Monday, July 20, 2009


Perestroika is only the third feature that the Russian-born writer-director Slava Tsukerman has completed since 1983's Liquid Sky, and only the second of those films to open in U.S. theaters (after the 2004 documentary Stalin's Wife). That's enough to arouse the curiosity of movie freaks of a certain age who remember Liquid Sky, including--maybe especially--those who were too young and/or too far away from an art house to actually see the thing when it was released but who spent a fair amount of time imagining what it might be like, based on the print ad in the movie section of the Village Voice and whatever written or spoken reports might come one's way. (It was the kind of movie that inspired witnesses to try to describe its basic outlines as if they'd seen Bigfoot.) A sci-fi New Wave atrocity exhibition, Liquid Sky was mostly shot in a Greenwich Village loft, and it by God looked like something that had been shot in a loft. (Specifically, it looked like something that was shot in a loft whose owners were trying to economize by lighting the whole place with lava lamps.) The plot involved a bunch of aggressively repellent downtown-scene types whose building had been invaded by extraterrestrials who fed on the endorphins that these charmers released when they shot up or had sex; as if this weren't freaky enough, the movie's co-writer, Anne Carlisle, appeared in a dual role as a pair of pouty, disagreeable male and female fashion models who, inevitably, had a climactic sex scene together. Both the Fairlight synthesizer score and the special visual effects (which look like early video art) have a "circa-1982" time stamp, but, like a lot of '80s cult hits, the movie has a lot about it that appears to be the result of incompetence and lethargy but that, if you're in an indulgent or insecure mood, might be taken as deliberate, part of some campy postmodern "style." (Along with such self-aware gorefests as The Evil Dead and Basket Case, Liquid Sky was one of the very last pictures to establish a niche on the midnight movie circuit before home video killed off midnight movies. It got in just under the wire.)

Perestroika has more on its mind than Liquid Sky, and seems to come from a place closer to Tsukerman's heart; compared to Liquid Sky, it's a more down-to-earth, conventional movie. (Compared to Liquid Sky, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is more down-to-earth, conventional movie.) But it, too, has issues of technical competence that make it seem like a throwback to those heady days when Ronald Reagan was president and there was always someone sitting in the back row of the theater showing the latest cult masterpiece who was ready to explain to you that the movie was supposed to look like puke--it was part of the director's cunning strategy for delivering his statement that the world looks like puke. There's a lot of rear projection that's so glaringly obvious that it could be taken for either a deliberate alienation device or an homage to Bert I. Gordon, or maybe, just possibly, an expression of that aesthetic code best summed up in the phrase, "Who gives a shit, I'm going to lunch." There's also a lot of dubbing, the quality of which one normally encounters only in third-grade Spaghetti Westerns or black and white European horror movies featuring rubber skeletons and past-their-prime pre-Schwarzenegger bodybuilders who were laughed off the set of Steve Reeves pictures. On the other hand, there are things wrong with the movie, notably the colorless, uninvolving central performance by Sam Robards, that I'm positive aren't part of some avant-garde artistic plan. They're just wrong.

Robards plays Sasha Greenburg, a Russian astrophysicist who married an American named Helen (Ally Sheedy) and sought refuge in the West, and who, in 1992, returns to Moscow after seventeen years in America to pay witness to the post-Soviet period of transformation. In voice-over, Sasha tells us that this was that special time in his life that he'll never be able to forget--"Moscow was in turmoil, and so was I"--but all the camera shows you is an actor with chalk dust in his hair wandering through a location shoot, looking as if he hadn't yet fully recovered from jet lag. Ally Sheedy came to play, but like the other actresses in the movie whose characters find Sasha devastatingly interesting--these include Jicky Schnee as Sasha's blonde American mistress, Oksana Stashenko as his redheaded Russian old flame, and Maria Andreyeva as the old flame's teenage daughter, who may or may not be Sasha's daughter--are stranded by Robards's failure to supply the charisma that would make their fascination with him halfway credible. Nor does he suggest the intellectual firepower that's essential to his character, who's supposed to be cooking up a theory that will "explain" the universe. The only thing he seems to be a genius at is moping.

Perestroika wants to say something about the nightmare of life in the Soviet Union and the untenable choices that were forced on Russian scientists and other intellectuals who had to decide whether they preferred to leave their homes, perhaps forever, and try to do meaningful work in exile, or, like Sasha's mentor Professor Grosss (F. Murray Abraham), consign themselves to working for a state apparatus they fear and depise. It comes closest in the flashback scenes in which Sasha is denounced in the classroom by his colleagues for wanting to defect to Israel ("Greenburg doesn't belong in Israel. He belongs in prison!")--the same colleagues who will later accost him in private to assure him they didn't mean it, and who, seventeen years later, will welcome him back as a conquering hero. With its dead lump of a hero and a stalled dramatic motor--and with surprisingly little to say about the effect of Perestroika itself, aside from the news that you had to pay through the nose for a bottle of vodka--the movie is mostly just talky. This does no one any favors except for F. Murray Abraham, who tears into his role with the gusto of an actor who loves playing the cultured, world-weary ironist and has figured out that he has no real competition for the audience's attention. If Perestroika had a life of its own, Abraham's performance might look distractingly hammy, but as it is, he's the closest thing on view to an orgasm-powered flying saucer, and you cleave to him gratefully. Sometimes professional showmanship is its own reward.

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