Monday, January 30, 2012

Everything Is Ivan the Terrible!

Posted By on 01.30.12 at 01:56 PM

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Last week I saw Sergei Eisenstein’s October for the first time (as part of the Gene Siskel Film Center’s monthlong Eisenstein series) the day before I attended the premiere of the new Everything Is Terrible! project, DoggieWoggiez! PoochieWoochiez! (which I wrote about here). It was one of those glorious flukes of moviegoing, in which two unrelated works combine—by way of a few shared attributes and the virtue of proximity—to create a unified lesson in film history. In this case, I saw two films guided by ramped-up, sometimes disorienting editing and a fundamental distrust of concentrated power. Considering that academic film studies have long threatened to ossify Eisenstein past the point of recognition, it may be worthwhile to follow the path recently dug by DoggieWoggiez.

Like the Everything Is Terrible! collective, Eisenstein brandished his youth and weirdness as points of pride. He was not yet 30 when he shot Strike, Battleship Potemkin, and October, and the complex editing of these three films says as much about his curiosity towards the medium as it does any theoretical bent. In these films, Eisenstein frequently cuts from shots of crowds to shots of individuals, from statues to moving bodies, creating an electric charge that seems to run, improbably, through all things. A few weeks ago I wrote about the importance of humor in these early films, much of it based on grotesque portraits of the pre-Soviet ruling class. It’s worth noting that Eisenstein was just grade-school age when the events of Strike and Potemkin take place (he was born in 1898, while the films are set in 1903 and 1905, respectively), meaning the satire of both films derives from a mix of childhood memory and adult rebellion. On the same token, my favorite Everything Is Terrible! clips tend to eviscerate footage from the late 80s and early 90s, when most of the collective were in grade school themselves.

This kind of humor can be liberating. It reminds viewers (particularly those of a certain generation) that the myths they grew up with could be shallow, tasteless, or downright unethical. More importantly, it carries the charge—explicit in Eisenstein, implicit with Everything Is Terrible!—to replace those myths with more constructive ones. In both cases, this moral stance seems to emerge from editing, which allows the filmmakers to literally invalidate one image with another, to encourage a sense of constant regeneration, and to excise bullshit from other people’s rhetoric.

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With his final work, Ivan the Terrible (which screens again at the Film Center on Wednesday at 6:00 PM), Eisenstein moved away from his trailblazing montage strategies and attempted to synthesize radical juxtapositions within single shots. Yet its sentiments are just as rebellious as those of Strike, if not more so. Many critics have interpreted the film’s depiction of Russia’s first imperial tsar as a veiled parody of Stalin (who, of course, financed the project). Ivan is paranoid, tyrannical, and obsessed with receiving adulation from gigantic throngs of people. His persona is reflected in the film’s cavernous yet opulent mise-en-scene, which is as stunning as it is laughably impractical (it looks phenomenal on a big screen, incidentally). Like Paul Verhoeven in Starship Troopers (1997), Eisenstein regards imperial power as the ultimate camp spectacle, mocking its monstrous ambition while acknowledging its inherent allure.

Critics have been quick to point out the pervasive campiness of Ivan: Jonathan Rosenbaum compared the film to a Flash Gordon serial; J. Hoberman (in his outstanding essay for the Criterion Collection) posited that the film is, on one level, a perverse tribute to Walt Disney; and Roger Ebert recently argued that it isn’t even “good” according to any traditional standard of taste. Yet I find this deliberate blurring of good and terrible provocative, conveying an artist’s uneasy relationship to political power. I suspect this relationship will continue so long as art remains a vehicle for political ideology.

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