About Things Great and Small
There’s something inherently weighty about Russian storytelling. Many of my favorite writers and tales come from that part of the world. Upheaval, revolution, conscription, starvation, privation—it seems for the last two centuries, Russia/USSR/Russia has seen the pendulum swing with violent abandon in both directions. Such shifting terrain breeds heavy hearts and wonderful art; the data would suggest so, anyhow.
I’ve written on more than one occasion about Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, but today it’s film talk. I’d like to recommend a movie that most people my age probably haven’t seen: Dr. Zhivago.
I took some notes in an attempt to clarify why it’s so good. Superficially, I think it’s safe to say that the cinematography and direction are incredible. David Lean is the director—no one else pulled off an epic like that guy. He’s so patient and still with the camera. If a shot is good, he doesn’t disturb it. It’s the opposite of what you see in most modern movies. He lets all the fantastic actors do their thing—lets the dialogue seep into your veins without shifting you too rapidly into the next scene.
I’ve seen some criticism leveled at Zhivago from time to time. It’s too long and dreary, some would say. As much as I’d like to argue, it is long and dreary. You definitely need some time to watch it, and the mood has to be right. Almost like reading a heavy novel, mindset is important. This isn’t an ideal film to have playing in the background while you organize your socks.
This is a serious love story. Everybody’s passing each other by, and the near-misses are heartbreaking to watch. That said, some of the lines are money. There’s a scene when Zhivago is trying to say that he loves the female lead, Lara. She says that he needs to tap the breaks before anything bad happens. “You understand that?” she says. “You understand everything,” she follows.
This is great, because she’s telling him they can’t be together all the while showing us that she admires and loves him unequivocally. Sure, it’s typical star-crossed stuff, but the double meanings are beautiful.
So love. Big deal. Well—it is, actually, though my masculine-lizard-caveman brain would prefer to deny it. The question I end up asking when I watch the movie is, “who cares?” This is The Great War and the overthrowing of the Czar. Bolsheviks doing their crazy thing, classes cutting each other’s throats because I’m supposed to hate the rich and the rich are supposed to hate me. Upheaval, revolution, conscription, starvation, privation—I said something about it earlier.
A couple things. The love stories are made more real by the hatred surrounding them. Zhivago’s a good dude from a crazy world trying to do his best, but he’s a poet and therefore a little out of place in the soulless world of Bolshevism. There’s a horrifying scene where his family’s house is taken over by the Party and he’s allowed to live in a tiny section of the place he grew up in. Without getting into politics, the simple callousness of the scene is wrenching to watch. It makes the character’s longing for connection a more reasonable thing. You’d be a little hard-up for love if it was freezing balls outside and everyone around you was saying comrade and looking to have you murdered so they could take your coat.
I love this movie because it tackles human problems great and small with equal sensitivity and focus. This is hard to do. The country matters. But so do the people. It’s a historical/political story that is rooted in the life of our main character. He’s flawed and tragic and good. The acting by Omar Sharif is fantastic. His eyes are intense. I guarantee they scrapped dialogue from the script simply because his stare is worth more than a sentence by some douche writer.
So parcel out three weeks, get a dump-truck full of popcorn, and call in sick. That should give you enough time. I’d like to be able to talk to someone my age about this frigging thing. Cheers and see you after.