Being a purveyor of all things classic, I made myself watch Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 film Battleship Potemkin. If you are so inclined to watch the film, here is the entire movie on Google Video:
The film, made as a piece of Soviet propaganda during the reign of V.I. Lenin, depicted the crew of the Potemkin taking part in a general mutiny against the authoritarian and bourgeois Czarist society, with the residents of the port city Odessa ever at their side. In retrospect, the film has been called one of the best films (if not flat-out the best) of all time.
I have to say, I’m not really sure what I think about it. It was very similar to the time that I made myself watch Munrau’s Nosferatu, another silent classic. I saw where it was powerful at the time, but it doesn’t ring true for me now.
Popular culture has come the closest to the idea of the collective unconscious. One can recognize the image of the baby carriage falling down, knowing it has come from some old movie without seeing it. The carriage falls down the steps, Nosferatu’s shadow slinks up (another completely unrelated set of) steps, and Rosebud is the sleigh. Everyone already knows.
But what do I see when I watch Potemkin? I still see a bunch of people pantomiming a caricature of human action laden with Leninist propaganda and WAY too much makeup. At one point, and I wish I was making this up, one of the ship’s Czarist officers is seen twisting a handlebar mustache.
Well, hypothetical devil’s advocate says (twisting his own handlebar mustache), that exaggerated style of storytelling was used to compensate for the lack of audio. Without the subtleties of acting, they had to do the best that they could to tell that story.
Well, I say back, if the primary ways of characterization are through costuming decisions and grandiose actions, then there is no way that I can relate to what the filmmaker is trying to accomplish.
The image of the baby carriage falling down the Odessa steps turns out to be far more powerful than the actual image in the film itself. I now know the proper context in which that scene happened and can conjure up the reference with more authority than I could before. But the piece as a whole does not move me for the limitations in the way it was produced.
So why do I care about this? I don’t know… I’m starting to think that I have a lot of problems. BUT, storytelling in all media and forms is something that is very important to me. And when people start throwing around phrases like “best [insert form of story here] ever” then I put whatever it is under close scrutiny. After years of hearing about this legendary film, I was vastly disappointed by actually experiencing it.
Moral of the story? “Best [thing] ever” is such a subjective term, and it is foolish to try and quantify it. It is important to see these films, and to know the effect they have, but don’t look to others for these definitions. Watch and judge for yourself!
Also would have accepted “go outside and take a walk instead of watching old silent movies.”
(Hypothetical Devil’s advocate looks at me with hands on hips, tapping one foot)
“…and then doing a write up about it on your blog.”