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Posts tagged ‘Religion’

[Note: This post was originally written for the 2016 Decades Blogathon co-hosted by Tom and Mark of Digital Shortbread and Three Rows Back respectively. As such I’ve turned comments off for this post as I’d encourage you to read it over at the Blogathon itself here, plus you can check out other entries by other people on Tom and Mark’s sites. I’d heard and read so much about Andrei Tarkosvsky without ever actually seeing one of his films – I know, I know, but we all have our gaps…it’s just that one of mine is the undisputed king of arthouse cinema – that sitting down and rectifying the omission had felt like a daunting prospect for quite some time. I’m not really sure why this was the case; the Russian director’s seven films are revered by cinephiles, after all, so it was always likely that I’d find lots to admire within any one of them. Perhaps I felt like this because a couple are quite long, or because I knew that the double whammy of metaphysical themes and cerebral subject matter would require unbroken concentration and full understanding of all the ins-and-outs of the narrative. Also – let’s be perfectly honest here – to the uninitiated one or two look as though they may be a little dry, on paper. What if – heaven forbid – I didn’t actually like them? How could I endure the shame? Should I close down my blog and pursue a life as a hermit, disconnected from all things internet? Should I watch them on a loop until something finally clicks? I set out in search of answers.]

For the uninitiated, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev is a historical epic from 1966 that dramatises the life of the titular Russian artist and monk, who worked primarily as an icon painter during the 15th Century. It examines the role of artists at that time, within its own version of Russian society, and details their desire to create works of beauty while also responding to the violence and destruction that surrounds them. The film clocks in at a bum-numbing 3 hours and 25 minutes, which is the length of the supposedly-definitive Criterion edition, though there are other shorter versions available, with censored material cut out. For me this is roughly the point at which watching a film begins to tip over from being an enjoyable activity (most of the time, anyway) into the realm of ordeal, though I’ve sat through longer on occasion. As a portrait of society in Russia at the time it’s extremely negative. It also offered thinly-veiled criticism of the Soviet regime during the 1960s – it’s no coincidence that an artist named Andrei was chosen as the filmmaker’s subject and protagonist – and it’s unsurprising that the film failed to see the light of day in its original state for many years. Eventually, of course, it made it to Cannes, and worldwide acclaim followed in the early 1970s. Tarkovsky – with this film in particular – influenced many directors whose work I am more (or slightly more) familiar with, and appreciate, from Lars von Trier to Terrence Malick, from Bela Tarr to Gus van Sant, from Alexei German to Nuri Bilge Ceylan. You’ll even find scenes from Andrei Rublev referenced in modern works as diverse as HBO’s Game Of Thrones and Ben Wheatley’s Kill List. I’m mentioning all of this now because it’s potentially useful contextual information: I was acutely aware of the legacy of Tarkovsky as a filmmaker and the history of the film itself while watching Andrei Rublev; you feel it’s importance, you think about the way it echoes in the work of so many filmmakers on top of those mentioned above, and you’re also acutely aware of the irony that a film about artistic censorship and the battle between creativity and destruction should end up being butchered and banned itself for many years. All of this seems to hang in the air for every one of those 205 minutes.

Little is known about the real Rublev (certainly when compared to other European artists of the period), so Tarkovsky decided to portray his protagonist as – per Jim Hoberman’s Criterion essay – ‘a world-historic figure’. In this film, and this version of Russia, the talented painter (played by Anatoly Solonitsyn) is well-known within certain artistic and religious circles, and his fame seems to increase as time progresses. Tarkovsky opts for an episodic structure, and there are eight separately-titled black-and-white segments in total, along with a prologue and a full-colour epilogue; each of the segments portrays different events during Rublev’s adult life, including a rural meeting with a jester-type figure, a strange encounter with a group of pagans, a brutal Tatar raid on a village and a story about the casting of a bell. The artist travels to a monastery to study, leaves, works on a church fresco, takes a mentally-ill girl under his wing, kills a man to save her and, eventually, withdraws into a vow of silence, only to be inspired once again at the end of the film. Together the episodes cover around 25 years, though the emphasis is on a dozen of those. Sometimes Rublev is the central figure, sometimes he’s an incidental character. Throughout we see various attacks on art, creativity, Christianity and free speech, usually by groups of soldiers or warriors, and carried out through the practice of censorship or via verbal and physical reproaches. Whenever something is created in the film then the creation in question – or something close by, or related – is wrecked soon after, save for the bell at the end, an optimistic symbol to ring in the changes as the country enters a new era. But, for the most part, Rublev and those around him struggle with exterior, uncontrollable forces – mobs, the petty jealousies of contemporaries, the whims of (largely-unseen) princes and masters – or bear witness to others enduring similar struggles and persecution.

