Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Target #256: Ivanovo detstvo / Ivan's Childhood (1962, Andrei Tarkovsky)

TSPDT placing: #538
Directed by: Andrei Tarkovsky, Eduard Abalov (uncredited)
Written by: Vladimir Bogomolov (story) (screenplay), Mikhail Papava (writer), Andrei Konchalovsky (uncredited), Andrei Tarkovsky (uncredited)
Starring: Nikolay Burlyaev, Valentin Zubkov, Yevgeni Zharikov, Stepan Krylov, Nikolai Grinko, Valentina Malyavina

WARNING: Plot and/or ending details may follow!!!

Andrei Tarkovsky landed his first major project {after his diploma film, The Steamroller and the Violin (1961)} when original director Eduard Abalov was fired from the production, his work deemed unsatisfactory and unusable. Given that Ivan's Childhood (1962) was initiated by other artists, one gets the sense that perhaps Tarkovsky's heart wasn't entirely in this one – it feels like a substantially less-personal film than Andrei Rublev (1969) or Stalker (1979), the other two I've seen so far. Nevertheless, I think I loved it even more than both of these. In his ability to establish mood, Tarkovsky was unsurpassed by any except perhaps Kubrick, boundless emotion communicated through a single beautifully-captured shot. The relatively straightforward narrative and themes of Ivan's Childhood remove the nagging ambiguity of which the director was so very fond, allowing the viewer to simply immerse themselves in the overwhelming atmosphere. Perhaps it'll prove the least durable of Tarkovsky's efforts, but, for now, I have to say that I adored every moment.

The loss of childhood innocence is a common motif in war-themed pictures, and seems particularly prevalent in Soviet cinema – for the finest example, look towards than Elem Klimov's harrowing Come and See (1985). In this film, a close forerunner, Nikolay Burlyaev plays Ivan, a twelve-year-old orphan employed as a Russian spy on the Eastern Front. After his bright, idealistic childhood is yanked away by German soldiers, Ivan commits himself to the Soviet cause, refusing to attend school in favour of infiltrating enemy territory to gather strategic information. Stubborn and weary, he tramps cautiously through the clammy river swamps, keeping low to avoid detection. Even back in Russian territory, Ivan no longer bears any traits of the lively youth he once was. He resents the interference of adults, even those who tentatively regard him as an adopted son. The film's title, Ivan's Childhood, notably refers only to the vivid flashbacks of Ivan's earlier years; from the moment his mother fell from a bullet, his childhood was over.

It doesn't need saying that Tarkovsky's film is beautifully-shot – indeed, that would be an understatement. Vadim Yusov's cinematography is crisp, haunting and atmospheric, a truly marvellous effort from a photographer whose only previous experience was also on Tarkovsky's diploma work. Ivan's Childhood contains little of the rampant brutality that made Come and See such a traumatic, visceral experience, but instead achieves success through subtle contemplation, as was the director's style. Ivan's forever-shattered innocence is most startlingly recognised in the shadowy serenity of the river swamp, encroached only intermittently by the silent arc of an enemy flare. Ivan's wistful childhood memories are always basked in a radiant sunlit glow, but his present and future are confined only to the murky gloom of a marshland, or the cold walls of a military bunker. When the Russian base is faced with a German blitz, his only worry stems from the surreal realisation that he's not frightened in the slightest. An irreversibly corrupted mind and soul, Ivan marches onwards to his death.

Currently my #6 film of 1962:
1) Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean)
2) La Jetée {The Pier} (Chris Marker)
3) Le Procès {The Trial} (Orson Welles)
4) To Kill A Mockingbird (Robert Mulligan)
5) Birdman of Alcatraz (John Frankenheimer)
6) Ivanovo detstvo {Ivan’s Childhood} (Andrei Tarkovsky, Eduard Abalov)
7) The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (John Ford)
8) Cape Fear (J. Lee Thompson)
9) Panic in Year Zero! (Ray Milland)
10) The Manchurian Candidate (John Frankenheimer)


Saturday, January 3, 2009

New Blog: "Short Cuts"

Hello to all my fanatical readers,
First of all, I promise that this'll be the last blog I create - you'd think I had nothing better to do with my time! Short Cuts, which was unveiled just yesterday, is an online tribute to the art of the short film. Though typically dismissed as an inferior medium of artistic expression, I wholeheartedly believe that short-subject cinema has just as much capacity for brilliance as its more long-winded cousins.

