Thursday, 1 January 2015
Blindspot: Strike (1925)
It's time to begin my 2015 Blindspot Challenge and what better place to begin than with the earliest film on my list, Sergei Eisenstein's Strike. This one was something of an unexpected addition, and included for different reasons from the other entries in my blindspot list. I had actually never heard of Strike until we covered Soviet Montage cinema in one of my classes. We spent two weeks looking at how the Russians influenced filmmaking in the 1920's. The first week we watched Vsevolod Pudovkin's Mother, which I can't say I enjoyed. It was boring and tedious. Between that and Solaris, I was starting to wonder if I would ever find a Russian film that I actually liked. Little did I realize that I would... only a week later.
The next film we watched was Battleship Potempkin, a movie that completely won me over and opened my eyes to so many things. A week earlier I had been wondering why Soviet Montage was such a big deal, but after seeing Battleship Potempkin it all seemed to make sense. It was so effective in turning me around I even went an wrote a whole article detailing everything I'd learned about why the Soviet Montage movement was such a crucial part of film history. After that I was starting to wonder if Sergei Eisenstein, was a director I could get into. The following week I told my professor how I felt and asked if he could recommend any other films by the same guy, and he gave me the title of Strike, a film that had been referred to in the readings and the lecture but to which I never gave much thought.
Fast forward a few weeks later, and I actually managed to find a copy. The only way I could get it was as a double feature with Battleship Potempkin (not that I'm complaining) and it cost me just about every bit of money I had on hand at the time, but it was worth it. My professor was amazed that I even managed to find a copy. The trouble is sometimes even when I own these old movies I sometimes tend to put them off for one reason or another (as was arguably the case for five other movies also on my list). My solution was to include Strike as a candidate for my Blindspot List, and I decided to start off the new year with it.
I could definitely see a lot of Eisenstein's directorial style in Strike. A lot of the ideas he experimented with here are developed a lot more in Battleship Potempkin. The most obvious parallel is the use of the proletariat masses as a "collective" protagonist, instead of having one single hero. In this case, the Bourgeoisie and the police also serve as a sort of "collective" antagonist. Focusing on groups of characters instead of including a designated hero and villain allows Eisenstein to directly address the issues of the class system and how it affects the people as a whole. This same idea is revisited on a smaller scale in Battleship Potempkin, where the same division of class and the need for change is presented through an allegory in the form of the divide between a battleship's officers and its crew.
Building off of Kuleshov's experiments that demonstrated how editing could be used to create an emotional response in the viewers, Eisenstein believed that editing could be used to create meaning. His theory was that two contrasting images that each have separate meanings could be combined together to create a new message, one that was not originally present in either shot. This idea would be refined in Battleship Potempkin but it is more obviously present in Strike.
The example that was often cited in my readings was the climactic scene in which the massacre of the workers is cut alongside shots of a bull being slaughtered (incidentally, I do wonder if this inspired Francis Ford Coppola when he was making Apocalypse Now). On their own, these visuals would have nothing to do with each other, but placed together there is a connection to be drawn. They even set it up with shots of an apartment complex that make it look suspiciously like a corral. That's a great example, but it's one of many.
Another instance where Eisenstein applies his theory to great effect is in the way he shows the factory shutting down due to the workers' strike (you may recognize this moment, as it was a still from this scene I used in my Blindspot list). In this case he juxtaposes two separate shots: three workers folding their arms, and a wheel slowing down and finally stopping. Once again, on their own, these shots would not mean much. When placed together, it symbolizes a simple connection: as soon as the workers stop operating the machinery, the factory shuts down.
As you can imagine, this is hardly a conventional story. Much like Battleship Potempkin, Strike is very much an allegory for a much larger issue, that being the luxury of the bourgeoisie at the expense of the proletariat. The bourgeoisie are represented by a group of businessmen who respond to the workers' demands not with any serious consideration but instead skim through them, dismiss them all as ridiculous, and then pull out wine and lemons while sitting around smoking huge cigars. They even demonstrate how little these men think of the workers when one of them spills a bit of lemon on his shoe. He seems to be appalled by the idea of picking it up himself, and instead uses the paper containing the workers' demands to wipe it off before calling a valet over to "clean it up". In addition to all that, Eisenstein even cuts the men sitting together with scenes of the police rounding up the workers outside.
Strike is a brilliant film in many ways. After seeing Battleship Potempkin I thought I could get into Sergei Eisenstein and if this film was anything to go on, he doesn't disappoint. I have no idea how I will go about finding any of his other films, or indeed which films of his I would pursue if I did. What I can say is that I have a new director to add to my list of auteurs I admire. There is definitely an interesting quality to his work, and a lot of stuff to be said simply analysing his movies. It is nice to be able to add a foreign name to that list, and one from the silent era at that. If Battleship Potempkin and Strike were anything to go on, I'm open to seeing more of Sergei Eisenstein.