Saturday, September 21, 2013

Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors

Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (Tini zabutykh predkiv)
Director: Sergei Parajanov
Starring: Ivan Mykolaichuk, Larisa Kadochnikova, Tatyana Bestayeva

In watching Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors a second time in order to review it, I borrowed the DVD from the local library and wanted to watch it on the big TV in our living room.  My husband was in the room as well, so I asked him, “Is it okay if I put on a really weird Soviet movie?”  He looked up from his video game and said, “Yeah, that’s fine.”  Ten minutes later, he turned to me and said, “You really weren’t kidding, this is weird.”


Alright, “weird” is not exactly the most fitting adjective here, but still, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors is hardly typical cinema.  The story is about young Ivan (Mykolaichuk as an adult), a boy growing up in a Hutsul village in the Carpathian mountains of Ukraine.  As a boy, he falls in love with Marichka (Kadochnikova as an adult) despite the fact that her father killed his father.  The two grow up together inseparable, but when Marichka dies in an accident, Ivan is grief-stricken.  Ultimately he marries Palagna (Bestayeva) but still thinks of Marichka.  After not producing any children, Palagna turns to sorcery which causes a rift between her and Ivan.

I can understand why Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors is included in 1001 Movies, but it is not a movie I enjoy.  So, why is it in 1001 Movies, then?  Because first and foremost, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors is about the Hutsul tradition.  It’s essentially a fictionalized ethnography, for lack of a better term.  Part of why I am so committed to not just watching but writing about the 1001 Movies book is because I know it will stretch me outside my comfort zone, and this film is exactly that.  The culture and traditions in Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors are wholly unlike those I am familiar with; the movie has exposed me to a time and place I would otherwise not have known, and that’s important. 

There are many cultural traditions on hand here, starting with the simple church service that opens the film, but is full of such colors and sets to feel very different.  There are the requisite weddings and funerals, but also the Christmas holidays, simple pub outings, a winter market, and tending to the farm.  What makes me prefer the type of cultural education presented in Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors to that in a more traditional ethnography is that this is all presented in terms of a fictionalized and fantasized story.  We see all these events through the window of wistful nostalgia and mysticism.  Parajanov’s manages to weave cultural education together with a fairytale-like atmosphere of images and sounds and feelings.  I prefer that Parajanov leaves many ceremonies completely unexplained; I’m still not sure why those villagers were wearing ridiculous masks in one scene, but I don’t think I really care.  It was as if I was an impartial observer, simply sitting back and watching this village without knowing the language.  What results is a whirlwind of color and dance and costume and sound, and it’s pretty heady.  

Additionally, on a personal level, I live in an area with a rather high Ukrainian population.  In my classes over the years I’ve been teaching, I’ve had several Ukrainian students; last year alone, in a class of only thirteen students, I had a Rostislav, a Petro, and a Vladimir, and they would frequently speak Ukrainian to one another.  Heck, sometimes they would go back and forth between Ukrainian and English in the same sentence. (and really, the amusement factor of watching two high school students yelling in Ukrainian at one another because they each think the other botched their chem lab results is pretty damn high… I will always remember Rostislav barking out incomprehensible orders to Petro from across the room.)  Because of this fact, I am a bit more interested in discovering Ukrainian traditions now than before I started teaching, if for no other reason than having a better understanding of where my students are coming from.  I understand that my students are separated by years from the traditions on display in Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, but it is still interesting to discover nonetheless.

