Tag Archives: 2015

Doctor Zhivago: Brief Notes on an Epic Drama

 

Pre-Movie Night Reading

Director: David Lean
Date of Release: 1965
Awards: Five Oscars in 1966, Five Golden Globes in 1967, and multiple others

Principal roles:

Omar Sharif as Doctor Zhivago
Julie Christie as Lara
Alec Guiness as Yevgraf

Summary:

This movie is an epic drama about Russian physician, Yuri Zhivago, who experiences the dramatic upheavals that WWI and the Bolshevik Revolution bring to his homeland. Throughout the story, idealist Zhivago endures numerous hardships, which includes falling in love with a nurse, Lara, when he also loves his wife and family.

Read beforehand to enhance the movie-watching experience:

  • Much of the movie takes place between 1912 to 1925, which spans World War I, the Russian Revolution, and the Russian Civil War.
  • It is based on the novel by Boris Pasternak, which was smuggled out of Russia and eventually published in Italy in 1957.  The Soviet Union finally allowed the book to be viewed by the public in 1988.
  • The film was shot in Spain during the regime of General Francisco Franco. While the scene with the crowd chanting the Marxist theme was being filmed at 3:00 am, local police showed up at the set thinking that a real revolution was taking place. Apparently, people who lived near the filming venue woke up to the sound of revolutionary singing, and mistakenly believed that Franco had been overthrown. As the extras sang the revolutionary Internationale for a protest scene, the secret police surveyed the crowd, making many of the extras pretend that they didn’t know the words. (Source: IMDb)
  • Doctor Zhivago is well known for its soundtrack, particularly Maurice Jarre’s “Lara’s Theme,” which won an Academy Award for Best Music Score.

 

Doctor Zhivago: Pasternak and Politics

For some apolitical men, a conscientious few, ideas need not have a practical application. They are of intrinsic worth. The advantage to be gained by exploiting an idea is of no concern. These men love ideas for the sake of wisdom, tranquility, and transcendence; Zhivago was such a man
—Ian Bloom, Illumined Illusions

I remember observing out loud to Lucy after she and I had tallied the votes for the Fall Film Competition, that the four top films seemed lacking in commonality except for their dates of release. But of course, as I expressed last month, it began to occur to me that a theme for these films might be “social defiance.”

Don’t you wonder why humans are drawn to such stories? Do we all feel powerless at the core, no matter our social position or beneficial characteristics? Jesus of Nazareth and certainly his followers too were defiant. Many stories in the Hebrew scriptures describe defiant acts or defiant people. Each of us would likely be proud to carry a reputation of standing up to oppressors, if we could do this in a way that resulted in positive influence without inspiring violence. Is this fantasy part and parcel of the human race, or have we assumed this mantle because of stories and films that have such outcomes and satisfying endings?

Boris Pasternak, man of privilege

Boris Pasternak and brother Alex
Boris Pasternak and his brother Alex

Boris Pasternak, son of Russian artists and the author of the novel on which our movie is based, was a man of privilege, a celebrated writer of poetry and prose who lived through—and whose life was directly affected by—enormous social turmoil and political change. He was born in Moscow in 1890 into a Jewish family and studied philosophy at the University of Moscow.

We might imagine that Pasternak set out to influence others quietly and peacefully by revealing the realities of the Revolution through his writing, instead of possibly attempting to foment retaliation in kind. Through the character of Yuri Zhivago, he showed a model of humanity where caring for others rose above slaughtering people who disagreed. This is a political stance many Americans adhere to according to our vision of democracy.

But, Pasternak was not free to express himself as he might have wished. Prior to the enduring global acclaim from Doctor Zhivago, he first achieved public recognition through his poetry, published during the period between 1913-1922. However, his writing was judged to be inconsistent with Communist “socialist realism;” therefore, Doctor Zhivago was rejected out of hand as unacceptable for publication.
Read more about socialist realism . . .

Doctor Zhivago: Mary’s Movie Night Review

A Doctor Zhivago review must first include a comment about its extraordinary success at the box office. Upon its release, Doctor Zhivago was so popular with its audiences that it remains as MGM’s second most profitable film. Guess which film is first? Gone with the Wind!

Both Gone with the Wind, released in 1939, and Doctor Zhivago in 1965  are epic movies adapted from books and set in times of immense turmoil that war brings and both include irresistible love stories. The similarities end there. Gone with the Wind, based on the novel by Margaret Mitchell, glorifies the Old Confederate South. Published in 1936, Margaret Mitchell was free to write and create her own world in any way she wanted.

In 1956, when Boris Pasternak’s novel, Doctor Zhivago, was written, he was at the mercy of the Communist Russian government. To be published, the manuscript was smuggled out of Russia. The Soviet Union only allowed its own citizens access to It in  1988.

Doctor Zhivago in Atlanta

Fox Theater
Fox Theater, Atlanta
Photo: Robert Elzey

Movie-goers in Atlanta were first introduced to Doctor Zhivago in 1965 at the Fox Theater on Peachtree Street. The movie and its score captivated its audiences, one of which included Lucy and Jack Cota. Jack was most impressed with the soundtrack and its composer, Maurice Jarre, and he was not alone in his admiration. According to the IMDb, the soundtrack sold more than 600,000 copies during the film’s initial release.

Movies make for great family bonding time, and when a rare ice storm swept across Atlanta in the early 1980’s, Lucy, Jack, and daughter Mary, cuddled in the den, and watched the epic Doctor Zhivago, which happened to be showing on TV that day. The scenes that Mary remembers most are those filmed in the Ice House, which was appropriate because of the Atlanta ice storm at the time. Like the famous maze of snow-covered hedges in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, the memorable ice house scene is permanently seared in audiences’ memories.

Doctor Zhivago Notes of Interest

It is surprising to learn that most scenes in Doctor Zhivago were filmed in Spain in the dead heat of summer. Director David Lean bought an entire marble quarry and had it ground into powder for disbursement as snow. Surrounding trees were sprayed with plastic snow to complete the set. While watching the movie, you would never guess that the actors were withstanding 100 plus degree weather and sweating profusely while makeup artists hovered around wiping away the sweat. Movie extras were ordered not to shed a single layer of clothing, which was a hard challenge for them in the insufferable heat.

Lean chose handsome Omar Sharif to play the role of Doctor Zhivago. The director and the actor had worked together previously in Lawrence of Arabia. During filming, Sharif had to endure daily rituals of having his eyes taped back and his hair straightened to make him appear more Russian than Middle Eastern. Every three days, he also had his hairline shaved back, and his skin waxed. However, undergoing an ethnic transformation for movie roles was a common occurrence in Sharif’s career. According to Variety, he was also cast as a Spaniard in Behold a Pale Horse, a Mongol in Genghis Khan, a New Yorker in Funny Girl, and a German in The Night of the Generals (Chang, 2015, Jul 11).

One would not guess that the actor was a fat and ugly child in the eyes of his mother. She thought in desperation, “What can I do? Where is the worst food?” That would be English cuisine, so she sent her son Omar to an English boarding school. This turned out to be life-changing for Sharif. In one year he lost weight and learned to speak fluent English. A theater was next door to the school, which exposed him to an activity that soon became his life’s calling. Omar Sharif died in Cairo, Egypt this past July 2015. He suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease in his later years.

Lucy would be interested to know that Omar Sharif was a world-class bridge player.

REFERENCES

Chang, J. (2015, Jul 11). Omar Sharif remembered: from Egypt to Hollywood, a chameleon of the screen. In Variety magazine. Retrieved from https://variety.com/2015/film/columns/omar-sharif-remembered-1201538243/

Omar Sharif. (2017, Oct 30). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Omar_Sharif&oldid=807943259

Doctor Zhivago (film). (2017, Oct 26). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Doctor_Zhivago_(film)&oldid=807121063

 

A Man for All Seasons: Brief Notes

Summary

The story of Thomas More, who stood up to King Henry VIII when the King rejected the Roman Catholic Church to obtain a divorce and remarriage.—IMDb, A Man for All Seasons (1966).

Title: A Man for All Seasons
Director: Fred Zinnemann
Date of Release: 1966
Awards: 6 Oscars, 4 Golden Globes, and multiple others
Cast:
  • Paul Scofield as Thomas More
  • Robert Shaw as Henry VIII
  • Orson Welles as Cardinal Wolsey

READ the following notes to enhance the movie-watching experience:

Notes:
The movie takes place in England in the 16th century during the last seven years of Sir Thomas More’s life.
Director Zinnemann spotlights the River Thames for its consistent presence in English history. In the movie, the river is the link between King Henry VIII’s Castle and Sir Thomas More’s residence.
Zinnemann struggled with how to portray an ideological disagreement in a movie, a big challenge for a director. Choosing not to indulge in pyrotechnics (special effects, visual fireworks, etc.), he relied on accomplished and talented actors to meet his goal.
Knowledge of this period in English history helps to understand the lengthy discourses in the movie. For quick research beforehand, check this source: Wikipedia (Henry VIII of England, 2017, Nov 01).
Many consider Sir Thomas More as the greatest Englishman of the era—a man who would not compromise his principles under any circumstance (Thomas More, 2017, Nov 2). It has been said that men and women like Sir Thomas More come around only once in a century. Another example is Mahatma Gandhi.

