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Part I

In 1996, while I was at Johns Hopkins University, a student I knew committed murder.  He shot another student — once in the head, then once in the chest — before surrendering himself.  This happened on campus.  At the time, I worked as an editor for the school paper, the News-Letter.   Someone rushed into the office — it was the middle of Wednesday evening, and we were laying out the paper — and announced the news, and our editor-in-chief started shouting, “What happened?  What’s going on?”

Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible, Part I seeks to explain, perhaps, how a person becomes ruthless.  Ivan, at first, doesn’t seem so terrible.  Ivan is horrified when the Tartars shoot down the captives Ivan has strung up on the battlements than surrender them to “the uncircumsized ones.”

Eisenstein suggests three things that may have prompted the change:

Ivan is beset on all sides by sinister profiles, all German Expressionistic shadows and angles.  When Ivan, nearly dead from illness, asks the boyars to pledge allegiance to his son, they turn away, one by one, and this betrayal is almost too much to bear.  The illness itself may have affected his brain.  Or perhaps it was the death of love — his wife, Anastasia, poisoned by politicking boyars, though, historically, her actual cause of death is unknown.

We may never know what drives someone over the edge.

Part II

In the months after the shooting at Hopkins, psychologists diagnosed the killer with numerous personality disorders.  In going through the emails of the two young men, the police found an odd, quasi-Victorian formality to them:  “We once again revealed and expressed ourselves to deeper levels and found profound joy in our bond.”  It was strongly hinted, but never proven, that the two had had some sort of sexual contact.  Months before the murder, the killer sent a message to his victim:  “I’ve cried out for your assistance, presence and help…. You know I’m a private person, very much an introvert, and when finally I wish to talk, to be silenced by one’s friend really hurts.”  And, on the day of the killing, he wrote in his journal, “This was a violation of me, my rights, and my dignity.  But I was embarrassed and kind of humiliated and afraid, and I didn’t want to destroy a good friendship over some act [in] which he overstepped his bounds.”

Ivan the Terrible, Part II sees Ivan succumbing to loneliness.  His movements are arch; he extends and cranes his neck like a bird, pecking at crumbs.  He draws his oprichniks close — his iron band — but they only aid his spiral into paranoia, isolation, summary executions.  Stalin, upon screening the film, summoned Eisenstein.  “Ivan the Terrible was very cruel,” Stalin told him.  “You can depict him as a cruel man, but you have to show why he had to be cruel.”

Eisenstein died of a heart attack before he could complete the trilogy.

I wonder if the answers are in that third film:  how a man becomes cruel, how he becomes a killer.

Part III


Today marks the end of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.  I remember when Bill Clinton issued the directive.  I had just started college and attending meetings of the gay student organization.  DADT, at the time, was a terribly disappointing compromise, though, in retrospect, necessary.  Clinton’s promise to repeal the ban altogether would never have passed, given the hostile climate in Congress and from the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

I came to know two gay ROTC members:  a short, curly-haired lesbian from Georgia, Noel, and Patrick, a good-looking, blonde.  They took pride in their service but knew the possibly consequences if they were ever discovered.  I imagine them marching in uniform the way I’ve seen ROTC students practice their formations on campus nowadays.  I never knew what become of Noel — she transferred to another school — and Patrick hinted that his military career would continue after graduation.  In The Best American Short Stories 2006, Tobias Wolff’s story, “Awaiting Orders,” deals with DADT.   In it, an army sergeant hesitates calling his boyfriend a ‘partner.’  His fears of discovery and blackmail overcome his desire to reach out to the sister of a deployed soldier.  I wonder if this is what life was like for Noel and Patrick.  The need to hide.

The end of the policy came with little fanfare, which was what the military had wanted.  Just another day in the war machine.  In the media, however, there’s been a small flurry of stories:  a Navy lieutenant who wed his partner at the stroke of midnight in Vermont to mark the end of the ban; soldiers coming out to their comrades, superiors and families; remembrances of soldiers who could not.

The damage has already been done, though.

Late in Alexander Nevsky, the scene that follows the kinetic battle on the iced-over Lake Chudskoye slows the film to plaintive pace.  Prokofiev’s score takes an operatic note.  Eisenstein scholar David Bordwell calls the music a “threnody.”  Wounded and dying soldiers, German and Russian alike, lie heaped upon the ice, and Eisenstein tracks across them diagonally.  One lifts his head momentarily before crumpling face-down.  On the ice, torches appear, carried by women who peer into the faces of the fallen.  One man rises long enough to say, “Maria.”  As the women move from body to body, another soldier says, “Izaslavna.”  Another:  “Anastasia.”  “Sister.”  Wives, family members, all of their beloved:  their last breaths.  On the field of battle, a mother collapses on a body lying in the snow.

All the years the ban was in effect — how many gay soldiers weren’t able to speak the name of their beloved, even at death?  Who carried torches for them?  Who was allowed to mourn them?  This was the real tragedy of the policy:  silence.  Even in grief.

Sgt. Leonard Matlovich, the first gay servicemember to fight the ban, had this inscribed on his tombstone:  “When I was in the military, they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.”

Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, says Roger Ebert, is “one of the fundamental landmarks of cinema.”  Its centerpiece, the massacre on the Odessa Steps, “has been quoted so many times in other films that it’s likely many viewers will have seen the parody before they see the original.” I’ve been thinking about landmarks lately:  something seen so often that it almost becomes invisible.  For instance, sound film has been de rigueur for almost 100 years now, but what was it was like for audiences who saw The Jazz Singer for the first time?  According to Scott Eyman, after  Jolson’s songs, the crowd applauded wildly, and when he and Eugenie Besserer exchanged their dialogue, “the audience became hysterical.”  They hooted after Jolson uttered his famous line:  “Wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain’t heard nothing yet.”

Back in Colorado, Matthew used to chide me whenever I admitted to getting lost:  “All you have to do is look around.  The mountains are always to the west.”  And I’d look, and sure enough, there were moutains, their bottom halves swathed in the infamous Denver ‘brown cloud.’  So, on those rare occasions — no more than twice a week — when I got lost, I located the mountains.  The jagged peaks, the zipper separating the country.  I’d never done much mountaineering, but other people I knew racked up Fourteeners like mosquito bites.  I found found the mountains and thought:  Now, where was I going again?

The radio has been full of stories about 9/11, about the Twin Towers as a landmark.  Not as historical or architectural landmark, but a geographical one.  Anywhere on the island, people said, you knew where south was.  For me, I’d never been to the Twin Towers.  I’d never ridden all the way to the Windows on the World, and I never got the chance to see the city spread below me.  From there, I think, I could have memorized the whole of Manhattan.

So yesterday, on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, after a late dinner in the West Village, I stepped into the humid night, when rain had not yet fallen, but everyone had an umbrella, just in case, and for a moment, I couldn’t remember which way I had come. I hadn’t come to attend any of the memorials; instead, the whole city had become a remembrance:  ribbons tied to chain-link fences, candles and stuffed animals, notes written to complete strangers.  And if that wasn’t enough:  in Penn Station, soldiers with automatic weapons slung low on their shoulders, German Shepherds sniffing around.  Chalkboard signs outside of bars advertised NYPD and FDNY — ASK INSIDE FOR SPECIALS, and, at John’s Pizzeria, a group of men in crisp dress uniforms queued for their slices.

I looked around and saw a bright light in the sky, cutting the low, grey clouds over the skyline into radiant slices.  That must be south, I imagined.  That must be the Tribute in Light.  A new landmark, 88 searchlights aimed into the sky, a landmark of what was no longer there.  And with that, I re-oriented myself.