Sunday, January 23, 2011

Sergei Eisenstein

Sergei Eisenstein born 23 January 1898 (d. 1948)

Sergei Mikhailovich Eisenstein was a revolutionary Soviet film director and film theorist noted in particular for his silent films Strike, Battleship Potemkin and Oktober. His work vastly influenced early film makers owing to his innovative use of and writings about montage.

Eisenstein was a pioneer in the use of montage, a specific use of film editing. He believed that editing could be used for more than just expounding a scene or moment, through a 'linkage' of related scenes. Eisenstein felt the 'collision' of shots could be used to manipulate the emotions of the audience and create film metaphors.

His many articles and books explain these methods in detail. He was one of the earliest theorists of the young film medium. His impact on film makers in the 1920s was enormous and his theories continue to be taught in film schools to this day.

In his initial films, Eisenstein did not use professional actors. His narratives eschewed individual characters and addressed broad social issues, especially class conflict. He used stock characters, and the roles were filled with untrained people from the appropriate class backgrounds.

Eisenstein's vision of Communism brought him into conflict with officials in the ruling regime of Joseph Stalin. Like a great many Bolshevik artists, Eisenstein envisioned the new society as one which would subsidise the artist totally, freeing them from the confines of bosses and budgets, thus leaving them absolutely free to create.

Eisenstein's popularity and influence in his own land waxed and waned with the success of his films and the passage of time. The Battleship Potemkin (1925) was acclaimed critically worldwide and popular in the Soviet Union. But it was mostly his international critical renown which enabled Eisenstein to direct The General Line (aka Old and New), and then October (aka Ten Days That Shook The World) as part of a grand 10th anniversary celebration of the October Revolution of 1917. The critics of the outside world praised them, but at home, Eisenstein's focus in these films on structural issues such as camera angles, crowd movements and montage, brought him - along with likeminded others - under fire within the Soviet film community forcing him to issue public articles of self-criticism and commitments to reform his cinematic visions to conform to socialist realism's increasingly specific doctrines.

Chafing under the constraints of Stalinism, Eisenstein accepted offers to work abroad, which led to unfulfilled projects in the United States and to the spectacular debacle of Que Viva Mexico!, which was never completed, taken over by the producers, and edited into three separate films.

Eisenstein returned to the Soviet Union in 1935, where he continued the spiral of falling out of and back into favour with the Stalinist regime. His remaining films - Bezhin Meadow [1937]; Alexander Nevsky [1939]; Ivan the Terrible, Part I [1942]; Ivan the Terrible, Part II: The Boyars' Plot [1946]; and the surviving fragment of Ivan the Terrible, Part III [1947] - were marked with the tensions of the political turmoil in which Eisenstein was embroiled.

Eisenstein's personal life was also chaotic. He married twice in response to political pressure, but his marriages were never consummated. His unexpurgated diaries, published as Immortal Memories, are filled with accounts of his infatuations with many young men, including his assistant, Grigori Alexandrov.

Often his infatuations (as in the case of Alexandrov) were with young heterosexual men, whom he would educate and assist in their careers. His drawings, exhibited during the centenary of his birth, include many illustrations of homosexual activity.

Despite his difficulties with censorship and other problems, Eisenstein created a remarkable legacy. His films reveal his continued commitment to experimentation in form. Nevsky, his first sound film, contains spectacular scenes, most notably the Battle on the Ice, as well as the incomparably thrilling film score of Sergei Prokofiev.

Ivan the Terrible, an intensely Expressionistic study of political power and corruption, with immense sets, voluminous costumes, and amazingly hyperbolic lighting, represents a contrast to this earlier work. It was not dynamically edited, but relied on extended long takes, in which dialogue, sound effects, and music were crucial. Ivan the Terrible pointed to new operatic possibilities in motion pictures.

From Strike to Ivan, Eisenstein's career always excited controversy - much of his work was either destroyed or confiscated - but he remains one of the most important filmmakers in history, the exemplar of the true intellectual artist.

Eisenstein suffered a hemorrhage and died at the age of 50. An unconfirmed legend in film history states that Russian scientists preserved his brain and it supposedly was much larger than a normal human brain, which the scientists took as a sign of genius.

3 comments:

FlamingLib said...

I have not read Immoral Memories but I know that Eisenstein had a resistence to his orientation borne of his conviction that homosexuality was, in his eyes, a "dead end." Eisenstein was influenced by Freudian psychology, which we now question as based on pathological case studies. Prior to going to Mexico to shoot what has come to be known as Que Viva Mexico!, he took in the Weimar Republic's gay venues in Berlin, awash with ambient sexuality, outrageous drag shows, and unfettered sexual experimentation. These experiences horrified him (as they might any repressed homosexual).

All through his career, he betrayed his orientation. Consider the semi-nude sailors below decks in the opening scenes of The Battleship Potemkin; the high-cheeked, cute blonds in the Novgorod sequences of Alexander Nevsky, and the good looking, shirtless Mexicans in the "Maguey" sequences in Que Viva Mexico!, and it becomes obvious that he had a yen for youthful males.

Not to mention the outrageously gay Oprichniki banquet toward the end of Ivan the Terrible, Part II. Here, Ivan is seen cavorting with his Stalineque iron guard. The dance of Fyodor Basmanov is key: in the scene, Fyodor he does a dance in which he frequently hides his face with a woman's mask. A bit later in the scene, the Tsar dresses his nephew, Vladimir, an effeminate young man (again, a beautiful blond), in the ruler's robes. Ivan coaxes him into entering the chapel -- and certain death from an assassin's blade. When the Oprichniki ask Ivan what they should do with the culprit, Ivan says no harm should come to him, "for he has killed the Tsar's worst enemy" (i.e. Ivan/Eisenstein's homosexuality).

Eisenstein was a genius; for me, the best of the best. Now, I must read his autobiography to see for myself just how much he "came out" in that book.

Ancapi said...

The "Immortal Memories" you link to are about Robert Burns. It's weird.

FlamingLib said...

Ancapi, I did not say *ImmorTal Memories,* I said *Immoral Memeories." You've got to admit his title is a big more intriguing.