Wednesday, July 27, 2005

#34: Andrei Rublev

Andrei Rublev, 1966, directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, written by Andrei Tarkovsky and Andrei Konchalovsky.

Here's a minor incident in Andrei Rublev that illustrates the film's moral landscape. A Russian prince is building a new house; he hires stoneworkers to do part of the construction. They finish the work on time and under budget, but the prince isn't happy; he wants the whole place redone because the colors aren't bright enough. The contractors won't do it; they have been hired for another job. As it happens, they're supposed to go work on a house for the prince's brother, where (they unwisely inform the prince), no expense is being spared, and the quality of the stone will be better. The prince shrugs his shoulders, resigns himself to being outshined by his brother, and sends them on their way.

Then he has his soldiers meet them on the road and gouge their eyes out.

A forest filled with eyeless men screaming in pain and crawling in circles: that's the backdrop of cruelty against which Andrei Rublev operates.

The film is a fictional version of the life of Russia's greatest iconographic painter, and in many ways it's as strange as iconography itself. It's a movie about a great painter in which you never see anyone painting; the title character is usually peripheral to the action (if not entirely absent); it has not three but seven clearly delineated acts (plus a prologue and epilogue), and the first clear footage you see of one of Rublev's paintings occurs roughly three hours and twenty minutes after the film begins. That's right, three hours and twenty minutes (total running time: 205 minutes). So have some coffee ready. The movie deserves both the time and attention it demands, however. Tarkovsky raises questions about power, suffering, theology, and art in a richer fashion than any other filmmaker. I expect to have Andrei Rublev floating around in the back of my mind for a long time.

If you're not familiar with Rublev's work (I wasn't), he lived from around 1360 to 1430. Here's the one surviving painting that's entirely his own, the Old Testament Trinity (the image depicts Abraham's three guests in Genesis 18):

(Click for a high-res version from Wikipedia)

For me, the invention of linear perspective is a bright line between painting I really appreciate and painting that seems more mysterious than approachable. Of course, Eastern iconography isn't meant to be approachable in any sense of the word; part of the point of its strangeness is to remind the viewer that what it depicts is not the world we know, but spiritual truth. In fact, the Eastern Orthodox church had (has?) a set of very strict rules for iconography, established in 1551. The model from which these rules were drawn was the work of one Andrei Rublev. So Rublev's influence was not limited to artists independently imitating and learning from him (as is true of every other artist); his style of painting was church law.

That's all background to the movie, and honestly you don't have to know any of it to appreciate the film. Rublev's personal artistic development is at best a secondary concern; the main concern as I see it is dealing with a world in which the exercise of power, whether by God or man, is unjust and arbitrary. Again and again, Tarkovsky presents the viewer with scenes of people being punished. Sometimes we know why: a jester is arrested for singing an obscene song about a boyar (and dropping his pants). Sometimes, we have no idea: the second act opens with a monk walking across a city square as a man in the background is tied to a rack. He protests his innocence, but we never know what he's innocent of.

Tarkovsky has an eye for the way cruelty and power are exercised. You can see it in the bored faces of the guards in the first act as they smash the jester's face into a tree, or the false bonhomie a Tartar warlord maintains as he marches toward a city he will utterly destroy. Tarkovsky is also keenly aware of the ways the powerless console themselves, from Theophanes the Greek's nihilistic wish for apocalypse ("We'll burn like candles") to Rublev's withdrawal into asceticism. But then, growing up under Stalin would give anyone an unusually strong grasp of the way the powerful use cruelty, terror, and pain.

For me, at least, it was impossible to watch this movie without thinking of Stalin. Tarkovsky was born in 1932; for the first twenty years of his life, he knew no other political leader. Martin Amis has written that Stalin's cruelty "was not medieval so much as ancient in its severity." Well, Andrei Rublev has plenty of medievally severe cruelty. Some of it is difficult to watch. And in the Russia that Tarkovsky grew up in, medievally severe cruelty simply wasn't severe enough. Medieval severity just wouldn't do. It should be no wonder that what could have been a traditional biopic became a meditation on the artist's role in an unjust society.

