War and Peace (Voyna i Mir – 1966-7)

War and Peace

Cinema. Cinema, in all its forms is an unusual thing. Because what can you do with it? Bring images, captured from the real world or made from other sources, to the eyes. Bring sounds, made in studios or recorded on location, into the ears. You can cut the images together, or you can play a singular shot. A “film”, can be a short that is shown to friends or yourself, or it can be a spectacular Hollywood blockbuster with rip-roaring effects. Hell if you’re wild, you can do one of those 4-D experiences, which have 3-D spectacles as well as some activating some of the other senses, the spray of the sea with a mist of water or the smell of something in particular.

Or maybe, with the backing of an entire nation’s government, you use cinema to create an adaptation of what is considered one of the finest artistic and literary achievements in human history. And you do it in four parts. And you spare no expense. And it’s just under seven hours.

Sergei Bondarchuk did that with cinema.


When you have epic literature, and by extension epic cinema, the world becomes a different place. Main characters exist, but they exist in an encompassing world, a world which has multiple levels of orbit. Characters exist in multiple levels of strata, of layers of social status or decorum or class or gender or faith or in fact, all of them. Epic literature is not viewed from the ground, it is viewed from well…everywhere. War and Peace as a story, while it may not literally view the world from God’s eyes, certainly does its best to force you to surrender yourself to such an experience. The shift of the world and all its inhabitants, is one of great moments of voluminous experience, and the gradual unyielding shift of time slowly but surely moving on. War and Peace takes place over the scope of 10 years or so of Russian history in an extremely volatile period, that of the Napoleonic Wars. 7 hours doesn’t seem so big when you consider that amount of time to force into the frame of a film.

What catalyses in the brain of any reader or viewer of any true ‘Epic’, is the sheer scale, the sheer volume of what occurs. An epic may not need 10 years (Homer’s Iliad doesn’t take more than 55 days), but what is needed and what is conveyed, is a true sense of the story beyond any one individual. A story of people, not a person. Because life from the fixed perspective of any one person, can only see so far. So by far, the best and most breathtaking technique employed throughout the film, is scale. And Bondarchuk had an opportunity like no other. Thousands, thousands of extras fill up the space for miles on end, armies moving across the landscape like little blocks, seen from a commanders perspective. But the sheer volume of them is something unseen, something which I can only imagine being matched by the experience of modern-day stadiums of just physically seeing that many people. But those marching blocks soon are involved in the hideous, fascinating art of war. The seemingly endless bloody fields of soldiers, a number in the film so small in comparison to the real battles (At Borodino, 70,000 men died in a single day) is not only unrelenting, but they push you to see the war only as a force, like the wind. The merciless slaughters are only accentuated and revealed by time, never made better.

But the scale of the warfare is only half, albeit an unbelievable, colossal and deeply deeply overwhelming half. The nature of the story can only reach its fullest heights, when war is complemented by its intertwined sibling, peace. And the scale of peace is not something to be brushed aside in favour of the sticky blood spilled across the fields. For the world of this story, is operating under a grand sweep of time across its landscape on all its levels. The rich, vast halls of the aristocracy tower over the parts I & II, an environment for gods and giants to exist in, where every room is a chasm and a theatre simultaneously. Palatial estates are only complemented by the extravagant and unending decorations; the food, the clothes, the ornaments and chandeliers and furniture and more, endless endless arrays of the excesses of the well-to-do of history. The scale of their wealth is staggering, and overwhelms the senses. To really capture extravagance, there is nothing else to do besides show it, and Bondarchuk’s infinite reservoirs of it are a wonder to behold.

A story and a film which runs along the knife-edge of history, especially an aristocratic one, can only do so much for the poor underneath them. For most of history has been written for those above that level, and the voiceless left without a coin to wish upon in history’s fountain. But war, and peace, affect everyone. And the scenes where Pierre spins through Napoleon’s war-torn Moscow, encountering the masses, hold the same spiritual resonance they must do in the original story. For the only thing the poor truly possess in these times is held up as a valuable, dusty and grimed covered object; their spirit. For a story as grand as this, more than blood must be seen, we must look at the chamber that holds it. The heart.

