film

Famous Filmmakers’ Firsts: Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Ivan’s Childhood” (1962)

*This film came out in 1962, so obviously, spoilers will be involved in this review*

Written by Mikhail Papava and directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, “Ivan’s Childhood” is an adaption of Vladimir Bogomolov’s 1957 short story “Ivan” which follows an orphaned twelve year old Russian boy that scouts for the Russian Army on the front lines of the German invasion. This is the most straightforward narrative I’ve seen from Tarkovsky as I haphazardly serpentine through his filmography, it’s also one of his shorter films coming in at a brisk hour and thirty-four minutes. From the beginning dream sequence Tarkovsky is already playing with the surreal nature of dreams that would later become a pillar of his stylistic choices in his grander and more iconic films like “Stalker” and “The Mirror”. In it Ivan, ‘the carefree child’ (Nikolai Burlyaev), observes a spiderweb on a tree branch and a butterfly taking flight, after which he too soars through the air laughing, full of wonder. It doesn’t last long however and we’re soon introduced to Ivan ‘the soldier’ in a violent awakening. He’d been camped out in a dark and decaying windmill and soon wades through a murky swamp shrouded by trees and flares in the distance. The title credits begin to roll and the brooding bleak mood of the film sets in.

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Tarkovsky’s first film steeps us in the director’s philosophy of nature being a respite from the burdens of reality, and his utter despise of war- which is why he pursued the idea of having a war film seen through the eyes of a child, as it was the furthest juxtaposition from war. Ivan makes his way into the Russian military encampment and demands to make contact with high ranking officials. The Lieutenant there, Galtsev (Evgeny Zharikov)- himself a young man no older than twenty-five, makes the call despite his suspicions. Lt. Col. Gryaznov (Nikolai Grinko) answers and corroborates Ivan’s story. The boy had been a scout for their military on an earlier mission across the river and behind enemy lines. From there the film follows Ivan’s determined quest for revenge, refusing to be shipped off to military school or a children’s home, making extra work for the officers taking care of him- though they do genuinely seem to admire the boy.

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The story also follows a romantic side plot involving a love-triangle of sorts. Galtsev seems to have an unspoken admiration for one of the female military nurses, Masha (Valentina Malyavina). Captain Kholin (Valentin Zubkov) also takes a liking to the quietly defiant field nurse and aggressively pursues her in the birch-wood forest. I was wary of this scene as it was happening, fearing a rape scenario, but luckily it never goes that far. We get the infamous image of Capt. Kholin holding Masha over a trench and kissing her as she reluctantly goes along, but I believe this is simply a case where the scene at hand just hasn’t aged very well, though it doesn’t appear to have malevolent intent as initially assumed. It is, simply put, a product of it’s time.

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The most fascinating aspects of the film for me though are Ivan’s dream sequences. There are four in the film, the opening scene with the butterfly being the first. The next dream sequence comes after Ivan has met Galtsev, been washed and fed, and finally when he can no longer stay conscious enough to keep up his tough guy bravado he falls into a slumber in which we get a brief look into his core philosophy of being. In it the camera flows freely, which is already a visual indicator that we’re in dream territory as the camera is always poised and precise when Ivan is awake. It floats along to a fire of white birch wood before panning back to a bucket near Ivan’s hand laying off the bed as water drips on it. This provokes the camera to tilt upward as if he were at the bottom of a well. Ivan then reappears with his mother, peering over the edge from above and Ivan’s mother tells him something along the lines of “The brightest stars shine best in the blackest of nights.” Ivan tries to reach into the water’s reflection to grab the star and then, after a cut, lies at the bottom of the well again. We quickly see a bucket fall down towards Ivan as he screams for his mother but before we see the bucket fall into the water we cut again to see his mother’s dead body next to the well being splashed with the water from the bottom of the well. This scene is the epitome of why I am fascinated with Tarkovsky’s films. How he uses space and dream logic is endlessly fascinating to me. Reality becomes distorted and spatial relationships are in a state of confusion. Yet all while we’re getting pertinent character information about Ivan and why he is so motivated get revenge.

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The third scene, which is possibly the most strange, depicts Ivan and his sister riding upon a cart filled with apples in a pouring thunderstorm. Here Ivan smiles, he only does this in his dreams, while being surrounded by an abundance of food and family. We see what feels like a camera pan past his sister’s face three times, but only she is moving from right to left within the frame, and she’s completely dry (even in the rain) the third time she passes by. The dream ends as the cart continues to ride off the path and onto a beach leaving a trail of apples. The camera slows and lets the cart fade away as we focus on wild horses feasting on the spilled fruit in the foreground. The final dream sequence connects all to the three previous ones all while poetically reinforcing the idea that Ivan never had a real childhood during his life, it only existed in his dreams. After the audience learns that Ivan’s final mission scouting across the river with Galtsev and Kohlin ended with his death, the dream sequence gives us an abstract and symbolic send off. I believe this scene begins from Galtsev’s perspective during his frantic retrieval of Ivan’s death documents when raiding a German stronghold in Berlin after the fall of the third Reich months later. After he discovers that Ivan had been captured and hung Galtsev runs to another room where he sees wire nooses hung from railings and the camera begins to spin out of control and we see Ivan’s, presumed, dead body rolling along the floor before a hard cut. From a low angle we see Ivan’s mother smiling down at him and he smiles back, now on the beach from the third dream. He rises, shirtless and drinking from the bucket in the second dream, as his mother picks up the bucket and walking back into the water as she waves goodbye to him. Ivan then goes and plays with other children on the beach, it looks like a game of hide-and-go-seek, and he goes to a lone burnt, dead, tree standing in the sand and counts as the other children leave the frame. Even the tree bookends the film visually from the opening dream sequence. When Ivan returns he only finds his sister, and the remainder of the scene is the two of them running wildly into the shallow waters of the ocean laughing heartily- before a hard cut to black ending the film.

