Altered States


Night Watch, the occult thriller that shattered box office records when it was released in Russia during the summer of 2004, not only represents an alternate universe—it is one. As directed, from Sergei Lukyanenko’s bestseller, by Kazakhstan-born TV commercial/music video whiz Timur Bekmambetov,
the no longer extant Evil Empire reimagines itself.

Cold War evaporated, the Manichean struggle between the forces of light and darkness is waged—often invisibly—on Moscow’s streets and subways, and on the roofs of suburban housing projects. Bureaucracy has become metaphysical. Mysterious “others” live among us, issuing licenses for other others to operate as vampires. The forces of light even make their headquarters in the Moscow equivalent of the Con Ed power station on East 14th Street; their leader is played by Vladimir Menshov, director of the Brezhnev-era blockbuster Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears. No more Communism, boo-fricking-hoo. Night Watch goes to considerable pains to demonstrate that opting for darkness or light is a matter of free will—the deal sealed with a blood-and-vodka cocktail, hold the Worcestershire sauce.

The left’s been Left Behind: Powerful forces subject to arcane rules of engagement struggle to possess the soul of a child born in 1992, year one of the post–Soviet Union. A witch—with a Party card?—had tried to abort this future Great One, and he’s grown up neglected. For much of the movie, the kid is in a trance—telepathically summoned to his doom by a lonely vampire girl, perhaps under the influence of the oligarki. (In his normal state, the lad sits in his single mother’s bleak high-rise apartment, mind colonized by the WB, as he watches Buffy on TV.) Intermittently, the nominal protagonist—a flashlight-wielding hero of the “night watch” played by matinee idol Konstantin Khabensky—plunges into a morass known as the Gloom to further battle the dark side.

Despite its cheesy blood and thunder and ludicrous “Sunshine Makers” metaphysics, this is the funniest apocalypse I’ve seen since George Romero’s Land of the Dead. (Bekmambetov is even a protégé of Roger Corman, who executive-produced his last movie, the English-language Arena.) Night Watch thrives on coarse, sardonic humor, with many of the performers acting around the script. Bekmambetov’s bombastic special effects have a distinctive sense of decomposing glitz; as an action director he favors a distinctive start-stop rhythm. His movie is a creature with a Cookie Monster voice and a Frankenstein gait, jolting itself along with intermittent blasts of metallisti music and a sizzling sense of self-administered electroshock treatment.

No hyper-designed ersatz futurism for Bekmambetov. Night Watch is knowingly frugal and proudly cruddy. The veneer of digital vortex whirlpools, visible nervous systems, cosmic video gamers, and secret-agent pop stars notwithstanding, the movie unfolds in an essentially shabby world. (This is the sort of vampire flick that Charles Bukowski might have hallucinated in a skid-row blood bank.) The Night Watch men have kvass in their veins; the movie’s sour lysergic feel trumps all digital manipulation. Indeed, the most striking effect is the pervasive atmosphere of misery, damp cold, squalid apartments, starving pensioners, power failures, snarled traffic, public drunkenness, and bad weather.

In its way, Night Watch is the sci-fi spawn of The Master and Margarita, the great underground novel of the 1930s era in which Satan and his familiars tour Stalin’s Moscow. Truly, our former Soviet friends have a rich history of irrationality from which to draw. (Bekmambetov, son of a never Christianized land, has called his movie “shamanistic filmmaking.”) To see Night Watch, you’d think Russia had never left the Middle Ages—but in that, of course, it’s hardly alone.

Sober science fiction, Kevin Willmott’s mockumentary CSA: Confederate States of America posits a parallel world in which the South won the Civil War. No allegory here: CSA takes the sober form of a British documentary broadcast on Confederate Television, interspersed with ads for Confederate Insurance, radio-controlled shackles, and Niggerhair cigarettes.

One can only imagine what SCTV in its prime might have done with this conceit—especially since, in CSA‘s alternate universe, “red” Canada has become a black Zion, as well as the cradle of all positive American culture from Mark Twain to Elvis Presley. Actually, CSA takes off on Ken Burns’s The Civil War, and Willmott has the visual rhetoric down—if not the maudlin music and lugubrious readings. Willmott is obviously a student of the medium. In addition to talking heads and scanned documents, his compilation includes fake education films, a faux D.W. Griffith two-reeler ( The Hunt for Dishonest Abe, with the fugitive president disguised in blackface), and a late-’40s thriller, I Married an Abolitionist.

As counterfactual history, CSA is more detached than something like Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America. Willmott, who has written numerous documentaries and is a professor of film studies at the University of Kansas, maps an initially plausible trajectory (and even postscripts his movie with footnotes). Having convinced Britain and France that it is fighting for freedom and not for slavery, the Confederacy enlists powerful allies and routs the Union—then moves south to establish the equivalent of a Latin American co-prosperity sphere. Meanwhile, the North is wooed back into the fold with tax rebates for businesses buying slaves. Willmott’s imagined 20th century is even more polemical. To cure the Great Depression, the CSA revives the slave trade, allies itself with Nazi Germany, and launches a sneak attack on Japan.

The schema manages to integrate the Kennedy assassination and the Newark “slave rebellion,” as well as the promotion of a Family Values Act to end with a Clinton joke. Yes, there’s something terribly familiar about this historical fantasy. As we now know, and Willmott is well aware, the South actually did win the Civil War.

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