Hard to be a God: maybe that's why God is silent or the muddy way of social progress


You may have watched the "Bruce Almighty" and enjoyed by it. But to fully understand this film you probably need to be a Russian who has read Strugatsky's book of the same name. And you probably should be familiar with the works of such prominent Russian masters as Andrey Tarkovsky, Akira Kurosawa and Alexey Gherman to fully accept it. If you are troubled with the question why this black-and-white neurotic carnival of filth, mud and blood may be considered as a gem of the world cinematography, the following explanation may shit shed some light on this.

A Few Words About Strugatsky's Book


It's hard to comprehend this film without the familiarity with Strugatsky's novel, because the authors of the book and the movie use totally different kinds of narrative. Strugatsky brothers carefully lay out the settings of Arkanar, and in some sense, their novel follows the canon of the brave chivalric romance that we know and love from the fancy knight stories, movies and animations we used to read and watch at childhood.

As you may already know, Arkanar is a kingdom on a planet inhabited by a humanoid civilization at its middle ages. Earthling explorers who travel through the space using the 'zero-transportation' technology are implementing their theory of the aided overall progress through the protection and patronage of Arkanar's wise men. The earthlings are prohibited to intervene the flow of the local history, but there is a some hidden factor which does not conform to the theory and prevents the renaissance: by some unknown reason there is a hunt for wise men set up by the head of king's guard (don Rebe), who tortures and executes them at his prison called 'The Merry Tower'. Rumata (the protagonist) has a task to find and protect a wise man called Budakh, but Budakh is already captured by Rebe to use his imposer for the poisoning of the king. After the death of the king Rumata frees the real Budakh, and it turns out that Rebe is a bishop of a cryptic monastic order which goes to take on the throne. Rebe asks Rumata to help him to get the throne by using his impenetrable metalloplastic clothes and clad weapon, although being just an observer, Rumata does not participate in any games. Then Rebe sends the storm troopers to punish Rumata for intractability, but Rumata breaks the pledge of non-intervention and destroys Rebe along with his men because they have killed Rumata's loved one - a girl named Kira.

Because of its peculiar narrative the movie can not be taken separately of the original novel and is a part of its framework, although it insignificantly differs from the original in some aspects. The narrative used in the movie is a three-hour long dance of filth, ugliness and falling internals; the author turns to the plot of the original novel just in several key points, which however explain why he has chosen such manner of expression (its substantial part is discussed in the last section).
You may note, isn't the existence of a humanoid race on an another planet a sing of a naive pulp sci-fi? And yes, the most of Strugatsky's novels are basically naive pulp sci-fi, which however possess an exceptionally strong social component. The movie itself is completely focused on the exploration of an enlightened person's self-perception in a barbaric society, and it's impossible to consider it as a naive work.
The "Hard to be a God" novel is a part of a yet another framework called "The World of Noon" which praises global and just communist society; the world of noon also justifies the existence of other humanoids by the artificial panspermia performed by some superior race of creators. 

A Few Words About Movie Author's Filming Style


The central character of the most Gherman's works is a person who has deep, wide and acute feeling of reality or justice; because of that the protagonist usually experiences the constant reflexion along with the torments of conscience. Another Ghermans's distinctive features are the increased attention to tiny details and the sincerity of realism. You can enjoy both of these two in the movie, of course if you can enjoy food leftovers, wounds and squeezed guts. It's also worth to notice that Gherman usually tends to use the black-and-white coloring which is implemented by some authors as an artistic device that allows to put emphasis on the lighting (you can note this in the movie) or mood. But as it's known from Gherman's crew, the author has used the black-and-white coloring in his final work primarily to create the sense of a documentary movie, probably something like a WWII chronicle.
The recent Gherman's works are basically unwatchable by the general audience because of the complex and painful manner of expression, and the "Hard to be a God" movie is not an exception. Here German utilizes a wandering camera which persistently tries to climb into Rumata's mouth. As opposed to the steady wide-angle shooting, this creates the feeling of tightness, close contact and involvement into the action.

A Few Words About the Movie Soundtrack


There is basically no soundtrack. There is basically no soundtrack, just few dissonant melodies played by the characters on wind instruments and bells. The author uses mensural rhythm of the constant action instead of the music; the rhythm attracts viewers to the scenery and makes the movie to look like a circus dance or a freaky march. The constant neurotic action along with the corresponding manner of shooting imposed on the perpetual wandering through the filthy and terrifying environment comprises the backbone of the narrative and puts a sign of distinction on the work. This completely corresponds to the following Tarkovsky's quotation: "The rhythm of cut, the length of scenes are not requirements of the trade which define the connection with the viewers, as it's commonly believed, but are an expression of the character and distinctiveness of the movie author."

A Few Words About the Movie Itself


There are several interpretations of Strugatsky's novel ranging from the condemnation of fascism to the characterization of some specific features of theocratic or dictatorship regimes. As you may already have noticed, this is primarily the suppression of free thought, which may be used by a regime to seamlessly impose dictator's power on society. The flourish of the free thought was the drive of the renaissance, and of course, its oppression means the cancellation of at least social progress as a side effect. Although the free thought may be used as a protection mechanism against the dictatorship, the liberty alone does not guarantee development. The progress does not come from protest, murder or destruction. Only the creators who act in society's interests (which sometimes may disagree with society's wishes) are able to develop the society. As we see below, the interests along with the self- and mutual perception of society's members are the key points here. By analyzing this, you may judge does a politician has the preference to his political career over the intention to aid the society. This may help you to not to elect a dictator who tries to gain his political weight through the protest actions or populism.
The movie is focused on a different set of problematics, though. As it follows from the features of the narrative and author's practice to choose protagonists, the key theme of the movie may be the self-perception of Rumata in the society of Arkanar and absolute futility of any attempts to enforce constructive development in a barbaric society.

