Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): Strike

Sunday, December 7, 2008


The title of this post does not refer to my (unintentional) absence from this blog - though 5 days is by far the longest sabbatical I've taken since starting up in July. It's not that I don't have anything to write about it - indeed, I've pretty much got the rest of December mapped out: a "paranoia" series featuring The Parallax View, The Conversation, and the 90s Will Smith movie Enemy of the State (which is bizarrely a semi-spin off of The Conversation); the conclusions to the Auteurs and "Twin Peaks" series; a few write-ups on recent DVDs I've purchased or received as gifts (my 25th birthday passed not so long ago) - Some Came Running, Kiss Me Deadly, and the long-promised Disney World War II cartoons; and perhaps a series of shorter-than-usual reviews on films I've seen in the past few weeks but didn't take the time to write up: the weirdly enjoyable buddy flick Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, the amazing Bing Crosby alcoholic performance in The Country Girl, and maybe even the intriguing but as-yet-unseen Notes from Underground, a modern update of one of my favorite novels, starring Sheryl Lee whom I've yet to see in anything other than a David Lynch project (she of course is the reason I discovered and Netflix'd the movie, way back in August). So anyway, as you can see, there's plenty on the back burner which will be tackled before I take an even longer break for Christmas and New Years, returning in 2009 for all kinds of fun & games which I'll avoid previewing now. Why the avoidance of blogging if I have all this raw material? Blame it on the aftereffects of whatever that chemical is in the Thanksgiving turkey - I was too tired to engage. Or something. At any rate, if my absence was a "strike," it's now coming to an end with - appropriately enough - Strike, the 1925 Sergei Eisenstein debut.

Graham (who has unfortunately been MIA at Movies et al - come back Graham!) had a great write-up on Strike not so long ago. As he put it, "Not since the first time I saw Breathless can I remember seeing a film which so forcefully announced itself as a cinematic masterpiece." I wasn't as blown away by Strike as I expected to be - partly down to the mood (tired, if that's a mood) I was in when I watched it, partly because the DVD was such poor quality that it was often hard to make out the picture - but it is undoubtedly a great achievement. Sergei Eisenstein was probably the greatest exploiter of the medium since D.W. Griffith, who had emerged over a decade earlier. Indeed, Eisenstein and his Soviet compatriots took tremendous inspiration from Griffith's work, supposedly watching Intolerance repeatedly to study its impressionistic form and dialectical editing.

Strike is probably the most Griffith-influenced of Eisenstein's work (though they all bear the American master's imprint). It takes a subject which Griffith had tackled before, in Intolerance: a labor strike crushed by authorities in violent fashion. And it's less sharply avant-garde than later works; it is more focused on specific characters (though it's still remarkably protagonist-free - unless you consider the mass of proletariat as a protagonist), it is less rhythmic in its cutting, and the ratio between focus on pictorial complexity and relationship between the shots is perhaps less sharply inclined towards the latter than usual. All these are extremely relative values, by the way. In relation to pre-Eisensteinian cinema, this picture's qualities are still shocking and revolutionary and indeed, the images often dance with a musical rhythm, one which Griffith had occasionally foreshadowed (I think specifically of the party scene in Way Down East) but which no one had taken as far as Eisenstein - and he would take it much further still.

Indeed, the music of Eisensteinian montage often renders the actual score superfluous. That's not entirely the case with this film - in which (with some exceptions) the cutting is still not as sharp and punctual and filled with tension and release as, say, October - but in certain moments the juxtaposition of images seems to carry its own music. This is especially true when the cuts come fast, the images involve movement, and there are great contrasts between shots - in movement, figure positioning, or shot size. One moment that stuck out this way was near the end, as the industrial overlords gleefully celebrate the breaking of a strike - one of them leaping up and down on a chair - while a traitorous worker tenses his body in anticipation of a tantrum (he will knock over inkwells, which will spread bloodlike black liquid over the map of the workers' camps - one of many visual metaphors Eisenstein will use in the film).

At certain points, I shut the music off, finding it distracting. Though the score has the right driving quality, an Eisenstein film needs more than vaguely accurate music to accompany and complement its visuals, it needs an exact and exacting musical match. The more action-oriented moments work even better without sound, and I was reminded of a screening I attended several years ago. It was a double feature of two silent films, back-to-back, on the big screen, and, as it turned out, without sound. Initially I was disappointed and wondered to myself how long I could stay there. As it turned out, I sat through both screenings, enjoyed myself immensely, and was probably much more immersed in the pure cinematic experience than I would have been with orchestral and soundtrack accompaniment. Though lately, for some reason, I've moved away from the habit, I used to prefer watching silent films without score. It focuses your attention, increases the energy and tension, and has the added effect of removing an element which was often imposed upon a completed film, sometimes years after the fact, with little care for synchronicity.