Speaking of sound, I rather enjoyed the music in this film.  Having played symphonic and large group classical music all my life, Russian and Soviet music always stems from its small town cultural roots.  When you listen to Tchaikovsky’s works where he is not writing to please Western European tastes (as in “Capriccio Italien”, for example), there is – obviously – significant Russian undertones and thematic elements.  Some of my favorite pieces of classical music are from the Eastern European composers, such as Shostakovich (forever associated with Stalin’s regime, unfortunately), Rimsky-Korsakov, Rachmaninov, Stravinsky… the list goes on and on.  One of my favorite concerts I’ve ever performed with a community band was when we played Tchaikovsky’s “Marche Slave”, Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition (yes, all of it), Shostakovich’s “Finale” from Symphony No. 5, and assorted smaller works, like Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Dance of the Tumblers” and Prokofiev’s “March” from The Love for Three Oranges.  It was staggering music, full of such cultural richness and tones, and an absolutely drop dead fantastic concert.  The soundtrack in Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, all music composed directly for the film, is ripped from that same tradition.  It could fit right in beside Rimsky-Korsakov easily.  If nothing else, the aural and visual components of Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors are very striking, and this is why I understand why it makes it into 1001 Movies.


Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors is not exactly a fun watch.  It’s not brutal or tortuous, in the way that horrific war films are, and nothing bad really happens, but it’s… trying.  Plot is not the point.  Subtitles that precede the film call it a “poetic drama.”  A visual tone poem, if you will.  At only an hour and a half, it’s not too long, but it’s still a bit of a task to sit through it.  The pace is decent enough, never really too slow or lingering too long on one thing, but I still struggled to pay attention.  In short, there is a great deal to appreciate about Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, but much less to actually like.  I wouldn’t exactly recommend this film to anyone who wasn’t going through 1001 Movies, not because I think it’s a crap film, just because I don’t think anyone would really like it. 

And ultimately, this is my final opinion of Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors.  I can appreciate it, but I don’t particularly care for it.  If I’m looking to watch a Soviet visual tone poem, I’ll reach for Tarkovsky’s Zerkalo or Stalker in a heartbeat over Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors.  The colors and music and cultural richness is fine, maybe even important, but this movie is also the filmic equivalent of being forced to eat my vegetables.

Arbitrary Rating: 5/10.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Spring in a Small Town (Xiao cheng zhi chun)

Spring in a Small Town (Xiao cheng zhi chun)
Director: Fei Mu
Starring: Wei Wei, Shi Yu, Li Wei

When I took my first, massive swipe at knocking off titles from 1001 Movies, I went chronologically by decade, something I’m very glad of in retrospect.  The biggest advantage to doing this was to encounter trends in filmmaking as they happened.  The second advantage was watching how national cinemas appeared, or perhaps disappeared.  Take Germany for example: going chronologically, I watched lots of German films in the beginning, then nothing, not for decades.  Rather poignant, that.  On the flip side, there is only one Chinese film that predates Spring in a Small Town in 1001 Movies, indicating that, at least according to the editors of this book, Chinese cinema was still in its birth during the early decades of filmmaking.  Spring in a Small Town was one of the first Chinese films to rise to international stature, one of the first to be considered worth preserving and worth seeing still to this day.

The story is ripped straight from standard drawing room drama tales.  Yuwen (Wei) has been married for eight years to her invalided husband Liyan (Li).  We learn very early on that theirs is a loveless marriage, although they are still affectionate with one another.  She is bored and suffocated by her endlessly repeated existence.  Enter Zhichen (Shi), Liyan’s friend from childhood and Yuwen’s former love.  Her resolve is thoroughly tested as the passion she used to feel and thought dead and buried begins to rise again.

I find it fascinating to discover the same sort of tropes I’m used to encountering in Western costume dramas here, in a Chinese film from the forties.  I think that’s telling; it indicates that there are similarities between all cultures, even in basic romantic storylines.  How often have I seen this story played out, this sad sort of repressed love?  Many, MANY times.  I don’t hold this against Spring in a Small Town, the fact that it’s telling a story I’ve heard before; if anything, I like it more for telling a story I am familiar with from its own unique cultural perspective.  And the China that is on display in Spring in a Small Town is from a very distinct time period and culture.  (I will at this point reiterate my comparative ignorance about world history – thank you, New Hampshire public education – so please, this is just a quick review of what I taught myself on the interwebs; if I am grievously mistaken on anything, please let me know.)  The second world war was over, China was no longer under Japanese control, but the Communist Revolution had not yet taken over.  This was a relatively short time period, and the artistic result is a film with very little, if any, political commentary.  Spring in a Small Town is a simple, sad little romance about a repressed woman and her long lost lover who is definitely NOT her husband.  It does not feel allegorical or symbolic of larger issues.  No, it is simply a romantic drama, nothing more or less.  This is probably a large reason of why, when the Communist Revolution did succeed, Spring in a Small Town was roundly denigrated, then forgotten, and nearly destroyed.  I’m glad the film survived, though; it’s worth a viewing, at least one, because of its purity of intent and because, well, it certainly does repression well.

