Thursday, October 25, 2007

Dr.Zhivago and Sixth Form Film Criticism - 1967

"Knowledge is the ultimate investment project. - Ivan Majstorovic"

"In teaching I learn. In writing I think."

"Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely." Lord Acton.

Some how quotations one learn in Sixth Form never leave us. And today as I embark on writing about my memories of Dr.Zhivago, I dedicate the above quotations to all who went to school with me. And to let my teachers know that I remember dearly everything they taught me and how they helped me value reading and learning.

We were very excited when our wonderful (then and now ) Mr.K V Wiltshire allowed us as a group to watch the film "Doctor Zhivago" in Cathay Cinema, Sibu. It was 1967. It was a marvellous and memorable extension education.

The film was based on author Boris Pasternak's historical, romantic novel. It did not occur to us then that the English version of the book was only printed in 1957 !
The book was 592 pages, quite thick to many of my classmates who had not been very voracious readers. It was not exactly an "old book" as it is "a 20th century novel"

Written in Russian, the novel is named after its protagonist, Yuri Zhivago, a medical doctor and poet. The word zhivago shares a root with the Russian word for life (жизнь), one of the major themes of the novel. It tells the story of a man torn between two women, set primarily against the backdrop of the Russian Revolution of 1917. More deeply, the novel discusses the plight of a man as his life is slowly destroyed by the violence of the revolution.

Unknown to us at that time, as we were merely students with very little information, the novel actually contains passages written in the 1910s and 1920s, and Doctor Zhivago was not completed until 1956. It was submitted for publication to the journal Noviy mir, but it was rejected due to Pasternak's political incorrectness: Pasternak, like Zhivago, was more concerned with the welfare of individuals than of the state.

In 1957, the publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli smuggled the manuscript out of the Soviet Union and published the book in Russian in Milan. The following year, it appeared in Italian and English translations, and these publications were partly responsible for the fact that the author was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958. The Soviet government forced him to reject the prize, which was unprecedented. Pasternak died a few years later, of natural causes.

The book was finally published in the Soviet Union in 1988, ironically in the pages of Noviy mir, although earlier samizdat editions also exist. A few years later, the Soviet Union was officially dissolved.

Yuri Zhivago is sensitive and poetic nearly to the point of mysticism. In medical school, one of his professors reminds him that bacteria may be beautiful under the microscope, but they do ugly things to people.

Zhivago's idealism and principles stand in brutal contrast to the horrors of World War I, the Russian Revolution, and the subsequent Russian Civil War. A large theme of the book is how the mysticism of things and idealism is destroyed by both the Bolsheviks, Rebels and the white army. Yuri must witness cannibalism, dismemberment, and other horrors suffered by the innocent civilian population during the turmoil. Even the love of his life, Lara (whose full name is Larissa Feodorovna), is taken from him.

He ponders on how the war can turn the whole world senseless, and make a previously reasonable group of people destroy each other with no regard for life. His journey through Russia has an epic feeling because of his travelling through a world which is in such striking contrast to himself, relatively uncorrupted by the violence, and to his desire to find a place away from it all, which drives him across the Arctic Siberia of Russia, and eventually back down to Moscow.

Pasternak gives subtle criticism of Soviet ideology: he disagrees with the idea of "building a new man," which is against nature. This fits in the story's theme of life.

Pasternak's description of the singer Kubarikha in the chapter "Iced Rowanberries" is almost identical to Sofia Satina's (sister-in-law / cousin of Sergei Rachmaninov) description of gypsy singer Nadezhda Plevitskaya (1884-1940). Since Rachmaninov was a friend of the Pasternak family, and Plevitskaya a friend of Rachmaninov, Plevitskaya was probably Pasternak's "mind image" when he wrote the chapter; something which also shows how Pasternak had roots in music.

Names and places
Zhivago: the Russian root zhiv is similar to 'life'
Larissa: a Greek name suggesting 'bright, cheerful'
Komarovsky: komar is the Russian for 'mosquito'
Pasha: the diminutive form of 'Pavel', from the Latin word paulus, meaning 'small'
Strelnikov: strelok means 'the shooter'
Yuriatin: the fictional town was based on the real Perm, where Pasternak had lived for part of the Second World War
The original of the public reading room at Yuriatin was the Pushkin Library, Perm

The film I saw as a student was the " most famous by far is the 1965 adaptation by David Lean, starring Omar Sharif and Julie Christie"

After the film we had a serious discussion at Mr. Wiltshire's sitting room. It was a great moment for us because we were so motivated by the scenery ,the music and the impactful acting of Omar Sharif and Julie Christie. One student who stood out in the discussion was an Upper Sixth girl, Felicia Toh. She was so good as pointed out very salient points. I was impressed by her English too.

Today many talk shows cannot beat this session of film discussion. Mr. Wiltshire led us very carefully in his Oxford inquiry style. I felt as if I was in an Oscar award panel then.

It was the music the group agreed which appealed to us the most. Even though most of us were not groomed in classical music (at that time not many could afford music lessons and piano was not an instrument most families wanted to buy because it was too costly), we truly appreciated the music. For months most of us hummed "Lara's Theme". Even now as I type these words, Lara's Theme is still in my head, after 40 years.

(Later through the kindness of Mrs. Wiltshire and several others, we were given a series of music appreciation lessons. I believe a lot of finesse was inculcated through these lessons. I thought they were just marvellous lessons in life! And I appreciate them to this day.)

Although many of us had not finished reading the book before we went to watch the movie, we were told by Mr.Wiltshire that the film was faithful to the book in a general sense, with no significant deviations from the general storyline; however, the depictions of several characters and events are noticeably different. After the movie,the book from the Sixth Form library was passed from one student to another. Several of us read and reread the book several times. And years later we were told that Malaysians read only one page a year according to one research. It was hard to believe.

Reading can be so much part of our life especially when we have good teachers who lead the way and try every means to get us to read.

Mr. and Mrs. Wiltshire had walked more than the proverbial second mile to help us along the path of reading.

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