Eisenstein’s Film Form

Art is making something out of nothing and selling it.

-Frank Zappa (1940 – 1993)

First off, I had another chance to tell my quintessential film school story the other day. I thought I’d retell it as a post for yesterday but after several hours and about a dozen tangential side turns I decided it just wasn’t happening and put it aside. I realized today that although I am a somewhat talented story teller I have more trouble than I think I should translating it to the written word. I’ll try again anyway just because I brought it up.

I have never held a lot of those artsy fartsy film people in quite the high esteem that they think I should mainly because most of them are nuts. I graduated from the world famous film school at the University of Michigan so I know from nuts. There were exactly 3 practicum classes offered (one 8mm, one 16mm and one computer animation) while a host of Film Theory classes crowded the class schedules. In fact, I don’t think you even had to take any practicum courses if you didn’t want to, but you had to take no less than 4 Film Theory classes.

The First rule of Film Theory is that there is no Film Theory. Heh. Well, really Film Theory is a nifty tool set for directors to play with in order to get the audience to think in a certain way but after that there is not a lot of Deep to film these days. Maybe a microscopic percent of directors are all about the art of the film, but mostly, Film Theory is about money. It’s nice when you get a director with a good artistic vision who is able to stay in his budget and yet produce a high quality piece but always there is that money factor that comes first.

Unless you are one of the Sartre touting, latte drinking black clad artsy fartsy film people. They can go on and on about how “the sweeping panoramic shots in The Two Towers establishes a sense of enormity which in turn echoes the whole feeling of the quest and how the audience can empathize with the characters who are so tiny as to be lost on the screen, perfectly portraying how they feel as they slog through the vastness that is middle earth and their mission”. Eventually I just want to poke their eyeballs out while screaming “Peter Jackson was filming in NEW ZEALAND! That was a sucker shot that’s going to guarantee him yet another cinemagraphic award!”

Not that Peter Jackson’s work is bad and all, I rather liked the Two Towers (Mountain pool/nice and cool) but it is not a movie that is going to forever change the thoughts of generations yet to come. A lot of film is never even going to be remembered five years down the road much less a generation and that is what a lot of these people loose sight of.

Cynical? Maybe but at least I will never be caught in this particular professor’s situation:

Say you were a film student in their fifth year at college and say you couldn’t take a basic 200 level Film Theory class until such a late time in your academic career because it wasn’t cross listed with the department that actually offered it. Pretend also that you had had several 300 Film Theory classes already PLUS you had survived the Film Theory 414 hellish class of doom taught by the department’s resident megalomaniac. This would tend to make you pretty well versed in Film Theory going into this particular intro theory class.

Now, as long as we are being hypothetical, say that you and your equally cynical friend finally jumped through enough hoops so that the presenting department, after letting in all their artsy students first, conceded to let you in by the goodness and warmth of their hearts even though they knew you could never be as talented as their students in whatever it was that you were doing with your simple life. You might be tempted to despise every minute you had to sit in the back of lecture and listen to the frothing professor who taught the course. You might also roll your eyes after you read the syllabus and discovered that you were going to be studying Orson Well’s Citizen Kane (again), Eisenstein’s Battleship Potempkin (again) and Buñel’s Une Chien Andalu (again). Seeings as you have already taken five or six theory courses before this one it was highly doubtful that something new could possibly come up that you haven’t hashed through before.

What you might not expect is the professor’s particular take on Eisenstein’s use of lines and space in Battleship Potempkin. For those of you who have never seen this flick, it’s a turn of the century Russian gig about a naval ship (the Potempkin) that defects and turns on its former employers. A bit of useless trivia for you too…one of the most famous scenes in it comes from a sequence known as “The Odessa Steps” which has a mother trying to negotiate a baby buggy along a huge bank of steps. She gets killed and the buggy goes thump-thumping down the steps one by one amid the chaos of the revolution. The Untouchables did a nice homage scene with this. Anyway, the professor started this particular rant slightly before the Odessa sequence when the Potempkin first pulls into port. There is a series of shots where all the little fisher dudes run to the shore, hoist sail and tootle out to the battleship in a show of solidarity.

It’s a cool film for the time but like all turn of the century film it is grainy, jumpy, jerky and everyone looks like they are moving slightly faster than they ought to. Plus, really, Eisenstein was dinking with the new art of montage so in his films he is still trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t. I always chuckled at the little boats zippin out to sea (Whoooo! Go us!) but what I did not know is that Eisenstein was a framing genius.

Why, just look at the lines. You can see how the boats are all situated so and how their sails fill the screen in just this way. As they go to meet the Potempkin you can see Eisenstein’s brilliant use of lines and space He uses this space to show the fishing flotilla’s solidarity with the lone defector. Notice how he captures them crossing the bay, “It’s almost as if the boats were floating across the water.”

Yes, he actually said those words in quotes. Maybe I’m overlooking something here, but in my world, boats actually do float across the water. Needless to say, while all the other fawning “artists” were hanging on every word of this esteemed professor, my cynical friend and I were laughing so hard we almost wet ourselves.

2 Responses to “Eisenstein’s Film Form”

  1. ajit Says:

    i went through ur essay and i think its really foolish…..u r kinda giving statements…….i thought r v politicians…..no we r not??we r not here to make comments……u talk abt gud piece of film….again its so stupid…..i search which brought me to ur essay was eisenstein but i wonder its just not thr…..thts gr8 u have certain idea abt cinema but i felt u lack resolution…..sorry but u cudnt move me a inch…and probably u didnt intend to as well….but if u go beyond writings, then the vibe itself wsnt gud…u seemed to b some gud human being but yet to resolve ur spiritual quest…condemn…condemn…. condemn…thts wht made me think u are american…i donno if u really are or may b traped into tht philosophy…i sxpect a reply from u and probably we can continue with the discussion…dont hole ur punches and dont get into trap of gud and bad…take care.u can contact me personally at [e-mail redacted].god bless u…

  2. Boo Says:

    OK then! Ahhh…welcome to the booniverse? I’m getting a sense from the way you phrase things that English isn’t your native tongue. Which is cool, because I think you might be able to converse in a second language better than I can. However, I can not for the life of me follow what you are trying to say through the txt spk. It took me several reads to figure your comment out and I still can’t say for sure if I have it right. Plus, now I have a headache from trying to decipher the truncated words.

    As for the essay, my point wasn’t bashing Eisenstein but rather poking fun of the people who were so immersed in film that they lost sight of the forest for the trees. I’m not trying to sway anyone but rather relating a humorous anecdote from a class I took many moons ago.

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