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This film was the beginning of Tarkovsky’s film career, and in it you can see the rumblings of a unique cinematic voice forming. While the plot and action of the film are thinner and slower than most, this movie is a good indicator for whether or not you will enjoy the infamous Russian filmmaker’s style. If the abstract sequences turned you off from the story the film was telling, then I must say, you probably won’t enjoy his later works. I approach Tarkovsky’s films with the same mentality that I bring into museums. His films seem to be more akin to seeing visually arresting artwork that plays with the fabric of reality and bends it to whichever way the story feels it should take. It is more about the mood that the images evoke from you than the initial meaning of each scene or the momentum of the story beats.

Final Score: 4 dreams and 1 war

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film

Famous Filmmaker’s Firsts: David Lynch’s “Eraserhead”

Written and directed by David Lynch in 1977, “Eraserhead” is Lynch’s first feature length film. “Eraserhead” is a surrealist, black comedy with a tinge of horror. Although, this may be one of the most interpretive movies when it comes to understanding the meaning or intentions behind the film, and Lynch has said as much before. When asked about why the film still resonates years past it’s time in a 2014 interview with Vulture Lynch replied, “Well, you know, it’s difficult to say. I always say the same thing: Every viewer is different. People go into a world and they have an experience, and they bring so much of what makes them react, it’s already inside of them. Each viewer gets a different thing from every film. So there are some people where Eraserhead speaks to them, and others it doesn’t speak to them at all. It’s just the way it goes.” So, there are the obvious things that you can pluck from an initial viewing of the film, Henry (Jack Nance) is a man who is flung into fatherhood and marriage when he is clearly not ready or able. His fear and anxiety surrounding the subject permeate most of what we see, although we see a lot of strange imagery throughout the film. The basic plot of the film is that we follow Henry as he encounters women, family, fatherhood, fear, and despair.

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Though diving into what the film really means might not be the best way to provide fruitful discussion of the film. With David Lynch’s movies I’ve come to find that his style relies more on the feeling of the art, not the details or specifics of the story at hand. This film in particular seems to be mostly concerned with a general sensation of anxiety. The score and sound design are the most constant factors of this, each scene has various noises gurgling in the background while steam and exhaust bellow from unseen sources. In fact the whole world of “Eraserhead” seems to be structured that way. It is a largely industrial and urbanized setting with families squeezed into small and cramped apartments that all look in need of some repairs. Henry’s one room apartment is oddly stranger as he has a pile of dirt with a small tree growing out of it on his nightstand and a window that only shows a stark brick wall looking back.

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As far as the performances go, they are definitely in line with much of Lynch’s work. Actors are either solemn and blank save for a few expressions or they are completely the opposite and only exhibit high level emotion in bursts and spats at awkward intervals. While visiting his girlfriend Mary’s (Charlotte Stewart) family for dinner her parents exhibit a very vocal and intrusive display. While her father (Allen Joseph) goes on a deluge of his past work as a plumber putting in all the pipes in the area, Mary’s mother (Jeanne Bates) confronts Henry about his sexual encounters with Mary which resulted in a baby-well- even the characters aren’t sure that it is a baby, but nonetheless they know that he is the father. This all takes place while a dog laying in the living room is feeding a horde of constantly mewling puppies nearly overwhelming the motherly animal.

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The rest of the film is left to Henry after Mary leaves in frustration at the loudly crying baby-like creature in his small and dark apartment. After that the film dives even further into the dream logic of the world in which Henry sees a strange woman in the radiator dancing on a stage singing and squashing little sperm-resembling creatures. Trust me, it only gets weirder from there. I found this film to be worth a watch, it’s definitely unique, but far from my favorite of Lynch’s library of films and “Twin Peaks”. The surreal nature of some scenes and the world building are what drew me into this film. It’s nice to know that there are creators out there willing to push the boundary and create whatever and however they can. “Eraserhead” is certainly not for everyone, but give it a shot-you never know when you may find a new favorite film.

Final Score: 1 Man and 1 Disgusting Baby Creature from the Black Lagoon

*Check out these videos posted below; re:View from Red Letter Media and Renegade Cut both host interesting discussions on the film. There’s also the interview that Vulture did with David Lynch in 2014 if you’re interested, enjoy!

Sources:

http://www.vulture.com/2014/09/david-lynch-interview-eraserhead-midnight-movies.html