If You Believe That Bigger Is Better and Biggest Is Best, Then 'Doctor Zhivago' Is For You

Doctor Zhivago, almost pornographic in the way it pursues the beautiful image, stands on the other side of a vast chasm defining one era of film making from another.

Doctor Zhivago

Director: David Lean
Cast: Omar Sharif, Julie Christie, Geraldine Chaplin, Rod Steiger, Alec Guinness, Tom Courtenay, Ralph Richardson, Rita Tushingham
Distributor: Warner
US DVD Release Date: 2010-05-04

The 45th Anniversary Edition version of Doctor Zhivago brings to both Blu-ray and remastered DVD one of the last great epic films of the grand old school. When they say “They don’t make them like this any longer”, it's particularly true here. It 's safe to say that Doctor Zhivago represents filmmaking the likes of which we will never see again.

Where David Lean had to have several blocks of early 20th century Moscow specially constructed in Spain, today’s filmmakers could achieve much the same with CGI. Where Lean meticulously replicated an entire world with gargantuan sets, assembled vast crowds for key scenes, and had an almost endless string of huge sets built to both dazzle and amaze, studios today would achieve the same with highly complex special effects. Indeed, Doctor Zhivago stands on the other side of a vast chasm defining one era of film making from another.

Thematically, Doctor Zhivago resembles a different tale told by a fellow Russian: Leo Tolstoy's A Confession. At the beginning of his book, Tolstoy recounts an Eastern tale about a traveler who, in order to escape from a beast chasing him across a wasteland, seeks refuge by leaping into a well. Holding onto a twig he looks down to see a dragon at the bottom of the well. Unable to leave the well because of the beast above or go further down because of the dragon below, he watches helplessly as two mice begin to gnaw on the twig. As he hangs there, he notices some honey on the twig, and he reaches out with his tongue to taste it.

Tolstoy’s story captures the essence of Dr. Zhivago. Although set against a backdrop of extraordinary political and social change in Russia, the film is fundamentally a love story between the poet and physician Yuri Zhivago and the beautiful Lara, a story of two individuals striving for private moments in an era of extraordinary public upheaval. They experience a great love that is immortalized in the fictional Soviet Union of the film through the “Lara” poems that Zhivago composes, a love they can share only briefly. The monumental events of the '10s and '20s are used almost exclusively as window dressing for a romance, with Lean making virtually no significant political commentary except to imply that all forms of repression – whether by the Czarist elite or the proletarian revolutionaries – are wrong, thereby almost trivializing history for the sake of making us ache a little for Yuri and Lara.

It was not always this way with Lean. Today he is most remembered for his huge, baggy epics like Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia. In the '50s, Lean had moved away from the small, intimate dramas upon which he built his early reputation in the '40s – exquisite “small” films like Brief Encounter and This Happy Breed and Blithe Spirit – to make increasingly overwrought epics – but we all know that bigger is not necessarily better.

Aesthetically Doctor Zhivago is a prime example of what Manny Farber dubbed "White Elephant Art". Viewed in the right light, Doctor Zhivago can appear to be a bloated monstrosity that attempts to overwhelm the viewer’s critical senses with massive sets, enormous vistas, and bright – even garish – colors. How can Doctor Zhivago fail to be great art with its gorgeous actors, dazzling backgrounds, astonishingly huge sets, succession of spectacles, and lush music that cues for viewers the appropriate emotions and informs us that we are in the presence of Great Passion?

The problem throughout the film is that the extreme bigness blocks out most of those smaller, more delicate moments that are at the heart of great films (what Farber terms "Termite Art" – art that focuses on small, intimate, human moments, that burrows into the human experience). It's not that Lean is incapable of these fine moments. Brief Encounter, his greatest film, is proof that Lean could make movies and not merely carnivals captured on film.

