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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs. Pick of the Week: Classic, Blu-ray. Strike



PICK OF THE WEEK: Classic/Blu-ray

Strike (Stachka) (Four Stars)

U.S.S.R./Russia: Sergei Eisenstein, 1925 (Kino Classics)

1. Eisenstein

 In 1925, Sergei Eisenstein, a rich architect’s son who had become a passionate convert to Communism during the Russian Revolution and afterward a brilliant theatrical director with the Proletkult Theatre of Moscow, directed two silent films that would shake the world.

 Those two movies, made in a new way for, supposedly, a new audience, would both glorify that same revolution (by showing two earlier proletarian uprisings in Russia). In many ways, they would also revolutionize filmmaking throughout the world. They were Eisenstein’s debut feature, Strike, and his follow-up, The Battleship Potemkin.

 Eisenstein‘s world stature after that double triumph in 1925, was immense. He became one of the most critically hailed filmmakers of the ’20s international cinema, and also a prolific writer and film theorist, practicing and espousing a dynamic new editing style, based on the often violent collision of shots and sequences, a style that he dubbed variously “montage of attractions” or “montage of shocks.” Partly inspired by the American master D. W. Griffith, Eisenstein’s was a storytelling technique that tried to abandon all vestiges of conventional theatrical presentation and create an overwhelming flood of images and ideas.

 Then came Stalin‘s long dictatorship and World War 2 and its Cold War aftermath. Now, more than eight decades later, The Russian Revolution and the Cold War it spawned are both over, casualties of the world-wide arms race and the raging ideological battles that were their most drastic post-World War 2 consequence. And Eisenstein himself — after having become first a radical enfant terrible of Soviet theater (with the Proletkult theatre group) and then The Soviet Union’s most famous and influential film director (with Strike and  Potemkin), and even spending a season in Hollywood (where he strongly praised both Walt Disney’s cartoons and John Ford‘s Young Mr. Lincoln, but where the studio executives took a dim view of his proposal for a movie based on Karl Marx‘s Das Kapital) saw his career founder and enemies gather around him.

The once widely hailed genius of radical cinema suffered fierce ideological attacks in his own country from its most powerful arts bureaucrats (as did many of his great colleagues in film and other arts, including Pasternak in literature and Prokofiev in music), saw his projects refused, and endured the humiliation of forced public confessions of his “transgressions.”

In the 1940s, in the midst of making what would have been a landmark film trilogy, Ivan the Terrible, he was driven from the trilogy (which was never finished) by the Soviet Union’s longtime dictator Joseph Stalin himself (who, many said was the model for Eisenstein‘s Ivan, as played with epic pathological grandeur by Grigori Cherkassov). Eisenstein, sick, embattled, never completed hismasterpiece and never directed another film. He died in 1948, at 50.

2. The Art and the Masses

Eisenstein made Strike, and later Potemkin, for a movie industry that had been called to arms by Lenin himself, with his didactic observation that film was the most important revolutionary art. That validation helped give rise later to a burst of cinematic creativity and innovation that included the great early works of V. I. Pudovkin (The End of St. Petersburg, Mother), Akexander Dovzhenko (Arsenal, Earth), Dziga Vertov (The Man with a Movie Camera), and of course, Eisenstein himself, who was regarded as the most creative of them all.

For Strike, made with colleagues and actors from the Proletcult Theatre in his cast, and with then and future prime collaborators like cinematographer Eduard Tisse and co-writer/actor Grigori Alexandrov helping him, Eisenstein‘s ambitions were vast. The movie was intended as the first of a multi-part series called “Towards Dictatorship (of the Proletariat)”, whch perhaps mercifully, for both Eisenstein and us, was never completed, its title now an ominous phrase, but then another political cliché.

The picture itself, which begins with a quote from Lenin, chronicles a strike in a Russian factory, in six acts — from the first provoking incidents (a factory worker played by Mikhail Gomorov is falsely accused of thievery and hangs himself, provoking a work stoppage), through all the stages of the strike, from early euphoria, though sabotage by police spies and provocateurs (who stage a phony riot in a vodka dispensary, then blame it on the factory workers), through the final violent clash of police and strikers.

Strike is a tragedy, but without a tragic hero. Eisenstein, trying to create his new revolutionary art, espoused the idea of a mass hero, rather than an individual one, and that’s what he tries to give us: the huge ensemble of the factory workers themselves rising, gathering and standing together, as a collective hero/heroine. He uses the same idea in Potemkin, when the Bolshevik sailor who would normally be the hero candidate in a Hollywood version, is killed, just like that guiltless factory worker in Strike, provoking a revolt of the crew. Later, part of the masses in Odessa are massacred by soldiers in the film‘s (and Eisenstein‘s) greatest set piece and his supreme example of montage, the Odessa Steps sequence, and another semi-rebellion ignites: The Navy refuses to fire on their comrades.

In Eisenstein’s hands, the idea of a mass hero makes for sketchy personal drama but great action scenes — though the characters we tend to remember best in Strike are not the strikers but the villains: the sleazy gallery of police spies (with their animal nicknames and bestial personae) and the bloated factory owners and bosses. Amusingly, this is a portayal of the very class warfare that hack politicians and right wing pundits constantly invoke in demagogic speeches and knee-jerk TV sound bites, and it‘s a far different, bloodier spectacle than the legislative debates and speeches that stupidly go by that moniker today — as it also was in the overpowering strike and police battle scenes in D. W. Griffith’s great 1916 Intolerance, never more obvious an influence on Eisenstein than it is here.

