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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
One of my favourite science fiction films since I first saw it in the
mid-1990s on video loan from the University of Wollongong, "Wax or the
Discovery of Television among the Bees" is a home movie featuring
inventive computer animation, archived film reels, stills, experimental
filming methods, not a little humour and some live action; together
these illustrate an unusual science fiction plot of body horror, a
murder mission, a particular view of history (especially the history of
communication technology, Iraq, World War I and the travails of the
Jewish people) and an existence beyond death.
The film tells the story of Jacob Maker (director David Blair), a disaffected nuclear technician at the Los Alamos nuclear science laboratory who feels guilty that his work in designing and testing remote-controlled missile guidance systems leads to refined mass slaughter; he tries to cope with the dissonance he feels between the nature of his work and his need to support himself and his wife by spending afternoons communing with his hive of bees. These are no ordinary bees: they're descended from a special breed of honey-makers brought back from Iraq, then British Mesopotamia, by Jacob's grandfather James Hive Maker (William S Burroughs yes, that William S Burroughs, famous junkie and novelist!) and his wife's grandfather in 1917. One day while in a trance with his bees, Jacob receives an unexpected gift that totally transforms his life: the bees penetrate his head through his ear and punch the Bee TV into his brain. The Bee TV gives him a mission and a purpose in life: the universe is unbalanced and he must restore the balance by killing someone.
So a strange odyssey begins: Jacob ventures out into a missile test area, following the directions of the Bee TV, where he comes to The Garden of Eden Cave where he finds giant bees related to his Mesopotamian friends living in the Land of the Dead. Revelations about his family history, the true nature of his bees and details of his mission, including the identity of his victim, come to him. He may be the reincarnation of his wife's grandfather Zoltan Abbasid who married James Hive Maker's half-sister, a former telephonist, inventor of a kind of telescope and enthusiastic member of a society dedicated to communicating with the dead. James was jealous of Abbasid and arranged for him to be killed by his bees so he, James, could inherit Abbasid's bees. After death Jacob passes through lives in other dimensions before he is transformed into a missile sent to kill the reincarnations of those responsible for Abbasid's death, now living in Iraq on the eve of the first US invasion of that country in 1991.
It's a hokey story, yes, but one made serious and even plausible by the first-person / stream-of-consciousness point-of-view documentary style of narrative structure, presented in a casual, monotone and above all calm voice by Blair himself. Superficially linear in its story-telling, the plot flips back and forth between past and present, and between present and future, and presents a bewildering mish-mash of philosophies and mythology including esoteric occultism and spiritualism, Bible stories, motifs and themes, belief in karma and reincarnation, and New Age ideas about the karmic connections among the living that continue into their next lives after they have died. Startling and unusual computer animation tricks flip the screen, roll it, spin it around and even turn it into silhouettes of lever-arch folders to simulate the movements of birds and other flying creatures. Animated images can look quite dated but are still very inventive and Blair and his wife, both computer programmers, use them cleverly to create three-dimensional figures and geometrical shapes and patterns, and to emphasise the alien nature of the bees, the Bee TV and the worlds they normally inhabit.
The information overload fleshes out the very bizarre story of karma and transcendence with the goal of atonement and redemption for past sins and the love for humanity that overcomes violence and death. The joining of Jacob, Zoltan Abbasid and their two bomb victims after death suggests forgiveness on both sides. Karma works in such a way that those who kill with violence will themselves be punished with death by violence, as the dead seek vengeance on those who kill them. Jacob himself is both victim and murderer or is it the other way around? In its own, rather flat way, "Wax " turns out to be a surprisingly moral and political film. It passes no judgement on the morality of the Iraq War or the wars that follow in its wake but it does suggest that those who kill may themselves be killed in the same way if not in this life, then in the next.
Repeated viewings are needed to understand the film more fully; each repeat reveals something new and unexpected humour emerges as well how can there be telephones to dial the emergency number even in the deepest caves or the most barren deserts? Those overwhelmed by the many esoteric references that relate to nothing in their current lives (to say nothing of what they might have experienced before their birth and what will greet them in their next lives) can just relax and enjoy the strangest of strange head trips.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
An early triumph for the young Alfred Hitchcock, released in the same
year as his better known "The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog", the
boxing film "The Ring" deserves its own accolade as one of his more
technically accomplished films from the silent movie era. Already the
film features much symbolism in its name alone: there is the obvious
reference to the boxing ring but the title also refers to a wedding
ring, a bracelet and the love triangle that is the movie's heart.
