Friday, April 27, 2012

A Review of Wings--Not the Paul McCartney One. Or the Tony Shalhoub One.

 So my efforts at blog-shirking have now officially gone bi-coastal. Jonathan Alexandratos, an NYC playwright, novelist, artist, and professor, is one of those people who only needs 45 minutes of sleep a night, so he watched a Soviet film and will now tell us enough about it to be impressive at cocktail parties.

My contribution? Don't piss her off.

Their “Wings” May Have Ours Beat
WARNING:  The “their” in the above title refers to the Soviets.  Which I know is sacrilege – but think of it this way: now, we exist, and they don’t.  But the beauty of celluloid is that it lasts past fallen empires.  Until it is realized that celluloid will explode after emitting enough nitrate, and said celluloid is transferred to DVD (or, yeah, Blu-Ray). 
The piece of celluloid (now DVD) in question is the 1966 Soviet film “Wings,” by Larisa Shepitko.  We Yanks had two “Wings”-titled entities: “Wings” (1927) and “Wings” (1990s TV show).  And those were great, especially the one with Tony Shalhoub.  But there’s something to the Soviet “Wings” that ought to be ruminated upon.
First: the plot (quick version).  An ex-Soviet fighter pilot (who is a woman!  Hurrah strong female roles!) works as the headmistress of a school after seeing a ton of action in World War II.  As a result, she spends her days daydreaming about the fact that, like, two seconds ago she was taking a personal interest in the discomfort of a not-insignificant number of Nazis.  She finds it difficult to shift her definition of “rough day” from “only took a small amount of shrapnel” to “kid threw up in the cafeteria.”  Understandably so.
The cinematography that frames this dilemma is the film’s most striking element.  Imagine a scene of a woman walking down a school hallway – business suit and all – intercut with clouds, seen from a cockpit, and the emergence of a high-stakes dogfight.  It begs the question: is monotony worth it, if one is allowed a period of time, however small, in which excitement reigns king?  Surely most get the monotony sans a period of life-or-death struggle, so maybe one might view the protagonist (named “Nadya”) as lucky.
Speaking of Nadya (the actresses name is a few Google clicks away, but they are a few Google clicks too many at this moment, evidently), the story’s lead is portrayed with such graceful sternness that one is eager to forget that “graceful sternness” is more or less an oxymoron.  She draws viewers in, with the understanding that the viewer will not learn all.  And that’s a powerful – and difficult! – thing to pull off: withholding.  (Especially now, when films are all-too-eager to, as a former professor of mine once said, “shoot [their] wad in the first ten minutes” [it was an…odd…lecture…he was engaged in].)
The script and direction are both, needless to say, stellar, but they found excellent support in the acting and cinematography of “Wings.”  The film’s available via the Eclipse series, a division of Criterion, and comes with “The Ascent,” Shepitko’s oft-considered masterpiece.
Shepitko, herself, died before her time – car accident – in the middle of working on a film, which her husband later finished.  Again, one is thankful for the endurance of celluloid.      

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