Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Before I Die #586: Strike (1924)

This is the 586th movie I've seen out of ht 1,187 films on the "Before You Die" list that I'm gradually working my way through.

Original Russian Title: Strachka

Director: Sergei Eisenstein

An obvious propaganda piece that nonetheless showcased its director's then-cutting edge mastery of film grammar and technique.

Strike was the first feature films by Sergei Eisenstein, who would go on to become one of the most influential and famous of all Russian directors, with movies like Battleship Potemkin, October, Alexander Nevsky, and Ivan the Terrible. This first movie of his told the story of a group of factory workers who decide to unionize and strike as a way to stand up to their capitalist overlords, with predictably disastrous consequences.

The movie is clearly the stuff of pure propaganda, though propaganda which mostly comes down on the correct side of history. Still, it paints an extremely black-and-white picture. While it has now been well-documented that plenty of corporate leaders thoroughly exploited workers during the Industrial Revolution, Strike quite literally gives us scenes with fat, cigar-smoking, wine-guzzling industrial capitalists guffawing at the slaughter of their workers. I have no doubt that there were more than a few soulless factory owners (and still are), but these portrayals were yet more of the one-dimensional characterizations which I find terribly dull in any story, especially one which is purporting to be giving a historical account. The same over-simplification and romanticism is given nearly all of the characters in the movie, which is quite the norm for nearly all of the silent movies that I've watched.

A superimposition which communicated the image of the
workers being cogs in a machine which they don't control.
Such cinematic techniques were still rather new at the time,
but Eisenstein used them to great effect.
When one does look beyond the characters and now-overly familiar plot, the film clearly shows cinematic skill on par with the very best directors of the times. Nearly every scene and shot shows an excellent eye for compelling camera angles, transitions, and movement. I eventually found it much more interesting to simply ignore the story and inter-title cards and just study the visuals. There are even some well-constructed and well-chosen set pieces and sequences which are quite striking (no pun intended), and which I'll probably remember for years. These 91 years after the film's release, it is such visuals that give us reason to watch the movie, rather than any narrative creativity.

When I try to compare Strike to other "classics" of the silent film era which I've seen, the only other movies that seem similar are D.W. Griffiths's Birth of a NationIntolerance, and even Orphans of the Storm. Movies that were using dramatized "history" to teach moral lessons through an epic scale. While Eisenstein's movie shows several key visual, cinematic innovations, I felt that Strike hadn't yet made the strides in narrative or characters that an even earlier movie like Micheaux's 1920 Within our Gates had shown several years prior. Still, it's well worth watching for those who enjoy studying the visual evolution of early film.

That's 586 movies down. Only 601 more to watch before I can die.