The Two Zhivagos

I have a good friend named Jonathan Callan, and if you don’t know that name, you should, because he’s one of the most brilliant and committed writers I know. He also has a penchant for starting really great conversations and thought experiments on Facebook. This past two week, he made two posts that got a lot of feedback. One was a call to recommend black-and-white studio system-era movies with great love stories. The other was a discussion about several articles on how liberals “should” vote this year, the point being that no candidate is entitled to your vote under any circumstances. I was following both of these during my breaks at the office…I was on mandatory overtime this week…and made a small contribution, one of many passionate ones, to the former, and didn’t go near the latter because these days I really don’t like potentially arguing politics with people until it becomes necessary. Suffice to say that lots of Callan’s friends were making great points…

The funny thing is that on the subway ride home, contemplating both of these posts, my mind focused on my all-time favorite movie, Doctor Zhivago.

Doctor Zhivago is in glorious, explosive color and it has nothing to do with Hillary Clinton v. Bernie Sanders and such. It took over my mind irregardless.


There are many reasons why I love Zhivago so much, many having to do with the film as a movie and nothing else: the artistry of David Lean, his crew, and his cast of thousands.* But as I have grown older and so many other movies I love seem to emotionally resonate with me less and less, Zhivago has grown in stature, and it is in part because of the relationship between the two brothers at the heart of the movie: Doctor Yuri Zhivago himself and his half-brother Yevgraf, the Communist general. Their diverging paths, played out on a grand and complicated scale, reflect upon my own personal version of one of the main conflicts that drives every great story, the difference between what we want and what we need.

Yuri represents who I secretly want to be. He is devoted to creation, to poetry, to simplicity, to looking for the best in people and caring for others…and taking the world as it comes. But taking the world as it comes can be difficult. The podcast Filmspotting  described Doctor Zhivago as an apocalyptic film and they’re right: it is a story of the forces of human nature and history coming into an occasionally brutal and cataclysmic conflict and sweeping away an entire order of things. Yuri doesn’t particularly care who comes out on top as long as he can be left alone to create the art that for him means infinitely more than political and social reality, that he sees as longer lasting than any particular state in which the nation finds itself. There is something attractive in living solely for your work, trying to stay beyond the conflicts of humankind with benevolent acceptance. But Yuri’s failure to choose any side ultimately leads to the high dramas of the third act.

So if Yuri is who I want to be in the deepest parts of my id, then Yevgraf is who I need to be, who I am called on to be. Yevgraf is one of my favorite characters in all cinema, and not solely because he is played to perfection by Sir Alec Guinness as a stern man on the outside with a quiet storm of emotions within. As that sentence suggests, Yevgraf is a character with more to him than meets the eye. He chooses a side. He sticks to his principles and tirelessly works for his side to win. And he does so in a manner that inspires love in some and respect in many who see him only as a general.

But Yevgraf also recognizes, from beginning to end, the artistic and symbolic value of people’s lives. He is always ready to tell someone they are special, that they have a gift. He would probably say he has no gift of his own, that he gives all he has to the revolution. But Yevgraf has a gift: he is the great storyteller, the one who can put all the pieces together and determine what it all means. He sees the story of where Russia is going. He sees the story of how Yuri’s life and the lives of those around him get intertwined with tragic consequences. And he tells these stories because they matter to people in an age when everything can shift so quickly and the truth is necessary. Like Alexander Hamilton, Yevgraf “writes like he’s running out of time” because time is at a premium and the stories must get told…for without them, the work he does is meaningless.

He acts. He creates. Yevgraf seems to come out on top. But Lean, Robert Bolt, and of course Boris Pasternak further complicate the situation by not making politics and history the sole driving forces of the story. Love, they say (and say correctly), is as powerful as politics and history. It is the living proof that social transformation alone is not the only energy that can shake a person.

And Yuri’s life is based around wearing his heart on his sleeve. His unquenchable twin desire for both Lara and Tonya is what gives Doctor Zhivago its main momentum, his attempts to try to hold on to them both, to reconcile his passions, and to live authentically influence all of his choices when he finally is forced to make choices. One could argue that a character like Yevgraf would frown on this, but Yevgraf has so much of his half-brother in him. He never speaks of it, but he admires Yuri and respects life Yuri leads. He is honest to a fault except when he knows a lie could save the lives of those he cares for. And in the final ten minutes, as Yevgraf concludes the story over some of the most haunting and heartbreaking imagery every put on celluloid, Guinness speaks the final lines of voiceover with what seems to be an offhand tone, almost a throwaway. As I’ve gotten older I know better. The man of action, the man of commitment to a cause, is sublimating his deepest feelings so they do not overpower him in an undesirable way. And he feels as deep as his brother…but Yuri, by the end, has had experiences and come to profound, human realizations that Yevgraf may probably never have and will never know.

This may be why I love Doctor Zhivago so much…there are deplorable things about Yuri and Yevgraf Zhivago alike, but there are also many things in both of them worth holding on to and developing within ourselves. it is a sharp, adult epic in which people who are never entirely right or entirely wrong struggle with each other and existence itself. And the longer I live, the more I realize how accurately this reflects the human condition in a way few films do.

So I leave with no easy answers. Although I also leave with Jonathan Callan’s IMDB page with a promise that he has more to come. And follow him on twitter, for he represents all the best things in Yevgraf (and I would say none of the worst) more than I do…although I keep trying.

*Zhivago was Lean and writer Robert Bolt’s follow-up to Lawrence of Arabia and on top of another stellar cast, amazing production design, and breathtaking Freddie Young cinematography designed to create a heightened reality–as a poet like Zhivago would see it–it also features a second half that feels really, really different from the first half, which is the one kind-of sort-of flaw in Lawrence.

Photo from The Realist



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