Dersu Uzala shows up on countless best-of lists, and won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. The last time I did a Best Directors list, I had Akira Kurosawa at #3. He has made many all-time classics. Dersu Uzala came late in Kurosawa's career, and to my mind, he still had one great picture to come (Ran). Between that film and Dersu Uzala, he directed one other movie, Kagemusha, which didn't do much for me. I found Dersu Uzala to have many wonderful moments, but they are spread out over almost 2 1/2 hours and the result is too repetitive to maintain its power.
That Dersu Uzala was made at all is impressive. The Japanese film industry had lost confidence in Kurosawa's ability make a profitable film. To the rescue came Mosfilm from the USSR, offering Kurosawa the chance to make a film from a Russian literature source. They were surprised when Kurosawa chose a text little known outside of the USSR, the memoir of a Russian soldier called Dersu Uzala. The film was shot in Russia (it's fascinating to see how Siberia changes with the seasons, defying the popular view that the area is like the Arctic), featuring Russian actors and crew members. (It is said there was only one interpreter on the set.)
There are several themes in the movie. The heart of the film is the relationship between the soldier, leading a surveying expedition, and Dersu, a native of the area whose understanding of nature is priceless to the expedition. There is an underlying theme about the gradual eradication of our roots in nature in the name of "progress", but the friendship of the two men is always foregrounded.
I found Dersu Uzala to be a case of eating my vegetables because they are good for you. I won't soon forget the most memorable moments, but it is not the first movie I will return to when I want a taste of Kurosawa. #468 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.
This was one of the hardest challenges to fulfill. There are only 12 films on the above Poetic Cinema list. I'd seen two of them, leaving ten, and none of them were available on any streaming service I have. So I broke the "unseen" rule and re-watched Earth, which I saw once about 50 years ago.
I like to tell an anecdote ... who knows if it was ever true, it tells the truth in its essence, even if the details are a bit off. I was a film major in 1973-4, and I watched a lot of movies. When I got into grad school in English, I spent a lot of time bitching about the literary canon. Suffice to say, I didn't like it. At one point, I took a film course where I was the only English grad student in the class ... all of the other students were undergraduate film majors. And they were smart whippersnappers. But as the semester went on, I realized their knowledge of the history of film was mostly lacking. Meanwhile, those long-ago years as a film major for me meant I got what amounts to a canonical film education (ironic, as I hope you can appreciate). The way I often described those film major years (and this is the part where the truth is in the essence, not the details) is that I watched six weeks of silent Ukranian films. One of them was Earth.
It's an acknowledged classic for a reason (in the most recent Sight and Sound poll, it finished at #312). It's a combination of beautiful cinematography (Danylo Demutskyi was the cinematographer) and innovative editing techniques by director Oleksandr Dovzhenko. Dovzhenko uses a lot of stationary images, of nature, of close-up faces, breaking things up not by moving the camera but by jumping to a new image. The connection between the people and nature is evident. Dovzhenko uses all of this to foreground beauty and symbolism over a more clear didacticism. While Earth is a paean to collectivism, it was criticized by Soviet authorities for, if I understand it correctly, being too masterful as art to make it useful as propaganda.
I'm pretty sure my sense of the politics of Earth is muddled, but it is so beautiful that I just gave myself over to it. Unfortunately, the only print I could find was on YouTube, and it was terrible, a real loss considering the excellence of the film.
This is my seventh Agnès Varda movie, and she hasn't failed me yet. She is my favorite woman director, and I'm a bit embarrassed that I never even saw one of her movies until a dozen or so years ago. I've never given a Varda film less than an 8/10 rating, and One Sings, the Other Doesn't continues that streak. I do think, though, that this is my least-favorite so far, which is kind of silly considering I find it better than the vast majority of other movies.
