Replying to Esn + Vampires / Masters of Geon (1991-2)
One of my major difficulties that comes with running a blog, speaking personally, is that I tend to let things fall off the map when I have other projects or other works in progress, or when I just hit a writer’s block and feel that I haven’t got much more interesting to say. One of these works in progress these past two years has been a master’s degree, which I’m basically taking in the evenings on top of my full-time job. Thus there hasn’t been a lot of time except very recently to review stuff that’s been on my SFnal / pop-cultural docket. Unfortunately, this has also meant missing out on a lot of very thoughtful and insightful commentary from one blog commentator, Esn, who left a number of really interesting comments here last summer. Esn appears to be affiliated with the truly excellent web resource Animatsiya.net (now hotlinked in my sidebar), which provides Russian and Soviet animations in high quality with English-language subtitles. Though it may be too late to strike up a conversation based on these comments, I did want to express my gratitude to Esn for the efforts to engage on my blog, and to do some discussion of comments here. I’m only going to quote excerpts from his comments here for reasons of formatting, but Esn’s comments are each worth reading in full, and I am going to respond to them in full.
Here is what Esn said about Winter Days:
Thanks, interesting review. I didn’t dislike Servais’s contribution. I’m not sure that I understood it, but it was at least technically well-done and it was pretty short, in any case. Personally, I thought that the international contributions (which tended to be from award-winning directors) were mostly very good, while the ones from Japan were a real mixed bag – some excellent ones, some rather mediocre ones, and others in-between. I'm guessing that this was because Kawamoto felt socially obliged to give the opportunity to some students, friends, etc., rather than picking only the most skilled creators – while for the international cohort, he was under no such obligations and could simply pick the very best.
Well, Esn, there’s likely more than a bit of truth to that: particularly looking at some of the other short collections that I’ve reviewed here, it seems that the social aspects of animation in Japan draw from fairly small, studio-based circles, and so you tend to see collaborations between the same people in multiple points over their careers. Obviously, in some cases, that can be a very good thing (like with Rintarô and Kawajiri), but you’ve very deftly managed to point out one of the primary shortcomings of that particular model of ‘the biz’.
And then, to touch on Esn’s comments on the animated short films of Kachanov and Tarasov, beginning with Two Tickets to India:
It’s certainly no ‘Mystery of the Third Planet’, that's for sure! The animation is roughly of the same quality, but it barely even pretends to be a sci-fi film. Kachanov, as a director, always made films about children and how they interacted with each other and the adult world, and was never interested in sci-fi, so this is a return to normality for him. While it’s still a pleasant film with a charming song in it, I thought it was a shame. Though I guess ambitious projects were out of the question, anyway; by this point, Kachanov’s health was on a steep decline, and this was to be his second-last film.
Naturally, I agree with this take: my review reached a similar conclusion. It’s a cute, watchable kiddie movie, but there’s not a lot of there there, and parts of it did feel a bit like wasted potential. Thank you for providing the context regarding Kachanov’s health and placement of this film in his career; I was not aware of it. Also, regarding the error with Firefox—I’m sorry that you were having issues with leaving comments. I’ll see what I can do to fix it on my end, but given that Blogger is a Google-based platform, it’s possible that there is an inbuilt preference for Chrome / Chrome clones that I won’t be able to surmount. Now, onto Mystery of the Third Planet:
Great film, one of my favourites! Certainly not hard sci-fi, though - rather it’s sci-fi as a kid might understand it, with multiple planets that orbit around a sun visible at once, birds that can fly between the stars as fast as rocket-ships, an entire planet solely dedicated to one not-very-large museum... nevertheless, the film feels grounded, but not because of the sci-fi - what grounds it are the characters, and particularly Alisa’s relationship with her father. Good characterization of children was always a strong point of Roman Kachanov as a director, present in every single one of his films.I can certainly agree with this. Mystery is certainly a children’s movie, with a child protagonist and a child’s view of the universe being paramount. I would also agree that there is little in Mystery that would lend itself to being called ‘hard’ sci-fi: at most it has some allegorical qualities and references to current conservation issues—and also that it didn’t really need to be ‘hard’ sci-fi to be enjoyable or enriching. That said, some of the best English-language SFnal works have come from children’s authors or authors writing with an audience of children in mind: here I’m thinking of Madeleine L’Engle’s Kairos continuity. On Tarasov’s Contract:
One thing that I suspect about Tarasov’s films, is that he WANTED to do these kinds of stories because he really did believe in the ideology. I don’t think this was forced on him from above. I’ve studied enough of the filmography of Soviet animation directors of those decades to come to the conclusion that those who didn’t want to film ideological scripts were not forced into them, or at least were given pretty wide leeway in which topics to pick (for example, one could do ‘public safety’ instead, or adapt something classic, or focus on children’s films). Tarasov specifically seemed to seek such scripts out. I wonder if this is why his films, with a few exceptions, still remain without good HD transfers. They are now ideologically inconvenient.First of all, thank you so much for the kind words about this review! I certainly enjoyed both watching the film and writing about it. Second: thank you for providing this context! I am coming at these reviews from the standpoint of an ‘outsider’ (not a complete outsider, as I can understand a little Russian and have lived for a brief time in the former-Soviet world, but an outsider by upbringing and experience all the same), so I feel like I routinely end up missing quite a bit of the political and cultural context that these works were created in.