Themes familiar to Hitchcock fans are not so much in evidence here and
the major attractions lie in Hitchcock's increasingly confident use of
editing, montage, the camera as voyeur and development of character
through action and emotion.
Jack Sander (Carl Brisson) works his way up as a boxer from fighting amateurs at country fairs to professional level. His main ambition is to succeed at boxing and earn enough money to marry the cashier Mabel (Lillian Hall Davis). However Mabel meets another boxer, Bob Corby (Ian Hunter), and falls in love with him. As Sander wins his bouts, he marries Mabel and continues to fight but gradually discovers his wife is still attracted to Bob. He vows to keep on fighting to a level where he can seriously challenge Corby. Eventually the match is arranged and everyone in town turns up to watch the match. Can Gander beat Corby and win back Mabel? Who will Mabel choose?
The story is hokey in its details but Hitchcock was more interested in the love triangle and the characterisation of Mabel, the most developed character, than in portraying boxing as a career in the 1920s. It's a given in many of Hitchcock's films that the main female character should be the most complex of the cast, no matter what the plot, and "The Ring" is no different here. Mabel is torn between the shallow, fun-loving life-style that Corby as an established professional boxer can offer her and the plainer, down-to-earth and genuine life that is Jack's to give. The inner conflict that Mabel experiences is most vividly expressed in the climactic boxing scene where she is seen racing from Corby's side to Jack's side and back again. Hall Davis is quite effective as Mabel and has a lovely beauty in several shots. Unfortunately her career in films was short-lived; the arrival of talkies cut short her success and she committed suicide in 1933. Brisson brings to his role an imposing physical presence and height, and experience as an amateur boxer; he's not much of an actor but he has a frank and open sincerity that makes him perfect as a wronged man. Ian Hunter as Corby hasn't much to do apart from playing suave and seductive; he was to have a long film career that lasted nearly 40 years.
The film shows German Expressionist influences in a number of scenes and although the plot can be quite involved, it is skilfully relayed so as to rely on very few titles cards and the flow of the narrative is not disrupted as a result. Throughout his career, Hitchcock never forgot his roots in silent film and a number of his later movies, even famous ones made in the late 1950s and early 1960s like "Vertigo", "North by Northwest" and "Psycho", feature extended scenes where nothing is said. The boxing scene where Sander and Corby settle their differences once and for all uses clever edits and a dream-like sequence simulating the effect of slight concussion to draw out and heighten the inner and outer conflicts of the two men: they are fighting not only for their reputations and careers, they are fighting for the love of a woman. There are scenes throughout the film where the camera is used as a voyeuristic device that lets us see how the rivalry between Sander and Corby develops and escalates.
It is a slow film in its first half and doesn't accumulate pace and tension until Mabel's adultery with Corby becomes overt and Sander's anger at her betrayal threatens to get the better of him. Minor characters such as Sander's trainer provide light relief and pause in the tension. Overall "The Ring" is recommended to Hitchcock fans to see how their favourite director was refining his signature style.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Excellent if visually grotesque animated short film based on Franz
Kafka's short story of an unhappy country doctor forced to attend to a
sick boy on a remote farm during the evening in the darkling depths of
snowy winter, "Franz Kafka's A Country Doctor" is a meditation on
existence in a meaningless and uncaring universe. The titular doctor
(Sensaku Shigeyama: voice) is dragged out of his house and taken by two
unearthly black horses to the farm while their groom rapes the doctor's
maid Rosa at home. Beset by thoughts of his ill luck and grievances
against his patients who apparently expect him to wait on them hand and
foot, the doctor initially fails to diagnose the boy's illness; the
boy's family then strip the medic of his clothes and shove him into the
boy's bed where he finds the weeping, worm-infested wound that has
ailed the youngster (Ippei Shigeyama) since his birth. Returning home
with what remains of his clothes, the doctor finds the horses are
travelling slowly and his journey back to Rosa takes forever in a
frozen landscape of giant snow eyes, noses and ears.