One Sings, the Other Doesn't combines moments of whimsy with pointed political statements, tied to actual events. There is a recreation of a 1972 trial that was key to the process that resulted in legalized abortions in France. One of the primary lawyers in the case, Gisèle Halimi, makes a brief appearance as herself in the movie:
It is easy to imagine that the ambience during the making of One Sings was congenial, and everything we know about the filming reinforces this feeling. It has a collaborative sensibility. While the narrative, which covers roughly 15 years beginning in 1962, is usefully "real", the atmosphere is always positive, looking forward to liberation. These characters have experienced life and death ... there are echoes of historical moments like Paris 1968, or the 1972 abortion trial, and Varda is explicitly presenting a feminist vision that imagines that liberation is coming or is already here. There is a pleasure in the presentation. One Sings, the Other Doesn't suggests the hippie era of the late 60s, with its traveling musicians and its experimental life styles. I wouldn't say it's naïve, but the at times goofy feel of the movie buries the more serious political ideas. Which is what Varda was going for, I'm sure ... she wrote the lyrics to the songs, and while it's been said that they don't translate well into English, nonetheless as they appear in the subtitles, those lyrics are the worst thing about the movie.
One Sings, the Other Doesn't is rooted in feminist politics, but Varda makes sure to have her cake and eat it, too. It's a delight that to an extent buries politics in joy, which is where the delight comes from. You may find yourself thinking after the fact about the political implications of the film, but while you are watching it, you are mostly just enjoying what you see.
I've seen one other film directed by Mikhail Kalatozov, the interesting I Am Cuba, which shared cinematography by Sergei Urusevsky, who does the same here. Based on those two films, Urusevsky is a master. The Cranes Are Flying won the Palme d'Or at Cannes, and is #442 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.
The film also benefits immensely from the lead performance by Tatiana Samoilova in only her second film. Her natural acting, combined with her natural beauty, made her a popular actress with Soviet audiences. (Wikipedia tells us that Samoilova remembered receiving a watch from her East German fans during a festival there. The gift featured the inscription: "Finally we see on the Soviet screen a face, not a mask".)
The Cranes Are Flying takes place during World War II, and focuses on the people at home during the conflict. While an underlying theme of patriotic heroism on the front exists, the brutality of the war is also apparent, and the effect on the home front is heartbreaking. So many of the most memorable scenes are made so by the work of Urusevsky. Hand-held camerawork in particular affects our feelings for what we are seeing.
Here is a lovely montage, from "Movies in Movement":
Larisa Shepitko studied under Dovzhenko at a film institute in Moscow, where she completed her first feature film. Wings was her first film after finishing at the institute. It shows a confident command of the medium. She was 28 at the time. She only completed a few other features, most notably The Ascent, before dying in a car crash at the age of 41. She still goes more unrecognized than she deserves. I have her at #9 on my Women's Directors Top 25 list.
Wings is the story of a World War II Soviet fighter pilot named Nadezhda Petrukhina, who has become a school principal. She is good at her job, but her thoughts often turn back to the time she spent flying, and she is dissatisfied when she compares her previous life to her current one. Nadezhda is played by Maya Bulgakova, who does a remarkable job of presenting an accomplished woman who mostly keeps her dissatisfaction to herself. The contrast between the drab institutional surroundings at her job and the airy, high-flying images of her time as a pilot, emphasizes what Nadezhda has lost. That her memories include the death of her lover, a fellow pilot, cast a darkness on those memories, doesn't erase the freedom those images of being in the air represents. (The cinematographer was Igor Slabnevich.)
This is a quiet film that doesn't overstay its welcome (coming in at 85 minutes). The Ascent may be her masterpiece, but Wings is an important picture in its own right.
Gregory J. Smalley wrote, "If someone sat down to watch The Color of Pomegranates with no background, they would have no idea what they were seeing. None at all." He later added, "Many simple folk don’t like Pomegranates because they don’t like seeing something they don’t understand: they fear they are missing out on the meaning of the film. It’s their loss."
A movie completely out of my wheelhouse. I knew nothing about it in advance, so imagine my surprise when I found out The Diamond Arm is a Russian comedy/adventure about bumbling jewel smugglers. There is a lot of slapstick, which translates well across cultures but which is not generally my cup of tea, and I'm pretty sure there was a lot of clever wordplay that went right over my head because I don't speak Russian. It was a box office hit in Russia, and has since been recognized as a cult classic and one of the finest Russian comedies of all time. I laughed once. Put it in the Not for Me, Your Mileage May Vary category. The entire film is on YouTube in high quality, if you're interested.
