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Nikita Mikhalkov's Burnt by the Sun was released in 1994, a year in which over seven decades of communism were undoubtedly still a vivid memory in the eyes of the Russian people. The transition from dictatorship to democracy left them with no choice but to try and disregard their past in order to better accept the many changes that the future would bring. In Burnt by the Sun, however, the director focuses on the characters' human emotions rather than condemn their ideology or their motivations. He thus brings us close to these individuals who are clutching the remnants of the ideals they originally fought for, and who, with the return of an old friend, are suddenly forced to simultaneously confront their future and search through their past. Throughout the whole movie this is the main theme the viewer is given to reflect on: the clash between the sweet, safe, nostalgic past and the forthcoming of a bitter, dangerous, uncertain future. This theme is particularly alive in the sequence 'Arrival of Summer Santa'. By analyzing the opening segment of this sequence, we realize that it is the editing which renders the conflict so palpable. From one cut to the next, we learn Nadia and Mitia's implicit memories and desires; during their conversation, the cutting alone makes us realize what will happen; near the end of the sequence, one simple cut says more than a minute-long scene ever could have done. Thanks to the editing, we become involved with the characters, and grow fully aware of the symbolic opposition between Nadia and Mitia, between past and future.
The sequence opens with various shots of the Red Army pioneers marching along the road. We gradually move to the back of the parade until we see Mitia, in disguise, marching with them. However, the camera only stays with him for a brief instant. It tilts down to reveal a young boy who is probably the same age as Nadia, and right after that we cut to a shot of her, at the gate, saluting the pioneers. That single cut reveals the entire essence of Nadia's character. She has one desire: to be a pioneer. She has been raised in a family that cultivates the memory of an idealistic communist regime, in which unity and devotion prevail. Nadia embodies the memories and desires of her people: memories of a past utopia, and desires to keep that utopia alive.
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After the conversation ends, we cut directly to a shot of Nadia and Mitia entering the house. This is almost unnoticeable, but it is probably the most significant cut of the entire sequence. They could have easily been shown opening the gate and walking towards the dacha. However, we have come to realize that everything occurring before Mitia's arrival belongs to the sweet and cherished past, whereas everything occurring afterwards belongs to the bitter and feared future. That one scene of Nadia and Mitia walking together to the house would have been the only harmonious marriage between past and future, since Mitia literally brings up a storm the moment he enters the dacha. But by cutting from past to future without a transition, the director reinforces the impression of a clash between the two. In a split second, we leave the calm and soothing sunny afternoon to enter the house and witness Mitia's absurd and hectic performance. We leave the sweet past to enter the bitter future.
In an article for Sight & Sound entitled 'Blind Faith', Nikita Mikhalkov writes: "I did not set out to make a film just about the past, I intended to say something about the present as well." Although Burnt by the Sun takes place in 1936, the characters it portrays display perfectly contemporary emotions. In that sense, Mikhalkov does indeed say a lot about the present: ever since the fall of communism in 1991, Russians have been confronted with the same situation as they were throughout the revolutionary years. They hold memories of a past impossible to forget, whether for good or bad reasons, yet they live in the uncertainty of what the future has in store.
Burnt by the Sun: Editing and understanding
Burnt by the Sun, directed by Nikita Mikhalkov, is a film that takes a viewer to places in Communist Russia that could, otherwise, be easily overlooked. Mikhalkov, who also co-wrote and acted in the film, takes a viewer on an emotional journey that seems to cover months in the lives of the characters when, in fact, the film takes place in a single day. From the very beginning of the film, a multitude of characters are introduced so rapidly that a viewer tends to feel a little overwhelmed. Since the introductions move so quickly, one is often forced to rely on the cutting to reveal the more delicate character information. In the "Arrival of the Summer Santa" sequence, cutting is used to further one's understanding of the film by revealing connections between characters, giving the viewer additional insight into the minds of the characters, and constructing a shot rhythm which intensifies the viewer's emotional attachment to the scene.
