Film Strip image from Wikimedia Commons

Film Strip image from Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Summary: Graduate student panel on science fiction and Soviet documentary style

On February 18th, Chicago Film Seminar hosted a graduate student panel on science fiction and Soviet documentary style. Our panelists were Stephen Babish (Northwestern University) and Zdenko Mandusic (University of Chicago). A response was provided by Professor Joshua Malitsky (Indiana University).

In his paper, titled "Empty Spaces: Large-Scale Plans and Urban Dystopia in A Clockwork Orange and THX 1138,” Babish began by outlining the methodology and major claims of his dissertation project on the capacity of science fiction films of the 1970s to produce a critical architectural space through their engagement with the modernist built environment.  It then traced two case studies that analyze the way in which films from this era exploited notoriously incomplete and over-budget large-scale modernist construction projects to critique both their forms and the ideologies underlying them.  To do so, it utilized archival research into both the papers of the administrative bodies responsible for designing, constructing, and promoting these spaces and into papers (where available) of filmmakers Stanley Kubrick and George Lucas that detail their location scouting and selection processes.  The first of these, on the filming of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange in the Southeast London development of Thamesmead, examined the utopian rhetoric surrounding that multi-use neighborhood’s development, a rhetoric that was subsequently undermined by the project’s guiding bureaucratic agencies’ inability to complete or administer it.  It then looked to the still-incomplete Thamesmead’s appearance in A Clockwork Orange as a dystopian cinematic space that would influence discussions of crime and urban decay on both sides of the Atlantic for decades after the film’s release.  The second case study told a similar narrative of the filming of THX 1138 in the San Francisco Bay Area's unopened BART system, a rapid-transit system whose corporately-sponsored centralization was implicitly critiqued by George Lucas’s use of its stark and unfinished stations and computerized command center in his first feature-length film.

Mandusic’s paper, “The Documentary Style in the Soviet Cinema of the 1960s,” explored the ways in which Soviet feature-length fiction films of the time were increasingly discussed in terms of their perceived documentary qualities. What was described as the collision of fictional and factual interests was addressed with the abstract noun dokumental’nost’, and sometimes dokumentalizm. Although no uniform definition was adopted, the appeal to veracity and authenticity through dokumental’nost’ expressed a renewed engagement with the problem of referentiality and how cinema could be used to provide accurate knowledge of the world. Soviet director Andrei Mikhalkov-Konchalovskii invoked this discourse during the production of his film about contemporary life on a collective farm, The Story of Asia Kliachina, Who Loved but Did Not Marry (Istoriia Asi Kliachinoi, kotoraia liubila da ne vyshla zamuzh). Konchalovskii went on to cast non-professional actors for all but three roles in Asia Kliachina and shot his film entirely on-location in the village of Bezvodnoe, in Russia’s central Gor’kii region. The film’s production strategy was designed to augment the appearance of minimal interference from an authoring presence. Underneath the minimal artifice, Asia Kliachina interlaced the authenticity of non-professional actors and production on-location with post-production sound, cinematographic elements, and editing conventions to generate the impression of looking at and overhearing the lived experience of others. Resulting from this approach, Asia Kliachina becomes instrumental in understanding the development of documentary realism as a deliberate visual style in Soviet cinema. Focusing on Konchalovskii’s production methods and the public discourse concerned with Asia Kliachina, this paper interrogated the competing discourses over “documentary-ness” and how, in the latter half of the 1960s, this aesthetic quality was invoked to define a developing brand of realism whose attested goal was to renew cinema’s link to actual events, persons, and/or social conditions.

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