"Soviet montage theory is an approach to understanding and creating cinema that relies heavily upon editing (montage is French for "assembly" or "editing"). It is the principal contribution of Soviet film theorists to global cinema, and brought formalism to bear on filmmaking.
Although Soviet filmmakers in the 1920s disagreed about how exactly to view montage, Sergei Eisenstein marked a note of accord in "A Dialectic Approach to Film Form" when he noted that montage is "the nerve of cinema", and that "to determine the nature of montage is to solve the specific problem of cinema". Its influence is far reaching commercially, academically, and politically. Alfred Hitchcock cites editing (and montage indirectly) as the lynchpin of worthwhile filmmaking. In fact, montage is demonstrated in the majority of narrative fiction films available today. Post-Soviet film theories relied extensively on montage's redirection of film analysis toward language, a literal grammar of film. A semiotic understanding of film, for example, is indebted to and in contrast with Sergei Eisenstein's wanton transposition of language "in ways that are altogether new." While several Soviet filmmakers, such as Lev Kuleshov, Dziga Vertov, Esfir Shub and Vsevolod Pudovkin put forth explanations of what constitutes the montage effect, Eisenstein's view that "montage is an idea that arises from the collision of independent shots" wherein "each sequential element is perceived not next to the other, but on top of the other" has become most widely accepted.
The production of films—how and under what conditions they are made—was of crucial importance to Soviet leadership and filmmakers. Films that focused on individuals rather than masses were deemed counterrevolutionary, but not exclusively so. The collectivization of filmmaking was central to the programmatic realization of the Communist state. Kino-Eye forged a film and newsreel collective that sought the dismantling of bourgeois notions of artistry above the needs of the people. Labor, movement, the machinery of life, and the everyday of Soviet citizens coalesced in the content, form, and productive character of Kino-eye repertoire.
The bulk of influence, beginning from the October 1917 Revolution until the late 1950s (oftentimes referred to as the Stalin era), brought a cinematic language to the fore and provided the groundwork for contemporary editing and documentary techniques, as well as providing a starting point for more advanced theories."
This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen Soviet Montage film.
I've told the story many times. My first attempt at college was in 1973-4, when I was a film major at a local junior college. Things were different in California in those day before Prop 13 lowered taxes, which resulted in a loss of revenue. In 1973, there was plenty of money for education, so that my local junior college had a full film program that included a free film showing five nights a week (usually a double-bill) along with all the movies I watched in the day during classes. It was, in fact, the largest free film program in the country at that time. While I became known in my grad school days in the English department as an anti-canon advocate, my film education was a different kind of preparation. It was, in short, canonical. This meant, among other things, that I spent several weeks watching silent Soviet films. So this week's challenge took me back to my younger days.
I barely need to write anything more ... the challenge description above may be the most detailed I've ever seen. One oft-noted difference between Eisenstein and Pudovkin is that Pudovkin would focus on individual characters more than Eisenstein, who relied more on the collective. I'm not sure how different the results were ... Mother has several main characters, but outside of the titular mother, those characters are mostly stereotypical, and Dear Old Mom serves a clear ideological purpose, such that it appears we learn a bit about her character just so we can see her transition to a revolutionary mindset. Mother is the kind of movie that ends with the mother being trampled to death by Tsarist soldiers on horseback. This is presented as a triumph, because the previously apolitical woman has advanced to waving the socialist flag as she dies. (I admit my interpretation may differ from how you see it.)
In 1968, the film was restored and a musical score was added. I found the music distracting, although it worked better in later scenes.
Quite a mix of things over the last few days, so I'm stuffing them all into one post.
