Tuesday, July 14, 2009

SFSFF: Aelita, Queen of Mars

The 14th Annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival
Saturday, July 11, 2009 9:45PM
Castro Theatre

I was back the SF Silent Festival in the evening for the Soviet science fiction movie Aelita, Queen of Mars (1924). Things must have gotten really behind during the day, because we waited in line outside for over an hour, & they did not let us in until after the scheduled 9:45pm start time. I didn't catch the name of the guy introducing the film, but he used phrases like "neo-sincere" & "post-irony" to describe the attitude of audiences now. I suppose he meant that we were not to view Aelita as if it were just some funny, campy old movie. Aelita is certainly an odd film, but perhaps not a great one. It has a broad, novelistic plot, unfolding simultaneously on earth & on Mars. At times I wasn't sure that I was following events correctly. Aelita, on Mars, neglected by her husband & sporting a unibrow that would make Freida Kahlo proud, gives everyone meaningful stares & lusts after an earth scientist. Our earth scientist is trying to decode mysterious radio signals & is dealing with domestic troubles of his own. He & Aelita finally meet. A Communist revolution breaks out on Mars, followed by a counter-revolution, all within the final minutes of the film. Surprisingly, everything gets sorted out at the end, including the source of those mysterious radio signals. It's clearly possible to make a lot of meanings out of all these events.

The musical accompaniment was more than a match for the increasingly bizarre action on screen. Dennis James played the Castro organ & the theremin, while Mark Goldstein made music with a device called the Buchla Lightning. I've never heard of this thing before, but it seems to be an electronic instrument that is controlled by 2 wands that Mr. Goldstein waves in the air like a conductor. Various programmed sounds were triggered by the position of the wands in space. Sometimes he looked like he was playing an air xylophone, other times he wafted the wands around or tapped them at the air. Besides using the theremin to create arid & eerie sounds effects for the Martians, Mr. James incorporated the Mars movement from Holst's The Planets & even played the Internationale. There must have been some unreformed Marxists in the house, for many people cheered the Martian uprising & clapped along to the Internationale.

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