And the film more than many I’ve ever seen, possesses such a wealth of spirit. The story itself is by far the baseline of all that resounding human experience, Pierre and Natasha and Andrei and everyone cascading through your mind and imagination. But also Bondarchuk’s cinematic spirit, is so fantastic to be a witness to. Although often the camera is convinced to play a scene straight, long shots for rooms and close-ups for important conversations, there is some beautiful cinematographic experimentation bursting through the edges of the story. Camera shots which run vertically forward across the battlefield, deep expressionistic smoke-filled backgrounds, completely absorbing you into the gun-powder hell of cannons and mud. A location jump through a transition through a rainy window says so much. One of the most dreamlike and quietly painful executions to ever fall into an image. The camera roves through the landscape, searching among the blown out ruins and palatial spaces picking up whatever it can find, occasionally finding time to ballet around its elements. Covered in blood, it dances.

What more can I ask of War and Peace? What more is there to get from a film? It charts a journey across time, love, war, peace, and everything in between which makes up the rich feast of life. It manages to capture most of the eternal human spirit, it shows us the most significant stories we encounter during a lifetime on Earth. And it does it with such a dizzying, magnificent spectacle of various elements. Of space in its vast expanses of world. Of riches and extravagances, or of poverty and the unyielding mud. The film’s hands pick up the gemstones and the soil alike, and hypnotises and absorbs you into the deeply reverential, deeply mythical, but ultimately deeply human world. And like life’s arching and winding course, it ebbs and flows along a current of events where varying degrees of fate and free will collide and intermingle with each other.

To do this with the mechanics of cinema, to use it to reveal the greatest highs and greatest lows that we can understand, not necessarily through any one particularly overpowering element, but a continual blend and mix, foundations building upon foundations, is cinema on a level that personally I have nothing but the deepest admiration, and reverence for. I could never commit to some of the inevitable brutalities of the film’s arduous and gruelling creation, but Bondarchuk’s sweep is a vast expanse which makes the world feel infinite, overflowing on all sides with the wealth of human lives, ugly or not. Stories and films can exist for infinite reasons, but I find it so brilliant that a film this tectonic, a film which pushes cinema to its absolute limits, really exists at all. It elevates cinema to the highest point of art, to reveal and reflect our understanding of the world, and to take us beyond it.

Truly, what more is there to say with cinema, than to take us on that journey? To make us part of their company, to make us walk through their halls in fine footwear, and walk in soldier’s boots through the mud into the abyss. To climb a mountain, step by step upwards and upwards as life begins to take on a greater and fuller meaning until the story itself ends, regardless of whether any of its characters continue to live and die. For it is cinema. And it is life. And in a rare moment, in this beautiful piece of art, they are the same.

-Alex

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P.S – This post will be updated in the future, once I take the time to watch the new Criterion Release with Janus Films, a 2K restoration of the entire project. It can be pre-ordered here, don’t hesitate to pick up a copy if you can!

 

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War and Peace (Voyna i Mir – 1966-7)

Man With A Movie Camera: The Truth In The Film

Poster for Dziga Vertov's Man With A Movie Camera (1928)

Man With A Movie Camera (Dir. Dziga Vertov, 1929) is a film. That much I am sure of. Beyond that, its all up in the air. That said, you could easily make a case for it being the greatest music video of all time.

That’s not meant to discredit the film in any way. Vertov’s use of music, rhythm and image in this film is just astounding.  It is rare to encounter a work of such guttural primordial force, combined with visuals which work only on the microscopic and the abstract, no brainwashing or brain-numbing occuring. He presents life, or represents life, or re-presents life, in a beautiful organised chaos. And he creates a vision of themes, machinery which has life and talks and sings, people who exist in a variety of forms, each inhabiting their own unique persona in the collage he’s crafting. The cityscape morphing into itself, or the camera operator being in turn captured by the camera eye. All this and much more, all in synchronisation to the dense conceptual symphony of the cityscape he builds, through music and imagery.An illustrious, multi-layered orchestral piece which is a force in its own right, not merely a backing soundtrack. The combination of the two creates this spectral force of cinema.

