Biopics about directors are a relatively late-blooming phenomenon—starting more or less with 1992’s enervating Chaplin—because there’s often no filmable there there. Meetings, casting, shoots, editing: The drudgery of film work itself is death to watch, and whatever story can be gleaned otherwise is beside the point. (William Wellman, for example, might seem to be a likely biopic candidate, but how much of his fabulously interesting life had to do with the making of movies?) Ironically, filmmakers’ lives and careers are as uncinematic as poets’; as narratives, they’re merely a run of incidents passing like blurred train cars. (Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, whose hero’s life was itself an absurd lampoon of celluloid entrepreneurship, stands alone.) Still, it’s something of a fad: Welles, Murnau, Whale, Vigo, and Pasolini have all been reincarnated even as Leni Riefenstahl awaits Jodie Foster’s conflicted largesse. With Eisenstein, the Prometheus of Soviet agitprop gets his day in the wax museum, an exhibit contrived in true diorama fashion as a struggle between the Artist and the State, with Mr. Big Hair himself scampering around the carefully chosen historical locales like Duchamp on a crank jag.
Unsurprisingly, Brit/Canuck documentarian Renny Bartlett blithely evades questions about Eisenstein’s aesthetic achievements, leaving something of a justifiability gap. Still a film-school requirement, if rarely mentioned any longer as one of cinema’s indisputable giants, Eisenstein has always stood as propaganda’s main claim for relevance after its political moment has vanished. Like advertising, propaganda is made both useless and quaint by its inherent ephemerality; considering it as art years later means tumbling into the rabbit hole of kitsch. The question of Eisenstein today comes down to whether or not he was successful in subverting his movies’ state-mandated material with extraordinary visual voodoo, and Eisenstein’s films do swoon more readily over their own pyrotechnics than over Soviet ballyhoo. Free of historical intents or contexts, fascist art is usually heartbreaking in its naïveté, but Eisenstein’s movies seem embittered and angry, as if revolutionary discontent unconsciously expressed the man’s outrage that of all the nations in all the eras for the artist to be born into, it had to be this one.
As Bartlett’s screenplay states time and again, Eisenstein was and is regarded largely as cinema’s most formidable intellectual, but his dialectic-based montage system was a theoretical Kahoutek, and his editing poetics—equating Kerensky with a peacock in October—don’t age well. His entire filmmaking philosophy, though responsible for much that is deathless in movie history, was predicated on a self-deifying cosmos: Eisenstein was the omniscient god, and the audience his easily manipulated minions. (Spielberg and Lucas, it could be said, have similar ideologies and formal approaches.) His films click and whir like robots; it’s no surprise that his most watchable films—Que Viva Mexico! and Alexander Nevsky—owe little to Hegelian schema and everything to full-tilt boogie expressionism. Everyone abandons dialectics sooner or later, and as the years and donnybrooks with the heads of state went by, Eisenstein became more of an intuitive artist, entranced more by byzantine lyricism than the ability to motivate the masses. Whereas Potemkin and October move like fast rivers of Leninist declamation, Ivan the Terrible, coming after the baroque dreamtime of Von Sternberg and the emergence of Welles, slows down to a sculptured lurch.
Bartlett’s portrait of Eisenstein is, at any rate, overcome with bemusement, opting for an artiste-rebel, Hawkeye Pierce sophomorism over any variety of political engagement. As embodied by theater bad boy Simon McBurney (who resembles Polanski—now there’s a biopic), Eisenstein is a squirrelly, opportunistic decadent who accepts Stalinist dogma only when it doesn’t meddle with his narcissism. As the script bounces from his days as an underling with Meyerhold (a ludicrously plummy Jonathan Hyde) to Kuleshov’s editing workshop (the infamous Mozhukhin experiment is re-created, briefly, with its audience calling out their montage-generated interpretations, Rocky Horror-style) to Eisenstein’s Mexico idyll and beyond, Bartlett’s movie predictably undersells the filmmaking. Lovely clips are dumped in—the Odessa Steps, a battle scene from Nevsky, the climax of Ivan Part 1—but we almost never see Eisenstein making a movie, even though that’s all this nebbishy nut has for discernible motivation. The pioneering montage feats are reduced to McBurney narrating “Up, down, many, one . . . ” as the images pass by; likewise, the ingredients for the Odessa Steps sequence are noticed by Eisenstein and perpetually irritated lover Grigori Alexandrov (Raymond Coulthard) as they stroll, right down to the baby carriage.
Bartlett’s approach is BBC Lite, and he’s perfectly comfortable with musical interludes (while the boys are checking out Aztec temples), sitcom rhythms, and shameless thievery—Eisenstein even gets to intone Buñuel’s immortal line, “Thank God I’m an atheist.” More often than not, McBurney plays the stormy genius as a frat boy plagued by grumpy bureaucrats, and Bartlett’s idea of politburo control is Eisenstein being told that his next film must have “a happy ending.” Like most biopics, Eisenstein is interested only in sketching out events and fame, not exploring character. Bartlett’s hero remains a reactive cipher, when opening the man’s head and heart is the only imaginable reason for the film to be made.
Eisenstein’s final subject was his own grandstanding self-absorption. He would’ve filmed Das Kapital if allowed, and made a helluva show of it. Thus, his corpus doesn’t add up to a statement about anything—unlike the films of AMMI resuscitatee W.C. Fields, which investigate the nihilistic impulses at the heart of the low-rent American family. The museum’s retro coughs up the bulk of Fields’s comedy features, from 1925’s Sally of the Sawdust (with live accompaniment) to 1941’s Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, and what emerges is one of the most ferocious renderings of nuclear-unit stress in film history. More than merely a notorious comic and singular package of grumpy tics, Fields was the preeminent gag writer as domestic tragedian, his character sometimes an extension of his showbiz con-man persona but more often a family guy beset by the Fates.
His best films—It’s a Gift, The Old-Fashioned Way, You’re Telling Me (all 1934), and The Bank Dick (1940)—all revolve around Fields as a hostile schmo for whom home life is a deceptively ordinary circle in hell, where children draw blood, wives are insidious maenads, and the laws of physics have only personal misery as their logical outcome. Trying to nap on the porch in It’s a Gift becomes a Camusian study in retributive torture. Whereas the other Golden Age comedians pitted themselves against authority or each other, Fields held combat with his loved ones; he was alone for decades as the only Hollywood voice willing and able to grasp how easily familial intimacy can turn homicidal.
Of course, that Fields’s rummy, abusive, careless victim is fully responsible for his plight and his family is a fact implicit in every film—he’s a kitchen-sink Mephisto/Faust combo, flagellating himself into derangement and turning his garden into a wasteland. (Just as he echoed the Underground Man, he thematically foretold Celine and Beckett.) At the same time, any one of his films expresses the sad dynamics of alcoholism more eloquently than The Lost Weekend. Easily the most despicable comic icon in America, Fields is every inch the pop-cult bête noire, making mean laugh-getting hay out of self-ruin.