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Movies from outer space

From the tsars to the stars at Harvard
By MICHAEL ATKINSON  |  November 30, 2006

Our new-found DVD-ness and cable-TV luxury notwithstanding, movies have always been a public medium, a spatial experience we share in the theater and a topical experience we share in the culture at large. Painting, dance, architecture, poetry — these are private matters except for aficionados, and breakthroughs and dissipations can occur in those worlds without many of us knowing or caring. Even music is often experienced alone, with one’s preferences and discoveries remaining too personal to articulate.

But what happens in “the movies” is a potential subject for every conversation, and we all, in ways large and small, think we’re qualified to declaim on cinema history and æsthetics. Thus the disorienting buzz the filmgoing adventurous get when confronted with one of the last century’s “secret cinemas.” Are there movie cultures and traditions we’ve never heardof? Movie stars we’ve never seen, genres that weren’t ours? Of course there are plenty — Hollywood isn’t and never was the actual center of filmic expression on the planet — and our complacency as cinéaste know-it-alls is easily deflated. Take the old Communist Bloc culture — today, a decade and a half after the regimes fell, nearly 75 years’ worth of utterly bizarre and ideologically twisted cinema comes at us like messages from space. Manufactured in isolation from Western eyes behind a dystopic wall of totalitarianism, this parallel history of movie mutation is no slouch in delivering sociopolitical subtext, often revealing how the rest of the world, including the US, was seen from inside the bell jar. First Run Video, for instance, has been busy DVDing the science-fiction films and Westerns of the German Democratic Republic, each of them a naive missal from a lost nation and a fascinating negotiation between propaganda and faux American pulpitude.

Soviet genre films may be the richest of all, with the most money, the deepest resources of Socialist intent, and the most humongous stew of cultural legacies. As seen in the Harvard Film Archive’s “From the Tsars to the Stars” series of excavated Russian epics, the Soviet sci-fi films are uniquely conflicted — futurism and technological progressiveness were axioms of the kingdom, but since sci-fi is inherently a form of social critique, the films struggle with their own tropes. Andrei Tarkovsky’s SOLARIS (1972; December 6, 8:30 pm) and STALKER (1979; December 1, 7 pm), arguably the two most philosophical genre entries ever made, achieve their speculative torque via metaphysics; they’re closer to the films of Carl Dreyer and Robert Bresson, not only in their regal mise-en-scène but in their manifestation of spiritual inquiry.

More to the point is Mikhail Karyukov & Konstantin Bartashevich’s THE HEAVENS CALL (1959; December 10, 8:30 pm), in which beneficent Russians and dastardly Americans engage in a space race toward Mars. That the ill-conceived missions end in disaster (and with the Russians selflessly aiding the asteroid-wrecked Yanks) is seen as a failure of capitalistic competition, not of a technocratic climate that had already led to nuclear devastation at home. (This story was altered considerably when the film was bought up by Roger Corman, re-edited by newbie Francis Ford Coppola, and released here as Battle Beyond the Sun.) Another method was utopianism, as in Richard Viktorov’s TO THE STARS BY HARD WAYS (1981; December 13, 9 pm), wherein Earth is a trouble-free paradise of country homes and robot servants, inhabited in any case by tetchy scientists who discover a derelict spacecraft from another world, and its only survivor: a nervous and telekinetic “40 percent” humanoid woman (the kinkajou-eyed, otherworldly Yelena Metelkina). Investigating her story, everyone is led to her pollution-poisoned planet, where the cosmonauts quickly reverse the greenhouse effect and somehow cleanse the atmosphere of fallout. Campy, gabby, and ceaselessly inventive, the film became such a laugh-riot cult item with the post-Soviet generation that it was re-edited in 2001, 20 polished minutes shorter than the original.

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