Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Dr. Zhivago

Dr. Zhiv is repugnant, yes? All the film elites (the REAL film elites) think so, n’est pas?

Is that only because it is so adored by the army of faux film elites? See, nearly every movie reviewer in the English language can be placed in one of two camps: the REAL Film Elites (most dead), and the Faux Film Elites (everybody else). The Faux Film Elites are the merely banal and broadly employed, if not broadly read, (does anyone really read film criticism these days? I guess they read "film reviews," anyhow). They approach films scatter-shot, thumbs up or down. Maybe there's a small peninsula jutting off this Antartica that defines itself as "Indie" or "Alternative" criticism, but it looks less and less likely their iceberg will ever break off and drift along its own current, (these guys are nearly all so obviously manipulated by political considerations as to be completely untrustworthy, unless you go to movies for politics--I don't claim to disagree with whatever vague politics they feel they are upholding by supporting "x" film advocating "y" position, I just think aesthetics should be far above that, and film suffers for such considerations).

"Must Love Dogs," a recent movie which I don't even know how to judge, gives Zhivy a high-profile cameo as the filmic source of romantic inspiration and sustenance for the male lead character, John Cusak (whom I like, if only because he looks so damn much like my pal Paul Fix--and no, not thet Paul Fix, the famous cowboy of yore, who never liked me). Why? I mean, why Zhivy?

The Faux Film Elites (which for all intents are publicly, broadly recognized as the deFacto true Film Elites, because the real Film Elites are so marginal, distant, and unknown) are the ones addressed when Zhivy is chosen as the filmic symbol of taste and emotional legitimacy in a contemporary movie such as “Must Love Dogs.” Zhivy is chosen over something more palatable and flattering to the real film elite’s taste, something like “Régle de Jeue,” say, or something by Tarkovsky. This army of prevailing film elites, this mass of the “film elite lite”, marching with thumbs turning up and down in unison, with Roger Ebert, David Edelstein, Kenneth Turan and Joel Seigel at their heard, so vast is this army that the real film elites live in terror of being absorbed by it, and expend great effort crafting sturdy defences of differentiation to keep themselves separated.

Dr. Zhivago is one of the sturdiest bulwarks in the Fortress of Film Superiority.

On that rare occassion a revival showing of some "classic" film makes its way into a box review in a paper's Thursday movie supplement, the rating assigned is always significant: should a flick like Zhivy receive the publicly demanded four stars ("a classic!"), the reviewer places himself in the Faux Film Elites' camp; should the reviewer buck convention and give it anything less than three stars, he/she is making a bold claim to membership in the Real Film Elite. It's a handy shock calling-card to upend the accepted pantheon. And sometimes, it is very welcome.

It is true that there is something repugnant in the self-important grandiosity that mortises together every frame of David Lean/Robert Bolt's production of the Pasternak novel.

But I don'tknow what sort of rating I'd give it. Does it get four or five stars because of its ambition? Or because it "succeeds on such a grand scale?" I don't really know if it succeeds. It feels very remote from today, very safe and unshocking, even for the attempt to depict shocking sexual relationships. What should be a film's true ambition? Ambitiousness? Or honesty? Or newness, uniqueness?

There are a couple moments that make it all worthwhile. Actually, not worthwhile in a way that works in harmony with the obvious intentions of the film—they work because they seem to have nothing to do with the grandiosity of the whole enterprise, and instead offer memorable moments of the powerlessness and smallness of man in a world where his feelings are so unable to bring about their own fulfillment.

I can do without the fantasy of storming a society ball in the worn wool coat and Lenin/Lennon cap of a student armed only with rage. I can do without the passage at the field hospital, where it seems we've suddenly switched channels to a TV soap, circa 1962, starring Julie Christie and Omar Sharif, each trying to out ham the other as the more dedicated, the more long suffering, the more forbearing, the more self-sacrificing, the more in love, the more worthy of love. I can do without much of Rod Steiger (too often relied upon to give context, commentary and scope to everything in the story, on and off screen, and just too damn taken with the idea of his own importance as an actor): or the cardboard devotions to Yuri from his wife, uncle and aunt, the big build to discovering the key and the note behind the brick in Greimyko (?)(or was the note on the table?) (which is a pleasant build, esp. when you know it is coming--and then the stop when Omar sees himself in the mirror, looking so desiccated, and the breakdown--there is a nice rhythm to all this, but the whole scene is just addressing our vanity when we, happy and warm in the audience, are asked "What if YOU looked like this?"), allof this is intolerably sentimental and desperate for our identification and approval.

But then how often do I recall the scene where Rod Steiger refutes Zhivy's dismissal of the danger Julie Christie faces because of her long-absent husband. That interest in the wife he cut loose years before is assumed to be so distant, but here's Steiger telling us, "He was caught a mile outside of Greimyko...." The few stages of this character's life come so vividly to life, and the stages describe such a jagged, but instantly recognizable trajectory of anyman's life path, here dramatized with historical import and dramatic frou-frou, (essentially they are describing an innocent who left his first love for greater glory, and attempta a too-late reunion after crushing disillusion--it could just as well be a man long divorced trying in his last hours to return to the wife he left 20 years before) that I can't help but think of the folly of ambition, or the hollowness of the man of ambition, or whose ambitions were never really in concert with their heart (a cliché).

And the death of Zhivago, the three stage stroke that stops him from realizing his reunion with Julie. It's melodramatic, but the bright street with all those diagonals is so believably distanced from the earlier part of the picture. And Chrisite's propaganda poster contentment as she marches away from the spastic death of her lover: it's so tasteless, that expression on her face. It could only have been put there by the director's bullhorn.

(I must say the whole ending seems less good now that I've written it out like that.)

Part of the appeal is the rhythm of the scene, the bright sky, sidewalk curbs as exact as Rodchenko constructs. The weird seizures Omar concocts.

And there's the music, again so trite (esp. if you know the lyrics), but happily undercutting the hyper-seriousness: it's a little trashy, and the ersatz exoticism of zither trills and sleigh bells helps direct us toward appreciating the pastichey fun of it all.

And lastly there is Sir Alec Guiness, walking around like an androgyne train conductor on a martial Thomas the Communist Tank Engine. He looks like an old lady! He looks like Linda Hunt in The Year of Living Dangerously! (When I first saw scenes of her from that 80's movie, half-noticed as promotions on a pay cable network, I thought, "Is that Obi-Wan?" I was probably the only one to think that)

And then that gave us another little scene of resistance, of resisting the easy reunion.

It seems these moments exist for the people skeptical of the pic's overwrought depiction of transcendant love. But it is really this transcendant love that's become the movie's legacy, a sort of stop-gap between Casablanca and Lovestory in the popular imagination, prefiguring Cameron's Titanic in the celebration of love as centered on the self, and worth any price to attain.

Was Alec Guiness a woman?