Saturday, January 9, 2010

Why Dr. Zhivago is the Best Movie Ever

People who know me even moderately well will be surprised at this column. Everyone knows I believe George Lucas sits right next to Michelangelo in terms of vision and brilliance. Everyone knows that I believe Peter Jackson sits just on the other side. So, there might be some debate whether The Lord of the Rings films or Star Wars rate as my favorite movies, but no one outside my inner circle of friends knows that neither is correct. Fewer still can help but scratch their heads at why that is. It seems out of character for someone like me perhaps. But, if that's the case for you, then you need to take another look at the film I believe is the greatest of all time.

I first saw Dr. Zhivago in 1975 (it's tenth anniversary re-release) at the old classic theater in downtown Bozeman called The Ellen, which I secretly always fantasized about going back home and buying. The Ellen (, with its rich burgundy upholstery and fabric walls, velvet curtains, and theatre boxes was the ideal place to see a visually lush epic like that one. I fell in love on the spot. At the time, I was deep in my Russian period. I loved studying them, both pre- and post-revolution. The sweeping vista of Mother Russia is a hauntingly romantic one for outsiders firmly wrapped in their individual liberties looking in. There is the land, vast and mysterious. And there are the people, vast and mysterious. Russians are hard to understand, in my opinion. They brought down a government in a bloody, hard fought revolution only to subjugate themselves with a tyranny perhaps far worse that they themselves made. Fascinating stuff. So, I was drawn to the film initially for that reason, but of course as a teenager, I was drawn to the romantic entanglements as well. What could be better: love and revolution together. Say, didn't Woody Allen make that into a movie?

Of course, I loved a lot of movies when I was a teenager that sadly don't hold up once viewed with a more discerning eye. This one, however, does and then some. I can't tell you how many times I've seen it. Dozens. Fewer than A New Hope, but then again it's longer. A lot longer. Watching it from beginning to end is nearly a full day commitment. And, the setting has to be right to really enjoy it. Cold is mandatory. Stormy is best. That way you can wrap yourself up in a blanket with hot cup of tea and really get in the mood. Every year I hope for an ice storm to shut the city down for long enough to get in a good viewing. This morning we were greeted with the coldest temperatures I can recall in two decades, and I had a migraine. My ambitious plans for the day sidelined, I decided this was the day, so I stretched out in bed, four dogs cocooning me, pressed play and considered what it is that makes me love this movie so much.

On that subject, I can wax rhapsodic and go on for hours. But, suffice it to say that it has, for the most part, withstood the test of time and still feels fresh. There are some things about it that date it a bit - the conceit of the 60's in my opinion is that period movies used current hairstyling methods as though any hairstyle done before 1964 was crap and not worth replicating. And the make-up is a bit thick. Notably on the characters who have to age a great deal over the course of the film. But, overall, it is an amazingly well crafted piece of art. The real thrill for me is that I see something new about it every time I watch it. Because every time I sit down to it, I have been shaped by my experiences and my age, and I relate differently to it. The fact that I always find something relevant is, in my opinion, its true genius.

I have to confess I was a little intrigued by what I might find there given the year I've just endured. I found lots of things to ponder from a different perspective than I have before. From the significance of the colors chosen to a subtle movement of where a character is during a scene. Things you take for granted in a movie you've seen over and over that for some reason catch your attention suddenly. That's the fun of it. The more pensive part of it is how I found myself almost sympathetic to the story's big villain, Victor Komarovsky. That was a first. As I watched him alter lives out of his selfishness, I thought I saw some remorseful moments for the character as well. He came back for Lara after all and took her away to Mongolia. Maybe to stroke his sense of power and ego, but he did it. That told me I see myself as being in his shoes at least a bit. Maybe I was surprised by that a little, but it wasn't too huge a shock. While I have my share of displaced anger carefully placed on the heads of others, I mainly blame myself and my actions as driving Kelsey to where she ended up. Too soon to tell if I always will. Or, if I do, if I can forgive myself. However, mostly I kept thinking about the characters' strong will to live. Not just survive, but to carve out a life in the shadow of trying times. I know that Boris Pasternak was not anti-communist, despite the book being banned in the Soviet Union until 1988 officially, but the film was made in the West, so it casts an unfavorable light on the revolution and the toll it took on the people. History, I believe, would bear that out. I thought a lot about that. How the will to live propels people through horrendous conditions, and how people continue to push through hard times, trusting in better days on the other side. Whether they eventually come or not is almost beside the point. Now, can I do that same thing in less trying times than the Russian Revolution? I don't know. Depends on whether or not fiction mirrors life or the other way around, I guess. In the meantime, if you have a long afternoon to kill, you should check out my favorite movie of all time for yourself.

1 comment:

  1. Dr. Zhivago is a favorite in my family. My mom loves it for the scenery and the love story. My Dad loves it for the history and the love story.
    I played "Lara's Theme" for my dad in a piano recital when I was a kid. Rick and I watched it again the other day when it was on AMC. I like it for the love story, Rick liked it for the history (of course). But we were both freezing while we watched it....interesting that you would write about it so soon after I watched it. Coincidence?