Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 Soviet agitprop masterwork, based on the true story of a Russian crew’s 1905 mutiny and the government’s attempt to crush sympathetic demonstrations in the port of Odessa, is justly famous for its display of the director’s approach to montage, or editing. The wildly multiplied angles he puts together to view the action (such as the renowned sequence of the massacre on the Odessa Steps) unite aesthetics and politics: The multifaceted visual polyphony both suggests a cinematic counterpart to Cubism and, in denying the subjective view of a single observer, evokes the objective viewpoint of history itself.
But Eisenstein’s genius isn’t merely one of assemblage: The individual images are themselves startlingly composite works of
graphic inventiveness. Abetted by the cinematographer Eduard Tisse, Eisenstein breaks his compositions up with spots of light arrayed like
Ben-Day dots, fixates on the striated textures of corrugated metal walls and rows of bayonets, pits the stripes of sailors’ shirts against the abstractly
floating circular and elliptical swarms of their round white caps. Each frame, in its visual density, proposes a hallucinatory excess of
experience that also belongs to modern painting—a detached, moody, and obsessional realm of private delight, with which Eisenstein slips the bonds
of historical determinism and deflects the chilling lockstep of dictated order that haunts the film’s crowd scenes and their unanimous political enthusiasm.
—Richard Brody is an editor at The New Yorker and the author of Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard.
Editor’s note: This is the second of three special guest posts dedicated to movies that are now streaming, in their entirety, on YouTube. Click here to see what David Thomson had to say about Bringing Up Baby, and tune in tomorrow to see what Jenny Diski has to say about another classic film.
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