Koo!

So what do you think of when I say “great science-fiction comedy”? How about Georgi Daneliya’s Russian cult epic Kin-dza-dza! (1986)? Kin-dza-dza! remains fairly obscure in the west…and this bothers me. Like so many weird and wonderful foreign films, it is currently hard to come by. This just won’t do.

"Where are we?"

“Where are we?”

Here’s the setup for this oh-so-sweet movie. A humorless construction foreman (known only as Uncle Vova)—on his way to the supermarket for his wife—is accosted by a younger comrade (known only as The Fiddler). The Fiddler tells the stranger that a shoeless man, presumably drunk and insane, is lost. They offer to call a policeman for him, but the shoeless man just insists he is from another planet and continues to fiddle with his space gadget. Incredulous, the two strangers reach for the device and are suddenly transported from downtown Moscow to a barren desert wasteland. It is the planet of Pluke in the Kin-dza-dza galaxy. And so our tale begins.

At first Uncle Vova (Stanislav Lyubshin) remains staunchly skeptical that they are indeed on another planet. This denial is clearly for his own sanity. The Fiddler (Levan Gabriadze) suggests interplanetary possibilities, but Vova dismisses them all in favor of some Earth desert estimations.

Faster, Planark!

Faster, Platzak!

They wander about in the parched abyss, when suddenly, out of nowhere, a large, rusty, rickety flying metal bucket riddled with dings and dents hovers right up to them and makes a sloppy landing in front of the earthlings. The hatch opens and a short, stocky gentleman in simple, uncouth togs steps out, accompanied by a similarly dressed but taller gentleman in a man-sized canary cage. They are Wef, played by Evgeni Leonov and Bee, played by Yuriy Yakovlev. Together they engage in synchronized squatting whilst reciting the fictitious word koo in unison over and over. Utterly bewildered, yet unyieldingly accepting of this peculiar performance, Vova and the Fiddler attempt communication. They attempt Russian, Georgian, English, and French and all they ever hear back from the two unkempt aeronauts are the unmistakable words, koo and kyoo.* Eventually the stranded Soviets figure out that they can bribe their new friends to take them in their craft in exchange for matches.

*Koo and kyoo comprise the bulk of the Plukanian language.

A gorgeous land.

A gorgeous land.

After many minutes with the human-like “aliens” everybody starts to speak Russian. Apparently the Plukanians are telepathic and it took them some time to learn the thoughts and subsequent language of the earthlings. Once the language barrier is removed we get a lesson in interplanetary culture…also Uncle Vova and the Fiddler must wear tiny bells on their noses out of respect. Pluke has a very strict caste system.

The desert planet of Pluke is a real tough place. Everyone (like eight people) is mean and only thinks of themselves. Their resources are all but wiped out and the land is sparsely populated (like eight people) and is drying up. Promises are worth little or nothing as you will more likely be swindled and cheated than helped. There are two types of people on the planet: the Chatlanians and the Patsaks, the latter of which, although indistinguishable from the former, is considered to be of a lower caste and must perform degrading rituals—such as being in a man-sized canary cage while in the presence of Chatlanians—to avoid punishment for impudence. The class differentiation seems almost entirely arbitrary. The higher class Chatlanians get to sleep on beds without nails and they cannot be beaten in the middle of the night. The lower class Patsaks are not so lucky. Matches are apparently very valuable. Water is rare. Police are corrupt. There are about thirteen words in the Plukanian language that can be translated. All other words are koo. A popular expletive is kyoo.

Travel gets cozy.

Travel gets cozy.

A particularly humorous bit comes at about the halfway mark where a title screen comes up and summarizes all of the words on Pluke we have learned so far. It doesn’t take long.

I won’t go into all the elements of the plot. Kin-dza-dza! is essentially a space travel comedy about two dudes trying to get back to Moscow and learning about human nature and friendship. That’s really all you need to know. The rest is just a string of absurdity, oddity, and japery. Be it the fear of being turned into a cactus by a higher being, or singing earth songs for money, or the ludicrousness of the many bizarre rituals lower castes must perform, or the way in which the earthlings are deceived and must use their heads to get wise and make it on Pluke, it’s all for a laugh. And it’s a good laugh too. Amidst the budding friendships and backstabbing there is always room for bizarre absurdist humor.

Great hats.

Great hats.

One thing that is particularly striking about the film are the jabs at capitalism and some of its pro-communist themes. One of the reasons why Pluke is so backwards and dehydrated is because of class struggles and wanton spending and exhaustion of natural resources. It is a dog eat dog world and nobody trusts each other and many have been reduced to begging. Only when the stiff Uncle Vova can accept his traveling companion, the Fiddler, and the Plukanians as his comrades and equals can they return to earth. We even learn Uncle Vova and the Fiddler’s real names: Vladimir and Gedevan. There must be social equality and mutual understanding in order for progress to take shape. Although Wef and Bee may never fully understand self-sacrifice or friendship and may never fully trust the earthlings, they wind up helping them get back to earth anyway.

It’s a kooky movie all around. Kin-dza-dza! is a consistently odd and humorous space saga with interesting characters and a truly absurd sense of humor. It is an amusing journey with philosophical and social undertones which as of yet remains unavailable in the United States. Someone needs to release this on DVD or Bluray. It’s got it all: spaceships, singing, funny hats, you name it. It’s great.

Kyoo!

Kyoo!

Top 10 Reasons to See Kin-dza-dza!

1. It’s funny!

2. The spaceships, although clunky, are just as awesome as anything in Star Wars.

3. It’s interesting to see a film from such a pro-communist perspective…the opposite of say, Krzysztof Kieślowski or Zbyněk Brynych which represent a more markedly anti-communist sentiment.

