Andrei Rublev

At 3 hours 25 minutes long, Andrei Tarkovsky’s (The Passion of) Andrei Rublev is a challenging movie with a narrative structure that’s as far from a Hollywood film as can be. I don’t think I’d say I liked the film, but I will say it impressed me and challenged me. I found it powerful and challenging.

Divided into eight parts, Andrei Rublev sheds light, rather than chronicles as biopics usually do, on the foremost Medieval Russian icon painter. First we see a prologue when a 15th century Russian peasant struggles to fly in a hot air balloon. He’s a true explorer, a risk taker, a visionary. Yet his experiment takes strength and sweat to get off the ground. A mob of peasants curses this endeavor and tries to thwart it by fighting with the ballooner’s assistants who’re steadying the ropes holding the balloon and then trying to blind an assistant by assaulting him with a firebrand into “his mug.” (Thankfully, that took place off camera.)

Yet where was Rublev? Not in the prologue. In fact there are long sequences when we don’t see the painter/monk much or even at all. Tarkovsky preferred poetry and themes to plot points and explication. That’s what makes him interesting and also hard to follow. I’m used to directors who spell things out so at the beginning I was especially unmoored.

Rublev lived in a tough time. His times had Tatar and Slavic marauders were a threat. Poverty and famine were too. On top of this, the pensive Rublev was plagued with big theological questions and the question of pure art. Nothing was easy. His fellow monks and disciples/apprentices questioned him and rebelled. His mentor challenged his motives and ideas. The Tsar would have your head if the commission wasn’t done. Nothing was easy.

The film is a marathon and I admit I watched this 3 hour 25 minute film in chunks over a course of days. It drained me, but that was okay as the masterful cinematography and this look at a time in history was fresh for me. While Andrei Rublev doesn’t purport to be a biography or historical film, since much of the story is fiction, it did rid me of any stereotypes. For example there’s a peasant girl who is rescued by Rublev, but when she meets the marauding Tatars and one of them want to take her to be wife #7 or 8, this simple Russian girl is willing to up and leave with the tribe that teases her. Rublev tries to save her, but she won’t have it. No, she wants to go off with the Tatars who treat her like a toy. Huh. You just wouldn’t see that in most films.

The film ends with a sequence of scenes where a boy*, whose homeland is a wasteland and whose family — parents, sister, uncles, aunts, etc — have died from the plague, convinces the monks that his father passed on the secret to bell making. He can cast the church bell the Grand Prince wants. It’s a testament to filmmaking that I found the mission of casting a bell so fascinating. It helped that the mission was a life or death endeavor. The prince made it clear that if the bell didn’t ring, the boy would be beheaded.

*The boy in this sequence was played by the same actor who starred in Ivan’s Childhood.

If you’re up for a big challenge, do watch Andrei Rublev. Know that you’re in for a beautiful film, but it’s long and somewhat confusing. If you aren’t, well this week I’m taking it easy with an old W.C. Fields film and that might be the way you’d like to go.

By the way,

  • You can find a detailed description of the plot on Wikipedia;
  • I found the commentary after I saw the film and wished I had watched with that turned on;
  • The film, as you might imagine, was banned in Russia for a number of years. It was shown in France and had to be shown outside the Cannes Competition at 4am.
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Les Misérables, Episode 5

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While I like Les Misérables, and the novel’s one of my favorite books, there’s some je nes sais quoi aspect that is missing in this production. Perhaps I can’t help but compare a Les Misérables production to the musical, but then why am I completely satisfied with the classics with Michel Simon and Jean Gabin? I watched them after reading the book or seeing the musical and was swept up by the stories. With this version, I’m a bit detached.

This week resumes with Cosette pining for Marius, who’s rather mopey in my opinion. Marius’ friends led by Enjolras decide to seize the moment of General LaMarque’s funeral to start a revolution that will bring about the social change they seek, i.e. better treatment for the poor. Marius is teased for being so in love that he can’t focus on a revolution.

