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From the Tsars to the Stars: A Journey Through Russian Fantastik Cinema

August 10, 2007 - August 31, 2007

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Ruslan and Ludmila, August 19

Wind demons and crystal palaces . . . Shimmering aquatic gill-men and limitless vistas of outer space . . . For over eight decades Russian cinema has had an inspired filmmaking tradition that encompasses science fiction, folkloric fantasy, and absurdist humor, producing wildly entertaining movies that are only now being seen by American audiences.

Beginning with the pioneering animation of Ladislaw Starewicz, through the silent classic Aelita: Queen of Mars, and on to the astonishing visions of Aleksandr Ptushko and Pavel Klushantsev, Russian genre cinema was amazingly colorful, technologically advanced, and thematically ambitious. Mega-master Andrei Tarkovsky took this trend further, fashioning the highly philosophical and feverishly cinematic sci-fi epics Solaris and Stalker. Still other films, such as Karen Shakhnazarov's Zero City and Alexei Fedorchenko's First on the Moon, are sly allegories of an ideological system in its waning days.

Years before 2001: A Space Odyssey, Soviet visual-effects artists were creating breathtaking visions of man's voyage to outer space. In retrospect, an added fascination of these films is the Soviet party line suffusing fictive space exploration with a real-world mission—to bring the revolution, at least figuratively, to the solar system and beyond.

When many of these astonishing works did end up on Western screens, they were mauled almost beyond recognition. At the height of the Cold War, enterprising U.S. producers like Roger Corman purchased Soviet sci-fi films at bargain prices and gave them to up-and-coming directors, including Francis Ford Coppola and Peter Bogdanovich, to dumb down for drive-ins. From the Tsars to the Stars features new English-subtitled prints of these legendary Russian productions, finally in their original form.

Friday, August 10, 2007
7:00 p.m. Planet of Storms
Pavel Klushantsev's tale of a voyage to Venus is rich in poetic effects. With Ladislaw Starewicz animation The Cameraman's Revenge. Greg Goodman on Piano.

Friday, August 10, 2007
9:00 p.m. The Amphibian Man
"A dizzy morph from a Creature from the Black Lagoon template to a forecast of Edward Scissorhands, all shot in rich tropical greens . . . and fueled by mad-scientist ideas of a class-free 'underwater republic.'"—Village Voice

Sunday, August 12, 2007
4:45 p.m. Aelita, Queen of Mars
Judith Rosenberg on Piano. Class warfare extends to outer space in this silent saga, famed for its outlandish Constructivist production design.

Sunday, August 12, 2007
7:00 p.m. Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka
A glorious excursion into Technicolor fantasy, based on a story by Gogol. With Vertov short Soviet Toys. Musical Accompaniment by Damon Smith, Double Bass.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007
7:00 p.m. Stalker
In Andrei Tarkovsky's last Soviet film, a writer, a scientist, and their "stalker" guide venture into a mysterious wasteland known as the Zone. "A dense, complex, often contradictory, and endlessly pliable allegory about human consciousness, the necessity for faith in an increasingly secular, rational world, and the ugly, unpleasant dreams and desires that reside in the hearts of men."—Slant

Sunday, August 19, 2007
6:00 p.m. Ruslan and Ludmila
Aleksandr Ptushko's epic fantasy transforms a Pushkin poem into a mad, enchanted combination of The Wizard of Oz, Die Nibelungen, and The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T.

Friday, August 24, 2007
7:00 p.m. First on the Moon
"Alexei Fedorchenko combines artfully distressed 'documentary' footage and actual Stalin-era propaganda to tell the tale of a lost 1938 space flight. . . . Eccentric and wistful."—Village Voice. With short Interplanetary Revolution. Soundscape by Robbie Crabtree.

Friday, August 24, 2007
8:45 p.m. To the Stars by Hard Ways
Cosmonauts discover a female humanoid on an abandoned spacecraft, the sole survivor of a civilization devastated by ecological disaster (and the evils of capitalism), in Richard Viktorov's visually ravishing film.

Sunday, August 26, 2007
6:00 p.m. Solaris
In Andrei Tarkovsky's influential 1972 masterwork, based on a famous novel by Stanislaw Lem, "the alien world is one immense ocean, the ocean is a brain, and the brain may be our own."—Village Voice

Friday, August 31, 2007
7:00 p.m. The Heavens Call
This tale of two rival space probes that crash-land on an asteroid features spectacular spacescapes, as well as a prescient visualization of Earth's orbit cluttered by man-made satellites.

Friday, August 31, 2007
8:45 p.m. Zero City
Karen Shakhnazarov's Perestroika-era fantasy is a "deliciously cheerful satire about the legacy of Stalin, personal identity, and the political importance of rock-and-roll."—N.Y. Times

Except where noted, program notes are adapted from notes by Robert Skotak, Kent Jones, and Dennis Bartok.

This series was curated by Alla Verlotsky, Robert Skotak, and Dennis Bartok. From the Tsars to the Stars: A Journey Through Russian Fantastik Cinema is presented by Seagull Films, the Film Society of Lincoln Center, and the American Cinematheque in collaboration with Concern Mosfilm, Russian State Archive Gosfilmofond, and M-Film Studio. Presentation of the series at PFA is coordinated by Steve Seid, and is supported by the Institute of Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies.