Friday, August 21, 2009

1966 - The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming

Before I begin today's instalment of Matt vs. the Academy, allow me this brief diatribe on the utter frustration that is pan and scan. I'm fairly certain I'm preaching to the choir, but for the uninitiated, pan and scan is that hackjob technique that, until recently, was commonly employed to convert the image of a widescreen film to conform to the squarish shape of most television sets. This visual deformation results in a film where the sides of people's faces inexplicably drop off the edge of the screen, camera moves are introduced into previously static scenes and the frame's composition is utterly destroyed. Reference this frame from The Music Man.

The whole experience becomes all the more frustrating when viewed on a widescreen television, the square image leaving two black voids on either side of the screen. It's like watching the movie through a keyhole, constantly shifting your head to find the best view. Except someone else is controlling your head. A frustrating experience, I hope you'll agree. But don't take it from me, take a listen to what some of cinema's greatest directors have to say about the subject.

Ever since the advent of DVD, and also with the saturation of widescreen televisions on the market, pan and scan has become almost obsolete. Certainly, new films transferred to DVD maintain their original widescreen format. It must be quite rare nowadays for them to even bother creating a pan and scan version. But evidently there are some copies of older movies that still exist in this annoying format. Unfortunately, the copy of the next nominee from 1966 that I watched today was one such annoyance. Still, like a professional, I persevered and tried my darnedest not to let it interfere with my enjoyment of...

The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming
Norman Jewison
William Rose
(based on the novel "The Off-Islanders" by Nathaniel Benchley)
Carl Reiner, Eva Marie Saint, Alan Arkin, Brian Keith, Jonathan Winters
Academy Awards:
4 nominations
0 wins

When discussing The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming, it's probably pertinent to understand the Cold War hysteria that gripped the United States when the film was released. Sadly, I don't. But I think I get the general gist. The movie begins with a Russian submarine that accidentally runs aground on a small island town off the coast of New England. Nine of the submariners venture into town on the hunt for a motor boat that can tow their vessel back out to sea. But false rumours begin to spread around the island about parachutists and naval attacks, so the townsfolk, conveniently forming themselves into a crazed unreasonable mob, vow to stop the Russians from leaving.

You may not be able to tell from that brief synopsis (although you ought to be able to guess from the title) that this film is a comedy. And a fine one, at that. Alan Arkin is brilliantly funny as the exasperated leader of the Russian landing party, complete with an absolutely convincing fluency in Russian (well, since I don't actually speak Russian myself, I can't back that up, but it sure sounds authentic). And since there are no English subtitles during the foreign language scenes, the viewer is forced to become very adept at reading body language. I do enjoy it when films leave you to figure out stuff on your own. It's much more rewarding than being spoon fed all the important messages. But, unfortunately, that rewarding feeling didn't remain through the entire film. There's a cheesy romantic subplot between one of the younger Russian men and a beautiful blonde American girl, who, during a moment of subdued passion, exclaims, "It doesn't make sense to hate people. It's such a waste of time." And right away, it's clear what message the film is intending to send.

The film didn't quite perfect the mix between comedy and drama with several brief serious moments that seem slightly out of place, if only because of their brevity. And the ending is horribly contrived. But there's plenty of laughter to keep you entertained, including a great sequence when the Russians disguise themselves in American clothes, proclaiming to the townspeople, "Emergency. Everybody to get from street!"

Oh, and the young boy who played Carl Reiner's son in this film was more annoying than the pan and scan.

It's always nice to see comedies nominated for Best Picture (it's such a rare occurrence) but I can't help thinking that the political climate at the time helped get this one over the line. Still, it's worth a look and I definitely got some chuckles.

1 comment:

  1. LOVE the "keyhole" bit..."except someone is controlling your head." Genius!

    I think actually the cold war hysteria, as it were, had started to be critically analyzed and proven wrong, hence this movie being made/appreciated. Like, this comedy probably wouldn't have been made in 1956, but by 1966 people were (finally) getting angry. Kind of like how my fellow stupid citizens kept voting for Dubya for two terms...and now they seem surprised: oh, he screwed up! UGH. I would have made the movie in 1956.