Monday, October 19, 2015

185. Soviet/Russian maestro Sergei Eisenstein’s “Ivan the Terrible, Part II: The Boyars' Plot” (completed in 1946, released in 1958): Cinematic art beyond a veiled critique of Stalin

The early works of Sergei Eisenstein such as The Battleship Potemkin (1925) and October: Ten Days that Shook the World (1928) were indisputably testaments of the visual power of montage, crowd scenes and camera angles on a viewer that are, even almost a century later, considered as masterpieces of cinema. In 1987, when Brian De Palma openly recreated the Odessa steps sequence from The Battleship Potemkin in his Hollywood film The Untouchables for his Union Station sequence, few realized that de Palma was paying homage to Eisenstein. But Eisenstein’s early works were obvious Communist propaganda films as well. In 1946, Eisenstein made an even more seminal work Ivan the Terrible, Part II: The Boyar’s Plot that was a veiled criticism of his own patron, the communist dictator Stalin. Stalin, who had loved the nationalist Ivan the Terrible, Part I, banned Part II and destroyed most of the footage of the partly shot Part III. Both Stalin and Eisenstein had died by 1958, when Khrushchev’s Soviet Union released the masterpiece Ivan the Terrible, Part II: The Boyar’s Plot for the world to admire. 

What makes Ivan the Terrible, Part II: The Boyar’s Plot different from his earlier films? Unlike the earlier films of Eisenstein, there were two departures.  Ivan the Terrible, Part II: The Boyar’s Plot was the first work of the director where propaganda took a back seat—even Ivan the Terrible, Part I, can be considered as an essentially nationalist propaganda film. Secondly, this work presents Eisenstein’s capability to make a thought provoking film on the psyche of the lead character and why he behaves in the manner he does.  This is a film that is not merely presenting history but presents Eisenstein’s view of the mind and temperament of the monarch. It is essential to note that the script/screenplay was Eisenstein’s own and he assumed he was famous enough within the Soviet Union to present his views on Stalin in a veiled manner in this film. The intellectual film theoretician Eisenstein who had once written “The hieroglyphic language of the cinema is capable of expressing any concept, any idea of class, any political or tactical slogan, without recourse to the help of a rather suspect dramatic or psychological past,” does indeed take the help of the “dramatic or psychological past” in Part II.

The key shot of Part I, repeated in Part II,
where the Tsar (Cherkasov) watches the line of people
coming to his residence to request him to lead Russia
(cinematographer Tisse and Eisenstein's most famous shot)
The lonely Tsar of Part II

A crucial part of Part II deals with a powerful man Tsar Ivan (Nikolai Cherkasov) who begs for friendship. As the film opens, the viewer is reminded of what was already disclosed in Part I—one of his two close friends Prince Kurbsky (Mikhail Nazvanov), a secret admirer of the Tsar’s Queen Anastasia, has turned traitor and is plotting against the Tsar with the Polish King. The Tsar’s only other friend Fyodor Kolychev, now Archbishop Philip, who with Kurbsky has accompanied him on his coronation, agrees to remain close to him on condition that he could defend the Boyars that Tsar is accusing of crimes against the state.  Eisenstein shows the Tsar crawling and tugging Philip’s robe, pleading for his friendship he had enjoyed in the past. The only other true friend of the Tsar who remained loyal--his Queen--has been murdered by the Tsar’s aunt in Part I.  The Tsar is a lonely man indeed.

The young orphaned Tsar is made to wear royal robes and crown
 but has no elders to guide him
Young Ivan on the throne being manipulatedby Boyar elders
 (the painting of Mary is large in the background)  

The Tsar's innocent cousin, sitting on the throne is a pawn
in the hands of the Tsar and his henchman---Eisenstein's visual comparison
of two innocents being manipulated in different circumstances
(the religious drawing in the background is smaller)

Eisenstein goes even further to take recourse to the psychological past of the Tsar by showing his childhood in Part II. The visual genius takes pains to show the young Tsar sitting on the throne when his legs have grown to touch the floor and the Boyars are selling off his kingdom’s land to foreign powers under his seal without asking his approval. The boy Tsar (Erik Pyryev) who has grown up without his father and has seen his mother poisoned to death, takes his first important decision in life by asking his guards to arrest the elderly Boyar lord who mocks him and lies down on his dead mother’s bed laughing.

