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VIDEO: From Eisenstien to YouTube Cinéma vérité via Marx

A Very Public Sociologist offers a informative introduction to early Soviet cinema.

Phil's post touches on the great film directors such as Sergei Eisenstein and references this sequence (below) which is the famous scene on the Odessa Steps. To my knowledge the sequence has been replicated in part a few times -- by Akira Kurosawa and Brian De Palma (The Untouchables), to name two.

The summary of Eisenstein's cinematic approach is very useful:

Eisenstein mounted his shots and joined them along various formal and thematic conflicting parameters - straight shots juxtaposed to diagonal ones, light/dark shots, and conflicts in the direction and rhythm of motion (right-to-left to left-to-right), camera distance conflicts (long shots to close-ups, etc). Through these juxtapositions of brief shots, which had a physiological effect on viewers, Eisenstein forged emotions and ideas. For him the illusion of continuity and the focus upon individual heroes encourage an anti-revolutionary false consciousness.

His most comprehensive and effective use of the conflict montage can be found in the Odessa steps sequence in Battleship Potemkin.The scene consists of a dazzling series of conflicting shots and editing that powerfully convey the horror caused by Tsarist troops walking in formation down the Odessa steps while shooting and dispersing a crowd of protesters. Such cinematic attractions over thematic concerns lead the spectator in the direction desired by the director.
He then goes on to compare Dziga Vertov to Eisenstein in a descriptive summary passage:
Vertov's oeuvre was different. He believed only documentary shots of real-life situtations in revolutionary societies can the truth be revealed. He tried to follow Marx and Engels who wrote "the turning of history into world history is not indeed a mere abstract art on the part of the self-consciousness, the world spirit or of any other metaphysical spectre, but a quiet material, empirically verifiable act." For Vertov "we hold the ability to show and elucidate life as it is, considerably higher than the occasionally diverting doll games that people call theatre. Vertov constantly compared the fiction film to witchcraft and drugs since for him fiction was nothing but a reflection of ideologies whose function was to turn the spectator away from his awareness of the real processes of production and from truth. He therefore disliked Eisenstein's fictional recreation of events, and called for the allocation of funds to documentary rather than fictional films. In shooting, Vertov preferred the use of candid cameras in places where his presence would go unnoticed. Only in such a manner can the filmmaker make "the invisible visible, the unclear clear ...; making falsehood into truth."
This may seem to suggest that Vertov was a bit of an ideological nutter. Nonetheless, his influence has been massive and if you watch the opening (many) scenes in Man with a Movie Camera (see clip below)-- driven by a powerful musical score -- it's easy to see why.

I guess you can call this 'revolutionary cinema' on several levels -content, style, influence -- but now that we are in the YouTube age and we all can so easily become men or women with our own movie cameras (and video editing programs that are many times easier and more powerful than any thing the Soviets ever had) , what are we supposed to think about these early cinema radicals, imbued as they were with a desire to make Marxism aesthetically practical ?

This was a preoccupation for many artists in the twenties and thirties and the quest extended to Erwin Piscator and Bertolt Brecht in theatre, Kurt Weill and Dmitri Shostakovich in music -- to name but a few.

So when we come to today's digital options I wonder if we can draw any inspiration from Marx via these pioneering and so influential originators? Is the pursuit of style and form just an indulgent wank? Or is there some new conjuncture possible as we embrace the digital age online and learn to master its tools?

I think there is. Just as the 1936 essay by Walter Benjamin -- The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. -- predicts the democratic potential the digital universe offers us, maybe it's time we began to think this issue through with a bit more verve than simply marveling at the creative era that was ushered in by the 1917 Russian Revolution.

What we need to do , I guess, is create our own version of Cinéma vérité even if its just for the sake of 10 minute grabs on YouTube. All we need do is develop an attitude and style that ticks all the boxes we want to tick.

What could be easier? So off you go: go shoot some cinema.

The Odessa Steps sequence from Battleship Potemkin

Man with a Movie Camera : Opening

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oltre logo | October 08, 2009

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