Friday, September 1, 2023

"Dust of the Material Universe: Piotr Szulkin's Apocalypse Quartet" at The Beacon Cinema: Sept 1 - 22 | "The Last Years of Soviet Cinema" | The Guardian

The Leonid Brezhnev era of the Soviet Union was, in Mikhail Gorbachev’s words, “the period of stagnation”. However, the new emphasis on stability gave a paradoxical prominence to youth uprising as a symptom and cause of personal and social unrest, and the generational expression of alienation. Social deviance was far more prominent in 1970s Soviet cinema than during the decades before; look no further than the Czech New Wave for reference. In the following decade, Glasnost under Gorbachev accelerated this preexisting predilection, rather than initiated, a stark view of Soviet reality and its expression in the arts. Until recently, the films of the USSR’s last decade were mainly a specialist cinephile interest. But this has begun to change, starting with retrospectives like "Generations: Russian Cinema of Change" at the Barbican, London in 2019. This gave an exhilarating introduction to nine major films by young late-Soviet directors, as covered in The Guardian's, "'There are No Different Truths': The Last Years of Soviet Cinema". The retrospective made clean that Polish cinema of the decade had its own aesthetic, political, and thematic detractors. These followed on the groundbreaking generation of films that came in the late 1960s and 70s, as represented in the extensive restoration undertaking by the Polish Film Institute of, "Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema". This era Scorsese spoke further on with The Guardian at the time of the restoration project, "My Passion for the Humor and Panic of Polish Cinema". In the ensuing decade, Polish cinema went through a brief period of creative oppression, following the Polish political crisis of 1968, which had strong parallels with the concurrent movement of the Prague Spring.

Writer, director, screenwriter, novelist, theatrical director and painter, Piotr Szulkin was born of this time, before the waves of Perestroika would come and sweep away all the restrictions and socio-political prejudices of the Soviet era in the mid-to-late 1980s. His body of work filtered 20th century philosophy and Polish medieval literature through speculative fiction, neo-noir, and grotesque, sometimes comically absurd allegories. Best known for his tetralogy of wildly iconoclastic science fiction films, "Golem", "The War of the Worlds: Next Century", "O-Bi, O-Ba: The End of Civilization", and "Ga-ga: Glory to Heroes'', Szulkin regularly faced censorship from the Communist regime of the late 1970s and early 80s for his unabashedly political works. Whether viewed as existential tales, absurdist parables, or premonitions about society’s hostility and inclination towards totalitarianism, Szulkin's films continue to resonate with truth about our modern-day world. The Lincoln Center overview of his work in 2015, "Sci-Fi Visionary: Piotr Szulkin" offered a selection of new digital restorations and imported film prints, as well as the rare, "Interview: Piotr Szulkin" for Film Comment. From this, and the new restorations offered by both Vinegar Syndrome and Radiance Films in the form of Piotr Szulkin's Apocalypse Tetralogy, and The End of Civilization: Three Films by Piotr Szulkin respectively, this month The Beacon Cinema has programmed, "Dust of the Material Universe: Piotr Szulkin's Apocalypse Quartet". Eschewing critics of the time referring to him as a science fiction filmmaker, Szulkin himself called his genre, "asocial fiction", revealing his dismay at modern society's destruction of community. Which by no means was limited to the communist era. In as much as what came before it, Szulkin's work can be read as a criticism of media-driven consumerism as well. And as Michał Oleszczyk writes from, "Things to Come: Piotr Szulkin’s Homespun Apocalypse", is not far removed from the worlds depicted by his western contemporaries of the 1980s, such as those seen in the films of David Cronenberg and Terry Gilliam.