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Punishment for expressing a dislike of Tarkvosky has always been harsh.

Inevitably one or two of the segments are less exciting or involving than others, though the film is packed with striking camerawork and memorable images that ensure looking at it is never dull, and they also imbue it with a sense of grandness; the sheer number of meticulously-arranged frames – sometimes featuring hundreds of extras – that stack up is as unexpected for the first-time viewer as it is impressive. The camera tracks characters as they move through or around buildings, usually during long takes. There are well-executed long shots that reveal the ebb and flow of the landscape as well as the size of entire towns and settlements. There are even some of these from high up in the air, breathtaking in their scope, with birds’ eye perspectives and, in one case, the view of a man who has temporarily managed to fly in a balloon. Such lofty views and filled frames – it’s all about the edges – contrast with stark, minimal close-ups on terra firma. How a film looks is – for me – more important as an individual element to the overall work than just about anything else, including the acting, the script or the plot, and Andrei Rublev is without doubt one of the best-looking films I’ve ever seen. (The cinematographer was Vadim Yusov, who also shot Tarkovsky’s Solaris and one of the director’s early featurettes.)

As you might expect, given the care and attention toward the film’s visual style and the extended running time, there are recurring motifs. Horses – a symbol of life – feature prominently, with one infamously filmed falling down some stairs during the Tatar raid sequence. Birds, particularly ducks and swans, are also regularly evident, while it’s a film that is intermittently besieged by heavy rain, the storms constantly adding to the pervading boggy, muddy, grimness of many of the sets and locations. The grittiness of Tarkovsky’s medieval Russia is furthered by the violence, which is brutal and bloody more often than not. Few people escape the clutches of the soldiers and warriors who rampage with impunity, and those who find themselves at the mercy of other men invariably end up beaten, burned, beheaded, cut down or – in one case – tied to a horse as it gallops away. Yet that’s not to say Andrei Rublev is merely a feast of medieval hacking and slashing; that’s the exciting stuff, for sure, but there are long passages in which conversations about art and religion take place that may test the patience of some. I found myself drifting in and out of two of these in particular, unable to sustain enough interest in the subject of the dialogue.

It’s often difficult to know exactly where you are, or who the characters are, or what their significance is to Andrei. That alone will cause many people to dislike the film, or at the very least to find the experience of watching it a chore. In today’s age we’re lucky, in the sense that it’s possible to watch Tarkovsky’s film after reading a plot summary or a synopsis of the historical background, as I did, but even with that information I still struggled at times. I wonder how those who managed to see Andrei Rublev in the late 1960s or early 1970s fared; it can’t have been easy to follow, but in a way I wonder whether that even matters, given the obvious rewards that can be found from other aspects of the film. And I suppose that’s Tarkovsky’s second feature in a nutshell; it is difficult, and challenging, and unwieldy, for many reasons, but it’s also immensely rewarding all the same. I won’t deny that watching it felt like a slog at times (though, in truth, there were other periods during which the minutes flew by), and I agree with the writer David Thompson, who says ‘Tarkovsky’s epic stance reveals his single handicap: the lack of humour, and the way in which that slows his grinding pace’. This. Is. A. Film. That. Grinds. Really, though, such trifling is far outweighed by the wonders of this singular, incredible achievement. When the prologue finally arrives it’s a glorious epiphany: we see close-ups of some of Rublev’s surviving works, in all their glory. They are beautiful to look at, and despite the mud-inflected brutality of much of the action, so is Tarkovsky’s film.

Directed by: Andrei Tarkovsky.
Written by: Andrei Tarkovsky, Andrei Konchalovsky.
Starring: Anatoly Solonitsyn, Ivan Lapikov, Nikolai Grinko, Nikolai Burlyayev, Irma Raush.
Cinematography: Vadim Yusov.
Editing: Tatyana Egorycheva, Lyudmila Feiginova, Olga Shevkunenko.
Music: Vyacheslav Ovchinnikov.
Certificate: 15.
Running Time: 205 minutes.
Year: 1966.

