Monday, September 01, 2008

#87: Alexander Nevsky

Alexander Nevsky, 1938, directed by Sergei Eisenstein, written by Sergei Eisenstein and Pyotr Pavlenko.

In Frank S. Nugent's review of Alexander Nevsky for the New York Times, he wrote that Sergei Eisenstein had a "talent for doing great things so well and little things so badly." Nugent (who went on to write The Searchers, among other films), had Eisenstein dead to rights. Alexander Nevsky is a frustrating film, in which moments of technical genius are all too often overshadowed by insipid writing and characterization. To be fair to Eisenstein, however, he wasn't exactly given free reign, as the opening titles make clear:

That's the logo for Mosfilm Studios. MGM had "Ars Gratia Artis," but the Soviets had to make do with "Worker and Kolkhoznitsa." And while working for Mosfilm was never conducive to artistic freedom, Eisenstein had less leeway than most, due to the failure of his previous film, Bezhin Meadow. After two years of production, reshoots, and more reshoots, the whole mess was shut down for being insufficiently ideologically correct. Bezhin Meadow had as its hero a Young Pioneer who de-kulakizized his own family, turning his father in to the state, but even a celebration of informers wasn't good enough for Mosfilm. After it shut down, Eisenstein came down with smallpox and the flu, and then wrote an apologia filled with turgid nonsense like this:

The mistake is rooted in one deep-seated intellectual and individualist illusion, an illusion which, beginning with small things, can subsequently lead to big mistakes and tragic outcomes. It is an illusion which Lenin constantly decried, an illusion which Stalin tirelessly exposes—the illusion that one may accomplish truly revolutionary work "on one's own," outside the fold of the collective, outside of a single iron unity with the collective.

So when it came time to write his next screenplay, Eisenstein collaborated with Pyotr Pavlenko, a member of the secret police who allegedly sat in on NKVD interrogations. American filmmakers bitch and moan about dealing with Philistine studio executives, but at least those guys only pretend to be bloodthirsty madmen. To say Eisenstein was operating from a position of limited power is an understatement. It's not a surprise, then, that Alexander Nevsky is unsubtle and clumsy in its ideology. The real wonder is it wasn't titled Please Don't Kill Me, Comrade Stalin.

Trying to find the least politically controversial subject to make a film about, Eisenstein settled on the life story of a thirteenth century Russian prince, best known for defeating the Livonian Order in a battle on a frozen lake in 1242. Like Olivier's Henry V, Eisenstein's Nevsky is a straightforward hero. We can tell this from the first time we see him, bestriding the narrow world like a colossus, arms akimbo:

Actually, Nikolai Cherkasov plays him as someone who spends a lot of time with his arms akimbo:

I mean a lot of time with his arms akimbo:

The trustworthy looking Asian gentleman on the left is a representative of the Golden Horde (I believe that he's probably Hubilay, which would make the actor Lyan-Kun). And Hubilay is treated sympathetically compared to the knights of the Livonian order. George Lucas learned a great deal from their introductory scene. Cherkasov's Nevsky may be overdoing it a little on the heroic posturing front, but then, you'd have to overdo it if you were going to fight these guys:

That's the first shot we see of the knights. Wikipedia identifies them as the Livonian Order, which was part of the Teutonic Order after 1236; Eisenstein just calls them the Teutonic Order, so that's what I'll do. Anyway, Eisenstein introduces them with still shots, while Prokofiev's score hits minor notes that make the Imperial March sound like the Pastoral Symphony. Those guys are the knights; they're accompanied by the equally dehumanized foot soldiers.

Just when you think Eisenstein is going to cheat and make the Germans all robotic automatons, he shows us a refreshingly human face: Naum Rogozhin as the Black Monk:

And finally, the crème de la crème, Germany's Next Top Knights and their spiritual leader:

The only question is whether Emperor Palpatine most resembles the Lev Fenin's Archbishop or the Black Monk. My money's on Fenin, because he seems like the more dissolute of the pair:

So: not a very pleasant group of people, these guys. But like I said, this isn't a subtle movie. In case we didn't catch on that these are our villains, we immediately get to see them throwing young children into bonfires.

