About a year and a half ago, I sat down with Shirley and Chris from The Toronto Silent Film Festival. At the time, being a relative newb to the genre, I asked them what films they might recommend to people who were interested in the genre. At the time, films like THE ARTIST and HUGO had rekindled an energy around silent film, but many like me were unsure about where to begin. I’m remiss to say that I cannot recall the titles they pointed me towards as jumping-off points, but after this month’s blind spot selection, I’m pretty sure I know what the answer to that question should be.
BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN is the story of a mutiny that took place in
The Soviet Union Russia in 1905. Dissatisfied with their oppressive living conditions, sailors aboard the (you guessed it) Battleship Potemkin rose up against their commanding officers. This uprising sparked a groundswell when one of the sailors is killed in the fray. As the ship ports in Odessa, the groundswell grows, and is seen by the Soviet Russian military as a riot that needs to be put down. The sailors on the ship, of course, see things differently.
Eisenstein wanted to keep characterizations simple so as to leave no doubt who the audience should be pulling for. There is no moral ambiguity here – the characters might as well be wearing white hats and black hats. The funny thing is that his depiction of these people can still be seen at a distance today. While there are a handful of distinctions through costumes and expression, one need only look at the body language of the sailors to know which ones are enlisted men and which ones are officers.
These traits can still be seen all around us – from a construction site, to a football field, to an office place. Those higher up the food chain have a demeanour, a stance, and an expression about them that points them out as the leaders even to a casual observer. Eisenstein likely knew that this presence would be a touchstone to anyone who’d ever met an elder, or a politician, or an officer, and he played to it. Even though he occasionally used inter titles that said things like “The Officers”, I’d wager that he didn’t need them.
From a distance we can see whom this rebellion is targeting, and from a distance we can even understand why. When that hand-painted red flag goes up the ship’s mast, we don’t question what it wants us to rally around.
Perhaps one of the most amazing things about BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN is its use of editing. In many ways, the film is one long montage…seldom letting the camera linger on any one person or setting, and instead keeping to a rather frenetic pace. It’s unreal – to audiences in the 20′s, it must have felt like watching a Michael Bay film…y’know, if Michael Bay had a deft hand and a real story to tell.
In POTEMKIN though, the push and panic of the rebellion feels every bit as tangible and timely as it did almost 90 years ago. The images of people streaming towards the boat to pay their respects to a needlessly slaughtered soldier eerily evoke events that still occur today. Seeing the swarms of mourners make their way to the docks in solidarity reminded me of protest marches that happen when civilians are slain by police and soldiers. To this day we gather, we hold our heads high, we make our voices heard, and we march in defiance. It’s as if Eisenstein knew that we would always dissent in the very same manner. Between the long shots of gathering crowds, and the expressions of discontent, he captured this still-palpable unrest perfectly.
However, as we also still see far too often, dissent can lead to distemper, and few moments of cinematic distemper are as striking as The Odessa Steps sequence that ends this film’s second act. Again, these images are far too familiar in this new century. One would like to think that in 90 years that have passed, that such violence, panic, and carnage would be as antiquated as watching someone wind-up their automobile. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Between the shocked expressions, the bodies that get strewn across the steps, and of course the tragedy that comes with the baby carriage that rolls down the steps, Eisenstein depicts the violence with an honesty seldom seen before…and seldom matched since.
The scene ends with a series of shots that depict “the lion waking up”, signifying the Russian Revolution beginning. Considering how much the rest of the world allowed to happen since this moment, one wonders if that lion spread the word to the other lions that the time to wake had come.
I feel like I should give credit where credit is due on BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN being part of the 2013 Blind Spot series. Back when I opened up this year’s watchlist to readers to populate, POTEMKIN was an early suggestion from my future sister-in-law, Rachel West. Early on she mentioned her love for it, and the fact that it was a part of her university film studies for three of the four years she was at school (not to mention once more in junior year of high school). Such prodding led me to make it an automatic selection to the series.
While I likely would have got around to it eventually, there’s a strong possibility I might not have made it a priority without the prodding of people like Rachel and my brother Shane. I knew that the two of them, being far more film-literate than I, were looking out for my makeshift film education…but some small part of me felt like they were telling me to eat my greens because they were good for me.
Well it’s times like these that I give credit where credit is due; they were right. I needed to see this film, and I needed to see it now. I probably needed to see it two years before now, but lets not quibble. Besides being such an amazing study in technique that would revolutionize the way films were made, the film was an unqualified amazing watch.
In other words, this particular plate of greens was delicious. I can’t believe it took me so long to try it.
I post Blind Spot entries on the final Tuesday of every month. If you are participating, drop me an email (ryanatthematineedotca) when your post is up and I’ll make sure to link to your entry.
Here’s the round-up for September…
Kate Bradford watched ALIENS (with me sitting next to her no less!)
Will Kouf watched REPULSION
Andy Hart watched WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION
Josh watched BLOW-UP
Go figure – Courtney Small also watched BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN
Sean Kelly watched THE TOXIC AVENGER
Andrew Robinson watched SHERLOCK JR.
Dan Heaton watched MORVERN CALLAR
The Void watched ALI: FEAR EATS THE SOUL