As for Strike, I had already seen the climax and found it incredibly exciting. It takes all the elements which works throughout the film and brings them to a crescendo: geometrical patterns (the soldiers run, one group left-to-right, the other right-to-left, and so on, across bridges which criss-cross the workers' living quarters), sharp and juxtapositional cutting, complexity in composition (we tilt from children playing on a ledge to the workers and Cossacks battling below), and visual metaphors, often with an animalistic bent. Earlier, industry spies had been portrayed variously as different animals: a fox, an owl, a monkey, and so on - close-ups of their faces dissolving into the growling, squawking, etc. expressions of the beasts themselves. In the climax, it's the workers themselves who are given a bestial counterpoint: a cow in the process of being slaughtered.

One may suspect that the power of the metaphor comes from the idea, and that's partly the case. But the too-often ignored strength of Eisenstein's method is that an aesthetic dialectic trumps - or at the very least is the equal of - an intellectual one. Hence, the fact that a slaughtered cow is juxtaposed with the massacred workers is heightened and perhaps even superseded by the way in which it is juxtaposed. We don't dissolve from a static shot of proletariat hordes shaking their fist to a static, distanced shot of a farmer approaching a cow with an axe. We cut cleanly and quickly, back and forth, between a peasant hacking into the cow's body and the police firing away, the cow's head in close-up gushing blood as its body jerks and its eyes glaze over to workers collapsing in the dust. Back and forth, back and forth, until historical event and barnyard analogue are one and the same.

Indeed, one may say this is more of an analogy than a metaphor - though such literary terms are difficult to translate into the language of cinema - but I would call it a metaphor in this case because Eisenstein weaves the shots so deftly that we come to think of the massacre as slaughter, rather than like slaughter; his editing leaps over comparison to achieve a kind of synthesis - and the effect, when it works, is more emotional than intellectual, or at least an emotional kind of intellectualism, if that makes sense: a feverish, passionate sensation. This brainy but deeply-felt aesthetic - a dialectic that moved and breathed with human passion - would later find an exponent in Jean-Luc Godard. Indeed, if Griffith inspired Eisenstein, Eisenstein in turn inspired many others - both indirectly (in which case he inspired just about everyone) and directly, as with Francis Ford Coppola.

Coppola concludes Apocalypse Now with another juxtaposition of animal and human carnage - and again it's beheaded cattle which is the counterpoint (in this case to the assassination of a rogue Green Beret, a bloated Marlon Brando, whom one may conjecture was fattened for the kill). Though I don't think Coppola had planned to film the sacrificial native ceremony in which the steer was killed, and it's possible that the idea to juxtapose it with Col. Kurtz's death arose independently of Strike, Coppola himself has cited Eisenstein as an inspiration (and the master's influence is apparent in the Godfather trilogy as well - particularly the cross-cutting conclusions). Of October, Eisenstein's 1927 recreation of the Russian Revolution, Coppola supposedly said (and you'll have to take my word for it as I can't find a direct quote) that it inspired him to become a director.

Strike's closing title reads, in bold Russian lettering, "Remember, Proleterians!" (and the movie's propagandistic qualities will have to be dealt with another time, perhaps when I reach Eisenstein in the Auteurs series). This might just as well have read, "Remember, Filmmakers!" Then again, that would have been unnecessary: the director's heirs obviously haven't forgotten him - nor this film.


Tony D'Ambra said...

Many happy returns MM. I wish I had been so articulate and aware as a 25yo!

Interesting review of Strike! and the Griffith's influence, though October (1928) is arguably a more worthy effort. I would interested on your take on Pudovkin - particularly Mother (1926).

I have just been re-reading Eenest Lindgren's, The Art of the Film (2nd Edn 1963), and in Chapter 5 'Editing: D W Griffith and Eisentstein', Lindgren mounts a strong argument illustrated by reference to the climactic ending to Mother, that Pukovkin too montage even further.

MovieMan0283 said...

I saw some clips from October once upon a time and was hooked - however when I saw the entire film I was surprisingly disappointed. Though individual sequences were some of the greatest in cinema (in particular, the dead horse on the rising bridge is an image I've never forgotten) somehow it didn't seem to hold up as a whole. I'd be interested to see it again & see if my opinion remains the same. Overall, I've found The Battleship Potemkin to be the most sustained and satisfying Eisenstein film.

I have not yet seen Pudovkin, and only a little Dovzhenko, but they should be coming up soon, if not in my unfortunately turtle-paced Auteurs series, then the "great silents" which I've been watching more or less chronologically through Netflix (this was part of that queue).

C. Jerry Kutner said...

OCTOBER is, on the whole, a mess, but in addition to that great horse-on-the-bridge sequence, it also has that montage of religious icons (cut from many prints!) that is one of the most formally innovative and exciting things Eisenstein ever did.

MovieMan0283 said...

For some reason, the two scenes which stick out in my mind when I think of October are the horse on the bridge and Kerensky intercut with the mechanical peacock. Something about the back-and-forth cutting of movement with movement and movement with repose has an electric effect, at least on me.