Saturday, 17 January 2015

Characters in Search of an Author

Andrei Zvyagintsev's film Leviathan employs a number of familiar Russian tropes: the bleak but beautiful environment; the lure of Moscow; the pettiness of rural tyranny; the farce of bureaucracy; the hypocrisy of religion; the punishing seriousness of drink; the impossibility of doing right. This hyper-Russianness has caused the film political problems at home, where after initial support by the Ministry of Culture it has been branded unpatriotic and offensive, while its foreign reception has focused too much on the supposedly looming presence of Vladimir Putin, who is actually no more prominent than the brief and oblique references to Pussy Riot. Though it is an openly political film, in the widest sense of that word, narrow politics is in danger of obscuring the art.

I suspect the change in the attitude of Russian officialdom, ahead of its delayed general release in the country (with the swearwords cut, due to a recent blasphemy law), owes much to the inflection of the film's interpretation abroad. That interpretation was always going to biased by the traditional Western image of Russia, which assumes that the "existential despair" the Minster of Culture complained of is as common as borscht, that the state is both vicious and incompetent (banning transgender drivers), and that Russian culture is dominated by dissident weirdness (recreating the Eye of Sauron) and self-consciously theatrical politics. In fact the film is far more universal in its analysis of defeat, and angry rather than despairing. Zvyagintsev insists it is based on a true story about a planning dispute in the USA, and given this week's arson attacks in South Oxfordshire, I can quite believe it. What has coloured the reaction, first in the West and then in Russia, is the "new Cold War" vibe.

The setting is the far north west, near Murmansk - a bleak tundra coastline of weak sunshine and roaring waves, with the wrecks of old boats and the bones of a whale embedded in the white sand. The story centres on the age-old and ultra-modern issue of property rights. Kolya repairs cars and trucks for a living, often as a favour to his mates in the Traffic Police. He lives with Lilya, a Chekhovian heroine who works in a fish factory, and Roma, his truculent teenage son from an earlier marriage. His self-built home, overlooking a bay, is being compulsorily-purchased by the council, headed by the outrageously corrupt Vadim, for a derisory sum. Kolya suspects Vadim intends to build a mansion in its place. He calls in his old army buddy, Dima, now a smooth Moscow lawyer, to help secure adequate compensation. Dima proposes the threat of blackmail, exposing Vadim's corrupt practices to more powerful officials in the "vertical", rather than the angry confrontation that is Kolya's default setting. Everyone drinks, and criticises the drinking of others.

As the Hobbesian title makes clear, this is a tale about authority, but the twist on the standard cinematic treatment of the subject is that these are characters in search of it, rather than rebelling against it. Kolya seeks justice from the state, Vadim seeks sanction from the church, while Roma both wants and rejects his father's authority. The tragedy stems from the refusal of those who are offered a position of authority to accept it: "I am not your confessor". This is because authority entails moral responsibility, and none of the characters can bear that burden. Instead they make do with naked power, from physical abuse to institutional corruption, or they submit to that power and exploit the limited opportunities that come their way. The cold air hums with the threat of violence and betrayal, as well as the music of Philip Glass's Akhnaten (another tale of authority).

Leviathan provides an interesting contrast with the year's other "foreign" film hit, Ida, which is also in the running for the Oscars. Pawel Pawlikowski's beautifully shot monochrome film also explored the themes of church and state, justice and betrayal, self-sacrifice and escape. There is less drinking, but a lot of smoking, and jazz. In the Poland of the early 1960s, the violence is historic and authority still intact, not least because of the legitimation of the struggle against the Nazis, but a reference to the promise of Gdansk, where antigovernment riots broke out in 1970 and Solidarity was formed in 1980, hints that this authority will shortly erode. Lilya in Leviathan could almost be an older Ida who chose not to return to the convent and has regretted the loss of authority ever since.

