The Challenge of Making Meaning – Visitor To A Museum @ BFI

Alternative link here.

This summer, the British Film Institute in London has been showing a lot of Russian Science Fiction. Unfortunately, I have been very busy, so I only managed to catch a couple of films. ‘Visitor to a museum’ by Konstantin Lopushansky was one of them. Set in a post-apocalyptic future, the film raises questions about the ties between rationality, consumption, religion and meaning.

A visitor, who identifies himself (wrongly?) as being ‘from the city’, travels through miles and miles of rubbish to the coast of post-apocalyptic Russia to see a museum. Emphasising that he wants to touch it rather than just consuming pictures of it, he makes enquiries amongst the locals about the best way and time of getting there. As the museum, apparently a sunken city, is only accessible during a particularly long-lasting low tide, the visitor has to hang around for a bit until he can make his attempt at reaching the sunken city. We learn that it is mandatory to sign a register when one intends to embark towards the museum and that it takes 6 days to get to the museum there and back – exactly the duration of the low tide. It is not clear whether any one has actually ever made it to the museum, only that there have been failed attempts: people losing their way or giving up after wading through the toxic sludge that covers the sea floor. Luposhansky does an excellent job at making the sea appear dead, alien and invasive, in fact so invasive that one starts moving as far back as possible in one’s cinema seat…

Around this storyline, the viewer is introduced to the society of the future: at least 40% of children are born ‘degenerate’ (mentally and physically disabled) and are put into forced labour camps (‘reservations’), to mine or handle, as it appears, dangerous/toxic materials. The ‘degenerates’ have become deeply religious, waiting for a saviour to ‘let them out’. The remaining, able-bodied population – but degenerate in their own ways – are promoting a loop of mindless consumption and innovation in the name of ‘rationality’ (the latest fashion the film shows is black high heels and decorated black chokers for men, which everyone seems to go crazy for). The ‘pure’ people are actually so paranoid about the people from the reservation, that they keep fires burning in front of their windows to keep them out (apparently the ‘degenerates’ are afraid of fire).

It turns out that the couple owning the guest house the visitor is staying in is involved in their own social experiment (pursued by the man rather than the woman): to see if two degenerates can ‘progress’. We later find out that these slave-like servants are the couple’s own children. There is one scene in which the father teaches his son about society, asking what man has created – the son answering that ‘man has created a trash heap’. The father corrects him by proposing ‘a heap of goods’. When the son does not accept this, the father scolds him by pointing out that rational man must confront catastrophes, and not pray or be spiritual about them. In the father’s eyes, this constitutes regressive superstition.

During his wait, the visitor is increasingly drawn to the ‘degenerates’ and especially to their priests (Christian priests). The visitor himself manifests episodes of intense self-talk and displays of inner torment. The appearance of a bible in his luggage (from which he is able to quote freely) suggests that he may not be entirely ‘pure’ – or at least not unquestioningly buying into the ‘pure’ society. After the visit to a reservation-based priest, the visitor decides to abandon his quest. However, he is redirected back towards it through a dramatic occurrence: fitting the description of the degenerates’ saviour, he is claimed by them and prepared in a ritual to go out into the low tide. Stumbling disorientatedly towards the city, the visitor finally arrives at some ruins, which he does not seem to be able to make sense of. Even more miraculously, he returns – screaming and continuing to walk into the rubbish-strewn distance.

Coming out of the cinema, I overheard some people interpreting the ending as the visitor having taken on the pain of the world/its inhabitants in a Christ-like manner, sending out a note of hope that even the most hopeless situation can potentially be turned around. For me, the film appeared less hopeful, in that it suggested how meaning is tied to either consumption, progress, scientific rationality or religion, which all fail to provide it. Although, it could be argued that, rather than the film proposing that nothing most people believe in generates meaning, it tries to communicate that nothing generates meaning by itself without one’s own input: that meaning is not created by unquestioningly following patterns, but by critically examining them. For instance, the degenerates’ religion appears to give them strength, but at the same time, this strength seems pointless, because it is directed at diverting the effort to make meaning for oneself and changing one’s situation. Instead, it is aimed towards replicating a pattern. Everyone but the visitor seems to avoid building an understanding the world and one’s personal relation to it, and because of this, it remains unchanging and devoid of meaning. The visitor thus emerges as a boundary figure, about to break a pattern through being part of either spaces and putting them into question. That he ends up running around aimlessly, screaming could be taken as a sign that the search for meaning and change is such a challenge that it can end in real madness. Given what the rest of the population in this future is up to, one can almost safely say that any potential damage to oneself is a small price to pay – or that even losing one’s mind entirely might be a preferable state in the face of regimented insanity.

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