Precise cutting can be an ideal way to help a viewer understand connections and relationships between characters. In the last four shots of the previously mentioned sequence, a great deal of relationship information is presented, simply through the connection of one shot to another. This mini-sequence cuts from (i) a shot of the stranger's hands on the piano, to (ii) Marussya's reflection in the mirror, to (iii) Nadia and Kotov's faces, to (iv) the final "zoom-out" scene of the entire room. By placing Maroussia's mirror-image shot (ii) after the one of the stranger's hands (i), one is shown a great deal about their relationship. From the look on her face, one gets the impression that Maroussia is remembering something, and that the memory provokes a strong emotion. A viewer then recalls the previous shot (of the hands on the piano) and realizes that it was perhaps a recollection of those hands that sparked her memory. Because of this, the connection between the owner of the youthful hands and Maroussia's past is set in stone. Therefore, with a simple cut, great insight into the connection between the two characters is given.
The careful structure of this mini-sequence also gives a viewer insight into the mental state of the characters — particularly Maroussia's. In shot two, she breaks away from the commotion for a solitary moment by the mirror, and a viewer realizes that she has figured out the stranger's identity before the rest of the group has. In fact, in the same shot, when she turns to face the camera, one can tell from the angle of her eyeline that she is looking at the stranger. In shot three, one sees a close-up of Nadia looking confused, before the camera tilts up to a close-up of Kotov looking slightly worried. It is interesting to notice that Maroussia's eyes are fixed on the stranger instead of her family; almost as if his presence has pushed them to the back of her mind. (This is also illustrated by the placement of Kotov in the background of the mirror shot.) She knows who the stranger is, but it doesn't occur to her to alleviate her family's curiosity. It is this careful arrangement of the two shots within the sequence which forces a viewer to realize that Maroussia has (temporarily) placed a strange, piano-playing madman before her own family. This tells a viewer a great deal about the complexities of her mental state at that point in the film.
Also, in the "Arrival of the Summer Santa" sequence, an audience's emotions are intensified by the rhythm of the shots in relation to the music. Halfway through the sequence, once the stranger has entered the dacha, every aspect of the film becomes fractured and confused: the cutting, the dialogue and the music. However, in the last four shots of the sequence, everything is pulled together by a passionate swell in the music, and by a return to a solid, rhythmic shot pattern. The previously mentioned shots have been cut together in a tight A-B-A-B rhythm: short, simple shot (hands on piano); longer, complex shot (reflections in mirror); short, simple shot (close-ups of Nadia and Kotov); longer, complex shot ("zoom out" to whole room). The structure of this mini-sequence is drawn even tighter by the climb of the music, which accompanies the four final shots and sets an audience up for a spectacular climax. It seems as if music is an important link; not only in this scene, but in the film as a whole. Music is the family's link to the past, as well as the base which the tight shot structure is built upon.
In this carefully constructed mini-sequence in Burnt by the Sun, cutting is used to promote our engagement with the characters, and our understanding of, and emotional attachment to, their troubles. After viewing the film, one feels a deep connection to the characters because they have been presented in such a realistic, subtle way. Mikhalkov is even able to create this bond for a modern, North American audience that has no connection whatsoever to the disturbing events of the film. Perhaps this is achieved because he "...did not set out to make a film just about the past, [he] intended to say something about the present as well." (Mikhalkov 61) By grounding a film about Communist Russia in the comings and goings of loved ones at a summer dacha, Mikhalkov has made it accessible to anyone who has ever been part of the intricate workings of a family.
Arrival of Conflict
Film has the capability to capture viewers and enable them to become part of the sequence of events. Every sequence has meaning and every shot is done in order to grasp the viewers' attention. In the sequence 'Arrival of the Summer Santa' from the film Burnt by the Sun, three short cuts, beginning with the shot of Marussya looking at her reflection and ending with Mitya revealing his true identity, convey a vast amount of relevant information to the viewer. Through the use of continuity editing, the cutting in the sequence portrays the characters' relationships and tensions, as well as foreshadows the subsequent conflict resulting from Mitya's arrival.
