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Memphis Flyer Back in the USSR

A look at the Soviet Avant-garde.

By Chris Herrington

OCTOBER 18, 1999: 

Strike (Sergei Eisenstein)
Kino-Eye (Dziga Vertov)
Arsenal (Alexander Dovzhenko) Kino

Soviet cinema in the 1920s was one of the most fertile periods in film history. Inspired by the energy and excitement of the recent Bolshevik Revolution, an entire generation of Soviet filmmakers built an experimental body of work that served as both a rebuke to the firmly entrenched narrative orientation of the West and as a celebration of their own emerging political and artistic culture. The films that made up this movement were among the most influential the medium has ever seen. This second installment of Kino on Video series on the Soviet avant-garde features digitally remastered video prints of three of the most important films from three of the most significant directors of early Soviet cinema.

Sergei Eisenstein (Battleship Potemkin) is among the medium’s most prominent directors and theorists, and his debut Strike (1925) is an immeasurably important film. The master of montage — the notion that cinematic meaning derives from the juxtaposition of images — Eisenstein was a key influence on virtually all that came after him, particularly the master manipulator, Alfred Hitchcock. With Strike, one can see the theatricality and visual passion of early Soviet film. This story of an early workers’ revolt also reveals the conceptual politics of Soviet film: There is no protagonist in Strike, or rather the People are the protagonist. It’s a film that favors the depiction of social forces over the psychological development of individual characters.

Vertov’s Kino-Eye (1924), the first feature-length Russian documentary, captures the idealism of the early Bolshevik era. It was Vertov’s belief that the camera was an eye more powerful than the human one, and he used candid footage to catch life in post-Revolutionary Russia unaware — lovely footage of street markets, children bathing in a stream, and a youth group called the Young Pioneers performing community service. Despite his commitment to capturing reality through the kino-eye, Vertov’s films are heavily stylized, taking full advantage of the visual possibilities of the medium. His films are a precursor to the notion of film as essay and a direct influence on cinematic essayists like Jean-Luc Godard and Chris Marker.

Ukrainian director Alexander Dovzhenko differs slightly from his comrades in that his work seems to connect the radical aims of the new Soviet cinema with the land’s pre-Revolutionary literary tradition. Dovzhenko provides the pathos and poetry in early Soviet film. The lyrical Arsenal is a revolutionary epic about the Ukrainian Civil War that means to expose nationalist beliefs as a false consciousness and establish the class consciousness of worker versus boss as the true arbiter of union. Perhaps more clearly than the other two films in this series, Arsenal illustrates the Soviet montage style. A frustrated poor farmer beats his horse, and this footage is juxtaposed with a starving mother beating her children. An intertitle informs the farmer, “You’re beating the wrong one, Ivan.” An elderly peasant woman dies in the fields, and her death is juxtaposed with a wealthy lord writing a letter describing his comfortably banal existence. (All films silent.)

Chronicle of a Disappearance directed by Elia Suleiman (Fox Lorber)

Like Kino-Eye, this first feature from Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleiman might best be described as an essay. An intriguing mix of diary, fiction, documentary, and home movie, Chronicle of a Disappearance (1997) is a meditation on modern Palestinian life that manages to be simultaneously imbued with serene contemplation and deadpan irony. Produced, written, and directed by Suleiman, a native of Nazareth who returns to his homeland after 12 years of self-imposed exile in New York, Chronicle of a Disappearance is slyly polemical: It doesn’t take a strong position on the political situation in the Middle East but rather focuses on the toll that political instability has taken on the lives and psyches of the Palestinian people. Suleiman’s concerns about identity and union are expressed most clearly in a statement he types into his computer diary: “Jerusalem — To be or not to be? To be or not to be — Palestinian?”

Chronicle of a Disappearance is divided into two sections — “Nazareth Personal Diary” and “Jerusalem Political Diary.” If not much happens during the first half of the film, well, that’s the point. The disappearance being chronicled isn’t Suleiman’s exile from his homeland, but the spiritual disintegration of the middle-class Palestinian world Suleiman finds upon return. The Nazareth depicted here is a place where elders (particularly the director’s parents) fall asleep in front of the TV while the Israeli anthem ends the day’s programming or sit alone watching Western tennis matches. It’s a place where conversation is seldom and idle. The most memorable moment from the Nazareth section comes when a local priest points to a body of water and says: “That’s where Jesus is said to have walked on water. Now it’s a gastronomic sewer, filled with excrement. Shit of American and German tourists who eat Chinese food. It forms a crust on the surface of the lake. Anyone can walk over water and make miracles now.”

When the film hits Jerusalem the camera becomes more active, the score more aggressive. Here moments of moving sociology — a young Arab woman’s inability to get an apartment on the West Side despite her impeccable Hebrew and minimal accent — alternate with moments of visual humor—a police van with sirens blaring pulls into an alley and a group of armored officers run from the back only to take a leak against the wall. (In Arabic with English subtitles. Widescreen format.)

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