Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Dr. Zhivago: burial through the eyes of a child...


So, Barnes and Nobles was having this buy 2 get 1 free DVD sale. Now normally their prices keep me away but with this deal I had a great chance to load up on stuff I may not normally get a chance to get a hold of. I raided the Criterion section and got a lot of Miyazaki stuff but probably the best disc I stumbled on was a copy of Doctor Zhivago.

I remember seeing this back in High School and just being blown away. They took everything I had been exposed to about film making and just pushed it. They had a collection of probably the most talented actors at the time working together (Yes that is freakin' Obi-Wan - Alec Guinness in the beginning; not this scene but the start of the film) in the first scene, these incredible set designs lit and colored in ways that felt painterly but not disconnected or unauthentic and some of greatest and most original camera direction ever. The scene I'm Youtubing up here is the second in the film (following the prologue with Obi-Wan) where the film's protagonist, Yuri, experiences the burial of his mother at a very young age.

But first, let's see what else is going on with funerals in movie/TV land:


Yeah...she's even cute at a funeral.

That dude just showed up two days ago! Why is he a bearer! That's the term right? bearer?

Nowadays, most of the time you have a funeral scene and it’s pretty standard. In fact, a lot of times it’s lazy, even in otherwise fun films. You have some very standard components: it’s always raining, we have shots of various people breaking down and crying (a lot of times these are unidentified people we don’t care about), there’s always a solitary figure standing off alone in the distance looking on and then you always have a character looking over and reacting to them standing alone (you see this more on TV cop shows then anything else). It all works, but you’ve seen it enough times that it feels easy and expected. It’s usually not a challenge to the viewer’s emotions anymore.

Now check this out:



What the director chose to do in this scene was tell the story from the perspective of the child: literally, the perspective of the child. In general most shots from this scene are from a camera that seems to be placed about three to three and a half feet off the ground or just about the height of young Yuri.



The scene opens with a huge sweeping shot of the region – rural Russia. This shot is massive and powerful but you are given generous time to take in everything that sets the stage for the scene. The massive mountains grab you first but your eye eventually wanders down and we see the three key elements: a small village in the distance, a large group of people in black moving across the field towards the camera and in the foreground a Russian orthodox cross indicating the graveyard.

This shot doesn’t just set up the scene it pretty much sets the tone for the entire film. We see that this film is going to be epic, that it is going to be quite a long journey and that ultimately it will end with death. At least that’s my interpretation. (Oops...spoiler alert...c'mon it's a Soviet epic what were you expecting?!)



We cut into the funeral procession on young Yuri. He isn’t crying or weeping; he isn’t angry or distraught. He is completely confused as to what is occurring! Apparently rural Russia didn’t have much in the way of child psychology specialists before the Bolshevik Revolution.

The camera work here is excellent we are put right into Yuri’s viewpoint for many of the shots.



- We see him looking up at his mothers casket as the procession leads to the graveyard. In a very real sense this is where she should be in his mind. This is how it’s been his whole life; his mother is above him, he looks up at her as he always had when she was alive. She was the source of authority, love and consistency for him.


- Most of the shots of Yuri’s face show once again the incredible confusion taking place in his mind. He really can’t process what is going on here and no one seems to have prepared him for this. No one is really there to comfort or guide him through what is happening.



- Next from his perspective the men walking in front of him move to the side and reveal the grave. This is a hole in the ground and this is starting to make less and less sense then ever to Yuri.




- Yuri’s eyes follow as his mother's casket is laid on the ground. This is making even less sense to him. Metaphorically, they are showing a power and leadership shift in his life. His mother is now the only person below his eye level. She is the only person he is looking down on. His primary caretaker, provider of authority and love is now less powerful than him. She is dead and soon she will be dust. Now Yuri must look up to and at the new authority and direction in his life, these strangers that surround him.





- The priest begins speaking. We have an upward shot of him as the camera is at Yuri’s viewpoint. But the priest is shown as especially powerful. He is delivering these strange words; this unfathomable explanation of what has happened to his mother (“the spirit has left its tabernacle; its flesh now goes black and lifeless…”.



- Yuri looks down on his mother; she still seems beautiful and serene. It’s as if she were just laying there. How could what the priest is saying be true. But as he is looking down some leaves fall on his mother. There are many meanings tied to this: the cycle of death, the realization that his mother isn’t going to just wake up and brush off the leaves. (True, he probably knows that his dead mother isn't going to zombie out and remove debris but once again these shots are about things finally sinking in.)




- Yuri looks up distracted and confused by the leaves and takes in the trees swaying and the dead leaves blowing off in the wind. This carries the theme of change and death. The winds of change and the oppressive feel of the sky.

- This distracts Yuri’s attention for the moment but he is brought right back down to earth as we see the casket being closed on his mother. What is truly happening here is suddenly revealing itself to him in a very real way. They are closing his mother up in a box!

- Men quickly and crudely nail the box shut. The thuds of their hammers are loud and indiscreet as if they were nailing a crate shut or building a coffee table.



