Crikey! Is it Friday already? Doesn’t time fly…?
Well, I was planning that the next in this series of film-music postings currently being read and enjoyed all around the world (Hello, Malaysia! Hello Vietnam!) would draw together a few thoughts about several of the screen sword-fights I’ve collected on here over the last month or so. But since there isn’t time to do that right now, let me just present something that allows you to share a little of what has been my recent ‘holiday viewing’…
I’ve mentioned before on here that I struggle with the works of Sergei Eisenstein (1898-1948) — by which I mean that I spend a significant part of every Eisenstein film sitting on my own hands to prevent me punching my way through the screen. Me being me — i.e. someone who isn’t ‘a critic’ and doesn’t want to be — I’ve never made a big public fuss about what I consider to be my reasons for despising the part of him that I despise; on this single occasion — following yet another glass of mulled wine! — I will reveal that Eisenstein is the most insulting film-maker I’ve ever encountered. And, before you ask: no, that has absolutely nothing to do with the extent to which any given Eisenstein film — especially one concerning the Russian revolution — is or isn’t ‘propaganda’, or does or doesn’t depart from ‘historical accuracy’. For, believe it or not, I’ve never been someone who considered ‘motion pictures’ to be either free of idological baggage or things supposed to function as history texts. I find Eisenstein insulting for a different reason entirely; but that’s between him and me, isn’t it?
Why do I bother with him at all, then? Well, the answer is that once in a long while — not more than that, sadly — he does something that really, really impresses me. And what that means is that I go back, usually again and again, to see if there’s anything else good or important there that I’ve missed every previous time. Just to give you a single example, there’s one shot in The Battleship Potemkin (1925) that, to my eye and heart, reveals a master’s control of just about everything a silent film director can control. (Well, apart from some distracting daftness involving the lighting…)
One of the things that has made my voyage around Eisenstein more time-consuming than it would otherwise have needed to be is the fact that, while watching his films, my attention is constantly distracted by oddities of cutting and/or continuity — a lot of which hover irritatingly between two stools. On the one hand, that is to say, they look like the kind of bad editing decisions that can occur all too easily when a primitive and still-developing filmic language meets a director with a head full of intellectualised nonsense; on the other, they also resemble the sort of dislocating cuts and joins that result from brutal censorship decisions and accumulating print damage. As a result, I have spent many, many hours in search of full-length, uncensored and carefully restored versions — in the attempt to find out whether Eisenstein really is as bad as I think he is, or is, on the contrary, as good as I would like him to be…
There is an ‘up’-side to this Faustian search, though — since it means that, by now, I have managed to encounter pretty well every soundtrack that has ever been added to the alleged masterpiece that is Battleship Potemkin. And the fruits of this — some of them, anyway — I will share with you today.
What follows are three long extracts from the film, carefully chosen and coded so that they overlap significantly: the first sequence of the second overlaps the last sequence of the first, and the first sequence of the third overlaps the last sequence of the second. As a result, there are two sequences that you will hear with two different soundtracks. Yes: once again, what I have engineered is a way of allowing comparison, under properly controlled conditions…
* * *
First clip. This is from the version produced in the USSR for the film’s 50th anniversary in 1975 (this date being in the middle of the Brezhnev era, you may remember). The music was added — rather skilfully, I’ve always felt! — using various records of Shostakovich symphonies; Shostakovich himself died in the August of that year, and won’t have had the slightest involvement in the project. (It might be worth pointing out that the music from the Eleventh Symphony  heard from 34’23” contains an actual revolutionary tune called ‘You Fell as Victims’.)
All that the virginal reader really needs to be told about the plot as we go into our first clip is that the sailors of the imperial battlecruiser who have refused to eat the ship’s maggot-infested meat are about to be shot for insubordination by an on-board firing squad…
* * *
Second clip. Again this is from the USSR, this time from 1950 (i.e. towards the end of Stalin’s reign) and the film’s 25th anniversary. The score is by Nikolay Kryukov (1908-61) — and I want to take this opportunity to say that I don’t think it’s at all bad overall: once upon a time — back when I was posing as ‘a critic’ and therefore doing what ‘a critic’ is expected to do — I was a bit snooty about it in print; and I’ve felt guilty about that ever since. In this particular extract, I appreciate the way the composer first constructs a ‘liquidating’ transition away from the funeral music, and then gradually assembles the motivic material for his ‘people of Odessa’ march as the crowd itself gradually asembles. What’s more, I also like the music he writes for the happy — and, even to me, rather beautiful — sail-boat sequence. (Kryukov, incidentally, was no amateur: a prolific Soviet film composer, he had a busy career until several newspapers accused him of plagiarism in 1960. Buckling under the pressure, he threw himself under a train at a Moscow station in front of countless onlookers.)
* * *
Third clip. At this point we reach a version which, at one and the same time, manages to be one of the oldest as well as one of the newest — since it is the restoration (carried out in Germany) that was released in 2005. The music is, so far as I can tell, a full-orchestral version of the score that in 1926 was produced over 12 days by Edmund Meisel (1894-1930) for the initially unsuccessful film’s effective rebirth in the hands of a German distributor. Note, by the way, that it is only now that we see just why it was that the film-makers had the ship’s revolutionary flag made of white cloth…
And, as for me, let me say that this version of the famous ‘Odessa Steps’ sequence — a valuable restoration in many respects, even though I can see jumps and gaps in it that aren’t there in other versions I’ve seen — does remove a couple of the oddnesses that have always distracted me.
This Eisenstein guy is definitely getting better…
I suppose it’s just one of life’s little coincidences that today — December 30 — happens to be the anniversary of the foundation of the Soviet Union: it was on 30 December 1922 that the various relevant documents and agreements, signed the day before, were confirmed and came into force.
Now, were this the kind of blog that had servile idiots for readers, it would be at this point that ‘Comments’ started being typed whose purpose was to spread the usual self-loving Western slop about what a terrible thing it was that the USSR came to exist. ‘JUST LOOK AT THAT LEGACY OF TYRANNY!‘, some obedient tool of private capital would already be declaring. ‘THEY TRIED TO SPREAD REVOLUTION ROUND THE WORLD — BUT FORTUNATELY WE HUNG ON TO OUR FREEDOMS!’
Oh, how true! Battleship Potemkin had its Russian intertitles deleted and misrepresented in various languages so that the inflammatory ‘revolutionary content’ could be diluted to ‘safe’ levels — but WE HUNG ON TO OUR FREEDOMS. The film itself was banned in France and, after WW2, in West Germany — but WE HUNG ON TO OUR FREEDOMS, BECAUSE FREEDOM IS WHAT WE CHERISH, OKAY? In the UK, the film — this film: the old 1920s silent movie you’ve been watching! — was banned until 1954, and then hidden behind an ‘X-Certificate’ until as late as 1978 — BUT OUR SYSTEM IS BETTER THAN THEIRS BECAUSE WE HAVE ARTISTIC AND INTELLECTUAL FREEDOM AND THEY DIDN’T, OKAY…?
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