Wednesday, November 11, 2009

October

Years ago, I saw a few brief scenes from October which engendered in me a passionate desire to see the whole movie. One moment stood out especially - Eisenstein cuts between a group of cartoonish bourgeois women beating a man with umbrellas and a drawbridge going up, with a cart and dead horse hanging from the precipice. Eventually the cart tumbles down the broad, erect face of the bridge, which is beginning to resemble a skyscraper. The horse finally plummets as well, over the other side of the bridge, into the water. The cutting, the movement onscreen, the vividness of the photography: all added up to one of the most rhythmic, hypnotic, and startling uses of cinema I'd ever experienced. Another sequence which stayed with me was the juxtaposition of Kerensky with the mechanical peacock - again, the cutting between the two figures, the movement within the frame, created a marvelous sense of tension and release, almost musical.

I sought out October for a while, trying to order it through a video store without luck (though the clerk informed me that Coppola had decided to become a director after seeing October for the first time). Finally I saw it on a big screen ... and was disappointed. What was brilliant in short snippets didn't quite hold together in long form. There was not enough of an arc to tie in all the effective moments, and the didactic, propagandistic aspect which was easy to overlook for a few minutes became overbearing over the course of two hours. The lack of central characters also had an unfortunate effect - while relatively anonymous ensembles are a regular feature of Eisenstein's silent work, they're usually smaller in number and more distinctive in appearance and behavior; here, the drama is dispersed too widely, and becomes diffuse.

Upon re-viewing the film for the first time in years tonight, my opinion largely remains the same. However, and this is a big however, the final half-hour is excellent and ranks with Eisenstein's very best work. It's a strong finish, not quite enough to make me see the whole film as a masterpiece, but powerful nonetheless. Here Eisenstein ties his bombastic, electric montage agitprop to a more focused narrative (after spanning months and several locations, he settles on the night of October 25 for the last 30 minutes) and a more humanistic aesthetic - several faces begin to emerge from the crowd, lending the "symbolic" proletariat a soul. There's also a fascinating ambivalence in Eisenstein's use of art, particularly sculpture, which manages to represent both the overbearing power and privilege of the upper classes and the romantic spirit of the revolutionaries. All in all, it's a rousing finale and remains one of the more effective depictions of revolution onscreen.

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