- They begin lowering her body into the ground. Yuri’s mother is disappearing! They have closed her up and they are putting her into a hole. You can hear the casket bump and thump against the side of grave. Once again they are showing this burial as a series of real actions from the perspective of a little boy. There is nothing serene, elegant or beautiful about this. Perhaps he keeps looking to the sky for the beauty that lays in the wind, leaves and trees.




- The men begin shoveling dirt on the grave. They are quick and practical about their work. The sound of the dirt against the coffin is chilling. It’s the final push of the filmmaker to show this burial as a confusing and insensitive action through Yuri’s eyes.




- This is where it all finally sinks in. Yuri realizes, maybe truly for the first time ever, that his mother is not getting up and coming to take care of him. This is actually pretty common. People can sometime trick themselves into not being affected right until they see the coffin go in the ground. He doesn’t break down and cry or scream out to the sky. This may be too much for him to process or understand or maybe this is the filmmakers way of showing he is not typical. He is something different: quieter, more sensitive, a true poet. All he can do now is look to the sky. The metaphor of the dead leaves being carried off to uncertainty.

I just want to take a little time here to explain how important the sound was to this scene in the movie. Once again, a lot of modern movies take the easy way out with a funeral. In most films I’ve seen the scene will be done in a silent montage accompanied by sad orchestral music. What was important to this scene was the sound of hammers closing the coffin, the sound of coffin bumping as it was laid in the ground and especially the cold, coarse dirt hitting the coffin.

So yeah, this scene does a great job of using camera and composition to show the utter confusion of a young boy attending the burial of his mother. The device of having the camera consistently at his eye level really puts you in a position to experience the events as he does. The up shots and down shots show the shift of power in his life (or at least the shift of who will look after and shape him as he grows). The decision to show the funeral as a series of events in a cold and practical way make the death and transition of the main characters life much more real than any other funeral scene I’ve seen elsewhere. Another great choice was the fact that in every shot Yuri is shown either on screen alone or at waist level with the adults around him (no interaction with these emotionless torsos). There is no shot where a comforting relative steps in and we see both Yuri and a caring adult sharing the shot, sharing this experience. This really nails the point that he is alone here and no one can really share his uncertainty or confusion.

I really wanted to break this scene down in particular and hopefully I’ll have more time to refine the boards for further study later on. Been super busy these days so I had to leave a lot of the shots of young Yuri in a super sketchy stage. Now that I’ve worked through a lot of the staging, I really want to take some time in the future and figure out how to accurately capture Yuri’s confused and bewildered expression in quick sketch form.

And please, please, please remember this is just my interpretation of this scene. In fact, I can see it meaning other things to other people from different backgrounds or different things to the same people depending on their mood when they saw the film. It's a lot like a song: you heard it at a certain time, was sure it was about that horrible breakup you went through and then later you found out it was really just a song about scrambled eggs!! I'd love to hear what other people get out of this.

I’m at my most comfortable doing funny, comedic stuff that is geared in general towards kids or hell anyone who likes to laugh really. I like doing scenes that are hilariously over the top gags or two friends really making a connection because when you’re working on part of a story you really have to put yourself in that place and really feel through what it would be like. Who wants to be bummed out?! Great filmmakers, that's who!

Please, if you haven't ever taken a chance to enjoy this film go out and grab. I'm hoping for a netflix spike.

Any comments, discussion, alternate viewpoints would be greatly appreciated. Thanks folks.

6 comments:

Why Edward Juan? said...

Where do you work in seattle?

David Lean is great. Did you know in that film an extra fell under the train and got her leg smashed during a shooting. But Lean kept it going and continued shooting. He got a lot of shit for doing that from his crew.

amelia said...

Great analysis. Makes me feel like I should do this kind of thing...a lot. I haven't seen that film, and it looks good but depressing! (and about Milt Kahl--I couldn't swear two words in a row if I tried...I'm too mild-tempered!)

Matt said...

Ed,

I work for a game studio called ArenaNet. It's a good place to work, lotsa talented folks walk these halls. Yeah I can totally picture David Lean, trying to express through cinema the gentle spirit of a poet whose heart is wracked by inner conflict...while some lady is all getting maimed.

Amelia,

You don't even necessarily have to draw the whole thing out (it really, really helps though) just looking at each shot in a sequence and writing down the camera motivation and director's thinking behind each shot will really help you when your planning out your own projects.

And don't worry about the whole Milt Kahl thing. You can be one of those chipper, friendly, non-passed-out-drunk in your front yard story artists I've heard so much about.

keebot said...

Neat, Matt. Did you redraw the frames from the film? I wonder if it's possible to find the original boards.... I remember this exact lecture from Melville's class at Ringling. (: His interpretation of the film was pretty solid. Did you know he's a member of the Bar in the UK, Canada, and Florida? He went to school for film then got his law degree! Random huh? He always seemed like a really clever guy.

Matt said...

Yup Kee this whole thing was just watch and then draw what you learned. Really helpful. But man I gotta tell ya, the whole drawing with a Wacom is getting old fast. When did Sean pick up his cintiq? Is it worth it? Can you loan me a couple grand?

Yes, Bob Melville is an unstoppable mountain of a man! He's also been a race car driver and CIA contract killer. At least in this comic I wrote about him.

When you coming up to Seattle? I gotta stuff you and Sean with Ethiopian food.

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