In the West Leviathan is seen as critical of Putin, whose framed picture appears on a wall (apparently in situ when the film crew borrowed the location) and who is referred to obliquely in the company of earlier, Soviet leaders. The simplistic interpretation is that this parochial backwater is a microcosm of a nation riddled by corruption and a lack of moral accountability, but in a Russian context this can also be interpreted as a plea for authority, which is precisely Putin's political pitch. This nuance has been lost in the noise of the government and the Orthodox church condemning Zvyagintsev's work as an insult to the nation, but it bears repeating that this negative reaction largely occurred after the film's foreign success. Like it or not, events in Ukraine have heavily influenced reactions to the film both at home and abroad. For the West, Leviathan is evidence that Putin's domestic support may be fragile; for Putin's supporters, it is evidence that the opposition is unpatriotic, potty-mouthed and quite possibly gay (the only sex-scene is heterosexual, but there are shots of the buff Dima in the shower).

Leviathan is a Dostoyevskian tale in its polyphonic structure, as much as in its biblical references, father-son relationships (Vadim and the Bishop, as well as Kolya and Roma), compulsive behaviour, guilt and suicide. There is even a last-minute reprieve from a firing squad. The bishop is a cynic who owes a debt to the novelist's Grand Inquisitor, but he also has something of the assurance of the Soviet-era ideologist and the smoothness of the modern "biznessman". Everything is process and the correct observance of form. At the end of the film, it is revealed that Kolya's home has been demolished to make way for a new, onion-domed church. This could be a concrete metaphor for the new-old Russia of Putin, but the choice of a church rather than a mansion for the mayor suggests that Zvyagintsev is concerned more with dishonest than honest corruption; pernicious ideology rather than the quotidien abuse of power.

In contrast to the bishop, the parish priest is poor and righteous, but he is also a fool. His sermon to Kolya is the standard quietist nonsense about Job accepting God's will, but the scene tells us another story. They meet in the store, where Kolya buys ("what else") two bottles of vodka and the priest multiple loaves of bread. Kolya offers to carry the priest's load back to the ramshackle presbytery where a Russian Mrs Doyle passes on a loaf to a nearby swineherd. We finish with the sight of pigs troughing swill. Though some Western critics have seen the priest as the moral centre of the film, largely because of the contrast with the venal bishop, this small parable within the larger story suggests that the consolation of religion (the bread of Christ) is just more pigswill.


  1. Herbie Kills Children18 January 2015 at 19:34

    I think the criticism of bureaucracy portrayed in literature and film is, dare I say it, cheap and lazy. I am also not sure that art tackles very well the concept either.

    I remember the scene in Brazil (a film I like) where the hero is sent from one ministry to the other, Douglas Adams is full of this. The answer to this inconvenience was the development of the call centre. Filling in forms, something we all hate is often found to save labour time somewhere further down the line.

    What I think this art is criticising is self serving hierarchy but I don't quite think it fever fully realises this.

  2. I don't think this film is criticising the competence or effectiveness of bureaucracy per se (they certainly have the planning process under control), but rather the farcial forms it takes when serving ulterior interests.

    There are two scenes during which a court judgement is read out. In both, the court official reads so fast that the words are barely comprehensible, fulfilling the formal requirements of the process but simultaneously making it obvious that the decision was taken above the level of the court. What I think this film does satirise well is that "self-serving hierarchy".

    I agree that the general representation of bureaucracy is misleading. Western cinema usually cleaves to either a conservative view, in which government officials (other than the military, police etc) are incompetent or malign, or a liberal view that simply extends this trope to the private sector.

    There is a self-hating quality to this when you consider that a large percentage of the film-watching audience in the West will be bureaucrats of one sort or another. Of course, much of modern film and TV centres on selling us the daydream of rebellion.

