The San Francisco Silent Film Festival unearths a USSR classic
That message seems simple and unimpeachable enough, not to mention spectacularly presented. Yet Nail had the ill fortune to arrive just as USSR arts ideology was changing. The experimentation encouraged in the 1920s was now judged indulgent "formalism" unsuitable for the masses, while a new school of nail-on-the-head "Social Realism" took shape as the sole officially state-sanctioned artistic guideline. Kalatozov's film was denounced as confusing and unrealistic on petty grounds, as well being guilty of "formalistic aestheticism." The film was banned, for a long time considered lost, and beyond a couple features at the start of World War II, Kalatozov was kept offscreen — albeit kicked upstairs to various film administrative posts.
He did well enough in those capacities to become the Soviet film industry's emissary to Hollywood for an extended late 1940s stay. Hobnobbing with stars, he greatly admired the major studios' streamlined production methods and technical advances — but like a good comrade, returned home to condemn Tinsel Town as the apex of capitalist decadence. (Hell yeah!) Then, finally, he was considered rehabilitated enough to trust behind a camera once again.
The results, after a few more conventional features no longer in circulation, were stupendous: 1957's The Cranes Are Flying introduced a new Kalatozov, energetic and inventive as ever, director of photography Sergei Urusevsky's wildly mobile camera replacing rhythmic Eisensteinian montage as his primary instrument. Taken as a cinematic emblem of Khrushchev-era Cold War thawing, it was an international triumph, even if its tragic wartime romance now seems less conceptually unique than two extraordinary (if far less popular) next ventures.
The Unsent Letter (1960) is one of the movies' great man vs. nature depictions, as Soviet geologists searching for diamond deposits in remotest Siberia fall prey to that land's geographic and climatic extremes. I Am Cuba, a Soviet-Cuban collaboration depicting the Cuban revolution on a humongous scale, was derided as being "too Russian" by the Cubanos, "too formalist" (or whatever the current ideological phrase was) by Moscow. Forgotten for decades, it's been much written about lately — suffice to say Roger Ebert thought it contained the single "most astonishing [shot] I have ever seen," amid 141 minutes full of such wonders.
After less idiosyncratic but impressive 1970 Soviet-European superproduction The Red Tent (1970) — an arctic adventure with international stars like Sean Connery and Claudia Cardinale, shot in locations as frigid as 40 below zero — Kalatozov died at age 70, planning another impossibly ambitious epic. In a perfect world, he'd actually finish it, his cryogenically frozen brain retrieved from some secret polar lab. Imagine what he could do with a Steadicam and 3-D; James Cameron might find himself merely a wee prince of the world by comparison.
SAN FRANCISCO SILENT FILM FESTIVAL
429 Castro, SF
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