At the end of the day, I am an amateur filmgoer; Battleship Potemkin made me realize some of the problems with that. I have a few more things to say about that, but we’ll table them to the end of this review.
Battleship Potemkin, from Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein (he also did Strike), was one of cinema’s first “historical dramatization” films and is regarded as a cinematic masterpiece. Eisenstein staged the account of the mutiny of a Russian battleship twenty years prior and further turned it into a rallying cry for the then-new Bolshevik cause.
The events of the mutiny are pretty faithfully captured here. In 1905, Russia was deep in a lengthy war with Japan, and the morale of the Russian navy was at an ebb. Most of the experienced sailors and officers were being rushed to battle, leaving the home front to be maintained by raw recruits and more problematic officers. Resources were also short; and on the Potemkin, this lead to the ship’s cooks having to try to serve meat that was well past the point of spoiling. One night, when the chef served a borscht made with meat the crew had already seen was maggot-ridden, they all boycotted dinner, resorting to tinned sardines from the ship’s store and bread they’d saved from breakfast. At wit’s end, the ship’s captain made a great show of singling out a group of the men who’d skipped the borscht and preparing to “shoot them for insubordination”. Crewman Grigory Vakulinchuk spoke up, rallying the others to revolt, and the men took over, killing seven of the superior officers in the process (sadly, Vakulinchuk died in the scuffle as well).
The Potemkin went on to Odessa, then gripped by a general strike, in an effort to drum up solidarity. The Cossack army urged the crew of the Potemkin to help them break up the strike; but the crew’s sentiments ran the other way, and they actually ended up escalating the tension, when their funeral for Vakulinchuk started a political protest instead. The Cossack army tried to capture the sailors; the Potemkin retaliated by trying (and failing) to shell a theater where the military was holding an emergency strategy meeting. Two other ships were called in to rein in the Potemkin, but their crews ended up siding with the mutineers. Ultimately, the Potemkin sailed on to Romania, where the men defected and the ship was sunk.
The film covers the events of the mutiny up to the point where the other ships refuse to stop the Potemkin. It’s surprisingly short – just an hour and fifteen minutes – but packs a lot in, with a detailed staging of the on-deck revolt and the demonstrations in Odessa following Vakulinchuk’s funeral. The Odessa scenes are famous to the point of notoriety among film scholars; in a lengthy montage, a merciless line of Cossack soldiers marches down a staircase, relentlessly shooting at the fleeing rioters. And Eisenstein takes pains to show us the effects – a child is trampled to death. A woman is clubbed in the face, breaking her glasses. A mother pushing a baby carriage is shot, and the carriage rolls uncontrollably down the steps. There was no such massacre, however; this is one instance where Eisenstein tweaks the truth a bit. He also has the Potemkin succeed in destroying the Odessa Opera House. But this too becomes an eye-catching, if brief, montage; just before each shell hits, Eisenstein shows quick clips of some of the statuary surrounding it; heroically-posed men, and snarling lions. In this staging, however, it looks like the statues are recoiling in fear before being blown up. In fact, these two scenes are considered by several critics to be the birth of the “montage” film technique.
….And this is why I’ve started to re-think a bit about my approach to these films. I had been hearing all my life about Battleship Potemkin, about what a pinnacle of achievement it is, how highly it’s been acclaimed; I’d heard that the Odessa steps sequence has been copied and parodied in everything from The Godfather to Revenge of The Sith to Brazil, and even one of the Naked Gun movies spoofed it.
And all that hype had built the film up in my head to the point that after watching it, my overwhelming reaction was “that’s it?” I knew intellectually that the cinematography was supposed to be groundbreaking, but aside from a couple of standout scenes – the lion statues, a woman on the Odessa steps surrounded by the shadows of the Cossacks – I didn’t really notice things. And I feel like I should have done. I had the chance to catch details, but I hadn’t been schooled in what to look for, and I missed them.
Mind you, I believe equally as strongly that we don’t all need to go to film school to appreciate film. The bulk of Eisenstein’s original audience hadn’t (hell, film school probably didn’t even exist), nor did the bulk of D. W. Griffith’s audiences or Cecil B. DeMille’s, and neither have the bulk of Stanley Kubrick’s or Martin Scorcese’s or Steven Spielberg’s or Terry Gilliam’s. The average person hasn’t gone to film school. Ultimately, the point of film is to entertain people. It is not made exclusively for scholars, it is made for regular yutzes like me.
I just as strongly believe that it is okay to not like a film that the critics have lauded. I’ve seen people fall into this trap in the theater world; there are shows and directors and artists who are critical darlings, and I’ve seen entire scenes crop up around them with fans flocking to their shows because of the cool factor. But when you press the fans for details about why they like the shows, they can only breathlessly tell you that it’s because of the artist. They have nothing to say about the show itself. Liking a thing just because of its reputation smacks a little too much of the cargo cult to me; if you don’t like something, that’s an entirely valid reaction, even if Roger Ebert loved it. Not everyone likes everything, and that is okay. (Hell, Roger Ebert apparently didn’t like The Usual Suspects, which baffles me.)
So up to this point I’ve had no problem saying if I didn’t like something, and I’ve had no problem speaking from the regular-yutz perspective. I started this project to learn about film, after all – I admit up front I didn’t know anything. But this has made me realize I need to maybe up the “learning” angle just a bit.
As luck would have it, I know a literature professor who’s just now starting his school year. He just made a Facebook post about the first day of a new class he has, “Intro to Cinema”; he said the first class was about getting students to be aware of and “read” this exact kind of detail; “to move what we all perceive subconsciously to a conscious level.” I’m a little too broke for a college course, and his campus is a bit too far away; but like I said, I don’t need a full course anyway, necessarily. But he has agreed to shoot me a copy of the syllabus, so I can take a couple steps closer and open my eyes a bit wider.