Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Battleship Potemkin

Dir. Sergei Eisenstein

Battleship Potemkin is a spiritual film. Not spiritual in the religious sense but rather in a universally human way. Spirituality is not confined to the church or the temple. It extends over all people who look to something larger than themselves for inspiration and guidance. If history is any indication, the spirit is often inversely related to the quality of life. The more a man is oppressed, the greater his commitment to himself and his fellow man becomes. The triumph comes when the defeat of the body is near. Battleship Potemkin is about just that. It demonstrates the nobility of the persecuted man's soul and the power that says “No” to the muzzle of a loaded gun. More than anything though it is a stunning piece of propaganda, and is as much a tribute to genuine emotion as it is to inventive, manipulative film making.

The thing about being manipulated is that no one ever wants to admit that they are or have been, probably because so few people realize they're being used or persuaded. That's propaganda at its very best (see: the relentlessness of modern advertising and it's effects on purchasing trends). However, Battleship Potemkin is not full up on affectations of sincerity, in fact it can't afford to be. Director Sergei Eisenstein draws on a largely historical event (the revolt on the battleship Potemkin) with elements of fiction (the massacre on the Odessa steps) mixed in to make a cinematic melting pot of emotion. In such a stew Eisenstein's revolutionary use of montage to increase audience reaction is the spice that enhances the intensity of the film's emotive core, rather than counter-act it. This is a delicate equilibrium. Had Eisenstein gone too heavy on the 'glorious revolution' imagery his intent would have been transparent and likely met by skepticism and cynicism in his audience. However, too light and the film would have been an un-affecting war film about revolution, rather than what it is: a revolutionary film about war. Eisenstein poured all his heart and technical prowess into this film and the end result is a masterpiece of cinema: a completely engaging spectacle who's intensity builds exponentially as the film progresses towards its ultimate, ennobling conclusion.

Battleship Potemkin is revolutionary both in content and in context. Upon it's premier it was banned in several countries for it's risk as a potential inflamer of serious uprising, which is an accurate understanding of the power of the film. Having lived in Russia until the mid 1920s, since his birth on the eve of the 20th century, Eisenstein surely understood the rallying power of propaganda. His methods were innovative, his medium new and excited, but his message was one chiseled into the stone of human history. Wherever there is tyranny there will be men who can draw the oppressed together. In one of the film's most memorable scenes a crew of 'petty officers' is about to fire upon a group of dissenters, tired of the poor living conditions on the vessel, when a sailor, Vakulynchuk, yells “Brothers! Who are you shooting at?” whereupon the ship's crew begins it's revolt against the exalted and insolent higher officers. The intensity of this scene is blood-boiling. The score screams with trumpets and strings as the camera bounces from face to face, tips of rifles to butts of crosses, fear to determination. What must happen happens, and the relatively small revolt aboard the battleship escalates and spreads. Eisenstein's visual interpretation of revolution is both highly accurate and highly condensed in order to create the largest impact. In that respect he was not only a great artist of propaganda, but a great filmmaker as well. His timing throughout the film is immaculate. The pacing is rigorous, but the idea is simple enough to not require extraneous amounts of explanation. In fact the arc of the narrative from the initial dissent to the joining of fellow brothers-in-arms is surprisingly predictable. This works heavily in Eisenstein's favor, as the understanding of the narrative on the part of the audience allows him the opportunity to influence and shape the perception of the revolutionary spirit that he is portraying. It is that spirit that Eisenstein captures so magnificently that ultimately makes the film as impressive and incisive as it is. Spirituality is something everyone, despite difference of religion and upbringing, can believe in if they choose to. And if they don't, chances are they can be convinced to.

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