Fear of a Red Planet: Yakov Protazanov “Aelita: Queen of Mars”

In the aftermath of the Russian Revolution and the subsequent civil war, when a shortage of raw stock meant there were not enough domestic films to sustain the country’s movie theatres, foreign imports (particularly from Hollywood) swooped in to fill the void and would have a decisive influence on the first generation of Soviet filmmakers. Less formally radical—and consequently, more accessible—than the subsequent masterpieces of Sergei Eisenstein, Aleksandr Dovzhenko, et al., Yakov Protazanov’s Aelita: Queen of Mars (1924) nonetheless displays a sophisticated grasp of parallel montage and constructive editing, though its screenplay, based upon Alexei Tolstoy’s novel Aelita, or The Decline of Mars (1923), bites off more than it can chew. In the film’s first and strongest hour, scientists on earth receive an enigmatic message from outer space, and while working on a rocket ship to reach the red planet, a Russian engineer (Nikolai Tsereteli) retreats into elaborate fantasies involving the titular Martian monarch (the future director and Mrs. Dovzhenko, Yulia Solntseva), who sees the engineer and his wife (Valentina Kuindzhi) kissing on a sort of television set and decides that she would like to try it out for herself. Meanwhile, the engineer begins to suspect his wife of having an affair with a decadent bourgeois (Pavel Pol), who is far and away the film’s most appealing character—making it all the more lamentable that he largely disappears from the plot in the second hour when the engineer, a bumpkinish amateur detective (Igor Ilyinsky), and a recently demobbed Red Army soldier (Nikolay Batalov) journey to Mars, where the soldier incites a socialist revolution. The film’s early scenes, set in the final days of the Civil War, strike a delicate balance between pulp fantasy and social observation (in one sequence, the bourgeois and his reactionary friends wistfully recall the splendour of Tsarist Russia), but while the steep diagonals and winding pathways of the huge Martian sets yield some striking compositions, once the fantasy elements gain the upper hand, the story begins to lose its moorings.


The Road Not Taken: Kelly Reichardt’s “River of Grass”

Apart from the uncharacteristically dramatic and suspenseful Night Moves (2013), Kelly Reichardt’s films over the last twelve years have largely failed to impress me, so it was a genuine delight for me to catch up with River of Grass (1994), her even more uncharacteristic and long-unavailable debut, which is unabashedly interesting and often laugh-out-loud funny. The film tells the story of a dim housewife named Cozy (Lisa Bowman) who is living a life of quiet desperation in North Miami when she meets Lee Ray Harold (Larry Fesseden), a 30-year-old juvenile delinquent who by chance comes into possession of a revolver belonging to Cozy’s detective father (Dick Russell). One night, Cozy fires a shot in the direction of a black homeowner whose property she and Lee Ray are trespassing on, and believing him to be seriously injured or dead (he’s fine), they decide to go on the run but are unable to raise enough money to get themselves across the county line. Finally, after being turned back at a toll stop because they do not have enough money to get on the expressway, Cozy comes to the sad realization that she and Lee Ray are not really on the run, and even if they are, that no one is looking for them. Even before 1994, there had already been more than enough films about inept criminals doing stupid things in unattractive suburban settings—the shadows of Wanda (Barbara Loden, 1970), Badlands (Terrence Malick, 1973), and the early features of Jean-Luc Godard all loom heavily over this film—but what keeps River of Grass surprising and fun is the wealth of incidental details that are both totally unexpected and entirely convincing: Lee Ray struggling to light a roach and steer his car at the same time; the casual ease with which a woman returns the detective’s revolver when it slips from his faulty hip holster; the garish tube top the middle-aged motel manager wears when she promptly turns up to collect that day’s rent from Lee Ray. I was also amused by Cozy’s monotone voice-over, which is less knowledgeable about what happens in the plot than we are. Whereas Reichardt’s later films are often simply bland, here she pulls off the difficult feat of defamiliarizing the drabness of her characters’ lives and their surroundings, making them weirdly compelling.

