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.
Dovzhenko's 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.
Arsenal 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.
Today's 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.
Luckily, 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 experimentation.
Dovzhenko 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.
"Landscapes 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 [www.filmlinc.com ](http://www.filmlinc.com)for complete schedule.
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