Ivan’s Childhood

I hadn’t heard of director Andrei Tarkovsky before. Nor had I ever heard of actor Nikolay Burlyaev. I haven’t seen many Russian films and I wasn’t particularly looking for a difficult film but something about Tarkovsky’s WWII film Ivan’s Childhood (1962) grabbed me though it took a while.

Around 12 years old, Ivan dreams of his idyllic childhood playing at the beach, chatting with his young mother, running freely. Then he wakes up. He’s in a dark, war-torn, God-forsaken landscape. He trudges through a murky river (which looks like a marsh, but it’s a degenerated river and a symbol the effects of war) before he’s captured by Russian soldiers. Back at the soldiers’ post, Ivan is fierce and orders the soldiers about. He orders the soldiers to call “Number 51 at HQ.” They try to put him in his place, but you’ve never seen a fiercer 12 year old. Played by Nikolay Burlyaev, Ivan is like no character you’ve ever seen. In the dream sequences he’s pure and innocence; once he’s orphaned and becomes an army scout Ivan’s transformed to a force of nature on par with a hurricane.

Ivan prevails in convincing his comrades in arms that he should continue his reconnaissance work and not get shipped off to the much safer military school. Viewing the film, I knew that the soldiers should not have agreed, but that’s where the suspense comes in.

ivans_childhood

Tarkovsky gives us amazing images like none I’ve ever seen. He believed in using the environment like the murky river, a bombed peasant farm house and a white birch forest speak volumes. I’ll never forget the dream sequence when Ivan and a little girl are riding in a pick up truck filled with apples. The sky and trees are shown in the negative, which was mind-blowing.

There’s a lot of intense emotion. One example is a scene with an officer flirting with a female junior officer who’s very tentative. He wants her; it’s not clear what she wants. Without graphic nudity or direct language Tarkovsky gives us a powerful scene of cat and mouse in the birch forest that goes on forever.

The Criterion Collection DVD comes with fascinating extras including an interview with the now grown (i.e. middle aged) Nickolay Burlyaev, who recalls how hard Tarkovsky made him work to get the part and then how kind and sensitive the director was during the filming of this emotionally intense story.

I found the film challenging to watch. It’s no day at the beach, which is fitting for a war film. Yet Ivan’s Childhood is well worth watching.

 

 

L’Enfance Neu

L'enfance nue

In the same vein as Truffaut’s 400 Blows, L’Enfance Neu presents the story of a troubled boy growing up in 1960s France. In fact, François Truffaut produced this first film directed by Maurice Pialat.

While the actors in both films resemble each other, their personalities and stories are distinct. L’Enfance Neu is about François, an 11 year old, in the foster care system. His mother has abandoned him temporarily when he was 4. She doesn’t write and the boy knows little of her and nothing of his father. At the start he lives with a family, who has had enough of him. He steals, wets his bed, hangs out with the “bad boys” who mistreat cats and probably any other pet or person they impetuously think would be fun to test.

Yet François has his good side. He buys his foster mom a gift with the money his foster father gave him for his own use. He is a normal brother to the foster parents’ “real” daughter, who tells the social worker she likes François and would miss him if he left. The mother has a laundry list of François’ every fault and misdeed and the social worker realizes its pointless to leave the boy in this setting.

So François is shipped off to a new town where he’s placed with an elderly couple, who’ve been foster parents to dozens of kids including the teen Raoul, who lives there now.  The couple is loving and pragmatic. They get exasperated when François gets in trouble with his hooligan friends, but they respond as most parents do and they forget his past deeds and see the good in this troubled boy.

The story doesn’t end by tying a bright satin bow on the end, but neither does it just stop without some resolution. It’s realistic and fair to all sides. It doesn’t provide easy answers. François’ certainly affected by his parents’ abandoning him, but he’s also no worse than the kids who have parents. None of them say, “We shouldn’t through the cat down the stairwell” or “We shouldn’t steal ice cream” at the movie theater. In that scene there were several older boys who knew better. In fact, one of the older boys was a lot more self-destructive than François.

I appreciated the realism and the fair shake all the characters got. You could sympathize with both the foster parents, François and the others in the film. While the foster system is far from perfect, these social workers were conscientious.

Pialat worked with non-actors and the natural performances were as good as any professional’s. This was Maurice Pialat‘s first film, which I highly recommend. I’d definitely seek out others.

 

Chef Flynn

A patron recommended the documentary Chef Flynn about Flynn McGarry, a boy who’s been creating fine dining experiences since he was in middle school. Flynn’s mom, a filmmaker who repeatedly laments putting her own career on the back burner, has supported Flynn’s cooking since he was a toddler and was probably eating organic baby food.

While watching a prodigy teach himself the fine points of gourmet cooking was interesting, I found the stage mom’s hovering hard to watch. It’s great to see a parent promote a child’s interests and talent development, but this “support” can cross a line into control and vicarious living. In Chef Flynn I saw that misstep from the mother who continues to film her kids even when they ask her to stop and when she inserts close ups of her business card into the documentary. Sometimes the mom offered solid common sense, but often she made me cringe when she asked Flynn how many “Likes” he’d received or when she got up in the middle of the night to see if The New York Times story was published online and then worried that it wasn’t online at the minute it was promised. Of course, a mom would buy the paper featuring her son, That’s normal, but getting up before the sun and refreshing a page compulsively because the article wasn’t yet posted was fanatic. And all that hovering as well as the self-imposed pressure for Flynn to make it big as a world class chef as a teen was painful to watch.

I also wish the father had been able to speak in the film. What does he think about the family, about Flynn’s talent and success? We get all our information and the analysis of her divorce from the mom. Again, painful to watch since it’s clear to the audience what’s missing.

Only Yesterday

When 27 year old Taeko takes a vacation from her office job in Tokyo, childhood memories flood in, making the young woman take stock of her life. Taeko loves the countryside and jumps into working in the fields with her grandmother. This passion mystifies her sisters.

In the country, Taeko is haunted by memories from her 5th grade self. She looks back at the gossiping classmates, her outsider status at home and how she missed out on a chance to act because her father disproved of theatrics. She was and still is a dreamer, who was at times, kind, selfish, a follower, a betrayer and a doormat. In essence, Taeko lived through the slings and arrows of tween life.

Romance almost buds when Taeko meets Toshio, a young farmer who’s left the city to start an organic farm, before most people had heard of them. Toshio and Taeko have a bond and become fast friends. They both love rural life, but when urged to consider Toshio in terms of romance, Taeko can’t handle it.

This animated film has lush, detailed illustrations of scenery. Seeing the homes, the trains, forest and details like the burners for mosquito repellant, the tea kettle or kerosene heaters, makes me remember my time in Japan. I thought the artists drew the children better than the older characters, but that is a mild criticism. Also, I wish they had kept this film in Japanese and had subtitles or offered a choice for dubbing. That way, I could have escaped into the movie further still. All in all, Only Yesterday is a beautiful film that’s best considered as a contemplation of the past. The ending isn’t very satisfying, but I think viewers should consider this a depiction of a life, rather than a story with a definite end.