(Before I launch into this review here’s a quick plug for a new blog called Hyperfilm, which I’ve recently started so that I’m able to post what will hopefully become a vast archive of drivel all about the magical, mysterious world of film. Please check it out and if you like what you see remember to follow it. (Hey, if the word ‘drivel’ puts you off from doing just that, then let me quickly point out that I’m joking, and I can assure you that as little as 90% of it will actually be terrible and/or pointless, so there’s no need to worry unduly about taking such a life gamble.) I’ve wanted to set up a new blog for a while so that I can post about film-related stuff other than reviews, such as trailers, comments on movie news, links to reviews and articles by other film bloggers that I’ve enjoyed reading, classic scenes, film posters, top tens and the like. You may be wondering why I don’t simply incorporate all that stuff into Popcorn Nights, but the answer is I’m stubborn and want to keep this site 100% reviews-based, since that was the point of it in the first place. Popcorn Nights isn’t going anywhere – like the Sphinx – but I will be blogging regularly at Hyperfilm too so please head over and say hello. And now on with the review…)

Two films that are routinely described as being among the best British horrors ever made were actually released as part of a double bill way back in 1973. The ‘A’ feature – rated X by the censors because of its sex scenes – was Nicolas Roeg’s haunting, unsettling ghost story Don’t Look Now, while the ‘B’ feature, incredibly, was Robin Hardy’s odd blend of music and mystery, The Wicker Man.

While The Wicker Man has since become a widely-appreciated classic (as has the superior Don’t Look Now), its origins as a B-movie are very much evident, with the low budget accounting for minimal production design and a short running time (although other, longer versions have been released in the years since it first appeared). And it certainly looks cheap, like an extended made-for-TV drama, but this actually works in the film’s favour and there’s nothing to distract the attention away from the sheer oddness of the events that unfold. The film’s star Edward Woodward, playing a devout Christian policeman named Sergeant Howie, had a considerable amount of stage and TV experience in the UK but had only recently made the transition to the big screen, appearing in the cheapo horror Incense For The Damned as well as Sitting Target, an early 1970s Oliver Reed vehicle designed to cash in on the success of Get Carter. While Woodward would go on to achieve international acclaim following his roles in Breaker Morant and TV’s The Equalizer, he was relatively unknown outside of the UK when The Wicker Man was made, therefore it’s unlikely the producers expected to attract an international audience.

The story was adapted by Anthony Shaffer from David Pinner’s 1967 novel Ritual, and it follows Howie’s visit to the eerie, remote Hebridean island of Summerisle as he investigates the disappearance of a young local girl named Rowan Morrison (Geraldine Cowper). After he arrives by seaplane Howie finds the locals strangely unhelpful – even Rowan’s mother May (Irene Sunter) claims that the girl never existed – and his stay is an uncomfortable one thanks to the antics of the islanders, who fill their evenings with boozy, lewd singing sessions in the local pub before rodgering each other senseless outdoors with nothing but the night sky to cover their modesty.

Eventually Howie meets the island leader, Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee, in what he maintains is his best film). It becomes apparent that the islanders have largely eschewed the Christian way of life, and have declared the ruling UK government and attendant law to be irrelevant, instead paying homage to the pagan Celtic gods of their ancestors. Naturally this is very much to the distaste of the clean-living policeman, who realises that the May Day celebrations will contain a virginal sacrifice to the gods in order to ensure a successful harvest – the missing Rowan, Howie presumes. Determined to uncover the island’s conspiracy and appalled by what he finds, Howie attempts to infiltrate the celebrations while resisting the advances of Willow MacGregor (Britt Ekland), the local landlord’s daughter.

Director Hardy revels in the oddness of Summerisle and the strange behaviour of its residents, and as a result his film has an unsettling, threatening tone from the first scenes to the very final shot of the burning wicker man and the setting sun. The locations included the small Scottish towns of Gatehouse of Fleet, Kircudbright and Newton Stewart, although some scenes were filmed in Creetown and Plockton. (As an aside, I found myself in the picturesque town of Plockton during a holiday in Scotland earlier this year; as I stood by the harbour looking out to a sea loch the place seemed oddly familiar, and only afterwards did I find out that it was the location for Howie’s arrival by seaplane and subsequent conversation with a few local men. In Plockton they don’t really advertise the town’s role in The Wicker Man, which isn’t too surprising, although the harbour has changed little since the 1970s. Anyway, there’s a nice pub there and some of the sacrificial rituals I witnessed were top notch.) Some scenes were also shot in and around the Isle of Whithorn, and the owners of the castle and other locals appeared in the film, adding a degree of authenticity.

