Kalatozov. With only three films in the archives (I’ve tried to find others but no luck yet) Kalatozov is an interesting case. His three films are big stylistically muscular ambitious films and the images below alone make a strong case (and of course can’t fully take into effect his revolutionary work with camera movement). It is simple- he if he had more films like this he’d be closer to a top 10 filmmaker than a top 50 filmmaker- he’s a major “style-plus” auteur.
Best film: I Am Cuba. It took me a long time to get to Kalatozov’s I Am Cuba. I didn’t get to it until 2016 and when I did I saw it again the next night I was so blown away. It’s a revelation of cinematography and camera movement. Its roots can be found in Murnau and Ophuls and influences found still today in Inarritu(specifically Birdman and The Revenant), Cuaron and Chazelle in La La Land. Both the best cinematography winners from 2015 and 2016 (Revenant and La La Land) owe a lot to I Am Cuba and Kalatozov. PT Anderson takes his pool shot in Boogie Nights from it as well. Anyways, back to the film, this anthology film is a giant technical tour de force and should not be missed by anyone who is serious about cinema. I’m extremely conservative about films I’ve only seen recently so for me to put this in my top 50 (I’m at #36 of all-time) so early into my relationship with it is a statement of its greatness.
total archiveable films: 3
top 100 films: 1
top 500 films: 3 (I Am Cuba, The Cranes Are Flying, Letter Never Sent)
top 100 films of the decade: 3 (I Am Cuba, The Cranes Are Flying, Letter Never Sent)
most overrated: Zilch here. There are only 3 films to choose from, 2 are on the TSPDT top 1000 (Letter Never Sent tragically left off which I’ll get to in the next category) and those two are both underrated by hundreds of spots by the consensus critics.
most underrated: You could pick all three films below but for now I’ll focus on Letter Never Sent which I have at #320 and isn’t anywhere to be found on the TSPDT top 1000. It’s the third Kalatozov film I’ve seen (after I Am Cuba and The Cranes are Flying) and it cements Kalatozov as one of the great stylists of this or any era of cinema. Letter Never Sent comes between those two films from Kalatozov, Cranes is 1957 and I Am Cuba is 64’. Opens with a gorgeous helicopter reverse tracking shot. Heavy handheld camera work in the Siberian River and Taiga forest. There’s a magnificent graphic match dissolve edit—we go from one set of eyes (sender of the letter) to another set of eyes (receiver of the letter) in a memory flashback. A ridiculously dazzling and experimental framing shot/scene. There are the three protagonists crowded around the camera in a tightly-spaced tent— and then in the background there’s a fire, and then a character who moves back there into the vacated space in the frame. Kalatozov is in love with the canted frames— he also moves the camera to simulate the violence which is very ahead of his time. The high angle shots again and again show the flowing river as part of the mise-en-scene- striking—lots of close-up low-angles like Welles— heavy close-ups. Flames in front of the camera is bold— doesn’t always work but I like that it’s a bit of foreshadowing as well to the forest fire— which is an utterly impressive set piece and sequences- lots of “oners” hand-held tracking shots of the protagonists moving through the fire, then through the ash, then through the snow- sometime in wonderful silhouettes. Absolutely has influence on The Revenant– it’s a survival film and some of the shots (river shot)— Iñárritu clearly loves Kalatozov – he’s borrowed from I Am Cuba as well. Sometimes Kalatozov will use the cluttered flames in the mise-en-scene as a hidden cut (again like Iñárritu in say Birdman but also like Hitchcock in Rope. Again- graphic match edits—he has an entire extended dialogue scene (there aren’t many of these in the entire film) with each face, in profile, almost taking up the entire frame like a mountain- haven’t seen anything like it. In the snow sequences you can tell Kalatozov is bored with the flatness so he meticulously creates these little hills to show nuance and texture—some of the shots remind me of Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia which would come 2 years later- Lean uses sand instead of snow of course. One of the three leads dies in each element- structurally and formally the film is so sound- fire, ash, snow. There’s a great hallucination/surreal scene like Sunrise from Murnau. Ends with symmetry- booked helicopter tracking show finale. Must-See after one viewing.
