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The Heart of Blankness: Close-Up on Alexander Zeldovich's "Target"

A film project with Russia’s foremost novelist years in the making, “Target” sums up the aughts (and the possible future) of Russia.
Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Alexander Zeldovich's Target (2011) is playing exclusively December 16, 2016 - January 14, 2017 in the United States.
All utopias are alike; each dystopia is dystopian in its own way. But is it a utopia or dystopia we are talking about here? In Alexander Zeldovich’s Target, Russia of the near future is prosperous and comfortably numb: energy sources for export still abound, heavy trucks rush along the Guangzhou–Paris highway replenishing the treasury with toll money, and sleek skyscrapers of Moscow symbolize the country’s welfare in stone, steel and concrete. Victor, the Minister of Natural Resource– “king of the mountain,” as he calls himself—has it all:a large, hi-tech apartment, a Chinese biographer and appropriately spiritless facial features. He is the perfect picture of a man who has made it in a land of bureaucratic capitalism. The film’s other dramatis personae also represent the country’s elite: Zoe is Victor’s trophy wife in a platinum cage of their marriage, Nikolay is a high-ranked officer in customs who is fond of horse breeding and hunting illegal immigrants, and Mitya is a television celebrity who hosts an extravagant cook-off that doubles as a political talk show and speaks more words in a minute than is feasibly possible for anyone to understand. Later joined by Anna, who teaches Chinese on radio and is the only one of them to have a low “fourth” category in a national ranking system, the group gets together to travel to the titular “Target,” an abandoned research site located somewhere in Siberia and rumored to possess mystical powers.
A film project that spent years in the works, Target (2011) is only the third feature by Zeldovich in two decades, following Sunset (1990) and Moscow (2000). The filmmaker’s deliberate working pace is largely coincidental, but fitting: both Moscow and Target sum up respective decades prior to their making in a precisely captured sense of zeitgeist. Moscow was about the 1990s–a unique era of freedom, extreme poverty (and sudden wealth for few) and near-anarchy that descended after the USSR collapsed. Target, set in 2020, is a projection of the aughts–a dormant decade of Putin and siloviki, of rising oil revenues and nascent consumerism–to the future. Ostensibly a sci-fi, then, in actual fact the film does not concern itself much with genre. Co-written by Zeldovich and Russia’s foremost novelist Vladimir Sorokin, Target’s inspirations lie elsewhere: while Moscow borrowed from Chekhov’s play Three Sisters, the newer film opens with an aphorism attributed by Victor to Lao-Tzu—but in reality the famous first line of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, playfully inverted.
Indeed, a film critic’s game of explaining a lesser-known movie through references to its famous counterparts does not quite work well with Target’s peculiar vision–although it would be fun to imagine that, as politicians at Mitya’s late night show in Moscow praise the caste system while frying a steak, Eric Parker embarks on his odyssey in Cosmopolis to get a haircut in New York. Here are two films whose worlds and heroes are best described in quotes from T.S. Elliott’s The Hollow Men: all shape without form and shade without color. Could it be that David Cronenberg and Don DeLillo’s neoliberal melancholia, another work of a director–novelist duo, is a part of the same universe? Perhaps, as in Target America is notably absent: even if someone slips an unnecessary English word now and then, Chinese is in vogue in this Russia of the future. It appears that the new world order of 2020 is bipolar, one where Russians have traded exposed brick for bamboo curtains and decisively displaced Western democracy by a new state ideology of “ecological democracy,” an institutionalized form of inequality in which, the characters believe, every citizen comfortably occupies their own, identified niche for the greater good of society as a whole.
