Notes from Underground is an modern-day adaptation of Dostoyevsky's
novella, which consists of diary notes from a disenfranchised, self-loathing
man who admits from the beginning that he is sick, dysfunctional and not very
nice. Every time something threatens to go well in his life, he opens his
mouth and screws it up. We had a saying in the Navy, "He could screw up a wet
dream." That's Underground Man.
Yessir, ol' Fyodor Dostoyevsky really knew how to have a good time. What a
loveable, laugh-a-minute rascal he must have been. If he had come a few years
later in Russian history, he would have been the life of the Communist Party.
There has to be a Yakov Smirnov joke in there somewhere. "In America you bring
life to party, but in Soviet Russia, Party drains life from you."
The first challenge the filmmakers faced in adapting the story was to
figure out a new gimmick for "Underground Man" to use for communication.
Clearly, you can't make a film where someone just writes introspective stuff
into a diary. They hit on a reasonable solution, that of turning the diary
into a video diary. The second problem was that the source material is full of
specific commentary on Russian politics, philosophy and art which wouldn't
translate well to the English-speaking world of today, so the scenarist stuck
to the first and last chapters, which allowed him to tell a story with an arc.
Underground Man is a petty bureaucrat in charge of approving building plans
in the building department at city hall, a function which he enjoys because he
has power. He doesn't often mix socially, but has one college friend who
doesn't openly despise him, and he sometimes visits. On this particular day,
two other mutual schoolmates are there, and are planning a going-away party
for yet another. Undie invites himself to the party, despite the facts that
can't afford his share of the cost and; (2) he never even liked the guest of
honor to begin with. He is completely embarrassed at the party, and makes a fool of himself.
The others leave him and head to a whorehouse. He follows with the idea of
smashing their faces in, but gets distracted and ends up in bed with hooker
Sheryl Lee, who is a breath of fresh air in what is otherwise a terribly dark
and depressing work. After the sex, he browbeats her about how dangerous and
self-destructive her lifestyle is, then gives her his card and offers to take
her away from her current life. He gets through to her then leaves. His
greatest hope and his greatest fear is that she will show up at his dingy
basement apartment. When she does, he screws that up too.
The DVD is given the full treatment, including two commentaries, critical
essays, slide shows and more. Most of the experts agree that the film captures
the spirit of the source material, and demonstrates that not only was
Dostoyevsky correct about the existence of an Underground Man in his society,
but that Underground Man still exists today. One of the full-length
commentaries is from a professor of comparative literature.
I found it rather
slow going, and it is way too depressing for my taste. Your mileage may vary.