Cinematographer. Nationality: Russian. Born: 1908. Education: Institute of Fine Arts, Moscow. Military Service: Front-line cameraman, World War II. Career: Worked as a graphic designer and photographer in the 1930s; cinematographer, Mosfilm Studios, after World War II; directed two films toward the end of his life. Awards: Special Award, Cannes Film Festival, for Sorok pervyj, 1957; Golden Palm, Cannes Film Festival, for Letyat zhuravli, 1958; Archival Award, National Society of American Film Critics, for I am Cuba (1965), 1995. Died: In Moscow, 1974.
Films as Cinematographer:
Poyedinok (Duel) (Legoshin)
Selskaya uchitelnitsa (The Village Teacher) (Donskoy)
Alitet ukhodit v gory (Alitet Leaves for the Hills) (Donskoy)
Vozvrashcheniye Vasiliya Bortnikova (The Return of Vasili Bortnikov) (Pudovkin)
Urok zhizni (Lesson of Life) (Raizman)
Pervyi eshelon (The First Echelon) (Kalatozov)
Sorok pervyi (The Forty-first) (Chukhrai)
Letyat zhuravli (Cranes Are Flying) (Kalatozov)
Neotpravlennoye pismo (The Letter Never Sent) (Kalatozov)
Kavalier zolotoi zvezdy (Cavalier of the Golden Star) (Raizman)
Ya Kuba (Soy Cuba ; I Am Cuba) (Kalatozov)
Films as Director:
Proshschaj, Gjulsary! (The Ambler's Race)
Poy pesnyu, poet! (Sing Your Song, Poet)
By URUSEVSKY: articles—
"About the Form," in Izkusstvo kino (Moscow), no. 2, 1966.
On URUSEVSKY: articles—
Barnet, Enrique Pineda, "The Slogan is Friendship," in Soviet Screen, No. 15, 1964.
Harvey, Dennis, "Soy Cuba/Ja Cuba," in Variety, 17 May 1993.
Guthmann, Edward, "Soviet Bird's-Eye View of Cuba: Sweeping, Swooping Propaganda Piece," in San Francisco Chronicle, 14 April 1995.
Rosenberg, Scott, "1964 film I Am Cuba Mixes Art and Propoganda," in San Francisco Examiner, 14 April 1995.
Turner, George, "The Astonishing Images of I Am Cuba," in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), July 1995.
Ebert, Roger, "I am Cuba," in Chicago Sun-Times, 8 December 1995.
West, Dennis, "I Am Cuba," in Cineaste (New York), vol. 22, no. 2, Spring 1996.
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Sergei Urusevsky will be remembered as one of the most innovative and resourceful figures in the history of cinematography, a proponent of a filmmaking in which a subjective camera narrates the film. He advocated a camera technique that would edit the film with its own movement and make montage obsolete. Urusevsky was influenced by the other main figure of Soviet cinematography, Eisenstein's cameraman Eduard Tisse. While celebrated internationally, at home he was often blamed for his obsession with form.
Urusevsky studied under graphic artist Vladimir Favorsky and other Russian constructivists in Moscow. In the 1930s he worked as a graphic designer and photographer. He was a Picasso admirer, and was particularly proud that he visited with Picasso once and received some ceramic pieces from the painter. During the war he was mobilized and worked as a combat cameraman. He became a DP only later, and worked with directors Mark Donskoy and Yuli Raizman, as well as on the last picture of veteran Vsevolod Pudovkin. Little of Urusevsky's formalist philosophy is to be seen in his earlier work. His best-known film from that period is Grigoriy Chukhrai's Sorok pervyi (1956), a conventionally shot studio-set adaptation of a popular short story by Boris Lavrenyev, recounting a doomed love affair unraveling in the background of Russia's civil war.
Urusevsky's interest in cinematic form found its adequate expression only after he began working with director Mikhail Kalatozov. Their first collaboration was the war-time romance drama Pervyi eshelon (1955), but it was not until the triumph of Letyat zhuravli (1957) that Urusevsky's innovative approach to film narration was recognized. Besides receiving the top award at Cannes, the film marked a decisive turn in Soviet war cinema: for a first time the experience of war was discussed through the utterly personal anxieties of the protagonists. Hand-held camera shots were used as often as technology allowed. There was even a scene where the protagonist, Veronica, runs away in a moment of trauma, surrounded by a shaky background of trees and buildings, reflecting her state of mind. For this subjective shot Urusevsky is said to have asked actress Tatiana Samoilova to hold the camera herself while running.
