Ivan's Childhood: A Russian Classic

Ivan’s Childhood  (1962)
Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky
Criterion Collection, 97 minutes, Black and White, in Russian with subtitles

Many of the greatest classic films were made thousands of miles from Hollywood, and their auteur creators never set foot in California. Andrei Tarkovsky (1932-1986) made nearly all of his films in the Soviet Union (except for a film completed in Sweden and another begun in Italy). His heroes were European directors such as Antonioni, Bergman, Chaplin, Dreyer, Buñel, and Kurosawa. That’s a pretty heady bunch.

Tarkovsky films seldom go down easy. They are often philosophical musings and some viewers find them painfully slow. To give but one example, the sci-fi movie Solaris (1972) is probably his most acclaimed work, though most English-speakers know the story from Steven Soderbergh’s 2002 remake. Same story, but Tarkovsky’s Solaris is a whopping 166 minutes in length and Soderbergh’s a mere 98.

All of this is in service of suggesting that you might wish to ease yourself into Tarkovsky’s oeuvre by starting with his first film, Ivan’s Childhood. It’s probably his most accessible film and the closest he got to conventional filmmaking. It’s my favorite; not because it’s “easy,” but because it is his most humane offering. It takes place during World War II, as seen through the eyes of Ivan Bondarev (Korlya Burlyaev), a 12-year-old boy, and Lt. Galtsev (Evgeny Zharikov), one of his military contacts.

When Ivan’s Childhood was released in 1962, World War II was just 17 years in the past. That conflict often gets called “the good war” in the United States and the decade or so that followed was dubbed “victory culture” by historian Tom Engelhardt. Not so in the Soviet Union. Of the roughly 75 million war dead, more than a quarter of them were Russian–far more than the dead of fascist aggressor states of Germany, Italy, and Japan combined. As we learned after the fall of the USSR, its economy never really recovered from the war’s devastation.

Tarkovsky gives us several dream sequences that help us understand young Ivan. Idyllic romps through the countryside abruptly end as Ivan awakes for a swim across a river in war-ravaged Mother Russia to make his way to the Russian frontline. He is sullen, angry, arrogant, and tells Lt. Galtsev that he will speak only to Captain Kholin (Valentin Zubkov) or Lt. Colonel Gryaznov (Nikolai Grinko). In due time we find out that Ivan’s family was murdered by Nazi invaders and that he has sworn revenge upon the fascists. He has essentially been a free agent spook since soldiers slew his family and he managed to get away. Ivan also escaped the military school in which Kholin and others acting as his guardian placed him, as he wants to return to spying on the Germans. Ivan might be 12 years old, but it’s an “old” 12 and the only thing childish about him are the temper tantrums he takes when he is told war is no place for a child.

There is a subplot involving the rivalry between Kholin and Galtsev for the affections of a comely nurse, Masha (Valentina Malyavina), who looks like no more than a teen herself. Presumably Tarkovsky wanted audiences to contemplate how war accelerates “growing up,” as it were. I shall say no more except that not much that happens is as surfaces suggest.

Yes, the film is subtitled and yes, it’s in black and white. It’s also utterly brilliant–one of the better uses of flashback structure you will see. (That technique bordered on being considered uniquely innovative at the time.) Cinematographer Vadim Yusov paints the screen as if grainy old photographs have sprung to life. His shots of Ivan being ferried across the river and set loose in a swamp have an Edward Gorey-like creepy quality that would not work in color. Besides, another point of the film is that war’s devastation drains everything: normality, childhood, emotions, even color.

How good is this film? How many movies can you name that won praise from Ingmar Bergman and was reviewed by Jeal-Paul Sartre? If you don’t think you are an “art” cinema kind of person, try Ivan’s Childhood. It will leave you shattered.

Rob Weir


Minor Dramas and Other Catastrophes Scorches Meddlesome Parents

Minor Dramas and Other Catastrophes (February 2020)
By Kathleen West
Berkley/Penguin/Random House, 384 pages.

This novel is so timely that it should be rushed to market. Kathleen West is high school teacher, and who better to weigh in on helicopter parents, tiger moms, the dangers of unregulated social media, truthiness, and–by extension–the college recruiting scandals?

Allow me to lead with the last of these. Many folks–me among them–have assumed that the offspring of elites were complicit in the schemes cooked up by their parents to secure admission to a good college. How could they not know about faked sports poses and padded personal profiles? Kathleen West made me rethink this.

