Monday’s Google Doodle honored revolutionary Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein. Here is a cool video I found that provides a little biographical info along with the actual Google Doodle.
Sergei Eisenstein was the first “modern” filmmaker. He basically invented modern film editing. Before Eisenstein, cinema was far more similar to theater than what we think of as “movies” today.
For example, check out this short (less than a minute; it just seems long because it’s so static) scene from The Birth of a Nation, which was the first feature-length film (D.W. Griffith, 1915, a film released to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the end of the Civil War and constituting the first movie “event,” playing in civic centers and auditoriums across the country to mark the occasion). Notice how the camera is completely stationary. In other scenes, too, the camera remains fixed as the actors enter and exit the set via those stairs in the back just like they would in a play. Not only does the camera not move, but you’ll note that there are no cuts whatsoever. We don’t see one person’s face as they speak and then cut away to a different person’s face as they speak. Just the fixed stare of the camera, even as the family moves en masse to console each other (over the battlefield death of the younger son) on the couch upstage and far left. (Or, from the viewer’s perspective, to the far right side of the frame and from foreground to middle ground.)
Eisenstein changed all that with his fast cuts and montages in Battleship Potemkin. The scene below is the cinematic equivalent of the invention of the light bulb or something. Or maybe a better comparison might be with the Beatles’ film A Hard Day’s Night, which pretty much created the music video format and the entire genre of “music film” (including documentaries, which the Beatles’ movie sort of is, in the same way that “Keeping up with the Kardashians” is a documentary television series by way of the reality-show sub-genre 🙂 ).
Aside: Phil Collins was an extra in A Hard Day’s Night. Cool to know, right? (By the way, sorry about any ads that may show up in the clips below. I brought them all in from YouTube, and sometimes I can’t get rid of them. GRRR . . .)
But back to Sergei Eisenstein and his contribution to cinematic history. The “Odessa Steps” / “Odessa Staircase” (depending on your translation) sequence is well known to all movie buffs and probably, actually, to anyone who’s ever taken a film studies course.
This movie scene is SO famous and groundbreaking! No wonder it’s so widely alluded to in other films.
For example, this scene from The Untouchables, with several elements of homage (pronounced oh MAHZH, by the way, because it’s a French term from cinema’s early days in that country): the baby carriage, the sailors caught in the crossfire, the outstretched hand with the silently voiced “my baby!” (a counterpart to the original’s “Mama!”).
That four-wheeled pram/buggy vintage baby carriage shows up again during the chase scene in The French Connection.
Additional (non-baby-carriage) allusions to the “Odessa Staircase” can be seen in these short clips from The Hunger Games and its sequel Catching Fire. From the relentlessly advancing line of Peacekeepers to the batons held at the same angle as the guns, even to the same direction of movement (left side of screen to the right), these shots clearly mirror the soldiers from the original Eisenstein sequence.
At a certain point allusions such as these will enter the “language” of film so ubiquitously that they become the way of conveying information and emotional nuance, and to the point where the established form sheds its association with the original source to become a “trope.”
Consider, for example, the “assembly line” trope. We begin with Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times (1936).
And follow up about fifteen years later with Lucille Ball in “I Love Lucy” (1952).
Until finally we arrive at “Drake & Josh” working the sushi line on the Nickelodeon channel (2006), in a scene that imports elements from both the Modern Times and the “I Love Lucy” versions. (Sorry for the subtitles and poor video quality; this was the best clip I could find on YouTube.)
I noticed the Sergei Eisenstein Google Doodle on Monday but probably wouldn’t have posted on it except that while returning to my office from a Starbucks run this morning, I noticed the red MSOE flag flying atop the Grohmann Museum (where my office is located).
Doesn’t it remind you of the hand-tinted red flag in Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin just a little? 🙂