It isn’t all peace and harmony, however, after the end of history–as Leonid Desyatnikov’s deliberately discordant, unsettling music score will never let you forget. The journey to the Target is nothing less than a quest for eternal youth–and for happiness: something that Victor is preoccupied with. His interest in a grand category like “happiness” might come off as naïve, but not in this universe where Western rationalism has been overcome by an odd blend of Christian Orthodox spiritualism and Taoist philosophy. Images of bizarre worlds to come is a specialty of Sorokin, whose subject matter has shifted over the years from postmodern allegories of Soviet totalitarianism to grotesque depictions of the third millennium’s new Middle Ages, in which, for instance, Russia erects a giant wall to isolate itself from the world and revive the time of Ivan the Terrible (Day of the Oprichnik), or the whole of Europe is torn by feudal wars and roamed by jet-fighter-flying Crusaders, giants and werewolves (Telluria). Target is not as far off a fantasy, but Sorokin’s unique sensibility is perceptible in the ancient, mythological aspects of it: “Have you heard, the Virgin Mary has cried,” Mitya casually informs his companions in one scene, referring to an old belief in icons’ myrrh-secreting as an auspicious sign; in another, Victor presents to his staff the latest scientific invention: goggles that calculate and visualize amount of good and evil in people and inanimate objects alike. In a typically Sorokin-esque gesture, Soviet urban folklore is added to the mix: the film’s fountain of youth is an astrophysics complex, a formerly restricted and now abandoned area for secret experiments. Apparently located somewhere close to the country’s very center in sparsely populated West Siberia, the Target sits almost literally in the middle of nowhere–indeed, Zeldovich and Sorokin’s Russia is very much a nowhere-land, a surrealist non-place. On their way to the destination in a Soviet-era clunker, the company of main characters pass through a gateway out of a Magritte painting: an arch not surrounded by any fence.
Target’s restrained CGI and exquisite sets and costumes all combine to create a peculiar sense of blankness, heavily dominated by the color white (mainstay of futurist filmmaking), transparent designs and open spaces that Alexander Ilkhovsky’s camera prefers to frame in long shots, largely avoiding close ups. Vastness here is as much a characteristic of urban settings as of open country (a scene near the end is set in an enormous–and almost empty –shopping arcade), but it is the plains of the Russian heartland that inform the film with its epic scale: the mysterious complex, seen by a camera hovering way above in the air, is surrounded as far as the eye can see by many miles of nothing at all. The location had been chosen, the locals explain to the company of travelers, because “the sky here is the most transparent in the world”; a vaguely formulated purpose for the Target consisted in receiving cosmic energy, which Victor is quick to identify with qi, or “energy of emptiness” as he clarifies the Chinese spiritual concept to his companions. After all, by the virtue of his trade he knows that energy is what the world revolves around.
But Zeldovich is less interested in sci-fi or, for that matter, spiritualist aspects of how exactly things work in the world that he and Sorokin created; rather, he focuses on consequences of the characters’ exposure to celestial radiance. The ambition here, clearly, is to create a novel on film –something akin to what Visconti or Kubrick did, inspired by classical Russian literature (hence an imposing running time of two hours and a half). As in a work by Tolstoy, the narrative in Target does not privilege a single protagonist, it instead weaves together an intricate network of individual characters’ plotlines; the Anna Karenina ­quote will reverberate in a few more references, subtle and less so, to the literary masterpiece. Having awakened to emptiness, as the Chinese would say, these distant heirs to Tolstoy’s personages gradually lose their peace of mind, suddenly confronted with their hidden desires that, in addition to immortality, the Target seems to unleash, if not grant.
What would happen to Elliott’s “hollow men” had they discovered violent souls within them? Nothing really, the poet wrote, for they would still not be remembered as such by “those who have crossed to death’s other Kingdom.” As restlessness and violence in the characters and their actions increase through Target’s second half, culminating in a grotesque orgy of Buñuelian vigor and oddity, the landscape around them remains as rarefied and frigid as the air above volcanos of Kamchatka that Victor visits; a blankness from which they all are bound to disappear, lest anything should disturb its utopian perfection. If this world ever ends, it will be, indeed, with a whimper–or maybe it already has, but no one noticed.

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