Andrei Tarkovsky’s first film began life as a respectful adaptation of an autobiographical story about a child’s experiences working as a military scout during World War II. The story had already been translated into over twenty languages as well as critically acclaimed both at home and abroad but the studio’s first choice to direct the film had somehow managed to bungle the project resulting in nothing but thousands of feet of wasted film and a sizeable number of debts. After firing the director, the studio reached out to his classmate and offered him the project on the understanding that we would need to deliver a completed film as quickly and as cheaply as possible on the grounds that another man had already burned through the reserves of patience and good will that were usually accorded to novice filmmakers.
As with a number of Tarkovsky’s films, the production of Ivan’s Childhood resonates with many of the same issues as the film itself. For example, just as Tarkovsky had been denied a professional adolescence by the mistakes of his classmate, the film’s protagonist finds himself plucked from childhood and forced into premature adulthood where the world offers no protection from the consequences of his actions. Equally spooky is the way that the protagonist of Ivan’s Childhood is forced to run across minefields for the sake of those who follow just as Tarkovsky was forced to fight for the idea that directors should pursue their own artistic visions rather than contenting themselves with adapting the visions of others.
Setting aside the somewhat uncanny details of the production process, Ivan’s Childhood remains an impressive piece of filmmaking. Beautifully acted, astonishing to look at, and thematically rich, the film explores the interlocking boundaries between childhood and adulthood, dreams and reality, as well as between conscious and unconscious thought.
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This week, circumstances have allowed me to offer you something of a cultural dyad. For years now, British film critics have fetishised British film to the point where the term has become almost meaningless. For some, it means simply British accents and British names on the credits of Hollywood Blockbusters. For others, it means a truly national cinema that speaks to the concerns of the British people in terms that are uniquely theirs. As someone who has grown increasingly pessimistic about the Hollywood machine’s capacity to generate decent films, I favour the latter solution but even I wonder what a mature and deep-rooted British cinema might look like. Would it be Hollywood-lite in the same way as BBC dramas have come to feel like childish and over-eager attempts to appeal to American audiences? Or would it be something much darker and unpleasant? An expression of the fascistic desires and xenophobic tendencies that coarse through the British political bloodstream?
French cinema might be a good form to emulate but French cinema has very noticeably struggled with the urge to be Hollywood-lite and the urge to continue producing respectable grown-up films about middle-class people experiencing some sort of crisis. Don’t get me wrong… I love French populist cinema almost as much as I love films about middle-class French people experiencing crises but I also realise that neither of these models represents the realities of modern France. Another alternative would be to look back to a time when Britain actually had a film industry that was both mature and authentic, which is where this week’s offerings come in.
This week’s first review demonstrates quite how sophisticated post-War British cinema could be. As my review for FilmJuice argues, Carol Reed’s The Fallen Idol is an attempt to engage with how children see the world and how their vision of the world is liable to be distorted by grown-ups with vested interests in particular truths. Set amidst the marble palaces of Knightsbridge, the film is about a diplomat’s son who has been left alone with his father’s butler and house-keeper:
At first, Reed forces us to see this reluctant family unit through the eyes of the child meaning that Mrs. Baines comes across as an evil step-mother while Mr. Baines seems like an ideal father. However, as the film progresses and we are allowed to learn a little more about the secondary characters, it becomes clear that the couple’s behaviour towards the child is being driven in part by grown-up problems that Philippe is not equipped to understand. In reality, Mrs. Baines is not so much an ogre as a desperately unhappy woman who is trapped in a loveless marriage to a man who cannot stop lying.
As the narrative unfolds, Philippe’s attempts to protect the interests of his surrogate father are undermined by his own failure to understand either the adult world or what it is that he is actually seeing. The tension between what Philippe believes, what he wants others to believe and what is actually true blossoms into full-grown horror when Philippe mistakenly comes to believe that Mr. Baines has murdered his wife. Interrogated by the police and still desperate to defend his hero, the little boy spins lie after lie and winds up making things a lot worse than they ever needed to be.
The Fallen Idol took me completely be surprise as it seems to be engaged in a very similar exercise to that pursued by Charles Laughton in his classic The Night of The Hunter. However, while Laughton re-constructed the children’s vision of ‘reality’ as filtered through fairy tales, Reed allows the various interpretations of reality to co-exist and sit atop a ‘reality’ that is accessible to the audience but not the characters. This idea of conflicting ‘realities’ battling for dominance is also picked up in the form of characters speaking either figuratively or literally in different languages meaning that even relatively coherent conversations can be engines of disagreement and confusion. The Fallen Idol is a film in which people are forever talking despite being unable to understand each other.
FilmJuice have published a lengthy piece written in celebration of the recent re-release of Charles Laughton’s legendary Night of the Hunter.
This piece was a real joy as it gave me an excuse to not only rewatch the film for the first time in a while, but also to do some research into Laughton’s life and refamiliarise myself with some of the better works of German Expressionist cinema. I wrote quite a lengthy piece about German Expressionism for Videovista a few years but my understanding of that particular cinematic milieu has solidified somewhat and hooked up with some much larger thoughts I’ve been having about the relationship between psychological realism and fantasy in the psychological thriller genre. In my original Videovista article, I spoke about Expressionism in terms of:
Expressionism emerged as a reaction to impressionism. Impressionism, as practised by the artists Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir attempted to break down the boundaries between subject and background in order to produce paintings that were almost like snapshots: images that were exacting reflections of the world itself. Expressionism reacted against impressionism by rejecting the call to represent the world ‘as it is’. Instead, expressionists favoured representations of the world that ‘expressed’ the artists’ attitudes towards the subject matter. They did not reflect the world, they abstracted from it. A key work in the development of expressionism is Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream (1893), in which the insane flowing colours of the background, the pale featureless visage of the screamer and the dark figures in the background express not merely a person screaming but rather a state of inner turmoil, paranoia, alienation and insanity.
Now I say far more straightforwardly:
The most influential work of German Expressionist cinema is undoubtedly The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Told entirely in flashback by a man who turns out to be an inmate in an insane asylum, Robert Wiene’s film is a hypnotic mess of light, shadow and unsettling angles. Too fantastical to be real and yet too raw to be fictitious, Caligari’s story of love, murder and sinister sleepwalkers is best understood as an emotional landscape, a realistic portrayal of what the real world feels like to the person telling the story. The light and darkness of Caligari’s world are absolute because they are absolute in the mind of the madman just as they might be in the mind of a child. This is the exact same idea that lurks behind the myriad eccentricities of Laughton’s Night of the Hunter.
Rather than seeing the film through the gauze of southern gothic, I view it as a quite explicitly psychological piece: The fantastical nature of many sequences and effects are not reflections of a world that is in itself fantastical but rather a reflection of how that world feels to the children and how children (and everyone else for that matter) use the culture they have consumed in order to make sense of the world around them. It is only natural that the world should resemble a fairy tale when the only time you have heard of evil priests and murderous ogres is in the pages of just such a children’s story. Far from being limited to the children’s worldview, Night of the Hunter occasionally switches to other worldviews such as those of the mother, a friendly drunk and a horny teenaged girl. This is a film that not only reaches back to a cinematic vocabulary that was largely unknown to 1950s American audiences, it also takes those Expressionistic techniques and takes them to the next level. Night of the Hunter is a film that is literally decades ahead of its time.