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The Guard (1990)

One of the most essential shifts of the 20th century was the eradication of moral, traditional, familial,

religious, & demographic bonds that once brought countrymen together. Ironically, much of this cultural devastation has been carried out under the supposedly unifying flags of Marxism & globalism. All that remains to keep the sheep in the pen are the familiarity of trivial rituals & fear of retaliation, both being instituted by the new church of the ever-stronger state that always arises in the chaos following attempts to erase hierarchy. What better setting to explore this domination of decorum than a prison?

The answer, according to Aleksandr Rogozhkin, is a prison so abstract & absolute that even the authorities are trapped.

Based on a real-life incident of a Soviet Internal Trooper going mad from abuse by his own fellow soldiers, The Guard follows a young paramilitary conscript assigned to a unit stationed on a train transporting convicts to a gulag. His quiet, principled demeanor is rattled by the grueling task of sending petty criminals & political prisoners alike to their doom, but it's his fellow officers who prove the most taxing on his emotions. Scarcely over 20 years old each, they're largely a rowdy bunch who "bond" by bellowing drinking songs & roughing up jailbirds. They're clearly bored & miserable when they aren't abusing anyone under them -- a target range that extends to new guys such as our taciturn lead.

Communist countries love to front the image of armies of handsome men & unblemished #girlbosses banding together to fight Western pigs, but the reality of their militaries is as bleak as any pogrom & gulag. Rampant financial corruption & general incompetence aside, Russia's military has long been afflicted with internal strife, with superior officers venting their frustrations by assigning their juniors pointless, fatiguing tasks. Or even beating & raping them.

It's the desperate hunger for a spot in the power hierarchy while the elites tell you that all should own nothing & be happy... as they've got a boot on your neck. No one has any rationale as to why the brutal hazing rituals are being carried out, save that they had it inflicted upon them by the last life-loathing guy who'd earlier gotten the wrong end of the nightstick. Obviously, the state is off-limits -- revolution takes time, are you against progress? -- so small-scale mob rule it is. Democracy once again manifests itself in the form of those who want to be left alone being crushed or assimilated into those who want to exude their waning power anyone who won't fight back. The size of either party doesn't matter; with institutions backing them up, the side that wants to conquer will always smother the side that wants to be left alone.

All this relatively insignificant power-tripping amounts to a vapid simulacrum of agency that makes all parties even more alienated. The train motif as well as the limited color palette in The Guard emphasizes constraint; one is allowed only highly limited actions in a tiny sphere of allotted influence. Some of the older members read dusty philosophy books & even lightly criticize politicians, but this consumption of concepts never extends further to influencing anyone's behavior. When the unit isn't beating their prisoners or each other, they're reciting pop songs & even making a cardboard tv set to emulate music videos. This mostly passive (or at least not extending far beyond the signifiers of greater subjects) voyeurism extends to the barriers of the train itself, as the troops piningly gaze out the windows at open spaces & disapproving crowds. Sometimes surreal things beyond reach can be seen: a man carrying the cross of banished Christianity through a field, a pair of lesbians representing forbidden pleasures drawing away in a parallel train car. These are only brief escapes, though. The unit is trapped in an unpleasant continuity, down to even the edits bearing afterimage crossover marks of what came before. Even when the train stops & the troops may exit, it's for official tasks before being ushered back in. No act of any real consequence is expected.

That's interrupted when our abused hero has had enough. Enough of being hurt by a system and brotherhood that ostensively has his back. Enough of seeing official stations that should carry dignity be warped instead. Enough of being the nice guy who gets spoken for and kicked around by thugs whose ruthlessness wins women and gives themselves some distance above the filth he's forced to wade through. But is just one man lashing back against a system that has already subjugated its subjects into its service capable of effecting change?

The explosive last act of The Guard is a stark contrast to the grueling mundanity of what comes before, yet it feels like a natural conclusion to bottled-up resentment. Rage and fear hidden under stiff lips spill out in bloodshed and surreal imagery that takes us on an all-too-brief odyssey into sources of anguish and spaces of suppression. At last, there is room for the atomized individual to run -- yet the way is narrow and the result is preordained by the powers that be.

Yet that sprint, that long-awaited exertion of emotion, has catharsis in itself. A catharsis that may be seen by others. Perhaps even proving to be a new unifier in itself.


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