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Sergei Eisenstein: purveyor in Russian formalism

October: Ten Days that Shook the World and Alexander Nevsky

Alexander Nevsky: cut-rate price for a first class epic.
Alexander Nevsky: cut-rate price for a first class epic.

Rather than calling this week’s column a homework assignment, look upon it as a chance to reacquaint yourself with one of cinema’s founding fathers, the man who gave editing its pulse, a purveyor in Russian formalism, and the master of dialectical montage: Sergei Eisenstein.

October: Ten Days That Shook the World (1927), Alexander Nevsky (1938)

This week sees the DVD release of a pair of masterworks, one silent, the other sound, that highlight the two distinct chapters of Eisenstein’s career: propaganda through montage as seen in the first and one of two historical epics that marked the director’s conversion to sound in the second. In silent days, directors who were known to go wildly over budget were tethered by stoolies accountable only to studio heads. After The General flopped, United Artists assigned a production assistant to every subsequent film Buster Keaton directed. The same held true in the Soviet Union. Mosfilm saddled Eisenstein with a pair of watchpersons: a co-director (Dmitri Vasilyev) and co-screenwriter (Pyotr Pavlenko) whose jobs were to bring the film in on time and hopefully under budget. Eisenstein arranged shots like building blocks in order to construct meaning, and the boundless energy and joy of discovery contained in these films factor into a profoundly exhilarating experience.

Along with Vsevolod Pudovkin’s The End of St. Petersburg, October: Ten Days The Shook the World was one of two government-sanctioned films designed in honor of the 10-year anniversary of the Russian Revolution. Released three years after Potemkin, Eisenstein was chosen to head up the project based on the world-wide wave of critical and popular attention his previous work afforded. The cast of non-professionals — Lenin was brought to life by a lookalike factory worker — add to the film’s documentary appearance, but don’t let it fool you. These aren’t unmediated shots captured on the fly and strung together to bring a false facade of realism. (I’m talking about you, Paul Greengrass.) Eisenstein lures audiences in with his dynamic clash of imagery, transforming viewers into students who can then exit into the night to ponder and debate the significance behind each cut. It’s a work of historical and artistic significance, but be warned: some of it is tough to watch. When it comes to gut-wrenching, you can’t beat a dead horse.

Eisenstein’s mixmaster editing style saw him through the silent years. After sojourning in Hollywood and Mexico, he turned his attention to Alexander Nevsky. The slapping pace that once symbolized the director’s call to action had ripened into an even more revolutionary approach to storytelling. His incendiary editing patterns slackened during the sound era, and in their place rose a formal dynamism yet to be equaled. Unlike October, the tension here mounts through composition, not juxtaposition. Most directors demand little more of a viewer than a lazy gliding of eyeballs across a screen. Eisenstein used every inch of the frame, and wasn’t satisfied with a slight shift of the eyes. His goal was to jerk your head. If the politics get to be too much, try approaching it from the point-of-view of a war film like no other. Teutonic Knights advancing against Russia expected an easy victory. Little did they know their enemy’s motto: better to die in your own land than to leave it. The costumes are spectacular, and the battles lavishly staged. And for his first sound film, Eisenstein sought the services of Sergei Prokofiev to compose the score. Your knowledge of cinema is sorely incomplete without the films of Sergei Eisenstein. I cannot recommend this set highly enough.

A brief word about the transfers. Growing up at the movies, the Corinth Films logo at the head of a film was a recognized symbol of arthouse excellence. But the company that was once on the cutting edge of independent distribution has not kept up with the times. I visited their website and was shocked to find the term “blu-ray” absent from their vocabulary. And upon researching both titles, I was surprised to learn of the relative unavailability of quality copies. These appear to be the same 16mm transfers I used when I taught film history in the ‘90s. Still, at $22.99, the specially-priced set is a good buy. An out-of-print Criterion box that contains Alexander Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible Parts I & II lists for around $200. As for a blu-ray, a disc is only as good as the material it’s sourced from; a Region 2 blu-ray of Alexander Nevsky is available on Amazon, but after reading the customer reviews, it came as no surprise that it retails for less than a used VHS copy.

