Train Loads of Ammunition

Philip Horne

  • Immoral Memories by Sergei Eisenstein, translated by Herbert Marshall
    Peter Owen, 292 pp, £20.00, June 1985, ISBN 0 7206 0650 0
  • A Certain Tendency of the Hollywood Cinema: 1930-1980 by Robert Ray
    Princeton, 409 pp, £48.50, June 1985, ISBN 0 691 04727 8
  • Suspects by David Thomson
    Secker, 274 pp, £8.95, May 1985, ISBN 0 436 52014 1
  • Cahiers du Cinéma. Vol. I: The 1950s. Neo-Realism, Hollywood, New Wave edited by Jim Hillier
    Routledge with the British Film Institute, 312 pp, £16.95, March 1985, ISBN 0 7100 9620 8

In his own words ‘a queer fish’, Sergei Eisenstein declares at one point in this 1946 memoir that he worked amphibiously, by extremes. ‘I create an arbitrary and capricious flood in my films. Then I endeavour to divide this flood with the dry beats of a metronome, according to its conformity with certain principles.’ Eisenstein’s dialectic of riot and order can stand as a prime instance of the way in which others have struggled to discipline, exorcise or justify their passionate relations with films. This powerful medium is still less than a hundred years old, its soundtracks less than sixty, its success with colour about fifty. We don’t yet know – or at least we don’t agree – how seriously to take it; but in its reduced form (television’s screens are on average 160 times smaller) most of us do take it somehow.

Eisenstein was aware of the possibilities of the cinema as just a powerful medium, an efficient technology, imposing certain hard conditions on its users but putting in their grasp a novel and attractive – to some an alarming – capacity to influence. The ‘certain principles’ with which, godlike, he attempted to ‘divide’ the ‘flood’, getting ‘conformity’ into its motions, had, that is, not only an aesthetic aspect but also a historically-determined direction: that of the Soviet revolutionary struggle. The passage of time diminished the appropriateness of the original direction, and in 1932 Eisenstein, having out-stayed his leave of absence trying to make Que viva Mexico!, found disfavour in the eyes of Russia’s most powerful viewer, Stalin. This was a quarrel, however, between a dictator for whom the cinema was straightforwardly an ideological tool and a brilliant, quirky director whose sophisticated aesthetics yet more than half allowed for a cinema of indoctrination. Eisenstein had already, in the late Twenties, expounded a theory about ‘the emotionalisation of intellectual concepts’: a systematised polemical (‘progressive’) distortion to take place in the processes of cinematic representation. The ‘arbitrary and capricious flood’ of 1946 precedes its dry division; in Eisenstein’s earlier scheme the ‘intellectual concepts’ are presumably the prime material which the process floods with affects. We could think better of Eisenstein for being inconsistent here, since two half-truths are better than one; and the earlier account is more officially presentable: but the divergence between the emphasis on film-making as empirical aesthetic analysis of things and as political propaganda using things can be seen as a central division among those who make, or take, films seriously.

This difficulty is distractingly compounded by all those less revolutionary film-makers supposedly seeking neither to analyse nor to propagandise, but ‘simply to entertain’ us. Such a claim ought to make anyone suspicious, and in these Immoral Memories Eisenstein sarcastically recalls his doomed project in 1930 to film Dreiser’s An American Tragedy in Hollywood: ‘Paramount’s bosses dreamed of making the “sensational” novel into “just another” (though dramatic) story of “boy meets girl,” without going into any “side issues”.’ The quoted phrases scarcely give the vigorous measure of Hollywood reactionary philistinism, a quantity of which its incarnation, the Russian-born MGM boss Louis B. Mayer, gives us a mouthful twenty years later, reported in Lilian Ross’s Picture. Mayer’s colourful words come from a more embattled epoch; at the time of McCarthy it’s inconceivable that any Soviet director should have been given a Hollywood contract in the first place; but we might note Eisenstein wanted to make it an exemplary American tragedy by ‘depicting the society and the morals that impelled Clyde to do everything he did’, whereas Louis B. Mayer wants to see ‘the good, wholesome, American mother in the home’ (that second comma registering how ‘American’ is to ring out against everything ‘un-American’). There had been a precedent for Eisenstein’s 1930 fiasco with Dreiser in Erich Von Stroheim’s with McTeague by Frank Norris, made into the ten hours of Greed in 1923 and then cut (by a studio that had merged to become MGM) down to a quarter of its length. Greed was another depiction of American society and morals, and an extravagant work of ‘art!’, and so was bad business. Films are almost always implicated either with the entertainment industry or with the state, for they require many more resources than the tools of writer or painter. As the Marxist Pierre Kast put it in 1951, in the second issue of Cahiers du Cinéma,‘the major problem is acquiring the wherewithal, and the restrictions implied by this have absolutely nothing in common with the kind of formal constraints imposed by the fugue, say, or the heroic couplet.’

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