Dovzhenko Retrospective

Written by Armond White on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.

The Alexander
Dovzhenko retrospective now at the Walter Reade Theater in Lincoln Center (through
May 21) deserves every film lover’s attention as a reminder of what it
is they love about movies. Without flying martial arts or snarky gangsters,
Dovzhenko made movies that bestowed vision to his audience. Directing in the
Soviet Union from 1926 until 1956, Dovzhenko belonged to the same movement of
revolutionary cineastes as Sergei Eisenstein but developed his own rhythmic
visual style. It was a period of artistic innovation and of movie audiences’
uncorrupted imaginations–unlike today’s post-tv age when moviegoers
have seen so much (so much junk) that it’s almost impossible for most people
to understand what makes a movie look special. TV’s masses can’t distinguish
between a smashing commercial image and a dramatically necessary, artistically
considered film frame. Dovzhenko’s images are so unlike what usually passes
for contemporary style that being introduced to them today is like being reintroduced
to what movies can be.

This isn’t
a nostalgist’s plea. Basic movie esthetics are under assault by the digital
video trend–an extension of the same commercialism that stole and debased
the art form Griffith, Murnau, Dreyer, Gance, Vigo, Dovzhenko and Eisenstein
innovated. The vidiots’ vogue has only become a threat now that a serious
filmmaker like Eric Rohmer has succumbed to the fad in The Lady and the Duke–surely
the grimmest Rohmer offering since Gene Hackman in Night Moves compared
Rohmer’s films to "watching paint dry." Watching The Lady
and the Duke
, a French Revolution talkathon in which the actors are sometimes
inserted into the textured exteriors of old paintings, engravings and illustrators’
prints, is like watching pixels freeze. The movie’s Royalist’s plotline
could have inspired this antirevolutionary style. It ignores Dovzhenko’s
progress for Rohmer’s revanchist relapse.

Even more
bewildering than the hoax of Dogma 95 is Rohmer’s compromise with fashion;
he never before seemed the least concerned with it (and the extraordinary simplicity
that Nestor Almendros captured for him in films like Pauline at the Beach
seemed a just reward). Rohmer’s attempt to find the right use for video
(after his past successful use of less extravagant film gauges for reasons of
thrift and expediency) warns of a serious derangement in movie art, especially
when artists like Bela Tarr, Wong Kar Wai–even The Fast and the Furious
cinematographer Ericson Core–are still finding exciting uses for film.
These days many filmmakers, including those who should know better–like
Rohmer–seem to have forgotten the reason they make movies.

reasons for making movies were only partly political. Described as "complexly
ambiguous" by scholar P. Adams Sitney, Dovzhenko’s movies imposed
visual and emotional beauty upon the propagandistic purposes of the Soviet revolution.
Unlike his contemporaries Eisenstein and Pudovkin, Dovzhenko was more devoted
to exalting the land and people in the background of the revolution. His folk-based
art reflected interest in Ukrainian national independence. Believing in the
poetry and heroism of common people, Dovzhenko endowed his imagery with more
expressive effect than Eisenstein’s more strict communist ideology. The
1929 Arsenal (May 11-12) centered on the conflict between Bolshevik workers
and White Russian soldiers around a munitions factory, but Dovzhenko depicted
the workers’ anguish and confusion with such humanizing depth that the
film can also be seen as questioning the cost of revolution. Its final imagery
is undeniably rousing, invested with so much ideational power and kinetic pulse
that even a still pose seems to quiver; Dovzhenko gives palpable sinew to what
otherwise would be a simply ideological struggle.

and the 1930 Earth (May 10-12) best demonstrate Dovzhenko’s poetic
power. Their film-history reputations emphasize artsiness but, decades away
from their premieres, both movies exemplify the moment when filmmakers realized
fresh ways of capturing life on film and did so with personal conviction and
original, idiosyncratic imprint. Earth was made to extol the new collectivization
of Soviet farms but Dovzhenko’s view is, again, "complexly ambiguous."
His own peasant background influences the grassroots appreciation of agrarian
life, highlighting the natural cycle of life, death and rebirth that the villagers
experience more than any political mandate. Shots of apples and fields take
on nearly mystical grandeur. The mystery of life and of human adversity–not
agitprop collectivism–are the film’s real subject, shown in contrast
to the nature world’s abundance and politics’ constraint. There are
arresting but inexplicable plotlines. In film school, a professor joked, "Who
is that naked woman going through so much anguish?" Earth eschews
the purposes of agitprop to become purely emotional art.