4. Did I not already mention the humorousness of the headgear (aka funny hats)?

5. Grown men wear bells on their noses.

6. It’s one of the more original outer-space movies you’re likely to find.

7. It’s obscure and kitschy and therefore tickles your anti-mainstream sensibilities.

8. Although visually sparse and minimalistic at times, the juxtapositions and mise-en-scène are wonderfully surreal (at times it feels to be a cross between Jodorowsky’s El Topo and The Bed-Sitting Room).

9. If you enjoyed reading The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy then you will definitely like this movie.

10. Koo!

Bonus Reason:

11. Kyoo!

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Dec. 8, 2010

The Movies You Didn’t See…because they’re too short

From Ivan Maximov to Kenneth Anger, some filmmakers excel at the short subject movie. The short film is a tricky beast and not everyone can be so succinct. I like short films and I admire the ingenuity behind the best and most clever ones. Here are a few.

"Meshes of the Afternoon" directed by Maya Deren

“Meshes of the Afternoon” directed by Maya Deren

I Met the Walrus (2007) was directed by Josh Raskin and was animated by James Braithwaite and Alex Kurina. So what is the film? It’s an animated interview with John Lennon. The film opens with a text informing the viewer that what they are about to hear is 14 year old Jerry Levitan (the film’s producer) talking to a candid John Lennon back in 1969. Basically the recorded voices are used as a backdrop for the visual tapestries that will follow. The artists behind I Met the Walrus work very hard to animate Lennon’s words as a sort of illustrated stream-of-consciousness that mirrors both Lennon’s train of thought and Levitan’s impression of the words being spoken. What starts out as a fairly novel idea by itself is stretched to the limits. Every thought, sentence, and syllable moves the vibrant canvas forward. Pictures are upside-down, right-side up, sideways, dancing, still, and all at once converging into the next idea as they are prompted to expand by Levitan’s questions. You get a real sense of the real John Lennon and see his logic unfold and build. Braithwaite handles all of the pen art while Karina manipulates all of the computerized illustrations and together they make the decades old interview feel as alive and trippy as if it were happening today. I Met the Walrus is a magical expedition into the mind of one of the most celebrated 20th century musicians and the filmmakers do a smashing job transporting us there. (approximately 5 minutes).

"I Met the Walrus"

“I Met the Walrus”

The next film hails from Russia and combines the brilliant animation of Aleksandr Petrov and the American story by Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea. This film was released in 1999 and features an animation technique that few do and one that Petrov does wonders with. Using a form of stop-motion that is achieved by carefully altering slow-drying paints on different layers of glass Petrov is able to conjure Hemingway’s simple tale to life with all the beauty and complexity of a rich oil painting. Every frame is a rich oil painting and the layers of glass allow for incredible depth, beauty, and nuance. Every time I see it I feel as though I am being transported into a dream. Petrov’s style is sumptuous and gorgeous and one can’t help but marvel at its stunning fluidity and life. The old man, Santiago, goes off into the sea by himself to fish and there wrestles with a giant marlin and the elements. The movie stays true to its source material. All of Petrov’s films are incredible to look at and this one is no exception. There is an atmosphere and tempo all its own in this world and I strongly encourage you to visit it yourself. (approximately 20 minutes).

The Old Man and the Sea

“The Old Man and the Sea”

The last film on my list today is a black and white live-action retelling of the story of the famous L. Frank Baum character, and it is titled Death to the Tinman (2007). I found this film online after watching director Ray Tintori’s earlier work, Jettison Your Loved Ones (2006). Tintori has also directed music videos including the memorably psychedelic “Time to Pretend” performed by MGMT. I was very impressed by what I saw in both Jettison and Tinman. The style is reminiscent of Guy Maddin and maybe Wes Anderson (if he directed Tetsuo), but something about it is all its own. The story follows the life of a lumberjack named Bill who lives in the town of Verton (the miracle capital of the America) in the early 1900s. Bill is in love with Jane, the pastor’s daughter, as the narrator explains. The narrator also tells us that the town did not like Bill for many possible reasons, one being that his valor makes the other firefighters look like cowards. The pastor has God put a curse on Bill’s axe and so his arms are severed and his old friend Paul Mermlestein fashions arms of tin for him. Other accidents cause him to lose his legs and the rest of his body, leading Paul to make him a man of tin. Meanwhile Bill’s body parts have been stolen and put back together into a “meat puppet,” but they lack the heart that Bill still possesses. Jane, however loves the meat puppet. Things go from bad to worse as Bill does anything he can to win Jane back. The finale is wonderfully sublime, tragic, and heartbreaking, but clever and extremely rewarding. The humor, creative style, and fantastic score by Dan Romer and Benh Zeitlin make Death to the Tinman something you won’t want to miss. (approximately 12 minutes).

"Death to the Tinman"

“Death to the Tinman”

Bonus: Ivan Ivanov-Vano and the amazing Yuriy Norshteyn staged one of the most incredible battles I have ever seen on film with Secha pri Kerzhentse (1971), and they did it all with stop motion religious icons. Check it out. (approximately 10 minutes).

"The Battle of Kerzhenets"

“The Battle of Kerzhenets”

Short films have a certain freedom that many feature films do not. The best ones say more with less. They can be more streamlined and sometimes they can be a lot more weird. Be sure to check out I Met the Walrus, The Old Man and the Sea, and Death to the Tinman, but don’t stop there. Keep looking. One more bonus short film to check out is Coleman Miller’s Uso Justo (2005) which uses found footage from an old black and white Mexican melodrama, but completely rewrites the subtitles into a very clever existential meta comedy in the spirit of Nietzsche and What’s Up Tiger Lily. Most of these films can be found online.

I might have write about more short films in the future.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” June 15, 2010