  3. Bureaucracy and absurdity, however, is pretty much the default position. Bureaucracy functions most 'efficiently' when it is entirely formal and the 'best' bureaucrats are jobsworths. The absurdity of bureaucracy can move from the tragedy of Eichmann to the farce that is many procedures in the public sector.
    My own recent experience is a good example. My department (admin at a large hospital) was losing staff to better-paying trusts and decided to create some jobs at the next-highest paying band to keep some of us happy. In order to comply with official procedure, we had to apply for this promotion, even though all applicants came from within the department, there were as many applicants as jobs available, and the job role was practically identical. After having the obligatory interview, after a month we all discovered that we had been 'successful'. After another month we were told that we would have to bring three separate items of ID to work and go for a CRB check at the recruitment office. This is despite the fact that I have been working for my present employer for over eleven years, in the same department for more than seven, and the new job didn't even require me to move desks! Of course, the NHS is currently suffering a massive bed crisis and shortages of staff, but at least they've managed to ascertain that I'm not the next Jimmy Savile.....

  4. Herbie Kills Children19 January 2015 at 17:11

    "to the farce that is many procedures in the public sector"

    This is where I would take issue, often we think the process is absurd but usually there are very good reasons for it, and we just don't think wide enough. We only think of our immediate inconvenience. I find it hard to believe that procedures are established that don't serve specific purposes but at the same time one procedure tries to capture as many scenarios as possible.

    Where the most reactionary recesses of the private sector take issue is not really with 'bureaucracy' as such but with 'red tape', i.e. sex and race discrimination legislation or health and safety.

    "but simultaneously making it obvious that the decision was taken above the level of the court."

    yes this really chimes with me! When a questionnaire goes out to staff or the public to seek opinions, you simply know that the conclusion has already been written! I have first hand experience of this! There is the tick box phenomenon I think, we saw this in the USSR, where production figures were rigged to meet the quotas.

  5. There is little difference between bureaucracy in the private and public sectors, either in qualitative or quantitative terms. The political pressure to adopt commercial practices in public services means that bureaucratic processes that have evolved under neoliberalism have been rolled out across both sectors.

    For example, "re-application" is a standard part of private sector reorganisation these days, whether or not the end result is a net reduction in employees. Similarly, you might think that the permanent revolution of reorganisation is an affliction peculiar to the NHS, but this has become common practice in the private sector since BPR first appeared in the 80s.

    The ideological purpose is twofold. First, to remind employees that the structure and boundaries of financialised firms are fluid, and that they consequently have no job security (i.e. offshoring, outsourcing and automation are constant threats). Second, that work is a process of permanent assessment (performance management), and that those who succeed, either by climbing the management hierarchy or meeting targets, are thereby worthy of admiration and large bonuses.

    Re-applications do have a rationale in the public sector - essentially to show that government jobs aren't given to unqualified mates as a favour - however it is worth noting that this practice was extensively adopted in the UK public sector only after it became common in the private sector. Once upon a time, a "personal recommendation" was considered a good thing, rather than a corrupt practice.

    Big capital doesn't have a problem with bureaucracy. Raising the cost of doing business is an effective way of increasing the cost of market entry and thereby limiting competition. It actively encourages red-tape in the public sector, as this privileges large firms that specialise in bidding for such contracts (Capita, G4S, Serco etc). For small capital, red tape raises the cost of doing business and in particular limits the ability to grow profits by pushing down on labour costs.

  6. You're right, I should have made it clear that I used the public sector as an example because I happen to be familiar with it, not trying to contrast it with an efficient, non-bureaucratic private sector!

    I must take issue, however, with Herbie's Panglossian suggestion that procedures always take place for the best of reasons. Obviously most start for a reason, but it is rarely asked whether the time and attention put into them is really the best use of time, whether their continuation is needed, and if they are achieving their aims. This does seem to be important given the issues affecting the NHS, and has been getting worse with the increase in targets and the emphasis on managerialism.

  7. Herbie Kills Children20 January 2015 at 17:54

    "but it is rarely asked whether the time and attention put into them is really the best use of time, whether their continuation is needed, and if they are achieving their aims."

