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MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com

Wilmington on DVDs: Ivan’s Childhood

PICK OF THE WEEK: CLASSIC
IVAN’S CHILDHOOD  (Blu-ray) (Four Stars)

(U.S.S.R.: Andrei Tarkovsky, 1962  (Criterion Collection)

 

Andrei Tarkovsky’s first feature film, the magnificent Ivan’s Childhood (1962), started one of the cinema’s most uncompromising and brilliant directorial careers. This astonishing picture, a critical hit almost from its first screenings, won the Venice Film Festival’s top prize, the Golden Lion, and established the 30-year-old Tarkovsky as a major  international art film creator. It’s still a dazzler and a shocker, an anti-war film of jolting intensity, piercing emotion and shimmering lyricism. Called My Name is Ivan (at first) in the U.S.,  it’s the nightmarish tale of a 12-year-old boy, Ivan  (played by 14–year-old Nikolai Burlyaev) who lost his entire family to the Nazi invaders, and now acts as a scout for the Russian partisans, working with the sympathetic Captain Kholin (Valentin Zubkov) and the Soviet Army on dangerous missions — forays into enemy territory. This is the account of the pivotal two days in Ivan’s life.

 

Ivan’s Childhood is not only one of the best of the ’50’s-’60s revisionist Russian war movies — a grouop that included The Cranes are Flying, Ballad of a Soldier, and Fate of a Man — and one of   Tarkovsky’s best pictures, it is the precursor of much that followed in his remarkable career.  Ivan is  his most popular and accessible film, and the one that was most universally acclaimed during his lifetime — despite the fact that it is not necessarily typical of this great, stubborn, obsessive, poetic Russian artist. There are scenes of romantic birch forests and eerie battlegrounds lit with flares and explosions, images as beautiful and haunting as any Tarkovsky later made in gems like the 1966 Andrei Roublev or the 1975 The Mirror. But Ivan’s very accessibility, the fact that it connected so immediately with world audiences, is what sets it apart from his offbeat masterpieces to come: films like Roublev, Solaris, The Mirror and The Sacrifice.

The young director of Ivan was strongly influenced by the camera virtuosity and visual coups of director Mikhail Kalatozov and cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky in their 1957 classic The Cranes are Flying and their poetic 1959 epic Letter Never Sent, but Tarkovsky went even further. Working from original author Vladimir Bogomolov’s script of his popular novella, and collaborating on the final writing with his film school buddy Andrei Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky (the screenwriter of Andrei Roublev, the writer-director of “Siberiade,” and a cineaste who made it to Hollywood in the ‘80s), Tarkovsky crafted, in the gorgeous, terrifying Ivan’s Childhood, a film of passion, terror and aesthetic bliss.

We remember  young Ivan’s face as we remember the faces of the two tragic friends in Shoeshine, of the street kids in Rome: Open City, of the little boy in Bicycle Thieves — of all art film children caught in the crucibles of war and social injustice. Tarkovsky’s portrait of innocence ravaged by war has never lost its force and grace.

Extras: Video appreciation by Vida T. Johnson; interviews with actor Burlyaev and cinematographer Vadim Yusov: Booklet with essays on Ivan’s Childhood by Diana Iordanova and  Tarkovsky, and a poem, “Ivan’s Willow,” by Andrei’s father, Arseny Tarkovsky.

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“The core fear is what can happen to you, personally. Your body. That’s what horror films deal with, precisely. We are a very thin skin wrapped around a pumping heart and guts. At any given moment it can come down to that, be it diseases, or somebody’s assault, or war, or a car wreck. You could be reduced to the simple laws of physics and your body’s vulnerability. The edged weapon is the penultimate weapon to disclose that reality to you.”
~ Wes Craven, 1996, promoting Scream

MAMET
Well, that, to me, is always the trick of dramaturgy; theoretically, perfectly, what one wants to do is put the protagonist and the audience in exactly the same position. The main question in drama, the way I was taught, is always what does the protagonist want. That’s what drama is. It comes down to that. It’s not about theme, it’s not about ideas, it’s not about setting, but what the protagonist wants. What gives rise to the drama, what is the precipitating event, and how, at the end of the play, do we see that event culminated? Do we see the protagonist’s wishes fulfilled or absolutely frustrated? That’s the structure of drama. You break it down into three acts.

INTERVIEWER
Does this explain why your plays have so little exposition?

MAMET
Yes. People only speak to get something. If I say, Let me tell you a few things about myself, already your defenses go up; you go, Look, I wonder what he wants from me, because no one ever speaks except to obtain an objective. That’s the only reason anyone ever opens their mouth, onstage or offstage. They may use a language that seems revealing, but if so, it’s just coincidence, because what they’re trying to do is accomplish an objective… The question is where does the dramatist have to lead you? Answer: the place where he or she thinks the audience needs to be led. But what does the character think? Does the character need to convey that information? If the answer is no, then you’d better cut it out, because you aren’t putting the audience in the same position with the protagonist. You’re saying, in effect, Let’s stop the play. That’s what the narration is doing—stopping the play… It’s action, as Aristotle said. That’s all that it is—exactly what the person does. It’s not what they “think,” because we don’t know what they think. It’s not what they say. It’s what they do, what they’re physically trying to accomplish on the stage. Which is exactly the same way we understand a person’s character in life—not by what they say, but by what they do. Say someone came up to you and said, I’m glad to be your neighbor because I’m a very honest man. That’s my character. I’m honest, I like to do things, I’m forthright, I like to be clear about everything, I like to be concise. Well, you really don’t know anything about that guy’s character. Or the person is onstage, and the playwright has him or her make those same claims in several subtle or not-so-subtle ways, the audience will say, Oh yes, I understand their character now; now I understand that they are a character. But in fact you don’t understand anything. You just understand that they’re jabbering to try to convince you of something.
~ David Mamet

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