The narrative is closely based on the Kafka original and the sense of alienation, the lack of insight into human nature, and absence of compassion and empathy for others, on the doctor's part which doom him to a hopeless servitude at the mercy of parasitical, exploitative villagers are obvious throughout. The plot lends itself readily to a surreal style of animation, at once two-dimensional and three- dimensional in look thanks to clever replication of shading and light falling on objects; the drawing might look crude but the simplicity gives the film a raw, often dark and creepy energy. The backgrounds sometimes look painted onto a board; figures flit across them like smooth stop-motion pieces pasted over; lines are feathery and fragile, giving objects a frail, insubstantial look; at times the foreground and the edges of the film blur and bleed, and objects closest to the viewer even bubble and shudder as if fragmenting and disintegrating. Colouring is restricted to black, white and grey shades in-between and red appears only in a couple of scenes where the doctor sees his patient's deep wound.
Characters may be deranged and twisted psychologically as well as physically and the doctor's paranoia about the people and animals he meets (and how it distorts his view of himself, literally, as his head balloons and deflates and his legs grow long or short) seems well- founded. It's hard not to think that " A Country Doctor" is actually a psychological film about someone who has wasted his life doing as little as possible for a life of ease and comfort, and now that he is coming towards the end of his life, he is haunted by all the young patients whose lives he failed to save (because he didn't strive enough on their behalf) and their presence is driving him towards mental breakdown.
The actors who give voice to the doctor and the boy are trained in a type of traditional Japanese comedy drama called kyogen which is related to noh play. The actor playing the doctor and the people giving voice to the boy patient and the doctor's spirit consciences (also boy-like) are members of a famous kyogen acting family.
It's a bleak and despairing view of the human condition, especially of one individual who does not know himself and who allows himself to be used by others similarly uncomprehending of their own selves. The film suggests that people are always using one another for short-term gain while the universe observes them all indifferently.
Having heard about this 30-minute feature going viral across Youtube
and various social networking sites, I determined to watch this film
championed by mysterious US charity Invisible Children for myself. I
found it a very slick and manipulative piece of propaganda aimed at
young people and families with children. The film starts with director
Jason Russell and his family, and zooms in on his young son from birth
on to his preschool years before branching out to the lost children of
Uganda, children like Jacob who have lost their families and have been
forced to join the Lord's Resistance Army as soldiers (if they're boys)
or sex slaves (if they're girls) under the sinister charismatic
leadership of one Joseph Kony. Russell dwells for a little time on
Jacob and his experiences before delving into a drive for support and
donations to help other young people like Jacob, and suggesting ways in
which people can bring the issue of child soldiers and finding Kony to
be brought to justice to the attention of others.
Russell adopts a deliberate personal style to make very subjective appeals to people's emotions. His use of his son as willing collaborator is creepy as well as exploitative, to say the least. The filming methods used are so slick as to raise my hackles: the editing and the images, even the sloganeering and strategies suggested to raise other people's awareness, all look as if they'd been cooked up in an advertising agency that's done work for past TV current affairs programs. The themes pushed by "Kony 2012″ are so familiar as to be banal and devoid of genuine feeling: let's change the world for the better, let's be pro-active, let's protect innocent and vulnerable children from exploitation (speak for yourselves!), let's bond in solidarity with other aware young people and fight this monster Joseph Kony and triumph where older people can't or won't.
No historical context is given, which is extremely suspicious: the film never explains who Joseph Kony is, why he is such a bogeyman and who his Lord's Resistance Army is fighting against. What is his background, how and why is he a rebel, what political / social / economic conditions existed in Uganda in the 1990s that enabled him to rise to his current position as Uganda's Public Enemy No 1, and why should we get rid of him now when we could have got rid of him ages ago? Is the Ugandan government under President Yoweri Museveni so helpless that it must appeal to the outside world? Is Kony fighting the Ugandan government? Given that Museveni has just been "elected" to a 4th term and has been in power for 25 years with a blemished record in violating human rights, invading parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo and holding elections that yield suspect results that support his continued rule, perhaps Kony is doing the right thing in resisting the Ugandan government!