gem I want to spotlight: The Cranes Are Flying. There are only three films to choose from (and look how much I adore Letter Never Sent and I think this is superior) and I already had a chance to wax poetic on I Am Cuba and Letter Never Sent. This doesn’t have as many stylistic footprint in the sand moments as I Am Cuba and I’ve seen Letter Never Sent more recent—but this is the first of the trio and the most out of character for the other films that came out that year (by 1964 with I Am Cuba many auteurs were experimenting near Kalatozov’s level, but in 1957 that was not the case). He uses his characters as objects that are just a part of the frame—the greater tableau– so miraculously.
stylistic innovations/traits: Kalatozov is the auteur equivalent of baseball’s 5-tool player. You can go one by one. Cinematography, he’s a Mount Rushmore-ish auteur (man there have been so many) in terms of moving the camera. His brief filmography is loaded with stunning oners. Next to mise-en-scene, he’s in love with the canted frame, low-angle and high-angle Wellesian work. He huddles his characters around the camera and uses their body shape both to block/shape other objects and as just objects in space against a greater architectural backdrop. He got bored with the snow like I said above in Letter Never Sent and designed snow—snow—haha—just to give it texture. This is Tarkovsky-ish. As far as editing, we have the graphic matches. The formal structure is always there as well- it’s never a flourish without cause or a point without a counter-point.
- I Am Cuba
- The Cranes are Flying
- Letter Never Sent
By year and grades
|1957- The Cranes are Flying||MP|
|1960- Letter Never Sent||MS|
|1964- I Am Cuba||MP|
*MP is Masterpiece- top 1-3 quality of the year film
MS is Must-see- top 5-6 quality of the year film
HR is Highly Recommend- top 10 quality of the year film
R is Recommend- outside the top 10 of the year quality film but still in the archives
I would like to spotlight: “the cranes are flying”. It is basically a perfect movie.
I hope any of you can help me, including Drake, i’ve been desperate, i’ve been searching and searching and I just can’t find I am Cuba, i managed to find a copy but it had some horrible russian subtitles that could not be removed, making it impossible to view.
I really want to see it, i have found some, but they are just horrible, is impossible to get a good quality copy
@Aldo- do you have access to Turner Classic Movies and a DVR? They play it every year or two. I’ve recorded it a few times over the years and that’s how I’ve been able to catch it. Sorry- probably not the answer you’re looking for.
Actually, if you mean the channel, i do have it, but it is probably different by region, because it has never been transmitted. I appreciate your response.
Could you tell me what language it was in?
Apparently there are two versions, Russian and Spanish
@Aldo I don’t know if this helps but the film is available on Russian “Mosfilm” Youtube channel, the same channel that has all of Tarkovsky’s films. You just have to add subtitles. I think it’s dubbed in Russian though so I don’t know if you are satisfied with that…
I just checked it is true, thank you very much, I really appreciate your help, i had already gone crazy to search.
I also did not know that i had Tarkovsky’s films, although i have already seen those.
Any recommendations for films on the channel?
Again, thank you very much @Chief Keef
@Aldo– yes- I mean the channel. Spanish with english subtitles for mine
Okay Drake, this may help you, in that incredible channel there https://www.youtube.com/c/MosfilmRuOfficial/ are several Kalatozov movies
The Cranes Are Flying (which you’ve already seen)
I am cuba
The First Echelon
@Drake – great page on kalatozov as usual, and after watching really, really high quality movies, one gets the sense that there’s immense artistry in every single frame and object when it comes to truly great directors. But its rather difficult to pinpoint the great shots and standout sequences of high cinematic quality as you do.
If it isn’t too much trouble, could you share any write-ups/books on cinematography, blocking, framing and form? I felt I should read up about it after looking through your reviews on Kurosawa, Visconti and many others.
P. S. @Aldo if you see this, thank you so much! I’ve been searching for a good print of Kalatozov and Tarkovsky for AGES.
