#172. Ivan the Terrible, Parts I & II (1944)

I don’t remember which parts of the brain he’s invoking when he makes this point but my friend Steve, a book critic, often goes on tangents about “bro-dude” literature, the fiction from people like Chuck Palahniuk and Mark Z. Danielewski, Bret Easton Ellis, David Foster Wallace and – to my surprise and chagrin – Cormac McCarthy. What he says about their work is that it triggers the wrong part of the brain, that a novel should evoke a response from something in the right rear quadrant of the brain, something to do with sustained concentration and mounting engagement, and that these bro-dude books, in contrast, trigger something in the front lefthand part of the brain. A part that I guess responds to little dopamine hits that we get when, I guess, David Foster Wallace uses a really long sentence, or a phrase like “the howling fantods” when he means the heeby-jeebies, or when Bret Easton Ellis crafts a sentence that sounds like something from the mouth of a disaffected coke fiend or Mark Z. Danielewski invokes the stars and the cosmos to tell us that something which is cannot truly be without the unity of we.

I see what he’s saying.

So now I’m self-conscious about the fact that I’m a big fan of Wallace and Danielewski and Ellis, or at least mindful of that “dopamine hit” thing Steve is always talking about, and it’s making me wonder if my sudden affection for Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible, Parts I & II, stems from a similar interest. A succession of dopamine hits created by heavy-handed symbolism in the cinematography. The angularity of towering shadows surrounding small figures in a large room. Shit like that.

Part of what makes me suspicious about having enjoyed these two movies so much is that I hated Eisenstein’s earlier flicks, Strike and Battleship Potemkin and (God help us) October, all of which were more about politics than art – but, that being said, I appreciate that Eisenstein was a genuine innovator among that first generation of filmmakers. His early work gets bolder and bolder in his experimentation with film editing. He was fascinated with exploring, among other things, how quickly a shot could flash on the screen and still register in the viewer’s mind. Maybe not register with such clarity that she can study the lighting and drapery, but enough, at least, to communicate its point.

He appears to be done with that here. The movie was greenlit by Josef Stalin, and meant to be three installments. Tsar Ivan was one of Stalin’s personal heroes and, as I found in a great essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum on Criterion’s website, regarded the Tsar as being more “neurotic” than terrible. (The word is used by one of Stalin’s cohorts, but Stalin doesn’t deny it.)

Stalin, incensed by Part II, had a meeting with Eisenstein to voice his complaints. This was 1947. There’s a transcript of the conversation and the complaints are all over the place, from Stalin pointing out that Eisenstein doesn’t give enough attention to why Ivan had to be so Terrible to quibbling over the length of Ivan’s beard in the film, or the way that too many shadows distracted audiences from the action.

Stalin was a tyrant, of course, and so people would just listen quietly and oblige him when he said that the film should be shot this way or that way. He talks in the conversation like he has a greater understanding of filmmaking than Eisenstein. It’s a frustrating read.

Anyway. The second volume hadn’t been released when Stalin saw it. He put Eisenstein to work on tinkering with it, correcting wrongs, before a third installment could move forward. Eisenstein did shoot a little bit of stuff for the series’ conclusion but died before he’d made enough that a proper film could be forged. The footage has been destroyed.

Part II wasn’t released until 1958, after Stalin’s death, and from the critical work I’ve looked through it seems to be regarded as a dipping point after Part I. Seems critics might consider us lucky that a third part was never made because Eisenstein would have just gone deeper into melodrama and homoerotic technicolor weirdness.

I wish he had.

Roger Ebert, a sort of mentor for Thousand Movie Project whose input has run alongside just about every movie I’ve had to watch, doesn’t particularly like these couple movies (though he raves about Eisenstein’s earlier work) and he gives a strange explanation in his review of them. He says that they became “great” movies without the intermediary period where they’re supposed to be “good” movies. I think he means that a movie needs to be appreciated by its audience on a simple level for a long time before we put it on the mantel as a masterpiece. But that wasn’t the case with Wizard of Oz, which didn’t become a classic until nearly thirty years after its release, when it started showing up on TV in the 1960s.

He goes on to beg forgiveness of up-and-coming cinephiles for saying that they should all see this movie – once. Then he kinda rambles from there.

So I’m not only deviating from my longstanding conviction that Eisenstein was an odious and hellishly unfun filmmaker, I’m also deviating from this longstanding deferral to Ebert’s studied opinion.

I’m gonna have a hard time telling you what the fuck this movie is about apart from the fact that it’s a stylized biopic of Ivan Vasilyevech IV, a Russian tsar from the 1600s, who in as a young man is privy, as a young man, to his mother’s kidnapping and murder and then anointed thereafter as tsar. There’s conflict between his own royal class and the Boyars, which were like a rank beneath royalty, and also there was some feudal relationship with other factions outside the territory – I don’t even know which words to use in describing it, this shit is so fucking foreign to me, it’s frustrating as hell to know that I really liked it but also not know how to say what it’s about.

Ivan’s menacing and androgynous aunt is a Boyar who wants to replace Ivan with her own son. So a couple of attempts are made on his life and, by the end of the second installment, Ivan’s made aware of it and turns the tables so that his cousin is killed and his aunt is left groveling over the young man’s corpse while the rightful leader stands over her.

The movie’s pretty sympathetic to Ivan the Terrible. I don’t really understand Stalin’s issue. I don’t suppose he’d’ve gotten a hard-on if the movie was outright celebration of the guy, fuckin Ivan Did Nothing Wrong Parts I & II, but in his meeting with Eisenstein this was one of his biggest qualms, is that Ivan’s terror isn’t well-enough justified. That he’s indecisive “like Hamlet.”

That indecisiveness, though, is part of what humanizes him.

(I hope it goes without saying, incidentally, that I’m not a fan of Ivan the Terrible as a historical figure. I think he was pretty bad. As a character in a pair of films, though, he’s a romp.)

Am I just getting off on this movie because the weird, over-considered, elaborate camera angles are giving me the same kindsa dopamine hits I get when Cormac refers to something as “a migratory tentshow whose ultimate destination after many a pitch in many a mudded field is unspeakable and calamitous beyond reckoning”? Ahdunno. What I do know is that, juvenile and simplistic or whatever you wanna call it, I like that shit. I enjoyed this movie and, whatever Ebert might say, I can see myself watching it again.


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