The film's suggested solutions are pathetic and laughable: let's make Kony famous by plastering posters of him across cities around the world on 20 April 2012! Support celebrities like Angelina Jolie, George Clooney and Bono against Kony! Buy the Action Kit package! Wear the "Kony 2012″ bracelets! Donate money to the cause! The Kony 2012 awareness campaign looks too much like an election campaign to ring true. And why should the public be asked to cough up money when famous Hollywood celebrities and other stars in politics and the commercial music industry have more than enough money among themselves to capture and bring Kony to justice and rehabilitate the child soldiers and sex slaves he has abused?
And now that all is said and done, one suspicion remains: the recent announcement of the discovery of at least 2.5 billion and maybe as many as 6 billion barrels of oil in Uganda couldn't have anything to do with the release of the "Kony 2012″ film? How cynical of me to think that a future invasion of Uganda by AFRICOM might need support from young people in the form of a "humanitarian" campaign!
In the meantime, hundreds of children in northern Uganda have fallen victim to a mysterious and fatal neurological disease known as Nodding disease spreading across the border from the newly independent Southern Sudan. It is arguable that this problem deserves more immediate attention and help than pursuing a shadowy warlord who may not even be in Uganda now or be alive still.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
A tragic story about how good intentions can start off a snowball that
turns into an avalanche of conflict, moral self-betrayal and tragedy in
a context whose cultural, social and political oppressions feed into
and off this downward slide. Simin (Leila Hatami) and Nader (Peyman
Moaadi) are a middle-class couple fighting over the future of their
daughter, Termeh: Simin wants to take her overseas so the girl will not
have to grow up in a misogynistic theocracy but Nader can't leave his
father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi), who is in an advanced stage of
Alzheimer's disease, behind and Termeh won't leave without Dad. Simin
files for divorce and leaves Nader and Termeh to care for the elderly
man but Nader also has to work so on Simin's recommendation he hires
Razieh (Sareh Bayat), a young working-class woman, to look after
Grandpa. The work of looking after Nader's dad is too much for the
pregnant Razieh who also has a small girl, Somayeh, in tow and so a
series of mishaps occurs which escalate into confrontations that have
the effect of straining Simin and Nader's fragile marriage further and
roping in other innocent parties such as Termeh's tutor, various
neighbours and Razieh and her husband Hojjat's relatives and his
creditors. Along the way, Termeh, perhaps the wisest and sanest person
in the film, learns a hard lesson about moral ambiguity, the class
divide between herself and Somayeh, the oppressive role that religion
is made to play in Iranian society, and how living in Iran with all its
restrictions simply grinds good people like her parents, Razieh and
others into situations where they abase themselves and one another.
So many problems as highlighted in this film exist in modern Iranian society due to its police-state nature and ham-fisted interpretation of Islamic principles and shari'a law. If the theocracy weren't so oppressive towards women, Simin would never have thought of leaving the country and Razieh might have left overbearing and violent Hojjat ages ago. If the government would allow free exchanges between medical professionals and scientists, help for Alzheimer's disease sufferers would be more available and Simin and Nader would know enough to realise that Nader's father is deteriorating rapidly and that he needs to be in a nursing home to receive 24/7 care. If the government weren't so strict and narrow-minded in structuring society along religious lines, the officials in charge of mediating disputes could offer better advice to parties in conflict other than rely on simplistic interpretations of Islam. Farhadi's genius in "A Separation" is to show at once how a theocratic society such as Iran's with its structures and ideology is ill-equipped to deal with day-to-day problems that Nader, Simin, Razieh and Hojjat encounter, and how they all end up not only coming to blows with one another but meaner and baser as a result.