Kabuki theatre influence in the colour segment as the plot
to kill the Tsar is unraveled (yellow in foreground, red in the background)
Faces watching the play--strength of  Eisenstein of of the silent era

The Tsar learns of the plot to kill him while sitting on his throne
from his own simpleton cousin

Considering that all the six preceding films of Eisenstein was in black and white, Part II is the first and only work that the director uses colour and that too for an important sequence. Two colours dominate the two reels of the film: red and blue. Yellow is used for the kabuki-like theatre sequence (Eisenstein knew Japanese language and wrote about what termed as “Theatre of Attractions” after he became a fan of kabuki theatre form.). The film reverts to black and white when the crucial part reveals the plot and the plotters.  One needs to recall that the film was made in 1946 when colour films were not common—Hollywood’s first Eastman colour films came out in 1948. It is another matter that the banned film was released only in 1958, 12 years after it was made.

Eisenstein’s sound films Alexander Nevsky (1938) and Ivan the Terrible, Part I and Part II, saw his collaboration with the famous Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev. Many of us are in awe of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001-A Space Odyssey (1968) which uses Richard Strauss’ music from his composition Also Sprach Zarathustra in the sequences when the apes throw the bones up in the air and stone monoliths appear. Compare that with Eisenstein’s choice of music towards the ends of both Ivan the Terrible, Part I and Part II and one will note a striking resemblance. All three films are asserting new found power. Though the musical pieces are different and the composers are different, the effect is almost identical.  It is well documented that Stanley Kubrick was influenced by the works of Eisenstein, though this particular connection on the use of music reminiscent of Ivan the Terrible, Part I and Part II seems to have eluded critics.

Shadows indicating politics superceding religion (trinity of candles):
Eisenstein's architectural knowledge in evidence

Now Eisenstein had studied architecture and could have ended up in that profession.  And as a filmmaker, his set designs in Ivan the Terrible, Part I and Part II are ascribed to Iosif Shpinel (credited as Production Designer and Art Director Isaak Shpinel).  Shpinel’s contribution to the films is just awesome and probably ought to be acknowledged as the finest in the history of cinema in those depatments. Evidently Eisenstein’s architectural background helped him to pick up Shpinel.  Of course, he needed the brilliant Eduard Tisse’s camera to accentuate the indoor details so skilfully as the exteriors. 

Religion plays a major role in most Russian/Soviet films over time as the Russian Orthodox Church influenced its history and most Russians continued to be religious even during the peak of Communism. Now Eisenstein was Jewish, not Christian. Apart from the coronation sequence in Part I, Part II has one major church sequence.  A play relating to a tale from the Old Testament of the Bible dealing with King Nebuchadnezzar (634-562 BCE) is staged within the church.  It is a significant choice of a tale by Eisenstein as he is a Jew—as Jews believe in the Old Testament and not the New. It’s a tale of the King commanding all to bow down before an idol he has created and three religious officials refusing to comply. Those three are cast into a furnace but survive causing the King to change his religious beliefs for himself and his nation. According to ancient texts other than the Old Testament, the King had a bout of insanity at the height of his power in ancient Babylon and recovered. What better tale to pick up for subtly criticizing Stalin!

This part of the film helps Eisenstein in two distinct ways to further his commentary. Stalin is being equated with the historical King Nebuchadnezzar. However, Eisenstein takes umbrage in the fact that it is the wicked Boyars and the custodians of the Church influenced by the Boyars that are putting up the religious play in the church. So Mr Stalin don’t blame Mr Eisenstein, blame the Church—seems to be the escapist undertone of the film. But we know the script was Eisenstein’s. The formidable enemy of the Soviet Russia was the powerful Russian Orthodox Church which Stalin could never subjugate totally. The players in the play openly term King Nebuchadnezzar as “an unlawful king, ..a satanic king...a sacrilegious despot..” and that the “earthly ruler will be humbled by the heavenly king.”

But wait, the best stroke of Eisenstein is a young kid in the church watching the play, who shouts out innocently, “Is that the terrible heathen king?” pointing at the Tsar, after the Tsar and Archbishop Philip have a war of words within the church. Cineastes will recall a similar use of a child and its innocent behaviour in the church to criticize the relationship between the Church and the State in Russia in the recent Andrei Zvyaginstev 2014 film Leviathan’s end.

Glee of  a murderess: Efrosinia (Serafima Birman)
as Eisenstein returns to black and white

Eisenstein’s film compares two mothers and their love for their sons. Early in Part II, the Tsar recalls the love of his mother towards him as she slowly dies poisoned by his foes.  He treats her bed as a sacred spot and arrests a boyar who defiles it years after she has died. In contrast, is the love of the Tsar’s aunt Efrosinia (Serafima Birman, who plays arguably cinema’s most evil female character) and her love for her feeble-minded son and the Tsar’s cousin Vladimir Andreyevich Staristsky. One is a motherless child missing his mother, the other a mother dominated child in a man’s body.