Essential Cinema: Idrissa Ouédraogo’s “Tilaï”

A work of consummate mastery, Idrissa Ouédraogo’s Tilaï (1990) is a film so quietly assured that it only gradually dawned on me just how purposeful and intelligent Ouédraogo’s direction really is. Nearly every shot has its own arc, and although the film contains images of astonishing beauty, no shot is only beautiful as Ouédraogo’s staging and mobile framing are always in the service of the narrative, which has the starkness and simplicity of myth. In the opening sequence, Saga (Rasmané Ouédraogo) returns to his village after several years of wandering to discover that his father has taken his sweetheart, Nogma (Ina Cissé), as a second wife even though he had promised her to Saga. To make matters more complicated, Nogma is still in love with Saga, and when the community learns of their adulterous relationship, it falls to Saga’s brother, Kougri (Assane Ouédraogo), to carry out the death sentence against him. Despite some hints in the mise en scène that the story takes place after the arrival of the European colonizers (Saga, for instance, carries a rifle that ultimately leads to his downfall), we neither see nor hear of any white people and the characters, living in clay houses surrounded by vast expanses of nature, act according to ancient customs handed down from time immemorial, giving the film a timeless, mythic quality that is counterpointed by Abdullah Ibrahim’s anachronistic score, performed by a jazz trio, which suggests a detached, modern perspective on the characters. Clocking in at a lean 78 minutes and dispensing entirely with the sort of superfluous technical wankery that directors like Darren Aronofsky and Alejandro González Iñaríttu have built their reputations on, Tilaï is so focused and economical that it makes you realize just how much unnecessary bullshit there is in most other films.

First Immorality, Then Bread: Oshima Nagisa’s “The Sun’s Burial”

Geoffrey Nowell-Smith has argued that Oshima Nagisa’s greatness as a director was “inseparable from his indifference to whether his films were likable [sic] or not,” and although it is too early for me to say, after just one viewing, whether or not The Sun’s Burial (Taiyo no hakaba, 1960) is a great film, it is doubtlessly one of his most radically unlikeable, systematically undermining any attempt the spectator might make to sympathize with its characters. An exceptionally mean and nihilistic yakuza story set against a backdrop of unrelieved squalor, this 87-minute feature has enough plot for a miniseries and, as in Oshima’s subsequent and equally estranging Night and Fog in Japan (Nihon no yoru to kiri, 1960), there are too many characters for the spectator to keep track of all of them on first viewing. Some of the more memorable rouges here, none of whom have any redeeming qualities whatsoever, are a teenage blood merchant who sidelines in prostitution (or perhaps it is the other way around) and who in one scene catches her father trying to peak up her dress while she sleeps, a demented right-wing agitator who believes the Soviets are planning to invade Japan in the next two years, and a lame pimp first seen choking a whore with his crutch because he does not want to pay for her to have an abortion while another prostitute sitting nearby pretends not to notice. The film is by turns funny and shocking but it is never very affecting; perhaps influenced by Bertolt Brecht, Oshima evidently wants us to take a detached view of these characters rather than getting emotionally involved, but to what end? Even granting the dubious premise that emotional engagement precludes critical thought, the film creates a world so unremittingly sordid that no cure seems possible. When the frenzied slum dwellers burn down their own decrepit shantytown at the end of the film, the fire does not purify anything or anyone; it just leaves a smouldering heap of ash and rubble.

Formulaic Thoughtfulness: Paul Schrader’s “‘First Reformed'”

Given that the central nugget of Paul Schrader’s biographical legend—the one fact endlessly cited in reviews of his films as if it explained everything about the man and his work, for better or for worse—is that he had a strict Calvinist upbringing and did not see his first film until he was seventeen, it is all the more dispiriting that, as a writer-director, he seems incapable of functioning independently of his influences. Indeed, to judge by “First Reformed” (2017)—which recycles massive, undigested chunks of Robert Bresson’s Journal d’un curé de compagne (1951) (a solitary priest keeps a diary while dying of stomach cancer and drinking copiously), Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light (Nattvardsgästerna, 1963) (with global warming substituted for nuclear war and Victoria Hill for Ingrid Thulin), and Schrader’s own script for Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976), itself largely derived from The Searchers (John Ford, 1956) and Dostoevsky by way of Bresson—one might guess that he learned everything he knows about spiritual angst from watching European art movies. As in the Bergman film, Schrader’s protagonist, Rev. Toller (Ethan Hawke), is the minister of a small church where one of the few remaining parishioners is a young man with a pregnant wife who is driven to despair by the spectre of an impending apocalypse and takes his own life; the twist is that here the young man is an environmental activist, and his death pushes Rev. Toller to become more outspoken about the moral outrage of man-made climate change and eventually to plot a terrorist act. This at least is an innovation on Winter Light, where the possibility of any type of political action is simply not on the table. But while the theme of environmental collapse and a clumsily executed levitation fantasy both suggest the influence of Andrei Tarkovsky, Schrader has not updated the Russian master’s reactionary sexual politics: The only roles for women he seems capable of imagining are as opportunities for carnal sin (Hill) or as madonnas promising renewal for the hero (Amanda Seyfried as the dead man’s widow). Also mildly innovative, if not particularly purposeful, is the film’s locked down camera style which largely eschews reframings, yielding compositions that are conspicuously decentred when they are not emphatically symmetrical. And despite its familiarity, the plot does manage to generate a certain degree of suspense, though ultimately Schrader winds up blowing it with an unsatisfying final scene—cribbed from Brian De Palma’s Obsession (1976), which Schrader wrote—that, in true Hollywood fashion, posits heterosexual romance as a solution to all the world’s problems.