Some people might believe that Islam is being criticised in this film but I disagree; true, Razieh relies too much on the Phone-a-mullah Helpline service for advice as to whether it's OK for a woman to wash an unrelated man's privates but her example is not all that different from those North Americans who rely on "What would Jesus do?" agony aunts on radio and cable TV for advice on losing weight, how to deal with kids skipping Bible classes and getting little Ebenezer or Jayleigh to do their creationist science homework (because the kids figured out they were being lied to). It's likely that Razieh has turned to an Allah-of- the-gaps religion for comfort from hot-tempered Hojjat, coping with his family and the pressure of poverty which forces her into accepting a job that's beyond her ability to cope with and requires a long commute as well. The real criticism should be aimed at the government for abusing Islam and its principles in such a way as to alienate Simin, Nader and Termeh from it and to reduce Razieh to a child incapable of making independent moral decisions. There is a suggestion in the film that Simin has told Nader that Razieh has confided in her of her (Razieh's) doubts about the cause of her miscarriage and that Nader uses what Razieh has told Simin and Razieh's own simple religious faith to blackmail both Razieh and Hojjat and make them look bad in front of Hojjat's family.
The acting all round is top class and viewers will sympathise deeply with the characters and above all Termeh and Somayeh. Moaadi especially gives a great performance as Nader and Sarina Farhadi as the intelligent and sensitive Termeh is also a stand-out performer. Filming with a hand-held camera throughout gives the movie a voyeuristic intimacy that involves the audience, particularly in its opening scene in which the audience is placed in the position of the court judge mediating between Simin and Nader as Simin applies for divorce. Viewers will see something of the daily grinding pressure on Nader, Razieh and the rest of the cast placed by the strictures of Iranian theocratic society as they try to do the best they can to survive and raise their children; the film clearly demonstrates this pressure is not unique to those characters but applies to all Iranians as they try to negotiate and organise their lives under and around the restrictions the government places on them. No wonder so many people are so desperate to leave the country, so much so that they are willing to pay smugglers and risk dangerous sea voyages to countries such as Australia and Canada.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Delightful short film inspired in part by Rene Laloux's animated work,
"The Bellies" features a simple story about human avarice and arrogance
in controlling nature, and how eventually nature and unacknowledged
guilt prevail over greed and materialism. An unnamed gentleman, gross
and piggy-eyed, gorges on snails for lunch at a restaurant; his fellow
diners, all much the same as he is, eat the same meal in a bizarre
co-ordinated Mexican-wave mass action. After lunch he goes back to the
company laboratory where visitors await him: he explains the process by
which small snails are genetically engineered to grow into ginormous
gastropods for human consumption and takes his admiring guests on a
tour around the facility. After the tour ends and the gentlemen sign a
deal, the self-satisfied owner walks around the facility grounds where
giant empty snail shells abound. On a whim, he crawls inside one such
shell to assure himself he's not hearing strange ghostly noises
animated figures are CGI-created while the backgrounds look as though
they've been done with pencil and paint. Special effects are
computer-generated. The figures don't appear at all realistic but they
are meant to satirise self-satisfied bourgeois conformity. There's no
speech but sprightly and playful acoustic music accompanied by sound
effects emphasise mood and create, sustain and build tension. The whole
cartoon has a very clean, spare look in keeping with the sanitised and
conformist future society portrayed.
The last third of the film is the most surreal and really fits in with a dream-like Laloux-inspired universe: our piggy-eyed company director is forced to suffer as his factory-farmed snails have suffered and must run for his life. The film makes a point about how pursuit of materialist pleasure ends up eating you, how ultimately a culture based on gluttony will cannibalise itself. The giant fork that pursues the man turns into a creepy spider predator with a life of its own.
It's a little slow and drags out the story in parts, especially during the graveyard scene where the company director starts thinking he's hearing distant voices but overall "The Bellies" is an entertaining piece with a surprisingly deep message about a future, materialistic society and how it dooms itself into extinction.
An unusual collage-type animated film that's based on the legend about
the three cypher-texts that supposedly reveal the location of a
treasure chest of gold and silver worth millions of dollars, "The
Thomas Beale Cipher" is quite fiendish to watch and requires repeated
viewings to understand and to find 14 supposed clues. Protagonist
Professor Whie, a noted cryptographer on the run as a suspected Nazi
spy, is on the trail of this chest and boards a train but shadowy
figures claiming to be FBI are hunting him and he must evade them. An
ingenious sequence of overhead luggage improbably slamming into one
another and then attacking the agents saves White's hide and enables
him to flee. That's pretty much all there is to the plot.
