83. Sergei Eisenstein
BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN, IVAN THE TERRIBLE, ALEXANDER NEVSKY
The funk of cliché wafts heavily off the idea that films really get made in the editing room, but the idea itself loses none of its usefulness in thinking about cinema for it. And if you want to talk about the way editing became what we think of as editing today, you have little choice but to talk about Sergei Eisenstein, director of such pictures as October, Alexander Nevsky, and, yes, Battleship Potemkin. As a double-threat filmmaker and film theorist, Eisenstein both codified and more or less invented a little thing called montage.
For those of you steeped in film-theory terminology, I’ll allow a moment for that to think in. For the unsteeped, I’ll put it this way: Eisenstein made an art out of splicing narratively unrelated shots together in a way that delivered more impact than narratively related shots ever could have. In declaring that filmmakers could arrange independent images to serve not a film’s story elements but its “metric,” “rhythmic,” “tonal,” “overtonal,” and “intellectual” ones, he defined what cinema could do better than any other form just as innovatively as D.W Griffith would do before him, Orson Welles would do after him, and any number of as not-yet-explicitly-recognized-as-such auteurs do today.
Like cinema itself, Eisenstein came out of the theater. Unlike most of his colleagues, he made great strides in the grand project of dragging cinema out of the theater, casting off the stage’s staid storytelling habits for all the possibilities of the then-new medium, most of which remain uncharted even today. Being a essentially a Soviet filmmaker tasked with producing revolutionary propaganda, Eisenstein didn’t or couldn’t make a similar push of the envelope in other dimensions of film — even his best work brims with sketchily rigid ideology and blankly hollow characters — but anyone now looking to push cinema forward would do well to draw inspiration from just how far one director could do it 85 years ago.
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