Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Eisenstein 1





I hated Eisenstein while undergoing the Masters course in Film Studies. I had no interest in watching the age-old footage of the Odessa steps, or the metonymic mechanical Peacock in October.

After teaching cinema for five years, shooting a few feature-length documentaries and ad films and editing more than two hundred student exercises, I bow down before him. Sixty Six years after he passed away, Eisenstein is still the baap (ie, the godfather) of the mafia cult called  cinema.

But why so?

In this series of essays, I am trying to see how we grow up following the simple steps of feeding the mind with images - video and audio. We may say we are not influenced by anyone, these images are our own. But, we cannot forget we come out of the womb of an already established culture. The messages which shape our minds and our personalities are socially constructed. If we really want to break out of them we must know their sources, and who control them. For that, we have to go back to where it all began.

And Eisenstein holds an Emperor's position in that quest. He was the first filmmaker who consciously examined the psychological and political backdrop of his cinema and its appreciation. He saw patterns in influencing a group of spectators coming from a specific psycho-social background. Based on that pattern and his observations of culture and human psychology, he postulated further steps - almost like English grammar or stylistics, and applied them back to his next film.

He was the first filmmaker-theorist, the finest of teachers and the only guy in cinema history who attempted a poetics of cinema, almost like Aristotle's Poetics. Unfortunately he died young, aged fifty, in 1948. But, his observations and applications bring fresh air, till date, to modern filmmakers like Godard and Brian De Palma.

Enough of accolades. What did Eisenstein do actually?



Eisenstein is popularly known as the father of the montage theory. His contribution stuck there permanently for most film students and filmmakers. However, if we keep in mind that shots (in the sense of changes in point-of-view/subjectivity and a continuous power position) are all about cinema, and montage is merely an understanding of shots, then we can easily see Eisenstein's montage meant everything about cinema, from its conception in mind to its reception (again in minds).



In the early years of the 20th Century, when Pavlov carried out his classical experiements with mice, dogs, monkeys and other primates, the results were in accord with the prevailing world view in the communist Russia. Constructivism, as opposed to Romanticism and naturalism, was already in the air. Hormones were to be discovered soon. Pavlov's explanation of emotions and instincts through reflex arcs were just the thing many practitioners of performing arts needed to train themselves.



Eisenstein's guru,  Vsevolod Meyerhold, came out with a system of stage acting which put reflex and conditioning as the actor's preparation. He named the system bio-mechanics. During his first job at the Moscow Art Theatre, Meyerhold felt the need for a school of acting that would train one to express the inner self - emotions and instincts. He wanted to tap the source of reality, thus producing a reality on stage more powerful that cheap imitation of objective reality.  

He classified five elements - movement, gesture, rhythm, space and music. An actor was to undergo training in these. Meyerhold professed, a director's role was the creation of movements of patterns, lines, shapes and color - different arrangements set to a musical score and a rhythm. Human heartbeat was the basis of the rhythm. Lines, shapes, juxtapositions of geometries and colors were to generate the same mood in the audience which the dramatist has in mind.

In a nutshell, Meyerhold wanted a device to connect the audience directly through emotional elements, relegating the story and reality to just a pretext.





Since 1867, Impressionist painters were trying the same in painting. Mozart tried the same in music a hundred years ago. 

In a way, this has been the holy grail for creative expression since ages. If two, or more, minds can be connected at the elemental emotional level, the ecstasy they can sense would be more powerful than hundred sexual orgasms. That has been the goal for any artist anywhere in the world, through the human history.

You see, Meyerhold hit the crux of the matter. Apparently it was mechanical. He called it bio-mechanics. But, this mechanism was organic at another level. His actors trained totally with their body - movements and gestures in rhythm set to situations, set to musical scores. Each and every movement were so finely defined from static energy, recoil, stay and finish. They were exactly like an oriental martial artist's movements, or a Russian ballet dancer's movements. 

In the first days of practice, they were mechanical. But, with living through the movements they became the actor himself - they became spontaneous. It was exactly like learning to sing, or even better, learning to talk. They became natural!





This extremely rigorous practice was necessary to create the base. The actor changed through the process. She became an artist. She became a creator whose material was her own body.

A given character in a given mental and physical situation in the context of a story - the play - was no more of a challenge to the actor at the acting level. Just like life itself, the actor could focus on the philosophy of the performance.

And the newly found Soviet Russia was a lot about philosophy.

The artist was a creator in this society. But, his creation was not an individual accomplishment. It sprang up from the society, and the individual artist's dealings with his circle.

Eisenstein was trained in this school, this gharana.





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