If we can pull ourselves away from the sheer bigness of Doctor Zhivago, we can recognize that in many ways it's simply not a very good film. The movie is almost pornographic in the way it pursues the beautiful image -- viewing many of the shots in the film is akin to the vista in a national park, like looking at the Grand Canyon or Yosemite’s Half Dome -- the gorgeous face, the striking sprig of flowers, the almost obscene beauty of the Ice House, the numerous lingering shots of Julie Christie's delicately and precisely lit face. It's as if Lean had ignored the capacity for intimacy that he had displayed in Blithe Spirit and the love he had there and in other efforts for small moments.

The shift from Character to Image could be seen as early as Great Expectations and Oliver Twist, where the Dickensian recreations led to an increased preoccupation with set design and ornament. Even as late as The Bridge on the River Kwai, the spectacle did not completely overwhelm the concern with people and character. What we remember in the latter is the encounter between strong central characters and, in the final moments of the film, the incompatible goals of highly driven individuals, and not merely the visual spectacle.

From The Bridge on the River Kwai on, though, characters would be of decreasing importance in Lean’s films and would be increasingly dwarfed by his sets and artificial towns and expansive deserts. Even in Lawrence of Arabia, Peter O'Toole, who was absurdly inappropriate for the role of T. E. Lawrence (being a foot taller than the diminutive Lawrence, who only gained a military commission when influential connections faked his real height in official paperwork) was just another pretty object in the film (Noel Coward – who provided Lean with his first directing jobs – famously quipped, “If you'd been any prettier, it would have been Florence of Arabia”).

Despite all the negative things that can be said about Doctor Zhivago, it still undeniably makes for entertaining viewing and has remained hugely popular with viewers just as it has retained critics' disregard. While many critics and film students hate the film (though by no means all), the majority of everyday viewers continue to adore it. One reason for the divergence in opinion lies in the fact that perceptive viewers can spot all the points where Lean is trying to manipulate the viewer, while the everyday viewer is content merely to be manipulated. My suspicion is that even the film's most passionate detractors find many moments in the film to be rather entrancing.

One of the selling points of the re-release is the film's being made available on Blu-ray for the first time. My review copy was a DVD, so I cannot address just how much better this looks on Blu-ray. On DVD, the film was visually all that I would have anticipated. From beginning to end, it looked and sounded great, which is crucial since the film does not have a great deal of content to offer beyond the visual and aural spectacle. On these grounds, the new edition has to be deemed a great success.

The Bonus Features are legion but generally not engaging. There are multiple features contemporary with the film's release as well as many others made at various points over the past few decades about the making of the film or the history of its reception. Without exception, I found these short on insight and interest. There are some curiosities. There is raw film footage of several of the stars being interviewed in a press junket at the time of the film's release. It's especially droll to watch an exceptionally bored Julie Christie smoking one cigarette after another during one-on-one sessions with journalists, while struggling to maintain even a semblance of interest.

Even less helpful are the commentaries provided by Omar Sharif, David Lean's widow Sandra Lean, and Rod Steiger. Although they drop an interesting tidbit from time to time, in general I found that the commentaries were not equal to the time invested in listening to them. Rod Steiger's comments were particularly unenlightening, essentially amounting to primitive psychological musings on how women are attracted to brutish men (not that he advocated brutishness) and that Lara was attracted to his character Komarovsky because he feigned disinterest and treated her like a tart. Having listened to a host of commentaries, I have come to the conclusion that in general actors should either be kept from participating in them, unless multiple commentaries are provided. There are the occasional exceptions, but in general directors, writers, and, in particular, film critics tend to offer the most insight into films.

One’s reaction to this new DVD edition of Doctor Zhivago will hinge on one’s attitudes toward what makes for a great movie. If you believe that bigger is better and biggest is best, then you may well regard watching this new edition as the epitome of the home film viewing experience. I’m not of this camp. I find parts of Doctor Zhivago to be irresistible, but I also find most of it big merely for the sake of being big. There's no question that this is a well-executed production, but for me the humanity has been blanched out by the need to impress the viewer with the sheer enormity of things. For some of us, bigger is not merely not better; sometimes it's out and out bad.


The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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