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Monday, June 25, 2012

BEZHIN LUG/BEZHIN MEADOW (1937)


It’s dangerous to make extravagant claims for a lost film (the damn thing might turn up!), but the scraps that remain from Sergei Eisenstein’s never-released BEZHIN MEADOW really do look like the residue of a masterpiece, a lyrical tragedy such as he never attempted before or after. After failed sojourns in Hollywood & Mexico, Eisenstein returned to the USSR having not completed a film since OLD AND NEW/’29 (aka THE GENERAL LINE). Oddly, he opts for another story on the struggle between the tradition-bound land-owning ‘Kulaks’ and the principled collective farmers. But in his first Talkie, the focus would narrow down to a father & son conflict, a drunken, murderous, God-fearing beast vs. his brave ten yr-old son, with the bright Soviet future on the line. Why this story earned the dreaded tag of ‘formalism’ is something of a mystery. The big set piece, a community desecration of the town church, must have pleased the authorities; and there’s little left to indicate a difficult story construction or arty use of Eisenstein’s preferred ‘montage of attraction’ theories. Perhaps the portrayal of the Kulaks left them looking too similar to the proletariat. Where were the upper-class airs & lording it over the masses? Perhaps. But there’s only so much you can dig out of the half-hour graphic story material that still exists. It was put together in the ‘60s from editing ‘trims’ Eisenstein kept as a record of the shoot. Inter-titles were created from the complete script & a background score was culled from Prokofiev cues. The bare bones that remain are both compositionally beautiful and unexpectedly moving. But are we reacting to the film . . . or to our own ideas, filling in on what has been lost? Three years later, the film’s producer was executed after the debacle while Eisenstein worked himself out of the doghouse, even won the Order of Lenin Prize, with the straightforward patriotism of ALEXANDER NEVSKY/’38. And then that film got buried for a few years in the wake of a Non-Aggression Pact fling with Hitler. Thus art under Stalin.

SCREWY THOUGH OF THE DAY: It’s hardly a state secret that Stalin’s policy of collective farming, particularly as it was applied in the Ukraine, was responsible for wide spread famine that killed millions. So, how are we supposed to respond to a film that justifies & celebrates what amounted to a state-supported death march? Maybe someone could start a blog to deal with this issue.

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