The film has the look of an aged historical document and the animation technique used appears to be rotoscope with cut-outs of material and real human eyes to give the film a fresh, rough-hewn look. Bits of fabric like tweed or carpet cut out into shapes of people or objects recall textures of materials once used on clothes or objects and add particular historical flavour. Main and minor characters alike look real yet slightly eccentric and one train passenger looks downright steam-punk weird. A beautiful woman looking out the window may be a stereotypical film-noir mystery dame. Characters wear clothes of flat floral or herringbone pattern and Professor White's glasses reproduce numbered code at various points in the short as his thoughts through his eyes lay out a hilarious plan of escape and deception.
The plot proceeds with the benefit of voice-over narration by White which allows the film to delve into a bit of flashback history about the treasure and Thomas Beale himself. The story is told with the use of first- and second-person points of view: White addresses the young woman (and the audience) and although the lady does nothing other than smoke and look out the window, she is in fact an active participant in White's scheme.
Disappointingly the film ends with White rushing into the hills while senior agent Black glares at him from the departing train. One hopes a sequel might be made but the short is so self-contained that I doubt that possibility. There are several sight gags one funny one being where White hides behind a newspaper whose back page is emblazoned with his portrait, in itself probably a familiar trick disguise from Hollywood films - and ingenious camera angles and points of view that take advantage of the train-carriage setting with the overhead luggage section.
For such a good-looking film, the plot is insubstantial and the whole work would benefit from an expansion into a 30-minute piece with a few more, less complicated clues as to the characters' nature and motivations, and how White and Black are related to each other.
No I haven't worked out what the clues are but interested readers can Google thomas + beale + cipher + Facebook to find the Facebook page where people discuss the clues and a solution by Czech computer student Miroslav Sustek has been posted.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Superficially this looks like a Terry Gilliam / Monty Python animated
cartoon and it is indeed very funny and quite surreal. A man with
mechanical wings strapped to him visits a strange 19th-century European
city whose streets and buildings are oddly empty. He has several weird
adventures which culminate in his being captured by a mad scientist who
early on has noted his presence and who probably rules the city. The
scientist-ruler subjects the visitor to painful scientific examinations
but he manages to escape and tries to leave the city. The ruler
searches for him and sends out bat-winged scouts to find the visitor
and bring him down.
The combination of stop-motion animation and collages of paper cut-out 19th-century figures and buildings gives the short a distinctive steam-punk look and provides opportunities for humorous sight gags. Insects with human heads and animated dinosaur skeletons don't look at all out of place we accept them as inventions of the mad scientist-ruler. Colour is an important feature and its use is very striking and beautiful. The musical soundtrack assumes a major role in enhancing the action and tension of the plot and of the 19th-century atmosphere as the film is completely silent.
There are passages where the action seems fussy and dragged out the scientific examination of the visitor is probably overdone though the animation is very droll and the use of colour very original in parts and the film could have been edited for a faster, tighter plot narrative.
Overall "The Labyrinth" presents a world at once absurd, bizarre and entertaining but which turns out to be nightmarish and deadly. The city is more Hotel-California than the visitor realises: you can visit and stay as long as you like but you can never leave; a parallel with the authoritarian state that existed in Poland in the early 1960s, and the absurdities associated with totalitarian rule that went on in that country, can be observed.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Most current interest in this 1920s Soviet silent movie focuses on its
sci-fi sub-plot of a trip that three Earthmen make to Mars where they
are promptly embroiled in Martian politics and one of them, a
revolutionary called Gusev (Nikolai Batalov), inspires the oppressed
Martian workers to rebel against their despotic king and replace him
with his daughter who is equally tyrannical. This sub-plot is part of a
broad melodrama about an engineer called Los (Nikolai Tsereteli) who
fluctuates between an erotic fantasy life revolving around an exotic
aristocrat woman who worships him from afar and his real life in which
his wife Natasha (Valentina Kuindzhi), neglected by him, has an affair
with a rich foreigner, Ehrlich (Pavel Pol).
