Coming back to Serge Eisenstein‘s textbook on screen editing and second best masterpiece of Soviet propaganda makes me recall when I first saw it, the MTV-80s.
Back then, filmmakers moving from TV commercials and music videos were taking over the cinema, and “MTV editing” became shorthand for any movie build out of a blur of edits.
But Eisenstein, the master of montage, had perfected the quick impression — image/cut/image action/cut style in the silent era, running with the technique D.W. Griffith popularized (some say invented) with “Potemkin” (his greatest silent film) and taking it to its absolute extreme with “October, 10 Days that Shook the World,” his Soviet docu-drama about the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.
“October,” co-directed and edited by Grigoriy Aleksandrov and based on American journalist and Soviet champion John Reed’s (the subject of “Reds”) book “Ten Days that Shook the World,” may have its primitive moments, simplistic and manipulative messaging. It was made for bucking up the proles — many of them still illiterate — all over the then-new U.S.S.R. to celebrate the 10th anniversary of that revolution, in 1927.
It’s not hard to imagine it flickering to life on a simple screen in a remote school, a factory wall or “workers” meeting in the far reaches of the former Russian Empire, its juxtaposition of heroic, windswept and backlit Bolsheviks with fat, sneering nobles and bourgeoisie reinforcing the talking points of The One Party dictatorship, the Fox News/OAN of its day.
A sea of scythes here, a forest of firearms there — the flurry and fury of “the people” breaking into The Winter Palace and smashing the Tsar’s wine cellar, a tidal wave of armed workers storming into government councils and seizing the members of the provisional government, climbing a statue of Tsar Alexander III and pulling it down.
This movie has been “re-staged” for the camera in revolutions, real and imaginary (the Saddam statue toppling set up by Bush II in Iraq), for 100 years.
But set aside the storytelling — with images and intertitles (some of the ones on the newish Corinth re-rerelease have misspellings) doing all the work that modern screenwriters insist on voice-over narrating or expositioning to death.
What stands out are the iconic images — “The Traitors” slipping out to sabotage train switches and trains, disappearing into a pool of black behind them, the iconic Lenin (played by Vasili Nikandrov) taking over the uprising, rousing the Central Committee and bestriding that armored car like a colossus, cheering on the masses.
And then there’s the movie’s money shots — montage, Eisenstein’s metier. A cut , an edit every 3-5 seconds that makes Paul Greengrass’s “Bourne” blur look like the digital updating of a very old and polished technique. “Proletarians, learn to use your rifle” shows us weapons, bullets, hands chambering a round and that round going into an open-sided (partially disassembled) firearm in a sequence that’s been digitally copied scores of times in the “Bullet Time” “Matrix” era.
I’ve seen “October” a few times over the years, most memorably at a college film society where one can appreciate it among fellow cognoscenti and debate its power — fading with time, but still glimpsed. It’s not as dazzling as “Potemkin,” as visually striking as “Ivan the Terrible” or “Alexander Nevsky,” which Corinth Films is packaging it with for a new (let’s unload our overstock) two DVD release.
But it’s still essential viewing for any student of the cinema, like “Birth of a Nation” or “The Big Parade” or “The General” or “Modern Times,” the silents that made the modern cinema, the movies that made motion pictures the dominant storytelling medium of the past 100 years, from nickelodeons to the Golden Age of the Podcast.
Cast: With Vasili Nikandrov as Lenin, Nikolay Popov as Kerensky
Credits: Scripted and directed by Grigoriy Aleksandrov and Sergei M. Eisenstein, based on the John Reed book. A Corinth Films release.
Running time: 1:43