Monday, 1 October 2012


Remembering history

To Birmingham's Symphony Hall, for a musical showing of Eizenshtein's film Броненосец Потёмкин – Battleship Potemkin.

I had noticed that this was on only yesterday afternoon. I do not usually go to such things but it had been a pleasantly warm, start-of-academic-year day and I went on impulse. I cannot not recall how many times I had seen this film before (lots), nor how long it must have been since I saw it last (thirty years ago... forty?). One thing was certain, I might not have another opportunity to attend a public screening. So I went.

Then and now and in between

In 1905 a mutiny broke out on the Potemkin a pre-dreadnought of the Imperial Russian Navy's Black Sea Fleet, followed by popular demonstrations in the port of Odessa. I mention this distant reality because few nowadays, perhaps increasingly even in the successor states of the Soviet Union, may be aware of this.

In 1925 a young film director in Moscow, Sergei Eizenshtein, in what was by then Soviet rather than Imperial Russia, made what is regarded as a world masterpiece of early, silent cinema, called in English Battleship Potemkin. This film's subsequent cycle of adulation/criticism in its own country is another example, well known amongst those who know of it, of history's layer cake.

It was in Britain in the 1950s and 1960s that Battleship Potemkin first drifted into my own awareness. In Britain, maybe in other Western countries too, maybe into the 1970s and beyond as far as I know, Battleship Potemkin was one of those films shown almost exclusively in non-commercial cinemas.  It was often projected on to creased screens from noisy 32 mm projectors – sometimes without any pretence of sound other than the clacking of the shutter. It was 'art' and it was 'political'. And a cheap night out.

In 2012 here it is again, in Birmingham's flash Symphony Hall, a well-appointed, middle-class, high-cultural island in the centre of the West Midlands, premiering a new musical score by Michael Nyman, performed by the man himself and his band. Not a cheap night out, fifteen pounds for a seat in the vertiginous gods (though I was given a fifty-pence 'concession' for being a pensioner – what a nerve).

The music

This, I suspect, was the chief cause for this showing in such a location.

The showing of the actual film was preceded by performance of some of Mr Nyman's earlier work, much of which I slept through. When this finished a keen young lady in the next seat asked me what I had thought of it, to which I disgruntled 'Repetitious, techno-music', taking comfort that she agreed.

As for the musical accompaniment to the film, all I can say is that quit my consciousness almost from the moment that Eizenshtein's action began. Perhaps it should do. It did not 'add to the dramatic effect' etc., it evoked no moving auditory images, and I came away afterwards humming no catchy tune to hold the film and its feelings in my mind for evermore (no Eric Coates, this!). Eizenshtein himself said his film should be remusicked every twenty years, to match the age – maybe unmemorable techno-music is right for ours.

Music can help evoke sense and meaning. It did not here. I would have been as happy with the accompaniment of the clacking of an ancient projector.

The film

A good clear copy, projected on to a good-sized wrinkle-free screen and perfectly visible from my seat on high, a better cinematic experience than I might get in a commercial multiplex.

Great art? Well maybe. I cannot judge. I have to admit that for me silent films lie back behind a great paradigm leap. This is not just the technological leap of introducing words and music, but the leap that ensued a quite different linking of consciousnesses, the artist's and the audience's (see L. Vygotskii's Psychology of Art). I cannot see the advent of 'the talkies' as just a simple addition of a new. The effect was multiplicative. Something completely new had been created, a new quality, there was a total discontinuity with the past in every way. The old paradigm could then die away.

I accept that some silent films were 'great' by the standards of their time but to be brutally honest, they do not really touch me. Even this one, that has so much going for it in terms of associations, is a curiosity to be viewed from across a divide. I can see how it must have been a great of story-telling for the people of the time, I can appreciate why Dr Goebbels so liked it, but that's it, it's history.

What, I wondered, was my fellow audience making of it all? Presumably many had come knowing something of the story, both the ship's and the film's. Surely they could not have spent all that money for a night-out without at least Googling it (most of the seats were rather more expensive than mine). Even so, this was a Russian print, with the explanatory wordings and dialogue written entirely in Russian, and an unforgivingly short time to read these even for those who might know the language.

The audience

Looking down from on high my first impression was that less than a quarter of the seats were occupied, and my second the predominance of grey hair and bald pates. In a demographically young city, there were relatively few there who were young, and by young I mean under sixty. And such pale folk...

Who were there? A few looked to be survivors from the fifties and sixties layer of my own memory (though I did not spot a soul whom I had known personally). Nor did I see any obvious sons and daughters of toil. No leather jackets either (other than my own). Nobody was looking particularly 'political'.

They were certainly not there for a cheap night out. I guess that it was for the 'art', possibly the film, more likely the music.

In the cheap seats up in the gods, there were younger people, perhaps a quarter of them looking to be under thirty. I wonder who they were and whether, if the story of the Potemkin has a future, and what roles such young people might play in it.

(I have not mentioned here Eizenshtein's connection with Luriya, and through him his connection with Vygotskii. Lots of people in Conductive Education love to evoke the names of Luriya and Vygotskii (usually in the form of 'Luria' and 'Vygotsky'. Beware such evocations if if they do not see the basis of these young men's connection.)

Footnote: see the film

See the film on line, in full, with earlier soundtrack and English subtitles:

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Blogger Andrew Sutton said...

Apologies for the typos and other mistakes in the version of this posting published earlier today. I hope that now this makes rather more sense.

Monday, 1 October 2012 at 21:48:00 BST  
Anonymous Andrew said...

It has also been pointed out to me that my choice of name 'Eizenshtein' might lead to confusion when searching the Net for further information. I think that the man himself can bear some responsibility for this, since he changed his name from 'Eizenshtein' to 'Eisenshtein'. Perhaps I should have used the latter form.

Add to that the problem of transliteration from Russian to English, and the existence of conventionalised forms, as a result of which you may also meet 'Eizenstein' and 'Eisenstein'.

I am sure that the earch engines of people's choice will have no problem of linking some at least of these versions of his name with various versions of the names of 'Luriya' or 'Luria', and 'Vygotskii' or 'Vygotsky', 'Leont'ev' or 'Leontiev' etc, enough to satisfy those who would like to follow up on the concluding caveat of this posting...

Tuesday, 2 October 2012 at 22:36:00 BST  

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