I seem to have gone on a bit of a Russian film binge in this one – a Sokurov box set I’d ordered arrived, and I decided I’d better finish off the Eisenstein box set.
Faces*, John Cassavetes (1968, USA). I think this is the second Cassavetes films I’ve seen, it would appear he’s one of those highly-praised US independent directors, like Hal Hartley, whose appeal completely passes me by. Faces is shot in black and white, in a cinéma verité style, and seems to consist chiefly of a group of small people at various times, whose constituents change, being drunk and either talking crap, larking about or treating women badly. Buried somewhere among these scenes is a narrative, which apparently describes the slow disintegration of a marriage. But, to be honest, I didn’t much care. Most of the cast were pretty reprehensible, and their drunken boasting was hardly edifying or particularly entertaining. I’m afraid the high regard in which Faces is held is completely beyond me.
Maria, Aleksandr Sokurov (1978 to 1988, Russia). Sokurov’s films are not easy to find, and many of them have yet to be released on DVD. Elegy of the Land, on which this film appears, is fortunately relatively easy to find. Sokurov began his career making television documentaries, often from found footage, but Maria is original footage about the eponymous farmer, first filmed in 1978, and then added to ten years later. It’s a propaganda piece, but it’s also typically Sokurovian, although some of the cinematography is not as sophisticated as that displayed in later films. There are, for example, no distortions of the image, as used in later films, and the narrative is relatively straightforward. The film is also vibrantly-coloured – albeit only in the first half, the 1978 segment which last some 18 minutes and 30 seconds. The only dialogue is that spoken by the women farmers (only one or two men actually appear in this part of the film). Ten years later, Sokurov returned to film Maria, opening this half of the film with a typically Sokurovian long take shot from a vehicle driving along a road. The inhabitants of Maria’s village are invited to a showing of the first half of the film, and Sokurov films them (in black and white), and provides a voice-over. Maria dies, and he takes stills of the funeral, while commenting on her career and what she represented to those who knew and loved her. Maria is an odd piece – those first 18½ minutes seem very typical of Soviet propaganda – a colourful cinematographic essay on Soviet agriculture, although without the usual self-aggrandizing commentary. But the second half of the film is much more like one of Sokurov’s elegies, a meditation on its subject visualised using a variety of cinematic techniques. The more Sokurov I watch, the more he climbs in my estimation.
Stone, Aleksandr Sokurov (1992, Russia). This is available on the Early Masterworks box set, which has only a US release (and includes a Region A Blu-ray), so it’s a little harder to find. But it’s worth taking the trouble to track down a copy. And I say that having now seen Stone three times and still being no wiser as to what it is actually about. In fact, the second time I watched it was after spending the afternoon on a bit of a pub crawl, so I fell asleep about ten minutes in. I then decided to rewatch it straight away, while reading the essay on the film in The Cinema of Alexander Sokurov: Figures of Paradox… And the following morning I discovered I’d ordered two paperbacks by Anton Chekhov from Amazon… But then I find Sokurov’s films – both fiction and documentary – endlessly fascinating not only because he distorts his cinematography to generate a specific visual look and feel – something I would like to be able to do in fiction – but also because he builds his narratives from allusion, metaphor and references, and there is so much going on in his films that every other director’s oeuvre seems almost juvenile by comparison. As far as I can determine, Stone is about Chekhov, returning to his house after his death, I think – but it shares a look and feel, and a thematic similarity with my favourite Sokurov film The Second Circle, although in this one the picture is distorted rather than just filtered. It’s another film with those long takes which suck you in, until you find yourself focusing on every aspect of the film with a degree of concentration it’s impossible to give to a nanosecond jump-cut Hollywood tentpole blockbuster…
Dersu Uzala*, Akira Kurosawa (1975, Japan/USSR). This is the first film Kurosawa made after attempting suicide following the commercial and critical failure of Dodes’kaden, and apparently he had known of the book of the same title by Vladimir Arsenyev since the 1930s. Whatever the provenance, I have to admit this is the Kurosawa film I’ve enjoyed and admired the most – but how much of that is due to my favouring of Russian cinema over Japanese? The title character is a hunter of the Goldi (Nanai), one of the Tungusic peoples of the Russian Far East, who Arsenyev runs into while on an army expedition to survey the Sikhote-Alin region. Uzala is a wily old man of the woods, and though the Russian soldiers initially consider him a primitive, he quickly earns their respect. So far so good. Kurosawa handles his wilderness filming with his usual excellence, and makes particular use of his fondness for placing the camera at odd angles. There is a weird spiritual interlude, which feels like pure Kurosawa, but which I felt didn’t quite gel with the other parts of the film. And then there’s the bit where Arsenyev attempts to “tame the savage” by offering Uzala his home when the hunter finds he can no longer live in the wilds as he once did. But he soon begins to long for his previous life. I thought Dersu Uzala very good – and while I may be starting to appreciate Kurosawa’s films more, I suspect it’s the story which is responsible for my liking it so much.
Ivan the Terrible, part 1*, Sergei Eisenstein (1944, USSR). No, I don’t understand why the first part of this is on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but the second isn’t. Especially since I preferred part 2 to part 1. The film tells the story of, er, Tsar Ivan IV, who ruled all the Russias from 1547 until his death in 1584. It’s all very in your face, with much gurning, and some quite fantastic costumes. In many respects, it feels and looks like Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky, although some 300 years separates the two films (their subjects, not their filming). This first part deals with Ivan’s ascension to the throne, with much politcking from the boyars, many of whom had their own candidates for tsar. Then there’s a mob scene – Eisenstein likes his mob scenes – and there’s also his marriage to Anastasia Romanovna, which doesn’t go all that well… The spectacle and melodrama tend to overwhelm the story, and disguise the fact Ivan the Terrible was a pretty fascinating historical figure – this is in many respects an historical biopic turned up to 11.
Ivan the Terrible, part 2, Sergei Eisenstein (1958, USSR). Apparently, Stalin banned this part, which is why it didn’t appear until fourteen years after the first. It was also filmed partly in colour, unlike the black and white of part 1. And I found myself enjoying it more. Again, you have those fantastic costumes, and a lot of scenes set in Ivan’s throne room. And in some of those scenes, a dance springs to mind especially, Eisenstein actually turns it up to twelve – which is quite an achievement. In other words, this film is more of the same, with the emphasis on more. Incidentally, I’m still a little annoyed I’ve yet to find a copy of Tartan’s Sergei Eisenstein Collection Volume 1 (containing Strike, Battleship Potemkin and October) for a reasonable price… although I see the Sergei Eisenstein Collection Volume 2 is now going for silly money… so I’m glad I bought my copy when I did.
1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 587