It’s lonely being an old-school cinephile in a digital, downloadable world. NetFlix, movies-on-demand, and pimped-out home-theater systems have turned a night at the movies into a housebound, couch-bound activity. Ever wonder why multiplexes are disproportionately filled with the kinds of movies teenage boys love? Well, for starters, they’re a demographic that still makes a regular habit of seeing movies in a movie theater.
I happen to think that tasteless popcorn, etiquette-challenged audiences, and dingy theaters are a small price to pay for the incomparable experience of watching a movie with a room full of strangers. But I understand why I’m increasingly alone in that thinking.
As new distribution models open up and technology evolves, it’s only going to become more tempting to stay at home. So if the moviegoing habit is going to be resuscitated, then maybe we need to make going to the movies more than simply, well, going to the movies. Program the films, curate them, bring DVD-style extras to life. The folks over at Orchestra Hall have the right idea.
The Minnesota Orchestra’s month-long Sounds of Cinema series wrapped up last night with a spectacular orchestra-accompanied screening of Sergei Eisenstein’s silent film classic The Battleship Potemkin led by Finnish conductor (and Osmo pupil) Esa Heikkilä. In the lobby before the show, the Greater Twin Cities Youth Symphony sold popcorn and Junior Mints, and a pianist played to a loop of Laurel and Hardy and Felix the Cat shorts. Film music historian Bruce Crawford even moderated pre- and post-show discussions. Try replicating that in your den.
The Battleship Potemkin is a fitting cinematic spectacle for such red-carpet treatment. A cinema-veritae-style retelling of the deadliest naval mutiny in Russian history, it’s a film of epic size and serious cinephile pedigree—a mastery of a medium that was still in its infancy when the twenty-seven-year-old Eisenstein shot the film on location in Russia in 1925.
The story unfolds in five acts, starting with the Russian sailors’ refusal to eat a maggot-infested borscht and ending with a tense standoff with other ships in the Russian Black Sea fleet that have been sent to annihilate the mutinous crew. For his fiery, Bolshevik rallying cry, Eisenstein assembled a mix of professional and non-rofessional actors (the boilerman from the hotel where the crew stayed, a gardener from a nearby orchard), but he sublimated individual characters to the larger panorama. There is no single, easily distinguished hero or villain of Potemkin, or really any fully developed character, but rather a collection of sturdy, distinct (often fleeting) faces representing what Eisenstein called the “mass protagonist.”
The film is often dissected by scholars enraptured by Eisenstein’s pioneering use of montage, a style of editing in which successive, sometimes disparate, images are rapidly cut so as to produce cool juxtapositions and a collective visual punch.
The showpiece for Eisenstein’s montage skills is the famously frenetic Odessa Steps sequence, a historically inspired (read: highly embellished) account of the violent Tsarist crackdown on the port town residents of Odessa who rallied around the mutineers. In a quick succession of images, panicked crowds run for their lives down the long flight of steps to the harbor. A mother clutching her dying child asks for mercy from the approaching armed soldiers. An unmanned baby carriage is inadvertently set in motion down the flight of steps. (DePalma would lift this sixty-two years later for The Untouchables). Captured using a camera positioned on a trolley and another strapped to the waist of an acrobat, it’s easily one of the most exciting (and mimicked) scenes of early cinema.
As with so many film classics, The Battleship Potemkin has an incredible, intrigue-filled back story—missing and lost prints, sledgehammer edits by Soviet and German censors, bans in several countries, danger on the set (they filmed on a retired battleship that housed mines), and a Russian premiere that almost didn’t happen (Eisenstein’s editing assistant delivered the freshly cut film reel by reel via motorcycle to the Bolshoi Theatre as it was playing).
And there’s the film’s music, the raison d’ëtre for last night’s showcase and the indispensable partner of any silent film. For Potemkin’s original Moscow premiere, the film was shown without music; for the Berlin unveiling a year later, Edmund Meisel wrote a score partly under Eisenstein’s direction. Excerpts from Dmitri Shostakovich’s symphonies no. 4, 5, 8, 10, and 11 were used for a 1976 restoration of the film and have been sampled over the years to accompany DVD versions. It’s from this distinguished repertoire that Heikkilä tapped last night’s performance.
Shostakovich’s music, at turns triumphant, menacing, mechanical, melancholic, even sweet, seems scored specifically for Eisenstein’s film, though the pieces were written during another time and for different purposes (One exception: the Eleventh Symphony, which he wrote to commemorate the 1905 Russian Revolution that the Potemkin mutiny kickstarted.)
Selecting and performing a musical score for a silent film is no small task. Eisenstein’s rhythmic editing and equally rhythmic use of the title cards that deliver dialog and exposition demand music that is impeccably timed to what’s on the screen. In an audience Q&A after the show, Heikkilä likened it to “conducting a singer who is deaf and always right.” His three kids back home in Finland, he said, must have been puzzled these last few weeks as they watched him conduct, sans orchestra, to many, many silent screenings of The Battleship Potemkin.
Watching Eisenstein’s haunted images race across the screen to Shostakovich’s equally haunted music, you’d be hard pressed to find a moviegoing experience that delivers quite the same visceral thrill as the one Heikkilä commandeered last night. How could you ever go back to your Lazy Boy and TV?