Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Ptushko's Ilya Muromets -
The Sword and The Dragon

In 1960 my great-aunt Ethie passed away, and my grandparents had the sad duty as executors of her estate. My grandmother, Ollie Marie George, and her sisters all had old fashioned names which you don't hear much anymore: Ethie, Novie, and Ollie, my "Mamaw". I was five years old, barely big enough to understand why we were going to Bedford, Indiana, where Aunt Ethie's home was located. Bedford and its surrounding towns are famous for their limestone quarries. The Empire State Building, The Pentagon, and many other famous buildings were built with Indiana limestone.

During one of the trips to Bedford, we stopped at a newly opened IGA "Foodliner" supermarket. I think my grandparents, so used to shopping at small general stores, were somewhat intimidated by the long, confusing rows of products and the bright fluorescent lights. At the front of the store was a comic book rack, a treasure before my eyes. My family used a sly but effective technique of allowing me to pick out one comic book during any trips to town, and encouraged me to choose carefully. In that way I was headed off from begging for whatever outlandish toy I might find. As a result, I began reading at an early age, and as time went by, I accumulated a substantial comic book collection. And I still have many of those comics to this day.

As I scanned the comic book covers, one immediately caught my eye: A huge, hideous fire-breathing dragon and a hefty guy in armor getting ready to have at it! The issue that I chose that fine day was the comic book version of the film The Sword and The Dragon. Many, many years later I would learn that the movie was Russian, originally titled Ilya Muromets, directed by the Soviet Ray Harryhausen, Alexandr Ptushko.

Recently I had the pleasure of seeing the original film on DVD, beautifully restored by Russia's Rusico film company, along with other Ptushko classics such as Ruslan and Ludmilla, Sadko, and The Tale of Tsar Sultan. I'm still waiting for Sampo, known in the West as The Day The Earth Froze, based on the Finnish Kalevala saga.

Released in the Soviet Union in 1956, Ilya Muromets is based on a well-known Russian folktale about a paralyzed hero (Ilya) who regains his strength to do battle against the invading Tugar tribe of vicious Tartars. He encounters a hurricane-breath demon (Nightingale), treacherous boyars, and, in the grand finale, the terrible three-headed dragon, Gorynich, which may have inspired Ishiro Honda and Tomoyuki Tanaka when they later introduced King Ghidorah in their Godzilla films.

Ilya Muromets is an amazing film, my favorite of all Ptushko's work. He must have had the entire Red Army in use as extras during its production because its publicity information claims "A Cast of 106,000! 11,000 Horses!" The scenes of the massive Tugar army on the move are astounding. It is noteworthy too as being the first USSR film made in "SovietScope", actually Dyaliscope, the French version of Cinemascope, and it was the first Soviet film to have a stereo soundtrack.

Some of the best scenes in the movie come from the villains, the Tugars, especially their chief, Tsar Talin. Played by Uzbekistan's veteran stage and film actor Shukur Burkhanov, the ruthless Talin grins and leers as he gleefully declares, "I'm going to attack ... KIEV!" Burkhanov started acting in the 1920's but had to leave his family to be able to become an actor. The strict Islamic law practiced in his home region forbid one person from imitating another. Trained at the Moscow Art Theater and in the Stanislavsky School of Acting, his delightful performance as the evil Tartar in Ilya Muromets is in total contrast to the stodgy, serious Russian hero, Ilya, played by Boris Andreyev.

Epic films such as Ilya Muromets can now only be made via computer graphics. And I suspect it would have been impossible to finance such a movie in the West even during the 1950s. Only the cost-blind Soviet system could have produced such a spectacle. Let's hope that Rusico will continue to restore and release more classic films. Spasiba Rusico!

Gorynich The Dragon Attacks Kiev

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Friday, November 09, 2007

New Russian SF Film in production: Strugatskys' The Inhabited Island

The global success of Russia's Nightwatch and Daywatch films may be leading to a renaissance of fantasy/science-fiction movie projects in that country. Now being filmed in Russia, Arkady and Boris Strugatsky's The Inhabited Island, a.k.a. Prisoners of Power, scheduled for release in January 2009.

From the Wiki:

Prisoners of Power also known as Inhabited Island (Russian: Обитаемый остров, IPA:[obɪ'taʲemɨj 'ostrof]) is a science fiction novel written by Soviet authors Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. It was written in 1969 and originally published in 1971, the English translation was released in 1977. The protagonist is a young adventurer from Earth — Maxim Kammerer who gets stranded on an unknown planet Saraksh.