Brief, and to the point. Alexander Nevsky is structurally closer to television than most films; it has a clearly designed A and B story. The A story, obviously, is Nevsky versus the baby-killers, and although it contains not a lick of subtlety or ambiguity, it's relatively well-executed. The B story, on the other hand, suffers greatly from terrible writing and terrible haircuts. It's about a young woman trying to decide between two suitors, which is usually a rich enough idea for its own movie. But in this case, the young woman (Vera Ivashova) appears to be some sort of Kolkhoz fertility goddess:

Obviously, her name is Olga. Olga's suitors are as dashing and well-dressed as you would expect:

I regret to inform you that the hat Nikolai Okhlopkov is wearing looks even worse in closeup.

As you can see, the correct solution to this love triangle is murder-murder-suicide, but Eisenstein spends a considerable amount of time with these characters, and every time they're on screen, the film screeches to a halt. To be fair, Nevsky is as poorly written as Olga and her suitors, but Cherkasov has enough magnetism to still be interesting as a cardboard cutout. Let's just say that love stories are one of the little things Eisenstein does so badly and leave it at that.

So what does Eisenstein do well? Everyone will tell you that the battle on the ice is the best part of the film, but the really spectacular work is not the battle itself, but the charge of the Teutonic knights that begins it. Eisenstein and Prokofiev worked very closely synchronizing the score and editing in more detail that you might imagine. In his essay "Form and Content: Practice," Eisenstein explained that he and Prokfiev attempted to have the score mirror the visual composition of the shots, assuming a left-to-right scanning of each image (viewers who read right-to-left are out of luck). You can see how it's supposed to work in this illustration.

Note in the second shot the way the curve of the cloud is mirrored by the four rising notes in the bass, or the way the descending notes trace the curve of the rock in the fourth shot. Eisenstein called this interplay between sound and image "vertical montage," distinguished from the horizontal montage created by a group of shots. If this seems needlessly intricate and more than a little pretentious, keep in mind that the model here was not "A Dialectical Approach to Film Form" so much as it was "Silly Symphonies." Russel Merrit traces the connection between Eisenstein, Prokofiev, and Disney in one of the DVD's extras, which includes this excellent shot of Eisenstein and Disney outside Disney Studios:

Animation was the only realm of film where the soundtrack was as carefully synchronized as it was in Alexander Nevsky, although the goal was usually comedy, not some kind of abstract mapping of the visual space of each shot. Suffice it to say that they all learned from each other. The theoretical aspects of "vertical montage" are less interesting than the practical effect: the charge of the Teutonic Knights is one of the best scored sequences in film. Barring any YouTube difficulties, you can watch a low-res version of it right here:

You can see just how amazing the Prokfiev/Eisenstein collaboration was at its best. As bad as Eisenstein was at the human stuff, he created magnificent effects when working on an epic scale. A few highlights, in anticipation of YouTube disaster. This will give you an idea of the scale:

The Teutonic Knights advance like a tidal wave, in a shot Pynchon's Blicero no doubt would have appreciated:

As you can see, Mosfilm apparently had quite a large budget for extras.

And even the hokey human interest stuff takes on gravity when set against this backdrop. Here's one of my favorite shots in the film, of Aleksandra Danilova playing a woman who has taken up arms after her father is killed at Pskov. Every other time you see her, she comes off as kind of silly, but here she's unforgettable:

This is Eisenstein at his best, and it's brilliant. It must be said, however, that describing the battle on the ice as the most ingenious sequence in the film is stretching truth. The knights' charge is the good part; once they actually arrive and the battle is met, things get a little silly. Eisenstein cuts in lots of relatively context-free medium shots of characters hacking and slashing their way through the Germans:

Chalk it up again to Eisenstein getting the big things right and the little things spectacularly wrong. The part of the battle where the Germans crash through the ice to their watery doom plays as farce, thanks to the obviously fake ice:

The Germans splash around unconvincingly in the water and then take deep breaths before diving beneath the surface:

The aftermath of the battle brings us much more of the Olga-Vasili-Gavrilo love triangle, which is just as uninteresting as it was before the battle. The film ends with a stirring speech by Nevsky, closing with "He who comes to us with a sword, shall die by the sword. On this stands Russia, and on this she will stand forever." The last shot is a pretty clear warning to anyone who might be thinking of invading Russia around that time, particularly anyone, shall we say, German:

If that's how many people their film industry commands, imagine the army!

