Sunday, October 07, 2007

Russian Constructivist scifi dream world makes for another great show at the UW Cinematheque


This was another time that the lovely T jogged me out of my lethargic stupor and prevailed on me to go to something I had been about to blow off: "Aelita, Queen of Mars," showing at the UW Cinematheque last night. I knew it was playing, but didn't think I was in the mood for an old 1924 Russian black-and-white, silent science fiction film. Wow. Was I ever wrong. I would have paid good money for this wonderful show. That it was free to the public, like all Cinematheque showings, was just icing on the cake.

The film is best known to film historians for its amazing Russian Constructivist set and costume design, which is, by turns, hypnotic, loopy, and stunningly beautiful in its black-and-white geometry. These stills, which I cobbled together from the Internet, don't begin to do justice to the experience of seeing the film. You can find most of these pictures and additional stills with captions at this review from Images Journal (click on the images at the link to enlarge and show captions), which also has an excellent discussion of the movie and its significance.
The movie's influence is hard to overestimate. Its incredible avant-garde set designs--by Alexandra Exter and her protégé Isaak Rabinovich--would soon be echoed by Fritz Lang in Metropolis, and the set designs for planet Mongo in Flash Gordon strongly reflected Aelita's vision of Mars. The art design for Aelita is, simply put, out of this world. Spokes radiate from the Queen's hat. Doors open like camera apertures. Aelita's maid wears a spiral-shaped hat that seems to radiate from her forehead and sweep around her head. Gor, the guardian of the planet's energy, dresses in plastic tubes. Sentries look like robots, with face masks and huge ball joints at their shoulders. Staircases start one direction and then twist back in other directions--like Escher drawings. Columns arch like rib bones. The Elders march with their hands clasped within large medallion-shaped devices that they wear on their chests. Wires that function like harp strings encircle small pools and radiate to the high ceilings. Gor's telescope looks like a ship's mast with springs, prisms, and triangles instead of sails. This is a world like no other hitherto captured on film.
Still, if the movie were only about formerly avant gard design, it wouldn't have been nearly as entertaining as it was. First, there was the time travel aspect of the beautifully restored print, which gave a pristine close-up view of the Soviet Union not long after the Revolution (most of the movie is set on Earth, not Mars). Also, the scifi elements aren't exactly what they seem, and the movie itself is a romantic melodrama that's all about love and jealousy, longing and loss, with a story that captures the social and political attitudes of the time like flies in amber. There's even a happy ending that helped make "Aelita" a huge smash success in the Soviet Union when the film, the most expensive made in the U.S.S.R up to that point, opened. It's available in DVD (there's a link with the Images Journal review), with English intertitles and a new piano score that "evokes themes by Sergei Prokofiev."

That, however, is not the print that we saw at the Cinematheque. To begin with, the intertitles were still in Russian. An English translation was read to us during the show, which by itself made for an interesting silent film experience. There also was no recorded score. Instead, we were treated to a humorous, lyrical and altogether charming improvised accompaniment by classically-trained jazz pianist David Drazin. I wrote about him earlier in the year, when he was also in town accompanying the rare screening of the Colleen Moore movie, "Her Wild Oat." His music provides a witty, musically sophisticated running commentary on the events taking place on screen -- and makes you sorry that silent films ever died out. With him at the keyboard, a silent film becomes a rich multimedia experience. You can see why he is in demand at silent film screenings all over the world, and we're lucky that he keeps coming to Madison for these Cinematheque performances.

6 comments:

Dr Diablo said...

Folks, it's me again, Dr Diablo. Madison Guy seems to have fallen back into a stupor of inertia, leaving the store untended and the content cold as an Eskimo Pie.

I want to fill in, but it seems that when I contribute, the discussion closes with the deep slam of a Land Rover cargo door. I don't know if it's because readers feel they can't top my contributions or because they feel unable to respond to what they feel unable to read.

I guess I'll take a chance and pull something out of the hat, like...like, uh...OK. Ever hear of Merle Travis? Well, you're about to.

Hailing from Ebenezer, Kentucky, Travis was a towering figure in country music. He perfected the "thumb-picking" style of playing the guitar, a style he learned from, among others, Ike Everly, father of the legendary Brothers. The bass line is played with the thumb while the lower strings are plucked with the index finger. Travis was the main inspiration for the innovative style of Chet Atkins. Travis's instrumental recordings are a delight.