The story describes the adventures of Maxim Kammerer. Kammerer is an amateur space explorer from Earth. This occupation is not considered serious and Kamerer is regarded as a failure by his friends and relatives. The novel starts when Kammerer accidentally discovers an unexplored planet Saraksh inhabited by a humanoid race. The level of technological development on the planet is similar to mid-20-eith century Earth. Recently, the planet had a nuclear and conventional war and the predicament of the population is dire. When Kammerer lands, the natives mistake his spaceship for a weapon and destroy it.

At first, Kammerer does not take his situation seriously. He imagines himself a Robinson Crusoe stranded on an island inhabited by primitive but friendly natives. He is looking forward to establishing contact and befriending the population of the planet. However, the reality turns out to be far from glamorous. Kammerer finds himself in the capital of a totalitarian state, perpetually at war with its neighbors. The population is governed by the oligarchy of Unknown Fathers through brutal police and military repression. The city is grim and polluted. Ordinary populace leads the life of privation and misery. What goes on around Kammerer does not make sense to him, since his own society is free from war, crime and material shortages.

Eventually, it is revealed that to maintain the loyalty of the population, the Fathers employ mind control broadcasts. The broadcast towers pepper the landscape of the country. The mind-altering capabilities of the towers are kept secret, they are disguised as ballistic missile defense installations. Constant broadcasts suppress the ability to evaluate information critically, hence making the omnipresent regime propaganda much more effective. In addition, twice a day, intense broadcasts relieve mental stress caused by the disconnect between the propaganda and the observed reality by inducing an outburst of blinding enthusiasm.

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Used Starships and Soviet Animation: Bradbury's There Will Come Soft Rains

Here's my "back-cover blurb" for my NaNoWriMo story, which takes place in the Kosmosflot universe:


Would you buy a used starship from this guy? Max Kreminov believed he could sell a “previously owned” spacecraft to at least one of the thousands of space travelers, aliens, and robots attending the Valeda World Fair and Interstellar Expo. But he had no idea that he would travel across a quarter of the galaxy into hostile space to close the deal. Max has to wonder: What must a guy do to make an honest ruble in this galaxy?


My NaNoWriMo ID is Cosmonaut. Here's an excerpt from the first chapter:

Valeda Star System
High Orbit
20 Aug 2563 07:35 UTC

Starship orbital paths traced and overlayed as colored lines across the cockpit's main televisor screen. Max Kreminov marveled that Valeda's traffic control could handle the thousands of arrivals and landing requests. A couple of ship icons racing around Valeda's globe showed red, declared inflight emergencies. He wondered if they were genuine or just reckless attempts by the ships' owners to get a better spot in the approach queue. He hoped not. His own Praznik Alfa starship had one more orbit to go, then it and the other ships in his small convoy would get their turn.

Max toggled the display from NAV-PLAN to TELEPHOT-20X, trying to get a glimpse of his Arbus and Tikva freighter ships that would land first. He could barely make out the fat Arbus, the "Watermelon", in the far distance. On top of the freighter's hull was the white disk of the IIS Recon ship, mated to the larger ship piggyback-style. The Tikva, the "Pumpkin" was out of visual range, so Max could only hope that the three modular cutters mounted on the top of its hull would stay secured during the long, slow descent down to surface, to the World's Fair landing zone.

And a beautiful world it was, Max thought as he sipped from a drink bulb of strong black tea. Valeda's green globe filled the televisor. The planet was one of the Orion Arm's rare garden worlds, rich with oxygen, water, and comfortable gravity, too. Comfortable for humans, anyway. The citizens of Valeda had become extremely prosperous as a result of their world's natural bounty. And to celebrate and grow their economic success, the Valedians were spending billions of rubles for their first World's Fair. With that in mind, Max hoped he would be leaving Valeda a richer man. After all, among the hundreds of thousands of humans, hundreds of robots, and probably a few Tsoor aliens attending the fair, surely a wealthy few would want to buy some good, used starships.

A robotic voice spoke. "Valeda Approach to flight SU 894. You are good for entry and descent on your next orbit, GCA channel 904, repeat, GCA channel 904. Lock and squawk to acknowledge."

At last! Max keyed the response as quickly as his fingers could tap the smooth keys set in the stainless steel flight console. Unlike most CIS starships, there were no turquoise-blue control panels in his Alfa. Hundreds of years in the past, during the years of the USSR, psychologists and flight-control experts had determined that bluish tones were somehow soothing and comforting to flight crews. Their usage had continued into the designs of spacecraft built by the Commonwealth of Independent Stars' worlds. Max's Alfa originally had those bird-egg colored consoles in its cockpit even though it had been built far beyond CIS zones. Max replaced them, added extra plush pilot's chairs, and, as time went by, spent extra rubles for even more customization. After all, it was where he lived even when he and his ensemble of used starships were grounded on some planet or docked at a space station. A man should make some effort for comfort in his home, he thought, even when travelling between the stars.