REFERENCES

A Man for All Seasons (1966). (2017). In IMDb. Retrieved from https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0060665/

Jokinen, A. (Ed.). (2009, Jul 7). Excerpt from Sir Thomas More: A Man for One Season by James Wood. Retrieved from https://www.luminarium.org/renlit/wood.htm

Henry VIII of England. (2017, Nov 1). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Henry_VIII_of_England&oldid=808206654

Thomas More. (2017, Nov 2). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Thomas_More&oldid=808418641

 

A Man for All Seasons: Mary’s Perspective

“TV is going away.” my Dad exclaimed over lunch at Pasta Vino recently. He was proven right. Though my mother had given me a DVD of A Man for All Seasons, I balked at the inconvenience of opening the DVD, figuring out how to get the DVD machine to operate within our increasingly complicated systems of Netflix, Amazon Streaming, and DirecTV.

For the first time, it occurred me to consider how few DVDs my family watches these days. I took the lazy way out and paid $2.99 to “rent” A Man for All Seasons on Amazon video and watched it with the comfort of my Kindle Fire. I could not have been more content! It was today’s version of a “Blockbuster Night.”

Robert Shaw (King Henry VIII),
Robert Shaw (King Henry VIII)

The superior acting performances of Paul Scofield as Sir Thomas More, Orson Welles as Cardinal Wolsey, and Robert Shaw as King Henry VIII were simply mesmerizing. It is the acting that makes this movie a timeless classic. A Man For All Seasons does not need elaborate visual effects, for the acting and dialog themselves stand out and shine like a sparkling piece of diamond jewelry worn on its own rather than clashing with too many other pieces.

I read and skimmed plenty of reviews before watching the film to get a feel for the critics’ reception to it. Not surprisingly, the critics in the 1960’s were overwhelmingly positive about A Man for All Seasons, which earned six Academy Awards. Today’s movie reviewers (how easy it is to be a critic these days) were harsh. The common thread among today’s reviewers is that the film is one-dimensional, boring and resembles a high school play. It makes me wonder if viewers today recognize truly great acting when they see it? I struggle to think of any actor today who could pull off the part of Sir Thomas More with such convincing grace.

However, today’s viewers have likely seen or been exposed to the following:

1. The Tudors – (2007 – 2010) a popular TV series on Henry VIII starring the very handsome Jonathan Rhys Myers–who does not even have red hair!

2. The Other Boleyn Girl (2008) – an entertaining and page-turning book about the drama, romance, and intricacies of King Henry the VIII’s romances with the Boleyn sisters. It made its run through hundreds of book clubs and made Phillipa Gregory a wealthy author. The book’s raging success turned it into a movie starring the well-known actors Scarlett Johannsson, Natalie Portman and Eric Bana.

3. Numerous documentaries on Discovery/History channels on Henry VIII.

Thus, it appears that A Man for All Seasons is consciously or unconsciously compared with the more modern material when viewed for the first time today. Most people are familiar with the story and could perceive A Man for All Seasons as outdated by today’s average viewer of movies. However, Robert Zinneman’s film is a timeless classic that should never fade away with the passage of time.

Ashes and Diamonds: Will There Remain among the Ashes a Star-Like Diamond

My task as director is not just to provide a nice evening’s entertainment. The most important thing is to make people think.
— Academy Award Tribute to Andrej Wajda.

The Horrors of Nazism and Tragedies of Communism

Our movie this month, Ashes and Diamonds, brings the horrors of Nazism and tragedies of Communism to the screen. The story takes place over a twelve-hour period in Poland at the end of World War II. It is about a young Polish soldier who is ordered to assassinate a high-ranking Communist figure. Drama, irony, romance, and unexpected twists give the viewer a thought-provoking experience.

