Feast on Science-Fiction Rarities at the Museum of Modern Art’s “Future Imperfect” Series


Where to begin with the Museum of Modern Art’s “Future Imperfect: The Uncanny in Science Fiction”? This gargantuan cinephilic treat is of almost irresponsible scope: How, during its run, are we supposed to get anything done? Organized by the Department of Film’s Joshua Siegel, the overstuffed series — which began on Monday and continues through August 31 — encompasses seventy movies originating from more than twenty countries. There are works that run for barely more than a minute, like Walter R. Booth’s single-shot The Over-Incubated Baby (1901; screening on August 28 and 30), in which the owner of a growth-promising “baby incubator” — to his disturbingly morbid delight — mistakenly transforms an infant into a geriatric. Other selections run for hours on end, like Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s melancholy 200-minute-plus Welt am Draht (World on a Wire, 1973; July 23 and 28). There are also critical favorites from recent years, like Alex Garland’s Ex Machina (2014; August 1 and 5), in which Oscar Isaac’s a.i. innovator tempers his technological breakthroughs with episodes of blackout drunkenness.

Attempting a cover-all-bases viewing strategy is probably futile, but there is, despite the broad purview — per a MoMA release, these movies all “explore the question: What does it mean to be human?,” a concern one hopes would apply to non-sci-fi movies as well — an organizing concept at play. Siegel’s program eschews certain pillars of sci-fi storytelling — “space travel, visions of the distant future, alien invasions, and monsters,” again quoting the release — in favor of movies set on Earth in the present or near-present. The result is a slate of supreme collective unease; several movies don’t specify the year in which they take place, which somehow makes their characters’ habits, dilemmas, and foibles all the more disconcertingly familiar. And yet for all the series’ conceptual connections, many of the standout rarities are revelatory not necessarily for their ideas so much as for their visceral bounties.

Take *Corpus Callosum (2002; July 25–26), from the Canadian avant-garde luminary Michael Snow. Toggling between two central locations — one a nondescript office space, the other a living room with bright colors and a television set — Snow’s digital-video freakout is on a constant mission to manipulate the image. A wad of bubblegum expands until it envelops the frame; people perform jumping jacks for no reason, their movements sometimes sped up, sometimes slowed down; characters bodies’ undergo extreme distortion, occasionally of the sexual variety. There’s much worth contemplating here about, say, the impermanence of the digital age or the banality of our home-and-work routines, but mostly *Corpus Callosum rivets as meticulously choreographed high-art juvenilia — like if Jacques Tati were around to make his version of Jackass.

There’s more unhinged slapstick to be discovered in The Bed Sitting Room (1969; July 23), a maligned-at-the-time apocalyptic comedy from Richard Lester (A Hard Day’s Night). Working from a play by Spike Milligan and John Antrobus, Lester establishes through pocket flashbacks that the movie takes place about three or four years after a “nuclear misunderstanding” led to a catastrophic Third World War. The dilapidated London setting serves as the backdrop for a procession of delusional characters, among them a pair of police officers who continue to operate out of a vehicle suspended via hot-air balloon. Again, there are grand ideas to appreciate (this is a more spirited, specific cultural satire than Snow’s movie), but the anything-goes humor — which permits characters to turn, nonchalantly, into pieces of furniture — is what captivates.

More downright despairing are two mid-Eighties stunners, the first from the Soviet Union. Konstantin Lopushansky’s Pis’ma Myortvogo Cheloveka (Letters From a Dead Man, 1986; July 29–30) opens in the shadow of nuclear carnage and observes a cluster of survivors who have taken refuge in the basement of a museum. Midway through, Lopushansky jolts out of the anguished present — yellow-tinged, howling-wind exteriors dotted by radiation-ravaged bodies — to reveal the explosion that ignited the demise. He shares a hospital scene of the professor protagonist (Rolan Bykov) scrambling in vain to locate his son among the dead; the sounds of suffering emanating from offscreen linger, haunting the action that follows.

Piotr Szulkin’s O-Bi, O-Ba — The End of Civilization (1985; July 29 and 31), from Poland, centers on a temporarily hospitable “dome” where the existing population is waiting against the clock for the arrival of “the Ark,” a supposed promised land of environmental salvation. (The authoritarian atmosphere echoes the martial law that ruled the country from 1981 to ’83.) The movie opens with Soft (Jerzy Stuhr), a state official tasked with suppressing dissent in the shelter, relaying the backstory over footage of a mushroom cloud; the sequence then segues into the character’s stark barracks, where he continues his speech in the flesh. The transition alters what first seemed like objective table-setting narration into a soul-baring in-character lament: After finishing his introduction, Soft weeps into a punching bag.

This desperation is mirrored in the movie’s palette, its sorrowful blue overlay, as if someone dunked the celluloid in a cold pool. But most striking is the nearly nonstop agitation of the camera (the cinematographer is Witold Sobocinski), which barrels through the dome’s corridors. One long-take scene, in which the camera orbits a communal bathroom, showcases a suite of grimy activity: a man taking a leak with his back to the lens; another whirling past the frame while brushing his teeth. Anchored emotionally by Stuhr’s hangdog gravity, this is an overwhelming 360-degree experience on the order of Aleksei German.

In addition to The Over-Incubated Baby, Siegel has scattered short- and medium-length delights throughout the series. Andrzej Wajda’s black-and-white, thirty-five-minute Przekladaniec (Roly Poly/Layer Cake, 1968; July 29 and 31) envisions a society in which the transaction of body parts has become a farcical norm. Rally racer Richard Fox (Bogumil Kobiela) wakes up from a crash to find that he can’t collect on the life insurance policy of his fatally hurt co-driver brother: Nearly fifty percent of his brother’s organs have been repurposed into his own body, leaving the more gravely injured sibling, mathematically, not completely dead.

Despite Wajda’s daunting visual sense — low-angle shots of skyscrapers that shoot into the air like monoliths — it’s the comic slant of the material, by the writer Stanislaw Lem (Solaris), that’s leaned on here. The secret weapon is Ryszard Filipski, who plays Richard’s lawyer. As he comes to understand the rules of this biologically absurd world (a second collision leaves Richard hybridizing with a woman and a dog), the lawyer unleashes an arsenal of exasperated reaction shots — his eyes often popping in incredulity — that serve as subtle but gut-busting punchlines. One of the movie’s last gestures encapsulates his ordeal: The camera pans across a sea of liquor bottles, then locates Filipski reclined on the couch. His expression, in that moment, of total and complete exhaustion might also speak for the mental state of a moviegoer trying to make sense of the unruly, riches-aplenty lineup of “Future Imperfect.”

‘Future Imperfect: The Uncanny in Science Fiction’
Through August 31
Museum of Modern Art