The comm softly chimed. The televisor morphed into the image of young Edvin in the first ship, the Tikva. "Mister Kreminov, I got clearance for descent on the next orbit."

"Me, too. Let me patch in Apo." Max set the ship-to-ship laser comm into a three-way link. The long, droopy face of his systems engineer appeared on screen alongside Edvin's comm window.

"You ready to drop, Apo?" said Max.

"Yes, and about bloody time," the old tech replied. "I want to get out of this carousel before something goes wrong. Do you see how many ships are spinning around this rock?"


Please send encouragement and threats for me to get this 50,000-word effort done by the end of the month!

Soviet Animation - Ray Bradbury's There Will Come Soft Rains

It's always a real ego-boost for a writer when a reader says, "Your story reminded me of ..." and names some wonderful author in comparison. The first time this happened to me, the compliment came from a pair of 11-year-old twin brothers, Noan and Ethan Sandweiss, when they said some of my work reminded them of Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles. I could only smile, thank them, and pray that I might one day attain a small touch of that great author's talent. And after writing these words, I fully expect someone to leave me a comment saying, "I have read Ray Bradbury. Ray Bradbury is my favorite author. You are no Ray Bradbury," and, if that happens, it would be deserved.

While searching the Internet for animated science-fiction features produced in the Soviet Union, I discovered this eerie Uzbekfilm Studio's adaptation of Ray Bradbury's There Will Come Soft Rains. Its style reminds me very much of one of my favorite animated SF films, Rene Laloux's Fantastic Planet. Since I really should get back to writing for NaNoWriMo, without further comment, here it is:

There Will Come Soft Rains

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Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Soviet Animation - Fantadrom 2 and Nu Pogodi! - You Just Wait! I'll Get You!

What's an alien to do when it needs to borrow a pinch of salt?

The answer is in Fantadrom episode 2, a classic Soviet-era science-fiction animation from the early 80s. The first episode is also viewable in my earlier blog posting.

You might notice that in the film text is sometimes displayed in Russian Cyrillic and in Latin script. The English-like letters are Latvian; Fantadrom was created in a Riga animation studio. Nonetheless, Russian was the language most often spoken in public and used for business in the USSR, and spoken dialogue is always Russian.

The Internet has certainly promoted the study of English in Armenia, where I used to live, and in other former-Soviet countries, but Russian is still taught in Armenian schools, and no responsible parent would ever allow their children not to learn it.

Like so many Soviet-era cartoons, Fantadrom is playful, silly, and sometimes very surreal. Many Soviet animators were greatly influenced by the Beatles' animated film The Yellow Submarine as well as the psychedelic artwork of Peter Max.

Fantadrom 2

Nu Pogodi!

And here is a sample of the much more rough-and-tumble Nu Pogodi (You Just Wait, I'll Get You!), with the scruffy, cigarette-smoking wolf always after the cute, innocent hare. Like all good villains, the wolf is by far more interesting than his victim, and you can get some good glimpses of daily Soviet life from these cartoons, like the electric trolley-buses. A ride on one still costs 5 cents in Yerevan, Armenia! And there's the huge escalators leading to the metro, the subway. There are no "undergrounds" here in Indiana, and it was so convenient and fun to ride them in Yerevan. The price of a subway token: yes, 5 cents!

Notice, too, the scene where the wolf shows his empty pockets to the passing militsia cops, to avoid being shaken down for a bribe. Americans have no concept of how corrupt law-enforcement officers demand money from innocent citizens, but it happens every day in the former USSR.

And be warned: The lalala-lala Nu Pogodi main theme song will stick in your brain for the rest of the day. I caught myself singing it in the shower this morning!

Do S'Vadaniya,

Viktor Kuprin

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Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Press Conference at March Field at 365Tomorrows.com

You can read PRESS CONFERENCE AT MARCH FIELD, my new flash-fiction story, at http://www.365tomorrows.com/.

It was inspired by actual events in 1976 at March Air Force Base, Riverside, California.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Violence, Kids, and Soviet Animation

From today's news:

Screen violence tied to boys' aggression: study

By Andrew Stern

CHICAGO (Reuters) - Boys aged 2 to 5 who viewed an hour of on-screen violence a day increased their chances of being overly aggressive later in childhood, but the association was not seen in girls, researchers said on Monday.

"This new study provides further evidence of how important and powerful television and media are as young children develop," study author Dr. Dimitri Christakis of Seattle Children's Hospital Research Institute said.