Spring in a Small Town gets very angsty.  It moves slowly – it is practically the definition of the slow burn.  And there’s little payoff.  In my first go around with Spring in a Small Town, I remember feeling enraptured by this furtive, repressed romance between Yuwen and Zhichen.  This time, I was less affected by it, but it still has its moments.  Despite the, um, VERY slow build up, I was still caught up when Yuwen gets drunk, slips up, and throws herself at Zhichen.  And it takes every smidgen of strength he has to do the honorable thing.  And I rather enjoy it.

Spring in a Small Town is very reminiscent of Brief Encounter.  Repressed woman narrating her own tale of romantic feelings for a man, a doctor, who is not her husband?  Brief Encounter.  Frankly, Brief Encounter does it better – loads better – but the voice over narration in particular I find important in Spring in a Small Town.  Just like in Brief Encounter, it is crucial in providing us a critical window to Laura’s soul so we understand her, we need that gateway to Yuwen, perhaps even more so.  As much as Laura presents a calm façade to the outside world, Yuwen is one hundred times more serene on the outside, never letting on for a second what might be happening under the surface.  This is actually a bit of a detriment to the film; I needed more than a voice over to convince me of the magnitude of Yuwen’s feelings, and the actress didn’t quite manage to convince me on performance alone.

The other major mark against Spring in a Small Town is the condition of the film itself.  This is, sadly, a film that has not been preserved well in the slightest.  The DVD is watchable, certainly, and the English subtitles were clear (not always a given), but the image is hazy and foggy and full of scratches.  The sound isn’t any better; it’s muffled and the background static is incredibly loud.  Even the original filming conditions seem less than perfect, as the background noise cuts out in certain parts of scenes, indicating that there was just no sound, PERIOD, while recording.  The story works well enough in Spring in a Small Town, but the logistics are incredibly lacking.  It’s very difficult when it’s this bad not to let this affect my read on a movie. 

Spring in a Small Town was remade in China in the early 2000s, and I’m not surprised.  The story is universal enough and works pretty well, but the original film could use a brush up, more style, better acting, and any sort of a soundtrack.  I have not seen the remake, but I’m glad at least someone thought it worthy of telling again.  Frankly, though, if I want angsty romance, there are plenty of other films I’d choose over Spring in a Small Town (Brief Encounter most definitely).

Arbitrary Rating: 6/10

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Two things!

Thing the first: So a package arrived today.  From Amazon.  It weighs about the same as a brick.

We all know what's in that package:

I'm not allowed to open it.


See, the book was SUPPOSED to come out on October 1st.  My birthday.  FORTUITOUS TIMING! 

And then the stupid book went ahead and came out early, and now I am under strict orders not to touch it until my actual birthday because hey, birthday present.  Celebrations, and what not. 

So yes, right now, I am staring malevolently at the stupid Amazon package that sits taunting me on the other side of the room.  Three more weeks...

