Friday, September 17, 2010

Ivan's Childhood

The bureau chief freely admits there are numerous holes in his knowledge of film history. This is a side effect of having been a graduate student in an English department with a small and, in retrospect, rather eccentric film program. The emphasis was on "Experimental Films", films as fine art, films meant to be shown in museums and other noncommercial venues.  Matthew Barney's Cremaster Cycle (which I've never seen) would be a current example of this genre, although Barney's films seem much grander and much more expensive to produce than anything by his forebears like Hollis Frampton or Stan Brakhage.

Actually, these film historical empty spots are good things. Being in English graduate school, where one's job is reading and having opinions about great works of literature, can have a deadening effect on one's enjoyment of same (for decades). Having never been marched through the canon of great films (if such a thing could be agreed on) has left me with nothing but discoveries ahead of me.

This is all a preamble to Andrei Tarkovsky's "Ivan's Childhood"(1962) which I just watched on DVD. It is as beautiful as any object in a museum and terribly grim. Set in WW II, it tells the story of a 12-year-old Russian boy whose family has been killed by the invading Wehrmacht and who has become a scout for the Soviet Army. The film was shot in pristine black and white by Vadim Yusov and Criterion has done their usual amazing job of finding the best looking print on the planet.

The film is divided between dreams set in a sunlit summer and the shadowy reality of the war. Death lies over the film but Tarkovsky does an interesting thing. We see the dead bodies of various characters but, unlike in current American films where endless energy is put into killing people off in cool ways, we never see the actual killing, just the aftermath.

The film was done on location next to the Dnieper river in Ukraine but the shots are so rigorously composed that it sometimes looks like it was shot on a multi-million dollar set. It has echos of Eisenstein and Bergman (who apparently loved it). I highly recommend this film but not for a first date.

Friday, September 3, 2010


When the DVD of "A Town Called Panic" ("Panique au village") arrived from Netflix, Mme Le Chef was skeptical that a stop motion animation made with off the shelf, mass produced little figures could be funny but I assured her that numerous critics swore it was. They didn't lie. It's very funny.

True to the name of the film, everyone is in a perpetual state of PANIC, particularly Cowboy and Indian, our hero Horse's two idiot sidekicks. The film was made by Belgian animators and is in French. The polite nature of that language adds to the amusement, "Bonjour Cheval, ça va?   Ça va, Facteur". The plot is wonderfully absurd and becomes even more so as it advances. Horse's romantic interest is the town's music teacher, Mme Longray, a lovely mare with a sexy voice. Horse keeps trying to have a lesson with her but is always being interrupted by things like thieving fish creatures from the center of the Earth.

The film is only 75 minutes long but reaches its peak of comic frenzy about a half hour into it. It slows down a little towards the end but is a delight all the way through.