PICKS OF THE WEEK
Strike Remastered Edition (Stachka) (A)
U.S.S.R.: Sergei Eisenstein, 1925, Kino Classics
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 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 II 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 II consequence. And Eisenstein himself -- after having become first a radical enfant terrible of Soviet theater (with the Proletkult theater group) and then the Soviet Union's most famous and influential film director, 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 his masterpiece and never directed another film. He died in 1948, too soon, at 50.
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 portrayal 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 straitjacket 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.
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 Strike 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. The 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.
In one of those not-so-neat historical ironies, 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; the 2008 documentary Eisenstein and the Revolutionary Spirit, with historian Natacha Laurent.)
Transformers: Dark of the Moon (B)
U.S.: Michael Bay, 2010, DreamWorks
Mindless, soulless, heartless, mechanical and shamelessly mercenary as it might seem to be, director Michael Bay's Transformers: Dark of the Moon -- the latest in the often obnoxious movie series, starring Shia LaBeouf and a lot of Hasbro toys -- is still one of the more crazily entertaining of recent summer movies.
And, mindlessly mercenary as Bay may seem to a lot of critics -- all of whose complaints about this movie are valid but, in a way, irrelevant -- he and his crew (and a lot of the actors and voice actors) are still able to pump enough wild invention, heavy film technique, weirdo energy and Wowie-Kazowie-Blam-Blam-Blam-Kaboom-Vavoom-Wacka-Wacka-Wacka-Kerboom!!!!!!! into the show to impress the hell out of you at times.
I mean, I worked at the Tribune Tower on Michigan Avenue for 14 years and I never expected to see it become a sniper's nest in a fire-battle waged by killer robots raging from atop the Wrigley Building, while human vs. nonhuman battles waged across the Michigan Avenue Bridge and Wacker Drive to a Trump Tower teetering on its axis -- as the good robots (Autobots in case you've forgotten) battle the bad robots (Decepticons), all of them inflated to apparently gigantic dimensions and hurled at us in the deepest 3D money can buy.
Or to see the Tower and the neighborhood turned into a variation of the 1933 King Kong Empire State bulding climax -- as LaBeouf's Sam Witwicky and his boys try to inject a little human machismo against the incredibly large robots -- a bit like the gunners and pilots who circled around Kong -- during the near-hour-long battle that climaxes (in every way) Transformers: Dark of the Moon.
The latest Michael Bay crash-a-thon isn't my kind of movie. A lot of it is really annoying: overly jam-packed with pop-cultural fancy trash and gadgetry. And I sure wouldn't be watching many films if they were all like this: over-loud, over-fast, over-violent, frenetically shot and cut, slick, semi-apocalyptic fantasies, wit and psychology and heavier carnage. But this movie is a special case. Its story may be ludicrous, but this time, it all seems more knowingly absurd, more entertaining. And Transformers' visual and special effects are amazing.
As in Armageddon and Pearl Harbor and the other Transformers, Bay once again shoots the works and tries to blow the house down, and he often does. But there's a change. The first two Transformers were, for me, too heavily weighted toward the action scenes, with the all-out carnage laced all the way through and consuming them from the start. Those movies, especially Revenge of the Fallen, didn't spend much time on character or dialogue, even on bad character and dialogue, and they relied on LaBeouf's boyish looks of distracted concern to try to pump in some humanity.
Transformers: Dark of the Moon was written by Ehren Kruger, who was also one of the culprits responsible for Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen -- but who has ably scripted other action movies, from John Frankenheimer's late-career thriller Reindeer Games on.
As written by Kruger, the new show has a fairly simple obvious story. But at least it's a story. And it has mostly caricatures instead of characters. But we spend more time with them, and they're sometimes engaging or lively, and there are a lot of them, often played by very good actors, like the Coen Brothers-ish ensemble of Frances McDormand, John Malkovich and John Turturro. Most of those actors seem to be enjoying themselves, maybe only in contemplation of the huge compensation waiting for them, but also perhaps because it's fun to tear a big important city apart in a movie.
Bay's Dark is hipped on destruction and sometimes madly irreverent: At one point, Bay and Kruger have bad robot Megatron blow up the statue of Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial and then clamber up on Lincoln's chair, in a scene that actually made me queasy. Throughout Dark of the Moon, mostly in its third act, people fall out of skyscraper windows, trigger mass explosions, and otherwise behave as if the world were some kind of mad playground for pathological toys and children.
The surprise is that Bay and Kruger have actually, this time out, taken so much more time and effort with the non-action sequences. I'm not saying these are great (or even, most of the time, good) comic and dramatic scenes. But they help the movie strike more of a balance, with Bay downloading most of the slambang stuff to that last near-hour of nonstop Chicago havoc.
All this is just to suggest that the new Transformers, while definitely flawed (it's too loud, too frantically edited) doesn't necessarily signal the End of Cinema as We Know It, or a Horrible New Trend Which, If Left Unchecked, will Turn All Our Minds into Mush.