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Vonya i mir (War and Peace) - Part I - Blather, Rinse, Repeat
December 9th, 2007
09:16 am

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Vonya i mir (War and Peace) - Part I
I was eating lunch at a little teriyaki place near work, and as I was waiting for my chicken with egg roll to show up, I was leafing through one of the local papers' entertainment sections, which mentioned a showing of War and Peace in a rare version, the 7 hour Russian subtitled version, which won an Oscar in 1968 for best foreign film. More impressive than the runtime or the awards is that it cost something like $700 million to film in today's dollars. Yow.

The newspaper article said things about the lavish sets and wonderful cinematography, but I found the 'most expensive film ever made' bit compelling, so I went to see Part I yesterday. It's somewhat confusing; there are title cards in the film as presented that divide the movie into four parts, but the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) are showing it in two pieces, Parts I&II, and then Parts III&IV. The confusing bit is that I'm pretty sure I saw "End of Part I" twice on-screen. Maybe I fell asleep, and dreamed the end of Part I.

Each half of the SIFF screening is a $10 admission, and you can see them in one long day, or broken up. I'm going for the broken up approach, largely to fit the movie into an already busy holiday schedule. The fact I won't be sitting in a movie theater for 7 hours in one day is a bonus.

But is the movie any good? Well, I haven't read the book, so I don't know the story. I'm having a hard time keeping some of the characters straight, and sometimes there are important bits that aren't clear to me. For example, there's a bit where Pierre's wife engineers a humiliation of Natasha as a way to embarrass Pierre. Or, I overheard that Pierre's wife set up that chain of events as I was walking out of the theater - was that made more explicit in the book? Was I supposed to pick it up by glances at the opera? More importantly, what's the relationship between Pierre and Natasha? There's certainly affection between the two of them, and early on, Pierre refers to Natasha as his protege, whatever that means.

So, I'm a little buffaloed by the story, which I could have remedied by reading classic literature in my formative years. Or in the 24 hours between hearing about the movie and the curtain going up. I considered finding the Cliff's Notes, but even that would take me a while to get through.

Oh, also, the entire film is subtitled. Not a major problem in itself, but the subtitles could be revisited and the experience could improve a great deal. To begin with, the font is a curious narrow font in yellow, which often gets lost against the white background. (It's in Russia. It snows in Russia. Snow is white. Dig how clever a filmmaker I am.) One thing that I've done when I want text to stand out from a varying background is to put a contrasting shadow just underneath the text, so perhaps a yellow font, with a black shadow. Alternately, an outline on all sides. It's not rocket surgery.

Also, the subtitles themselves could stand a good proofreading. I can understand when closed captioning gets certain words mangled when trying to keep up with live coverage, but it seems like subtitles for a movie would have the luxury of being able to be reviewed and when Pierre says he wants to "brust" forward, that could be fixed to "burst". Also, if you're going to tinker with the translation, there's a scene where a young woman is anxious at night and tells a servant to fetch her a "cock". Ahem. Suggest using "chicken" or "rooster" instead.


The more "classic" film I see, the more I realize I'm not seeing what the true film buffs go nuts over. Maybe I should have taken a film appreciation class in school, but I don't think I'm appreciating all the things that makes this movie stand out. There have been some impressive scenes of battles, which are remarkable in the use of lots and lots of actual Russian soldiers (IMDB gives a figure of 120,000 extras, which is an interesting piece of trivia). So, I'm appreciating the scale of the movie along that dimension. I also am enjoying the pace of the movie at times - a 2 hour film is too short for any good novel, much less an epic. At seven hours, scenes that might otherwise be edited out, or condensed to a few lines, play out in a way that feels more appropriate (Pierre talking to his soon-to-be-betrothed, Pierre's duel). However, there are times when I suspect that Bondarchuk (who directed, as well as getting screenwriting and acting credits) is adhering a little too closely to Tolstoy's text, including scenes that could have been removed without impairing the progression of the plot.

One thing that I'm doing as I watch (as a distraction, or as a mental process to help me stay engaged with the characters?) is recasting the movie. Part of it is that the existing cast reminds me of a few actors I already know. Pierre is Garrison Keillor. Natasha is a young Audrey Hepburn (specifically, from "Breakfast at Tiffany's"). Lisa(?) could be Molly Parker.


A friend of mine abuses me for wanting to use too complex a film rating system. In his mind, all the information he needs is conveyed in a binary "thumbs up"/"thumbs down" decision. The closest I can get to that is to describe the audiences that would probably be most likely to enjoy the movie. I think you have to be familiar with the story, and be prepared for characters to go by different names at different points. You have to enjoy reading. I'm sure if you know Russian, there are party scenes with overlapping voices that would be richer for you than the subtitle-reading audience would experience.


I've only seen the first three and a half hours (oof), and I'm figuring out where the remainder fits in my schedule, so clearly I can't comment on the entire movie. But I am intending to return to the theater and return to the world of 1812 Russia, so that's one measure of the film. It might also be a measure of my inclination for self-punishment. Hard to say.

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From:ginsu
Date:December 9th, 2007 06:33 pm (UTC)
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The closest I can get to that is to describe the audiences that would probably be most likely to enjoy the movie. I think you have to be familiar with the story, and be prepared for characters to go by different names at different points. You have to enjoy reading.

I've had a related discussion with my mother's significant other, who used to be a film critic.

His strategy was similar to what you describe; he would, in writing up a film, try to assess how different kinds of people might appreciate a movie. But I had always read his reviews specifically because they usually paralleled mine in test cases; if they hadn't, I would've picked another critic.

there's a scene where a young woman is anxious at night and tells a servant to fetch her a "cock". Ahem. Suggest using "chicken" or "rooster" instead

How do you know she wanted a chicken or rooster?
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From:tsmaster
Date:December 10th, 2007 07:23 pm (UTC)
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more film history and understanding the environment in which the "classic" film was made

If I'm getting nothing else out of my stubborn determination to march through my "must see" classic film list, I'm making sure I expose myself to the landmarks of cinema.

Similar to your comments on The Exorcist, I've not long ago come to the realization that I don't care for most of Hitchcock - even though I know that they serve as important inspirations and references for many of the movies that I do enjoy.
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