By Michael Atkinson
[Photo: Andrzej Zulawski’s “On the Silver Globe,” Polart, 1987]
What we talk about when we talk about “lost film” pertains, more often than not, to celluloid allowed to decay into nitrate goo, usually at the hands of neglectful businesses who saw little reason to preserve films once they’d had their theatrical run. But Andrzej Zulawski’s “On the Silver Globe” (1987) is another kind of lost altogether a berserk, one-of-a-kind science fiction epic, conceived and fashioned by Europe’s most notorious hyperbolist, the production of which was halted and destroyed in 1978 by the censors in Poland, who probably didn’t know what in the name of a pagan god to make out of Zulawski’s outlandish, gory, screaming-mimi footage, but saw clearly that it wasn’t what the Politburo had in mind when it came to Communist culture. Zulawski expatriated to France in a depressed rage; after he returned to a democratized Poland in 1986, he was convinced by Film Polski and the loyal cast and crew to assemble the film anyway, shooting new footage, recording narration to fill in the story gaps, etc., for a kind of honorary screening at Cannes. After that, “On the Silver Globe” vanished Zulawski did not want it publicly shown, and it quickly became one of the most hankered-after unseen films of the modern age.
In fact, when I wrote about Zulawski and “On the Silver Globe” for Film Comment five years ago (I’d seen a bootleg), I labeled the film (and I promise, this will exhaust my self-quotation rights for the next decade), “one of cinema’s most appalling, breathtaking follies, and the most frightening art film you will never see.” That is, until now somehow, someone wrested it from Zulawski’s embittered grasp, and here it is, sans explanation, on DVD. Newcomers to Zulawski’s filmmaking might be discombobulated even if the film weren’t a fragmentary cobble-job: the tone he doggedly attains, the manner in which he ratchets up his cast and camera, is as close to skull-splitting psychotic frenzy as movies have gotten. No actor reads lines realistically in a Zulawski film when he can howl them in maddened agony; no shot simply captures a landscape when it can scramble and catapult and race like a starving cheetah. “On the Silver Globe” is, of course, a special case (the only Zulawski film to ever get a theatrical release here was 1981’s “Possession,” a portrait of dissolving marriage that involved a Carlo Rambaldi monster and a measure of procreative-sexual unease that makes David Cronenberg look like Nora Ephron). The story is pulled from a famous series of Polish science fiction novels, the “Moon” trilogy, written by Zulawski’s own granduncle, and here it is mostly told in narration over footage of contemporary Warsaw: A disastrous mission to the Moon (Zulawski used the Gobi desert and the shores of the Black Sea) spawns a primitive society that, a few generations down the road, hails an investigating cosmonaut as their messiah and warrior-king in the battle against a race of winged mutants.
But it’s the primal, ghastly originality of Zulawski’s Dantean visuals that brand the memory: armies of black-robed savages dancing through mysterious rituals on white-sanded beaches; the sea water in flames behind a slow-motion shore battle between moon-men and mutants; tribal dramas played out in what looks like a hand-carved cavern the size of a warehouse; cinema’s most appalling crucifixion; a mob of heretical victims impaled as in, Vlad-the-Impaler-impaled, through the rectum on 25-foot, intestine-roped stakes on the same beach, captured by Zulawski in a crane shot that launches high enough to hear one of the poor bastards choke out a few last words of protest. “On the Silver Globe” is an unfinished thing; it’s both difficult to say it’s a successful film as it stands that was certainly never Zulawski’s intention and to imagine what it might’ve amounted to, almost 30 years since its plug was pulled. But you’re not likely to see anything remotely like it, ever.
A more traditionally lost-and-found box of rarities, the new Flicker Alley two-disc set of Rudolph Valentino vehicles acts like an immaculate time machine, not to a silent-film era of auteur masterpieces, but of the simple, empathic melodramas easily captivating Americans in a TV-less world. Herein lies the allure of archival effluvia for the hardcore cinephile a sunset filmed in a classic iris-halo in 1921 retains an inevitable poignancy that, far from being beside the aesthetic point, encapsulates what is sad and beautiful and memorial and human about cinema. Then there’s Valentino himself, an icon as legendary for his unprecedented popularity among moviegoers (well, female moviegoers) as for that popularity’s peculiarly short shelf life (only five years or so, from 1921’s “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” to his spectacularly mourned death in 1925, and even the latter half of that period saw Valentino’s star waning). Today, he’s an oddity: an inexpressive, Italian-born snake-like gigolo-type (which is how he was branded by a disdainful masculine press), half angelic nancy-boy and half dolphin-esque hunk. (No one, not even Douglas Fairbanks, displayed so much well-defined buffness, and no one in Hollywood would until 50 years later.) He was clearly the first male movie star made famous only and exclusively by his ability to ignite the loins of his female viewers. All other considerations were off the table.
The DVD set is comprised entirely of his non-hits not the movies that created a nationwide craze, but the films that otherwise shored up Valentino’s strange and precarious career and serve as a background to understanding his phenomenon: pure romantic hokum as a well-meaning society heir in “A Society Sensation” (1918), the three-reel version of which was edited down from six and re-released in 1924 to capitalize on Valentino’s fame; swarthy villain work in the Marguerite Namara melodrama “Stolen Moments” (1920); “Moran of the Lady Letty” (1922), a blithely enjoyable yarn about a stranded society fellow taken aboard a mercenary ship and shown the ropes, a project that was conscientiously devised to macho-up his image; and “The Young Rajah” (1922), a faux-exotic return to Sheik-dom that survives here only in pieces, abetted by stills, original intertitles and promotional materials. Naturally, the set is bubbling over with supps: promotional ephemera, stills, vintage shorts, new docs, bio info, a map of Valentino’s homes and famous funeral site, original tribute songs from the ’20s, a 1925 audio recording with the mysterious memorial-attending “Lady in Black,” rare trailers and scrap footage, and, preposterously, a good deal more.
“On the Silver Globe” (Polart) is now available on DVD; “The Valentino Collection” will be available on September 11th.