#22 - JRL 7011
From: "Louis Menashe" <LMenashe@email.msn.com>
Subject: Out of the Present
Date: Thu, 9 Jan 2003
My review of "Out of the Present," attached, appeared in Cineaste Magazine, Winter, 2002. www.cineaste.com
Out of the Present
Directed by Andrei Ujica; 35mm cinematography by Vadim Yusov; video and montage by R. Hennenger, H. Leihbecher, and D. Ivanova; music by Lazonby, Mory Kante, Johann Strauss, and Jean-Luc Ponty; with Sergei Krikalev, Anatoli Artsebarski, and Alexander Volkov; produced by Elke Peters. Color. 95 mins., DVD. Distributed by Facets Video, 1517 West Fullerton Avenue, Chicago, IL 60614, phone 1 (800) 331-6197. www.facets.org
One of the quirkiest episodes connected with the implosion of the U.S.S.R. (the implosion itself was the strangest thing of all), came when the once proud Soviet space program sent the cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev rocketing to the Mir station in May 1991. While Krikalev was up there, his country was, you might say, pulled out from under him. This cosmonaut Hero of the Soviet Union would experience the collapse of the Soviet Union from outer space. What an entry for the mission log! He left from the U.S.S.R., and returned to the Russian Federation; Boris Yeltsin, not Mikhail Gorbachev, was now in charge; Leningrad had become St. Petersburg; and..... you get the idea. Andrei Ujica captures well this whole strange business in his frequently handsome, often amusing (how could it not be?), very appealing and informative 1996 docuumentary, now made available by Facets exclusively on DVD. It is a piece of history like no other.
With Harun Farocki, Ujica had earlier chronicled another communist demise, the overthrow of the hated Ceaucescu regime in the director's native Romania, by assembling found video footage and newsreels. The result was their riveting Videograms of a Revolution (1992), an extraordinary documentary portrait of the mass movement that brought down the Ceaucescu dictatorship in a matter of days at the end of 1989. Someone's camera was always present as Ceaucescu attempted to address an unruly crowd, or tried to flee by helicopter, or faced a hastily arranged court accusing him of numerous crimes. Finally, his corpse and that of his wife were shown on liberated Romanian television. Several sequences pictured weary activists trying to pull together the forms and personnel of post-Ceaucescu political structures. These dramatic "Videograms" offered a kind of ground-zero perspective on an important, tumultuous political event.
Out of the Present captures the Soviet collapse from a very different, more ingeniously contrived perspective, far above any ground zero. The film starts out as a conventional space documentary, recording the docking of the capsule at the station - crackling voices over intercoms, unearthly sounds of silence and synthesizer, roars and whooshes, striking panoramas, welcoming the travelers aboard, and so on. There is much of this throughout the film, which should make it attractive to any space junkie. (For another, more conventional film concentrating on the Soviet space program, with revealing personal testimonies of several cosmonauts, see Maciej J. Drygas's 1994 documentary, State of Weightlessness.) Krikalev's mission also included the Russian Anatoly Artsebarski, and the English Helen Sharman. We see them at the training center, "Star City," outside of Moscow, then at the Soviet equivalent of Cape Canaveral in the Baikonur region of Kazakhstan, at the time a Soviet republic, where they are feted and well-wished before blasting off. A ritual there: sprigs of wormwood are presented to the cosmonauts for a safe journey. This journey was successful, as was the docking. Another Russian habit: the travelers are welcomed aboard the Mir with bread and salt. These are fascinating, odd juxtapositions of pre-modern tradition with the mores and technology of the space age.
We then see, of course, the now familiar scenes of members of the crew floating gravity-free inside the space station, exercising, doing research tasks, and horsing around (Artsebarski, who contributes occasional explanatory narration, comments abashedly on their "childishness"). The inside of the space station, by the way, is far from the hi-tech interiors that gleam in sci-fi space films; there is not a straight line anywhere, and it's cramped and very cluttered. But the crew works well, the mood is good, so is the camaraderie. Gorbachev puts in a call of congratulations. Some will leave, others arrive to take their place. Days and months go by. Krikalev stays on; his mission calls for a tour of 160 days. A 'freighter' brings the crew some equipment, letters from home, sweets.