Alexander Nevsky is not a great film, though it has moments of greatness. The introduction of the Teutonic Order is one such moment, and the knights' charge is another. The character work and the scenes between Olga and her suitors, on the other hand, seem to belong to a much earlier age of filmmaking. When Eisenstein is good, he's very very good, but when he is bad, he is horrid. But given the circumstances under which Alexander Nevsky was made, it's amazing that Eisenstein managed anything watchable, let alone fitfully brilliant. The correct piece of art to compare Alexander Nevsky to is not Pygmalion (released the same year), but "Roses for Stalin."

Watch it right after Pygmalion, and Alexander Nevsky seems hopelessly unsophisticated. But next to the other fruits of Socialist Realism, it's nothing short of a triumph.

  • Boris Shumyatsky, the head of Mosfilm who shut down Bezhin Meadow, had his own problems with ideological purity. Stalin had him shot in 1938.

  • Alexander Nevsky was popular in Russia right up to August 24, 1939 and then, for some reason fell quickly out of favor. Fortunately for Eisenstein, but unfortunately for the Germans and Russians, the movie had a very successful revival on June 22, 1941. If you have any doubt that Alexander Nevsky was specifically about defending Russia from the Germans, note how much the helmets of the German foot soldiers resemble stahlhelme:

    More to the point, check out the strange symbols on the Archbishop's mitre:

  • The photo of Eisenstein and Disney was taken in front of the original Disney Studio, judging from this picture. This means the two men were standing about a block away from my apartment. In fact, as I write this, I'm eating a turkey sandwich from the Gelson's that stands there today. I believe that by continuing to eat turkey from that particular Gelson's carving station, I will eventually take on the powers of both Disney and Eisenstein and rule the world.

  • Prokofiev's score was recorded with the kind of sonic experimentation I erroneously believed started with Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. One of many examples: the reedy sound of the battle horns was created by putting the mics too close. But it's hard to tell exactly how Prokofiev and Eisenstein wanted the film to sound, because there's some evidence that the movie was released with a temp audio track. Whether that recording was intended to be the final audio mix or not, it's indisputable Eisenstei wasn't finished editing it. An unfinished version was somehow shown to Stalin, who approved it for release. Probably wisely, no one at Mosfilm would let Eisenstein change a single frame after that.

  • The best Nevsky-related YouTube clip is undoubtedly this one, in which a father makes his 1 and 3-year-old children wear cardboard helmets and rock back and forth on their hobby horses like the Germans, while Prokofiev plays in the background. The older kid has an evil laugh.

  • Perhaps it's a Russian thing, but like Tarkovsky in Andrei Rublev, Alexander Nevsky has many shots that seem to be designed around abstract geometry rather than more conventional composition. This one, for instance:

    I also noticed that Eisenstein often puts the horizon line way, way lower on the screen than most directors. You can kind of see it in the battle shots above, but here's a sharper example. I don't think I've ever seen anyone frame a shot quite this way:

  • Finally, a little-known fact about Mosfilm's Central Casting. If you order 1500 pikemen, you apparently get Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson for free.

    I knew there was something suspicious about a wrestler who called himself the "People's Champion," and now it can be told: WWF is Socialist Realism's greatest achievement.

#86: Eisenstein: The Sound Years

Spine #86 in the Criterion Collection is assigned to the Eisenstein: The Sound Years box set, which comprises the following two films. As each has its own spine number, they are reviewed separately.

