Noted Films

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Battleship Potemkin

Film Review by Dean Duncan Apr 10, 2015

It’s easy to tiptoe around the great canonical works, to be uncritically appreciative without actually thinking about the nature of that appreciation, or its object. North by Northwest is a great film! But, or, have you watched it lately?

Well, Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin is a great film, or at least an undeniably important one. He has devised an altogether new way to communicate, and it works tremendously well. The shipboard sequences, the first two of the film’s five acts, really are all that they’re cracked up to be. Analytic/kinetic, engaging brain and body: altogether, something new under the sun (Eisenstein’s just-previous Strike notwithstanding).

But may I? Act III, in which the citizens of Odessa mourn the martyred seaman, is overemphatic and implausible, both emotionally and ideologically. By the latter I mean, for one thing, that Eisenstein has not considered, or felt to include, the diversity that exists within the proletarian classes, nor the many impediments that stand in the way of arousing that class to effectual action. That’s not a film’s job, you say? How bourgeois of you!

Act IV, in which the Cossacks act aggressively upon the Odessa steps, truly is a marvel. But is this sequence a bit like Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven”? It’s good, but it’s not that good! (“Kashmir,” on the other hand, or “Achilles’ Last Stand.” And for that matter, I’ll take “Carouselambra”!) What’s the opposite of gestalt? The shocking, stunning, stupendous images are practically innumerable. At this late date in my jaded and diminished life, however, I find that the whole thing, though certainly not idiotic, is mostly sound and fury. The signification of that you already know.

In Act V the good guys win. Which they did, back in 1905! Before being mostly rubbed out, right after! Revolutionists and propagandists often skip details like that. In fact, so does most any partisan or true believer or wild-eyed chauvinist. It’s for morale, and to bolster courage, for the sake of the story. It’s not a lie at all, necessarily. Unless there’s never any other place to put things into perspective, consider the full account, or all the stories combined, to draw conclusions and then act further upon them.

Let’s by all means blame Stalin for the absence of that last step. (Though not so much in 1925.) Even more, let’s by all means celebrate the great Sergei Eisenstein, whose voluminous theoretical writings reveal him to be a polymathic genius with an incredibly intuitive mind, and a marvelous poetic way of expressing himself. Further—dip into Immoral Memories, his autobiography—I’m pretty sure he was a great man. A dear one too. Potemkin? I’m wondering. Have you watched it lately?