The penniless Marius decides to eat crow and visit his awful grandfather to ask permission to marry. The old man scoffs and just suggests Marius put the girl gramps believes is a pauper up in an apartment and amuse himself till it’s time to marry for status and wealth. Gramps is simply advising Marius to do what he did. To his credit, Marius is appalled and vows to never cross the threshold of his grandfather’s mansion.

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After escaping from jail, Éponine finds Marius and promises to give Cosette a letter from him. Though she’s in love with Marius, she’s willing to aid his love for her rival. She confronts her evil, abusive father in her efforts and while for a time hides Cosette’s new address she eventually tells Marius all and even sacrifices her life for him. The problem with this production was that the love Éponine shows looks so thin. I wondered why she died so Marius, who’s a bit of a wet noodle, could live.

The funeral procession seemed less epic, and probably more authentic, than in the musical. All hell does break loose, but this rush to the barricades didn’t have the impact on me as a viewer as other productions did.

Javert continues to obsessively want to capture Jean Valjean more than he wants to quell a rebellion. This time I wanted a colleague or superior to knock him over the head or ship him off to an asylum.

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Jean Valjean fears Thenardiér and the police and plans to leave France after a few days at a new secret apartment. In addition to retrieving the fortune he’s stashed in the woods, he has to deal with Cosette’s teenage rebellion. Like all her age, she can’t see that her love isn’t quite as important as saving her adopted father’s life. Well, it’s almost excusable as she’s not fully aware of Jean Valjean’s situation. But she does know enough. She’s the one who cleaned his wounds after his fight with Thenardiér’s thugs. He has told her he was in prison. She must remember how he saved her from abuse and neglect.

The episode takes us up to Jean Valjean arriving at the barricade. He’s finally discovered Cosette’s secret romance and selflessly goes to help Marius.

For the most part, Masterpiece has followed Hugo’s story, but as I said something’s missing. Je souhaite que je nouveau quoi.

Flambards

flambardsLast week I watched an old favorite, Flambards, a British historical drama set in 1910. I first saw this 1979 program in the 80’s and I wondered whether it was available on DVD. Thankfully through my library’s network, I could get them.

In this post-Downton Abbey or Poldark era, I thought perhaps I wouldn’t like Flambards as much as I remembered. While the film seems fuzzy and the sets aren’t as dazzling, I love this program.

Flambards begins with Christina, an orphan who’s been shuffled from aunt to aunt, comes to her uncle’s home. Confined to a wheelchair, Uncle Russell is gruff on a good day. He wakes up and goes to bed barking orders. The rest of the day he’s usually shouting or plotting while drinking port.

When Christina arrives in town, no one’s there to pick her up at the train. Only her cousin William remembered she was coming. Will and Christina are kindred spirits, but Mark, Will’s older brother, is an egotistical, status-conscious, hard drinking churl. Christina’s horrified to learn that the plan is that when she turns 21 in six years, she’s to inherit her money and would then marry Mark so her money may be used to prop up the Flambards estate.

A major conflict in the story is between Mark, the churl, who lives for fox hunting and drinking, and William, the younger brother, who’s fascinated by flying machines, and all things modern. Christina feels both challenged and safe around William, whereas Mark frustrates and maddens her.

Another crucial character is Dick, a stable worker, who teaches Christina to ride. He’s sweet on her, but well aware of his place. Christiana treats Dick as an equal forgetting the class difference. Will tries to get Dick to stop calling him “sir” because he doesn’t support the rigid class structure, but Will sees that such a gesture doesn’t really change anything. After helping Christiana save her old horse from getting eaten by the hounds, Will’s dismissed. The injustice is clear and swift. Though Christina owns up to her part, i.e. she came up with the plan and participated in it as much as Will or Dick, Dick is the online to pay a price. We see how cruel men like Uncle Russel could be, how they used their power.

Flambards has romance, history and conflict, i.e. all the ingredients I need in a good drama. Based on a novel by K.M. Peyton, Flambards is an ideal candidate for a remake. It worked for Poldark, for which next season is its last. The same writer should take on Flambards.

Look – I think you can watch Flambards here.