The main character, Maciek Chelmicki, played by Zbigniew Cybulski, is a young soldier in the right-wing Nationalist Army who, at the close of the war, is ordered to assassinate the newly arrived Communist district secretary. Maciek is a slightly dandified Polish Hamlet (Shakespeare?) who has fought in the uprising but is now uncertain about continuing to espouse an inevitably lost cause against the left. He bungles the murder, killing two bystanders.

Maciek is Hopelessly Conflicted

Maciek Chelmicki and his new love interest
Maciek Chelmicki and his new love interest, Ashes and Diamonds

Told to try again, he remains hopelessly conflicted between the demands of conscience and of loyalty and is further upended by falling for a girl in the hotel at which he and the communist official are staying. She makes him feel that his lifestyle is meaningless in the new post-war climate.

Though he manages to accomplish his mission on the very evening that fireworks announce the end of hostilities, he is accidentally shot when running from a military patrol. He dies alone on a rubbish dump.

Cybulski manages, through Wajda, to express a uniquely Polish sensibility—reflecting his nation’s troubled history—as well as the kind of youthful frustrations that are still recognizable today. But Wajda’s deeply romantic and personal vision makes Ashes and Diamonds a gripping experience too.

ashes and diamonds, rubbish heap
Symbolism in Ashes and Diamonds

The title of both the movie and the novel by Jerzy Andrzejewski, who also wrote the screenplay, is taken from romantic poetry written by C. K. Norwid, 19th-century Polish poet: “Will there remain among the ashes a star-like diamond, the dawn of eternal victory?”

Wajda doesn’t try to answer this question, and it is the film’s ambiguities that continue to render it fascinating.

From an interview with Wajda, a comment about the star of our movie, Zbigniew Cybulski (Yakir, 1984):

The two actors I associate most closely with your work are Zbigniew Cybulski and Daniel Olbrychski. Let’s talk about them.

Cybulski, more than any other actor, represented his generation. He created himself in such a precise manner that you couldn’t distinguish between his film work and his real self. He wore his own skin all the time. It was impossible to have him wear a different costume and make him play somebody else. But these were external characteristics. Inside, what was beautiful was his sense of responsibility to the public, which I never saw anywhere else. I worked with him twice in the theater—we did ‘A Hatful of Rain’ and ‘Two for the Seesaw’, and I must say, he was born for this material. In one performance of ‘A Hatful of Rain’ in Cracow, in a theater where he once had walk-on parts, he went on the stage and started acting. Then he suddenly stopped and said, ‘Excuse me, I made a mistake.’ And he began the play once again. No other actor would dare do such a thing, but he felt he had a right to it. He had a fantastic imagination.

You know, he was practically blind, so his eyes were expressionless. This is why a close-up of his face would reveal very little. He attempted to compensate for this by movement, by using his silhouette. In Ashes and Diamonds, there are scenes where his legs are the most important thing in the frame—as seen in his silhouette. Directors who didn’t understand all that would not be able to convey what was special about him in their film, even though his work for them was just as good.

Later in the same article . . .

I think that Ashes and Diamonds was influenced mostly by the American noir films such as Scarface and The Asphalt Jungle. They were beautiful films. I think that Man of Marble also bears the influence of American cinema.

We are in for a fascinating evening in the movie room! See you there.

REFERENCES

Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (Producer). (2000). Jane Fonda presents an honorary Oscar® to Andrzej Wajda. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rImCpUzwGx0

Brooke, M. (2008, May 6). Andrzej Wajda—An Introduction. Retrieved from https://michaelbrooke.wordpress.com/andrzej-wajda-an-introduction/

Martin Scorsese presents masterpieces of Polish cinema. (2015). Kinoteka Polish Film Festival. Retrieved from https://kinoteka.org.uk/martin-scorsese-masterpieces-polish-cinema/

Merleau-Ponty, M. (1964). Sense and Nonsense (H. L. Dreyfus & P. A. Dreyfus, Trans.). : Northwestern University.

Oleszczyk, M. (2012, Oct 13). Ashes are for Ever. Retrieved from https://www.rogerebert.com/far-flung-correspondents/ashes-are-for-ever

Yakir, D. (1984). Interview: Andrzej Wajda. Film Comment (Nov/Dec). Retrieved from https://www.filmcomment.com/author/dan-yakir/

Ashes and Diamonds: Andrzej Wajda on Directing

Ashes and Diamonds is the third among a trilogy of war films that spurred Steven Spielberg to write a passionate letter to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recommending its Polish Director Andrzej Wajda for an Honorary Oscar, which he subsequently won in 2000.

