When he died in Paris on July 29, 2012, filmmaker Chris Marker left behind more than 60 short films and features, most of which were experimental cinema essays and documentaries. Many were political in nature but he also dabbled in other favorite subjects such as cats (Cat Listening to Music, 1988), Japan (The Koumiko Mystery, 1965) and the contemplation of memory (Immemory, an interactive CD-Rom from 1997). His work rarely found an outlet in commercial cinema venues but was often celebrated at film festivals and archival/repertory mainstays. If his name sounds familiar to you, it is due to his landmark science fiction short, La Jetee (1962), which remains influential today for its innovative approach to visual narrative. What many don’t know, however, is that Marker directed several highly accessible tributes to favorite film figures such as Yves Montand (La Solitude de Chanteur de Fond, 1974), Akira Kurosawa (A.K., 1985) and Simone Signoret (Memoires pour Simone, 1986) and one of his finest achievements is One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich (1987).Continue reading
The image of the starving artist, living in poverty and misunderstood by everyone during his own lifetime, is an age-old cliché but is often based on true accounts. One of the more famous examples is Niko Pirosmanashvili, a self-taught artist from Mirzaani, Georgia, who was not motivated by money or fame but often used his paintings as barter for bed and board. He was born in 1862 and died in Tbilisi, Georgia in 1918 of alcoholism and starvation but his work is now considered part of the Russian avant-garde movement which flourished between 1890 and 1930. Pirosmani, the 1969 film biography by Russian director Giorgi Shengelaia, is an attempt to capture the spirit of the artist’s work without resorting to the usual biopic structure of dramatizing key events or providing any psychological insight into the subject. Instead, Shengelaia presents Pirosmani’s life as a string of episodes that are closer in style to an ethnographic documentary while duplicating some of the artist’s most famous paintings as part of the narrative landscape.Continue reading
Who said Hollywood holds the patent on the disaster film genre? There have been numerous contenders from other countries that are fine specimens of the form such as Submersion of Japan aka Tidal Wave (1973) by director Shiro Moritani, Ian Barry’s doomsday thriller The Chain Reaction (1980) from Australia, and Renzo Martinelli’s Vajont – La Diga del Disonore (2001), based on the 1963 flooding of Longarone, Italy after the collapse of the Vajont Dam. One of my favorites, however, is a variation on 1970’s Airport and its sequels entitled Ekipazh (English title: Air Crew, 1980), directed by Aleksandr Mitta. It was made in the Soviet Union during the final decade before it became the Russian Federation. The film, which is equal parts soap opera, suspense thriller and disaster epic, focuses on three pilots and assorted crew members who embark on a flight to rescue survivors from an earthquake in a mountain mining town.
If you are a dedicated fan of movie musicals, you have probably been tempted to venture beyond the realm of Hollywood’s golden era to explore classic musicals from other countries like France (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, 1964), Germany (The 3 Penny Opera, 1931) or England (Evergreen, 1934). You would certainly have no trouble discovering top rated favorites from India which produces between 1,500 to 2,000 Bollywood movies a year, most of which include at least three to five musical numbers. It might be harder though to dig up a famous film musical from countries as diverse as…say, Sweden, Japan or Egypt…but they definitely exist and there are more than you would think. What you probably haven’t seen is a socialist musical from Russia or any of its satellite countries during the Communist regime. There’s a reason for that. Those films weren’t exported outside Iron Curtain countries during that era but you can experience a highly entertaining sampler of the genre in East Side Story, a documentary on Marxist musicals that premiered in U.S. theaters in 1997.
The exploitation of animals in society and the food industry, in particular, is a problem most consumers don’t want to face or consider but a protest movement against the practice is growing larger every year thanks to hard-hitting documentaries like Myriam Alaux & Victor Schonfeld’s The Animals Film (1981), Shaun Monson’s Earthlings (2005), and Robert Keener’s Food, Inc. (2008) – all of which expose the mass production of animals for food. Tackling the same subject but taking a completely different approach to it is Gunda (2020) by Russian filmmaker Viktor Kossakovsky, which dispenses with voice over narration, a music score or any on-camera interviewees. Instead, it focuses a sow named Gunda and her piglets, a few chickens and some cows over a brief period on a farm before they become “products.” The concept may sound uninteresting and tedious but Gunda is not really a traditional documentary by any stretch of the imagination and the result is a completely engrossing, emotional drama with animals as its main characters.
“My discovery of Tarkovsky’s first film was like a miracle. Suddenly, I found myself standing at the door of a room the keys of which had, until then, never been given to me. It was a room I had always wanted to enter and where he was moving freely and fully at ease. I felt encouraged and stimulated: someone was expressing what I had always wanted to say without knowing how. Tarkovsky is for me the greatest, the one who invented a new language, true to the nature of film, as it captures life as a reflection, life as a dream.” – Ingmar Bergman
A harrowing yet poetic account of war seen through the eyes of a twelve year old boy, Ivan’s Childhood aka My Name is Ivan (1962) was Andrei Tarkovsky’s first feature film and one that had a major impact on Russian cinema and the international film world (It won the Golden Lion at the 1962 Venice International Film Festival). Continue reading
From an early age I developed a fascination with film but it wasn’t until college when my film interests expanded beyond American cinema to include international films and more specialized genres like underground, silent, documentary and exploitation movies. A Film History 101 course at the University of Georgia, curated by a drama professor, was partly responsible for that due to his eclectic overview which sampled the early work of Sam Fuller (The Steel Helmet, Park Row), Fritz Lang silents (Die Nibelungen: Siegfried & Kriemhild’s Revenge), the roots of Neorealism (La Terra Trema) and Hollywood studio system gems (George Sidney’s Scaramouche, An Affair to Remember). What made one of the strongest impressions, however, were examples of early Soviet cinema like Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin and Dziga Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera. And my favorite of them all was Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s Earth (Russian title: Zemlya, 1930), the third film in a trilogy that included Zvenyhora (1928) and Arsenal (1929). Continue reading