All this makes the movie sound at once more cruel and faster paced than it really is. Art is part of Rublev's story, and it's not entirely a story of suffering. You can see Rublev struggle from beginning to end with a question which must have had personal significance for Tarkovsky: does an artist have a responsibility to the powerless? In the first act, Rublev says nothing as the jester is taken away; in the third, he stumbles onto a pagan celebration and later says nothing as soldiers round up the revelers. He is hired by the same prince that gouges his coworker's eyes out, and again does nothing. When he finally does act, killing a Tartar during the sack of Vladimir, he is wracked with guilt and retreats entirely from the world, ceasing his painting and taking a vow of silence which he does not break for years. The question of when artists should bear witness, when they should intervene, and when they must forgive hangs over Rublev's life from beginning to end. It's not a great stretch of the imagination to imagine that it also hung over Tarkovsky's.

The cinematography in this film is spectacular. Tarkovsky and his D.P. Vadim Yusov have a genius for camera movement, and there are shots in this film that rival Scorcese or Welles at their most elaborate. The best example of this is a shot toward the end, during a sequence in which a cathedral bell is about to be raised from the hole in which it has just been cast. This is one continuous shot, broken down into frames, and worth going over in its entirety.

The camera begins rougly above the bell, looking at the line of cables that will be used to pull it from its hole:

The camera follows the cables up, revealing the walls of a city in the distance and putting a procession on horseback crossing a bridge toward the center (this is the prince who has commissioned the bell, leading an Italian ambassador up to hear the bell ring for the first time, but we don't know this yet):

We follow their path across the bridge and up into the middle distance:

The structure of a building appears in the left part of the frame and the camera leaves the procession to track along the roofbeams...:

...Revealing that the building is, in fact, the forge where the metal for the bell was fired (we've seen it in an earlier scene).

Tracking the beams all the way across reveals a group of men gathered around a winch further left:

The camera centers on the winch...

...and then begins a vertical pan along the rope they are pulling, until a man's head appears very near the foreground:

He's standing on a wooden structure directly below the camera; one of its beams cuts straight across the frame as we track back:

Until we are looking down into the pit the frame encloses, and can see the bell far below us, with all the ropes attached.

I love two things about this shot;. First, its scale varies incredibly rapidly. The city walls must be a mile away; the man on the bell structure is a few feet from the lens. You can see kind of the same thing in some of Peter Jackson's best work on Lord of the Rings. The other thing about this sequence is that the camera's movement seems to be motivated more by geometry than by anything human. If you look at the Copacabana shot in Goodfellas, part of what makes it so inviting is the way the camera tails Ray Liotta, like you're someone who also gets to go into the back entrance to the Copa (the same holds for all the shots that ripped it off after then). This is different; the camera seems to pick up a geometric shape in the image (the lines of the cables, or the roofbeams, or the bridge) and tracks it until a more interesting line to follow appears. It's spectacular but not intimate, not human. Tarkovsky's detatchment here reminds me of nothing so much as iconography.


  • The eye-gouging is by no means the hardest thing to watch in this movie. The sack of Vladimir in the second part is nearly impossible to watch. It seems to be based at least in part on Guernica, and has many shots that are truly horrifying (a cow smashing around a stable in terror, its skin on fire; a horse falling down a flight of stairs, struggling to its feet, and collapsing backwards as its broken legs convulse; blood jetting from a young boy's neck). It ends with a villager (a priest?) being tortured to death inside a church. He asks to be allowed to kiss a cross before dying; his tormentors agree, then melt a silver cross down, hold his mouth open, and pour several cups of molten metal down his throat. The gurgling sound he makes has already appeared in one of my nightmares.

  • Vlada Petric quotes Tarkovsky in one of the extra features as saying that what makes a film epic is when each character is his own center of the movie. I think this is a valuable point. When I'm working on an outline for a screenplay, I know I'm on the right track when I can tell the story from the perspective of any of the main characters and get a coherent movie with a beginning, middle, and end. Andrei Rublev takes this to a real extreme; Rublev is arguably not the main character in almost every act of the movie. But from the perspective of any character the film stays with during an act, there's a real story, beginning, middle, and end.

