Thursday, July 28, 2011

More Soviet SF

To the BFI Southbank last night, to see two more films in the BFI's excellent Kosmos: A Soviet Space Odyssey.  The first, Mars (1968), was the last major film made by director Pavel Klushantsev (Road to the Stars) before his contract with Odessa Studios was terminated in 1972, and he was forced into retirement.  I was looking forward to seeing Mars because a couple of clips in the documentary that accompanied the screening of Road to the Stars showed a wonderfully gonzo alien scenario complete with cosmonaut dog in a dog-shaped spacesuit.  Well, the dog didn't disappoint, but the bulk of the film is a lively but badly dated educational documentary showing that you can prove anything by analogy -- even, in 1968, after Mariner 4 showed Mars to be a battered hostile world lacking any of the romance implied by Percival Lowell's 'canals', the presence of higher forms of Martian life.  Klushantsev's depictions of possible variations of life on Mars are marvellous, however, and the brief portrayal of a lifeless Mars is startlingly close to close-up images beamed back by the Viking landers and other American robots.

Toward Meeting A Dream, from 1963, is a more conventional science-fiction film in which aliens from a nearby star are attracted to Earth by the broadcast of a particular piece of music, crashland on Mars, and are rescued by hero cosmonauts.  The special effects (re-used by American director Curtis Harrington in his SF potboiler Queen of Blood) depicting both Mars and the alien world and its advanced technology are state-of-the-art, as good as anything in Forbidden Planet, and the Russian space facilities on the Earth and Moon are equipped with all kinds of realistic hardware, but as for the story and characters . . . well, let's just say Soviet SF cinema operated on conventions at a slant to Western expectations.  During a conversation afterwards, Kim Newman (who has seen most of the films in the BFI's season) and I identified the following Rules for Successful Soviet SF:

(1) There must be a stirring song, repeated at intervals, and written by one of the characters.
(2) There is no real plot beyond depictions of the selfless heroism of the characters, but a narrator will fill in any holes in the story.
(3) There is no plot because there must be no conflict or violence: problems are solved by application of idealism and logic rather than fists and rayguns.  In Toward Meeting A Dream, an American scientist argues that aliens approaching Earth may be hostile and bent on conquering the human race, and is, at the end, very publicly humiliated.
(4) Characters are differentiated by random tags, and there must be no character development (because that would imply that the Soviet heroes possessed flaws which must be corrected).  So if you're, say, a chess-playing joker at the beginning of the film, for the rest of the story you'll be carrying a chessboard and, when your comrades refuse to play you because they know you're the best chess-playing cosmonaut in the universe, you'll make a joke about it.
(5) As in American SF of the period, the only female character on the ship operates the switchboard.
(6) If a character dies, it will turn out that the whole story was not only a dream, but it was his dream.  And at the very end, some element of it will come true.
(7) Pack all this into a film less than an hour long, either to make room for the main feature, or for a two-hour documentary on pig-iron production in Kazakhstan.


Blogger Michael said...

Oddly, it all sounds very Star Trek, to a degree.

July 29, 2011 7:48 am  
Anonymous rsatx said...

What about Tarkovsky's films Solaris and Stalker?

July 30, 2011 3:03 am  
Anonymous Rhidian said...

Think you and Kim have the formula for Soviet SF in the 50s/60s pretty much to a tee. Klushantsev though was a Leningrad film-maker, mostly at the Popular Science Studios, not Odessa.

July 30, 2011 12:21 pm  
Blogger Paul McAuley said...

rsatx - tempting to say that Tarkovosky was sui genris, but even though he was making films in a different era, I'd like to know how he got around the System.

Rhidian - thanks for the info. I knew Klushantsev started out in Leningrad, but he left, over the ice, during the siege. Did he go back? Thought he ended up in Moscow, but the BFI info sheet (which I should have checked) - is quite clear: Mars was made at the Leningrad Popular Science Film Studio. I may have, stupidly, entangled it with Toward Meeting A Dream, which was made at the Odessa Studios...

August 01, 2011 1:47 pm  
Anonymous Sergey said...

Well, Paul your notes is always interesting.
You have to know that Soviet SF was under strong ideological press.
On the hand by the second part of the 60s-70s ideological powers didn't treat the genre seriously, they thought of these films as of films for teenagers but on the other - the script and film itself always should be approved as ideologically and scientifically correct.
So the directors danced between script, ideological pressure and lack of money - so they do what they could.
Truely these films now are nearly forgotten in Russia. And they couldn't be total measure for all Soveit SF.
By the way Roger Corman who simply re-cut and remixed films by Klushatsev and released them under the titles "Voyage to the Prehistoric planet" and "Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women". In this sence his films are part of Anglo-American SF also :)
But the picture of dvelopment of Soviet SF in cinema was more complicated.
As example Solaris was released in 1972 only some years after the films which are reviewed by you. I was Soviet teenager back in the early 80s and I didn't know who was Tarkovsky and whatched Solaris and Stalker as SF films because they were labeled as SF.
I could recoommend you some films whith more complicated heros. And these films were made in Soviet epoch and still popular among SF lovers.
"Dead Mountaineer Hotel" (Hikkund Alpinisti Hotel - Estonian title) (1979) - Estonian film made by Russian director based on story by Strugatsky brothers. Contact with extraterrestrials.
"Cherez ternii k zvezdam" (Per aspera ad astra) (1982)- it was released in the USA as "Humanoid Woman" - space SF. Very ideologically correct, ecological, poorly visual effects but there's something in this film which made it popular till now.
"Kin-Dza-Dza" - cult SF film from Perestroyka period. Truely it's hard to translate in English and it's a kind of social satire in style of Terry Gilliam. Anti-Utopia. Reviwers on IMDB see as Soviet "cyber punk". Highly rcommending.
And if you put all this in Soviet context - your picture of development of Soviet SF films in general would be much more correct.

August 07, 2011 9:09 pm  
Anonymous Sergey said...

P.S. According to Russian Wiki Klushatsev lived in St. Petrsburg (Leningrad) till his death in 1999.
George Lucas visiting Soviet Union in time of Perestroyka asked to organize meeting with Klushatsev but Soviet officials didn't know who is it.
In 1992 Robert Skotak met Pavel Klushatsev in St. Petrsburg and Klushatsev gave him for free his photos, pictures, ideas of visual effects. Some of them were used by Skotak in Titanic.
There's Western documentary "Star Dreamer" (2002) about Klushatsev.

August 07, 2011 9:17 pm  

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