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Few directors have tapped into the zeitgeist as successfully as Stanley Kubrick managed to with his seventh feature: Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb relentlessly mocks American Cold War hysteria and the fervent ‘anti-Commie’ nationalism of the early 1960’s, ending with a scene in which a pilot in a cowboy hat sits astride a hydrogen bomb, shouting ‘yee-ha!’ as it plummets toward a Russian target (the US would have an actual, real-life movie cowboy eyeing up the ol’ Red Menace within 16 years, of course). Still, it seems as though American audiences at the time were able to take the ribbing, and Dr. Strangelove is still widely considered to be a comedy classic on that side of the Atlantic today, though over there and over here in the UK one or two prominent critics have since questioned the film’s occasional lack of subtlety (those names!) as well as its sneery, superior tone. (The fact that co-screenwriter Terry Southern was an American lends a degree of much-needed legitimacy to the film’s holier-than-thou barbs, if you ask me).

The first test screening for Kubrick’s pitch-black satire was due to take place on the day that President Kennedy was assassinated. The film’s release date was duly put back a few months to January 1964, as it was felt that the American public was in no mood for a Cold War comedy; the Cuban Missile Crisis was still fresh in the minds of many, as well, and the long- and short-term stability and future of the US looked far from certain at the time. It’s no surprise, then, that there were concerns as to how the central conceit that an insane American Brigadier General has the ability to single-handedly launch a nuclear attack on Russia, thereby triggering Armageddon would play out with audiences, but the film was a critical and commercial success, and it became Columbia’s biggest hit of the year. (That said, its box office receipts do pale in comparison next to Goldfinger, Mary Poppins and My Fair Lady, the three highest-grossing smashes of 1964, and it wasn’t even the most popular Peter Sellers film that year, earning less than both The Pink Panther and A Shot In The Dark.)

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Peter Sellers as Dr Strangelove

There’s much to enjoy here, but I’ll just run through a few highlights. Sellers is in fine fettle, playing three of the film’s principal characters: first the Terry-Thomas-like Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, a man whose stiff English politesse ensures he spends far too long tiptoeing around nutjob Jack D Ripper (Sterling Hayden), the man who has set the wheels of war in motion; secondly the American President Merkin Muffley, who Sellers plays fairly straight for the most part, though there’s some terrific ad-libbing when he’s on the phone to his Russian counterpart; and lastly Dr. Strangelove himself, a wheelchair-bound scientist and former Nazi whose own apparent craziness during the final stages of the film seems to capture the ridiculousness of the situation better than any other character. Sellers was due to play a fourth part – a contractual stipulation insisted on by Columbia in the wake of the previous Sellers/Kubrick collaboration Lolita – but after much protestation and a sprained ankle the role of the cowboy pilot Major T.J. ‘King’ Kong went to rodeo rider and actor Slim Pickens. Sellers was relieved; Pickens, if the rumour is to be believed, thought that the film was a straight drama.

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George C. Scott as Buck Turgidson

Sellers was nominated for an Oscar, and when he subsequently lost out to My Fair Lady’s Rex Harrison, the Academy was accused of opting for the safe, conservative choice. Yet I think there are better comic performances in the film, notably by Hayden and George C. Scott, who plays the jingoistic US Air Force General Buck Turgidson with a wholly-necessary brashness and swagger (sample quote: ‘Gee, I wish we had one of those doomsday machines’). Hayden was apparently happy to chew scenery, but Scott and Kubrick argued on set about the more outlandish behaviour of the Turgidson character, the former suggesting it needed to be toned down if the film was to work. However the director cajoled the actor into performing at least one over-the-top take of each scene, which he supposedly promised would not be considered for inclusion in the editing suite; as it turned out this was a lie, and apparently at least three of the takes made it into the final cut, causing Scott to state at a later date that he would never work with Kubrick again.

Then we have the brilliant sets, designed by Ken Adam, which occupied three main sound stages at Shepperton Studios. The most iconic, of course, is the cavernous war room, with its giant oval table, suspended UFO-style light and the large map that hangs on the wall, its blinking LEDs offering a constant, awful reminder of the terrible event about to occur. Adam also designed the magnificent lairs in Dr. No and Goldfinger, but this must surely rank as one of his best achievements, and I like to think that it was his idea to add in the (even bigger!) buffet table that repeatedly attracts the Soviet Ambassador, who seems more concerned with the state of his stomach than the apparent end of the world. Whoever it was deserves a pat on the back. This space is big, and much of it is empty, contrasting with the mock-up of the interior of the B-52 Stratofortress bomber on its way to Russia, which is cramped, with little room for maneouvre. In this plane and on the army base where Ripper and Mandrake can be found we constantly see posters in the background that state ‘Peace Is Our Profession’, the motto of the US Air Force’s Strategic Air Command, here shown up for what it is: a ridiculous and wholly inappropriate ad slogan. These posters seem to define those two sets more than any one piece of furniture ever could.