#87: Alexander Nevsky
#88: Ivan the Terrible - Parts I & II

Thursday, August 07, 2008

#85: Pygmalion

Pygmalion, 1938, directed by Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard, written by George Bernard Shaw, W. P. Lipscomb, Cecil Lewis, Ian Dalrymple, Anatole de Grunwald, and Kay Walsh, from the play by George Bernard Shaw.

Pygmalion is the story of a beautiful young woman who moves in with a pedantic jerk. And yet it was written nearly 100 years before my girlfriend and I found an apartment together. It's one of those pieces of art that most people know only through derivative works. This is not all that rare when something is adapted into a musical after the fact: raise your hand if you've read Le Fantôme de l'Opéra, or even seen the Lon Chaney version. And don't get me started on Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats. Of course, the 1938 film is already a derivative work; a film adaptation of a play. But it's a step removed from My Fair Lady, the musical, and two steps removed from My Fair Lady, the film, and since they're probably not producing the original play anywhere near you anytime soon, this is as close as you're going to get1. Besides, this is one of the rare cases where the adaptation improves on the original, at least in a few places.

Somehow or another, I assume the story has trickled into your subconscious. Professor Henry Higgins, noted linguist, bets a colleague that he can pass a flower girl off as a duchess. Higgins is played by Leslie Howard, who co-directed the film. The first time we see him, he looks like he's dressed for a noir, though he certainly doesn't have the face for it.

And Eliza Dolittle, the flower seller Higgins transforms, is played by Wendy Hiller.

The film is mostly faithful to the play, especially toward the beginning. Asquith and Howard open it up a little, but only as far as a sound stage:

That's Covent Garden, or its sound stage equivalent, Eliza Doolittle's home turf. She overhears Higgins boast that he can turn pass her off as a duchess to fellow linguist Colonel Pickering, played by stage actor Scott Sunderland, in one of his only two film appearances.

Pickering basically serves two functions in the film: being sympathetic to Eliza and giving Higgins someone to talk phonics with. As you can see, he certainly nails the first part, and the second part is just standing around smiling politely as Leslie Howard gets manic, which he does exceptionally well.

Once Eliza arrives at the Higgins household (where, conveniently enough, Pickering is staying as a guest), the film picks up an undercurrent of weirdness that isn't present on stage. In the play, Eliza is bundled off to the bathroom by Higgins's housekeeper Mrs. Pearce, she reappears a few conversations later, and that's the end of it. In the film, there's an extended "Eliza Takes The Most Terrifying Bath of Her Life" sequence, which includes Mrs. Pearce (played by Jean Cadell) getting her scrubbing brush all ready:

Eliza shrieking in horror as Mrs. Pearce scrubs her down:

Higgins and Pickering reacting to Eliza's screaming:

And finally, more of Eliza screaming her heart out, this time in close-up:

And it's a surprisingly long sequence. I was reminded of the hand-washing scenes in the Coronet educational films David Smart oversaw; I felt like I'd stumbled into a part of the movie that someone in the creative process thought was very important, but I didn't quite get it. And don't get me started on the outfit Eliza wears when Higgins begins her instruction:

Some critical approaches to Pygmalion are best left unexplored, at least by me; suffice it to say that Howard or Asquith or Shaw seem to have some issues with control. It's not just Eliza who gets treated a little unsubtly here (and subtlety is not always a virtue). One of my favorite shots in the film is a jarring rapid push in on Leslie Howard that goes from here:

To here:

While his voice intones, "I shall make a duchess of this draggle-tailed guttersnipe." from the gramophone. He might as well be wearing a magician's hat.

The film, like the play, has two perfect scenes. The first is when Eliza's father shows up trying to extort money from Higgins. He's played by Wilfrid Lawson as the definitive disreputable scoundrel:

Mr. Doolittle has one of the all-time great monologues in English literature, at least if you enjoy villainy. It's not quite "smile, and murder whiles I smile", but it's twice as charming. Here's how Lawson delivers it:

I'm one of the undeserving poor... Think of what that means to a man. It means he's up against middle class morality, all the time! If there's anything going, and I puts in for a bit of it, it's always the same story: "You're undeserving; so you can't have any." And yet my needs is as great as the most deserving widow's that ever got money out of six different charities in one week for the death of the same husband. I don't need less than a deserving man: I need more. I don't eat less hearty than he does; and I drink a lot more... I'm playing straight with you. I ain't pretending to be deserving. I'm undeserving; and I mean to go on being undeserving. I likes it.

