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Independent underground films are frequently evaluated on a different scale than commercial work, both to encourage new directions in cinematic experimentation and to acknowledge that films made by individuals should not be expected to mimic the look of commercial movies. An independent vision in the cinema art gallery is something to be nurtured.
New York's Jim Finn has a well-established art film career, as can be seen on his elaborate website. His string of shorts and two features appear to be screened frequently at festivals and he's collected some glowing reviews, with accolades and encouragement from champions of fringe film experimentation like Jonathan Rosenbaum. Finn is wired into the film art world, no question of it. I was attracted to his independently-distributed Interkosmos for its subject matter. Interkosmos was described as a mockumentary about a long-suppressed 1970 East German - Soviet space mission to the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. Wired magazine called it "the best shoestring Sci-Fi of 2006," a comment any ambitious filmmaker would like. In its defense, Finn's film is much less annoying than Werner Herzog's The Wild Blue Yonder, a technically polished cosmic voyage movie that also uses 'place-holder' visuals.
From the Sci-Fi angle, Interkosmos is also similar to a pair of filmic rarities. Like 2005's Soviet-made First on the Moon (Pervye na lune), Finn's movie purports to be a docu on a space program that nobody ever heard of. Like 1971's Der große Verhau (The Big Mess) the movie is a fractured collage, a collection of voiceovers with footage cut in in what often seems to be 'visual filler.'
A large chunk of the film is 'found footage', long takes of NASA stock panning over earthscapes and observing the Skylab space station in orbit. One long section is tinted B&W footage of performing dolphins taken at Marineland of Florida. These provide a wallpaper-like background for lengthy voiceovers. Finn's new visual material is fairly interesting. We see faked newsreel shots of what are supposed to be cocktail parties for the Interkosmos project in East Germany in the early 1970s. The film's two lovers, East German Cosmonaut Falcon (Jim Finn) and Indian Cosmonaut Seagull (Nandini Khaund) are among the guests. We get a bit of biography on Seagull when it is explained that the Interkosmos program brings together scientists and space explorers from Communist and non-aligned nations. 1
For the rest of the romance, we simply hear Falcon and Seagull conversing over buzzy radio, as they orbit Jupiter and Saturn respectively. They talk about inconsequential things, as when one tries to get the other to remember the words to 'that capitalist tune' The Trolley Song. All of this is over random shots of recognizable NASA space hardware. The mission's object is to establish a perfect Communist colony to mine methane on the moon Ganymede. Toys of a monorail and a Ferris wheel 'represent' the proposed Ganymede base. We hear that records of the glorious achievements of world Communism are included in the spaceship manifests, to instill the proper spirit for the new colony.
We also see space capsule interiors with business-as-usual shots of Cosmonauts alert or slumped asleep in their command chairs. The space costuming is pretty good, and designers Dana Carter, Shane Gabier and Cecilia Rubalcava deserve a nod. The scenes of the spacemen are just more wallpaper filler behind the film's incessant voiceovers. At one point the Cosmonauts do hand exercises to the soundtrack, an amusing visual.
Only occasionally does the film come near to suggesting a fake Soviet-bloc historical film. Voiceovers in English tell how the two ships started out on their mission but disappeared somewhere in space. Rather than admit failure, the Comisars quietly shut down the Interkosmos project and demoted or reassigned its key Earth Base personnel. The closest the film comes to political criticism is when a theory surfaces that the ships were meant to be lost, so that their records of Communist history would be preserved if the earth were to perish in a nuclear war. Aliens, at least, would be able to appreciate the evolutionary pinnacle of earth culture.
That only accounts for about two-thirds of the film's running time. Other digressions include choreographed marching drills performed by two girls' field hockey teams, in bright outfits. At one point they form a Busby Berkeley-style pattern of a hammer and sickle. Another sidebar is an odd sequence with "Little Space Pigs". Voiceovers relate the term to describe spacemen, but what we see are small rodents (Gerbils? Hamsters?) in and out of cute toy space suits, with odd backgrounds matted behind them. Just as the field hockey material resembles a possible short subject folded into the present production, the 'space pig' footage is similar to earlier Jim Finn short subjects about small pets.
Too much of the show drones on and on without rewarding the patience of its audience. Every once in a while the voiceovers hit a cute phrase, as when we hear that "Capitalism is like a kindergarten of boneless children." But the feeling is that the film's essential emptiness is being inflicted upon us. The effect is of a minimalist vacuum, an odd sort of torture that reminds of a Peter Sellers gag line in the original Casino Royale: "Oh, you're going to nothing me to death." We really know that we're stuck in experimental film limbo when a lengthy segment simply plays old footage of Marineland dolphins performing, while the theories of Karl Marx (or a close imitation) are recited in what sounds like Spanish.
Facets' presentation of Interkosmos looks reasonably good. The image quality on the plain-wrap disc is limited only by the variable quality of the re-purposed stock footage. The titles affect a Soviet-style artwork pattern. The soundtrack is much more interesting than the film's visuals, with a variety of music cues by Jim Becker and Colleen Burke. The radio-static space communication audio blends well with various 'atmospheric' sound effects. The only sync-sound footage I can remember is a math quiz "Stress Test" being taken by a couple of Cosmonaut candidates. That perhaps accounts for the film's subtitle on the jacket cover, Interkosmos Stressprüfung 0175.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Interkosmos rates:
Movie: Fair ++
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 7, 2007
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