‘Aelita, Queen of Mars’: Feed your Soviet sci- fi fixation with this wild 1924 silent film

Aelita poster
German movie poster for Aelita
 
I’m always annoyed at how difficult it is to convince someone to check out a silent film. Why is it like pulling teeth to get folks to experience some of the most dynamic, expressive, and yes, entertaining movies of all time? Case in point, Aelita: Queen of Mars, the first Soviet science fiction film and an absolutely captivating watch from beginning to end.

Based on a novel by Alexei Tolstoy (writer, Nazi apprehender, and distant relative of that other Tolstoy ),Aelita: Queen of Mars is set primarily in post-war Moscow and (you guessed it) Mars. After receiving a mysterious message from outer space, Soviet Engineer Los builds a spaceship. Cut to Mars, where the Emperor Tuskub maintains absolute power, and keeps the Martian proletariat in cold storage when not using their labor. His daughter Aelita has been watching Los through a telescope. She’s fascinated with Earthly ways of life and infatuated with Los, but she’s forbidden from using the telescope, as Tuskub is suspicious of her fascination with the aliens.

When Los comes home one day to catch his wife Natasha friendly with their tenant, a black market criminal, he shoots her in a fit of rage. Disillusioned with his marriage, he sets off for Mars in his ship, taking with him the dynamic revolutionary adventurer, Gusev, who just so happened to be hanging around. When they arrive they’re immediately thrown in prison, along with Aelita as a conspirator. I don’t want to give anything away, but let’s just remember that Soviets were really into revolutionary uprisings. There’s even a scene where a hammer and sickle are smithed, though it’s actually the hammer and sickle being smashed out of shape, shot in reverse for a primitive (but impressive) special effect.
 
Aelita stills
The film boasted groundbreaking sets and costume designs.
 
The acting is beautiful and romantic, the plot is grandiose and ambitious, and visually, it’s completely epic. Far from two-dimensional propaganda, the film is complex and nuanced: Natasha and Los’ tenant actually acknowledges the shortages and rationing of the Soviet Union, which is probably why the film eventually fell out of favor with the Soviet government. I cannot recommend this movie enough, as I re-watch it every few months. It’s available on YouTube in its entirety, below.
 

Written by Amber Frost | Discussion
Tripping Cyborgs and Organ Farms: The Fictions of Cordwainer Smith
09.22.2010
11:40 am

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science fiction
Steve Silberman
Cordwainer Smith

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When someone whose opinion you respect—in this case Steve Silberman of Wired News—sends you a link and the note “I promise you, the weirdest story you’ll read today (mine)” you take it seriously in my line of work. In this article for his new Neurotribes blog, Tripping Cyborgs and Organ Farms: The Fictions of Cordwainer Smith, Steve tells the unusual tale of Paul Linebarger, psychological-warfare expert and spy for the U.S. government. Writing under the pen name Cordwainer Smith, Linebarger wrote some unusually prescient science fiction tales that depicted bizarre advances in science and predicting dystopian futures as disturbing as anything in Philip K. Dick’s oeuvre:

After Scanners, Linebarger’s most unnerving creation was “A Planet Named Shayol.” (Sh’eol or שְׁאוֹל — “the pit” or “the abyss” — was the ancient Hebrew name for the land of the dead.) The story is one of the most haunting visions of an utter hell outside of Dante, with plot points anticipating current developments in tissue engineering and the infamous Vacanti earmouse that caused a flap at M.I.T. in 1996.

Published in 1961, it’s even druggier than Scanners, with a hipster nurse who gets her patients stoned on the fictional equivalent of Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation and a cow-faced organ farmer proffering a synthetic opiate called super-condamine. Linebarger writes about strung-out states of mind so convincingly, it’s clear that his experiences in the hospital as a kid left an indelible impression. One might even say that these experiences — along with his perpetual dislocation as the son of a spy — made the body itself, and all of culture, seem like an elaborate prosthesis imposed on the essential man. Ich bin ein Scanners, waiting for the next cranch.

Read more of Tripping Cyborgs and Organ Farms: The Fictions of Cordwainer Smith (NeuroTribes)
 
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Written by Richard Metzger | Discussion
21-87: How Arthur Lipsett Influenced George Lucas’s Career

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By the time Montreal-born filmmaker Arthur Lipsett made his nine-and-a-half-minute long dystopian short 21-87 in 1963, he was well-aware of the power of abstract collage film. His short from two years earlier, Very Nice, Very Nice was a dizzying flood of black & white images accompanied by bits of audio he’d collected from the trash cans of the National Film Board while he was working there. And wildly enough, it got nominated for a Best Short Subject Oscar in 1962.

But with 21-87, the then-27-year-old Lipsett was not only using moving images, he was also refining his use of sound. And it got the attention of the young USC film student George Lucas, who’d fallen in love with abstract film while going to Canyon Cinema events in the San Francisco Bay area. 21-87’s random and unsettling visions of humans in a mechanistic society accompanied by bits of strangely therapeutic or metaphysical dialogue, freaky old-time music, and weird sound effects, affected Lucas profoundly, according to Steve Silberman in Wired magazine:

’When George saw 21-87, a lightbulb went off,’ says Walter Murch, who created the densely layered soundscapes in [Lucas’s 1967 student short] THX 1138 and collaborated with Lucas on American Graffiti. ‘One of the things we clearly wanted to do in THX-1138 was to make a film where the sound and the pictures were free-floating. Occasionally, they would link up in a literal way, but there would also be long sections where the two of them would wander off, and it would stretch the audience’s mind to try to figure out the connection.’

Famously, Lucas would later use 21-87 as the number Princess Leia’s cell in Star Wars. But although his success allowed him freedom at the NFB, Lipsett’s psychological problems would lead him to commit suicide in 1986, two weeks before he turned 50.
 

 
After the jump, compare with Lucas’s equally bewildering short Electronic Labyrinth: THX-1138 4EB!
 

Written by Ron Nachmann | Discussion