film history

Actually Missing the Soviets

Nikolay Cherkasov as Ivan the Terrible

Every once in a while at classically educated, we take a few minutes to think about stuff.  It generally isn’t our first choice of activities, but we can be bludgeoned into it.  One such episode happened when viewing one of Eisenstein’s classic films from the 1001 movies list: Ivan the Terrible.

The film itself is a two-part, four-hour monster, but it passes reasonably quickly despite that.  It has war, murder, betrayal, intrigue and all the good things that a movie needs in order to be a good piece of entertainment (talk about living in interesting times), and the Ivan the Terrible character reminded us a LOT of Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow.  It is a historical film packed with a heck of a lot of actual history.  And history, if you happen to be viewing five hundred years later as opposed to being in the middle of it, is quite diverting.

So the movie went past quickly, with a “highly recommended” verdict on the side.  You’d be hard-pressed to find CE giving Eisenstein that kind of a rating normally as his masterpieces, Battleship Potemkin and October, though innovative and respected are terrible as entertainment – propaganda films generally are.  But this one deserves the descriptor “eminently watchable”.

However, it’s what’s behind the film that makes one think.

Sergei Eisenstein

To me, Eisenstein’s life epitomizes life of Soviet citizens.  Being essentially himself, he was constantly in and out of favor as the political fads changes in the party.  His films were critical successes until they were criticized because they weren’t popular enough (a crime that, in the communist paradise, could entail an appointment with a firing squad).  The first part of Ivan the terrible won him a Stalin Prize, the second was suppressed until after Stalin’s death and garnered its creator a severe reprimand.

He was allowed to go on tour in the west for a brief period – but then had to face the distrust of his peers.

Ah, the Soviet Union…  We miss it.

Anyone who remembers the 20th century will be well aware that, back then, the Soviets were no joke.  They were a big, influential power that effectively dominated a good chunk of Asia and Africa, as well as Eastern Europe.  They had a big army, lots of very destructive atomic bombs and an utter lack of a sense of humor.  So it might seem that the world is much better off without it.

But after the fear-ridden years of the cold war, Communist Russia has not aged well.  Casual observers looking back are already beginning to scratch their heads and ask themselves: did anyone take these clowns seriously?

Yes, we did, but there’s plenty of reason for the wonder, and we have to admit that, had they not been so well-armed, we would have appreciated just how entertaining the Soviets were:

1) Minor points in doctrine, impenetrable to most outsiders, could get you turned from a hero of the Soviet Union into a traitor to the Soviet Union before you could blink.  Most people would look at communism and say “simple enough, no one owns anything, but everything belongs to everyone” possibly adding “let me know how that works out for you”, but not the Soviets.  They regularly killed each other over invisible shades of gray.  Killing Trotsky with a hammer in Mexico has to be counted among the more entertaining episodes of the 20th century.  That combo of brutality and style has to be admired.

2) They were insistent that everyone was happier there in the west, and that the walls they had to build to keep their population in were actually there because the leaders knew better than the people and were doing them a favor.  Also, shooting people attempting to flee was a favor: death was clearly a happier place than capitalism.  Like Cuba today pretending to be a socialist paradise, that took chutzpah, and one cannot help but admire them.

Soviet Union Monarchy

3) They had established a monarchy but barefacedly told the world that the proletariat weren’t just politburo serfs.  I can only imagine the kind of laughter that echoed in the halls of the Kremlin when they heard that some western activists wanted to align themselves with communism to gain “freedom” for the masses.  Hats off to them for the sheer barefaced humor.  The best practical jokes are always the ones where you wonder whether they might actually be serious.

The truth is that no major government in the world today would dare do the things that the Soviets did in the name of “human rights” and of “equality”.  Yes, there are some clown states like Venezuela or North Korea (although I think the North Koreans have long since given up any pretense of Marxism), but no one who gets taken seriously on a worldwide level.  The Chinese seem to have found an excellent balance between communism and capitalism in a difficult situation, and Western countries generally seem to vote socialist for a few years before realizing that losing even more personal freedoms and having your economy destroyed isn’t worth the supposed benefits in increased equality that are eternally just around the corner.

Today, you’ll only find that kind of lip service to obscure utopian principles in niche cultural areas.

But back then, the USSR waved its missiles around and acted like what it was doing was perfectly normal.  Since, by all accounts, the leaders of the country were reasonably stable hardened politicians, one must conclude that they were laughing at the rest of the world the whole time (well, except for Stalin.  Anyone with a mustache like that has to have been batshlt insane).

And if you didn’t like it?  They’d boycott your Olympics*!

Yeah, we miss them.