Better Dead Than Red: John Ford’s “The Searchers”

The theme of John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) is the threat to the homogeneous national identity posed by miscegenation on the one hand and loyalty to the Confederacy on the other—that is to say, by both the unchecked mixing of the races and the overzealous enforcement of a distinct racial hierarchy—though the film’s attitude towards both of these threats is anything but simplistic. Significantly, its two central characters both occupy a marginal position in relation to the dominant culture: Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) is a former Confederate soldier who, rather than surrender to the Yankees, has become a bandit, while the adopted son of Ethan’s brother, Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), is one-eighth Cherokee. At the end of the film, however, it is Martin who is fully integrated into the white nuclear family through his marriage to Laurie Jorgensen (Vera Miles), but only after he murders his Comanche doppelgänger Scar (Henry Brandon)—who incidentally has blue eyes, indicating that he too is of mixed heritage. That Ethan then proceeds to scalp Scar (an event Martin does not witness) confirms that he is too savage to be rehabilitated, yet it is Ethan who ultimately “rescues” Debbie (Natalie Wood), spontaneously abandoning his plan of executing her for crossing the colour line—suggesting that the white settler society could not survive without men like Ethan, who are nevertheless incapable of living within it. And though the plot follows a familiar pattern of development, moving from unity to disturbance to the restoration of unity, in the final sequence, the tension between order (represented by the white, middle-class nuclear family) and chaos (racial hatred and racial mixing) has not been resolved but merely papered over. As the Jorgensens lead Debbie into her new home (her biological family having been massacred by Comanches at the beginning of the film), she looks up at them with a confused, somewhat frightened expression on her face, raising the question of whether she can ever be fully reintegrated into the settler society—and indeed, whether it would not have been better to leave her with the Comanches, with whom she lived from the ages of nine to fifteen (a possibility none of the characters ever consider and that most likely would not have occurred to the film’s original audience). In short, despite its obviously problematic representation of indigenous peoples, The Searchers remains one of the few genuinely Brechtian Hollywood films as it implies that white supremacy is neither natural nor inevitable but has to be upheld and could very easily disintegrate.

Get Up, Get on Up: Ousmane Sembène’s “Xala”

Ousmane Sembène’s Xala (1975) takes a situation that might have been the inspiration for a comedy and then, as if out of sheer perversity, carefully sidesteps nearly every opportunity to exploit it for laughs, instead becoming increasingly enigmatic and disquieting as it proceeds. Based on Sembène’s own 1973 novel (which, after seeing the film, I very much want to read), it tells the story of a wealthy importer, El Hadji (Thierno Leye), whose life begins to unravel when he is cursed with impotence on the day of his third polygamous marriage. Frankly allegorical, the film makes few concessions to psychological realism. The characters are all generic types without much shading who behave according to their social position; El Hadji, for instance, takes a third wife not because he is in love or even because he is particularly lecherous but to signify wealth and status, and it is unclear what his new bride thinks about marrying a man old enough to be her father—or indeed if she thinks about it at all. Certainly the film does not attempt to make El Hadji at all sympathetic, but in the film’s final scenes, when the plot takes a turn towards the gothic, his punishment is so extreme that it is hard to take any pleasure in seeing him get his comeuppance. Nor, for that matter, are the other characters—with the sole exception of El Hadji’s university-educated daughter, Rama (Miriam Niang), who disapproves of polygamy and insists on speaking Wolof rather than French—much better. When the Dakar Chamber of Commerce excommunicates El Hadji for embezzlement, he points out that his accusers (who also take bribes from European businessmen) are just as corrupt as he is. Perhaps only a black African filmmaker could make such a scathing indictment of post-colonial Senegalese society.