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The International Writers Magazine:
Film Talk

The Couch Potato Film Festival
Dean Borok
I didn’t really see the point of attending the Cannes Film Festival this year. None of my favorite films like “A Lawyer’s Path to Wisdom” or “The Catacombs Strike Back” made it to the final selection. Since my pal Madoff lost his French yacht and got locked up for eternity-plus-150 years, I would not have anybody to hang out with anyway.


I don’t know about you, but I’m sick to death of oysters and champagne. Too rich. I feel the yearning to get back to my roots, and nothing does that better than a nice box of Ritz Crackers and an aerosol can of Cheez Whiz that I can slurp right from the nozzle. Now that’s entertainment!

I determined to create my own film festival, right at home. Not wishing to distract my girlfriend, Magpie, from her usual TV viewing habits (if she doesn’t get her daily dose of Lindsay Lohan updates, she goes apeshit) I went to Kiss Electronics on 125th Street in Harlem, where the prices are so cheap that you really have to wonder about the provenance of their merchandise, and selected a 7” portable DVD player. The New York Public Library, with its superb selection of DVD’s on loan completed the equation. After that, it was just to curl up on my sofa, take a couple of hits off a joint, put on my headset and let myself be swept away to worlds beyond my imagining.

Andrei Rubelev (USSR 1964 Dir. Andrei Tarkovski).

Living in the U.S., you sometimes have to pinch yourself to remember what a big cinematic world it is out there. The Soviet epic "Andrei Rubelev" is a reminder what immense resources that government was prepared to consecrate to culture, once it was able to settle on a theme that didn’t offend the official orthodoxy.

Not that Andrei Rubelev didn’t come close. It was banned in Russia for many years, and only truncated versions were shown in Europe. Soviet premier Breshnev walked out midway through a private screening in the Kremlin, and it ignited a controversy in France, where it was shown at the Cannes Film Festival amid rioting. Forget about the U.S.! If it was shown here at all, maybe it was seen by 10 film critics.

Andre Rubelev celebrates the life and circumstances surrounding the work of Russia’s most historical painter of religious themes and church icons. While there are a lot elements in director Tarkovsky’s work that are compared to Ingemar Bergman, and, indeed, Bergman himself expressed admiration for Tarkovski, I myself kept seeing elements of Federico Fellini, right from the opening scene, where Rubelev flies over the Russian countryside in a primitive hot air balloon, reminiscent of the opening scene of La Dolce Vita, where a helicopter hovers above Rome bearing a statue of the Madonna suspended by a cable.

Like many of Fellini’s films, Andrei Rubelev is recounted in a series of sequences that, having little connection as a narrative theme, are only bound together because Rubelev is either present or because the events affected him at a remove. The viewer gets a concept of the immensity of 15th century Russia, when  there were no roads and the only means of getting about were by foot or my horse. The place was so vast, getting out was impossible. Basically, no other life was iminaginable. Rubelev and his assistants take shelter in a town to escape the downpour and witness a show by a professional jester, which you could say was the precursor of today’s stand-up comics, with the exception that if anybody found his jokes offensive he was just as likely to have his head smashed into a tree trunk and then be thrown into a dungeon for ten years.

The pillage and rape of the city of Vladimir by a marauding Tartar army is reproduced in loving detail for about 30 minutes, with beheadings, torture, hacking, raping, hanging and impaling on spears. Animals were not spared, and a lot of horses were actually mutilated in the interest of historical realism.

A group of artists tries to leave the employ of a noble to go to work for his brother, who is offering to pay more money. Enraged, the prince sends out his soldiers to ambush the artists in the woods, where they poke the men’s eyes out with daggers.

Since the movie was about iconography and decorating churches, there naturally followed that a lot of discussions about Christ and his disciples would occur, which must have driven the Kremlin crazy! But to their credit, the Soviet hierarchy permitted the film to be made. All the preachiness, a lot of which sounded as though it had been lifted from Bergman, was not offensive to this viewer because it was appropriate to the subject matter of this film.

Most striking was the concluding episode, which portrayed the creation of a massive church bell to be hung in the church tower. The bell was cast in the town square, adjacent to the church, because it would have been too heavy to transport. For this, the bell casters would build a tremendous kiln; construct the mould from clay; melt down the silver, which the feudal lord had looted from the peasants; pour the liquid metal into the mould, and fire up the kiln, using gigantic bellows specially constructed for this purpose, all the time praying that the mould would not break open from the tremendous heat of the kiln.

The anxiety of the artisans was exponentially increased because they were being directed not by the master bell caster, who had died of the plague, but by his teenage son. They knew that if the bell did not come out perfect, they would all be tortured to death in the prince’s dungeons.

I read about the process of bell casting from a description of the creation of bronze doors for a church in 16th century Florence written by art historian Giorgio Vassari, and was quite excited to see the process replicated in cinema.

The Last Supper (Cuba 1976 dir. Tomas Gutierrez Alea)

Whatever you want to say about Cuba, they are not ones to sugarcoat the reality of life under colonialism. In this gem of a film, the eighteenth century Spanish slaveholder, who is more than a little crazy, decides to uphold the sanctity of Good Friday by inviting a dozen of his slaves to attend a luxurious “Last Supper” at his banquet table, which is an uproarious piece of ensemble staging. The next day, the slaves, newly emboldened and inspired by the possibilities presented to them at the master’s table, go on a rampage, hacking the overseer with machetes, breaking his wife’s neck and torching the plantation. By the end of the film, the plantation owner has reverted to traditional mercantile methods, and the men’s heads are displayed on pikes. All except for the one that got away…

Rome, Free City (Italy 1947 dir. Marcello Pagliero)

Everybody’s broke and about 1cm. from committing suicide, except Giuseppi, a portly, dapper gangster who sports a suit and a Homburg hat as he climbs roofs and scoots down drainpipes looking for rooms to burglarize. Giuseppi would adjust well to prison because his life is more balletic and poetic. When he runs out of cash, Giuseppi just mugs somebody on the dark streets of Rome. All the women are selling themselves to pay the rent on their rooms, and all the men are armed with pistols and searching for somebody to stick up.

The film takes you through a typical night in Rome’s postwar demimonde, with holdups, burglaries, stolen jewelry, a police raid, a gambling casino and a strip club. When dawn breaks, everybody exclaims, “Wow, what a night!”

This portable DVD player has really rocked my world. I have practically quit working out, reading, or even writing. All I want to do is absorb all the great world cinema of the past 100 years. Even ten years ago, the idea of a tiny movie theater the size of a hardcover book that you could carry around in your shoulder bag was inconceivable. As Frank Zappa once put it, “Now that I’ve got you, I’m never gonna let you go, baby!”

I’m not saying all this cinema will make me a more intelligent person, but I’m certain that it will transform me into a more pedantic bore.
© Dean Borok May 2010

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