Also, I wasn’t aware of the original Contract short story, so the angle that you present highlighting the divergences of the Soviet animation from the Western written work it was based on is particularly enlightening. I’m not surprised that Tarasov would change the ending and make certain other alterations to the story to make the sales robot more sympathetic. It’s also interesting to hear this perspective that Tarasov was drawn to these particular works and animation projects that had a political edge, and that he sought them out by choice. I certainly got an inkling of that from Forward March, Time!, but I came to doubt myself on this in part because of some of the ambiguities I was picking up on in The Pass.
I will also certainly be sure to take a look at Mayakovsky Laughs. Thank you for the recommendation!
I don’t get the sense, with this one, that the story is meant to be taken literally. I mean, you could take it literally if you are particularly literal-minded, but I think the whole thing is meant to be symbolic. I don’t think he was trying to make the viewer believe that the events in the film are a thing that actually happens in America - but he seemed to be saying that fundamentally, what DOES happen is not so different.Oh, this is quite so the case. Shooting Range is indeed a caricature of capitalist America, a satirical send-up rather than an expository piece, not meant to be taken literally in the slightest. The real value of Shooting Range lies in its willingness to poke fingers in various eyes; although it takes on the ‘serious’ matter of the flaws of capitalism, it does so in a way that is playful. Tarasov comes very close to his best, I think, when he takes this kind of playful view—using the music and the pop-culture iconography of American capitalism in order to subvert it. As you say, he does so in a way that’s both technically-superb and clever.
And yeah, it is a shame that there’s no HD reissue of Shooting Range, just as there isn’t one for Contract. Both of them are excellent films on the merits… but, like you say, politically inconvenient in the wake of the events of 1990.
Moving on to The Button:
I mostly liked this one, actually. Like ‘Shooting Range’, I don't think it’s meant to be taken literally, but more as a philosophical/symbolic exploration of an idea/concept. In this case, what it’s exploring is the negative side of creating a presentation of yourself that is ‘false’. If you present a false image of yourself, the danger is that others, even somebody you care about, will come to like it more than the ‘real’ you. So, better to try and ‘make it’ as who you really are, not as a false image of yourself. Which doesn't mean that you shouldn’t try to be your best self – that’s what the titular ‘button’ (which appears at the beginning and at the end) is all about; his girlfriend reminds him at the end that he can be himself and be successful in life, but should still make some effort to not be a slob.Hm. I think I owe it to you to go and rewatch it, then. Your reading of The Button’s core message rings true—especially in the age of Facebook / VK, Instagram, Tumblr and so forth where ‘curating’ one’s personality and presenting a false image of oneself to the world has become de rigueur. Your read also seems to invert some of my own initial understanding of the character of the artist. I think part of my problem when watching it was that I was attempting to interpret it through the ideological lens that Tarasov had used elsewhere, when in fact it appears like he was trying to say something, not completely different, but different enough that it struck me as ‘off’. I can’t say for certain right now whether or not I agree with you, but you make your point convincingly enough that it’s got me curious.
I have to wonder whether or not the scepticism of the arts is something that the Russians (even those of the ‘socialist realist’ period) didn’t inherit, or deliberately adopt, from Plato. Plato was always concerned, particularly in such Dialogues as Hippias Major, Phædrus and Republic, that the representation of a thing, even in spoken poetry or (worse) the written word, would be taken to be more ‘real’ than the thing itself, and thus lead to a dangerous false element in knowledge. The 1950s ‘backpacker songs’ that you mention—were these at all influential on the later instances of Russian folk rock in the 1970s (such as the Byelorussian Soviet band Pesnyary), or do they represent two separate musical traditions that converge at the point of their emphasis on authenticity?