The juxtaposition of the shots is extremely relevant in the sequence, and the film as a whole. In the first shot Marussya is the focal point and it shows her moving towards the mirror, with her back to the rest of the company. However, the significance presides in the relation with the shot which preceded it, the close-up shot of Mitya's hands playing the piano. By directly cutting from the hands of Mitya to the reaction of Marussya it prompts the viewer to recognize that there is a connection between the two, perhaps an intimate one. If the shot had been edited in any other way, if it was one long take of the entire room for example, the result would have been very different. By having the two shots side by side it conveys that the relationship between Marrusya and Mitya is not an unfamiliar one. Her key reaction is prompted by the climax in the music. A close-up shows her closing her eyes and smiling, realizing the true identity of the man who she recognizes either through his playing the piano, or the song itself. Usually, the rhythm of a close-up is short. However, this has a long duration, thus signifying the importance of her response. Right after the connection to Mitya in the shot, the visual of Kotov is destroyed since Marussya turns her back to the mirror and covers his reflection that had been in the mirror. This, therefore, foreshadows that Mitya's presence will change, and most likely damage, the relationship between Kotov and Marussya. Throughout the remaining part of the sequence there is no definite interaction between Kotov and Marussya; Mitya divides them.
The shot of Marussya cuts to another close-up, that of Nadya, her daughter. Through eyeline match it is clear that Nadya, whose head is turned in the same direction as Marussya, turns away from Mitya to look questioningly up at her father, who has his hands on her shoulders. This short shot shows the intimate relationship between the two characters and that Nadya is seemingly more attached to her father than her mother. Editing and cutting creates the connection between Marussya and Mitya and, in doing so, establishes Marussya's isolation from her family. It is important to recognize that the relationship Marussya has to the men is developed through the middle shot. Editing conveys a shot of Mitya, then his hands, then Marussya; it is the middle shot of the piano playing that hints at the intimate connection between the two characters. With the connection between Marussya and Kotov, a child is the linking factor, hence indicating their marital history. Through this very short cut the camera, and the viewer, follow Nadya's eyeline up to Kotov. Kotov's reaction is complicated, for although he raises his eyebrows and smiles for Nadya, the viewer gets the impression that he is dissatisfied with the disruption occurring in his household as he looks off the frame at the visitor.
The editing of Mitya is a contrast to that of the previous shots. Instead of having a close-up of Mitya, like the other three shots, it is a wide, high angle reestablishing shot, which orients the viewer to where the characters are in relation to each other in the scene and enables them to witness the reactions once Mitya reveals his true self. By cutting directly from Kotov to Mitya it reinforces the visual contrasts and character differences between the two men. Also, the shot duration is considerably longer compared to the previous shot of Kotov. Since it is a wide angle shot, it is necessary to have a lengthy take in order to observe all of the characters. Mitya's dramatic entrance foreshadows the havoc and conflict that he will create and defines Marussya's isolation once again. Right before the disguise is taken off Kotov and Marussya glance over at each other from opposite sides of the room, yet it is not obvious whether they make eye contact. This detail can be interpreted as a foreshadowing of their separation due to Mitya. After Mitya's true identity is displayed the company exclaims in joy except for Marussya, who already recognizes Mitya through his disguise, and Kotov, whose reaction is not genuine.
The dacha is thrown into an uproar and the viewer can predict that Mitya will introduce conflict to the film. This is foreshadowed by continuity editing, which gives the viewer an intimate understanding of the characters and the tensions and character relationships are defined through the juxtaposition of shots. Close-ups can be interpreted to represent the closed, traditional world of the dacha whereas the wide angle shot of Mitya can be seen to represent him infiltrating the close-knit family with the Stalinist industrial and political outside world, thus causing instant disruption and conflict.
Mikhalkov, Nikita. "Blind Faith." Sight & Sound January 1996: 61.