As you may have noticed, the adornment on Rumata's headband has the shape of male genitalia (the crystal there is a surveillance camera which is used by the mission controllers at the Earth). This may be an ironic jest on Strugatsky's chivalric style, or a more sarcastic one related to the art craft and culture of Gherman's Arkanar, it may follow from the association of genitalia with head and thoughts.

To understand in Strugatsky's canon how Rumata feels himself in Arkanar, you need to imagine yourself a member of a global and just society of Strugatsky's communist Earth which does not use obtrusive ideology to suppress the free thought by some reason and has no reasons for internal challenge. If you can't, you may just imagine yourself a person bestowed with acute deep sense of reality and justice, a person who can sincerely empathize to the others. Now you should understand how Rumata feels amongst the ubiquitous shit, tortures and violence. It's may be hard to integrate into this environment being tidy and clean, so Rumata periodically rubs himself in doubtful substances to break the invisible wall which separates him from that world. Of course, he does not want to completely lose himself in this and often bathes, promoting the cult of cleanness amongst his followers.
Literally every scene of the movie contains tiny details that may reflect on protagonist's attitude to the events or characterize the world, but the most significant ones for us here are the custom to pour hanged men with mud and the dialogue about do fish like to drink milk. These two vividly show how the useless patterns and irrationality invade the mind in the atmosphere deprived of the free thought and enlightenment.

It's not surprising that you can't imagine a communist society without an obtrusive ideology; only the pattern-thinking is suitable for the top-down command economy. The Soviet society had one strange feature, though. It developed patterns of deep mutual acceptance and justice through the popular culture such as cinematography or literature, including Strugatsky's novels. And it's an interesting question, may the atmosphere of liberty along with the free entertainment market aid in the development of such patterns? Personally, I think that this is possible only by the sincere artists (such as Gherman) who work in a traditional manner; even the free thought is impossible without a system of axioms. This does not mean, that any artist should be restricted, but it's obvious that at the free entertainment market sincere art may be muted by the overall noise. All the attempts to provide a support and development of it may also become futile if it's used for the needs of the canting and insincere state ideology which can be utilized by any political regime. Do you see a possible resolution of these problems? There is probably just one: to change the state of affairs in a such way, that the obtrusive ideology wouldn't be necessary to cover the holes in them.

Anyways, a stable fair society also opens the door to the spontaneous pattern-thinking because of its stability, and as we already saw in Psycho-Pass and Shinsekai Yori - an absolutely stable and just society is (probably) possible only somewhere at Lothlorien. Without self-protection mechanisms a society is vulnerable to anomalies, but such social patterns as the free thought and mutual acceptance are not enough to save the society from anomaly fluctuations. You also need a system of laws and some law enforcement instruments to protect the society from the unprincipled members, although at the same time they may be used by a dictator to oppress people. The width of the boundaries of the mutual acceptance and freedom of expression is a very interesting question in this light, but good social and folk traditions often offer thoroughly tested frameworks of such boundaries.
All the conditions discussed in the previous paragraph are a part of one of the acceptable answers to Rumata's question to Budakh about what a god should give people to make them happy. God is impotent here; a society is able to create steady control mechanisms and make itself relatively fair only in the presence of the formerly described patterns in the minds of the most members of the society, including those people who participate in the control mechanisms - as we saw earlier, the proper process of social control weakly depends on the political system. Rumata knows that he alone isn't able provide all necessary patterns needed for the advancement of Arkanar's society, his only ability is to protect the free thinkers who then gradually should develop them.
Some, including Strugatsky themselves, believe that we have the current state of affairs in the society because of the flawed model of child upbringing. They say that we are able to achieve the just society when we implement the right model of upbringing, but it's hard to say is this true or not. It's definitely impossible to develop the ability of deep mutual acceptance in every society member, especially in the atmosphere of the ruined value system, and in a poorly-tuned society the members who possess such ability may share the fate of Rumata. Moreover, society's self-protection mechanisms may take on the power due to disproportionate social passivity, and thus, by facing the chain of oppressions and prohibitions, the society may encounter the dilemma of the cancellation of social progress again.

All this confirms once more time that a relatively just society may exist only on the thin edge of the constructive internal challenge with itself and its self-protection mechanisms; of course this is impossible without the pattern of free thought along with the freedom of expression, and their deprivation will eventually result in protest actions. In addition, as it was shown by Rumata, Strugatsky think that by any means you can not enforce the progress in a society which lacks the patterns of formal equality and mutual acceptance because the more powerful society members will eventually tend to oppress the weaker ones, so you need to constantly develop these patterns in the society, using art, for example. And, paradoxically, a person also should be in the constant internal challenge with itself to avoid the pattern-thinking. You probably know what such person needs to remain on a constructive way. Yes, you're right, this is the reason.

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