  • I went all the way through that one shot of the bell and I didn't even mention what was, for me, the most beautiful sequence in the movie: Andrei Rublev's vision of the crucifixion. It's pretty traditional, with one exception. It's in Russia in the middle of winter. One still from this hauntingly beautiful scene:

  • The release history of this film is troubled; for some reason, the Soviets didn't want something that could be read as critical of the Soviet experiment on the market. For an example of why they didn't like it, try to read this description of the Pharisees (from the voiceover to the crucifixion scene) and not think of the Russian Revolution:
    The Pharisees were masters of deceit, educated. They had studied to gain power, to take advantage of the people's ignorance. We must remind people more often that they are people. Russians, of the same blood, of the same land.
    As a result of passages like these, the film was shelved upon its completion in 1966 and not publically shown until the 1969 Cannes Film Festival (when it was shown semi-illegally, over protests from the Soviet Embassy). This gap between completion and screening is why the IMDB lists the film as being from 1969, the Criterion Collection from 1966.

Monday, July 11, 2005

#33: Nanook of the North

Nanook of the North, 1922, written and directed by Robert J. Flaherty.

When I was maybe four or five years old and I'd get bundled up to play in the snow, my parents used to say that I looked like Nanook of the North. It was one of those things that delighted me at that age; it was so weird and silly and fun to say. Try it: Nanook, Nanook, Nanook! Of the North! Anyway, I got it in my head that Nanook was some sort of character from a book. Which is close enough for a four-year-old, I guess. As it turns out, Nanook was an actual person, the subject of one of the first feature-length documentaries, a model for every documentary and ethnographic film that followed.

Flaherty made Nanook of the North in 1922, shooting members of the Itivimuit tribe in the Hudson Bay area; it's subtitled "A story of life and love in the actual arctic." His aim was to capture the traditional life of the Itivimuit before it vanished. He shows Nanook and his family doing all the things Itivimuits do best: hunting walruses, spear fishing, building igloos, eating Eskimo Pies, and so on. The film purports to be a faithful attempt to capture the Itivimuit way of life before it disappeared. However, as Dean W. Duncan points out, it had already disappeared; Flaherty staged sequences, made the Itivimuit he was filming wear traditional clothes they had abandoned by that time, and by all accounts played fast and loose with the truth. Nanook wasn't even related to his "family" in the movie; they were simply the best looking Eskimos Flaherty could find. On the other hand, you can't fake this:

Or this:

Modern audiences are inured to movies about arctic life (or any far-flung corner of the globe) but we have people like Flaherty to thank for it. Imagine seeing this movie for the first time in New York City or Paris in 1922 and being taken to a part of the landscape like those above. It might as well have been another planet. I think bringing back these kinds of images is one of film's highest callings: Show me something I have never seen before. Flaherty understood that, and all the fakery and false romanticism in Nanook of the North doesn't change that basic thing he got exactly right.

All this talk of fakery makes Nanook of the North sound much more condescending than it is. Nanook and his family may be essentially a fictional creation, but Flaherty packs the film with details that have a powerful cumulative effect. He shows the viewer, step by step, how Nanook ekes out a life from his inhospitable surroundings, and some of it is revelatory. For example, I've always thought spear fishing must require superhuman reflexes; how else could someone hit a moving, slippery target like a salmon with a spear? The answer, it turns out, is to use a spear shaped like a fork; the reverse wedge of the outer prongs draws the fish onto the spear, and an approximate hit will do the job.

Spear Fishing with Nanook.

Similarly, Flaherty captures enough practical details of hunting seal and walrus and igloo construction to demystify Nanook's life. It's almost enough to make you want to have a go at northern life, until you remember that Nanook starved to death shortly after the film's completion.

There's obviously a great case to be made for the historical importance of Nanook of the North, but I don't think historical importance is ever a good reason to see a movie. Obviously, you can also learn a lot from the movie if you're planning on becoming an Eskimo. But can you learn anything from it as a filmmaker or moviegoer? My roommate thinks this is one of the most boring movies he's ever seen; I certainly wouldn't call it the most exciting thing I've seen (I thought about writing a review that read, in its entirety, "Nanook of the North? More like Nanook of the Boring!" but then thought better of it). I took back two lessons from this movie:

