Science Fiction Double Feature
Well, the strange days roll on, and on: I don't mind saying that the last time I went this long without a trip to the cinema, while living in the UK at least, must have been in 2005, if not even longer ago. Still, the situation is what it is and at least this has given me the opportunity to catch up on a few boxed sets, go through some old downloaded movies, and explore the deeper recesses of the streaming sites.
I realise I could just as easily have called this latest instalment Cult Movie Corner, as both the films we'll be discussing are subject to a small but devoted following. It seems particularly appropriate to be looking at the first one on this particular website, as we shall see…
Always Know Where Your Ketseh Is
Obscure Treasures of the Internet Dept.: Georgiy Daneliya's Kin-dza-dza! (available with subs on YouTube) was released in the Soviet Union in 1986, but struggled to be shown internationally for many years. This is because it was at one point viewed with some suspicion as possibly making fun of the then-Soviet premier Chernenko, and so English subtitles were not provided on the film's original release. This meant it was barely shown outside of Russia for nearly twenty years.
This is a real shame as there is much about this film which a western audience would have recognised and connected with. The story gets underway in Moscow, where we meet Vladimir (Stanislav Lyubshin), a gruff but decent building-site foreman and loyal communist. One evening, he is sent out to buy some shopping by his wife, when a young stranger named Gedevan (Levan Gabriadze) asks for his help in dealing with an unhinged vagrant who claims to be from another planet. Humouring the lunatic, Vladimir asks to look at his so-called 'teleportation device'…
…and he and Gedevan find themselves standing in an arid desert with no idea how they've got there. Vladimir decides (based on no evidence whatsoever) that they must be in Turkmenistan and the two start walking back to civilisation. However, the appearance of a very odd flying machine and its crew (Yury Yakovlev and Yevgeny Leonov) brings home the truth – they have been transported to the planet Pluk, in the galaxy of Kin-dza-dza! If they're serious about getting back to Earth, let alone Moscow, they will have to learn how to cope with the peculiar society of their new home…
Watching this blackly satirical tale of cosmically-adrift Earthmen contending with hugely absurd (but vaguely familiar) alien societies, it's impossible not to suspect that Daneliya was somehow familiar with Douglas Adams and The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Anyone wondering what Terry Gilliam would have done with the Guide movie could do worse than watch this film, for there is a touch of Gilliam's style here too, while the aesthetics also owe something of a debt to the later Mad Max movies.
This is not to say it isn't still distinctively Russian, of course: the running time of the film is considerable and it has clearly been inventively put together on a low, low budget (special effects are kept to a minimum, but well-executed when they appear). Also, there is a genuine touch of melancholy about it that you don't tend to find in absurd SF-comedy films.
If this is a satire, the question is of what, and the answer is not at all obvious at first – the society of Pluk is much too absurd to take seriously (social status is determined by trouser-colour and the language mostly consists of the word ‘Koo', endlessly repeated), but is it making fun of capitalism or communism? The jokes touch on racism, social class, economics and the nature of authority – it is all arbitrary, deeply unfair, and inescapably silly. In the end it feels like the director is poking fun at the human condition in general.
The performances are strong, and the script hangs together well for the most part (things get a bit unravelled before the end); this film still feels fresh and is genuinely amusing in its own right, as well as being almost unique in its status as a zany Soviet science-fiction comedy film. A worthwhile watch for SF fans for all sorts of reasons.
Stream a Little Stream Dept.: I can't remember when I first watched David Cronenberg's 1983 film Videodrome (available on Netflix and YouTube (paid)) – my memory seems to be uncharacteristically confused on this – but whenever it was, it had a big effect on me then, and time has done nothing to diminish the acuity of Cronenberg's vision. With so many of us forced to live our lives vicariously, with our screens now our main means of interacting with the rest of society, it's surely a good time to revisit this extraordinary look at humanity's relationship with technology.
James Woods plays Max Renn, a small-time, rather sleazy TV executive always on the look-out for provocative new things to show on his channel. He thinks he's found one in the form of Videodrome, a mysterious programme transmitted as a scrambled signal by persons unknown, which mainly seems to consist of non-stop violence, mutilation and murder – staged in a worryingly realistic manner. His interest becomes more urgent when his sort-of girlfriend, a sado-masochistic radio psychiatrist (Debbie Harry) goes off to audition for Videodrome and never returns.
Max's investigations lead him to self-styled media prophet Brian O'Blivion (Jack Creley), who informs him that humanity has now evolved to the point where the artificial reality of the cathode ray signal – television – is beginning to supplant ‘traditional' reality, and that the Videodrome signal is an attempt by shadowy forces to control and corrupt this process. Watching Videodrome causes hallucinations, which in this new world have objective, physical effects. Sure enough, the makers of Videodrome want Max to become their instrument: a fleshy slot develops in his torso, through which he can be programmed via videotape; a gun becomes fused with one of his hands. Does he have the will to resist or will Videodrome be triumphant?
There is perhaps something slightly quaint about Videodrome's certainty that TV is the future of the media, but in virtually every other way its oblique commentary feels as spot on as it ever did. The film manages the balance between its thoughtful, philosophical agenda, its structure as a conspiracy thriller, and the moments of grotesque horror which increasingly appear, with Cronenberg's usual deftness: only at the end does it become clear that they struggled to think of a good ending for the film. By this point it has said everything it wants to say, though, and done so in an unforgettable and very cinematic fashion. A seminal Cronenberg movie – hard to categorise as anything else, but this is par for the course with him.
Next week: Yes, I know, you can have too much of this thoughtful, classy cinema. Never fear: a double-bill of Vin Diesel's non-franchise movies is exactly what this situation calls for. You can thank me when this is all over.