Not content with founding a guitar style, Travis was a brilliant songwriter. When Capitol Records asked Travis to record an album of Kentucky coal-miner folk songs, Travis replied that there weren't any. "Well, write some," snapped his record producer. Travis responded with "Songs of the Hills," an album containing such classics as "Sixteen Tons" and "Dark a a Dungeon. He reprises some of these on the seminal "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" record that he, Roy Acuff, and many others made with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.

An enthusiastic alcoholic, Travis was also famed for the drunken rages that precipitated more than one police call. He fell into near-oblivion before belatedly getting it together and making a comeback during the Sixties folk craze.

The communities in his Muhlenberg County--Central City, Greenville, and Owensboro--carry on the thumb-picking tradition. Lots of residents remember Travis, the Everly Brothers, and other luminaries and are glad to share their recollections. There are outdoor concerts during the summer. Until recently, the Everlys performed an annual Homecoming Concert, one of which I had the pleasure of attending. Travis's ashes are buried beneath a charming monument to him in an Ebenezer churchyard. The House of Onyx, a wholesaler of gemstones in Greenville, is also a great place to buy jewels and carvings that are higher in quality and lower in price than you will find at the jewelry store. They even have ugly stuff like gold-plated State Quarter medallions if tha's your fancy. The countryside is gorgeous, although abundant copperheads infest the sorts of leafy glades that MadGuy loves to tramp through.

Muhlenberg County is worth a visit, precisely because it is not a tourist area. And all of Merle Travis's reissued albums are worth listening to. You can spot Travis in some B-movies and, most notably, in "From Here to Eternity", where he sings "Re-Enlistment Blues."

If MadGuy isn't back in a fe days, I will be.

Dr Diablo said...

Folks, don't stop visiting Letter From Here--and don't stop linking to it, I implore you. MadGuy will be back with his shrill indictments of Bush and his photographic celebrations of nature's more placid aspects. Menawhile, let me continue to serve as a sort of "opening act." Wanna here a joke?

A guy goes into a bar--MadGuy, let us say--and grabs a stool. He's got a parrot on his shoulder. MadGuy says, "Barkeep, give me a cherry Manhattan, and a shot of bourbon for the little fella."

Well, the bartender looks dubious, but he doesn't know of any specific ordinance prohibiting the sale of liquor to birds. Sure enough, the bird seizes the shotglass in his claw and downs it in one gulp with nary a flutter.

MadGuy finishes his drink and orders another Manhattan and a shot "for the fella." Once again, the avian downs his drink. Now the third time, though, when MadGuy summons the bartender, it's the parrot who squawks, "Awk! Give me a Manhattan and a shot for the little fella."

The bartender is taken aback of course and exclaims, "Say, it's amazing that your parrot can drink shots, but why is he ordering? MadGuy says--you'll love this--"Because he's paying!" Heh.

You know as I reread that, I don't find it very funny. I'm wondering if I even have the joke right. Let me check my Toastmaster's Book of Jokes and Anecdotes and check back. Don't go away.

Dr Diablo said...

I'm desperate to post some fresh content that will keep the hit box spinning pending MadGuy's return.

Redskins 14
Packers 7

7:58 remaining in the 3rd quarter at Lambeau Field. Packers threatening to score: 2nd and 7 at Redskin 24.

As we cautioned right here in this blog some weeks ago, the Pack's lack of a running game is allowing opponents to overplay the pass. Favre has tossed an INT and no TDs.

Check back very often for further updates and insightful analysis.

Dr Bud Diablo, Letter from Here color commentator

Dr Diablo said...

Bud Diablo with an Update from the LFH Sports Desk. The Green and Gold closed the gap to 14-10 on a 37-yard field goal by Mason Crosby, then took the lead moments later on Charles Woodson's return of a Washington fumble for a touchdown.

Packers 17
Redskins 14

Follow all the action right here as it unfolds.

Dr Diablo said...

This just in. The Green Bay Packers hung on yesterday to defeat the Redskins 17-14. To all who stayed up to await the report, this is Bud Diablo at the LFH Sports Desk wishing you a very pleasant good evening.

Dr Diablo said...

Praise God, we've had a sign from Heaven, folks.

We've all read about how the honey bees have vanished from the Midwest and elsewhere, displaced by wasps and more aggressive bees. Well, this morning, my back yard is swarming with honey bees. If these little creatures from days of yore have reappeared, can Madison Guy be far behind? I predict he will rturn to the hive before the day ends.

Buzz Diablo