Tuesday, October 14, 2008
Can you play the balalaika?
I finished watching Doctor Zhivago yesterday. It took me several days and three or four viewing installments, but I watched all three hours and seventeen minutes of it.
All I knew about Doctor Zhivago before I saw it was that it is always appearing on those lists of classic movies, along with films like Casablanca, The Bridge on the River Kwai, and (shudder) Citizen Kane. So when I sat down to watch it late last week, I fully expected to not like it. Imagine my surprise, then, when I found myself enjoying it so much that I had to force myself to turn it off after an hour or two and go to bed.
Actually, I don't know if "enjoy" is quite the right word for a movie like Doctor Zhivago. It is a sad, tragic, melancholy story set against a bleak landscape during a period of social and political upheaval. It is a compelling movie, rather than an enjoyable one.
The amazing thing is how relatively un-dated it remains, even forty years after it was made, though I suppose that is the very definition of a classic. Some of the performances are tainted a little by that simpering, affected style so many 1960s actresses seemed to depend on, but maybe that's more of a 1960s thing than an actress thing. Besides, all of that is forgiven whenever Omar Sharif and his uncannily expressive eyes are on the screen. Who knew an Egyptian could play a Russian so deeply and convincingly?
On a secondary level, I appreciated this movie for what it taught me about Russia, or, more accurately, about what America thinks of Russia. Doctor Zhivago seems to have informed an entire American generation about Russia. Personally, I can barely remember when the USSR existed. Doctor Zhivago gave me an idea of the kind of image of Russia people like my parents grew up with.
It's a good thing, then, that the story of Doctor Zhivago is so very, very Russian. If there is another story out there that involves more drama, sickness, heartache, betrayal, politics, poetry, bleak weather, power, and death, I'm sure it was written by a Russian as well. The final scene of Yuri Zhivago's life, all by itself, demonstrates the difference between the American ideal ending and the Russian ideal ending. [Spoiler alert, I guess, if you aren't familiar with the story.]
If an American had written Doctor Zhivago, Yuri could have still lurched down the sidewalk in the final stages of cardiac arrest, desperately trying to catch Lara's attention before she disappears forever. But in the American version, she would have turned around and seen him, and perhaps spent a few moments in his company before he dies, secure in the knowledge that he is loved by at least one soul in the world. And somehow, she would have found her daughter, too.
In the real story, though, Zhivago just dies. Yep. Right there on the street, as Lara continues walking away from him, entirely unaware that he is even in Moscow. And Lara never finds her daughter, either. When I realized that was the ending, I could hardly believe it. I had endured three hours of non-stop bleakness for that?
But now I realize that I wouldn't have it any other way. Having Lara and Yuri reunited at the end wouldn't have redeemed either of them. More death, more misery, and more suffering is the only way to end a story that has been about death, misery, and suffering all along the way. To do it any other way would ruin it.
To answer the title question: no, but these guys do. Here is the film's theme for Lara, which I'm sure you'll immediately recognize, as I did, though I didn't know it was from Doctor Zhivago. You see, this movie made its way into my cultural context without my even knowing it!