Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Battleship Potemkin: The Official Haiku Review

As I mentioned in my last Haiku Review, I was going to put my Remedial Literature Project aside in favor of a course of film study. For one, it takes less time to watch a movie than read a book. And I have to admit that there are quite a few classic movies I've never seen, although I consider myself a film buff. At first, I considered going with the American Film Institute's list of top 100 movies. After all, I looked at their top 10:

1. Citizen Kane (1941)
2. The Godfather (1972)
3. Casablanca (1942)
4. Raging Bull (1980)
5. Singin' in the Rain (1952)
6. Gone with the Wind (1939)
7. Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
8. Schindler's List (1993)
9. Vertigo (1958)
10. The Wizard of Oz (1939)

and saw that I'd missed at least three of them.* But the AFI's list covers only American movies, and has an emphasis on "cultural significance" (ie, popularity) that means that they included a film like Forrest Gump, which I consider more gimmick than story, in their top 100. Blech. Besides, I wanted to include foreign films, because as I was browsing through music videos to put in my blog last month, I saw one that was inspired by Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal, which I've never seen. I've never seen any Bergman film, for that matter. Or one by Kurosawa. Or Renoir. Or Fellini ... You get the idea. I've heard of them, seen clips (enough to know when a music video is inspired by a director), but never sat through one of their films.

Then I saw that Ann Arbor's Michigan Theater was showing the 1925 silent film Battleship Potemkin, complete with live organ accompaniment. I've always wanted to see a silent film with live accompaniment, and Battleship Potemkin has ranked in every Sight & Sound critics' all-time top-ten poll since 1952.** The family was game, so we toodled off to Ann Arbor over the weekend. Here is my Official Haiku Review:

The collective whole
Exceeds the sum of its parts—
So the film frames say

Now at heart Battleship Potemkin is a propaganda film, designed to inspire socialist revolution by telling the story of a 1905 naval mutiny. It is also, however, a groundbreaking work for its use of editing and montage cuts. The director, Sergei Eisenstein, believed he could heighten the viewer's emotional reaction by switching between shots of different kinds (a closeup of a face, say, then a long shot of troops, then another closeup of a face, this time with glasses pierced by a bullet). This works to great effect in the Odessa steps sequence, where he shows Tsarist troops massacring the local people, who are rallying in support of the Potemkin. (There are literally thousands of extras in this sequence. Must be nice to have government support of your art.) The scene where a baby goes careening down the steps after his mother is murdered and knocks his carriage over has been imitated countless times.

Watching this film over 80 years after it was made, I could see how could inspire emotions in its viewers. First of all, when you watch a silent film, you really have to watch the film. No looking away, or you might miss something and not be able to figure out what's going on. The use of live music also enhanced the experience; Michigan Theater's organist did a fabulous job of performing the score (over an hour straight with no break!), using martial themes and even sound effects to support the images. So I could see why the film was censored and even banned in many places (even as late as the 1970s).

Still, it is clearly a propaganda film. Every character was clearly black or white (or Red), with no shades of grey. The film ends on a high note which felt false to me as a modern viewer. (The Potemkin was allowed to pass through the Russian fleet without incident, which really happened; later, however, the crew was forced to abandon the ship and was returned to Russia for prosecution.) So as an audio-visual experience, the film worked very well; as story, not so much. Still, now I can stick my nose in the air and say I've actually seen this very important and influential foreign film.

* Bonus if you can guess which three. It could be four, but I can't remember if I've actually seen Singin' in the Rain, or just parts of it.
** The S&S poll, sponsored by the British Film Institute, is widely recognized as the most authoritative in the world. At least Roger Ebert says so, and who am I to argue with the original thumbs' up(TM) guy?


  1. At first, I thought THAT was your "never seen" list!

    I'll guess Raging Bull, Lawrence of Arabia, and Schindler's List?

  2. As the immortal Meatloaf said, "Two out of three ain't bad." :D