East Bay View (a blog about several things)

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Thursday, May 18, 2006

Canonball #990: Arsenal

USSR, 1928
Starring Semyon Svashenko
Written and directed by Alexander Dovzhenko

Arsenal is about a football team with such a high reputation that a player that can't even get on the field for them gets selected for the English World Cup squad.

Not funny? Hey, Brazil are laughing.

Arsenal is the first of Dovzhenko's trilogy set in his native Ukraine, followed by Earth, IMO the greatest of Soviet films, and Ivan. Much more than Earth, Arsenal relies on Eisensteinian montage to make its points. One is that in wartime, brutality is ubiquitous; he crosscuts between a mother beating her child and a man beating his horse. "You're hitting the wrong one, Ivan!" retorts the horse, clearly knowing more about dialectical materialism than his owner.

Unlike Eisenstein, though, Dovzhenko is less interested in violence than in the results of violence, and even in this, symbolism trumps realism. Dovzhenko makes a soldier the victim of not mustard but laughing gas, and we see his face contort hideously in fatal laughter. He closes the Great War portion of the movie with a Ukranian, a German and a French soldier each returning home to find their wives cradling a newborn. "Who?" they multilingually ask.

After the Russian Revolution, the Ukraine was briefly independent; Dovzhenko presents the chaotic celebrations as deluded, with various disreputable clerics and capitalists looking far too pleased with the way things are proceeding. (The score on the Image DVD I watched was particularly effective here in its dissonance.) What there is of a plot is laid out over the next half hour: hero Tyrnish leads the workers into rebellion, the White Russians crack down, and the remaining Reds defend a munitions factory. Disregarding martial glory, Dovzhenko shows his people losing: travelling shots of dead and injured bodies straddling a railroad. And his close-ups: how he gets them to evoke so much is not something I can explain; certainly it's not the acting, which is unremarkable when it's stylised (his trademark SLOW HEAD TURNS~!) and bad when it isn't.

The fundamental message is, of course, that the capitalists are scummy bastards and not like real, hard-working Ukranian men. One bespectacled wuss tells a rebel to "stand with your face to the wall, so I can shoot you in the back." (Just for a moment you think this might turn out well for him.) We see more violence now, as an indictment of the White Russians -- an officer repeatedly raises his arm, shoots, and lowers it again. The arsenal falls, but the people cannot be defeated: Tyrnish gets shot at from point-blank range, but stands tall, presenting his chest, daring them to shoot again. Stirring as this image is, it's a pretty macho way to finish; Earth would be great in large part because it found a more communal, natural way to end.


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