Thank you for your thoughts on The Button! Let us explore yours on Contact:
Funnily enough, though this is likely Tarasov’s most-loved work, it never really grabbed me like some of his others and it's not my favourite of his (though I do like the beginning). I’m not sure I can say why... maybe the interaction between the human and the alien seems awkward and embarrassing to me, somehow, or too cartoony... The theme of ‘unsuspecting human meets alien’ was actually done quite a few times in Soviet animation in the late 1970s and 1980s. Sci-fi had a particularly strong hold on the public in that era (which dropped off rapidly in the 1990s).You know what? That’s a fair critique—or at the very least an understandable one. For me, the ‘draw’ of Contact lay primarily in the palette and aesthetics, which deliberately hearkened back to the psychedelia of A Mirror of Time, rather than in the story or the characterisation. The artist certainly takes more effort for the audience to bond with, evidently, than the alien.
As for the earlier Soviet SFnal animations that you mention on your website, I shall be sure to give those a glance. Always happy to be introduced to new material for review.
Onward to The Pass!
Because the films he directed immediately afterwards are, well... kind of a step down, both in intelligence and purpose. By this point (after 1987 or so, it was pretty irretrievable) the country and everything in it was well and truly falling apart at the seams, and the various animation directors reacted to it differently. Some of them saw clearly what was going on, became absolutely livid about it and made some fantastic films from the material they saw around them, even after the collapse (the Armenian director Robert Saakyants comes to mind). Some hunkered down and kept working on their own visions as long as they could (e.g. Yelena Prorokova, Yelena Gavrilko). Some emigrated (e.g. Igor Kovalyov). Some struck out on their own (Aleksandr Tatarskiy, Garri Bardin). Others embraced what was going on within the existing studios and tried to give this brave new world what it seemed to want. That’s what Tarasov did.Yeah, that was a crazy time. And it preceded an even crazier one. I’ve reviewed one of Saakyants’s (sorry about the misspelling) films here, I believe: The Lesson. The Lesson was a brilliant piece of animation, the artistry was nothing short of stunning, but I felt the conservationist message (a worthy one) was driven home way too hard at the end. The last scene kind of ruined it for me. I’ve watched The Wind as well, but I haven’t written a review of it yet. Not because it’s bad, but partly because it’s so jaw-dropping and all-over-the-place, and deals with such weighty issues, that it kind of defies characterisation. Even though I didn’t like The Lesson all that well, it was clear to me that Saakyants is a brilliant animator and that he has very strongly-held convictions.
I will be happy to take a look at some of the other animators you mention here, particularly the ones who managed to hold onto their integrity through the catastrophe of the Soviet collapse. It’s a true shame that Tarasov wasn’t among these, though times were pretty hard for everybody. Best not to judge too harshly in retrospect.
The Pass, though! How is it possible that this movie didn’t win any awards? For a movie (not just an animation, or just a short) which is this lush in its design, this sympathetic in its characterisation, this epic in its scope and storytelling—that feels like a real slap in the face. Even at that time, is it possible that Tarasov was being punished somehow for his earlier work in an age which no longer valued him?
And forward we march!
I just saw this for the first time and was blown away by it. It’s both a very personal and impressive artistic vision by director Vladimir Tarasov and the autobiography of a society that no longer exists at a time when it was feeling supremely confident (only a decade and a half before the end, as it would turn out). I do think this is among Tarasov's best films. I’ve tracked down all the literary sources (there were quite a lot! This would be a rich field for some humanities or film studies journal paper)…Yeeeees. Forward March, Time! is a brilliant film in multiple respects. I still say that it is pure propaganda, but it’s propaganda done completely right, and it has all sorts of artistic merit all its own. You’re right that it’s like looking backward at the society which made it, through a lens of its choosing—it’s both a period piece and a piece which represents the best stylistic and technical methods of that period. Again, thank you, Esn, for your hard work on providing English and Spanish subtitles for all of these films. You have done a heroic amount of work on a very worthy cause, and I just want to take this opportunity to plug your website again: Animatsiya.net, folks. Go check it out.
