Volume 013, Number 1, Fall, 1988

Libertarian laserdisks

Reviewed by Lynn Maners

As libertarian futurists, Prometheus readers are naturally interested in new technologies especially that which allows more scope for human freedom from the state, explores libertarian ideas, or promotes free minds and free markets to the general public.

In the media collection age which was ushered in by the invention and mass marketing of the videocassette and VCR, fang and advocates of libertarianism can expand beyond the limits of the print medium.

The video cassette does, though, have its limitations. Tapes of a particular film may not be available, and even if available eventually all tape self-destructs as the coating gradually wears off, colors bleed (looked at an old cassette of Star Wars lately?), or your home VCR turns into a tape eater in the middle of your favorite film. Although the future will doubtless bring "movies on demand" direct to our home screen, film buffs of all persuasions have turned to laserdisks for their personal collections.

The laserdisk's advantage is that it, like a music CD will never wear out and the picture will always be as sharp as the original transfer. The laserdisk also provides search and chapter stop capabilities that VCRS don't offer and disks also offer the added bonus of second audio tracks and The potential of including lots of supplementary material which would otherwise be inaccessible to the average viewer.

There are a few down sides to laserdisks, however. Lasers, like your o1d vinyl LPs, must be flipped to play the second, and subsequent sides. In full featured CAV format, (the other format, CLV, is like extended play on a videocassette) a film may take up 6-8 sides (3-4 disks), thereby involving a lot of flipping. Since laserdisk films are designed primarily as sell-through rather than as rentals, they are more expensive to purchase than most videocassettes. Finally, they are still primarily a bi-coastal phenomenon; some places may not have a laserdisk store. Bearing these factors in mind, let's look at a few laserdisks of interest to libertarian futurists.

The Fountainhead (MGM/UA, 114 minutes, B&W, CLV) is the classic film of Rand's well known book. Filmed in black and white, starring Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal, it is reasonably faithful to Rand's original story of architect Howard Roark as he tries to build only to his own dream, without compromise.

While this disk includes the original theatrical trailer and production stills on the inner sleeve, there's probably not enough added value to justify buying it as a new disk. It also suffers from a technical fault. Movies may be presented in either letterbox or pan and scan format. In the former, the film is transferred in its original screen ratio of height to width, resulting in blackbands at the top and bottom of your television screen. In the latter, the film is transferred so that it fills your whole television screen. In the case of The Fountainhead, the pan and scan operator apparently fell asleep, as the film conspicuously bobbles up and down at two separate places! In sum: since not much is futurist about this laserdisk, true Rand fans may want it simply to complete their collections. More casual fans should just rent the cassette at Blockbuster.

We the Living (Lumivision, 174 minutes, B&W, CLV) is the disk presentation of Rand's "lost" film of her first novel. Filmed in italy in 1942, it was forgotten for over 40 years, but finally resurrected and released theatrically in 1988. Rand described it as her most autobiographical novel and, indeed, the film is best described primarily as a romantic one.

Set in Lenin's Sovietized Russia, it follows Kira Argounova, a would be engineer, as she is torn between her real love, Leo Kovelensky (played by a young Rossano Brazzi) and Andrei Taganov, the GPU apparatchik who can offer her protection and the best of Soviet society, but whom she does not love.

The film focuses much less on libertarian ideas, and their dystopian Soviet opposite, than on the romantic triangle of Kira, Leo and Andrei, though the film does conceptualize this classic moral dilemma within the moral and social corruption endemic to all totalitarian regimes.

Considering the classic nature of its theme, the film holds up quite well for modem audiences, although its length (it's really two films) required an intermission when shown theatrically. The disk does have one huge problem and that is its inconsistent subtitle placement.

With the original dialogue in Italian, the subtitles seem to be well translated to English, but in many cases, especially the lower of two lines, the English words fall off the bottom of the screen (and I have a fairly large sized screen). If you speak a Romance language, you can figure out the Italian, if you don't, you'll miss some of the sense of the dialogue. In sum: well worth owning but I'd look for a second hand copy at my local used laserdisk store.

Remaining in non-libertarian Soviet territory and moving into a futurist realm, there's also Aelita (Image, 111 mhutes, B&W, CLV, silent). Also known as The Queen of Mars, this was the Soviet Union's big budget sci-fi spectacular for 1924, intended not only to satisfy the domestic audience but to do well in non-captive markets as well. (1n the sound movie age, we often forget how international silent film was. Rather than dubbing dialogue, all one had to do was snip the original inter titles and substiute intertitles in the target language—as has has been done in this film).

The story of Aelita is basically that of a young Moscow engineer who dreams of a queen of Mars and builds a rocket ship in order to go to Mars and meet her. Arriving on Mars, he finds himself embroiled in a workers' revolt against the ruling classes. (Hmm, could this be a metaphor?)

A real classic of sf in the silent era, though a bit slow and ideologically obvious, this is a film well worth adding to your collection.

And finally there's Robinson Crusoe on Mars (Criterion, CAV). While only mildly of ideological interest to libertarians (it does point out that even the most self-sufficient of us still needs human contact), this disk serves to showcase what laserdisks can do for sf films.

A manned mission to Mars crashes, killing one of the crew and stranding the other. Like the film's eponymous namesake Kitt Draper, the survivor, struggles in a hostile environment, living by his wits and ability to adapt. Conquering the physical environment and solving the challenges of food, water and shelter, he finds (the expedition's surviving monkey notwithstanding) that isolation is "the hairiest problem of them all."

This isolation is resolved when he comes across his Friday, a human slave who has escaped captivity by unidentified other humans (those spaceships look a bit familiar though—see War of the Worlds). Together, through multiple adventures and the opposition of the slavers, they find their way to the Martian ice cap and rescue.

Given the limitations, scientific, cinematic and otherwise of its original time period, this is a spectacular film. Letterboxing and extensive supplemental material make this disk a must own for the sf fan. Side four is given over to production stills, sketches and script notes which show the original concepts for the film, revealing which ideas were and were not carried out.

The realities of bringing a film in under budget in the pre-computerized special effects era meant that much of the Martian flora and fauna in the original script didn't survive the transition to the script as shot. Most importantly, though, Robinson Crusoe on Mars remains a profoundly human film dealing with, actually or by implication, many aspects of the human condition. Get a copy, you/ll be glad that you did.

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