I've always thought those lines should be a lot more famous than they seem to be. Wilfrid Lawson's performance is completely scene-stealing. In a modern adaptation, such great lines would presumably go to the star ("He's undeserving! And he means to go on being undeserving!"), so it will be interesting to see what happens to them in the adaptation currently being developed for Kiera Knightly.

The other great scene is Eliza's first attempt to pass herself off in high society, at Higgins's mother's home. Wendy Hiller gives a world-class comic performances here. Her attempt at an upper-crust accent is consistently off-key throughout, and it's a joy to watch her pace herself through the scene. At the beginning, she's constantly slipping Higgins glances of horrified confusion:

Those are funny in their own right, but they're really a lead-in for her to gradually become comfortable, then overconfident, until she's blithely telling the rest of the tea party (in that same kooky accent) that "gin was like mother's milk" to her aunt, who she believes was recently murdered.

Everything comes to a head as Higgins hustles her out of there. When Freddy (the well-meaning dolt standing next to her in the still above) asks if he might accompany her home, she breezily replies, "Not bloody likely! I'm going home in a taxi!" This was, in fact, the first British film to contain the word "bloody," and, as with Snakes on a Plane, the line was part of the marketing. According to Wikipedia, there were ads reading, "Miss Pygmalion? Not ****** likely!".

There's one other notable sequence in the film, although it's less successful. For some reason, the original play does not have a scene of Eliza actually attending the ball she's been preparing for the entire play. Shaw cuts from Eliza failing to convince anyone but Freddy at Higgins's mother's house to Eliza, Pickering, and Higgins returning home after she successfully passes at a garden party, a dinner party, and the opera (all in one evening). It's such an obvious missed opportunity that I can only assume that it was left out of the play for reasons other than dramatic choice (e.g., to cut down on the number of sets for the theatrical production). But the movies aren't the movies unless they have a little wish-fulfillment, so we get to see Eliza in formal wear:

Shaw actually wrote this sequence for the film, and stocked it with one of his less-successful creations, a Hungarian linguist named Karpathy. According to the IMDB, he was based on Gabriel Pascal, who produced Pygmalian. I'm not sure how Pascal felt about the character, who Esme Percy plays as an officious know-nothing.

In real life, Pascal seems to have been savvier than Karpathy; for one thing, he tried to make a musical of Pygmalion years before My Fair Lady, but Shaw forbade it; he settled on making a straight film adaptation instead. Karpathy basically creates a little tension during the ball scene, as the one person who might suss out Eliza's origins and give the game up, but he's so pompous and intolerable that the threat doesn't seem real. So dramatically, this was the least successful sequence of the film. On the other hand, it has the most cinematically successful shot in the whole movie, a proto-Scorsese tracking shot that opens with Karpathy leaving his car (before we know who he is):

Pulls back and follows him as he enters the party:

Then spins as he passes to give us a head-on shot of the dazzling entryway:

And pushes back in as Higgins and Pickering enter the frame from the left and Karpathy greets them, finally giving the audience context for what they've been watching.

It's one of the moments where the film transcends its origins on stage and gives us a perspective that's impossible in theater. There are others; you won't find any montages of Eliza learning to speak in the original play (and I'm not sure what a montage would look like on stage, obviously). When adapting a play for film, there isn't any reason to shoehorn in tricks that only work on film, unless, and this is key, they allow you to come closer to the truth of the characters or situations than you could on stage. This tracking shot is a classic example, taking us from the dark, muddy streets to the pinnacle of British society in a single turn of the camera. It's just as dazzling for the audience as it is for Eliza. And yet the camera is following Karpathy, the phoniest character in the entire film. Well, Scorsese ended the Copacabana shot with Henny Youngman telling terrible jokes, so I guess it's a tradition.