Though the locations seem (and in some cases are) remote, and therefore increase the odds of the audience accepting the premise of the story, It’s the actions of the locals that really lends the film its strange, creepy vibe. When they’re not leading Howie up the garden path or shagging each other under moonlight on it, they’re quick to break into song – The Wicker Man is a musical every bit as much as it is a horror film or a mystery – and the music forms an important part of the narrative and adds to the threatening atmosphere. Composed, arranged and recorded by Paul Giovanni and a specially-formed folk group named Magnet, the songs have their own strange quality, and many are actually performed by the characters. The soundtrack does not contain real pagan folk songs, instead relying on new compositions by Giovanni and the group, though in some cases well-known lyrics and nursery rhymes, such as Baa, Baa, Black Sheep, are appropriated.

As a result of the music some key scenes that would be weird enough in their own right are given an extra creepiness: one that stands out in particular is the scene in which Willow attempts to seduce the virgin policeman while she remains in the room next door; as the conflicted copper goes back and forth to his own bedroom door she writhes naked against the wall, and the whole thing turns into a strange avant-garde dance routine (Britt Ekland, who incidentally mimed the famous ‘Willow’s Song’, had a body double for parts of this scene but that didn’t stop then-boyfriend Rod Stewart from threatening to buy and burn the negative).

Though some of his acting here could be described as ‘suspect’, Woodward has a good stab at the part of the uptight, outraged Howie and his performance is a memorable one, particularly with regard to his rant-filled final moments. Christopher Lee – already a horror veteran by 1973 – is magnetic as the powerful Lord Summerisle, and though we see very little directly, the grip he has on the islanders is palpably felt throughout. While there’s not much for Ekland to do as Willow she plays the role of the temptress well, and there are memorable turns too by Diane Cilento as a dismissive schoolteacher and Lindsay Kemp as Alder MacGregor, the pub landlord.

The Wicker Man is probably best known for some of its imagery, though. There are strange sights such as the procession of villagers wearing animal masks, fertility dances by children and a severed hand that doubles as a makeshift candelabrum, but mention of the film will always conjure up a mental picture of the burning of the actual wicker man at the end in particular. An odd sight in itself, when coupled with the film’s twisty revelation and the haunting adaptation of the middle English folk song Summer Is Icumen In on the soundtrack, the scene makes for powerful viewing and has been understandably voted one of the scariest moments in cinema history. The studio, incidentally, wanted a more upbeat ending that completely differed from Hardy and Schaffer’s finale, but thankfully they didn’t get their way.

A 99-minute version of the film was sent to Roger Corman in the US, to find out how he thought the film would play in drive-ins and theatres in America. He recommended cutting around 13 minutes, which Hardy did (much to the annoyance of Lee, who felt the cuts added nothing but continuity problems), and an 87-minute version was released alongside Don’t Look Now. Both films have received critical acclaim in the years since, and interestingly feature several thematic similarities, most notably an increasingly frantic search for a child that ends up with the main protagonist being led to a pre-ordained fate. Both films share non-linear editing, as well, though it is less of a feature in The Wicker Man.

Despite his reservations Lee was still proud of the shorter version, and he even offered to buy tickets for critics so that they would watch it, but even this couldn’t stop The Wicker Man from fading into obscurity after it finished its run in cinemas. A few years later Hardy remembered that Corman had a copy of the original cut, which turned out to be the only one still in existence, and was able to release a restored 96-minute version in 1979 to even greater critical acclaim. Since then various other versions have been released by different distributors, although the most recent DVD version is 91 minutes long and is titled ‘The Final Cut’. The film has also endured a pointless and misogynistic remake by Neil LaBute which stars Nicolas Cage, and a 2011 ‘spiritual sequel’ by Hardy set in Texas called The Wicker Tree (featuring a cameo by Christopher Lee).

Unusually set in broad daylight for the most part, The Wicker Man is an unconventional and deeply unsettling horror. Its B-movie roots means there’s a little roughness around the edges and some of the exploitation elements ensure that it hasn’t aged too well, but it powerfully questions dogmatic religious belief, highlights the lack of logic behind some practices and has been rightfully praised as one of the better examples of British horror.

The Basics:
Directed by: Robin Hardy
Written by: Anthony Shaffer, David Pinner, Paul Giovanni
Starring: Edward Woodward, Christopher Lee, Britt Ekland, Diane Cilento
Certificate: 15
Running Time: 87 minutes
Year: 1973
Rating: 8.3

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