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Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Sergei Eisenstein, comedian

Posted By on 01.10.12 at 04:30 PM

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Those who know Sergei Eisenstein solely through his reputation as a director of historical spectacles—or through his influential theories about film editing—might be surprised by how much broad humor runs through his first feature, Strike (1925). That was my reaction when I saw the movie this past Sunday at the Gene Siskel Film Center’s Eisenstein series. It was a healthy reminder not to reduce an artist’s legacy to his most familiar tropes—it also made me laugh a lot. The film screens again tomorrow night at 6:00 PM, and I highly recommend checking it out.

Eisenstein claimed to have drawn many of his ideas about montage from D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916), and Strike often suggests he was a fan of Charlie Chaplin as well. The film is rife with caricatures, which satirize both the pre-Soviet ruling class (I was especially taken with the factory manager who resembles a great cancerous testicle in a topcoat) and the amoral types who do their bidding. For instance, a group of paid agitators are introduced emerging like rats from a community of giant barrels. And Eisenstein explicitly likens the movie’s agents provocateurs to animals, through a series of dissolves from various creatures (a fox, a monkey, a bulldog) to the characters who’ve been nicknamed after them.

Some of the film’s humor is more benign. The fourth chapter, which depicts some factory workers’ lives during the protracted strike, begins on an idyllic farm reminiscent of the one from Chaplin’s Sunnyside (1919). Eisenstein introduces this setting with an infant sitting on the grass and attempting to polish a boot: it’s nearly as tall as her, and she seems to have gotten more polish on her face than on the boot. Eisenstein also uses children to introduce the tenement where Strike’s climactic massacre takes place, framing the bustle of the courtyard alongside two young boys playing on a balcony above. This has the effect of reducing daily adult life to a variation of the games children play (though, as this sequence develops, we learn that it’s a rather deadly game).

Eisenstein, of course, remains one of cinema’s most celebrated practitioners of juxtaposition, generating action, tragedy, and a sense of historic inevitability through the synthesis of disparate images. Strike proves that he also saw the comedic potential in such a practice.

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