But enough about the camerawork, you're no doubt screaming; the only thing that matters in an adaptation of Pygmalion is the chemistry between Higgins and Eliza. As you probably remember, the two fall madly in love over the course of her tutelage. But you're not remembering Pygmalion, you're remembering My Fair Lady. According to his own introduction to the play, Shaw wrote Pygmalion to bring attention to the importance of phonics. I'm going to say that again: Shaw thought, or claimed he thought, he was writing about phonics. Here he is in his own words:

The English have no respect for their language, and will not teach their children to speak it. They spell it so abominably that no man can teach himself what it sounds like. It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him. German and Spanish are accessible to foreigners: English is not accessible even to Englishmen. The reformer England needs today is an energetic phonetic enthusiast: that is why I have made such a one the hero of a popular play.

In fact, Shaw was opposed to the idea that Higgins and Doolittle should fall for each other, saying in an interview, "I cannot conceive a less happy ending to the story of Pygmalion than a love affair between the middle-aged, middle-class professor, a confirmed old bachelor with a mother-fixation, and a flower girl of 18." When you put it that way, he has a point. Lerner and Loewe respectfully disagreed, of course, but in the film of Pygmalion, there's only one scene that, as Shaw put it, "give[s] a lovelorn complexion at the end to Mr. Leslie Howard: but it is too inconclusive to be worth making a fuss about." It may be the case, as Shaw has it, that Eliza would be much happier in the long run with the doltish, adoring Freddy (Shaw wrote a lengthy epilogue in which they were married). But it's also the case that Eliza and Higgins bicker and squabble like the romantic leads of a screwball comedy. So I think Shaw is a little disingenuous about the nature of Higgins and Eliza's relationship. After all, he named his play Pygmalion, and Pygmalion married his statue.


  • Despite all the stills of sound stages above, there are a few actual exterior shots in the film. They're kind of jarring, though, because the natural light is much brighter than anything else in the film; here's Piccadilly Circus circa 1938:

    I think we'd all prefer ads for "Ever-Ready Safety Razors" to the TDK and Sanyo signs that stand there today.

  • Higgins's study is filled with vintage audio equipment of all varieties, including this strange gramophone with a cleaning brush. But the brush cleans the record right after it's hit the needle, not before:

    Higgins seems to have the ability to cut his own records (he has a stack of albums of Eliza speaking), which made me think this was perhaps a recording device and the brush was to clean up the groove as it was etched. But the record here is clearly already complete. In any event, the pride of the collection is not this turntable or whatever it is, it's the hidden microphone Higgins uses to record unsuspecting guests. It's hard to imagine his guests would be too unsuspecting, however, because the microphone is hidden in a terrifyingly creepy statue that is sitting in the middle of his desk for no apparent reason:

  • Wondering about Higgins ability to make his own records, I wandered into an unrelated device I'd forgotten all about, the Voice-O-Graph. It was like a photo booth that produced records; you can see some shots of the machinery at the link above. Most of the visible machinery seems to be used to load and dispense the records (I'm assuming that the drum on the right was for a stack of blanks). Anyway, the point is that the recording equipment itself doesn't look all that complicated, so I guess it's possible Higgins would have something to accomplish this. If you want to see a Voice-O-Graph in action, rent Badlands.

  • David Lean edited the film, and directed the montages of Higgins teaching Eliza. He basically cut them together like nightmares, complete with camera angles Carol Reed would love. I think he used some of what he learned from this film when he shot Great Expectations. They reminded me of the sequence where Pip falls ill. Which is strange, because in Great Expectations he used a long tracking shot, and in Pygmalion they're montages. But both capture a feeling of nausea; perhaps it's the camera angles.

  • Leslie Howard wears glasses that are identical to the "nerd glasses" you can get at any novelty shop.

    They make him look more than a little like Dana Carvey in The Master of Disguise.

1Of course, you can read it here.