EISENSTEIN: A Life in Conflict
By Ronald Bergan
Note: a version of this
book review appeared in the Los Angeles Times Book Review.
Bergan sets out to alter the view of Eisenstein as a "cold,
intellectual artist," a "calculating" theorist
"whose films lack humanity". (2-3) He intends,
further, to throw "light on his homosexuality."
felt that locating notable "humanity" in the
director's films would elevate his art is baffling. Many
great artists have been "cold," artfully calculating--Kubrick,
Nabokov, Resnais, one of whose characters in "Providence"
says, "Style is feeling."
fails in his lofty goal--fortunately, because the result
is an engrossing portrait of the complex artist and a
lucid examination of his work. Relying largely on Eisenstein's
writings, Bergan illuminates borrowed entries with astute
observations about the director's theories. He paints
vivid scenes of the times, from Russia in turmoil to Hollywood
First he strains
to detect humanity within Eisenstein's adoration of Hollywood
stars--Chaplin, Garland--and in the anguished faces he
depicted. Yet what dazzles in Eisenstein's films is their
almost-architectural composition, and faces are a part
of the intended configuration, consistent with the director's
theory of "visage," typecasting.
a cold Eisenstein in his life, citing aloof treatment
of his platonic wife, unmentioned in his memoirs. "A
small, ridiculous woman died today," was his epigraph
for his mother." (348)
scant illumination into Eisenstein's homosexual life.
He conjectures that the director must have visited homosexual
clubs in Berlin, dwells on images of upraised cannons,
describes homoerotic drawings, and notes shirtless men
in his films.
He might have
found equally substantial manifestations in the director's
adoration of Judy Garland and in his gay wit. About Director
Joseph Von Sternberg: "He has a predilection for
well-built males. . . . even stayed at the Hercules Hotel."
(160-161). Eisenstein could be hypocritical about his
homosexuality. "I've not felt any such desire."
(161) Still those were times when private consensual homosexual
acts were punished with imprisonment.
interpretations that Eisenstein's Freudian-influenced
views invite, Bergan explores without jargon Eisenstein's
theories of dialectic montage, conscious arrangement of
shots so that the clash between two images creates a third
impression resulting in an emotional or intellectual response.
Among the masterful results of Eisenstein's "visual
ideas" (254) is his "reproduction" of gun-shots
by dots glistening on water. The famous, stunning sequence
in "Potemkin"--the slaughter on the Odessa Steps--"against
which the whole of cinema can be defined," notes
Bergan (113)--was rendered so powerfully that although
there was no such slaughter, purported survivors attested
to its authenticity.
telling black humor. Claiming enormous admiration for
"Potemkin," Samuel Goldwyn wondered whether
the director might make a film for him--"the same
kind, but rather cheaper, for Ronald Colman." (197)
After finding Eisenstein's script of Dreiser's "An
American Tragedy," "the most moving script I
have ever read," David O. Selznick wrote to producers:
"Is it too late to persuade the enthusiasts of the
picture from making it?" (210)
cherished his power. He claimed that if he cast a fat
man as Ivan the Terrible, Ivan would be remembered as
fat. Yet he was challenged repeatedly by a much more powerful
man, Stalin. Once, he was summoned to meet with the Russian
Dictator--whose favorite movie was "The Great Waltz"--to
discuss adjustments in the epic "Ivan the Terrible"
to conform to revised views of Ivan as heroic. The dictator's
spokesman objected to "Comrade Eisenstein's fascination
with shadows . . . and Ivan's beard," offensive especially
because "Ivan lifted his head too often." Wryly,
Eisenstein promised: "Ivan's beard will be shorter."
(343) That was not the extent of his cooperation with
Mexico had destroyed his intended masterpiece, "Que
Viva Mexico." Funds withdrawn, footage seized and
scattered from Russia to Hollywood, pieces spliced into
B-films, a vulnerable Eisenstein returned to turbulent
Russia. Unlike other artists--some imprisoned, some executed
for their views--he apologized, reversed his theories.
"My subject is patriotism," (305) he declaimed,
and was awarded the Stalin Prize. Still, there is evidence
that Eisenstein only camouflaged his denunciation of Stalin
in latter films.
In his memoirs,
Eisenstein retold a Persian legend about a man who felt
a calling to fulfill a great task. At a bazaar, tanners
demanded he lie in filth so they could walk over him.
"And the hero-to-be, saving his strength for the
future, humbly lay at their feet in the filth." Later,
he "attained the full mastery of his unprecedented
strength and performed all the feats of unheard-of difficulty
that lay before him." Expressing admiration for the
humiliated man's "unheard-of self-control and sacrifice
of everything, including his self-esteem" as he prepared
for great achievements, Eisenstein wrote, "I have
had on several occasions to stoop to . . . self-abasement."
finds the humanity he strove to locate, found in the moving
lament, and subsequent artistic triumph, of a great artist
trapped within violent political crosscurrents.
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