Sunday, December 6, 2009

An addition to the pantheon (seriously)

If you have an hour and a half, sit down and watch this movie. I'm not kidding. It is the stunning The Cranes Are Flying (1957), directed by Mikhail Kalazatov and photographed by Sergei Urusevsky, the team the created I Am Cuba . I would place it in my list of the Top 5 movies filmed in black-and-white. (Don't try and nail me down on the others. The Long Voyage Home and Touch of Evil would be in there, for sure.)

If you don't have time to see the whole film, let me point out a few key sequences.

First, starting at about 24:46, the heroine is on a bus to say goodbye to her fiancee, who has volunteered to fight in World War II (in Russia, that was damn near suicidal). We start with her on the bus, then, without any fuss, follow her through the crowd in the street, and suddenly, as she bursts onto a street filled with tanks, the camera cranes up to take in the whole scene. There is no air of "showing off" about this shot--it's just what the story wants.

I also recommend the entire botched leave-taking, in which man and woman never meet. It begins at about 28:25. If Kalazatov had directed Gone With The Wind (and he would have done a hell of a job), it could be taken seriously as a film (David Lean must have been seriously jealous of this sequence).

Next is the death of the young man, Boris, which begins at 50:14. Boris is being sent back from the front to be disciplined for fighting. With him is the man he was fighting with, who Boris has been carrying for a while now. Suddenly, the sniper shot comes. Boris looks up and sees the sky recede. Then the forest begins to swirl before his eyes and the swirl merges with the swirling motion of the camera as he remembers running up the stairs to see his beautiful fiancee. The memory merges into a dream or a wish of a wedding, until Boris finally collapses into the swamp. Here Kalazatov's roots in silent film are evident, as the sequence rivals Murnau.

Finally, at 1:07:56, we see the heroine, filled with shame and regret for marrying the sexy but amoral brother of her fiancee, runs into the street, apparently outruns a train, apparently with the intent of throwing herself under the train in the manner of Anna Karenina, but instead rescuing a toddler who has about to wander into the path of a truck. Here Kalazatov shows himself a worthy son of Eisenstein, the father of Russian cinema. If you have time, stick with it for the darkly humorous scene that follows as a group of women cluck over what to do with this lost child in overlapping and simultaneous dialogue as they loom into the foreground, foreshortened with a short lens and then and just as quickly recede into the background, nearly spinning in hysterics as the heroine quietly bonds with the child.

But these are bravura sequences and do not justly represent the balance, the restraint, the poetry of so much of the staging, photography and acting of this film. It is virtually a perfect romantic melodrama, with a heartstopping tearjerker of a final scene.

Why did our college professors start us on foreign film with the impenetrable Bergman, the surreal Fellini, the languid Satijat Ray? We got the idea of foreign film as hard work. We should have started with The Cranes Are Flying, with a familiar type of story, albeit with deeper resonance and more genuine emotion than in most American commercial films, certainly those of its era, but with a bold and expressive vocabulary that had become dessicated and stultified in the American film factories. Then we would have seen the real kinship among humans that is celebrated and indeed fostered by the best of international film. And the beautiful Tatiana Samoilova would have been a movie star anywhere.

Really, see this movie.

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