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.
There was an episode of Cheers where Sam Malone, worried that he might lose Diane Chambers to a literature professor, decides to read War and Peace so he'll have something to talk about when the group gets together (the book is recommended by self-proclaimed know-it-all Cliff Claven, who says it's the greatest novel ever written). Sam actually manages to get the book read, which impresses Diane. At the episode's end, she suggests they go see the movie version. "THERE'S A MOVIE? Cliff! I'll kill him!"
The movie to which Diane refers is probably the 208-minute, 1956 American production starring Audrey Hepburn, which made enough of an international impression that the Soviets decided they needed to make their own version of the classic Russian novel. With the support of the Soviet government, that War and Peace ended up with a running time of 431 minutes. A recent restoration was just released on Criterion, and while I was aware that this was one of those "see it on the big screen" pictures, my 66-year-old bladder couldn't imagine sitting in a theater for 7 hours straight. So I bought the Blu-ray and sat down to plan my approach.
At which time, I found out that Sergey Bondarchuk's massive film was originally released in four parts over the course of two years.
I felt like Sam Malone, only happy ... "THERE'S FOUR PARTS? I can watch one a day!"
War and Peace is a tremendous spectacle that spends much of its time on the personal relations between the main characters. I feared it would be akin to Doctor Zhivago, another epic film from a novel about historical Russia, and Doctor Zhivago is not one of my favorite films. But I am pleased to note that Bondarchuk's War and Peace is far superior to Zhivago, maintaining interest throughout its long running time, while offering some of the best epic scenes ever.
I assumed that this famous adaptation of the famous novel would have been highly acclaimed, and indeed, it won an Oscar for Best Foreign Film. But you won't find it on many of the lists I cite here so often. You won't find it on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time (it is currently at #1065). And in retrospect, I can see why, at least from my point of view. I've rarely liked big expensive historical epics ... I really did think it would be as poor as Doctor Zhivago. That doesn't explain why it isn't very highly regarded critically (although again, I don't want to overstate that ... #1065 is pretty good).
To be more specific about what works (and doesn't) ... the epic scale is impressive, not just in battle scenes but in more domestic extravagances like balls. Much of the acting is good, and ballerina Lyudmila Savelyeva is exquisite as Natasha. Bondarchuk occasionally uses effectively off-beat visual techniques. On the other hand, Bondarchuk as Pierre is a weak link.
War and Peace should be seen once. I'd say once is enough, though.
This is the latest film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." Week 9 is called "ASC 100 Milestone Films Week":
Here, the American Society of Cinematographers have rounded up the films from the 20th century that stand out in terms of their achievement in the art of visual storytelling. So keep your eyes on the screen and be amazed.
I Am Cuba is a film about the Cuban revolution, sponsored by the Soviet Union with a Soviet director.
Neither Cuba nor the Soviets approved of film, as noted on the IMDB site:
Both the Soviets and the Cubans were disappointed in the film. In Cuba, it is referred to as "I am NOT Cuba". They never felt it was a portrait of themselves - but, rather a depiction of Cuba imposed on them by the Soviet Union. Soviet Union wanted to make a straight-forward propaganda film. They felt the director Mikhail Kalatozov made an 'art' film instead.
Both countries are right. The Cuban people in the movie never rise above stereotypes: the prostitute, the farmer, the student. And while there is plenty of "art" in I Am Cuba, it presents itself as a ironic contrast to what the Soviets probably thought they were paying for. America is consistently shown in a negative manner, but at times the Western style seems pretty darned cool. All of this is important because I Am Cuba got practically no distribution at the time. The Soviets didn't like it, the Cubans didn't like it, and the Americans were in the middle of a Cold War. It wasn't rediscovered (or rather, discovered) until the mid-90s.
I Am Cuba is a terrific example of great cinematography (Sergey Urusevskiy is credited) ... it it certainly a milestone. I only hesitate to include these clips because the quality isn't great, which does a disservice to the cinematography. But at least you get the idea. First, the opening of the film. Watch the long take that begins a little more than 2 minutes in. And watch until the end, keeping in mind this was the early 1960s.
And my favorite of all the long takes:
And if that isn't enough, Raquel Revuelta plays "Cuba" ... it is she who narrates, always returning to "I Am Cuba". #343 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.
Elem Klimov was 52 when Come and See was released. He lived another 18 years. Before Come and See, he had directed more than half-a-dozen features. Given its status among critics (it is #141 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time), you might think Come and See suggested further great movies from the director. Yet he never directed another movie, saying in 2000, "I've lost interest in making films. Everything that was possible I felt I had already done." Watching Come and See, you understand Klimov's position, for it's hard to imagine anything topping what became his final film.
Come and See is a war film that will bring to mind other movies, good ones that pale next to Come and See. Apocalypse Now is often mentioned, as is Saving Private Ryan. I was reminded of the great Fires on the Plain, and to a lesser extent, Bernhard Wicki's The Bridge. Both of those movies have an intensity that makes them hard to sit through, which is also true of Come and See. This Russian film makes Apocalypse Now seem almost trivial.
The film begins with young Flyora and a friend looking for abandoned rifles so they can join the Soviet partisans against the Nazis in 1943. I'm tempted to say we see what transpires through the eyes of Flyora, but that is not literally true, because the face of Flyora is increasingly haunting over the course of the movie. Rather than seeing things through his eyes, we read them through his face. I had to look up Aleksei Kravchenko, the teenaged actor who played Flyora, to see if he had suffered trauma from making the film. He's in almost every scene, and the atrocities he sees can't have been easy to handle, even in a fictional form (it's hard for us in the audience to handle, as well). I learned that Klimov wanted to hypnotize his young actor during the most horrible scenes to help Aleksei get through relatively unscathed, but the actor couldn't be hypnotized. Some sources say that the teenager's hair turned gray while making the movies. He didn't appear on screen for 15 years. But apparently Kravchenko survived ... he returned to acting and became a regular on Russian television.
The title of the film warns us of what is to come. "Come and See" is derived from the Book of Revelation: "And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, Come and see. And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth."
Klimov manages to include some black humor, although it comes mostly in the first half. There comes a point when you just can't laugh it off.