Arguably the most impressive element of Dr. Strangelove is the screenplay by Kubrick and Southern, who used Peter George’s ‘serious’ suspense novel Red Alert as a basis. There is an undeniable superciliousness to the script that has often been attributed to Kubrick (as well as the incessant ad-libs by Sellers), but one can’t deny the sheer pleasure obtained from hearing the dry, witty lines that are casually tossed toward the attendant viewer amidst all the doom and gloom (a perennial favourite being Muffley’s assertation ‘Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room’ as political bigwigs squabble next to him). I also love Turgidson’s desperate plea ‘Sir, you can’t let him in here. He’ll see everything! He’ll see the big board!’ as the Russian emissary arrives, as if that even matters in the face of mass human extinction. The writing is key in terms of balancing the utter horror and hopelessness of the situation – still just as scary a prospect today as it ever was, even if the actual specifics of the missile launch in the film are as ludicrous as they were in 1964 – with the ridiculousness of (male) human nature; even in the direst of circumstances these men exhibit an unshakeable desire to preserve self-interest or to improve their own lives, and also to maintain some kind of order, or respect for protocol. Meanwhile everything around them is turning to shit and their own idiosyncracies or incompetence damns us all. Ultimately that’s something we don’t want to contemplate too deeply in real life, but we can certainly laugh at the idea of it here.

Directed by: Stanley Kubrick.
Written by: Stanley Kubrick, Terry Southern, Peter George. Based on Red Alert by Peter George.
Starring: Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Slim Pickens, Keenan Wynn, Peter Bull, James Earl Jones.
Cinematography: Gilbert Taylor.
Editing: Anthony Harvey.
Music:
Laurie Johnson.
Certificate:
PG.
Running Time:
94 minutes.
Year:
1964.

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[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.

leviathanSet in a fictional coastal town in Russia’s north west, Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Oscar-nominated Leviathan (Leviafan or Левиафан in Russian) is an intelligent, beautifully-shot film that can easily be read as an indictment of the country’s authorities, in particular local government, the justice system and the Orthodox Church, all of which are depicted as corrupt or complicit with corruption. It is also a film that concerns itself with even weightier issues and even stronger manipulative forces: namely the will of God, and the fate that befalls those who act in opposition to it, or who question it. The title references a line, delivered here by a pious priest, from the Book of Job: ‘Canst thou draw out Leviathan with a fish-hook?’ asks the holy man, indicating the greatness of the force at work, and the main protagonist here is forced to endure all kinds of suffering, similar to his biblical counterpart. Zvyagintsev’s film is concerned with a character’s inability to control his own fate, and who has little choice but to succumb to his destiny in the face of mounting problems and life-changing events, much of which he cannot influence in a meaningful way.

The man in question is a hot-headed car mechanic named Kolya (Aleksei Serebryakov), who believes he is in a battle with a single figure – crooked mayor Vadim (Roman Madyanov) – over a compulsory purchase order. In a way, he is, and it turns into a very personal duel between the two, played out in the courts but also face-to-face on one occasion, when a drunken Vadim turns up on Kolya’s leviathan-36780_6doorstep with a couple of burly goons in tow. The Mayor’s publicly-stated intention is to buy and then demolish Kolya’s house – in a prime spot next to a river but standing apart from the rest of the town – in order to build a telecommunications mast that will benefit the community as a whole. However Kolya suspects Vadim has an ulterior motive, and believes the Mayor is going to build a mansion for himself on the plot as soon as possible. Kolya and unhappy wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova) have thus decided to fight the purchase in the regional administrative courts, enlisting the help of Kolya’s old army friend Dima (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), who is now a Moscow-based lawyer.