Suddenly, Ujica jump-cuts us back to earth, to Moscow near the White House, where tanks and armored personnel carriers mingle with Volgas and Zhigulis and pedestrian crowds, and unidentified voices from inside a traffic jam wonder what it's all about. The soft coup of August 1991 is in progress, and Gorbachev is under unofficial house arrest at his vacation dacha down south. Some of the most engrossing footage of this space-odyssey film is intercut here -- very earthy newsreel material that highlights the barricades, the mass anger, and the fraternization between the crowds and soldiers that undid the reactionary coup. At the Mir, "we continued our work," even as the crew knew what was going on down below -- the "unsettled" situation in Moscow, they called it -- and they listened to Boris Yeltsin's defiant speech on their radios. A new crew arrives, an Austrian and a Kazakh. The presence of the Austrian prompts Ujica to lay some Strauss waltzes on the soundtrack, one of his sly references to classic films of the space genre, in this case Kubrick's 2001. Later, he will use a shot from Tarkovsky's Solaris, inserted seamlessly.
But what of Krikalev? It is natural to assume that his mission was extended because of the "unsettled" conditions below, and as a consequence of the subsequent break-up of the U.S.S.R. in December. This is how some commentators have explained it, and promotional material for the film implies the same. In fact, as Artsebarski points out, almost as an embarrassed aside, there were very Soviet reasons for the extended tour. For political purposes - honoring one of the fraternal national minorities of the Soviet motherland, as Moscow official-speak might have put it - a Kazakh cosmonaut came on board, but he was not a flight engineer. A flight engineer is always a must for the station, and that was Krikalev. So Krikalev had to stay on.... and on.... and on - a total of 310 days in space, 150 more than his original mission called for. At one point, ground control tells him that maps have been altered; the Baltic republics (the first to break away) are a "different color." When he touched down in March 1992, the Soviet Union had already ceased to exist. The media quickly dubbed Krikalev "the last Soviet citizen."
Krikalev may have been a terrific cosmonaut. He had earned many honors before this mission, and earned many more thereafter, including NASA's Space Flight Medal in 1994; later, he was part of the three-member crew for the International Space Station. But he was a man of few words, and in Out of the Present there is a sequence that exposed what I think was his very Soviet breeding. Naturally, media people down below were intrigued by the tale of the cosmonaut who left the Soviet Union and was still in space as the Soviet Union disappeared. What did he think? Artsebarski, whose narration cites Hemingway and French poetry, might have offered some appropriate eloquence when that query was posed from earth, but he had left the Mir earlier. A female voice asks Krikalev about his reaction to all those remarkable, surprising changes -- Leningrad was now St. Petersburg; Yeltsin, not Gorbachev; etc. "I didn't hear the question," he replies, stalling. She repeats it. Then comes what I take to be the very Soviet nonanswer: What is most impressive and surprising, he says, is the passing of day into night, and the changing of the seasons. The rigorously nonpolitical cosmonaut shied away from any politically inflected commentary; besides, one should hedge one's bets -- who knows?, Gorbachev or the old regime might stage a comeback. When a Reuters correspondent asked him the same kind of question, Krikalev didn't respond at all. Well, maybe it was all too disorienting and rather embarrassing.
Ujica's synthesis of music, some breathtaking photography, plus pictures of the daily life of the cosmonauts aboard the Mir station make Out of the Present a major contribution to the space-film genre. But it is more than that; the documentary is an intelligent, artful gloss on a hugely significant political development of the late twentieth century. Surely Krikalev understood that, even though he wasn't saying.-Louis Menashe
(Videograms of a Revolution is also distributed by Facets, in VHS only. State of Weightlessness is distributed on VHS by First Run/Icarus Films, 32 Court Street, Brooklyn, NY 11201, phone (718) 488-8900.)