Potemkin has an exultant if somewhat phony conclusion. Strike has a dark one. But though the mass hero idea is a good example of how ideology can strait-jacket a movie, Eisenstein is such a master of spectacle, crowd scenes and screen violence that he makes it work — even though he would later abandon the whole notion in the decidedly heroic historical epic Alexander Nevsky, with the hawk-faced, stalwart Cherkassov as Nevsky and that famed battle on the ice.

3. Revolution

What immediately impressed audiences and critics about Strike were the action scenes, the crowd scenes, and the mass whirling frescos of social conflict — the first work stoppage, the battle of the vodka warehouse, the final bloody conflict in the streets. Strike, in many ways, is just as exciting and explosive throughout as Potemkin, and that shock and attraction of violence is the film’s lasting legacy. As an ex-strike participant (though not an actual striker) myself, in a Madison Wisconsin newspaper labor dispute, I confess I still get a thrill out of Eisenstein‘s strike scenes here, especially the sequence where the factory shuts down. But no single scene in Eisenstein’s Stachka compares for sheer mesmerizing force and breathless excitement with Potemkin’s Odessa Steps sequence — which is why we remember the second film so much more today.

It’s important to recall also though, that even through Eisenstein made movies to celebrate the masses, the Russian movie-going masses themselves went elsewhere — preferring both American movies (with that quintessential Hollywood hero, Doug Fairbanks) and Russian movies that copied American movies, like Lev Kuleshov‘s smash hit 1924 stunt comedy, The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks. The films of Eisenstein and his peers were mostly regarded by the public and critics (and more importantly, distributed by the Russian state film apparatus), as experimental or art films, films for the cognoscenti, which is just the way they were regarded in America and throughout the world. Potemkin also, early on, became a consistent winner in the all-time great films polls, until it was finally replaced in the Sight and Sound international poll in 1962, by Citizen Kane.

In a way though, that’s fitting. Battleship Potemkin is art, just as Eisenstein was a true film artist, much more than he was an ideologue. And Strike is art as well.

It would be nice, in fact to see a Kino Box set sometimers of Eisenstein’s “Trilogy of Revolution“: Strike, Battleship Potemkin and October (or Ten Days That Shook the World). And I don’t say that to vindicate Eisenstein’s youthful politics (which were naïve, and blind to the true evils of Stalin’s dictatorship), but to repudiate his old bureaucratic enemies and to honor his artistry. When we watch Potemkin or Strike, some of us (I’m thinking of college kids in the ‘60s) may become imaginary revolutionaries, if only for the time of the film, just as we become cowboys when we watch Red River, private eyes while we watch The Maltese Falcon, dancers or musicians when we watch The Red Shoes, gangsters when we watch The Godfather, or tragic newspaper tycoons and investigative reporters when we watch Citizen Kane. That doesn’t mean that fans of Eisenstein are violent revolutionaries though, or that bloody class warfare is waiting offstage to try to solve the social ills of today.

 Yet in one of those not-so-neat historical ironies, Eisenstein‘s Strike and Potemkin remain great films, accepted as classics all around the world (though not as much, according to Kino’s documentary extra here, in modern Russia itself). They are, in some measure, beyond propaganda, beyond the vicissitudes of Eisenstein’s life, beyond the revolution that inspired them and failed. Art can transcend politics, outlast political conflicts, and survive dictatorships and dictators, and here is one of the incandescent examples.

 There’s another irony. I see Eisenstein’s influence in movies all the time to this day, far more than I see the influence of, say, Kane and most of its fellow great classics — but not necessarily in political films, which these days tend to be more simply edited and sentimental about heroes and villains. I see some of the montage of attractions and the montage of shocks, and definitely all the high-powered, smack-in-the-eye Eisensteinian editing, in movies often denounced as politically shallow and retrograde: the big-audience, big-studio action movies of heavy-duty street violence — the cinematic heirs, in many ways, of Eisenstein’s strikers and rebels as well as of Akira Kurosawa’s samurai and Sam Peckinpah’s outlaws and peckerwoods, and even of the shallowest slam-bang “heroes” and massacres of lesser formula action journeymen or hacks.

 For good or ill, those modern shoot-‘em-ups, with their spectacular fussed-over scenes of action and carnage and their wild bloodshed, are partly the cinematic progeny of the masterful action maestro and rebellious young artist Sergei Eisenstein: the brilliant, unchained (at first) innovator who once seemed the great revolutionary of the movies, but died with his idealism tarnished and embattled, before he could see the passing of the revolution that would die after him. Those violent action movies, with their wildfire pace and machine-gun editing, are in some strange ways the descendants of Strike and The Battleship Potemkin. And the masses love them.

 Extras: Eisenstein’s first 1923 short film, the breezy little action comedy Glumov‘s Diary (Three Stars); The 2008 documentary Eisenstein and the Revolutionary Spirit (Two and a Half Stars), with historian Natacha Laurent.

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I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

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~ David Simon