Sunday 15 September 2013

Doctor Zhivago (1965)

I was expecting to write about how 'Doctor Zhivago' is a film that, though I respect as great, well-made and technically excellent, I don't like at all, and find intolerable to watch.  Disconcertingly, though, watching it for a third time, I found myself enjoying it tremendously, not irritated by the wet passivity of the eponymous poet, not wearied by the tragedy, but interested and engaged.

What had gone wrong this time, or right this time and wrong before?  Perhaps, because I now knew the order of events, I knew what I was meant to care about - or perhaps Yuri Zhivago irritated me less this year because, since seeing it last, I had a lodger, a scientist from Dijon, who strongly resembled Omar Sharif's bright-eyed, moustached humanist, meaning I find the character more familiar and sympathetic than I did before.  I'm disinclined to suggest that this is a case of my tastes maturing in the last five years, as that would seem an insult to my younger self, who I believe found legitimate reasons to dislike the film back in 2007 and 8 - and might imply that I'm now more inclined to accept the boring.  No, I wonder whether the real reason for my turnaround is that we are now living in revolutionary times.

Zhivago, after the revolution
Before I get to that, let me praise the film for a moment.  Like 'Bridge on the River Kwai', this is a film by David Lean (this time adapting the work, and to an extent the life and the funeral, of Boris Pasternak), and there's good reason Lean is so well-regarded, and is the favourite director of another erstwhile housemate of mine.  His 'Doctor Zhivago' is exceptionally well directed - and I know I've been saying that about a lot of films without really explaining what can be an empty phrase, so on this occasion I'll try to explain what I mean: Lean presents a convincingly freezing Russia, and makes good use of quick cuts and transitions, sudden jumps through actions or conversations, to give us what we need to see but suggest a story in which everything takes even longer than this long film can put on screen.  He makes fine use of a limited palette of black, white and brown, with occasional red for the Bolshevists and big yellow flowers in the spring.

His images are striking and his camerawork inventive, sometimes moving through the dark to peer through different ice-covered windows, sometimes following in characters' drafts, making their way through dense crowds or packed rooms where there hardly seems space for a camera.  My favourite moment in the film comes straight after the intermission and entr'acte - the screen is entirely black, but not empty.  There's the sound of a steam-train, and after almost a minute a pinprick of light appears in the centre of the screen, and grows, until we realise our camera is mounted on the front of the train, and we've been watching a journey through a long, dark tunnel.  This isn't just a lot of fancy technique, indeed a lot of it is subtle unless one is watching for it - but it builds a real epic, lives fuller and more complex than we see on screen and a huge and deeply troubled Russia in need of a revolution, and then suffering from it.  The way the film is made, and the story told, raises questions: there is something fascinatingly odd about the meeting between the two Zhivagos, Yuri (Omar Sharif), the doctor and poet, and Yevgraf (Alec Guinness), his half-brother, the secret policeman, who bookends and narrates the film.  On the one occasion they meet, we never see Guinness speak to his brother.  His side of the conversation is carried entirely through narration in the past tense, leaving the two terribly distant even in their one happy union.

Says Klaus Kinski: "I am the only free man on this train.
The rest of you are cattle!"
This the second Russian Revolution film I've watched for The Penciltonian.  The first was 'Battleship Potemkin' (1925), which had the merit of actually being Russian.  That film was a work of propaganda, so presented the revolution with great optimism.  Perhaps rightly so, as change was surely needed, and the men well motivated, but 'Doctor Zhivago' gives us the unpleasant 'what happened next', and even the unpleasant 'what happened during'.  It starts with peaceful protests, but our media often tells us how unsuccessful those are, and what tends to happen to innocent protestors.  Alas, it seems the police will always put down peaceful protest, as is memorably the case here, and as they did in New York and other cities two years back, tearing down the Occupy camps, and in many cases exceeding their jurisdiction, and that of any human being.

'Der Baader-Meinhof Komplex' (2008) made a convincing case that peaceful protests are always punished and never achieve their aims, and that violent action and domestic terrorism are the only ways one can really highlight injustices and strike against their causes.  They're extreme and unpleasant techniques, but it may explain why peaceful protests, where they don't peter out and fail, tend to grow into the kind of revolution we see here.  As the film shows us, the Russian Revolution wasn't clean and wasn't very successful.  The old order was certainly overthrown - and eventually we'll get to 'Nicholas and Alexandra' (1971) for the Tsar's sorry side of the story - but despite the change of regime, the social injustices stayed, or got far worse.  It's the same story of hopeful revolutions gone bad that we see in Iran in 'Persepolis' (2007) or in England in 'Winstanley' (1975).  Watching this as the story of a troubled Russia, rather than simply that of a mild-mannered medic, made the story come alive for me on this viewing.  This isn't merely a tragic romance, though it certainly is that - it's the story of revolutionary times, such as the world is experiencing today.  They're terrible times, where hope is trodden down in the name of progress, or else survives to blossom into something yet uglier.

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