Viy for Victory

I’ve been in a state of sleep-deprivation-induced delirium for a couple of weeks now, an unending surrealist haze, and so I decided to pay a visit to one of the nutty dream-like movies that most closely approximates this state of mind–the wonderfully structured horror-comedy Viy!

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Film Comment Selects 2012

The 12th edition of Film Comment Selects concluded this past week at Lincoln Center, having screened 32 films from all over the cultural map. The stoned dropout to the New York Film Festival’s Ivy League grad, the films chosen by Film Comment magazine’s editorial staff tend towards the spectacular and the underground, and occasionally underground spectaculars. Plucking from the festival scene (Hirokazu Kore-eda’s I Wish), genre titles (Alexander Zeldovich’s Target) and experimental multi-projection performances (J. Hoberman’s Land Passion War of the Dead Christ Worlds), it has something for everyone. That is, if everyone was a creepy cinephile shut-in.

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Tarkovsky Time: Geoff Dyer’s ZONA

Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979) is the latest beneficiary of Geoff Dyer’s cultural immersion method. Zona, which comes out today from Pantheon Books, is a pellucid scene-by-scene ramble through Tarkovsky’s sci-fi head trip, alive to the film’s textures as much as its ideas.  In his non-fiction works, Dyer is a dilettante angling for expertise, his books (whether on jazz, photography, or WWI) documents of an enlightenment-in-progress. Like a student prone to daydreaming, Dyer often strays off-topic, doodling in the corners of his notebook, not Van Halen logos, but on his susceptibility to boredom, how his wife looks like Natasha McElhone in the Solaris remake, or simply on his love of knapsacks. These detours are maddening and lovely, bracing returns to everyday neuroses in the midst of high-minded esthetic ruminations. It’s this whiplash between objective and subjective modes, from high to low (he’ll go from quoting William James to thoughts on three-ways), that makes his work so addictive.   The pleasure of Zona lies in Dyer’s method, in its constant sense of discovery, as if he had just stumbled out of a screening and was sharing his thoughts with you after a beer or three.

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“And 5000 Others!”, including Maria Ouspenskaya

5k
As TCM winds down a month featuring one of the greatest character actors who ever stole a picture, (Claude Rains, the September Star of the Month),  my appetite for  character actors in the spotlight has been whetted. Partly in response to repeated requests from those interested readers who frequent these pages, I thought a deserving glimpse of more supporting players might enliven the month of October. Each week this month, I’ll focus one of those actors who may not have been the stars of the show, but whose work invariably stood out from the crowd of “5000 others”. This week, I thought I’d tip my hat toward at least one of the gifted Russian émigrés who trained at the Moscow Art Theatre.

Maria Ouspenskaya, whose talent came out of that creative seedbed for some of the finest actors and boldest hams, stands out among them, despite being under five feet tall. Many of her colleagues lent their credibility and indelible gifts to Hollywood, but she may be the most readily identifiable of the bunch. While hightailing it away from the Cossacks, the Whites, the Reds, the Mensheviks, the Bolsheviks, the anarchists and the fascists who made life a bit too “interesting” in the first half of the 20th century from Siberia to the shores of Ellis Island, several of these actors found a pretty fair living in Hollywood, among them Akim Tamiroff, Olga Baclanova, Vladimir Sokoloff, Leonid Kinskey and Konstantin Shayne. They may never have felt completely at home in what sometimes seemed the Babylonian splendor of “barbaric” American culture in the studio era. Cut off from their cultural roots and often having lost their families and nearly their lives during the revolutionary times they lived in, these actors often proved their strength of character and professional versatility when asked to play characters of almost every class and ethnicity in American movies.

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Who the Heck Was Slavko Vorkapich?

A still from the opening montage in "Crime Without Passion" 1934

Think of a montage in a classic movie.  Are you picturing falling calendar pages, or swirling newspaper headlines spinning toward the camera lens, stock market crashes, the outbreak of wars or the mounting hysteria of an anonymous crowd evolving into a mob?

Perhaps we’ve seen them so many times, we are no longer conscious that these sequences in familiar movies were often composed with such artistry by unseen hands. Yet, if you are an inveterate credit reader of classic films, one of the creative individuals who developed these artful transitions had what is still an unjustly unfamiliar name to many of us.

Even if the name of Slavko Vorkapich (1894-1976) fails to ring a bell, you definitely know his work, especially if you happened to catch Wednesday evening’s broadcast of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939-Frank Capra) on TCM. In a matter of moments, a lively montage unfolded in that film, telescoping the overwhelmingly heady experience of Jimmy Stewart‘s impressions of the nation’s capitol as he went on a whirlwind travelogue of the sights, ending at one of the most moving, the Lincoln Memorial. Bursting with movement and rapid visual imagery, the sequence conveys the naive Stewart‘s ebullience, awe and sense of freedom once he eludes his handlers, (led by the inimitable froggy-voiced Eugene Pallette).

That was just one example of Vorkapich‘s remarkable ability to goose the story of just about any film using a visual shorthand blending wipes, dissolves, flip-flops, and super-impositions to summarize and punctuate events during films, especially in the period from the 1920s to the 1940s.
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Lyubov Orlova: The First Lady of Soviet Cinema

lyubov13For my day job, I work for Facets Multi-Media in Chicago, which prides itself on bringing foreign, independent, and classic films to the public by selling or renting them on DVD or by exhibiting them in a small theater. Our fabulous programmer Charles Coleman knows more about contemporary foreign cinema than almost anyone, and he has booked some very interesting films into the theater throughout the years. For a change of pace, he has booked a series of Russian films from the 1930s that feature the Soviet Union’s most famous movie star, Lyubov Orlova. Incredibly popular during the 1930s and 1940s, Orlova specialized in musical comedies that were patterned after Hollywood musicals of the day. Though you can easily see the similarities between old Warner Bros. musicals and their Russian counterparts, the latter are definitely in a league of their own.    [...MORE]

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