filmgoers can see the source of recent Russian masters Andrei Tarkovsky and
Alexander Sokurov in Dovzhenko’s mystifying regard for the elements of
nature. A 1993 music video for the British trance-rock group Enigma, Return
to Innocence
, even replicated Earth’s imagery with sepia-tone
nature shots, trendily running the cycle of life backwards in a postmodern film
loop. Some critics have even offered Dovzhenko as an influence on the landscape
vistas by current Iranian masters Kiarostami and Makhmalbaf. Yet, none of this
has revived popular (or industry) appreciation for the greatness of Dovzhenko’s
movie art. In the 40s, James Agee’s commendation of Dovzhenko derived from
a liberal-humanist sensitivity (also reflecting the era’s U.S.-Russian
alliance). Agee’s love-of-the-land assessment–while going further
to properly underscore the director’s poetic values–could be misconstrued
as sentimentality. Today, lefty critics frequently sentimentalize Iranian movies
and in doing so, detach themselves from the films’ esthetics, the filmmakers’
ethical essence.

the esthetics/politics tension now is excitingly apparent in the Dovzhenko retrospective.
To look at how he distinguished himself in the midst of political dicta might
provide some crucial understanding of how filmmakers today disgrace themselves
by following marketplace dicta that devalue cinema imagery. It’s a worse,
capitalist, version of propaganda. New technology has made it possible for filmmakers
to get good and pretty shots without effort or thought (although cinematographer
Allen Daviau recently opined, "It’s not good enough yet"). Compare
Fabio Cianchetti’s lustrous 16-mm work in The Triumph of Love (the
best 16-mm blowup I’ve seen since Bergman’s The Magic Flute)
to the lousy videography in Ethan Hawke’s Chelsea Walls. Is there
no one at Hawke’s production company, InDiGent (or among today’s videomakers’
friends), who will be honest about how rotten these video projects look! Hawke,
an egotist, uses video as an excuse to make his directorial debut without benefit
of visual composition or esthetic concept. This all-star Chelsea Hotel version
of Grand Hotel is a real Catch-22: if you could stand to look at it you
couldn’t tolerate its insipidness. Yet, if you could tolerate its insipidness
you still couldn’t stand to look at it.

Lo-fi chic
insults the movie tradition Dovzhenko represented with his all-metaphor visual
storytelling. Canted angles, moody shadows, ruddy, glistening, monumental faces
speak to viewers–mostly without benefit of words. One of the most amazing
sequences in Arsenal shows men on horseback. "Faster, we must bury
our comrade who died for the revolution," the intertitles say, and the
horses answer, "We know it!" as they break earth. It’s fantastic
in the truest sense. Dovzhenko’s speed montage expresses telepathy. His
stream-of-consciousness-style imagery and editing are techniques equal to his
own contemporaries Faulkner, Joyce and Pound. We mistakenly think silent filmmakers
were primitive because we presume we know and are above their tropes. But that’s
the deceptive result of Hollywood conditioning. We’ve become the primitives.
Just like Rohmer, in reaction to trend, going deliberately, artisanally primitive
while the dynamism and mimesis of Soviet revolutionary cinema came from esthetic-minded

loved people but great moments like Arsenal’s laughing gas sequence
(a smiling-corpse view of war), the revolt aboard a train-of-history and a crowd
of workers slowly rising to the entreaties of a virile colleague making a lyrical
appeal come out of a love of a vital medium that had as much potential for beauty,
meaning and happiness as revolution itself.

of the Soul: The Cinema of Alexander Dovzhenko" runs May 8-21 at Lincoln
Center’s Walter Reade Theater, 165 W. 65th St. (B’way), 496-3809;
visit for complete schedule.