 

 

Victoria, A Public Inconvenience

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This was the penultimate episode of Season 3. I’m not ready for this season to end.

This week the thread that captured my interest the most was between Sophie, her lover the footman Joseph and her mean husband. The husband suspects she’s being unfaithful and has paid Mr. Penge, the palace butler to spy for him. Before Sophie knows her husband knows, Joseph proposes that they run off to America. He believes he can make it big in the New World, where he wouldn’t have to hide his relationship and he wouldn’t have to deal with Mr. Penge. Sophie can’t commit. She has a son and fears losing him.

In the meantime, Sophie’s husband plots. To be cuckolded is the ultimate humiliation for a man like the Duke. By the end of the episode, he’s tricked Sophie and has gotten two doctors to commit her to an insane asylum. We don’t see the actual asylum, but I’ve seen One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and figure a 19th century mental hospital was much worse than a 20th century one. I don’t envy Sophie and wonder what Victoria will do when she learns her confidante has been committed.

My 2¢ – It’s too late now but I think Sophie should have grabbed some of her jewelry and run off to America with Joseph. He would treat her well. Perhaps she could kidnap her son. Now she may be in some dungeon never to see the light of day. She knew her husband is diabolical. Sophie’s story does show that although Albert and Victoria are in a rough patch, it’s just that, a patch that won’t last forever.

While Sophie’s freedom is on the line, there was other drama in the palace. Victoria and Albert have a lot of conflict that they haven’t been able to deal with. Victoria has a keen sense of distance from the prince, though it seems to me that Albert cares so much about being right and logical that he doesn’t see how he should distance himself from Feodora and be less judgmental towards Victoria. She doesn’t need to be reminded that she’s not as logical as he is.

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Albert is enamored with the idea of hosting a Great Exhibition, which would feature developments in science and technology from countries all over the world. Originally, the idea was a smaller exhibit of British advances. Many are skeptical, but Albert won’t be dissuaded even though he can’t find an architect who can come up with a suitable plan for a hall that meets all the specifications.

When the Duke of Wellington announces his retirement, Victoria thinks that if he gives Albert he job of Commander in Chief, he’ll give up on the crazy idea of the Great Exhibition. He won’t. This is Albert’s new obsession.

Lord Palmerston gets in hot water by going to far in handling the Don Pacifico Affair, when a British citizen was attacked by anti-Semites in Greece where he lives.  Without realizing it, Victoria trusted Palmerston to resolve the matter without military intervention, however, Palmerston interpreted Victoria’s response to be that he had carte blanche. Luckily, military action was averted.

Victoria realized that she needed to do something about Feodora. I hoped she’d send her half-sister home to Germany. Instead Victoria decided to encourage Feodora to bring her teenage daughter to London. Near the end of episode, Heidi arrives. When she meets Alice and Bertie, she behaves like she won’t be the easiest guest. I think she may be a lot like her mother, but time will tell.

Everything is lined up in the plot to ensure a riveting finale last week. We’ll see the Crystal Palace of the Great Exhibition. We’ll learn what becomes of poor Sophie. There must be a reason Uncle Leopold returned and Feodora always has something up her sleeve. I expect first class television.

 

 

The Idiot

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Ayako and Kameda, the Idiot

Kurosawa’s adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot blew me away with its depth and complexity of emotion. Many years ago I saw David Schwimmer in the lead role in the play at The Lookingglass Theater. That adaptation left me cold. I still recall how bored my friend and I were. In spite of this bad experience I was curious what Kurosawa might do with the story.

In a nutshell, The Idiot is about Kameda, a man who due to an injury during the war is rendered an idiot. His particular cognitive “deficiency” is that he’s somewhat mentally slower and also sees the worth of every person and thus loves every individual. When he returns from the war to Hokkaido, he stays with a family and the feisty daughter Ayako, against all her wished, falls for him.

In the same home is another boarder, Mr. Kayama who though he loves Ayako, has agreed to marry a kept woman famous for her beauty, Taeko, for 600,000 yen. Taeko’s photo is up at the train station and when Kameda and Akama, another man returning to the city, see it they’re swept off their feet. Taeko and Ayako both despise Kayama for valuing money over love.

