Advertising insults the intelligence of everyone exposed to it, but of course, the stuff works. Consider the gnashing of teeth and rending of hair that followed the recently reported demise of the Twinkie: if not for the anthropomorphic sponge cake we all grew up watching on Saturday mornings, would anyone care? Twinkies, after all, taste disgusting — but Hostess’ ad agency convinced us all that taste didn’t enter into the equation.
A business ripe for parody, advertising has been well skewered on the big screen in such films as Frank Tashlin’s Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957), Robert Downey’s Putney Swope (1969), and Bruce Robinson’s How to Get Ahead in Advertising (1989). As the decades have passed, the films have become grimmer and more acerbic — which brings me to perhaps the most disturbing of the lot, Generation P. Directed by former ad man Victor Ginzburg, this savage satire opens Friday, November 30 at an as yet undetermined Landmark cinema in San Francisco. (The film was originally booked to open at Berkeley’s Landmark Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, November 23.)
Babylen Tatarsky (Vladimir Epifantsev, rocking an awesome mullet early in the film) is an unemployed poet adapting to life in post-Soviet Russia. His name a conflation of Yevgeni Yevtushenko’s politically incorrect poem ‘Babi Yar’ and the all too politically correct Lenin, Babylen (whose last name also suggests outsider status, Tatars being a Muslim ethnic minority in the old Soviet Union) has grown up a Pioneer but now dreams of Pepsi — hence, Generation P.
At loose ends in the immediate aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse, Babylen takes a job at a street kiosk, where he sells newly available western candy, cigarettes, and beer to desperate consumers. He soon learns that certain customers can easily be short-changed: anxious to taste the fruits of freedom, many won’t complain as long as they get a Snickers Bar or pack of Marlboros.
When old chum Morkovin (Andrey Fomin) happens along in search of reliable condoms, he clues Babylen in to what he describes as the new gold rush — advertising. Intrigued, our hero goes to work at Morkovin’s fly by night ad agency, his first assignment: to clean up, put on a Rolex, and convince a Vodka-soaked businessman that his stodgy line of confectionery needs a western-style makeover to help increase sales. Sure enough, the ad campaign — describing Bird’s Milk chocolates as “the calm in the storm” — does the job.
Generation P charts Babylen’s rise in the industry, as he works assiduously to adapt American products to Russian cultural sensibilities. Some of his concepts are hilarious – a Russian Army chorus singing a paean to the birch-flavored goodness of Sprite is especially inspired – but Babylen’s success exposes him to the ultimate truth: that all the members of Russian’s newly “democratic” Duma are, quite literally, products of a conspiracy between ad agencies and an unnamed, unknowable secret society.
Based on a novel by Viktor Pelevin, Generation P is a dense film filled with political, cultural, and social allusions that will mean more to viewers familiar with late 20th-century Russian history. (Indeed, as a Ukrainian IMDb reviewer named Constantine suggests, “you MUST have lived in ex-USSR 90s, and you must speak Russian, to understand the movie.” That may be true, but there’s plenty here for western film-goers to appreciate nonetheless, not least the film’s extended fly agaric and LSD-fueled psychedelic sequences.
Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.
To find out about more events in Berkeley and nearby, check out Berkeleyside’s Events Calendar. We also encourage you to submit your own events.