"Of 184 boys (in the study), 25 of them had serious problems with aggression and for each hour on average per day they had watched violent TV, they were three times more likely to be in that group" than those who did not watch violent programming, Christakis said in a telephone interview.

While living in Armenia, I got to see many Soviet-era animated programs, some of excellent quality. This was a direct result of the communist-era laws that compelled film and television studios to devote a percentage of their production for children's programming. One noticeable difference between their cartoons and those produced in the West was the lower level of violence. Sure, the Russians loved their Nu Pogodi (I"ll Get You) antics of the Wolf and Hare, the USSR equivalent of Tom and Jerry, but most of the made-in-the-USSR toons were gentler and, perhaps, a bit kinder than the cartoons I watched growing up in the USA.

And because I watched and loved seeing Popeye knock the bejeesus out of Bluto on a daily basis, not to mention the Three Stooges every Saturday morning, I have mixed feelings about the Reuters story above. I like to think those shows didn't warp my young mind and, so far, I've never had the urge to actually go postal and do anyone real harm, except perhaps sometimes in my strange-but-harmless imagination.

I once read that the Japanese consider Tom and Jerry style cartoon violence to be much more disturbing and harmful to children because it is so fake. If you've ever seen Japanese anime, you know that when a person gets shot, there are consequences. It is shown to be painful, there is blood and injury that doesn't disappear in the next scene. Not so when Jerry whacks Tom with an anvil or frying pan. Tom's head pops back into normal shape and the chase continues.

My five-year-old son, Ron Armen, loves to watch the Power Rangers and Transformers, though his watching time is strictly rationed by Irina, his mom, more for consideration of his eyesight than the programs' content. I know he acts out the martial arts moves that his favorite TV characters do on screen, but he doesn't use those moves to whup the five-year-old neighbor kid down the block. I am very skeptical, too, of studies like Dr. Christakis has done because I know that statistics can be presented to emphasize a politically-correct agenda and thus please the sponsoring parties involved. I think that out of nearly 200 American boys, for 25 of them to have problems with violent behavior is not that surprising, sad but true. It's just hard for me to believe that most of the blame can be directed towards television programs.

And back in Armenia, kids now get to watch imported Tom and Jerry cartoons, including all the flying anvils, crushing boulders, and face-flattening frying pans. Their lack of spoken dialogue makes them great exports to non-English speaking countries like the former USSR.

Here's a wonderful example of some Soviet-era animation, and it's a science-fiction piece, too. I love the Cosmic Cat!

Do S'Vadaniya,

Captain Kosmos

Fantadrom One

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Friday, November 02, 2007

Injected and Negadon: The Monster from Mars

I knocked myself out of a running start on the first day of NaNoWriMo, the National Novel Writing Month. And it's my own fault: I received my free flu innoculation at Indiana University's medical center. While serving in the U.S. Air Force, this was a yearly event, and airmen had no choice. It was an order. I would take the injection, turn white as a ghost a few hours later, and usually got sent home by my boss for bed rest. Much the same happened to me yesterday, so I was in no shape to start writing my Used Starships story.

One grim little secret about the flu shots in the 70s was the possibility of a fatal allergic reaction. Every year, out of the 5000+ men and women who received the injections at March Air Force Base, two or three would drop dead within a few hours. The victims were usually middle-aged men. I know this to be true because, working in the Public Affairs Office, I was involved in issuing the press release about the fatalities. They always failed to mention that the deceased had received a flu shot, under orders, just before perishing. No surprise, it wasn't something that the Air Force wanted to widely publicize.

Today I'm feeling much better, thank you very much, and I have no excuse not to begin pounding the keys and write, write, write to meet my NaNoWriMo deadline.

I gave myself a Halloween treat this week: A screening of Negadon: The Monster from Mars. Here's the Wiki intro:

Negadon: The Monster from Mars (Wakusei Daikaijû Negadon - 惑星大怪獣ネガドン - literally "Great Planet Monster Negadon") is a
2005 tokusatsu-style CG-animated anime 40-minute film from Japan. Created by Jun Awazu and his independent company Studio Magara, this animated film captures the "Golden Age" of tokusatsu cinema of the 1960s. The film has a high-tech modern edge added for good measure, but tries hard to maintain the "hand-crafted" feel of classic tokusatsu movies. Production of this film actually started in 2003. It has also been broadcast across Japan by the anime satellite television network, Animax.

If you enjoy the classic Toho kaiju giant-monster movies, Negadon is worth renting or borrowing from your local library. Billed as Japan's first fully computer-generated feature, it is very reminiscent of director Ishiro Honda's Godzilla and science-fiction stories.

Okay, back to work, back to writing. I have a NaNoWriMo deadline to meet!

Do S'Vadaniya,

Viktor Kuprin

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