Privilege doesn’t start when a kid is ready for college. It’s there early on and it takes a strong, perhaps precocious kid to question it. Unless some levelheaded adult–a teacher for instance–plants a challenge, a kid’s reality is assumed to be the ‘norm.’ And if one’s parents are really off the rail, teens often find it easier to pick their battles and go along with things their parents think are important.

Minor Dramas is set in a high-achievers high school near Minneapolis. Parents definitely rule the roost at Liston Heights High School. Principal Wayne Wallace spends much of his day appeasing the various parental groups that set both the curricular and extracurricular agendas. It speaks volumes about the medium family income to say that participation in drama is among the most prestigious things a kid at Liston High can do. Julia Abbott has been pressuring her 17-year-old son Andrew to secure a juicy role in the upcoming play to beef up his student profile. Andrew knows his talents are modest, but what he doesn’t know is that mom and dad gave the school money for its costume shop and have reminded both Wallace and the drama coach of that. Julia is a classic helicopter parent to Andrew and his 14-year-old sister Tracy. She basically traded her dreams of becoming a journalist to become a suburbanite busybody whose current obsession is trying to secure an advance cast list to see how Andrew fared. She texts Andrew incessantly until she can’t stand it anymore and sneaks into the school in time to see the list be posted. When Andrew is given a good role, she does an NFL-style victory dance and elbows Melissa Young in the stomach. Big problem in the age of social media! Julia’s antics were captured on a cellphone and soon the video has gone viral, threatens her husband’s development deal, and some want Julia to face assault charges. In the back swing of an elbow, Julia goes from queen bee to media hooligan and Liston outcast.

As it turns out, Julia and a few other parents have also spearheaded a campaign against Isobel Johnson, an innovative and idealistic English teacher from a working class background. Isobel wants to save the world and makes it her mission to make Liston kids aware of their privilege. She’s also Tracy Abbott’s favorite teacher, but not all Liston parents approve of interjecting identity politics into the curriculum–some because they don’t think it will help their kids do well on college entrance exams, and others because they think her views are Marxist. In other words, Liston is a place where one gets along by watching one’s back. Isobel isn’t cut out to do that, but students love her and she has been a great colleague–especially to first-year teacher Jamie Preston, a former graduate of Liston.      

It all adds up to a school caught up in overlapping brouhahas–much of its own making and the rest fanned by social media. Facebook doesn’t come off very well in the novel, but bourgeois meddling comes off even worse. West structures her novel in such a way as to make Liston’s dual dilemmas collide and entangle. Minor Dramas is also a veiled novel within a novel. Isobel attracts the wrong kind of attention for some of the ways she teaches The Great Gatsby. West has the wisdom not to make her book any sort of gloss of Fitzgerald, but it did not escape my notice that many of the worst traits of Fitzgerald’s upwardly mobile West Egg bear similarities to those found in West’s Liston Heights. This is especially true in the self-centeredness of those with privilege and in decision-making patterns that disregard the impact on families lower down the social class ladder.  

Minor Dramas and Other Consequences is a fine read, though I did find its denouement contrived and too neat. If you wonder, though, if all this stuff could possibly happen, let this former high school teacher assure you that it can. School culture and lack of support rank high among the reasons teachers quit. That data, by the way, comes from Minnesota!

Rob Weir


A Man For All Seasons is a Classic for Many Reasons

A Man for All Seasons (1966)
Directed by Fred Zinnemann
Columbia Pictures, Rated G, 122 minutes, in Technicolor

A Man for All Seasons ruled at the 1966 Oscars. It won in six categories, including Best Picture, Director, and Actor. As for the last of these, Paul Scofield’s performance is one of the finest subtle but powerful performances you will ever see on the screen. This film, though 53 years old, remains thought provoking and fresh.

The title is ironic. It references its main character, Sir Thomas More (Scofield), the Lord Chancellor of England during part of King Henry VIII’s reign. More (1478-1535) is a towering intellect, and a man of dignity, duty, and conscience. He is what one would wish a politician to be: witty, scholarly, and incorruptible. (He was a local magistrate before becoming Lord Chancellor and thus charged with administering the king’s court and acting as his main advisor.) Alas, More is caught up in a world in which sycophants and scoundrels give primacy to desire, self-interest, and power.

