How can a film in itself be a revolution? This question is part of a conversation about the films of Sergei Eisenstein. Eisenstein believed that a film is a linguistic object in itself, one with a creative power to make real counterfactual truths.
The success of Sergei Eisenstein’s approach to an ideological cinema remains ambiguous. Watching October: Ten Days That Shook the World (1928), as a number of visitors did at a Teach-In last month, is practically a demonstration of Eisenstein’s failure to produce a purely visual ideology of cinema. That is to say, narrative filmmaking became the norm over visual experimentation.
Watching October is sort of a visual exercise that leaves audiences a bit exhausted. Every shot is quite literally in conflict with one another, an element of Eisenstein’s notion that art comes from conflict:
It is the task of art to reveal the contradictions of being. To forge the correct intellectual concept, to form the right view by stirring up contradictions in the observer’s mind and through the dynamic clash of opposing passions.1
The editing in October will give you whiplash. It’s a result of Einstein’s montage of images. As Eisenstein himself pointed out, the ideas of a film are the product of these literal and quite kinetic collisions on screen. He wrote in 1929:
In my view montage is not an idea composed of successive shots stuck together but an idea that DERIVES from the collision between two shots that are independent of one another (the ‘dramatic’ principle).2
These are important details to keep in mind about what Eisenstein was trying to accomplish with October.
Tuning Our Minds
For all these intellectual reasons, October is a film prone to misinterpretation. October can seem like a futurist film, a ballet mécanique, but in a sense nothing could be further from the truth.
As Yuri Tsivian points out, every collision of of shots “is meant to mean something,” adding up to a film that’s more than the sum of it’s parts. Where October fails at being relatable, it’s never for the lack of trying. The film can be intelligible if properly understood.
Watching October, though, practically begs the question about the extent to which this intellectual cinema purveys the film. Daria Khitrova gives a straightforward explanation.
The analogy one might make that this point should be to Gotlob Frege and others. We discussed this theory of language in a previous post. But the upshot is that October taken as a whole is meant to produce a thought in the mind of the viewer that couldn’t possibly be expressed any other way.
So what is Eisenstein trying to explain? It’s difficult even to really say, the appearance of October is meant not to be syllogized, but rather to open a discursive space for visual conversation.
Using Eisenstein’s words to generalize, here is how he see’s the world and use of language:
…material ideogram set against material ideogram produces trancendenal (concept).3
In other words, the whole movie is a single concept thought.
Still Just a Film
Even with these loft aspirations, October is subject to many of the same problems as any typical film. At least from a production and critical point of view. Tsivian pointed out the enormous hurdles to make this film.
As a filmmaker in a new order of state cinema, Eisenstein had few constraints on his production. But the production was monumental. But again, the ambitions of this film opened October to hot criticism.
Khitrova pointed out that the film was criticized by the far left of Lenin’s Russia at the time. Ironically, the criticism belies a degree of elitism on the part of leftist Leninist ideologues.
The attempt to create a new language of cinema for a post revolution Russia, while propagandistic, failed to meet the standards of propagandists at the time. There’s an adage in Hollywood filmmaking that goes “show, don’t tell,” and Eisenstein takes the effort of using a visual language to its extreme. Unfortunately the directive of propaganda is to tell people what to believe, so Eisenstein’s intellectual and discursive film angered propaganda documentarians.
Facets organizes a Teach-In on a monthly basis. These are free events where the discussion of important topics are led by experts like Yuri Tsivian and Daria Khitrova. Their insights are paired with some of the most illuminating films in the cannon. You can see the entirety of this Teach-In, conversations with experts, and more on Facets’ YouTube channel.
Author: Jimmy Haley is a film student at DePaul University in Chicago. He works on productions around Chicago and is currently an Archival Intern at Facets.
1. Eisenstein, Sergei M. “The Dramaturgy of Film Form” Writings, 1922-34, edited by Richard Taylor, vol. 1, Indiana University Press, 1988, pp. 161–180. S. M. Eisenstein: Selected Works. (161) ↩
2. Ibid (163).↩
3. Ibid (164).↩