The unaccented, matter-of-fact tone of Aleksei Balabanov’s “Cargo 200” is deliberately disarming. The plain Jane approach leads us to expect story complexity, nuance, social relevance — anything, really, beside what we eventually get, which is a cold-eyed slide into the human hellpit. Based on “true events,” somewhat embroidered, Balabanov’s movie is a poison-pen letter sent to the heart of the failing Soviet society circa 1984, and you can appropriately read its sneaky, scalding tribulations as a face-slap to the Russians, young and old, who nostalgize the old regime. What’s often lamented is the passing of a sense of enforced order and control; Balabanov is here to remind everyone that bloodthirsty chaos ruled, and you forget that at your peril.
Context is applied lightly: we meet two middle-aged brothers — one an Army colonel, the other a “scientific atheism” professor — having lunch on a veranda, then the colonel’s daughter and her black-market smoothie of a boyfriend, whose alarming thirst for vodka is the first sign of trouble. Haphazardly, vectors cross: the professor’s car breaks down in the northern country outside of Leningrad, and he seeks help at a farmhouse, where the central figure seems to be a bellicose, gun-cleaning brute brimming with anti-atheist passion and a vague dream of building a Christian utopia. This odd, ramshackle home also harbors a Vietnamese worker and a skinny, seemingly mute man of untold provenance — and it’s this inexpressive sociopath who becomes the story’s agent of desolation, once the tanked black market hood shows up a little later to buy booze, accompanied by a girl he picked up at a roadside disco. What ensues is all step-by-step minutiae — and an undramatic rape with an empty vodka bottle is just the beginning.
From there, “Cargo 200” (which is the military euphemism for soldier coffins coming back from Afghanistan, a salient plot integer) becomes a feral ordeal, but Balabanov is careful not to overplay the hysteria and suffering; the filmmaking is cool, unemphatic, unhurried, and the tone is low-amp jaunty. The lack of explicit textural cues — music, close-ups, reaction shots, etc. — often and deliberately leaves us with a chuckle stuck like a bone in our throats. Balabanov, for his part, does not dictate response, and he leaves a good deal unsaid, under the film’s icy surface. I had to watch it twice to see the ligaments between plot threads and how they connect to subterranean statements about Russian life under Communism, and their subtlety, amidst this mayhem, is a thing to behold. Still, it’s hard to overlook the climactic series of tableaux, unselfconscious masterworks of grime, proliferating flies, pooling blood and Boris Yeltsin. I haven’t been a big fan of Balabanov (“Of Freaks and Men,” “Brother”), but this is the best and richest Russian film American screens have seen since Ilya Khrjanovsky’s “4.”
Not being much of a Warholite, either — that is, not belonging to the cultural tribe that believes everything Andy Warhol touched is, by default, a masterful piece of postmod art simply because his insulating meta-irony deems it all so — I wouldn’t make great claims for his hundreds of one-reel “screen tests” by themselves, but no one really does. By being Warhols, they are seen as having an intrinsic meta-value that has nothing to do with aesthetics or “experimentation” or visual glamour or anything else, really. In the new compilation “13 Most Beautiful… Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests,” the creation of which is attributed only to Pittsburgh’s Andy Warhol Museum, a baker’s dozen of Warhol’s full-frontal one-shots (which he used to show arbitrarily in public shows in groups of 13) are scored with drowsy, “shoegazing” songs by the duo Dean & Britta. The upshot isn’t art but homage, a new, semi-permanent context for pieces of film Warhol never would’ve contextualized himself.
Warhol’s methodology was so simple — just sit and stare — that the primal voyeuristic attraction of cinema lands in your lap, and there’s no denying that many of the impassive portraits here — Nico, Mary Woronov, Paul America, Edie Sedgwick — are surpassingly beautiful. (Lou Reed, drinking a Coke in shades, not so much, but Jane Holzer’s energetic teeth-brushing is oddly invigorating.) But here’s why they’re beautiful now — like the first Lumière films, moviemaking is its own nostalgia machine, its own documentary about cultural history and its own inherent lament for a vanished past. Warhol just let the sadness roam free, without constriction. Whatever the thoroughly un-arty artiness meant in the mid-’60s (which doesn’t seem to be a very much; impish emptiness, self-mythologizing poseur cool, and that’s it), today it thrums with melancholy — so much gorgeous youth, just waiting to fall under time’s bulldozer. I don’t take that to be a minor chord to strike. The songs are agreeably ambient, if forgettable, though Britta Phillips herself, seen in the DVD supplements to be simply the most gorgeous 45-year-old bass player on Earth, seems ready even at her un-Warholian age for a loving close-up.
“Cargo 200” (The Disinformation Company) and “13 Most Beautiful… Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests” (Plexifilm) are now available on DVD.
[Additional photo: Jane Holzer brushing her teeth in “13 Most Beautiful… Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests,” Plexifilm, 2009]