Eye on Eisenstein

By Eby, Lloyd | The World and I, June 1998 | Go to article overview
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Eye on Eisenstein

Eby, Lloyd, The World and I

For decades, Sergei Eisenstein was lionized as one of the two greatest geniuses of film, but his star fell along with the Berlin Wall. How does he look now?

This year is the centenary of the birth of Sergei Eisenstein, often held to be one of the greatest figures in the history of cinema. Although at times he was lionized for his film direction and theories, his star has waxed and waned over the years, as the merit of his films and the value of his theories and techniques have been alternately praised and questioned. But many things--his rich biography, his complex philosophy of filmmaking and film editing, his teaching work, and his linking of cinema to widely varied interests and doctrines--make him notable and memorable.

Eisenstein was born January 23, 1898, in Riga, Latvia, to a prosperous family. As a boy he learned not only his native Russian but also German, French, and English. The boy was fascinated by theater and the circus. He read avidly and widely, and delighted in drawing sketches and caricatures--activities he continued throughout most of his life. When he was eleven, his mother left the household, and three years later his parents divorced. He claimed later that his :interest in social protest was sparked by what he saw as his father's despotic rule.

His studies at the Institute of Civil Engineering in St. Petersburg--he intended to follow his father's profession--were interrupted in 1917 for military service. While in the Red Army after the Bolshevik seizure of power, he took part in numerous theater productions and was eventually assigned to organize productions and ensembles himself. He left the army in 1920, returned to Moscow, studied Japanese, and worked with the Proletkult (Proletarian Cultural Movement) Theater. Soon he was its codirector, working on more than twenty productions, and became the most noteworthy theater director in the Soviet Union. Proletkult was dedicated to developing a distinctly proletarian theater and art to replace that of the bourgeoisie. Soviet artists at the time, including Eisenstein and his associates, took it for granted that art should serve political ends.

Central to Eisenstein's film work and film theory is the idea of montage. While still a theater director, he wrote a manifesto, "Montage of Attractions," for Lef, the literary journal for the Left Front of the Arts, rejecting the notion that dialogue is the dominant element in theater and claiming instead that all the elements, or "attractions"--set design, lighting, costumes, sound, movements of actors--functioned on equal terms and formed a fusion, or montage, that made the entire work.

Montage, in film, can mean numerous things. One is that a film should be constructed not in narrative fashion but from brief segments that serve to reinforce and counterpoint one another--what someone has called "chop, chop, chop" editing. Montage theory holds that meaning arises from the interplay of elements, so that quite different types of scenes can be intercut to work toward a larger meaning: The sum is supposed to be greater than its parts. As in the Marxist theory of dialectic, where thesis and antithesis collide to produce something new, the juxtaposition of shots and "attractions" in montage is supposed to create new meaning. Rather than smooth linkage, "the collision and dialectical synthesis of contradictory shots ... [were] a way to shock and agitate the audience," writes essayist Clyde Kelly Dunagan.

Eisenstein's films are didactic, but Professor David Bordwell (author of The Cinema of Eisenstein) says, "He saw no contradiction between creating propaganda and achieving powerful aesthetic effects." He sought to "stir proletarian consciousness," to "meld the imperatives of heroic realism with avant-garde experimentation," to "romanticize revolutionary action," and to "extract compositional methods from diverse traditions and turn them to immediate ends."

In the spring of 1924, Eisenstein proposed that Proletkult undertake a cycle of films portraying the Russian revolutionary movements before 1917.

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