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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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“I was a brat back when I made Pootie Tang. I was dealing with people every day whose pressures I didn’t understand, and I wasn’t very nice about how I said no to them. I put myself in a position I didn’t have to be in. A lot of what makes this kind of stuff work is empathy. If you’re taking money from somebody, they have a right to look after it. It’s all just trying to be clear about the arrangement. That’s why when I set up ‘Louie,’ I just said, ‘This is what I’m comfortable doing, and if you don’t want to do it, I don’t blame you. But in exchange, I’ll take very little money.’ I was only getting $200,000 per show from them, which is insane, and it goes up just by tiny increments every year. The other part of the arrangement with FX is that if this stops working for them, they should just tell me and we’ll stop doing it. Contractually, FX has a right to demand that the scripts be filtered through them before I shoot them, just like any other show. But from the beginning, they haven’t read anything, and they like the show. If I start turning in shit, then they’re going to start asking to see scripts, and that’s perfectly fair.”
~ Louis C. K.

BOMB: Do you give a lot of direction?

ASSAYAS: I give zero indications. Nothing. To me, it’s all physical. It is all about getting the right actors. They understand the part. They’re not idiots. They’re going to sit down, and they’re going to work. They don’t need my explanations. The problem is that actors listen to directors. They respect them. So, when you say something, it becomes gospel. In a certain way, this limits their imagination. I’d rather say nothing. Then, when we shoot, I fix whatever I don’t like. I channel it as softly as I can in a direction where, maybe, there’s something to gain. But, usually, if you are working with the right people, their instinct will be correct. They will bring something of their own to the character, and to the situation. Ultimately, there will be some kind of human truth to what they are doing.
~ Olivier Assayas on directing

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