Soviet film director Mikhail Romm cross-dresses as
England's Queen Elizabeth I in Eisenstein's Part III's surviving footage

And one can glimpse Eisenstein’s true mettle in the few minutes of Part III’s footage that survived Stalin’s wrath. Eisenstein dressed up his contemporary Soviet director Mikhail Romm as Queen Elizabeth I of England. What a cross dressing role! What a film Part III could have been!

P.S. Ivan the Terrible, Part II, is one of the author’s top 100 films. The Indian TV serial Chakravartin Ashoka Samarat (2015) (script-writer Ashok Banker) dealing with the rise of the historical Emperor Ashoka (269-239 BCE) has several similarities to Eisenstein’s tale. Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan (2014) has been reviewed on this blog earlier.

Friday, October 09, 2015

184. US director Bennett Miller’s “Foxcatcher” (2014): Transcending the sport and the true events

Foxcatcher is an amazing work of cinema from USA that recalls the quality of evolved filmmaking that one associate with Coppola’s The Conversation (1974), Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941) or Ridley Scott’s British directorial debut film The Duellists (1977).

There are two likely reasons why many cineastes would skip watching Foxcatcher.

One, the filmmakers and the distributers of the film highlight the fact that the subject is about the sport of wrestling. It is. And, yet, it is not. By a coincidence the director Bennett Miller had a made a film called Moneyball (2011), all about another sport baseball, which turned out to be truly a poor cousin of Foxcatcher as it did not offer much  beyond  baseball and those who manage/manipulate the sport.

Second, the film Foxcatcher highlights the fact that it is based on true events. That’s yet another common thread with Moneyball and with yet another Miller-directed film, Capote (2005). One is then led to assume Foxcatcher too will be all about an individual or the famous du Pont family as in Moneyball or Capote. Actually the film Foxcatcher is not about the famous family but more about three very different individuals, of which only one, John Du Pont, is from the illustrious business family. What is more, the director Bennett Miller urges the viewer to look beyond the three prime individuals in the film. Miller’s film (possibly through mere deduction, the credit ought to go to co-scriptwriter E. Max Frye rather than co-scriptwriter Dan Futterman, as the former was the sole scriptwriter of the less colourful Capote)  urges the viewer to look at priorities of the American society, if not of the larger  developed world, that the actions of the three individuals represent. And how subtly Miller and Frye does that won Miller the Cannes best director award in 2014. Predictably, the Oscar voters for whom subtlety is a weakness rather than strength overlooked the five major nominations for Foxcatcher (two acting awards, one for direction and one for screenplay) and bestowed them on lesser works. [Even the lovely impressive Oscar nominated work of British director Mark Leigh Mr Turner (2014) was ignored by the Oscar voters.]

"My name is Mark Schultz. I wanna talk about America,..."
Mark (Channing Tatum) speaking to school kids

Early in the film the viewer hears the following lines spoken by a lead character to a group of school kids: “My name is Mark Schultz. I wanna talk about America, and I wanna tell you why I wrestle.” Miller, Frye, and Futterman make it amply clear—the film is a social statement about the nation as well—if not the developed materialistic world.  It’s only later as the film progresses that nationalism recedes, and egos and materialistic factors emerge to the fore.

Foxcatcher is a complex true story of the multimillionaire John Du Pont (Steve Carell) sponsoring and “training” two US Olympic wrestling gold medallists Mark and Dave Schultz (Channing Tatum and Mark Rufallo) for personal aggrandizement and how it wrecks the lives and families of all concerned.

"Coach is the father.. mentor...a great power in an athlete's life":
John du Pont (Steve Carell) and Mark (Channing Tatum)

The marriage of good direction and screenplay writing comes through details—an Olympic gold medallist reduced to eating quick fix noodles bought from grocery stores with hardly any nutritional value.  He evidently needs money to eat better food. The quality of direction and screenplay comes through the lack of spoken dialogue.  It comes through bizarre, disassociating conversations that remind you of Welles’ Citizen Kane as when the mother of an adult multimillionaire discusses disposing the toy train of her son. It is not the train that matters. It is not even shown in the film.  What that little but important sequence does is that it fleshes out the characters indirectly of both John Du Pont (Steve Carell) and his caring mother Jean du Pont (Vanessa Redgrave). Ms Redgrave has very little screen time and speaks very few lines—but it is her gestures and demeanour that talk a great deal. Of course, there are the critical observations John makes of his mother Jean, revealed to Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) during an unguarded moment.  Such indirect character development is rare in cinema. The periods of silences in Miller’s Foxcatcher speak loudly and help develop the bizarre true story.