  1. Process matters. If you have a character doing something interesting, showing exactly how it is done can make for a fascinating scene. In Nanook, this is obvious in the igloo-building sequence and most of the hunting and fishing scenes. You can see this idea carried out in narrative films in most heist movies; audiences love it when they figure out the solution to a problem. My favorite moment like this is in Rififi: a group of robbers are attempting to rob a bank with a motion-detetion system on the floors. It's sensitive to vibration, so they can't step on the floor or drop anything. They come in through the ceiling, as in Mission Impossible; you see them drill a small hole, sending plaster dust to the floor. The alarm doesn't go off, but you can't imagine how they'll make a big enough hole without triggering the alarm. Then one of the crooks lowers an umbrella through the hole and opens it, creating an instant bowl to catch the chunks of plaster until the hole is big enough to pull the opened umbrella back out. It's an Aha! moment for the audience and is incredibly satisfying; seeing Nanook's three-pronged spear produced the same reaction, as did the creation of a window in the igloo (I'll leave that mystery for you to see for yourself).

  2. If you can't see it, it's more frightening. This is an obvious point, and one you see in every horror movie ever made. But there's a specific scene in Nanook of the North that I think would be great to steal for a horror movie. Nanook finds an airhole in the ice, about the size of a quarter, that's used by a seal. By waiting for the seal to come up to breathe, he is able to harpoon it. What follows is a several-minute tug of war with an unseen adversary, as Nanook struggles to avoid being pulled into the water. All you see is him pulling on this rope leading into the ice; bracing the rope against his leg, struggling backwards, being pulled toward the hole. You don't see the seal at all.

Nanook v. the seal

    Of course, as it turns out, the seal he eventually hauls up was already dead, and Flaherty had people off camera pulling the rope. Still, I think you could use this scene to great effect in a "they came from below!" type movie like Tremors or The War of the Worlds. (For all I know, they did use this scene in Tremors, which I haven't seen recently enough to remember).

I guess that's actually more like one lesson and one scene to steal. Which isn't enough to make for a very strong recommendation. I enjoyed Nanook of the North, but the pleasures it offers are all pretty austere. If you're the kind of person who finds old home movies of people you don't know to be poignant, you'll like this; I am, and I did. There's something magical to me about seeing someone who died before my grandfather was born laughing and mugging for the camera, imagining what it would have been like to live his life, with its completely alien details. It's a testament to Flaherty's skill that he makes that imaginative identification possible, given the absolute strangeness of Nanook's life. Measured against that achievement, what's a few staged scenes between friends?


  • How many Eskimos does it take to screw in a lightbulb? I don't know either, but you can fit five of them in a kayak if you make three of them crawl into the front and back, completely inside, have one, sit normally, and one lay on the top hanging on for dear life. The sequence where they all get out is better than a clown car.

  • This movie is sometimes referred to as "the first documentary." Which is nonsense, since many of the earliest films were documentaries in the sense of documenting real events, people, and places. For a personal favorite, check out Electrocuting an Elephant, an animal snuff film directed by Thomas Edison. For more on Topsy, the star of Edison's movie, see here.

  • Why does the Edison movie seem so fast and jerky? Why are lots of old silent films in fast-motion? Because of indifferent projectionists and warring standards. The current projection rate of 24 frames per second wasn't standard until around 1930; until that time, film was shot anywhere from 12 frames per second (e.g., some sequences of Birth of a Nation) to 44 frames per second (Edison's original suggestion, although Electrocuting an Elephant seems to have been cranked slower, assuming the mpeg above was transfered at 24 fps). Silent film cameras had hand cranks that controlled the speed, and it was anybody's guess whether projectionists would play a film back at the rate it had been shot. Often, a video transfer of a silent film is done at the wrong frame rate; this produces the jerky, fast motion effect you see on old newsreels. This was the motion picture industry's first format war, and like the current battles over digital projection, it pitted theater owners against studios (theater owners wanted to project everything as fast as possible, to move people in and out of the theater; filmmakers wanted things to look right). This version of Nanook of the North was transfered at a projection speed of 21.5 frames per second. The preservationists worked backwards from the running time of the film as originally projected to arrive at this transfer speed. For a fascinating article about projection speeds, complete with a chart showing examples from various years, click here.