More is probably best remembered as the author of Utopia and is often credited with inventing that word. Modern readers often fail to grasp that Utopia is a satire, not a political or social blueprint. More fashioned the word from two Greek roots that translate “not a place,” or “nowhere.” In other words, utopia is how the world should be but isn’t. It parallels More’s travails as a politician who ought to be a role model but isn’t.

The film covers the final six years of More’s life (1529-35). Henry VIII assumed the throne in 1509, and wedded Catherine of Aragon, a Spanish princess who was the widow of Henry’s older brother. Given that Henry’s family, the Tudors, were recent usurpers of the throne, a male heir to secure the Tudor line was of the utmost importance. Catherine endured seven pregnancies, but suffered four miscarriages, and two other children–including the presumptive heir–died in childhood. Only one, Elizabeth,* survived into adulthood.

By the late 1520s, Henry (Robert Shaw) began to look for ways out of his marriage, which wasn’t easy. England was a Catholic nation and both the English clergy and the pope rejected Henry’s specious argument that his marriage should be annulled as he had sinned by marrying his brother’s widow. He also ran afoul of his own Lord Chancellor, Cardinal Wolsey. We come in on Wolsey as he is under house arrest for treason and tries to convince More that he should look the other way to Henry’s machinations for the good of himself and his family. Orson Welles plays Wolsey as a Machiavellian schemer–which he was–and summons plenty of the misanthropic arrogance for which Wolsey was known. His is a bombastic performance, as is Robert Shaw’s as Henry. Shaw–best known for his role in Jaws–is actually a bit over-the-top. Welles’ screen time drips with acid, and Shaw’s with shouting. In Shaw’s defense, history generally views Henry as prone to alternating bouts of cajolery and browbeating, mannerisms consistent with bipolar disorder. Still, Shaw is a bit much.

While raising the volume gets attention, it is Scofield’s quiet power that grips us. Wolsey died in 1530–just a few months before Henry would have had him executed, but on his deathbed. In the film, a spying Thomas Cromwell** (Leo McKern) overhears More’s remarks that Cromwell was too corrupt to be chancellor. It was More who was destined to wear the chain of office, though it lasted less than three years. Henry had his way, divorced Catherine, married Anne Boleyn (Vanessa Redgrave), and abolished Catholic rule in England by declaring the king–not the pope–as the head of a now-Protestant England. At each turn, Henry tried to convince More to give even lukewarm approval.

More was such a serious Catholic that he even forbade his daughter Margaret (a vivacious and spirited Susannah York) to marry free-thinking lawyer William Roper (Corin Redgrave) until he converted to Catholicism. So how does a man of such principle respond to corruption and assaults on his own values? More’s attempt was unique. To those close to him, he gave his best counsel. He tried, for instance, to convince obsequious Richard Rich (John Hurt in first major role) that he should be a teacher to avoid the temptations he knew would overwhelm him. He also confided in close friend Thomas Howard (Nigel Davenport), the Duke of Norfolk, and staged an overheard disagreement with Howard to protect him. Then More chose silence; he never spoke for or against Henry. More kept private counsel though all around–including his confused but imperious wife Alice (Wendy Hiller)­–urged him just to give in. Schofield presents us with a classic moral dilemma: What would you do if a superior orders you to do things that strike at the very core of your deepest beliefs?

Schofield’s performance is astonishing. Seldom has a screen actor stirred such a silent tempest. His Thomas More is a portrait of determination, virtue, and conviction. He doesn’t speak truth to power; he tries to ignore power. In an ideal world More would be a philosopher king; in his own, alas, Henry was king and the baser aspects of humankind circled around his court like buzzards at a fresh kill.

A Man for All Seasons earned its status as a film classic. Ted Moore won one of the film’s Oscars for his cinematography. Like the Technicolor in which this was shot, his frames are vivid, crisp, and like landscape paintings come to life. All of the actors (with the possible exception of Shaw) are fabulous. It’s because A Man for All Seasons was a play before it was a film and each of those chosen for the latter was a veteran of the British stage. Fred Zinnemann won some hardware for his direction, but with a cast like this, it’s hard to go wrong.

Rob Weir

*One of history’s great ironies is that Elizabeth ultimately came to the throne and became one of England’s most powerful monarchs. She also never married, hence the Tudor line died with her.
 ** Thomas Cromwell should not be confused with 17th century English Civil War Puritan leader Oliver Cromwell, though they were related. Oliver was the great-grandson of Thomas’s brother Richard.