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The farther we get from it, the clearer it seems that the Age of the Waves—the ’60s and ’70s, roughly demarcated—was film culture’s belle époque, glowing with post-teen hoochie-koo and experimental piss and vinegar wherever movie tickets were sold and film stock could be bought. From the Parisian vague to Budapest to Buenos Aires to even Hollywood, wavism spread like a supercool, ultrarealist virus, coupled with a satyric jump-cut epilepsy and a mania for the raucous anything-anytime life-riot of postwar city streets. What happened? WW II may have been the first tectonic movement that toppled the ways things were, but soon we had the defining 20th-century earthquake: For the first time, movies and their associate cultural tentacles weren’t celebrating the past or idealizing the future—they had their horny mitts on the youth-drunk, rule-rewriting now.
There was rock ‘n’ roll, then there was the wave film, and even in Moscow the twain met, mated, and bore crazy babies, like Zastava Ilyicha and Marlen Khutsiev’s I Am Twenty, a lyrical three-hour epic of feverish iconicity about three teens literally facing up to the Ghost of Wartime Past and making the Moscow streets their own personal bildungsfilm. Wavism, as it found itself in the Khrushchev thaw and as it’s represented in Richard Peña’s 25-film Walter Reade retro, owes less to the Soviet source waters and more to the moment—these ravishing, forgotten beauties often feel intoxicatingly French or Czech, and barely acknowledge the hamstrings of Socialist Realism, opting instead for, well, social realism.
The essential naturalism varies wildly, though, from patient, dallying workaday grit to catapulting explorations of space. In any case, the Soviet films of the ’60s wear some of the richest and most profoundly beautiful black-and-white photography seen anywhere. Agog fans of Mikhail Kalatozov’s I Am Cuba shouldn’t miss the Oscar-winning The Cranes Are Flying (1957) or The Letter Never Sent (1959), an ostensibly heroic lost-in-Siberia saga that not only vaults on-location mise-en-scène to Dantean heights, but gives us an idea where Tarkovsky and Sokurov came from. More surprising is how well the neorealist gear-teeth were locking in Andrei Konchalovsky’s earlier films, including The First Teacher (1965), a Kirghiz-produced rural romance (outshined by his 1966 wonder, The Story of Asya Klyachina, regrettably not in the series), and in Marlen Khutsiev’s July Rain (1966), a Cassavetes/Truffaut-esque cha-cha saturating Moscow café life with post-Dylan folk songs and singers.
Tarkovsky’s debut, Ivan’s Childhood (1962), is a common enough necessity, but Alexei German’s rarely seen Trial on the Road (1971) might be the chilliest, grimmest eastern-front war movie made until Come and See. The stark-raving-mad images, from an army emerging from winter mist to a machine-gun duel from opposing ditches, grip like eyelid clamps. But most imperative might be the opportunity again to see Sergei Paradjanov’s extraterrestrial craftworks on a real screen. A summoning of pagan energies if ever there were any in the era of television, the Carpathian-legend odyssey Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964) and the Armenian ballad-mural The Color of Pomegranates/Sayat Nova (1969) are two of the most distinctive usages cinema has ever been put to. Preposterously underappreciated, Paradjanov was as sui generis as the technological artists of that old Republic, and that old century, ever got.