However there’s more than just the will of a crooked mayor driving the demolition plan forward, and though Kolya’s resistance is symbolic of his own stubbornness and pride, the house purchase becomes one problem among many and his insistence on focusing solely upon it means that he takes his eye off other pressing matters. Locals take advantage of his generosity as a mechanic. He is defeated in the courts, and we later discover that at least one senior judge is influenced by Vadim, who conducts his nefarious business while sitting underneath an unsubtly-placed portrait of Vladimir Putin. When Dima attempts to blackmail the Mayor with some incriminating information he has dug-up in Moscow, the situation escalates into one of intimidation and thuggery. Meanwhile Kolya’s second wife Lilya’s spirits are low, partly because of the way she is treated by Kolya’s rebellious teenage son Roma (Sergey Pokhodyaev), and as the film progresses it seems as if she has no way of escape from her unhappiness; additionally her actions inadvertently heap even more misery on her husband, leading him to drink. In fact a series of decisions by other characters, as well as some made by Kolya himself, hurry along the quadruple whammy of betrayal, defeat, loss and imprisonment, and thus Leviathan gradually reveals itself as a heavy-duty, depressing tale, filmed largely under grey, rain-filled clouds, in which there is little hope for anyone.

It is, however, one of the more striking cinematic works of the past couple of years. The opening few minutes alone serve as a showreel for cinematographer Mikhail Krichman, whose shots of Russia’s remote northern coastline are stunning and leviathanechoed with increasing melancholy at the end of the film. These montages include a number of wrecked boats that resemble, in their ruined state, another object that lies near Kolya’s house: the giant skeleton of a whale (a further biblical link, as well as being an obvious nod to the title and the specific quoted line from Job). Yet despite these sea-going husks this is not a film that is in thrall to the vast body of water that stretches off to the horizon, despite the importance of the sea to the townspeople (Lilya and her best friend both work in a fish factory, for example). It is a film that is far more concerned with land – both as something that can be owned and also in more general terms as the solid mass that smashes boats and finishes off Earth’s largest creatures – and thus we realise that the oft-mentioned leviathan could well be a metaphor for Russia itself.

Given that his film shows hypocritical Orthodox priests in cahoots with the Mayor, who himself dines with local crime bosses (though Leviathan isn’t really concerned with the ‘traditional’ organised crime of gangsters and the like), Zvyagintsev has come under fire from the Church, as well as Russia’s Ministry of Culture, who coughed up 35 per cent of the budget. The Ministry specifically objected to the portrayal of ordinary Russians as swearing, vodka-swilling rabble-rousers, and argued that there isn’t a single (completely) positive character in the film. This isn’t actually true: the priest who utters the film’s crucial line, and who most obviously ties the story to The Bible, is a small-but-crucial part in Leviathan, and it’s telling that one completely sympathetic character is included, even if his words are not welcomed by Kolya: the priest’s single scene ensures we see something approaching a balanced view of the Church, with a simple charitable act representing an acknowledgment by the writer-director that the Church’s work in rural communities such as this can be vital, and good. Metropolitan Simon of Murmansk and Monchegorsk, the diocese where Leviathan was filmed, subsequently issued a statement calling it ‘honest’, and said that the film raised important questions about the state of the country. Unfortunately The Ministry of Culture has not followed the Metropolitan’s lead, and has since proposed guidelines which would ban movies that ‘defile’ the national culture, an unnecessarily draconian step that does not bode well for Russian cinema.

Such a reaction is patently ridiculous, though perhaps indicative of the current political climate in the country. One hopes that Andrey Zvyagintsev is able to continue making films in his homeland as, on this evidence, he is a talent and may one day be taking his place in the pantheon of great Russian directors. His latest film has a resigned weariness, much like the residents of the weather-battered town depicted, but it is also exquisitely shot, evenly-paced and well-acted by the ensemble cast. If anyone stands out it is Serebryakov as the put-upon protagonist, delivering a credible descent from (seemingly) happily-married father of one to a man who effectively loses everything and is powerless to stop it from happening. One of Leviathan‘s great tricks is to leave you wondering whether Kolya deserves his fate: not because it has been pre-ordained by a divine force, but because it is a punishment for his actions here towards Lilya, whether those are seen or implied or merely possible. It is a question that will linger in the mind of anyone that watches this film, once the quietly-arresting finale fades from the screen and the portentous strings of Akhnaten by Philip Glass begin.

Directed by: Andrey Zvyagintsev.
Written by: Andrey Zvyagintsev, Oleg Negin.
Starring: Aleksei Serebryakov, Elena Lyadova, Roman Madyanov, Vladimir Vdovichenkov, Sergey Pokhodyaev.
Cinematography: Mikhail Krichman.
Editing: Anna Mass.
Music: Philip Glass.
Certificate: 15.
Running Time: 141 minutes.
Year: 2014.

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