Okay—now for a long-overdue review of the Geon shorts, Vampires of Geon (1991) and Masters of Geon (1992). Actually, it can probably be better to consider these two shorts as two halves of one film, based on a short story by Gennadii Tishchenko, and which shares at least a spiritual connexion if not a continuity with another of Tishchenko’s animations, AMBA (1994).
A certain Inspector Yanin of the Cosmo-Ecological Commission is sent to Geon, a planetary body rich in mineral wealth, which also possesses an oxygen-rich atmosphere breathable to humans. Geon had been targeted for surveying and preliminary exploration by the GALAX Concern, which seeks to establish a permanent colony on the planet and open it up to mining. The survey team sent by GALAX has high hopes for the profitability of the colony, but there is one problem: a species of ‘vampires’ exists on the planet, and are attracted by human blood. These ‘vampires’, which in fact resemble pterosaurs, do not bite hard enough or extract enough blood to kill… but they do expose the bloodstream to the local microbes, which—if the infected wound is not treated within thirty minutes of exposure—mutate human tissue and induce a comatose state. Two of the survey team have already succumbed to the effects of such ‘vampire’ bites, but the rest don’t want to leave. Yanin is tasked with observing the survey team and reporting back to the CEC with his recommendations. After Yanin makes contact with the team, he himself is quickly bitten by the ‘vampires’ and nearly succumbs to the alien mutation. He is treated, but must quickly come up with a solution to the problems facing the survey team. Those problems seem to multiply, the more Yanin inspects the planet.
One thing that can be said about the Geon films is that they represent one person’s very clear artistic and moral vision. Gennadii Tishchenko was the author of the short SFnal novella that furnished the plotline of the animation; he was also the director of the animated Geon films, and he also provides his voice talent. This is very much so his project, and it therefore exudes a particular human charm in both its successes and its flaws.
Tishchenko’s designs of the planet, its plant and animal life, and its physical characteristics—recall an early-Triassic Earth. Many of the creatures resemble Earth’s dinosaurs, or rather what palæontologists back in the 1990s imagined dinosaurs to look like. Other creatures bear the marks of designs from other SFnal franchises: we can see the clear influence of Ridley Scott’s Alien here in the predator with multiple extending mouths, as well as the animated films of Studio Ghibli (in particular Miyazaki Hayao’s My Neighbour Totoro) in the rock-dwelling creatures which seem to be almost entirely eyes.
But at the same time, for the animation of the human characters, a very different style tends to predominate. The character designs of the survey team were clearly modelled after American action heroes: two of them bear striking resemblances to Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. For the rest, it appears that Tishchenko was drawing very heavily from contemporary Madhouse productions in terms of how his characters move and articulate their body mass. Many of the still frames are lush with detail, including the shots onboard the space station where CEC is located, and the pastel-paletted planetscapes of Geon itself.
The basic message of the film is an ecological one: although the life of the planet Geon is often gruesome and bloody, and it is home to a number of carnivorous and parasitic creatures, nonetheless it possesses its own balance. The presence of human beings on Geon, despite Geon’s environment being suitable to them, upsets that balance—particularly when it becomes clear that the humans are interested in Geon primarily for its mineral resources. The distinction between human and alien is deliberately blurred in some scenes, however, leading us to think that even though the survey team claim to have been able to cure the microbial parasites that mutate them into local fauna, they aren’t quite able to escape the planet’s influence otherwise. Yanin’s getting bitten by the ‘vampires’ leads him to have some quite striking nightmares, and certain scenes rely heavily on body-horror tropes that were common to live-action sci-fi at the time (actually moreso The Thing than Alien).
Even though the ending features a segment of explicatory logic that doesn’t quite seem to hold up according to the logic of the first part, the core message of Geon is delivered in a tasteful way that does not come across as ham-handed or crass. I was expecting there to be more explicit conflict between the inspector and the survey team than there actually was, particularly when the inspector began dealing with the native lifeforms—but the Ahnold and Sylvester stand-ins manage, despite their trigger-happy habits, to be a bit too reasonable in the end when it comes to dealing with their predicament.
When all’s said and done, though, Geon is a somewhat middle-of-the-road classic SFnal storyline… told with a certain degree of panache. I enjoyed Geon, and I felt that Tishchenko had said everything that he needed to say (and shown everything that he needed to show) within his total runtime of under twenty minutes. Definitely worth a look-see when you have those to spare!