A valid, though unexpected, reason to hit the neighborhood pub this Friday night: to see Martians who look like the spawn of ancient Romans and the members of Kraftwerk, each sporting a headdress, clear plastic clothing, and heavy eyeliner. Granted, it's only a film screening, but what an amusing reality check to see
how far we've come, and how much better Harp on tap tastes when you're thanking some god that you don't live in Russia in the 1920s.
The Martians in question were the charming vision of Russian director Yakov Protazanov, and the film--Russia's most famous strip of celluloid until Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin sunk it the following year--is 1924's Aelita (Queen of Mars). Silent, epic, droll, and bursting at its seams with Protazanov's overwrought imagination, the film plays out like a Busby Berkeley piece gone political and sci-fi. Who'd have guessed Mars is riddled with sweeping staircases and scantily clad actresses sporting bobbed hair? Protazanov's brother in creative spirit, Jason Cohen of Forbidden Books, has moved his shop's mind-melting party down the street for one night, this Friday, to screen this little-seen gem for those who haunt the cozy and popular XPO Lounge.
The plot follows Aelita, the Queen of Mars (then-beloved screen siren Yulia Solntseva, whom, of course, you've never heard of), and her curiosity-driven affair with the smitten earthling Los. He builds a spaceship to reach her; little does he know he's leaving war-torn Russia to arrive on the shiny planet during its own proletarian uprising (and all the children sing: aaaaallegory). While earth looks dingy and cold and hopeless, Mars comes off as some sort of comically ominous Utopia, thanks to the set-design of Alexandra Exter. (Exter would woo the filmgoing world three years later with his monumental constructions for Metropolis.) Despite its occasional comic turns (when Aelita tries to get a fellow Martian to kiss her on the lips the way earthlings do, his close-eyed stiffness plays out like a Monty Python sketch), the film's tone is unapologetically romantic.
Even if you could rent this film--and indeed, a trip to Premiere might well suit the antisocial among us--if you can see this with a crowd of comrades, you're getting into the post-October Revolution spirit. In fact, this is the first film Protazanov made after his brief exile in France--and it marks the beginning of a second half of his career (he had directed more than 20 films prior to the autumn of 1917). And here's the clincher: Since it's silent (lively piano score notwithstanding), you can talk through it, at it, about it, and you won't miss a beat. Those big black-and-white dialogue boxes keep the rather tangled story line on track, no matter how many shots of Stoli you've consumed. Besides, we're so attention-deficit-disordered these days that sitting through such a deliberate, crystallized document of that era is a noble exercise. And at 113 minutes, you'll be glad someone stops by every 15 minutes to refill your glass.
Aelita (Queen of Mars) screens May 14 at 10 p.m. at the XPO Lounge, 408 Exposition Ave. Admission is free. Call (214) 821-9554.