Playing catch up, so I’m writing about two films here, both by master filmmakers.
I’ll start with the Tarkovsky. Ivan’s Childhood is Andrey Tarkovsky’s first feature-film and possibly his most narrative – or at least his most accessible. Tarkovsky films, for those familiar, are haunting, poetic, enigmatic, and often very ambiguous. My personal favorite, and one of my all-time favorite movies period, is Stalker.
Ivan’s Childhood is a wartime film in which Ivan (Nikolay Burlyaev) is a young man acting as spy for the Soviets in their battle against the Germans. Flashbacks indicate that Ivan’s mother was killed in/during the war, making this a revenge film of sorts.
Not unlike another Tarkovsky film, Andrei Rublev, Ivan’s Childhood begins with a prologue dream sequence. Ivan, running through the woods, magically and fantastically rises into the air, soaring high above the trees, laughing freely.
What is remarkable about this moment, and the other fantasy sequences in here, is that these are the only times we actually see Ivan happy, the only times we hear him laugh. In fact, the idea of Ivan’s childhood is almost nonexistent. Ivan, as we see him, is stoic, angry, and emotionless. If the word childhood implies freedom and naivety, then Ivan has none. The word only works in association with his literal age, but even then, its ironic usage is evident: Ivan has a childhood no more. He resists being sent to the back lines or to school. Ivan’s childhood, therefore, is only background to a film where Ivan the child is an adult – more so than many of the other promiscuous, fearful soldiers he comes across.
Tarkovsky tells the story as only he can. His cinema is one of duration, often real time. Long takes with slow camera moves give the atmosphere a dreamlike quality. We watch in long shots, or carefully composed frames utilizing multiple planes of action. Small moments become symbols of humanity and life outside of a war-torn region – horses nibble at apples on a beach, a warm bath. Tarkovsky lingers on these moments not to ignore the horror of battle, but to indicate that there is life in the small distractions.
In his famous book Sculpting in Time, Tarkovsky says that an un-shot film is like a raw block of time. The director must act as sculptor to carve that time into a fashion that he/she wants. He is not talking about simply editing out moments that make a film too slow or unevenly paced. He is actually referring to the cinema’s (and director’s) ability to force us to watch, to manipulate our sense of time and space and to display time as suspended. The poetic movement of a camera through a foggy exterior night shot becomes devoid of time. The director has carved away its existence within the linear structure for only a moment and, while story and time are suspended, the idea of true cinema only exists.
Luckily I love Tarkovsky’s films, because were this someone else, the camera might feel too slow, the story to disjointed, and the theory too arrogant. Tarkovsky makes it work though, through careful framing, great cinematography, and an ear for the diegetic and hyper-diegetic sound.
I’m going to give so little time to Kurosawa’s film that it’s unfair. I’m a Kurosawa fan. How many directors can you name that are equally accepted by a mainstream audience and a critical establishment as being “good”? Hitchcock? Kubrick? Hawks? There really aren’t many that are able to bridge that gap. Kurosawa is one. The western-eastern director known for The Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, Ran, Throne of Blood and The Hidden Fortress among others, he’s a prolific artist whose painted storyboards come through beautifully on film.
The Idiot utilizes many of the stylistics seen in his more famous works (Rashomon in particular). His triangular composition, usually using one character in the foreground and two in the background gives a tension that alternates depending on which character is positioned where. He frames a good portion of the film this way, and ingeniously evolves the framing alongside the story (hey! Form and content, together at last!).
The Idiot has surface-level problems. It’s too long. Kurosawa decides to use on-screen text that is unnecessary and laughable. The story, an adaptation of the Dostoevsky novel, doesn’t live up to its source material – but that’s a harsh criticism for taking on such a deservedly renowned piece of literature.
Nonetheless, Kurosawa’s acting, still in the post-Noh stylized convention, is convincing, the story well paced, and the ending, particularly haunting.
Sorry Kurosawa…you deserve many more words than this.