Arsenal (1928)

4 08 2009

I’ve been watching (and in some cases trying to watch) a lot of Soviet silent films and almost all of them have fallen well short of my expectations. For as gifted as Eisenstein was, I have yet to watch a film of his where the content doesn’t overwhelm the beautiful images by its sheer one-dimensional pull. I completely understand that a lot of these films are willfully propaganda, but I also don’t see that as an excuse to forgive their shortcomings. However, in this particular case, I didn’t have to. Sure, it’s a “political” film, but its one that is so seductive and hypnotic in its beauty that the simplistic story becomes an after thought. Not only is this by far by favorite Soviet silent film, it’s also my favorite non-Japanese silent movie.

Truth be told, the narrative here isn’t all that different from the one illustrated in Battleship Potemkin. It’s another tale of cultural rebellion and a protest of authority figures, but I find Eisenstein’s film to be rather simplistic in its design. Dovzhenko is juggling the same concepts of “montage” with his editing, but he is about a hundred times more successful than Eisenstein. Battleship Potemkin feels, at least to me, to be a very obvious aesthetic experiment, where as this is the work of a man who comes off as completely confident in crafting a story in the most unconventional manner. Honestly, I don’t think Dovzhenko’s talent here has been surpassed, which is pretty impressive.

In all fairness, I think what Dovzhenko has accomplished here is slightly different than modern “montage” directors (think Wong Kar-Wai, or Terrence Malick) in the sense that his entire film is like one extended montage. Michael Mann’s most recent film Public Enemies is similar in some respects, but not to the same extent. Mann’s film hints at characters, but just chooses to indulge in technical execution, and thus, sacrificing any sort of interest in the characters. It’s a cold, perhaps almost academic experience, but Dovzhenko is almost overwhelmingly compassionate to his characters. Not an Ozu sort of way, but in the way that he is willing and able to evoke our emotions by the most simple of gestures.

There’s a (very negative) review on IMDB that states the film should be seen by those on hallucinogenic drugs and while the author obviously meant this as problem, I see it as a virtue. Arsenal is, at the risk of sounding hyperbolic, a drug on its own. Its creates and abstracts physical sensations, sounds, and sights to build together into one of the bizarre, yet astonishingly beautiful experiences I’ve ever had. I have a feeling that Dovzhenko’s magic may be lost on repeat viewings, but on my initial viewing, it was quite earth-shattering.

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