Sunday, July 19, 2009

I Don't Get Very Excited About Eisenstein

The tradition called Russian Formalism is not bad filmmaking. I do not wish to disparage it or dwell on the shortcomings of its products. However, I cannot hear anyone talk about how great it is without thinking of how much better Dovzhenko is. I have a pronounced inability to grant a critic his premise, and it often causes problems. I would never say that Eisenstein, Pudovkin and Vertov are wrong or uninteresting, just that they are limited. I often suggest confronting all the art one can stomach. Often this is my tactic for leading people away from inferior works. The premise is that one needs to see everything in order to determine what is good. This is how museum's work. It may not be the stated intention of the curator, but the point of putting together, for instance, all the Dutch Masters is not to suggest that they are all equal, but to allow the viewer to come to the understanding that Rembrandt is better. One does not necessarily come to this perspective as if it where innate. You don't know what makes a masterpiece by staring at the masterpiece in a vacuum. This is a fundamental premise of art appreciation. I am not sure that it qualifies as “aesthetics” because it is probably to simplistic, too “nuts and bolts” and not enough speculation and conceptualization. I cannot imagine that it is any less valid as a consequence. Art appreciation is at least as much, if not more, a matter of training and honing of perception and instinct than it is a development of theory and methodology. I am sure it sounds foolish, but I know that Dovzhenko's Earth is better than Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera, Pudovkin's End of St. Petersburg, or Eisenstein's Potyemkin. I can see it. I see it every time I watch them. I see it because Earth taught me to see it.

I would add that the Russian Formalists are sufficiently well-known, and further I would emphasize the relationship between fame and quality. There are very few exceptions to this rule and usually I can qualify those exceptions to show that they are not really exceptions at all. When we think of French Cinema we normally think of the New Wave. All of them are great directors to be certain, Godard, Rohmer and Rivette especially. Robert Bresson is better, and if you did not go to a graduate film studies program you probably never heard of him (maybe you never heard of him even if you did!). Everyone knows about Bergman's Persona, Wild Strawberries, Seventh Seal and Virgin Spring all of which a fine films, but it is Cries and Whispers, Scenes from a Marriage and the mammoth, complete cut of Fanny and Alexander that are his masterworks. (For what its worth I will mention that Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible is his most interesting film.)

Part of the problem of assessment is that we are drawn to things that we can readily understand. This is true for academics as well as lay people. In fact for teachers and scholars this problem is exacerbated by the fact that the easier to understand work is always easier to teach. And so what happens is that this ease becomes a standard of value. The dumb ideas that permeate pop culture take root in the so-called ivory tower. Where a music critic with a bachelor's degree in journalism will lament a band that sells out or outlive their usefulness like REM or U2 or who forget their roots and get self-absorbed and pretentious like Radiohead, the scholar with a PhD in film studies will hail Tarkovsky's early work at the expense of his later failures (see especially the works of Vida Johnson and Graham Petrie, Natasha Synessios and James Qaundt). There is something is the zeigeist that is fundamentally hostile to what I would call maturity. We want only the surface appearance of difference. The critics loved Tarkovsky when he was a new voice shouting from the wilderness of the Soviet Union – when he was potential. The minute he was able to finish a work without compromise, as soon as he managed to hit them full on in the face with something completely new (Stalker to a degree but more so with Nostalghia and Sacrifice), they were confused. Confusion can go two ways: One can work through it or resent it. Resentment is much easier.

I like to keep these posts short, and now I see a have bitten off a bit too much. No doubt that I will take this topic up again soon. To wrap up I will remind you that the solution to this problem is to watch. I am not a philosopher and I know that my language is often inelegant. Watch the films and figure it out for yourself.