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Sergei M. Eisenstein
In documentary style, events in Petrograd are re-enacted from the end of the monarchy in February of 1917 to the end of the provisional government and the decrees of peace and of land in November of that year. Lenin returns in April. In July, counter-revolutionaries put down a spontaneous revolt, and Lenin's arrest is ordered. By late October, the Bolsheviks are ready to strike: ten days will shake the world. While the Mensheviks vacillate, an advance guard infiltrates the palace. Anatov-Oveyenko leads the attack and signs the proclamation dissolving the provisional government. Written by
historically significant, but no longer dramatically compelling
This review is of the 103 minute version of "October" with the Shostakovich music on a DVD obtained from Netflix in 2010. (This is seemingly the only version easily available in the U.S. A different version that's fairly similar (but still not identical) to the original "Moscow" version is supposedly available in some places in Europe.) After watching just a few minutes, I was powerfully reminded of two other films:
Like "Triumph of the Will" by Leni Riefenstahl it makes great use of black and white, contains lots of military order and crowd scenes, was assisted and paid for by a government, is accompanied by stirring music, is about people who are dead and no longer anywhere near as relevant as they once were, is by a director very sympathetic to the cause of the political paymasters, and is generally regarded as a "propaganda" film. It definitely has artistic merit, with lots of then-new cutting techniques that gave the camera itself an eloquent and unmistakable editorial voice and that (in more subdued form) have become part of the mainstream. But the content is so obviously propaganda --all too often just plain silly-- that only the arresting images kept me from laughing out loud every few minutes.
I don't fully understand why "Triumph of the Will" is denigrated even now (and wasn't originally picked up by any U.S. distributor), while "October" (even though never all that popular) is sometimes regarded as a "masterpiece". (Note though that decades ago "October" was treated more harshly in the West; originally it was banned in the U.K and somewhat censored in the U.S.) Perhaps the legacy difference is because the ideological attractions of "Triumph of the Will" can sometimes hide below the level of perception, while those of "October" are so blatant and silly they almost demand to be ignored.
Like "Revue" (Soviet archival footage, mostly from the Kruschev era) edited by Sergei Loznitsa it once again makes great use of black and white, uses excellent cinematography throughout, has a lot of closeups of faces, shows people from a very wide range of genetic backgrounds, is often noticeably narrowly selective in its material, and fairly often communicates to us modern viewers very different ideas than what was obviously "intended".
Like any silent film that wants to convey a moderately complex story yet not be interrupted by too many inter-titles, "Ocbober" says a lot through visuals and visual symbols that key into background knowledge the viewer already has. Unfortunately people in the U.S. almost a century later often don't have that necessary background knowledge (so they typically don't even understand how long a period of time the film covers, or that the film easily divides into five relatively independent "acts"). Something like a very detailed guide document or a commentary track by a historian (or maybe even copious additional subtitles) is needed. Without something more, for most of today's U.S. citizens the film is largely incomprehensible.
(This Balkanized Region 1 version -which was long ago cut and even censored in now-forgotten ways- doesn't help either. But the bottom line is that seeing a better version would _not_ improve the experience of "October" all that much. I'm afraid even the original "Moscow" version would be largely incomprehensible to today's U.S. rank and file.)
This presentation of this film also suffers from the typical problem with very old films: the wrong speed. The film was obviously shot at a lower frame rate (maybe as low as 16 fps). But as is typical, it's apparently been transferred to modern equipment using the same 2:3 pull-down used for 24 fps material to NTSC (rather than a more appropriate pull-down pattern that would display the material at the approximately correct speed). So as is typical, all actions seem hurried and jerky, throwing a pall of "unreality" over everything.
This film feels like a compendium of Soviet "founding myths". It must have been very convenient having so much material in one spot and in such an accessible format. It's too bad the analogous U.S. film was "lost" (you know the "lost" film I'm referring to, right? the one where Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson catch George Washington falling out of a cherry tree, they all go off to drink non-tea, while doing so they draft the constitution on a napkin, and then they use pea-shooters to secretly harass some nearby Redcoats:-)
For film history buffs and film technique geeks this is a must-see. Film theory doyens will find this film to be an excellent illustration of many of Eisenstein's own stated formalisms. And serious students of history will enjoy minutely comparing these "stories" against the "real" record, especially to gain insight into what was most important to those in power ten years later. But the rest of us will just have an awfully hard time getting into this film.
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