Los's fantasy about the woman Aelita (Yulia Solntseva) begins when he and his colleague Spiridonov (Tsereteli again) receive mysterious radio transmissions from afar which can't be translated into Russian and someone in their department jokingly suggests the messages might be from Mars. Mars is a place where rich folks like Aelita and her dad King Tuskub (Konstantin Eggert) can spy on the affairs of other planets on a special TV made of geometric shapes and squiggly wires powered by Martian planetary energy harnessed by Gor (Yuri Zavadsky), the planet's chief scientist and guardian of radiant energy. Poor Martian folks on the other hand must labour in the labyrinthine dungeons of Mars and there's a rotating roster in which one-third of the workforce goes to sleep in deep freeze chambers when the available work dwindles. Good thing the capitalists on Earth never heard of that idea! Most of the movie's running time flits from Los's work ,which among other things involves volunteer work on an engineering project in the Soviet Far East and in his spare time constructing a spaceship capable of flying to Mars with Spiridonov, to Natasha working at a refugee centre, then an orphanage, and flirting with Ehrlich, to other sub-plots which include Gusev's on-again/off-again relationship with his wife and an investigation of Natasha's shotgun murder by the comically inept detective Kravtsov (Igor Ilyinsky). There is also a sub-plot that focuses on one man's attempt to cheat on the food-rationing system used in Moscow which calls audiences' attention to the economic and social plight of ordinary people in Russia at the time the film was made.
All this means that "Aelita " can be a bewildering experience for first-time viewers unfamiliar with the immediate post-1917 situation in the Soviet Union before Joseph Stalin came to power in the mid-1920′s. Repeating viewings and a foreknowledge of the film's plot and themes will be necessary for some viewers to understand and tease out the various sub-plots. Several sub-plots are Los's daydreams which the film deliberately doesn't separate from what happens to the engineer in real life so the narrative, and in particular the ending, can be very confusing to watch. A pro-Communist / anti-capitalist message is present in the movie but director Protazanov's treatment of it is very ambiguous: Gusev has second thoughts about allowing Aelita to assume leadership of the Martian proletariat and his fears are well-founded. This particular moment in the film serves perhaps as a warning of what could happen to the Soviet government, that it might fall into a similar autocratic style of government as the previous Tsarist government: a prophetic message indeed.
Los realises his fantasy about Aelita comes to nothing but chaos, which might make viewers wonder whether it really is a fantasy that he has or something that actually happened to him. Fantasy women who hero-worship you don't usually try to co-opt you into their own nefarious schemes, do they? He decides that his goal in life is to be with Natasha, who miraculously is alive despite having been shot at close range multiple times earlier in the film, and work with her for the reconstruction of their country. Natasha for her part is willing to return to Los and give up Ehrlich. The film's message is that inner psychological rebirth is as important as political, social and economic rebirth if people are to co-operate and fulfill the goals of socialist revolution. Fantasising about flying to Mars as a way of escaping humdrum reality and the work involved in maintaining a marriage (and by extension, maintaining a community, especially a new revolutionary community) certainly won't help to bring about equality and prosperity for everyone.
The film's production values are very impressive: in particular the Martian sets, influenced by the Russian avantgarde art movement Constructivism with its emphasis on abstract geometric shapes and figures, look very futuristic and in some scenes are monumental. The make-up and costume design for the actors playing the Martians are similarly abstract and angular though the headgear looks comic. The style of acting varies in keeping with the plot and themes: generally the Earthlings move and act in a natural way while the Martians, lacking human emotion, have a stilted and robotic style of behaving. Aelita especially seems a child-like and petulant aristocrat compared to proletarian Natasha who is portrayed as a warm and caring, if rather flighty, young woman. The editing helps here too, cutting from Aelita at her leisure watching Los on her TV or lounging about to Natasha cooking stew and scrubbing wet clothes. Hmm, what does it say about Los and his attitude towards women and social class that Aelita is a naive fantasy ideal that turns dangerous and has to be killed off while the neglected Natasha is ready to offer him love and support if only he would pay more attention to her and their marriage? Ultimately for most people the main value of "Aelita " will be in its sets and design but for students of propaganda and Soviet history, the film has a great deal to say about the difference between fantasy and reality. The lesson is aimed as much at idealists and would-be revolutionaries as for those still wedded to capitalist ways of thinking.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
A true labour of love, this film is a meditation on the life of the
Armenian poet who came to be known as Sayat-Nova (Persian for "King of
Songs"). Since the film isn't intended as an authentic blow-by-blow
account of Sayat-Nova's life, here is a quick rundown of his life: born
in Tbilisi in Georgia in 1712, Sayat-Nova acquired skills in writing
poetry, singing and playing at least three types of stringed musical
instrument. He entered the court of King Irakly II of Georgia as both
full-time professional poet and diplomat and in his capacity as a
diplomat helped forge an alliance of Georgia, Armenia and Shirvan (a
former state now part of Azerbaijan) against Persia. Sayat-Nova was
expelled from the court for falling in love with his employer's
daughter and became a wandering troubadour. He entered the priesthood
in 1759 and served in various monasteries, dying in Haghpat monastery
in northern Armenia in 1795 when a foreign army invaded the building
and killed the monks inside.
