Battleship Potemkin (Eisenstein, 1925)

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Not all classics are good movies, but…

One problem, of course, with a great books (or great films) curriculum is that we get students to equate “classic” with dull, uninteresting, or obsolete. Another is that we may focus on those classics that are accessible, thereby undercutting their status as masterpieces by making us think of them as too simple. Peter Saccio of Dartmouth claimed the latter trend hurt the reputation of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, and I had a similar thought while reading George Eliot’s Silas Marner the other day.

The most impressive aspect about Eisenstein’s 1925 silent film is simply how well it stands up as a movie. Yes, one can watch it for historical importance, to glean when and how innovations in editing and cinematic storytelling were developed. Yes, the Odessa Steps sequence is still a staple of introductory film books seeking to illustrate montage technique. But like Citizen Kane, Battleship Potemkin doesn’t show it’s age. Also like Kane, the lack of disassociation that comes from watching it for the first time–its very familiarity–is a testament to how thoroughly its techniques have permeated the language of films we see today. Watch another silent film from the 1920s (I saw The Last of the Mohicans last fall), and the static tableaus and more frequent cuts to the inter-titles make you feel like you are seeing a distant cousin of the art form with which you are familiar. Watch Potemkin, and you feel like you are seeing an immediate family resemblance.

The same can’t exactly be said for Eisenstein’s prose, which we can only hope loses something (i.e. sense) in the translation. Look, I had to slog through both Shlovsky’s Theory of Prose and Bahktin’s The Dialogic Imagination back when I took 502, so I wasn’t exactly expecting anything cogent from a Russian. Here’s a sample, though, that I defy you to read without snickering:

We have already said that the binary cut through the film as a whole, as well as what happens in each part of the film, occurs approximately at the halfway point.

In reality, it comes closer to a ratio of 2:3, which represents the closest schematic approximation of the golden section.

Well, it is at the 2:3 cut, that is to say between the end of the second act and the beginning of the third, that the principal caesura is found, the zero when the action pauses.

Let us be even more precise: the theme of Vakoulintchouk’s funeral comes into play not at all at the beginning of the third act, but at the end of the second, adding, after a fashion, the .18 missing from the six units in the remainder of the film. (If you calculate the ten demi-acts of the film according to the golden section, 1 and 1.618, you get, to two decimals, 3.82 for the first part and 6.18 for the second.)

I half expected this to segue into a discussion of how if Vakoulintchouk’s name were transliterated into Hebrew and each letter given a corresponding numeric value that the addition of his name, that of Potemkin, and Odessa (three being the perfect number of units) reached a total of 666.

Okay, that’s a cheap shot, because, really, all Aristotle said was that a play should have a beginning, middle, and end, for which The Poetics is hailed as a masterpiece. I understand that Eisenstein is talking about parallelism. I suspect that he is talking about organic parallelism, but I’m less sure of that.

More interesting to me is how the dramatic climax is generally a moment of caesura–a stopping. This is the opposite of the contemporary action picture in which the only way to convey drama is through…umm…action. It is even a cliche that the director yells “Action” to start the camera. Yet the drama that contrasts the mass movement here is that of inactivity. When the captain yells “Fire” and there is no action, this is the real rebellion. The escalation of conflict–of resistance–is the natural progression and outworking of the initial rebellion.

Eisenstein also notes that there is an echo. The mutinous sailor calls “Brothers!” to the officers charged with executing their own men just as the Potemkin cries “Brothers!” to the rest of the fleet. The moment of decision is one in which two voices are heard, and it is enough that those hearing the second voice hesitate. For listening, thinking, analyzing the voice of command is the first step towards autonomy. How ironic that I see a deconstruction of the socialist propoganda. It is not that one voice replaces another. Whenever and wherever that is done, the voice of authority becomes rigid, hard, and tyrannical, whether it be crying “Fire!,” “Brothers!,” or “Christians!” Perhaps it is not the content in the commanding voice where democracy is found but in the listener’s willingness to weigh that content and find it wanting.

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