Equally stunning is the first show of a gun in the film Foxcatcher. John Du Pont arrives at the wrestling training area on his own estate with a gun and dramatically shoots at the roof.  One is reminded of the bizarre actions of the trainer in Whiplash, another 2014 film from USA. For what? To make his wrestlers train harder to win at a forthcoming wrestling event. The gun culture in USA was relevant centuries ago, but guns in a secure contemporary world of the du Pont estate, is not. It not merely recreating a possible true event John du Pont’s life for Miller but a visually critical statement of the man and the segment of society his wealth represent,  if one studies the camera positioning to capture the scene directed by Miller.

Mark (Tatum) being coached by elder brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo)

The fictional Kane in Citizen Kane and the real John du Pont in Foxcatcher are both immensely rich egomaniacs. Both films are similar in developing the characters of the super rich Americans. Both are lonely individuals and both films seek clues to flesh out their characters from their childhood toys and possessions (Kane’s sleigh vs John du Pont’s toy train). A cineaste will note the parallels between Jean du Pont (Vanessa Redgrave) in Foxcatcher and the fictional Mary Kane (Agnes Moorehead) in Citizen Kane, towards their respective sons.

It is important and interesting to note the obvious devaluation of women characters in Foxcatcher. There are only two women characters in Foxcatcher: Jean du Pont who hardly speaks in the movie and Dave Schultz’ wife Nancy (Sienna Miller, who incidentally is not related to the director Bennett Miller though they share the same surname) and both are not major figures in the film. Mark Schultz does not have a girlfriend in the entire film Foxcatcher and is never shown to have a private life. His only friend is his elder brother Dave who is happily married. Even the John du Pont in Miller’s Foxcatcher does not seem to be interested in anyone sexually. The real Mark Schuitz stated that he was privy to the fact that John du Pont was a eunuch, following a horse riding accident.  (It is not surprising to find the line spoken by John in the film..  “I do not share my mother's affection for horseflesh.”) More importantly, both John and Mark are loners, desperate for recognition, in contrast to Dave who is happy with a happy married life and two kids. As loners, both don’t care to have friends of either sex.  The only friend for Mark is his elder brother Dave, and that has its own psychological ramifications as he is also his true coach.

But the attraction of money changes the life of the two wrestlers in different ways. And tragically, at that.  On the other hand, money for John du Pont could buy brief fame as an Olympics wrestling coach, which he was not and could never be.

Steve Carell's nose (beak for ornithologists) accentuated
 in the poster... 
...and the cinematography

The real life John du Pont and the movie character John du Pont are both ornithologists.  At several points in the movie the screenplay writers bring in metaphors of birds. John asks Mark to address him as Eagle, or Golden Eagle, if he wishes to do so.  John asks Mark to watch the birdlife on the estate and gives him binoculars to that—an overt touch of friendship (“You are a good friend, Mark,” says John later). Even while describing himself, John put himself as an ornithologist first and then a philanthropist. Here are other bird metaphors from spoken lines: ”When we fail to honour that which should be honoured, it's a problem. It's a canary in a coal mine. Do you bird-watch?... You can learn a lot from birds. I'm an ornithologist. But more importantly, I am a patriot. And I want to see this country soar again. “  Birds connect with the nation and the larger social commentary in the film Foxcatcher.

Money can buy fame--Olympic Gold Medalist (Tatum) in the background,
John du Pont (Carell) a 'wannabe' coach takes the foreground

The importance of Foxcatcher as a good film is not just in its direction and commendable script but its lead actors. Beyond the brilliant casting coup of getting Steve Carell with his beak –like nose to play “Eagle” John (his profile has been used so well in some posters of the film), Carell proves that an actor typecast as such can play a complex dramatic role with a flourish. One is reminded of the comic genius Danny Kaye playing the ragpicker in Bryan Forbes’ The Madwoman of Chaillot (1969) introducing a side of Kaye the actor rarely recognized. Carell is top notch and it is truly unfortunate that he was not honoured with an Oscar for which he was nominated. Mark Ruffalo was nominated for the supporting actor Oscar but one wishes the nominators had considered Channing Tatum as well who was able to show a range of emotions, subtle and not-so-subtle.

Finally, director Miller’s choice of music that plays on the soundtrack is apt and embellishes the script.  “Für Alina” by Arvo Pärt is perhaps the most apt piece of music for the movie (director Andrei Zvyagintsev used it in his film The Banishment), followed by David Bowie’s “Fame” and Mychael Danna’s “I thought he was a very nice gentleman.” How appropriate!

The film proves to be a testament on the frailty and loneliness of the rich and famous. It equally proves that chase for lucre can wreck the lives of those not fortunate to be born rich. And it looks at distorted self aggrandizement in the garb of nationalism.

P.S. The film won the best director award at the Cannes film festival in 2014. Ridley Scott's The Duellists (1977), mentioned in the above review, has been reviewed on the blog earlier.