City Paper is not for tourists
Socialist realism and science fiction aren’t especially compatible. That is to say, historically concrete representations of reality may be admirable, but Them! lived and died by giant radioactive ants. As a result, the films showing as part of the National Gallery of Art’s “Journey Through the Russian Fantastik” are the midnight movies that only communism could make. The sci-fi and fantasy auteurs of the West may have repackaged Cold Warnera American fears into B-grade titillation, but the Soviet imagination was trapped behind an iron curtain of Politburo dictates. In the case of 1962’s The Amphibian Man (at 2:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 8), those constraints chafed. Awkwardly literal, unexpectedly tragic, and clunkier than a rusty Volga, this story of the gill-fated love affair between a handsome yet amphibious socialist and the wife of a capitalist pearlmonger was the party-line toeing, Khrushchev-era equivalent of Titanic. But filmmaking that operated outside market demands did have its advantages. No American studio would ever have greenlit a project like Andrei Tarkovsky’s visionary 1979 film Stalker—which spends 163 minutes following three men as they meander through a post-apocalyptic wilderness pondering metaphysics. Nor would U.S. audiences have appreciated a summer blockbuster like 1988’s Zero City, in which an air-conditioner repairman travels to an absurdist Soviet bureaucracy where he is served a cake baked in the shape of his own head. The series runs to Sunday, Sept. 30, at the National Gallery of Art’s East Building Auditorium, 4th St. & Constitution Ave. NW. Free. (202) 737-4215; see Showtimes for this week’s films; see nga.gov/programs/film.shtm for a complete schedule.