Thing the second: I have not been posting as much recently - duh.  I am currently not two full weeks into the school year, and I have been pulling nearly 60 hour weeks thus far. I've mentioned my career occasionally here, and I'd like to now take the opportunity to say that I take teaching and my career very seriously.  I am tremendously passionate about it, even more so than film, and I've been hoping for further opportunities to stretch myself.  Well, this year really seems to be THAT year.  I'm the new Science Department Leader this year, which is a tremendous vote of faith in my abilities considering this is my sixth year teaching.  I'm mentoring a new teacher, which I'm very excited about because she has such amazing potential and she's doing a great job thus far.  I'm presenting at the state science teachers' conference in early November, which will be the first time I've formally presented a workshop at a conference.  I'm applying again to present at a national conference slated for next summer, and the very nit-picky application is due in mid-October.  Additionally, I have to massively overhaul my Advanced Chemistry course for a variety of reasons this year (best reason: 60+ students signed up for it, more than double from last year), and that's taking a tremendous amount of time.

I am not complaining about a single thing in the above paragraph.  I've worked my ass off in the past to get into the position to be able to do all those things, and now I feel like that work is starting to bear fruit, and that's really exciting.  But something has to take a backseat.  And for the moment, that's movie watching and movie writing. 

I'm certainly not dropping my hobby or anything.  I just might have to scale way back on my blog, only post once a week or so.

Which is fine.  Because dammit, it's my blog. 

But I miss all of you, you few regular readers of mine.  I miss being able to read all your awesome entries in the depth I'd like, and leave comments to let you know your work is not falling on deaf ears. 

So yes.  Know that my absence from the blogosphere means I'm going nuts at school, but good lord, I effing love what I do.  Yes, it stresses me out, but I would never for a second rather be doing anything else in the world.  

Sunday, September 8, 2013


Director: Brian De Palma
Starring: Al Pacino, Steven Bauer, Michelle Pfeiffer, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Robert Loggia

Scarface is one of the more notable titles on my “List of Shame.”  It’s achieved a definite presence in pop culture that persists to this day, finding new fans amongst the young all the time.  I ask my students questions about their likes throughout the year (“Favorite comedy,” “Favorite dessert,” “Favorite author”) and nearly every year, Scarface will get a few mentions in various categories.  While it feels good to be able to check this film off, I’ll say right here, right now, it was a film that was precisely what I thought it would be, and I didn’t think it would be for me.

Tony Montana (Pacino) arrives in Miami from Cuba in the late seventies after essentially being told to leave his homeland by Castro, who purged his land of political dissidents and a fair share of criminals.  Montana falls in the latter category.  He and his friend Manny (Bauer) work their way into Miami’s drug syndicate by catching the attention of boss Frank Lopez (Loggia).  Montana, for his part, pays attention to Frank’s girl, Elvira (Pfeiffer), a woman who doesn’t exactly follow the rule of “Don’t get high on your own stash.”  Tony is cruel, hard, and ruthlessly ambitious, so it is inevitable that his climb to the top of the drug power ring comes at a cost.  When his beloved sister Gina (Mastrantonio) becomes drawn into this world, however, Tony’s problems push him over the edge.

While not the start of Pacino’s acting career, I will make the case that Scarface was the start of Pacino’s overacting career.  Pacino’s work in the seventies was phenomenal.  I think of The Godfather and its first sequel, Serpico, and Dog Day Afternoon, and Pacino delivers intense yet fairly subdued performances that rise when they need to, but also fall when they need to.  But in Scarface, we have the start of the Pacino that has now become a caricature, a performance that is nothing but highs and yelling and shouting and craziness.  To be fair, from what I’ve seen of his filmography, this was the first time he turned in a character whose volume is set at eleven throughout the entire performance, and people were obviously impressed.  If I hadn’t known Pacino for such a type of character, I’d have been far more impressed with his turn as Tony Montana.  But the problem with seeing iconic films after you’ve already seen a metric ton of other films, though, is that you lack this historical perspective.  To me, this is just another example of Pacino being over the top, crazy Pacino.  It felt like a Pacino caricature.  It felt like I had seen it all before during skits on Saturday Night Live.  And personally, I’d rather have the seventies Pacino. 