There’s a small part of me that wants to bring this film down to Earth, to try and help communicate to you just what is going on in the 6 segments of his self titled “experiment”. Because to those who might not be familiar with the historical context of the early Soviet film pioneers, and then also be familiar with Vertov himself, and his theory which underpins part of the ethos of these essays, that of the Kino-Eye, the idea that the camera  is more “perfect than the human eye for fathoming the chaos of those visual phenomena which evoke spatial dimension”, it can be difficult to even comprehend what’s going on. The filmmaking is just so radical, so deeply idiosyncratic and complex in it’s arrangement, that it becomes a vast gap to bridge just to even get on board with it. His experiment in pure cinema, with no script, no actors, no intertitles to provide context, nothing beyond the image and its manipulation, the music and its manipulation, and the interplay of the two to create a film.

This is cinema which exists on its own, cinema which is so deeply personal that the only comparison I can bring up is the work of M.C Escher, an artist who exists outside of the historical art continuum and the popular art continuum, but who is nonetheless an artist of profound depth who’s influence spread far and wide. This is said to be one of the greatest documentaries ever produced, ranked eighth in all world cinema in Sight and Sound’s 2012 poll, a documentary so far removed from any normal definition of documentary that we might imagine that it becomes either a dreamlike joyride or a crushingly boring betrayal slog.

The technical proficiency on display is blisteringly visionary, considering the level of expertise at the time in 1929 (and the three years before during its making), cinema’s existence only around for the last 30 years. The edits, the superimpositions, the splicing and re-orientation of the film itself, the literal film itself as he splits it, mirrors it, shows it being edited by his then wife. The camera becomes a subject of the film, itself being stared at by the kino-eye, as the filmmaker becomes just as important in the tapestry as the world he’s capturing. For that alone, the work is deserving of your time, time which is so precious these day, only clocking in at 69 minutes and managing to retain such a strong pace that most modern films can often lack. The symphonic ending sequence, it’s blindingly fast cuts and encompassing explosion of sound take cinema into the untranslatable, which can only be seen and heard to be understood. It felt ecstatic, revolutionary.

But it is only a film, and a rather curious one at that. Films can only do so much, and their makers even less. This film was Vertov’s call to arms for a (in his eyes) more visionary, a higher cinema. One concerned with poetic, intellectual, portrayals of life, not buried under fiction and lies and myths, what he termed “the opiate of the masses”. It did not take off, and maybe it is better that it did not take off, certainly easier. Vertov was like many visionaries, simply too radical. So consumed in its metaphysical nature, the work was not received well, certainly not with the sense of adulation and respect it holds today in cinematic history. If film had really become like Vertov’s work, imitators would have inevitably diluted the spirit of the entire project. It’s taken this long to properly appraise the work, imagine how it could have blown up if his ethos had become dominant.

I idolise Vertov, I make no secret of it.Half of this essay must read like a love letter to him as much as this film, but the truth that lies in this film’s kino-eye, is its ability to transcend its time and place to make a piece of art that touches on a level beyond words, language even. It is a work which carries a true incendiary spirit, one which I link in terms of true revolutionary cinema to Easy Rider. It is an extraordinary film in that is not like the Soviet contemporaries, nor the American “Talkies” who he reviled, nor like the films of today, it is out of the ordinary. It is not for everyone. The pioneering spirit is not for everyone. That does not mean that those who do not like it as much as me are wrong, or inferior in any way. Simply that I like to imagine I share a spirit with a man who pursued a cinema of vision, at the expense of support and acclaim which could have been granted to him if he had just fallen in line. It is his refusal to fall in line which makes the work great, but also condemns it.

Enough about Man With A Movie Camera. I have spent so long talking about it in the abstract, because that is what it provokes, abstract thought. It has lost some of its original meanings and intentions I’m sure, the passage of time erodes. But it is a work which shows just liberating cinema can be, freed from its conventions. Simply, it must be seen.

The ‘Kino-Eye’ speaks for itself, and it has so much to say.

-Alex

 

(A grand thank you to the folks at Eureka who have distributed a “Masters of Cinema” Edition of this film, which not only has a gorgeous restoration which I viewed for this, but also contains some of his other works, and an excellent collection of additional material and essays. I have not been endorsed by them in any way, I just strongly recommend picking up the special edition if you can find here , it would have made Vertov very proud.)

-Alex

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Man With A Movie Camera: The Truth In The Film