Director: Vitaly Sumin
Writer: Vitaly Sumin
Cast: Rebecca Sigl, Nathanael Theisen, Natasha Blasick, Jerry Prager, Deborah Lynn Dishington
Running time: 1hr 44mins
I approached viewing Vitaly Sumin’s feature Notes from the New World with a slight feeling of transgression – since Mr Putin’s special military operation in the Ukraine, Russian cultural offerings have not exactly been flavour of the month.
From the production notes, I had learnt that the film was a reimagining of a novella by 19th century Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky – who has himself become a figure of contention amid the Ukraine war. The book in question, Notes from the Underground, has here been placed in contemporary California, something which Sumin has prior form for. In fact, he seems to have made a career of transposing Dostoyevsky’s work into the modern day.
Well, almost the modern day. Notes from the New World was actually made in 2011. This represents two bold moves on Sumin’s part then – not only is his story based on the writing of Dostoyevsky; the most misanthropic and ethnocentric of the Russian greats, the Mr Burns of Russian literature, but he is re-serving a movie that is more than a decade old.
I anticipated an intriguing cinematic experience due to these factors. Sumin’s decision to submit this piece in 2021 must surely have been an attempt to engage a global audience in thinking about the distinctiveness of a particular Russian worldview, set against the tide of a global (read American) cultural discourse. And as time has moved on, this re-release comes in a world historical moment with the Russian regime’s revanchism raising the spectre of nuclear conflagration – meaning my anticipation was inevitably heightened further.
Regrettably, Notes from the New World disappoints in almost every possible way. To be blunt, this is a truly abysmal movie.
Sumin opens proceedings with a young man, Steven (played by Nathanael Theisen) in 19th century costume and sporting a comical fake beard. Steven is walking through a down-at-heel part of LA. He carries a theatre prop axe and states repeatedly: I have just killed a man. The reason why Steven is wearing the fake beard is never made clear to us – whether he is trying to present as a Hasidic Jew, an Orthodox Old Believer, or Sumin’s beloved Fyodor himself, is anyone’s guess. We learn that Steven is an actor recruited by a Hollywood theatrical director Bob (played by Jerry Prager) to take the lead role in a stage production of Notes from the Underground. How meta.
The great majority of the movie takes place in a rundown TV studio where the play is being rehearsed and which serves also as Steven’s living space. We see Steven and Bob with the assistance of Bob’s secretary/lover Michelle (played by Deborah Lynn Dishington) auditioning various actors for the lead female role. They choose a sex worker named Irina (played by Rebecca Sigl) who is under the control of a group of Russian mobsters.
Throughout the early part of the movie Steven is watched over by an enigmatic female character – the Angel – played by Natasha Blasick. As the movie plot develops alongside the production of the stage play, Steven has sex with both Irina and the Angel, whilst for good measure Bob and Michelle have sex whilst watching one of the stage rehearsals. The acts of intercourse might be described as Hobbesian – nasty, brutish, and short. The assumptions are weirdly archaic – the female characters are simply servicing the sexual needs of the men. Arguably Sumin is just echoing Dostoyevsky’s own take on human sexuality, but to do so with such apparent relish comes across as pretty unseemly.
When reviewing for IFL, I try not to give away key parts of a movie’s plot. However, in the case of Notes from the New World I am going to break my rule in order to attempt to convey the sheer awfulness of the movie. So beware, there are spoilers ahead. Although I am assuming nobody else out there is going to have the will to watch the film in its entirety anyway.
The stage play production eventually comes to fruition and Sumin shows us the first night. For a brief moment, the clouds part, and the film actually becomes watchable – Sigl as Irina delivers a powerful rant against modernity, the fourth wall is broken down and the audience critique the text.
However, by this stage I had lost the will to engage. Presumably, Sumin did not have confidence in the audience’s ability to engage with Dostoyevsky in the raw so alongside the meta-story of the play’s production we are given a preposterous action thriller. Sumin uses a tired old topos where most every mainstream cliché is creakily wheeled out.
Irina steals a key to a safe deposit box where her Russian mafia pimps have hidden their ill-gotten gains. Steven, guess what, chooses an angel rather than a sex worker as the love of his life – teaming up with the Angel, they find Irina’s key – put the cash in an attaché case and drive off into the desert to live happily ever after.
The director provides a risible turn just prior to their departure. For some unfathomable reason, Sumin had inserted a surveillance strand into both the meta-narrative and the main narrative. The studio where the action takes place has CCTV so that Steven and Bob can tape and playback actors auditioning which we see in playback and real time. The Russian mob also have the place video bugged. In the denouement, Michelle who has broken with Bob over failed promises of marriage, dramatically reveals to Steven that Bob has had additional cameras installed throughout the building for his own prurient interests – there is even one in the toilet. I am assuming Sumin’s intention was to say something about the pervasive nature of video surveillance in both totalitarian and capitalist societies but as the key revelatory plot device it just does not cut it – your reviewer’s reaction was to shrug and mutter whatever.
The infinitely depressing aspect of Sumin’s thriller narrative which is particularly relevant given recent world events is that the Russian characters are either sex workers, otherworldly beings, or mobsters. Well thanks for that. I assume Sumin was attempting to elide Dostoyevsky’s somewhat jaundiced take on human nature and society with the demands of the thriller genre. But, even so, it is deeply unhelpful and merely reinforces the contemporary Western perception that Russia is a mafia owned gas station. You are not going to get a rounded view of Russian society from watching Notes from the New World.
To attempt to analyse the spectacular failure of the movie is a daunting task. I guess the key problem is in the quality of the acting. It is just about OK for the ‘actors’ within the meta-film to come across as neophytes. Theisen as Steven, the lead, does hysterical Romantic with a range which only extends to tirades against the horrors of modernity or moodily in love. Rebecca Sigl as Irina appears somewhat unconvincing as a sex worker but delivers in the first night sequence. Natasha Blasick as the Angel does not have a lot to do except be winsome and enigmatic which they accomplish competently. However, the vital, existential issue is the woeful performances of Jerry Prager and Deborah Lynn Dishington as Bob and Michelle. In a sense, their characters are the crucial link between the film itself and the meta-film. Unfortunately, Prager’s performance is as deft and agile as a wooden log whilst Dishington is wondrously miscast as the paramour of a sexually predatory Hollywood player. The pair comes across as simply inept actors. The result for us the audience is we are drawn to conclude that a particularly untalented amateur dramatics society had somehow managed to obtain generous funding from some cultural foundation to make a full-length feature film to bring Dostoyevsky to the Western masses.
I did have a consolation after spending an hour and forty odd minutes of my life watching Notes from the New World – the movie contains a couple of scenes which are collector’s items of Bad Cinema. If you are watching on your own device, scroll though until you find the Bob and Michelle sex scene and then find the scene where Steven and Irina visit Bob’s Big House by the Ocean – both are pure gold and may bring tears to your eyes. If you are going to watch the film at a screening – you have my condolences but do look out for them.
I am at a bit of a loss as to what advice to offer the filmmaking team as to its future endeavours. In the production credits, the director playfully refers to his earlier career as a marine biologist and to their making ‘Jacques Cousteau type documentaries’. Possibly, the team might look at continuing the Dostoyevsky exegesis but go back to these roots, producing a version of The Brothers Karamazov where the lead roles are played by a pod of dolphins. It can’t be any worse than this.