The film follows Sayat-Nova's inner life and impressions of the world around him based on his poetry and songs. The structure of the narrative is straightforward and organised into chronological episodes starting with the poet's childhood and youth and continuing into his time at the royal court and later entry into monastic life.
Each episode of Sayat-Nova's outer and inner life is an opportunity for director Parajanov to highlight the culture, music and society of the poet's time: to take one example, the poet's childhood becomes a device to emphasise the importance of learning, education and religious study in Armenian society at the time. Scenes of the young Sayat-Nova surrounded by open books on roof-tops stress the value of books and their preservation. When the young budding poet is tired of studying books, he hangs around wool-dyers and the bath-house and again various tableaux show the dyers at work. boiling pots of dye and drenching wool into them, and various men relaxing and being scrubbed in the bath-house. These and all other tableaux of 18th-century Armenian life and culture in the film are often symbolic in ways that may be religious or hint at something darker. Viewers are invited to wonder at the richness and complexity of the culture and values inherent in these scenes and to meditate on what meanings, personal or otherwise, may exist within. Magic may be found and for some viewers the past itself may come alive with personal messages for them and them alone.
For this viewer at least the music soundtrack itself is amazing: it has many Middle Eastern influences, Christian choral elements and there are even hints of musique concrète: in one scene, men are working on part of a church with chisels and the noise they make is incorporated into the soundtrack rhythm. The film suggests a link between one musical instrument that Sayat-Nova plays and his sexual desire: in one scene the poet traces spirals around the body of a lute as if tracing spirals around a conch (already established as a sensual symbol of the female body). The implication is that much of Sayat-Nova's poetry and music was inspired by personal lust and desire translated into inspiration. As though to drive the point home, the film provides an actual lust object of a muse played by Georgian actor Sofiko Chiaureli who handles five different roles in the film including the poet himself as a teenager. The very fact of a woman with flawless features playing an adolescent boy introduces a homo-eroticism into the movie which among other things got Parajanov in trouble with the Soviet government. Chiaureli and the other actors speak no dialogue and perform minimal actions with expressions that are either blank or at least gentle, kindly and serene. In maintaining a steady, calm composure throughout their scenes, not giving the least hint of injecting their own thoughts, feelings and misgivings into what they are doing, the actors demonstrate their skill.
Apart from necessary scene breaks there isn't much editing and the camera rarely moves so each scene has a painterly quality and is a diorama of moving characters who appear two-dimensional in the way they may move from side to side. Close-ups of actors playing Sayat-Nova and those who influenced his work portray them as if they are religious icons.
For Western viewers the first half of the film is of more interest in showing more of the traditional folk culture and values of the Armenians and the pace is steady though not fast; the second half of the film which deals with Sayat-Nova's inner life much more, with his dream and contemplation of death, is slower and more esoteric. As the poet revisits his childhood in parts, some scenes may confuse viewers with the sudden appearances of the same child actor who played Sayat-Nova early in the film. The last two episodes appear redundant as they revolve around death. In the second half of the movie also, there is a sense of aloneness and alienation: Sayat-Nova appears to be at odds with the monks in the monastery at times and doesn't participate in the monks' communal activities. At one point in the narrative, he even leaves the monastery to go and work among the common people. It is possible that Parajanov was projecting something of his own life and experiences in the "life" of Sayat-Nova as it plays out here.
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