Tuesday, March 26, 2013

By The Bluest of Seas (Boris Barnet, 1936)

The following is my March entry for Blindspots.

By the Bluest of Seas begins and ends on the same images, possibly even the same shots. But the roaring waves of the Caspian Sea, and gulls taking flight against a sun bursting through clouds, emit oppositional moods at each bookend. At the start, the shots of the stirred ocean connote the sea’s unforgiving power, having destroyed a ship off-screen and whipping its surviving sailors, Yusuf (Lev Sverdlin) and Aloysha (Nikolai Kryuchkov), around like rag dolls. When they return to these churning waters at the conclusion, however, the Caspian both reflects the final release of the emotions put on forthright display in the intervening story as well as an unexpectedly warm homecoming for two men who belong on the water.

For as merciless as the sea can be, its mercurial nature can also make it warm and inviting. Once the storm calms, director Boris Barnet replaces the ominous shots of waves crashing upon each other with ones of sun-kissed surfaces glinting in the light of day, with a single wave gently rolling along like a pulse. The serenity of it relieves as much as the appearance of a boat to rescue Aloysha and Yusuf, who are taken to the nearby “Lights of the Communism” kolkhoz and gladly volunteer to help man the village’s fishing vessels. Here the film might have slipped into a censor-friendly paean to Soviet labor were the adoptive workers not instantly stricken by the sight of a woman.

Misha (Yelena Kuzmina), first seen in low-angle shots as Aloysha and Yusuf start erecting a pedestal underneath her, throws an already tenuous narrative into disarray as the two men struggle to maintain their commitment to the collective as their thoughts turn to the individual. In many respects, Misha would not be out of place in a typical Soviet film: she’s virtuous, loyal to and friendly with the kolkhoz, and her image of purity is such that she can burst into song at a moment’s notice. As she weighs upon the sailors’ minds, however, labor becomes a secondary impulse to romance, with Aloysha frequently so distraught by his yearning that he cannot even climb out of bed to go to work (though he can head into the city to buy his beloved a necklace). As far as I have found, Barnet did not suffer from Stalin’s absurdly strict censors for this film, yet its depiction of the innate human resistance to the social demands of collectivization is a quiet, charming, but nonetheless radical break from the constructivist Soviet cinema not yet a decade old.

Aesthetically, the film proves no less distinct from what came before. Some montages of villagers raising sails to head out onto the sea to fish have the speed and energy of classic Eisenstein, but even these shots are softened by the generally languid pace. At times, Barnet moves so far in the other direction from the overwhelming media blitz of constructivist film that he winds up with lolling, slow-motion shots of blissful seascapes, so warm and relaxing the salt air practically wafts off the screen. To capture such elegant poetics, however, Barnet displays a mastery of form, particularly in the use of sound: By the Bluest of Seas mixes silent-throwback stretches of scored imagery (complete with title cards) and synchronized scenes complete with a richly dense soundtrack of ambient noises that complements the graceful shots of the kolkhoz. Barnet even plays with the track at times, as when patriotic music blares as Yusuf and the town sailors set off without Aloysha, then grows softer as the mechanic has second thoughts about his irresponsibility and chases after them. Cut back to the dutiful fishers, and the music crescendos.

No plot ever really emerges from By the Bluest of Seas. Aloysha and Yusuf trade off in their efforts to woo Misha, but the usual rivalry of a romantic triangle never fully forms as the two commiserate with each other over their respective setbacks and failures. In one exceptional comic setpiece, a rotating stage meant to be a crew cabin rocks about smoothly but uneasily as a dejected Aloysha melodramatically concedes defeat in his romance and tells Yusuf to marry Misha (up on the deck, she gets no say in the matter of her betrothal). Aloysha even good-naturedly beats out a wedding band rhythm on the side of his cot as Yusuf gleefully fantasizes, until Aloysha’s pounding turns aggressive and a donnybrook nearly breaks out before a wave crashes on-board and sends Misha plummeting below to break it up. That whimsical touch, along with such scenes as Aloysha defending himself before a table of villagers irritated by him shirking his duties as if standing at a tribunal, add fantastical formal elements to what otherwise flirts with the Rohmerian at times. That is especially apparent in the ironic twist of the film’s low-key climax, a bittersweet reveal that amusingly undoes what little had been accomplished to that point but also sends the boys back home with clearer heads and a brighter outlook that twists even the restless Caspian Sea into a beacon of hope.

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