Wajda was born in Poland on March 6, 1926, thus having his formative years shaped by events leading to World War II and the war itself. The aftermath of the War also heavily influenced his film-making career because he had to work under a Communist regime where censorship limited creative production. Since censors paid attention more to dialog than images, Wajda slyly filmed his movies accordingly.

An example: the end of Ashes and Diamonds shows the hero dying in a waste disposal landfill site. Wajda informed the censors that this scene could be translated as “whoever raises his hand against People’s Poland will end up on the rubbish heap of history.” However, Polish audiences interpreted the scene in a different light.

A workaholic, Wajda has been prolific in making films, TV programs, and stage productions in an active career that has spanned from the 1950’s to his most recent film, Walesa, A Man of Hope, released in 2012.

On directing movies in Wajda’s own words:

The good Lord provided the director with two eyes — one to look into the camera, the other to observe intently everything that is going on around him. It is a skill which you should develop and endlessly improve until you stop making movies (in the case of those trying to make political films this might happen at any moment, so time is running out!). For example: when the camera starts running, the director should watch and see simultaneously:

* how the actors are playing;
* what the crew members are doing: are they watching the take so that later they will be able to draw conclusions who’s responsible for what?
* whether the lights haven’t been moved: do they illumine the actors as agreed? (basically, this is the operator’s job, but it is worth taking note of)
* the sky: can the take be completed before the clouds obscure the sun?
* that actor walking over the rails; is he going to brush his sleeve against a priceless Chinese vase?
* the microphone, already dangerously low; is it going to get into the frame?
* and many, many other things, happening on location.

This seems not only difficult but almost impossible; however, do you recall your first, terrifying experience when driving a car? Many years ago my friend, the known film critic Boleslaw Michalek, bought his first automobile. He wasn’t too sure of himself behind the driving wheel, so he asked somebody to help him drive the car from the factory. But when they went out of the gate and into the street, the driver said with a tremor in his voice: “I’ll concentrate on the engine and you just watch the road” — because he too was a beginner. After a few minutes, they landed in a ditch.

Many years ago, at the start of my career as a director, I used to ask my assistants to take notes for me of some things during a take. This inevitably led to misunderstandings, and the evaluated material usually turned out to be disastrous. Unfortunately, this is a job the director cannot share. The members of the crew must know that at any given moment he is in control and has an eye on absolutely everything; only then will they accept his wishes and work really effectively.

For a comprehensive and thorough study on Wajda and his works, read Michael Brooke’s well-written piece called, “Andrzej Wajda – An Introduction.”

REFERENCES

*Academy Of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (Producer). (2000). Jane Fonda presents an Honorary Oscar® to Andrzej Wajda. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rImCpUzwGx0

* Brooke, M. (6 May 2008). Andrzej Wajda – An Introduction. Retrieved from https://michaelbrooke.wordpress.com/andrzej-wajda-an-introduction/

* Merleau-Ponty, M. (1964). Sense and Nonsense (H. L. Dreyfus & P. A. Dreyfus, Trans.): Northwestern University

*Oleszczyk, M. (2012, Oct 13). Ashes Are For Ever. Retrieved from https://www.rogerebert.com/far-flung-correspondents/ashes-are-for-ever

*Yakir, D. (1984). Interview: Andrzej Wajda. Retrieved from https://www.filmcomment.com/author/dan-yakir/

Ashes and Diamonds: Wajda and Socialist Realism

The official socialist realist system—with its predictable conflicts, its negative types and positive heroes, and its progressive and optimistic resolutions, encouraged the production of grossly distorted representations of actual life and actual history.—Eagle (1982)

The essence of a political film is in speaking about what is unspoken; in exposing what is concealed; in unveiling the realities behind the events.—Wajda quoted in Yakir (1984)

It is interesting to observe that through our first-ever “Fall Film Competition,” the group has quite serendipitously assembled a collection of films that can arguably be considered “Films of Social Defiance.” Even though not all can be classified under an official rubric of revolution, all four are enlightening with respect to a time of radical change in a cultural or national sense. Ashes and Diamonds is celebrated for its appeal to an oppressed people who hear a voice that resonates with them in its representations and symbolism that defies socialist realism mandates. Continue reading Ashes and Diamonds: Wajda and Socialist Realism