This new blog allows a portal through which I can advertise the best that short films have to offer, through reviews that are, I hope, concise and enjoyable to read (though, if a certain title strikes my fancy, I wouldn't be averse to exploring its virtues in greater detail). The venture was inspired by the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? top 250 listing of short films - entitled Brief Encounters - which is apparently due for official release soon, though I managed to scrounge a preliminary list from sources that shall remain anonymous. In order to allow greater freedom with my blog, I won't be basing my viewing choices on the list, but will instead utilise it only as a loose guide.

In short, please head over to the new blog and peruse at your leisure.



Thursday, January 1, 2009

Target #255: Le Salaire de la peur / The Wages of Fear (1953, Henri-Georges Clouzot)

TSPDT placing: #206
Directed by: Henri-Georges Clouzot
Written by: Georges Arnaud (novel), Henri-Georges Clouzot (writer), Jérôme Géronimi (writer)
Starring: Yves Montand, Charles Vanel, Folco Lulli, Peter van Eyck, Véra Clouzot, William Tubbs, Darío Moreno, Jo Dest

WARNING: Plot and/or ending details may follow!!!

For a brief period during the 1950s, French director Henri-Georges Clouzot captured the mantle of "The Master of Suspense" from Alfred Hitchcock, owing mostly to his two most recognised thrillers, The Wages of Fear (1953) and Les Diaboliques (1955). It's a difficult title to live up to, but Clouzot knows precisely what he's doing, even if he seems to lack Hitchcock's distinctive sense of showmanship. What I've always loved about cinema is its ability to manipulate reality, to elicit genuine emotions from situations that, in real life, would seem mundane, or even ridiculous. An example I've used before, I believe, is Tarkovsky's Stalker (1979), in which a peaceful and benign forest is inexplicably transformed into an environment of intense mystery and foreboding. Now consider The Wages of Fear, when actor Peter van Eyck funnels what is probably water into a drilled hole in the rock. There's zero suspense in this simple act of pouring. However, taken within the context of the story, this water suddenly becomes nitroglycerine, and I got sore fingers from gripping the chair so tightly. The Wages of Fear contains two particular sequences that rival anything Hitchcock ever did in terms of suspense. In the first, to which I briefly alluded above, a small amount of nitroglycerine is utilised to demolish a huge boulder blocking the road, the slightest lapse in concentration certain to lead to disaster. In the second, Mario (Yves Montand) and Jo (Charles Vanel) wallow pathetically in a deepening pool of crude oil, drowning in the black tar that represents the United States' rampant capitalistic greed {the motif of oil epitomising greed is not an uncommon one in cinema, and most recently turned up in P.T. Anderson's There Will Be Blood (2006)}. What I think prevents Clouzot's film from being truly brilliant is the opening half-hour or so, which is not only unsuspenseful, but damn near uninteresting. Of course, I suppose, it's important to note the changes that take place in the characters both before and after their new job – the dominating Joe quickly reveals his cowardice, and the sycophantic Mario takes over the role of boss – but Hitchcock, at least, would have made these introductions far more compelling.

Towards the film's ending, I have conflicting emotions. On the one hand, it is a wonderful masterwork of cinematography and editing, as Mario's driving is intercut with the waltz of his acquaintances back in town, to the tune of Strauss' "The Blue Danube." There's an astonishing momentum to the camera movements; we foresee what is about to happen at least a minute before Montand's character does, but are powerless to stop it. He carries on his Dance Macabre (a figurative "waltz with death") until he loses control of the truck, begetting a spectacular, fiery plummet over the cliff edge. On the other hand, the entire incident – however satisfying filmically – doesn't seem like a natural progression of the narrative, possessing the air of a conclusion affixed only to achieve a surefire audience reaction. Unfortunately, similar cases of characters acting illogically litter the story, providing what might be described as mere cheap thrills: Mario continues to reverse the truck even after being told to stop, and Luigi, at one point, ludicrously decides to run towards an impending explosion rather than away from it.

Currently my #5 film of 1953:
1) From Here To Eternity (Fred Zinnemann)
2) Stalag 17 (Billy Wilder)
3) I Confess (Alfred Hitchcock)
4) The Titfield Thunderbolt (Charles Crichton)
5) Le salaire de la peur {The Wages of Fear} (Henri-Georges Clouzot)
6) Pickup on South Street (Samuel Fuller)
7) Roman Holiday (William Wyler)
8) The War Of The Worlds (Byron Haskin)