Noir Gets Victorian

Gaslight 1944 Movie Poster

One of the interesting things about the 1001 movies list is that, unless you are up on your old cinema and theater, you don’t know what to expect with a lot of films.  Gaslight (1944) was one of these.  Before viewing it, I wasn’t familiar with either the play or the movie, so I expected it to be some kind of Victorian-era costume-drama love story.

Of course it was nothing of the sort – and, if I’d thought about it a bit, I could probably have predicted it.  You see, 1944 was smack in the middle of the film noir era, and its sensibilities ranged far and wide.  Heck some of the films were even set outside of Los Angeles.

The case of Gaslight, however, must be seen as an extreme example.  Setting a noir-esque film in Victorian London was a bit of a stretch, even for the era.  Given my choice, I’d have kept the genre in contemporary America – but that doesn’t mean that the film isn’t interesting.  It has quite a few memorable aspects.

The first is that by being set outside of the usual time and place of noir, it gets to play with social structures and even technology quite foreign to the hard-boiled private eyes that populate more typical fare.  Even the film’s climax (won’t give spoilers) could not have happened during the mid twentieth century.  So in that regard, it is quite clever.

On the other hand, it also uses much of noir’s shorthand, especially the tortured human elements and unhealthy relationships that are so typical of the format. There’s even a hard-boiled detective (although he works for Scotland Yard as opposed to having a seedy office in a high-rise).

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies Cover

Though it’s not a bad movie, this one probably earned its place on the 1001 movies list because of the fact that it experimented in mixing genres in ways that most noir flicks didn’t in the 1940s.  Yes, there were variations on the theme (making the hero an insurance salesman or a woman instead of a detective), but this one was probably the most extreme.  In a world a book called Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is a real thing (and soon to be a movie itself), an experiment of this sort probably wouldn’t attract a whole lot of attention – but that was not the case in 1944.

So, glad to have seen it, but not really all that keen to recommend it to anyone.  Watch it if the above has piqued your interest…  or give it a miss.  There are other, better films noir to spend your time on…  and we’ll have a writeup of at least a few of them here soon!

Bogart, Hemingway and Faulkner? Definitely “To Have”

Lauren Bacall - The Look

It’s well established that almost no one liked the book version of To Have and Have Not – not even its author, Mr. Macho himself, Ernest Hemingway.

But that didn’t stop Howard Hawks from deciding that it could be a basis for a great film, casting Bogart and Lauren Bacall in an unforgettable pairing.  Bacall is so perfectly well suited to noir that the pair’s chemistry simply blows that of Casablanca out of the water…

But it wasn’t quite that simple.  The book was a bit of a turkey, so the production had to really rework it to get it right, and not much of the original material survives in the film.  Of course, having William Faulkner helping with the screenplay can’t have hurt, either – even if he and Hemingway were anything but best buddies.

Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart

Let’s stop to think about that for a minute.  When was the last time you heard of a Hollywood movie which had TWO Nobel-prize-winning writers involved in the screenplay?  Granted, neither of them had won when the film was produced, but the choice of a “difficult” writer such as Faulkner for adaptation would have meant that a lot of the dialogue was deeper than normal.

That is not something that would happen today – the blockbuster system neither needs nor is interested in Nobel Prizes, and difficult dialogue is strictly verboten.  I believe that’s one of the main reasons that today’s films last a lot less in our memory than the old classics – and the reason that recent years are not referred to as “Hollywood’s Golden Age” in the way the thirties and forties are.

Of course, both Bogart and Bacall are dead, too, and don’t look like they’ve been replaced – although it would be both unfair and inaccurate to say that modern film is devoid of giants.  That isn’t true – but the giants are a lot more careful of their image, and ambiguous characters are not all that common anymore among the true superstars.

To Have and Have Not Piano Scene

I suppose that, in much the way that the thirties were the classic era of the screwball comedy, the forties were the era of film noir (this one isn’t exactly textbook noir, but it’s close enough) and Hollywood moved beyond it.  But looking back on the era now with modern eyes, it’s an amazingly entertaining body of work – and the Hays Code probably helped by forcing directors to up the innuendo so that audiences could read between the lines.

Not that much of that is necessary while watching To Have and Have Not.  The sexual energy between Bogart and Bacall – not to mention the sheer sultry throaty presence of Bacall herself – were enough to telegraph intentions, and give us a much more believable story of damaged people making the most of their situation than the one in Casablanca.  Yeah, despite being unabashed fans of Rick’s Café, we actually wrote that last sentence.

It’s hard to call this one unappreciated or forgotten, because it still gets its good share of late night air time, but it’s definitely worth rediscovering, as a lot of it is actually better than its more famous Bogart stablemate.

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