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Alexander Nevsky: cut-rate price for a first class epic.
Alexander Nevsky: cut-rate price for a first class epic.

Rather than calling this week’s column a homework assignment, look upon it as a chance to reacquaint yourself with one of cinema’s founding fathers, the man who gave editing its pulse, a purveyor in Russian formalism, and the master of dialectical montage: Sergei Eisenstein.

October: Ten Days That Shook the World (1927), Alexander Nevsky (1938)

This week sees the DVD release of a pair of masterworks, one silent, the other sound, that highlight the two distinct chapters of Eisenstein’s career: propaganda through montage as seen in the first and one of two historical epics that marked the director’s conversion to sound in the second. In silent days, directors who were known to go wildly over budget were tethered by stoolies accountable only to studio heads. After The General flopped, United Artists assigned a production assistant to every subsequent film Buster Keaton directed. The same held true in the Soviet Union. Mosfilm saddled Eisenstein with a pair of watchpersons: a co-director (Dmitri Vasilyev) and co-screenwriter (Pyotr Pavlenko) whose jobs were to bring the film in on time and hopefully under budget. Eisenstein arranged shots like building blocks in order to construct meaning, and the boundless energy and joy of discovery contained in these films factor into a profoundly exhilarating experience.

Along with Vsevolod Pudovkin’s The End of St. Petersburg, October: Ten Days The Shook the World was one of two government-sanctioned films designed in honor of the 10-year anniversary of the Russian Revolution. Released three years after Potemkin, Eisenstein was chosen to head up the project based on the world-wide wave of critical and popular attention his previous work afforded. The cast of non-professionals — Lenin was brought to life by a lookalike factory worker — add to the film’s documentary appearance, but don’t let it fool you. These aren’t unmediated shots captured on the fly and strung together to bring a false facade of realism. (I’m talking about you, Paul Greengrass.) Eisenstein lures audiences in with his dynamic clash of imagery, transforming viewers into students who can then exit into the night to ponder and debate the significance behind each cut. It’s a work of historical and artistic significance, but be warned: some of it is tough to watch. When it comes to gut-wrenching, you can’t beat a dead horse.

Eisenstein’s mixmaster editing style saw him through the silent years. After sojourning in Hollywood and Mexico, he turned his attention to Alexander Nevsky. The slapping pace that once symbolized the director’s call to action had ripened into an even more revolutionary approach to storytelling. His incendiary editing patterns slackened during the sound era, and in their place rose a formal dynamism yet to be equaled. Unlike October, the tension here mounts through composition, not juxtaposition. Most directors demand little more of a viewer than a lazy gliding of eyeballs across a screen. Eisenstein used every inch of the frame, and wasn’t satisfied with a slight shift of the eyes. His goal was to jerk your head. If the politics get to be too much, try approaching it from the point-of-view of a war film like no other. Teutonic Knights advancing against Russia expected an easy victory. Little did they know their enemy’s motto: better to die in your own land than to leave it. The costumes are spectacular, and the battles lavishly staged. And for his first sound film, Eisenstein sought the services of Sergei Prokofiev to compose the score. Your knowledge of cinema is sorely incomplete without the films of Sergei Eisenstein. I cannot recommend this set highly enough.

A brief word about the transfers. Growing up at the movies, the Corinth Films logo at the head of a film was a recognized symbol of arthouse excellence. But the company that was once on the cutting edge of independent distribution has not kept up with the times. I visited their website and was shocked to find the term “blu-ray” absent from their vocabulary. And upon researching both titles, I was surprised to learn of the relative unavailability of quality copies. These appear to be the same 16mm transfers I used when I taught film history in the ‘90s. Still, at $22.99, the specially-priced set is a good buy. An out-of-print Criterion box that contains Alexander Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible Parts I & II lists for around $200. As for a blu-ray, a disc is only as good as the material it’s sourced from; a Region 2 blu-ray of Alexander Nevsky is available on Amazon, but after reading the customer reviews, it came as no surprise that it retails for less than a used VHS copy.

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