December 13, 2018, 23:29

“The Road Movie” Exploits Pain and Death, Courtesy of Russian Dashboard-Camera Footage |

“The Road Movie” Exploits Pain and Death, Courtesy of Russian Dashboard-Camera Footage |

“The Road Movie,” which opens today, is, in effect, a snuff film, and
the only reason not to call it that is to avoid attracting viewers who
want to see a snuff film. “The Road Movie,” made (it’s hard to say
directed) by Dimitrii Kalashnikov, is a compilation and montage of
dashboard-camera videos, which he grabbed off the Internet, that record
events viewed mainly through the windshields of cars in Russia. The
videos, many of which rack up millions of views on YouTube, are
fixed-frame—a surveillance-like static camera that looks ahead and
passively captures whatever takes place on the road, while also
recording sound (as if in voice-over, with the speakers mainly unseen)
from inside the car.

The movie’s first shot suggests a rueful and sombre intent: as
windshield wipers flit back and forth, a cross in a field is slowly
revealed through the gusts of a snowstorm. It doesn’t take long for the
film’s grim subject to reveal itself: namely, the dangers of the road.
The sequences that follow feature innocuous and puckish images of
curiosities, such as what may be a comet in the sky, and a cow in the
road; then there’s a shot of a truck slowly tipping over, on a snowy road,
at the edge of the frame—and then, a view of an accident narrowly missed.
These initial views of road accidents have a dry air of absurd humor.
But, by the movie’s fifteen-minute mark, “The Road Movie” becomes a
gore-fest with the gore kept offscreen: there’s a head-on collision on a
wide-open road that leaves victims (there’s no blood on view but plenty
of fear, a grave injury leaving a man in one of the cars near death).
From that point on, accidents play an outsized role in the film. Many of
the videos show car accidents, including horrific, terrifying,
high-speed head-on highway accidents, in which people were in all
likelihood killed and certainly seriously injured. Nonetheless, these
grave accidents also play out, in the impassive and unflinching gaze of
the dashboard cameras, like comedies of wonder.

Kalashnikov himself heightens the upbeat tone with several montages, to
bouncy music, of quick cuts of crash after crash, each of which looks
like agony in the making—a car rolling over repeatedly, a car smashed by
a tram, a car smashing into a deer (the image keeps running even after
the car is overturned in a ditch, and the eerie silence afterward, with
the car radio still playing, suggests horrors). Even a seemingly minor
accident, of a garbage truck skidding on a wet road and tipping onto its
side, suggests “minor” injuries, whether cuts and bruises, broken bones
and concussions, that are only minor for the people who don’t have them.
After one head-on collision, the camera keeps rolling and Kalashnikov
indecently, monstrously maintains the take, keeping it going as a woman
moans in pain, saying that her leg is broken.

If I had been watching the movie not as a journalist committed to
reporting on it but as an ordinary viewer there for interest and
pleasure, I’d have walked out of the theatre in revulsion and anger at
the exploitation of pain and death for sheer sensationalism and
entertainment. If there were a warning factor involved, the desire to
advocate for safe driving, a little crashing would go a long way. (Carl
Theodor Dreyer’s 1948 short film “They Caught the Ferry” is still the model of the genre, and there’s nothing exploitative or
leering about it.) As I watched these horrific crashes, I imagined that
a more sensitive and creative filmmaker would have done more than merely
compile these videos, more than merely assemble with jaunty indifference
these high-impact snippets: he might have taken any one of them and
slowed it down, looked at it frame by frame, looking for the existential
moment at which life and death hang in the balance, perhaps even between
video frames. The material for empathy, analysis, and imagination is
ample; Kalashnikov offers none.

“The Road Movie” suggests, at various times, a variety of points and
purposes. Some of its sequences document a wide range of behavior and of
coincidences that range from ordinary ugliness to serendipity: a scene
in which two men in a car negotiate at length with a female prostitute,
female passengers reproaching men for driving too fast or too
aggressively, male passengers criticizing female drivers. It shows a
thief stealing a sausage from the back of a truck; a bear running on a
road; a thief stealing a dashboard camera; a woman in a bright yellow
dress, fleeing a wedding, running on the road, stopping a car, and
taking refuge upon its hood; and even a meet-cute between a male driver
named Pasha and a female passerby named Dasha, who jumps into his car
and gets him to follow the taxi in which she left her bag.

It also shows a litany of vicious, violent behavior presented with a
comedic reserve—a male pedestrian climbing on a car and threatening a
female driver, one male driver threatening another with a sledgehammer,
another threatening another with an axe, several fistfights, and even
several shootings. And it does so with a falsely self-aware, trivially
meta dimension—a shot in which one guy talks with another guy about the
prevalence of dashboard cameras, saying, “There’s now so fucking many
funny things on the Internet . . . All the shit is uploaded to the
Internet. Car crashes, goddammit.”

The world is full of accidents; there’s road rage everywhere, there’s
loose gunplay wherever there are loose guns, drunk driving wherever
there’s alcohol. If there’s some distinctive documentary import and
salient detail in Kalashnikov’s depiction of Russian road life, it’s in
sequences showing cars driving on roads surrounded (and nearly broiled)
by forest fires, roofs blowing off or tumbling down, yellow ooze filling
a street. These sequences suggest not the kind of incivility and
violence that exists in all societies, but the ordinary breakdown of
infrastructure and civil management—a sort of lawlessness of neglect
that indicates more fundamental breakdowns of civic order. A shot of a
tank being cleaned at a car wash hints at the normalized militarization
of daily life; so does a scene of what looks like a paramilitary outfit
stopping and menacing a driver who wanted to pass its cars on the

Kalashnikov plants a sharp documentary detail in the end credits, which
list the episodes featured in the film and include brief descriptions.
(“A sky diver on the road episode, Uploaded by the user Jalchin Nagiev,
16,815 views”; “A car accident on a South Relief Road in Vladimir,
uploaded by the user Maksim Malugin, 1,564,556 views”.) One credit leaps
out from the others: “From the place of Boris Nemtsov murder episode,
Uploaded by the public account WorldNews, 308 views.” Nemtsov, a leader
of opposition to Vladimir Putin’s regime (and to the Russian invasion of
Ukraine), was murdered on a Moscow street, late at night, on February
27, 2015. There’s a video in “The Road Movie,” a seemingly innocuous
one, of the Kremlin and its surroundings, time-and-date-stamped February
28, 2015, at half past midnight—a mere hour after the murder occurred.

Kalashnikov’s political winks come through; their connection with the
rest of the film isn’t merely unclear but self-defeating. Perhaps
Kalashnikov wants to suggest that a society in which mortal car
accidents and random shootings serve as home entertainment is also one
in which a tyrant can reign with acclaim and his opponents can be killed
with impunity. Perhaps Kalashnikov hopes to reflect the desensitization
to violence by the prevalence of casual depictions of violence. Yet the
film itself is part of, and an amplification of, the very
desensitization that it might decry.


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