Thursday, July 20, 2017

Before I Die #602: October (1927)

This is the 602nd movie I've now watched out of the 1,187 movies on the "Before You Die" list that I'm steadily working my way through.

Original Russian Title: Oktyabr

Director: Sergei Eisenstein

Yet another silent film that still shows why it is considered a seminal work in film history, though not exactly one that is the most accessible or completely satisfying for a viewer these 90 years later.

Russian directing legend Sergei Eisenstein was one of the very few propaganda filmmakers whose cinematic talent was so astounding that his contributions to the art form trump virtually any critique one could have about how politically biased or unabashedly nationalistic many of his films are. October is a prime example. To mark the 10th anniversary of the 1917 "October Revolution" in Russia, Eisenstein created this dramatized version of the successful socialist revolt against the Russian aristocracy. Being more panoramic in scope, it spends as much or more time with larger groups of unnamed individuals in the various classes which were struggling - the proletariat and bourgeoisie being the primary ones, the aristocracy and the bureaucrats are depicted as well. We do also get scenes including icons of the revolution, including Lenin, Trotsky, and others. It tells the story of the overthrow in a fairly rousing fashion, with hordes of fighters storming various government buildings, being repulsed, only to rebound and eventually win. There are dramatic speeches and arguments, and plenty of iconography included throughout.

Honestly, the political minutia was somewhat confusing at times. While I'm no scholar of the Russian revolution, I know enough to understand the ideologies behind the movement, as well as several of the key figures involved. All the same, I got lost more than once when it came to which factions were supporting which, especially when the infighting begins. This is just one piece of evidence that strongly suggests that this was a movie made mostly (if not completely) for the Russian people. It assumes that the viewers will know many of the details, so clear explanations are often absent. That's great for Russians back in the early 20th century, or even modern scholars of the era, but more casual viewers in the 21st century may find it confounding.

As with his other nationalistic movies, Eisenstein showed his
keen eye for iconic imagery with tons of fantastic shots.
Despite the potentially befuddling nature of the missing details, it is fairly clear why this movie is still held up as a seminal entry into the catalog of cinema. As with Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin and Strike three and two years prior, October displays a mastery of many film techniques which only a handful of directors had mastered at the time. Using crisp editing, creative camera angles, overlap dissolves, and sophisticated film grammar, Eisenstein was using the medium to tell a visual tale that went far beyond a mere recounting of facts. Juxtaposed images and choices of framing clearly suggest where the moral high ground lay in many of the scenes. There is a dynamism imbued in many of the grander sequences, with dozens and sometimes even hundreds of cast members rushing around in a frenzy of either revolutionary zeal or defensive panic. It certainly creates a lot of visual excitement, though some of its power is lost on someone like me, given that I have no emotional stake in the political consequences.

From what I've seen of silent-era films, this one seems to be one of last great, historical epics before sound burst onto the cinematic scene. It is right in keeping with the larger films of D.W. Griffiths and Abel Gance. While the techniques on display have either become standard to the point of ubiquity or simply been completely surpassed by later developments, one can appreciate them within the context of their time. Like so many silent movies, one probably needs to have more of an intellectual curiosity about film history to really "enjoy" this one, as that it where its merits now lie.