. The boxer shorts, they did it to me. The cafeteria food. Something.

Suddenly, Khrzhanovsky grins. So do I. This is an extremely strange moment. We both know what happened. He gave me a carefully crafted self-portrait of a tyrannical genius. I gave him the satisfaction of seeing my total self-abasement. We’re even.

With nothing left to say, I put on my fedora, flash my pass to the perspiring guard, and walk out into the April sunshine. There’s an hour left before my massage appointment. I’ll just take a walk around the Institute, then. Maybe visit Olya. To my right, a guard is reporting on another guard to a third guard. To my left, a hunched-over janitor monotonously sweeps a patch of gravel in wide arcs, changing nothing in its appearance, just sweeping to sweep, like he did yesterday and will, I am reasonably sure, do tomorrow.

Michael Idov wrote about Alex Ovechkin in the November 2010 issue of GQ.


By Naseem Randhawa | From Cinema Online Exclusively for Yahoo! Newsroom – Mon, Oct 17, 2011 5:44 PM SGT

17 Oct – Former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s criticism of local horror films corrupting Malaysian society had generated enough controversy that now the Malaysian Film Producers Association (PFM), held a press conference to speak on their behalf to defend against the accusations, according to a report by The Daily Chilli’s website.

The controversy arose a few days ago when Tun Mahathir was quoted as saying “The prevalence of ghost stories was responsible for the hysteria attacks among Malay female students”

Shortly after, the National Fatwa Council went on to describe local horror films as “counter-productive to building a developed society, especially among Muslims because they encouraged a belief in mythical beings.”

This in turn led the Malaysian Film Producers Association (PFM) that saw speakers comprising of local filmmakers Shuhaimi Baba, Ahmad Idham, Norman KRU and Pasha, to counter those claims.

“With due respect to Tun Mahathir, it’s not fair to blame horror films for any social problems that we have,” director-producer Ahmad Idham was quoted as saying to defend his films who have been accused of glorifying the ‘mat rempit’ (‘illegal racer’) subculture and the mocking of Quranic verses in his latest movie “Hantu Bonceng”.

“Some people are more easily affected by horror films, but that does not mean film-makers should be blamed for their fears,” he added. “Some horror films might even end up reinforcing audiences’ faith. Malay horror films, especially, advocated the Quran and Islam as a means of fighting evil.”

Filmmaker Shuhaimi Baba then added that she believed there are attempts by several “powerful groups” who are eyeing to sanction horror films in Malaysia.

The director of “Pontiank Harum Sundal Malam” said, “We need to correct the wrong perceptions of local horror films. This genre can attract a lot of investment and has good export potential for our country.”

The group concluded that PFM would be meeting with Tun Mahathir, Finas and the Malaysian Censorship Board to talk and said “Why blame us when we have so many imported, more horrifying films from Hollywood, Korea, Japan and Thailand?” “Our local horror films are mainly comedy horrors anyway. Like “Hantu Bonceng”, “Ngangkung and “Hantu Kak Limah Balik Rumah”. Real horror films don’t do well at the Malaysian box office,” she added.