28 August 2009

Cooing cross-culturally

Tonight, thanks to our friend Simon Lemarchand, we finally got to see a Russian cult film that I've heard about for a long time--and best of all, we got to enjoy his English fansubbing.

The film is Kin-Dza-Dza!, directed by Georgi Daneliya, and released by Mosfilm in 1986. Two Soviet citizens, Vladimir and Gedevan, encounter a confused alien near a bakery in downtown Moscow. He only needs a bit of help--some warm socks and someone to tell him what planet he is on, so he can push the right buttons on his handheld space-time transporter and get home. The disbelieving Vladimir, impatient to bring home the bread and spaghetti his wife asked him to get, takes a joking stab at the device, and he and the Georgian student next to him, Gedevan, suddenly find themselves in a desert; the alien and his device are nowhere to be seen.

They gradually realize that they are on another planet, Pliuk, in the galaxy Kin-Dza-Dza--a planet where class relations are linked to wealth, chromatic distinctions of pants, and how many times you must squat in the presence of the other. The technology is rusty, shabby, falling apart--and far in advance of Earth's. The planet's environment has been plundered--all available water has been converted into fuel for their interplanetary conveyances. Earthly matches (the striking end of matchsticks) are precious enough to purchase galaxy-spanning add-ons for spacecraft.

Almost every moment of this bittersweet comedy is an illustration of the challenges of learning another culture--starting at the very first dismissive encounter with the barefoot alien. The inhabitants of the desert planet Pliuk cannot believe how dense their visitors are about the most elementary aspects of Pliuk's cultures, including the importance of knowing whether you are a Chuttle or a Patzak. (Both visitors--Russian and Georgian alike--are, it seems, Patzaks.) It's important to get these things straight, or you could find yourself cut in half by a tranklucator beam.

In some ways, the film is a priceless introduction to Russia (at least late Soviet Russia). The observatory attendant who looks up their planet's Tenture index gives a classic sendup of Soviet customer service. Much of the dialogue is pitch-perfect Russian humor, with its rhetorical questions and tart common sense. (Any inhabitant of Pliuk, who wanders into the neighboring galaxy and lands on planet Alpha, is converted for their own good into greenhouse plants by Alpha's guardians of interstellar morality. Our earthbound travelers, upon hearing the official Alpha explanation that this is actually a blessing for the crude Pliukians, observe that the Alphans themselves cavort happily in nature rather than inhabiting flowerpots, and ask whether the Pliukians shouldn't decide for themselves what constitutes a blessing.)

There are also the requisite moments of melancholy--as when Gedevan, anticipating being marooned forever, addresses a letter to his family and friends who might somehow learn about his sad fate. There is a sweet heroism about Vladimir's and Gedevan's refusal to abandon each other--or their fickle Pliukian friends.

Language learning is an important aspect of crossing cultures. Chuttles and Patzaks on Pliuk speak a very simple language. Aside from a few technical terms and one curse-word, the language consists of a single word: ku. This word serves as a sort of intensifier and inflector for their real communication, which is telepathic. They communicate with our non-telepathic heroes by learning their language by direct mind-reading. It might not do that much good for earthlings to learn Pliuk's languages, though; as they're told, everyone on Pliuk lies, even in their thoughts. This makes playing chess even more interesting than it might otherwise be.

I've barely scratched the surface. It's amazing how rich and detailed a film can be when it is filmed mostly in sand dunes. You can sample this two-part film through these links: part one, part two. (But this evening's fansubbing was better.) There's also a Russian-language film about the film.

Unrelated links:

Torture watch--Noah on Cheney; Sullivan; Sullivan again. Or skip them all and have a happier day, maybe.

Salam Fayyad intends to build the Palestinian state from the inside out: Haaretz; Palestine Telegraph.

On Chris Rice's Reconcilers blog: "Illuminating a God Movement." (Thanks to Prof. Rah's Blog for the reference.)

Contemporary Poetry Review: Ernest Hilbert interviews Erica Dawson.

Latino evangelical leaders have varying approaches to the 2010 census. Some say "boycott," others do not.

Greg Boyd, God, and the ELCA tornado.

"The war that has taken my life..." (from Joe Volk, Friends Committee on National Legislation.)

Millennium Project
: 2009 State of the Future.

Speaking of the future, what happens when judges get "linked in"?

For Russian speakers: Here's a lively edition of the television panel show "Open Studio" on the perennial topic of whom Russia should befriend.

This week I've wandered far from the subject of Quaker communication, but I recommend the comments that came in for last week's post. Still want to get more responses to my challenge: what are we Friends telling the world that is not all about us??

Even less related: "You've got the right Taildragger tonight!" Howlin' Wolf in 1970.


Unknown said...

thanks for the link Johan!

Bill Samuel said...

I appreciated the link to Joe Volk's post. After the lapse in recent months when FCNL supported a budget heavily weighted towards the military and even wrote me asking me to write a letter to the editor supporting Obama's Afghanistan policy, it is good to see that FCNL may be rejoining the peace movement. We badly need it. The peace movement appears to be weaker now then at any point in my adult life.