  • For a modern viewer, silent movies like this live or die by their score. If you've never seen a silent with a good recording of a contemporary score, you've never seen a silent. I recommend the Alloy Orchestra; their version of Nosferatu was what made me see that a silent movie could really be horrifying in the way a modern movie can be. They tour widely (performing live with projections of the films) and have several movies available on DVD. The score for Nanook of the North is by Timothy Brock, and it's adequate, although not startlingly good. It really takes off during the sequence where Nanook goes walrus hunting; the rest of it didn't blow me away. But the point is, if you're watching a silent movie and listening to a tinny recording of someone noodling on a Wurlitzer, you're being cheated.

  • The DVD also features an interview with Flaherty's wife, made for National Educational Televison (PBS's predecessor). The interview itself is nothing special, except as an example of educational television in (I would guess) the late 1950s. But the interviewer is Robert Gardner, who was a documentary filmmaker in his own right. He was director of the Film Study Center at Harvard for forty years, and his movies were loved by a smaller, more literate crowd than Flaherty Now Flaherty's fan base is, at this point, pretty small and literate itself. But Gardner's movies were written about by Octavio Paz, Seamus Heaney, and Robert Lowell; now that's literate. From the interview on the disk, he seems to have been the kind of public intellectual who has almost entirely vanished today. So I'll close with a portrait of a way of life that's as long-forgotten as Nanook's:

I'm Robert Gardner, from the Peabody Museum at Harvard. Within forty years, no one will be able to introduce themselves like this with a straight face. Still, my suit and narrow tie are cooler than anything they will ever be able to buy, vintage stores or no.

Just kidding. I'll close with one of Robert Flaherty's still photographs, also included on the DVD, which stand up next to Ansel Adams for nature photography or Dorothea Lange's portraits. This one you've probably seen, and I always thought it was Adams. Nope.

Talk about alien.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

#32: Oliver Twist

Oliver Twist, 1948, directed by David Lean, screenplay by Stanley Haynes and David Lean from the novel by Charles Dickens.

John Howard Davies plays Oliver, a workhouse-raised orphan who escapes from his apprenticeship, flees to London, and falls into the clutches of his evil half-brother and a nearly-as-evil thief named Fagin. This is Lean's second Dickens adaptation, made two years after Great Expectations. I think it's a more impressive adaptation, although I liked it a little less as a film. Great Expectations was a later Dickens novel (begun in 1860; Oliver Twist began publication in 1837) and I responded pretty strongly to the doomed romanticism at its core (its core being, of course, Miss Havisham's rotten wedding cake). And although Great Expectations is certainly a Victorian novel, the endless series of betrayals that make up its plot seem very modern. In Oliver Twist, depicting the criminal underclass seems to still be a novelty for Dickens and he doesn't give Fagin or Sikes (or even Nancy) the kind of complexity he would later give Magwitch.

Which brings me to the genius of the screenplay. Since the villains are flatter than they are in Great Expectations, Lean turns Oliver Twist into something very close to a modern thriller. In Great Expectations, the screenplay more or less followed the events of the novel in the order they occurred; a great many incidents, subplots, and so on are omitted, but the general arc of the story remains the same. There's no such fidelity to the text in Oliver Twist; the great bulk of what happens onscreen is taken from the first book of the novel, in which Oliver goes to London, falls into the clutches of Fagin, escapes, falls back into the clutches of Fagin, and escapes again. The critical scenes from books two and three are wedged into the first book wherever they will fit, and anything that doesn't bear directly on Oliver is either omitted entirely or changed to focus on him. By doing this, Lean and Haynes solve what I see as a great structural weakness in the original novel: in the second and third books, Oliver himself does almost nothing. In book two, Monks begins his pursuit in earnest, bribing, threatening, and cajoling his way through the London underworld. Meanwhile, Oliver lies in bed and recovers from a gunshot wound. In book three, there are murders, fires, mobs, shootings, and all the thrills a moviegoer could want. While all this is going on, Oliver makes two trips by carriage and, in his most active moment, visits Fagin in his cell. After all the plot threads have been resolved and evil has been punished. And even that is too much for him; he nearly faints and has to sit down for an hour before he can summon the strength to walk out of the prison. It's decent reading, but not exactly cinematic. At the very least, a faithful adaptation would make for a strange movie, in which the main character disappears almost completely a third of the way in. Lean's version is tighter and more focused in a way that his version of Great Expectations was not; in Great Expectations you feel that large chunks of plot are missing, but Oliver Twist doesn't have that problem.

