Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Battleship Potemkin (1925)

Probably the most famous of all Soviet silent movies, and one of the landmarks of the form in any genre, we are singularly unlikely to do it any justice here. Nonetheless to the tourist of film its approach and brief incursion on one's own life are exciting in a way similar to the way those of the Grand Canyon or the Leaning Tower of Pisa are to his geographical counterpart. Like numerous other classics I have recorded watching, Battleship was shown at school, and even then with my extremely limited knowledge of movie history, in the days leading up to the showing I would see one of the flyers posted up at various places around campus and think almost hypnotically "Battleship Potemkin! Sergei Eisentstein! Odessa steps! Baby carriage! The maggots on the hunk of rotted beef!" While I won't say that I was aflame with excitement, not really having any idea what the movie was or why it was supposed to be great, it pleased me to think that a pretty much universally acknowledged masterpiece in which almost all smart people, but hardly any stupid ones, would have some degree of interest was going to be making an appearance in our little society of burgeoning thinkers. So as I say, at that time I was, as I am now, primarily a dutiful viewer, still experiencing the movie as a night's entertainment, though perhaps at a more elevated intellectual level than usual, mentally checking off the celebrated scenes and attitudes and propagandistic points as they came along, feeling mildly disappointed that the massacre on the Odessa steps did not affect me more powerfully--I found the cinematic language which was informing it to be confusing. On the whole though I was satisfied with my evening's morsel of culture, not unlike the feeling one has in completely a single awkward dance or five minute conversation with a girl one has been interested in from afar, neither of which has been carried off with any skill or will ever lead anywhere. Nonetheless I had seen the Battleship Potemkin, much as I had once procured an innocent dance with some Jenny or Betsy who seemed desirable to me, and I could enter it into my '+' column for all times.

About ten years afterwards, in deference to another system I had generated for determining which movies to watch, less defined than my current one and therefore soon abandoned, I saw the Battleship again. I had apparently not learned much that I could apply to my viewing of it in the ensuing decade however, for my response to it was largely the same. I watched it as seriously as I could, appreciated it duly, sat in the dark for half an hour afterwards letting the images and the score sink in, drank two shots of Smirnoff, which, this product being distilled in Connecticut, was probably a completely pointless gesture, in spite of all of which I soon largely forgot about the film.

So another ten years pass by, yet another system derived with the object of identifying and seeing only movies possessing some claim to greatness (why? I should scrap this altogether and devote all my free time to studying opera and the foundations and ornaments of art history, seeing as my only object in any of this is to be able to present to the world indisputable evidence of visible cultivation, though nothing seems to have any effect on me in that regard), and Potemkin comes up again, being apparently so classic that there is no program of comprehensive film history one can undertake that does not land upon it almost at once. By now do I dread its appearance? Not in the least! I was as excited to see it as I was on the other occasions; for with anything so special and the object of such widely-shared enthusiasm at the highest levels of criticism and expertise, one is infected with the conviction that something remarkable could easily strike one or come to one at anytime. Even my blog post could catch the eye of some wonderfully perceptive and alive reader with whom I could develop a mutually rewarding intellectual correspondence. Probably not, but even the thought of such a circumstance resulting from my review of The Hangover was impossible to entertain (Wasn't it?).

So I saw it for a third time, this movie that I never tire of but never enter the wondrous dynamism of either. It was still innovative, it was still grand and ambitious, the meat was still rotten, the officers vicious, the priest ridiculous, the sea and the panaroma of Odessa shimmering, the steps sequence iconic and spectacular and confusing, the revolutionary hero still rather too bull-necked and unintelligent-looking for me to embrace wholly. I am stuck on the proverbial treadmill in relation to this remarkable movie, largely able to appreciate it, or much of it anyway, but only coldly. I suspect I will not think of it again until another 10 years goes by and it appears somewhere on my social schedule again, as if the movie is an orbiting planet that keeps re-appearing in my line of sight at predictable intervals without getting close enough for me to make out very much about it beyond what is obvious.

I think this is the third ship movie I've had in the last year, after The Navigator, which is almost contemporaneous with this and therefore makes for an interesting comparison, as well as The Caine Mutiny, which is also about a captain of a ship at least being relieved of his duties by an uprising of his crew, though of course that was a bourgeois conflict centering around technocratic competence and mental health rather than an expression of all out war between two completely polarized and ultimately incompatible classes of men.

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