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Douglas Pratt

By Douglas Pratt

Doctor Zhivago

At long last, the Spring has broken through with all that your heart can hold, because Warner Home Video has done right by Doctor Zhivago. Past releases have never looked entirely pristine. The colors have always been a little bland or unstable, and the outstanding Freddie Young cinematography has never been fully or correctly articulated, until now. Warner has released a 45th Anniversary Edition, which is great, but the real thrill is the Blu-ray release. The colors are fantastic and fleshtones are flawless. Most importantly, shadows and colored streams of light are fully discernible. Some, such as a shot near the end where Julie Christie is bathed in red at the very bottom of the screen, have really never been seen before on home video. The effect of these improvements is essentially that the image is no longer a distraction.

Omar Sharif stars as the title character, a young doctor and poet, whose life is upended by the communist revolution in Russia. Geraldine Chaplin is his wife and Christie is his mistress. The 1965 David Lean epic has a number of subordinate characters as well, and the screenplay deftly weaves them throughout the story, so that while time advances and locations change, you are always drawn back to the movie’s heart through its various human arteries. The film is appealing both as a generational tale and as a tale of great adventure, one that spans the world’s largest continent during one of its most turbulent eras.

Lean lets scenes breathe to a much greater extent than most filmmakers today would allow. It is one of the reasons the movie has such a grand, one-of-a-kind feel to it. Previously, however, you had time to look around the screen and notice the flaws. Now, you just savor the atmosphere-Lean is also intent upon establishing an atmosphere for almost every moment-and the movie becomes that much richer of an experience. Those who dislike the film complain that it is just a hokey, melodramatic romance making use of the Russian Revolution as a unique setting, but what they miss is the tremendously satisfying balance between the movie’s melodramatic elements and the ambitiousness of its staging. Even the noticeable flaws in the story-such as the way in which the daughter of Christie’s character is always conveniently not around when the plot requires Christie and Sharif’s characters to be alone, regardless of the time of day-are not enough to interfere with the film’s impact. You can’t push the 1965 sound recording beyond reason, but on the BD, as you let the DTS track blossom around you while everything from the film’s vistas to the cast’s eyes enchant you in crisp detail, you are reminded with resonant joy that this is what the movies were meant to be.

Another reason to prefer the BD-you still have to turn the DVD over at the Intermission, while the BD plays out the entire 200-minute film (including the Overture, Entr’acte and Exit Music) on one side. There is a commentary featuring Sharif and Lean’s widow, Sandra Lean, intercut with memories from Rod Steiger (whose very serious part is nevertheless the film’s comic relief thanks to the wonderfully jovial timing of his line readings). A French audio track in 5.1 Dolby and a Spanish audio track in standard stereo are also included, along with optional English, French and Spanish subtitles (“‘M. Komarovski, sans offense, s’arrange-t-on avec l’âge?’ ‘On devient plus tolerant.’ ‘Parce qu’on a besoin de l’être envers soi-même.'”).

Much of what they have to say is repeated more concisely in the retrospective documentaries and there are many lengthy gaps, but there are some worthwhile elaborations, particularly as Sharif and Sandra Lean reminisce about David Lean’s manner and habits (Sharif: “What I noticed about David, he wasn’t extremely gifted when he had big crowds. It took him a long time, but then when he worked it out, he worked it out perfectly, but it didn’t come naturally to him. Contrary to what people think, he was brilliant on intimate scenes. He could do scenes between two people wonderfully, and he had no hard time getting it right. In other words, he was inspired much more quickly when he had an intimate scene of two people. And people think he was great at epics. He was, but it cost him.”) Steiger’s comments are less informative and not helped by the awkward format. At one point, Steiger talks about an individual who enjoyed British football, and you don’t know if he is referring to Tom Courtenay, who is on the screen at the time, to David Lean, or to someone else.

On the concluding side of the first DVD platter, there is a new 40-minute retrospective documentary mixing testimonials from other filmmakers with a deft analysis of the film’s strongest artistic attributes.

The special features on the second DVD splatter, like the commentary, most were available on the previous DVD release, including a 60-minute retrospective documentary from 1995, hosted by Sharif. Christie is absent, but they do manage to get Chaplin and Rod Steiger to talk about their experiences, and both are quite open and have some great stories. The documentary is one of the better offerings in the genre and is not afraid to touch on controversy, telling the story of an actress who was badly hurt during a stunt sequence (the shot is actually in the film) and detailing the reasons Nicolas Roeg was dropped as the cinematographer after shooting had begun, in favor of Young. Sharif also tells how Lean directed his performance (he was told to be intentionally passive, absorbing his surroundings as a poet might), providing a sudden insight to the interpretation of a great many scenes. The documentary explains that most critics first reacted negatively to the film, not realizing that what they were allowing to slip past them was one of the last great epics to be as humanist as it was lavish.

Also featured on the platter are eight original production featurettes that were included on the previous release, running about 37 minutes in total. There is a good profile of novelist Boris Pasternak, a look at how the sets were constructed in Spain, and profiles of the stars. A press interview with Christie running 10 minutes and another one with Sharif running 19 minutes are included, along with Chaplin’s 3-minute screen test and a trailer. Christie, despite having a very bad hair day, was especially adept at providing intelligent, thoughtful answers to extremely stupid questions. The original theatrical trailer is also fascinating-having three and a half hours from which to draw, it is able to include a great deal and still not spoil things, but it is geared toward male interests.

The BD comes in a small hardcover book jacket, featuring a souvenir-style booklet. In addition to the DVD’s audio options, there are German, Italian, Portuguese and Castilian audio tracks and nine subtitling options. The BD platter contains the new documentary, but the package also has the second DVD platter with the other special features, and a 21-minute audio CD of the film’s burned-in-your-brain Maurice Jarre musical score, which may be intended to compensate for the absence of the music-only track that the previous DVD had.

– by Douglas Pratt

Douglas Pratt’s DVD-Laser Disc Newsletter is published monthly.
For a free sample, call (516)594-9304 or go to his website at

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The Ultimate DVD Geek

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon