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Colin Marshall

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18. Igor and Gleb Aleinikov's Cruel Illness of Men (1987)
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Some would be tempted to describe this film as "a bunch of random stuff" and leave it at that. But if there's any single lesson I feel I should be learning from the Ubuweb Experimental Video Project, it's that there is no such assemblage as "a bunch of random stuff." We're dealing with wrought projects here, not television static, and as such necessarily the products of directed human effort. That's not to say that rhyme and/or reason are always easy to suss out, nor that sussing out rhyme and/or reason should be the aim in watching avant-garde motion pictures -- but it's one of the reasons I find it interesting to do so.

Under a score of abbreviated drones and freeform woodwinds, the Aleinikov brothers cut together a series of images, found and made, that look unfailingly bleak, industrial or both bleak and industrial: disused factories, clunky utilitarian machinery, strings of unsettlingly young violinists, old-timey group portraits with everyone's eyes scratched out. Interspersed are less overtly sinister but somehow eerier snatches of action, like a circling brood of crude stop-motion mice or a bunch of little wooden people chopping wood and sawing logs, all differently affected by the vagaries time and the physical world foist onto film stock.

About six and a half minutes in, the action moves to the inside of a train, where a normal-looking young fellow finds himself sitting across from a slightly less-normal-looking, slightly less young fellow in a suit. The soundtrack's drone becomes an ill wind as the suited man stands up and confronts normal guy, getting way too close for comfort. Another (relatively) well-dressed tough joins the fray, and things descend into a grappling match.

Igor and Gleb, two young, unconventional filmmakers coming up right after the end of the Soviet era, no doubt had feelings to express about their situaiton and that of their country. I nevertheless hesitate to read any grand statements into a production like Cruel Illness of Men. They put deliberate craft into it, though, and by nothing less than total receptivity can I learn from it. Claims about the moving image's ubiquity and subsequent devaluation in the modern day are tired, but there's a certain something to the notion that we write off visual constructions too quickly simply because there are so damn many of them around, of any degree of strangeness or conventionality you like. Think of how much that must not have been the case back in late-stage Soviet Russia.

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