Saturday, September 20, 2008

Film Ignorance # 17: Strike

Film: Strike
Rating: Yep, It's a Classic
Director: Sergei Eisenstein
Stars: "The Actors of the Proletcult Theater" I'm not kidding, that's what they were billed as.
Year: 1925
Reason for Ignorance: Silent Soviet propaganda film...no thanks

Ignorance Rating: Pending

I was immediately blown away by this movie. Not since the first time I saw Breathless can I remember seeing a film which so forcefully announced itself as a cinematic masterpiece. In only the film's first minute, Eisenstein had already put together four incredible shots. First, there's a dissolve from a closeup of an evil capitalist to the scurrying workers providing his wealth and back again. Then a gorgeous crane shot of the enormous factory where much of the film is set (did they have cranes in 1925?). Then we watch some factory workers go about their business from behind a lighted screen, rendering them faceless silhouettes, part and parcel of the machinery of the factory. Finally, our first introduction to the strikers is shot as an upside down reflection from a puddle, so that we start by seeing the reflection of the factories smokestacks, then see the conspirators' feet appear upside down in the shot as they walk through the puddle, only to reappear rightside up in the reflection. And these are all in the first minute of the film, in Eisenstein's first feature film.

In other words, this dude wasn't fucking around. In case you don't know, Eisenstein was a Soviet film pioneer who more or less invented montage and used it to terrific effect. This movie is, like all of his others, a blatant ode to Soviet ideals. A strike at a large factory gets going when a loyal worker is falsely accused of theft. To prove his innocence, he commits suicide (another stunningly well shot scene, which cuts between the belt and footstool he uses before finally settling on his lifeless feet), and this galvanizes the factory to strike. The capitalist pigs in charge (who, with their fancy suits, top hats, and moustaches, look exactly like the capitalists in American films of the 30s and 40s) don't like the situation at all, and the shit hits the fan.

And boy does it hit the fan. Seriously, this is an insane movie. Babies are kicked, midgets dance on tables, boots are thrown at kittens, and toddlers are thrown off buildings. A team of hobo arsonists (led by a dwarf) are recruited out of the barrels they live in to burn down an apartment building that the strikers live in, and when the firemen arrive, they turn their hoses on the dispossesed people instead of the burning building. This last development is one of many that I couldn't figure out. This film was incredibly difficult to follow; the plot swings wildly from place to place, all the workers look pretty much alike (as do the spies in their midst), and I was generally clueless. But Eisenstein cuts so rapidly, so frequently, and so ostentatiously that I usually didn't have time to worry about it.

The weak link here is probably the worst acting I have ever seen on film. Somehow the workers manage to overact stoic defiance. But the capitalists...my god. There's hardly a single shot of a capitalist where he's not laughing with obvious evil, gasping with rage, or both. They laugh, they quiver, they gyrate, and they even jump up and down as evilly as they can manage. It would have been more subtle to simply dress them up with red horns and pitchforks that to led those particular proletcult players try to act "evil." It was absurd, over the top...and yeah, a lot of fun.

Which is a great way to describe this movie. It is propaganda of the most overt sort, with atrocities coming left and right far beyond believability, and acting to match. But it's also one of the most heavily stylized and forcefully edited movies I have ever seen. I can't promise you'll like it, but I can't imagine that you could ever be bored by it. This movie goes to 11!

4 comments:

Roger L. said...

May I quote you? "In other words, this dude wasn't fucking around." I had the same reaction to this. Suddenly I had to pay more attention to Russian post-revolution cinema and Eisenstien.

I've loved it ever since.

Roger L.

Graham said...

Roger, I'm glad you agree with me. This was actually the first Eisenstein film I'd seen in years, and only the second ever - Battleship Potemkin was the only one I had seen. Having now seen Alexander Nevsky, Ivan the Terrible pts 1 and 2, and October, this one is my favorite. So experimental, so alive, so visceral. Genius.

MovieMan0283 said...

I never understand the academic understanding of Eisenstein: oh, this IMPORTANT director who invented montage which was the very intellectual way to edit films.

Bullshit! Eisensteinian montage is a kick in the gut, a completely visceral approach to filmmaking. (The same goes for Godard, another filmmaker who gets pegged in an academic, pedantic way when in fact he was the most nimble and instinctive of directors.)

Anonymous said...

Stumbled upon this - great review of a fantastic film. I'm one of these people who prefer Strike to Potemkin.