A great story, perhaps especially a great short story, leaves the reader to answer some of the questions. A bad one does, too, mind you, but a good one does it well? I digress. Ernest Hemingway's The Killers is a great short story that leaves a lot of questions for its readers, and for some reason people making film adaptations seek to answer them all. We're watching two such adaptations this week, and a third that leaves well enough alone. Andrei Tarkovsky's short student film version from 1956 is the most straightforward adaptation of the bunch, for better or worse. Likewise, Robert Siodmak's 1946 version starts with a straightforward retelling then veers into wildly unlikely directions with it's solid Noir adaptation. Meanwhile Don Siegal's 1964 version veers so wildly it would be nearly unrecognizable as an adaptation if it weren't for the title. But then, Siegal's is the only version with Lee Marvin as an anti-hero and Ronald Reagan in his only villainous roll. Watching any of them is a great way to spend your time, watching all three is a, well, something we did.
Stanislaw Lem, the author of the novel Solaris, hated Andrei Tarkovsky's 1972 film adaptation so very very much, though as Pat points out in our extended conversation on what to do with the "death of an author" is the author just refuses to die, this is probably just because it was different from his vision. There's a lot to talk about here, and Pat and I do a lot of talking, though this episode could have easily been 5 hours long. It's not! Don't worry!
After The Cranes are Flying a few weeks ago we may have set our hopes too high for our next foray into Soviet "Thaw" era films about World War 2. It's not that Grigori Chukrai's Ballad of a Soldier isn't good, but that bar was really high. Released in 1959, two years after Cranes, Ballad of a Soldier feels like a throwback, more influenced Eisenstein than, well, anyone other than Eisenstein. And Eisenstein is great! But Ballad's exploration of (rather chaste) love in many forms just doesn't land with us.
Following the death of Josef Stalin in 1953 the Soviet Union had a bit of a defrost -- not by any means a melt -- but a bit of a thaw. Within that relaxation came a number of films about World War II, many of which made it into the Criterion Collection for good reason.
The first on our docket is Mikhail Kalatozov's The Cranes are Flying. Released in 1957, the film takes a critical look at the psychological toll of World War II. Well, at least a lot more critical than anything I can think of released west of the Iron Curtain. It won the Palme d'Or in 1958, the only Soviet film to win the award, thanks in no small part to the brilliant cinematography of Sergey Urusevsky. So amazing.
We're combining two films this week, in part because they are the first two chapters of a planned trilogy (wikipedia even lists them as one film) and in part because one of the films does not exist as it's own proper Spine number in the Criterion Collection.
Sergei Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible (Part I 1944 and Part II 1958) is an historical epic about Josef Stalin's favorite Czar, and an early unifier of all of Russia, or all the Russias, as the case may be. The first film I'm sure Stalin loved as it paints Ivan as a strong leader with clear Stalinesque parallels. The second dives into the man's troubles and violent treatment of just about everyone he could treat violently, and Stalin stopped appreciating the comparison. Which is why the Part II wasn't released until five years after Stalin's death (and, sadly, ten years after Eisenstein's).
Alexander Nevsky, one of Sergei Eisenstein's famous Soviet historical epics, is a monstrous and mounstrously propagandistic film that has left all sorts of influence in its wake. Pat and I aren't really into it, even with it's massive battle sequences.
It is also the film that marks the point in our journey where our episode numbers and Criterion's Spine numbers being to irrevocably drift. Nevsky stands alone as Spine 87, while also being contained in a box set with Ivan the Terrible Parts 1 and 2 as Spine 86 which we'll talk about next week in a double episode. Ivan the Terrible Part 2 has a standalone release as Spine 88, but not Ivan the Terrible Part 1 which is confusing and dumb. Criterion, stop being confusing and dumb.
Andrei Tarkovsky's 1966 almost-a-biopic film about the artist Andrei Rublev was suppressed almost before it came out, but many things with any merit were in Soviet Russia so it's not that surprising. Eventually Martin Scorsese found a copy of the film and brought it out of Russia, and that copy is where the Criterion Collection edition comes from. The film is quite the trip, and a long one, but thought-provoking nonetheless.