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A scene from Dmitrii Kalashnikov’s The Road Movie.

3 out of 4 stars

The Road Movie
Directed by
Dmitrii Kalashnikov

Among the most memorable movie reviews I've ever read is a wide-ranging assault on Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer's hapless pastiche parody Meet the Spartans penned for Slate by critic Josh Levin. Low-hanging fruit, sure. But Levin's lengthy broadside is lodged in the back of my brain, thanks to one particular bit. Deriding the hapless charlatanism of Friedberg/Seltzer, Levin accuses them of not even being filmmakers, of belonging to a totally different category than Paul Thomas Anderson, David Cronenberg or even "a bear who turns on a video camera by accident while trying to eat it."

That last image – of a burly bear obliviously knocking a camcorder around a campsite and, through no deliberate volition or act of will, recording something – has long lingered. Because, in its way, it rephrases that question central to the art of motion pictures and the whole ontology of the moving image: What is cinema?

This problem reoccurs to me watching The Road Movie, Dmitrii Kalashnikov's found-footage assemblage of Russian dash-camera footage. For anyone unfamiliar with the online phenomenon of dash-cam footage, here's the gist: Pretty much every motorist in Russia has a camera mounted inside their car. A combination of under-serviced roads, poor driving conditions and a culture of insurance scamming so prevalent that providers deny legitimate claims as a matter of course, has led to the burden of proof for on-road mishaps falling to drivers.

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It has also led to countless hours of online videos capturing pileups, chases, fisticuffs and a range of highway experience from the banal (a cow darting across the road) to the extraordinary (fireballs streaking across the sky, the appearance of what may or may not be a yeti). Russian dash-cam videos have become a phenomenon, occupying a cultural space somewhere between Real TV and mondo movies.

The Road Movie compiles some greatest hits dash-cam videos to a (barely) feature-length film, for presentation in cinemas. (Although I suspect the real target market is home video, where Blu-ray discs or digital downloads are likely to become a favourite of bored, stoned teenagers relishing in the abundant "WTF?!?" moments – like a vehicular Faces of Death VHS tape.) The issue remains, however: What makes The Road Movie a "movie," in the same way that La Règle du Jeu or even Meet the Spartans can be considered movies? Is this, at last, the bear-fumbling-with-a-camcorder of commercially released motions pictures? Does its circulation through the spheres of "proper" movies make it a movie? Does its select screenings in brick-and-mortar cinemas make it cinema? Fascinating questions, maybe. And certainly fun to ponder as The Road Movie veers into tedium around its 20-minute mark.

For the French film theorist André Bazin – whose writings most vigorously addressed the question of Qu'est-ce que le cinéma? – the cinematic image was one defined by its indexical relationship to reality. That is: The camera captures something that is actually there, in our world of three whole dimensions. Unlike novels or paintings, which strove toward realism, film, to Bazin, was always already realistic. The development of computerized, digitally augmented entertainments has destabilized this relationship. The high-flying spectacles of The Last Jedi or A Wrinkle in Time bear only a casual, superficial relationship to reality as-it-is, with scenery, stunts and sometimes whole characters woven whole cloth out of bits and bytes, 1s and 0s.

The Road Movie feels, in a meaningful way, like a riposte to this. Here is a film of considerable action and excitement that is undoubtedly real. However exploitative, the shots of timber tumbling off logging trucks, of tiny compacts skidding precariously at high speeds, of Slavic men screaming at each other, bear a privileged relationship to reality itself. It is admittedly much more fun to think about than it is to watch – a fact that only further endears the movie in a contemporary film-going culture for which the opposite, as a rule, holds true.

One may question the cinematic novelty of repackaging an hour-plus of YouTube clips. But the effect of watching these viral videos as a "movie" feels genuinely singular – suspending the viewer somewhere between reality and documentary, between the dash-mounted long takes of Abbas Kiarostami's 10 and the combustible vehicular carnage of Michael Bay's The Island, between cinema and something else.

The Road Movie screens Jan. 20 and Jan. 23 at the Royal cinema in Toronto.

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