Julius Caesar. We've enjoyed watching our friend Arthur over the years in various plays, but since he moved down south (more jobs!) we only get to see him when he gets a spot on a TV series. So it was fun to watch a production of Julius Caesar by the Evergreen Theatre Collective, which was shown live on Facebook, with Arthur as Marc Antony. The production was quite inventive in using the quarantine effectively, with the cast showing up on the mosaic screen we've all gotten used to in the Zoom-meets-COVID era. Caesar was cut to fit a running time of about 90 minutes, but continuity was always clear. Arthur kicked ass on Antony's famous orations ... as I said, he is the first person I know who played a role previously done by Brando. Caesar was played by an African-American woman, which gave a different spin, more because it was a woman than because she was black. We knew we would like seeing our friend, but the entire production was quite good. [edited to add YouTube video of performance]
Ivan the Terrible, Part II (Sergei M. Eisenstein, 1958). I had watched Part I ten years ago (Ivan the Terrible, Part I), which is to say, I didn't remember much of what happened in that earlier film. I read up a bit and then jumped into Part II. Eisenstein had planned a Part III, but it never happened. He finished Part II in 1946, but the Party didn't like it and it wasn't released. Eisenstein died in 1950, Stalin in 1953, and the film was finally released in 1958. Part II is magnificent to look at, and Prokofiev's score was great, but for me, everything was static. Eisenstein loved his close-ups and his montage, but in this case, I was unimpressed. #228 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.
One section of the film is in color, and this dance vibrates with movement. (When you click on the video, you'll be asked to watch on YouTube.)
Creature Feature: The Little Shop of Horrors (Roger Corman, 1960). Has there ever been a more apt example of sublime-to-ridiculous? From Shakespeare and Eisenstein to Roger Corman. This is the original quickie that later spawned the musical. The making of the film has become legendary over time, and who knows what is true and what is exaggeration? The budget was $30,000, give or take a few grand. They shot it in 2 1/2 days, give or take a day. Corman saved money by making full use of Charles B. Griffith, who wrote the screenplay ... Griffith also appeared on screen in two different roles, did the voice for Audrey Jr., and managed to get his grandmother, his father, and other relatives in the picture. Jack Nicholson has a brief role as a pain-loving dental patient. Is it any good? For as cheap as it was to make, sure, it was good. It has become a cult classic, certainly worth a view if you've never seen it and have 72 minutes to spare. But I wouldn't go overboard.
It used to be a big deal to try and make movies of the works of Ernest Hemingway. I feel like that time is past ... a quick look tells me there hasn't been one since 2001, although I'm sure I'm missing something. Most critics seem to think Hemingway's style doesn't translate well to film. In a story that may be apocryphal, Howard Hawks told Hemingway he could make a movie from the author's worst story ... the result was To Have and Have Not.
"The Killers" was a short story Hemingway wrote in 1927. (You can read it here.) The first movie to be based on the story came out in 1946, with Burt Lancaster in his film debut, and Ava Gardner as the femme fatale. It's an interesting extension of Hemingway's story. The film opens with a scene that closely follows the short story:
Since the movie runs 103 minutes, something has to fill in the remaining time. So we get an insurance investigator (played by Edmond O'Brien, who later spent a couple of years on radio as "Johnny Dollar", also an insurance investigator). His job is to figure out what really happened in a murder for which the company he works for is paying a beneficiary. This allows for several flashbacks that rebuild the story, effectively showing us what happened to Hemingway's characters before the story began. The screenwriters (Anthony Veiller and uncredited John Huston and Richard Brooks) do a good enough job that the characters feel close to the story.
This version of The Killers is now considered a classic example of film noir. The supporting cast includes people like William Conrad (his first credited role) and Virginia Christine, better known to Boomers as Mrs. Olson. The cinematography by Woody Bredell deserves a lot of credit for the film's success.
When I referred in the title of this post to a double-bill of The Killers, most people were probably thinking of the 1964 version, which included Ronald Reagan in his final role (he gets to slap Angie Dickinson). But I was thinking about this one:
It's the first student film of Andrei Tarkovsky, who made the 19-minute short with fellow students Marika Beiku and Aleksandr Gordon. It's fascinating, partly because, like the first scenes in the 1946 version, Tarkovsky et al followed Hemingway's story. In fact, if the English subtitles can be believed, this Russian version is an almost word-for-word translation of Hemingway to the screen. If Tarkovsky films like Andrei Rublev, Solaris, and Stalker are too long for you, The Killers is a brief way to get started on his work.