Salient: Victoria University Students' Paper. Vol. 30, No. 14. 1967.
Montage film effect praised
Montage film effect praised
Foreign films old and not so old have provided some interesting viewing over the last few weeks. A pseudo-wit once said to me that a film society was an organisation which had just shown, was showing, or was about to show either Battleship Potemkin or The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The truth of his assertion can be judged from the fact that Potemkin was last screened at Vic in 1963 and Caligari only recently.
Robert Weine's The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari (Germany: 19191 has always been regarded as a film "classic"—I wonder why. It is undoubtedly true that at the time the film must have shocked the public out of its acceptance of the cinema as an instrument of realism, but apart from the mildly stimulating expressionist sets there is little to recommend it. even in an historical context. Indeed, considering advances being made elsewhere in 1919 (and even before that), so far as film technique is concerned Caligari is staid, even reactionary. Eisenstein once described it as "this barbaric carnival of the destruction of the healthy human infancy of our art, this common grave for normal cinema origins, this combination of silent hysteria, particoloured canvasses, daubed flats, painted faces and the unnatural broken gestures and actions of monstrous chimaeras."
Eisenstein's description has its point. The contrast between Caligari and the Soviet cinema of a few years later was brought home in the short festival of films presented by the society to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Russian revolution. Mikhail Romm's Lenin In October (as tedious as his more recent Nine Days Of One Year) and Prologue (1956) are strictly for the ideologues, but Pudovkin's Storm Over Asia is another matter entirely. Vsevolod Pudovkin (1893-1953), along with Eisenstein and Alexander Dovzhenko, is regarded as one of the greatest of Soviet film directors. Both he and Eisenstein, in their silent films, elaborated and extended the principles and technique of Montage, i.e. the editing of shots in such a way as to create a cumulative effect where "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts."
Most of the shots in these films are static compositions—camera movement is rarely seen—but the editing produces its own rhythmic and kinetic effect, complementing and enhancing the subject action within the frame. It has been said that whereas Eisenstein in his use of montage aims at creating a series of implications at the ideological and intellectual level, Pudovkin tries for an overall emotional impact. This is probably why I prefer Pudovkin's films. I find Battleship Potemkin something of a drag, always excepting the Odessa steps sequence which has a rivetting power all its own.
I think Storm Over Asia (1928) is not as successful as Pudovkin's earlier films, Mother and The End Of St. Petersburg, although it is in many ways a technical tour-de-force. An action as simple as the main character fainting and knocking over a bowl of fish becomes, in the hands of Pudovkin, a series of rapidly edited shots over overwhelming impact. These displays of virtuosity are made doubly effective by the contrast with the quieter, more poetic sections of the film. Both the dazzling and the lyrical in Storm Over Asia bear testimony to the genius of Pudovkin and his cameraman, Anatoli Golovnya.
Jay Leyda describes the conclusion of the film in the following picturesque words: "After a Samson-like image of Bair pulling down the British headquarters on their alien heads, he leaps from his captivity on to a Mongolian pony, summoning the hosts of Asia against the invaders. The swiftness of the appearing riders is at once translated into the image of a storm blowing against the English, rolling them away with all the dust and debris that Pudovkin could imagine." It all sounds tremendous, and no doubt we would have seen the larger part of this section of the film had the projectionist refrained from switching off the lamp at least a minute before the end. I am still trying to work out what prompted this senseless and unjustified act.
It is a great pity that we may have to wait yet another 20 years before part I of Eisenstein's Ivan The Terrible makes an appearance, but in the meantime, another look at part 2 is quite sufficient, thank you. The first 35mm print of this film to be screened in New Zealand for many years had a brief run at the Paramount recently. The second part of the proposed trilogy was made in 1945 and released for public viewing in 1958. Stalin had several consultations with Eisenstein and master photographer Tisse about changing the film's conception of Ivan, so presumably official disapproval was the reason for the lengthy delay.
Ivan has always prompted mixed feelings. Orson Welles, for example, considers it "the worst film of a great cineaste," while some others think it a masterpiece. It is true, for me at any rate, that those rough-hewn faces and forms held in excessively tortured postures tend to pall after a while, and in the midst of all the massive chunks of architectural composition I find myself looking hopefully for a splurge of the frenetic cutting that is the distinguishing characteristic of Eisenstein's silent films.
The final impact, however, is one of barbaric power and splendour. Prokofiev's music and Cherkassov's imposing portrayal of Ivan supplement Eisenstein's supreme visual sense, and any qualms one may have about the film's theatricality are swept away by the dramatic qualities of the narrative. Of all Eisenstein's films, this is the one where involvement in the characters and their actions is essential to any appreciation and understanding. One disappointing feature of this version of Ivan is the continued absence of the colour photography in the middle section of the film, Jay Leyda, authority on the Soviet cinema, has nothing but praise for Eisenstein's use of colour in these few reels, but we are denied access to this aspect of the director's work, since the 35mm and 16mm prints contain the relevant scenes in black and white.
Storm Over Asia. Ivan The Terrible, and then Pather Pancnali—three great films in the space of two weeks! Sometimes ye gods smile on us. Satyajit Ray's film, made 1952-55, is a record of the attempts of a poor Indian family to better their lot. To say that this is a "realistic" account of life in contemporary India is not to imply any sociological importance as compensation for the lack of recognised filmic virtues. Pather Pancnali is in many ways a cinematic triumph. Ray employs the conventional techniques of film-making with subtlety and restraint and a quite extraordinary sense of what is fitting for any subject or movement. Under Ray's direction the film transcends reality and becomes visual poetryI was completely wrapt in this film, and since it is the first of Ray's that I have seen I will travel miles to catch the next one that comes my way.