The film is also much different in tone than the novel. Once Sikes murders Nancy, it turns into a straight thriller, and his attempt to flee the mob pursuing him by escaping from the roof is as suspenseful as anything in a modern movie. Jack Harris edited both movies and did a spectacular job here; Sikes's death is one of the best sequences. And the sound editing and foley work that seemed overbearing in Great Expectations is very good here; when Sikes falls from the roof, the sound of the mob yelling drops out, and all you hear is the rope he's caught on sliding over the roof tiles until it cracks his neck. Those five seconds are the best of any of Lean's films.

The problem with making a movie of Oliver Twist is you've gotta do something with Fagin, who's right up there with Shylock on the list of unfilmably antisemitic characters. In the novel as originally published, he is more often referred to as "the Jew" than by name, and nearly every time Dickens has the opportunity to make a minor criminal Jewish, he takes it. Lean doesn't go as far as Dickens did with the character; there's no reference to his religion in the whole movie. And he cast Alec Guinness, who'd done such a great job as Herbert Pocket two years earlier, and is as British as can be. So far, so good. But the movie on the whole takes its visual cues from George Cruikshank's illustrations. Here's Cruikshank's Fagin:

And here's Alec Guinness:

Kind of a problematic makeup job. Guinness actually does his best to make Fagin as human as possible, and it's a pretty good performance. It's kind of hard to get past the gigantic prosthetic hook nose; the only time Guinness really transcends his makeup is in Fagin's final scene, where he howls with fury at the crowd outside as they break down the barricade he's built. I'm don't think you could make a version of Oliver Twist that felt like the novel without having Fagin be kind of offensive. And yes, it's faithful to Cruikshank's illustrations. But still: jeez.

One last thing: this movie is very well cast. Every character looks the way you'd imagine them. I didn't find this to be true at all in Great Expectations, so it was a relief here. The best example is Francis L. Sullivan, who I thought was horribly miscast as Jaggers in Great Expectations. I imagined Jaggers to be tall and thin, like the knife his name suggests, not a great fat man. On the other hand, it's difficult to imagine someone tall and thin whose name is Mr. Bumble. And Sullivan's Mr. Bumble is a pleasure to watch anytime he's on screen.

Competence, thy name is Bumble!

And here's Anthony Newley's Artful Dodger:

It's not an issue here of the costumes so much as the faces; all these characters looked just the way I imagined them. That still leaves Fagin as a problem; but no more or less than he is in the novel.

Guy Green's cinematography isn't as showy as it is in Great Expectations, but it's still very good; here's just one of his very nice compositions. The Artful Dodger is explaining to Sikes that Nancy has betrayed them; the Dodger's to the left, Fagin is center, and Sikes is on the right, with his eyes about to pop out of his head with rage:

It's a nice, weird shot; what's strangest about it is that the camera starts the shot horizontal and kind of rolls back into position, looking up at Sikes, as he moves toward the Dodger. There's a lot of camera movement in the movie, usually when we're seeing things directly from Oliver's point of view. This technique doesn't always work for me; I think it tends to draw attention from to itself and take you out of the movie. I much prefer shots like the above, where you're sort of seeing things from the Dodger's point of view but it's not direct.

That's all for this one. If you can get past the antisemitism, there's a lot to learn from Oliver Twist. If you can't, well, you'll always have Great Expectations.


  • There's one great "Hey, it's that guy!" moment in the movie, when you see the proprietor of The Three Cripples. Here he is:

    It took me the rest of the movie to place him; it's Peter Bull, who plays the Russian Ambassador in Dr. Strangelove (he's also in The African Queen).
  • John Howard Davies, who played Oliver Twist, went on to become a television director, working on "Mr. Bean," "Fawlty Towers," and "Monty Python's Flying Circus."
  • Fagin caused an understandable stir when the film came out, and it wasn't released in the U.S. until 1951 and then only in a version in which twelve minutes or so of Fagin had been excised. The movie was also banned in Israel for being antisemitic. It was also banned in Egypt, for not being antisemitic enough. I'm not making that up.