Scarface is so eighties, it hurts.  It physically hurts me.  Which, of course, is fitting, because Scarface is all about excesses, and so were the eighties.  As this film came out early on in the eighties, it is also easy for me to see how Scarface’s success could have shaped and defined this sort of celebration of immoderation throughout the rest of the decade.  The sets are utterly ridiculous, reeking of gilded age glitz and spending money like it’s going out of fashion.  Tony’s estate in the second half is painfully eighties.  Then there’s the montage sequence halfway through that separates Tony’s rise from his fall.  Shown with the requisite synthesizer music in the background, it was so stereotypically eighties, it actually made me laugh.  I threw my hands up in the air and bent over, I was laughing so hard.  I suppose there’s little else for me to do than embrace all the ridiculous eighties trademarks in Scarface, though.  

I was irrationally bothered by the – hm, do I actually call it racist?  Yes, I’ll call it racist – racist casting in Scarface.  Almost the entire cast of characters, with only a few exceptions (the most notable being the fact that Manny, a significant character, is actually played by a Cuban), are meant to be Hispanic – Cuban, Colombian, Bolivian – but only the minor characters and extras were actually played by Hispanic actors.  What was most galling was the decision that Italians = Cubans.  Pacino, Loggia, Mastrantonio.  This really, REALLY bothered me, and although this sounds odd, I’m not entirely sure why.  It’s certainly nothing new in film; look at the movies from the twenties, thirties, forties, etc, and just how much blatant racism they contain.  White actors playing black characters, white actors playing Hispanics, white actors playing Asians.  I tend to forgive this when I come across it as a “sign of the times.”  Unfortunate and ugly, yes, most definitely, but, well, it was how Hollywood used to operate.  I find myself willing to overlook it.  Why, then, am I so bothered by the exact same idea in Scarface?  The only possible answer I can come up with is that I had hoped that by 1983, we would have known better.  By 1983, I think I was hoping I wouldn’t have to sit through the painful experience of watching Robert Loggia, an actor who celebrates his Italian roots, ridiculously try to pull off a Cuban accent.  I didn’t buy it, not for one damn second.  I didn’t buy Mastrantonio, I didn’t buy the actor who played Sosa.  I marginally bought into Pacino as Tony, but that was the only one.  Am I being irrational here?  I might be, and I completely own up to that, and on reflection, I don't expect ALL of the actors to be of Cuban descent.  And yet, there's something that gets under my skin about seeing actors who are not only not Cuban, but AGGRESSIVELY Italian (for the most part) playing Cubans.  It reeks of blackface to me.  As I said, I know that I am willing to forgive similar faults in older movies.  Why can’t I forgive it here?  I'm not entirely sure, but it was a major block to my involvement in the film.

She's all, "Bitch please, you ain't even CLOSE to Cuban."

One thing I will definitely say Scarface got right is knowing precisely how to pull off a remake.  As readers of this blog undoubtedly know, this Scarface is a remake of Scarface, sometimes subtitled “The Shame of the Nation,” from 1932 starring Paul Muni.  Both films follow the same general plot structure – aspiring mobster rises then falls from power – but feel worlds apart.  And that right there is precisely what a smart remake ought to be.  Scarface, the remake, doesn’t try to pull off a thirties gangster picture, but instead introduces the drug syndicate angle, something that would have resonated far more with modern audiences.  It feels current and slick and stylish, and not at all like it’s trying to simply copy a film that came before.  What’s more, there are several reverent touches in Scarface, the remake, alluding to the original, to show that De Palma and producers really do respect their predecessor.  The message “The World Is Yours” is significant in both films, and De Palma actually dedicates his Scarface to the writer and director of the original Scarface. 

Scarface is a fairly straightforward story of someone’s rise and fall from grace.  Nearly every plot device it employs was telegraphed to me miles in advance, so absolutely nothing came as a surprise.  Then again, I am most definitely not the film’s intended audience.  Ultimately, though, it is nice to have seen this film, even if I have zero compunction to see it again; it is a film that survives, it is still seen and loved and quoted by today’s youth, and if nothing else, I can now laugh at Kendra’s obsession with it when I guiltily watch reruns of Girls Next Door.

Arbitrary Rating: 5/10.