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Both Taeko and Ayako fall for the idiot, Kameda, because he’s the only person in the story who’s honest. No one has met such an honest, perceptive person. Although these women are at their most genuine when they’re with Kameda, you know that they’ll corrupt him and that no healthy relationship is available for him. Still Kameda is thrust into a confusing web between these women, his friend Kayama, Ayako’s parents and Akama. While the film has several grasping, selfish characters, we see that they’re grasping at a virtue that they value but will also corrupt. There are no villains, just people who can’t make up their minds and whose indecision and schemes are lethal.

The Japanese actors, all Kurosawa regulars, were masters of emotion which this story requires. It’s a long film at almost three hours (cut down from over four), but Kurosawa kept me interested.

Jane Eyre

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Hurry! You’ve got one last chance to see Jane Eyre at Northwestern University’s art center this weekend. I went last Saturday and was blown away with this production. Northwestern University is famous for its theater majors including Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Charlton Heston,  David Schwimmer, Shelley Long, and more.  Thus its no surprise that the plays they put on are top notch.

In this story of orphan Jane’s hard life, the Northwestern students’ acting was, as usual, superb. The woman who played Jane was outstanding. Her voice was lovely. I’d list the names but the program didn’t print the names of actors’ ‘with their character’s name. every cast member was spot on.

I read the novel Jane Eyre a long time ago, but remember the general plot. This production used Polly Teal’s adaptation, which is a little confusing because at the start of the play Jane is reading to a woman who appears to be mad. She represents Jane’s wilder side, but then the same woman is Rochester’s mad wife. I think if I hadn’t known anything about the story, I’d have been thrown by that part of the plot.

The simple set design was sparse but set the right tone of 19th century elegance. For the attic where the madwoman was locked up, there was a platform with one lone chair which could be lowered and raised. This was a genius way to show the attic and how the madwoman haunted life in the mansion.

I love how easy and affordable plays at Northwestern are. Parking’s a breeze and it’s close to home. Tickets don’t cost an arm and a leg.

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Poldark, Season 4, Episode 1 & 2

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Poldark, Season 4 started with two strong episodes, one last night and the other the Sunday before. The first episode showed Hugh Armitage still pining for Demelza and penning pretty poetry for her. It’s appealing, but Demelza stays on the edge of fidelity for Ross. Hugh’s health is deteriorating and wants Demelza by his side, which concerns Ross, but the situation leads to some impeccably written and acted scenes that portrayed a tough aspect of marriage.

Politically, George’s use of power is dangerous. Ross sees how his backing away from taking a seat in Parliament has made for injustice. In episode 1, in an uprising at the port, where the hungry, were protesting, Demelza’s two brothers are erroneously arrested along with Zacky Martin’s son Jago, who was fit to be tied at the injustice. Jago, a hothead, accidentally kills a merchant. All three are arrested.

Hugh Armitage, dashing and poetic, continues to woo Demelza, though Dwight advises him not to. Hugh is going blind and dying so he’s not going to give up on his dream girl. Demelza is flattered. It’s nice to have such devotion when you’re husband takes you for granted.

Ossie’s the same ogre and churl. His mother has come to town and plans to arrange for a governess to put a distance between Morwenna and her son. How much is this poor woman to endure?

The tension grows as Sam, Drake and Jago’s hanging nears. Ross believes it’s best for Demelza to be in the dark so he ships her off to a fancy dinner at Hugh’s uncle’s with Caroline and Dwight.

Ross has a certain deux ex machina charm and convinces the magistrates to spare his brother-in-laws, though Jago is hanged. Yikes! Demelza is reunited with her brothers though she’s unaware of exactly how close they were to hanging.

More good news! Caroline is pregnant!

The premiere drew me in from the start when Aiden Turner emerged bare chested from the ocean. Certainly, the writer and producers wanted all the audience to be rapt from the get-go.

For episode two, visit Armchair Anglophile. I’m too far behind and having trouble with my computer lately, so I suggest you visit Armchair Anglophile for a recap.