Think nothing of it! @JC it’s a pleasure to help, credit goes to @Chief Keef, without his help, I would keep looking like crazy, since they were impossible to find, although i must say that Tarkovsky’s films did not seem difficult for me to find
Drake, i hope you have seen the comment of the channel, since you only found 3 films of Kalotozov, and in that channel there are 3 others that you have not seen, hopefully they are good and you can raise the position of him
@Aldo- thanks- just went to it and found it utterly baffling to navigate. haha. I’ll try again- but yeah- would love to catch up with any and all things Kalatozov if the quality on the channel is decent enough.
It’s because the channel is in russian, i also had those problems, in the channel browser, enter Калатозов (Kalatozov in russian) with that they should appear, in terms of quality, I am Cuba is in 4k, i’m not sure about the others
@Aldo- appreciate the help here- thank you
@JC- thanks for the comment here. Agreed on Kalatozov! Well I would really try to seek out Bordwell’s books on cinema – Film Art- an introduction. @Matt Harris recently shared this video on blocking- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LC8KYm85zig&feature=youtu.be these videos are superb as well if you can find a good one (and if you do- please feel free to share it here)
@Drake – thanks a lot, I felt the artistic merit of a movie would be plainer to me if I were to understand the basic cinematic structure and language. I’ve heard you mention Bordwell, Sarris and Bazin.
Huge thanks to @Chief too.
As Aldo says, I’ve found that suffixing a movie with ‘mosfilms’ usually leads you to the said movie.
Have you caught any of Kalatozov’s work other than these three films?
@Zane- I have not yet
I read somewhere (probably Wikipedia tbh) that The Cranes Are Flying was his true evolution into a great filmmaker and that his previous works don’t have the same panache as his films from 1957 onwards (sort of like Dreyer pre- and post-Joan of Arc) but I guess they’d probably be worth a visit to see his growth.
Are they just really difficult to find? Kalatozov isn’t exactly a huge name in cinema, even amongst art cinephiles.
@Zane- I’ve found that getting high quality versions of his other works extremely difficult to find
These three great films were shot by cinematographer Sergey Urusevsky. His masterful camerawork was inspired by Eduard Tisse (Eisenstein’s DP) and had admiration for paintings of Pablo Picasso, but he himself became an innovator in camera movement.
A lot of respect for Kalatozov but none of his other films come near his collaboration with Urusevsky (including The Red Tent (1969) starring Connery, Finch and Cardinale), which tells who is the real genius here.
@Alt Mash – Great share here on Urusevsky- thank you- love this. This is always a slippery slope when crediting directors or their cinematographers. I would love to see some of Urusevsky’s work without Kalatozov to see how good they are.
My ranking of Kalatozov`s films that I`ve seen:
1. I Am Cuba MP (easily in my top 10 of the 60s)
2. The Cranes Are Flying MP
3. Letter Never Sent MS/MP (it could become a MP on further viewings)
I’d like to see if we can get a bit of a discussion going around I Am Cuba. I have some major issues with it. While the camerawork is undeniably brilliant, this is the film that first comes to mind when I think about discrepancy between cinematography and storytelling. It’s easy to get caught up by the camera but the segmented plots (and I will include the acting) ranges from trite to downright cringeworthy propaganda. For this reason, I cannot consider I Am Cuba a top 500 film, let alone a Masterpiece. My response to watching it the first time is that I found the first episode a bit thin on substance but I didn’t yet know the structure of the film and I thought it might connect with or illuminate some of the other plots later on. But instead, it’s just one heavy handed episode after another. By the final story, I found myself laughing out loud in embarrassment for just how ridiculous and predictable each story was. I was expecting an intelligent film, but I found it banal and kitschy. I recognize that a lot of people won’t see it this way, or perhaps will forgive its preachiness because of the cinematography. But this is one of those films that I can’t take seriously. I have it in Jeanne Dielman territory. I would love to hear what others think. Can anyone relate to what I’m saying?
@Leighton- I’ll stand out of the way for others here if they want to chime in of course- but 36/36 positive on RT- https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/i_am_cuba/reviews . I obviously do not agree with your final diagnosis here. It isn’t so much that I think you’re wrong- I just think you’re putting your focus in the wrong areas when it comes to talking about the essence of cinematic art. I do not see how a film with images like this and camera movement like this- could be anything less than a masterpiece or at least a must-see film. Easily top 500.