Kalatozov and Urusevsky then collaborated on Neotpravlennoye pismo (The Letter Never Sent, 1959), a romantic story of geologists facing a hostile nature. Elements of the cinematography of this film are believed to have influenced some scenes in Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now. Urusevsky's masterpiece remains his last picture as cinematographer, Ya Kuba (I Am Cuba, 1965). It was an important and lavishly financed joing project of the Soviet Union and newly socialist Cuba, meant to further the iconography and mythology of the revolutionary aesthetic, and to become the cinematic cornerstone of the "Cuban craze" that characterized the Soviet Union in the mid-1960s.
The film runs close to three hours and consists of four unrelated stories, recounting the fates of ordinary Cubans involved in situations of class confrontation that in the end lead them all into revolution. Otherwise an ordinary propaganda feature, I Am Cuba is outstanding for its extraordinary cinematography and design influenced by the work of Cuban painter Jose Portocarrero. Urusevsky chose to make the film in lush black and white, as he believed that the powerful emotional impact of contrasting shadows was crucial in cinema. For I Am Cuba, he used special infrared stock to achieve a fairy effect of the white island and palms on the dark background of sea and sky. Most of the film was shot with a 9.8 lens that slightly distorts the proportions and gives the images a dizzy, engulfing feel.
The shots in I Am Cuba are long and elaborately composed; many consist of a single take that runs over two minutes. In order to secure the changes in angles and the twists in the point of view the camera had not only been hand-held most of the time, but at times had to be handled by two operators. The nearly three-minute-long complex single-take opening scene on the hotel roof had to be shot 17 times; it involves vertical and horizontal movement of the camera operator, a combination of panoramic shots and extreme close ups, as well as the coordination of more than 100 extras.
The innovative cinematography of I Am Cuba was also influenced by the presence of young and inventive camera operator Aleksander Calzatti on the set. Calzatti, who eventually emigrated to Israel and the United States, had spent long hours discussing the film with Urusevsky and Kalatozov. He had seen Hitchcock's Psycho, and described to them its opening shot where the camera moves from a panoramic view of the city to a close-up of the window behind which the action of the film begins to unravel. Urusevsky was impressed by this description, and planned some of the long takes in I Am Cuba around the concept of combination of far and near. In the famous funeral scene, in one unbroken take the camera moves over a street overlooking a funeral procession, then enters a room through a window, travels over the heads of the workers in a third floor cigar factory, then goes out of the window again and continues wandering over the top of the procession. The shot was made possible with a system of cranes and an elaborate cable system.
Upon its release, I Am Cuba was accused of formalism. In an extensive discussion organized by Iskusstvo Kino in 1965 various filmmakers and critics shared their admiration for its experimentation with cinematic form, but noted that excessive attention to form had led to neglected character development and psychological complexity of the protagonists. The overtly aesthetic approach was considered inappropriate since it had subjected content to form. The filmmakers were accused of misleading viewers into enjoying the beauty of the images instead of sympathizing with the sorrows of the disinherited protagonists. It seemed that the cameraman had taken over directing, and was rather preoccupied with demonstrating the means of expression he had at his disposal while forgetting the goal these means were supposed to serve.
Urusevsky defended himself: "There cannot be art beyond form," he insisted, alluding to Eisenstein. "It has never interested me, as cameraman, to just register what is going on in front of the camera." On the contrary, Urusevsky claimed that his goal had always been to "make the image very active."
I Am Cuba was rediscovered at the Telluride Film Festival in 1992, and screened to a standing ovation at the 1993 San Francisco International Film Festival. It was then restored, released in the United States as a presentation of Martin Scorsese and Francis Coppola, and enjoyed enthusiastic reviews and acclaim in the arthouse circuit.
Toward the end of his life, Urusevsky turned to directing. In 1969 he adapted for the screen the popular short novel by Kirghiz writer Chingiz Aitmatov Farewell, Gulsary!, and in 1971 he worked on a film based on the works of Russian poet Sergei Yesenin, who committed suicide in 1925. After Urusevsky's death, an exhibition of his paintings was organized in Moscow.