    I don't accept this Cameronian understanding of Public sector practice, it sort of chimes with Eric Pickles criticisms and prejudices - massive savings can be made and austerity is therefore justified. Yes, you may be able to pick out examples but I don't think this tells you about the whole. So when David Cameron claims efficiencies are being made they are, more often than not, simply cuts.

    From the late 1990's to around 2007 there were processes within the public sector to ask all the 'efficiency' questions. Do we have the correct procedures, are our systems optimized, can we make efficiency savings. There were Savings investment papers, Gerhson savings, systematic processes were in place to bring about efficiency savings. The Tories ripped up this systematic approach and replaced it with anarchy. So I think it is wrong to say that questions were rarely asked about the best use of time, I actually find this an incredible statement of ignorance.

    I would accept that there are flaws in the process, for example, in order to save the time it takes to collate all the government financial statistics (revenue/capital outturn for example) a form was developed that captured where the activity stood within the statistical returns, so was effectively done by the push of a button, saving a great deal of time for those that produced the stats. What wasn’t fully factored in was the time it took to fill in the extra bits on the form! But still when putting forward savings they must come backed with impacts and what the saving is, i.e. they result in the budget being reduced!

    Anecdotally I would say there are/were differences between public and private sector’s. I knew a private sector business owner who would simply not employ Muslims. That practice would not develop in the public sector, and I guess big business. Though I certainly recognise the idea that work is a process of permanent assessment. The trend has been toward private sector management techniques!

    1. I don't think you understand my position. To suggest that any criticism of the state and its bureaucracy is 'Cameronian' is frankly ridiculous.

      Nye Bevan once said 'the language of priorities is the religion of socialism'. I'm pointing out that many of the bureaucratic hoops that hospital trusts have to jump through are created by the government, who, like their Labour predecessor, are quite happy to set targets, duties and penalties while leaving lower levels of administration to carry out the duties and take the responsibility. These lower levels then employ more people to ensure that targets are met, while neglecting other tasks, since funds are limited. Similar trends are observable in the education sector, where academies each appoint their own management structures or pay 'consultants', rather than sharing these functions with other schools in the form of the LEAs.

      I think your assumption that increases in public sector bureaucracy are some kind of step towards socialism, or even efficiency, is a rather dangerous one. In the present context they simply reinforce wider trends of managerialism that reflect those in the wider economy. Some socialists want to decrease the role of the state as well as those on the right, but with very different aims and methods in mind.

  8. Herbie Kills Children21 January 2015 at 18:16

    "To suggest that any criticism of the state and its bureaucracy is 'Cameronian' is frankly ridiculous."

    I wasn't, I was:

    1) Cheekily replying to your use of Panglossian
    2) I was suggesting that your specific criticisms chime with the Tory agenda. I am happy for a critique of 'bureaucracy', though a critique is usually an honest assessment.

    Maybe the NHS is different to the rest of the public sector, but in the rest of the public sector they have budgets, and before 2007 if you wanted that budget increasing you had to complete an investment paper detailing why you wanted the extra budget. It was the same with all savings, they had to have a financial report attached as well as detailing the impact of the saving on the service. It was also required to show whether the saving was a cash or non cash saving. The savings would then need full approval from cabinet etc I.e. a robust, systematic process which the Tories ripped up and replaced with austerity anarchy.

    Though you have now brought up the idea of shared services, something Cameron was banging on about to Andrew Marr the other week. I think the same trope was promoted by Thatcher in her attack on the GLC and county councils.

    "I think your assumption that increases in public sector bureaucracy are some kind of step towards socialism"

    Did I say that? If that was your understanding then you are sorely mistaken. However, the debate is over the term and meaning of bureaucracy. If the introduction of a 'bureaucratic' process improves productivity, reduces labour time or results in less mistakes being made then this is a good thing. If it results in simply the additional burden of useless people who serve the organisation no purpose then I would say that is a form of madness and probably a huge caricature, bordering on total ignorance.

    Decreasing the role of the state doesn't mean getting rid of 'bureaucracy', as Marx put it the state is replaced by the administration of things.