Monday, April 14, 2008

Ivan's Childhood: the special pleasure of genius not yet fully formed

Though sometimes underappreciated by the director’s admirers as a less mature work, one predating his soon-to-be realized aspirations toward a very particular formal and philosophical rigour, Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1962 film Ivan’s Childhood deserves to be seen and re-seen for perhaps these very same reasons. A film about the corruption of innocence, it is in fact characterized by the endearing innocence of its approach, one expressing a budding director’s youthful enthusiasm for staging images of simple (if enigmatic) lyrical beauty that contrast the story’s underpinning theme of the tragic toll of war on man and nature. Tarkovsky would go on to make films far more ambitious, audacious and personal than Ivan’s Childhood, but none of them that possess quite the same affecting charm.

Since this was Tarkovsky’s first film after leaving film school, and since the project didn’t originate with Tarkovsky (he inherited it from another director who’d been ushered off the film, while the script was an adaptation of Vladimir Bogomolov’s novel)
Ivan’s Childhood can be seen as a sort of bridge linking Tarkovsky’s apprenticeship within the approved vocabulary and ideology of the “thawed” but still restrictive post-Stalin Soviet film industry to the deeply idiosyncratic, unabashedly complex and poetic body of work that would come to distinguish Tarkovsky as one of the world’s most distinctive, dazzling and, for some, frustrating filmmakers. Watching it today in Criterion’s lovingly packaged and supplemented new DVD release, we can see the film as a beguiling and fascinating artifact of a certain moment in history.

However, the moment in which
Ivan’s Childhood is set takes us back more than a decade and a half before the film’s year of release. Its titular character (played with striking polarities of unadulterated awe and rugged, preternatural confidence by Nikolai Burlyaev) is a 12-year-old scout working for the Soviet military during the closing chapters of World War II. Ivan’s family has been murdered by Nazis, violently hurling him into a world of adult grotesqueries to which he has adapted all too well. He used to talk in his sleep, he tells a grown-up comrade, but now he lacks rest, and is nervous all the time. He’s made strong alliances with Russian field commanders and is considered a valuable asset. He’s threatened at certain points with being transferred to a military school and angrily protests the idea, saying he’s more useful at the front. His superiors must agree, since Ivan’s childhood will continue to be spent on the peripheries of combat, and will in fact never progress to manhood proper.

For those familiar with the imagery of his subsequent work, Tarkovsky’s most obvious contributions to the story of
Ivan’s Childhood are the film’s multiple dream/memory sequences: the beatific mother walking along the beach, the cart spilling apples which are muzzled and chewed by dewy horses, the rustling of leaves as they brush past Ivan’s naked skin and the otherwise absent sunlight and clean water. With these digressions, Tarkovsky takes a technique so basic to storytelling and brings it to an impressive level of multiple meanings and cinematic textures. Yet really, the bleak realistic scenes in the film are equally evocative and lulling in their frequently vertical imagery: the flares that fall like stars, the dangling nooses, the tall, spectral birch trees, the crashed plane and a memorable kiss shared over a trench that gradually doubles in our imagination as an abyss.

It should also be said that it’s here in Tarkovsky’s feature debut that his influences are presented most nakedly. He produces interesting variations on the stylistic flights found in previous Russian war films, such as
The Cranes Are Flying, certain deeper compositions echo those of Orson Welles and Ingmar Bergman, and the film’s scenes of hushed, crouched movement in dark water pleasingly recall Ugetsu, the most famous work by Kenji Mizoguchi, one of Tarkovsky’s few confessed idols. Rather than make Ivan’s Childhood feel derivative, these references function as a sort of starting point for Tarkovsky’s directorial journey.

Criterion’s package includes an illuminating half-hour commentary by Tarkovsky scholar Vida T. Johnson, who co-authored the terrific book
The Films of Andrei Tarkovsky: A Visual Fugue, placing special emphasis on Tarkovsky’s use of other art forms such as music, literature and painting in the development of his style and content. There are also interviews with cinematographer Vadim Yusov and the now middle-aged Burlyaev, who tells a great little story about Tarkovsky’s osmosis-like way of instructing his actors. As well, a handsome booklet includes a poem by Tarkovsky’s dad and essays by Tarkovsky and Dina Iordanova.

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