Here’s my theory, and I’m sticking to it:The three most important films in the genesis of technically visual motion picture development are BIRTH OF A NATION, CITIZEN KANE, and BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN. Feel free to disagree, no points are being docked on this opinion essay, and I won’t mention THE JAZZ SINGER on the audio side of things.
"It’s the Citizen Kane of propaganda flicks!"
CITIZEN KANE is the ultimate embryonic fit of form and function, the first film to present a radically powerful story using all the elements and tricks of film (and inventing a few in the process). BIRTH OF A NATION is the function, the first screen epic (though now not nearly so epic, in hindsight), a feature length story utilizing multiple characters and throughlines. BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN, our subject today, is the embodiment of function, and is often only known to film scholars, because who wants to watch a grainy Russian black and white film from 1925 when Vin Diesel looks so effin’ buff in XXX?
Although the process of film editing developed slowly, along with the equipment which allowed for longer and more complex films, it reached its peak in the theories of Sergei Eisenstein, whose ideas on using images to provoke an emotional and intellectual response in his audience found their ultimate bridge from abstract to concrete in POTEMKIN. Trained as an engineer, Eisenstein later began working in the Russian theater, and his ideas about the power of pictures would be considered avant garde nowadays. As such, art cinema owes this guy a world of thanks. There likely wouldn’t be a film world with Derek Jarman, Jim Jarmusch, or David Lynch if Eisenstein hadn’t filmed ‘em the way he saw ‘em in his head.
The film, which is “based on a true story” as it were, details a mutiny on the namesake battleship after the sailors are fed rancid meat that is proclaimed safe by the ship’s doctor. They take over the ship in a bloody revolt, and attempt to raise the ire of the citizenry in the port of Odessa. The junta is quickly stilled by Cossack soldiers in one of the most-aped scenes ever in film, the “Odessa Steps” sequence, a show of horror, violence and savagery where innocents are slaughtered and the spirit of the people is both temporarily quashed and inevitably martyred. And the sharp architecture of the film is still breathtaking today…the inevitable and insidious movement of the Cossack troops from left to right, the fleeing populace….faces, feet, gunshots, bodies…and that baby carriage that Brian DePalma’s been trying to work into every shot in every other film he makes, as if ripping off Hitchcock isn’t enough. It’s so damn good it literally IS the textbook on editing a scene. It’s a primer that Michael Bay and all the other AVID-balling glorified DPs in the Bruckheimer stable should be forced to read over and over and over, CLOCKWORK ORANGE-style. THIS IS HOW YOU BUILD TENSION PROPERLY, MICHAEL!!!!! NO NEED TO CUT EVERY HALF SECOND, NOW!!!!!! JUST BECAUSE YOU CAN DOESN’T MEAN YOU SHOULD!!!!!
While there aren’t any standout characters other than a sailor named Vakulinchik who helps incite the mutiny, this can be attributed to the Marxist views of the filmmaker and the environment in which the film was made. And, make no mistake, it is a propaganda film honoring the Russian Revolution and the ascendance of communism. Despite all that, it’s full of the yearning and passion of collective humanity, despite the film’s use of metaphor and symbolism. In utilizing this call to the proletariat, it’s not exactly a standard propaganda film, and it’s certainly not TRIUMPH OF THE WILL by Leni Riefenstahl. I can only imagine an audience seeing this film for the first time in the late 1920’s, witnessing the harnessing of the pure potential energy of film and having it yoked to a distinct and artistic point of view. It was undoubtedly thrilling, scary, breathtaking, empowering, and horrific all at once…something that we could certainly use more of in film today. Remember how thrilled we were when we saw how physics seemed to bend in THE MATRIX, or how we were figuratively blown into the back of the theater when the Millennium Falcon jumped to lightspeed in STAR WARS? If we could have been with the people in the auditorium as they witnessed BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN, we’d see that we as a people never really change; we have always and will always seek for something to surprise, engage, and thrill us, and, if we’re so inclined, to make us think.It may not be quick, flashy, or loud, but even out of the context of its time in history, POTEMKIN a fascinating bit of filmmaking and of history itself.
link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=2377&reviewer=21
originally posted: 06/26/02 02:24:55