As BAD celebrates our invasion, um, excuse me, exploration of Mars with the Curiosity Rover, we're taking a look at some of our favorite Martian trailers. We're setting the way back machine 88 years and visiting a country (an Empire!) that doesn't even exist anymore. Today's pick is Aelita, Queen of Mars.
Okay, technically this isn't a trailer, but good luck finding any out there. I doubt they even made what we'd now consider a trailer in the Soviet Union in 1924. So, with that in mind, I found you one of the niftier (and certainly most hi-res) clips set to music.
A, QOM tells the story of a young, idealistic radio scientist who begins receiving messages from Mars. Turns out he's being watched through a (really big) telescope by Aelita, the daughter of a nasty dictator. Through ESP (or something. . .it's a little unclear) she inspires him to steal a rocket prototype and come to Mars, wherein they both lead the workers in revolution. Then, complications arise.
Frankly, it isn't the story that's made this such a memorable film. It's the design. In looking for the trailer I saw a lot of people on YouTube referring to this as "German Expressionism." I guess to some that's a catch-all term for anything that's old and black & white and looks cool. But I didn't suffer through a semester of art history lectures to let that slide. Forget the obvious fact that this movie is Russian and not German; this is a mainline dose of what art historians now call Constructivism. Dig on this, if you dare:
This is not Constructivism. We're getting to that. This is Painterly Realism of a Boy With a Knapsack - Color Masses in the Fourth Dimension painted by Kazimir Malevich in the year of our Lord Nineteen Hundred and Fifteen. This sucker hangs in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, where kids on class trips come to shrug and say, "It's just two squares, that's gay." Luckily, there's a bill going through the city council that will grant docents a $75 stipend each time they shout "YOU DON'T DESERVE SOVIET-ERA ART, YOU CLOD!" (Vote yes on Prop 32!)
Okay, if it just looks like two squares to you, that's because it IS two squares. But you have to take it in context. We're only about 35 years from when Paul Cezanne freaked everyone out by intentionally painting pears that didn't really look like what pears look like. "Sacre bleu!" Frenchman shouted. "My shilldren can make pears that don't look like pears! Why deed I bozherr coming to this gallery to look at pears zhatt do not look like pears! Bring me my wine and my mistress!"
Pablo Picasso and George Braques and some other lunatics took the ball and ran with it, making art that expressed action, motion and, ultimately, ideas in ways other than merely representing a recognizable form. The most striking, yet oddly agreeable example of this is what's known as Cubism. To me, this is the Led Zeppelin of modern art - it's intense, but everyone still gets what's going on, and endlessly enjoyable.
Cut to 1915 - the world is going freaking insane with war. You have a few movements happening simultaneously, taking the lead from the Cubists and kinda chipping away at realistic representation in ways that highlight abstract, geometric forms. In the Netherlands you've got a guy named Piet Mondrian who has reduced images into flat, outlined shapes. This movement is called "De Stijl," which means The Style, but if you just flashed on the first White Stripes album that's because their design schtick is highly influenced by the bright colors, strong boundaries and boxy forms. Over in Russia you've got a guy who isn't quite as flashy, but punches more to the gut. This is Kazimir Malevich.
Malevich was disinterested in having art that had any connection whatsoever to a specific subject. His geometric shapes, he felt, would revolutionize the way we perceive everything, such that we'd recognize abstract forms in nature. He thought this would lead to a transcendence over the natural world. As such, he called his movement Suprematism. He later wrote a tract arguing about "non-objectivity," that, frankly, I don't really understand. There's a reason this guy was a painter first and a philosopher second. The important thing is: his forms may appear on the surface to be similar to "De Stijl," but there's a difference here. Malevich's work, and tell me if you disagree, is a little unsettling.
Take a look again at the image above. Isn't there something a little foreboding about the way the red square is kinda dropping away from the black square? And are the sides of the black square perfectly straight, or am I just going batty from staring at it too long? Remember that back in 1915 there was no television, very little cinema, and painting was still a major area of discourse for image making. Malevich intended for his work to be such a shock to the system that it would be like someone who has only lived in major cities to suddenly be transported to a desert. I'm not quite sure it has that same effect today, but at least you sense just how radical this was. Other works, like the one below, show just how propulsive and exciting a handful of simple shapes could be.
(Malevich's Supremus No. 58, 1916)
Now fast forward a few years. The Russian Revolution has occurred and artists (at the behest of the government) are making work in line with party theories. The workers. Industry. Simple representations that could easily be understood. Still, they had their feet firmly planted in the avant-garde, particularly the avant-garde happening in their own backyard, and they incorporated many elements of Suprematism. This blend of ideas became known as Constructivism. This is, basically, the unmistakable look of the Soviet Union - from its agit-prop posters to its World's Fair statues. (Art historians may want to quibble with me here - I left a LOT of stuff out, like how Constructivism was actually first meant as a derisive term from Malevich, or how Constructivism also plucked quite a bit from Italian Futurism.)
All this is to say that, soon, despite some name changes, Malevich's squares were going to the movies. With Aelita, Queen of Mars they made it all the way to space. And they did it three years before Fritz Lang's Metropolis.
The full, most likely legal video is here. You should at least watch up to the part when the workers all come down on giant slides.