by H. R. F. KEATING
TT is good for us viewers
every now and again to come slap up against a genius. We could not watch a diet of genius from the six o'clock news till Line-Up, but to see the work of one from time to time puts things in perspective.
BBC-1's Omnibus last Sunday and the Sunday before put us face to face with a genius, and no mistake. Both programmes have been devoted to Sergei Eisenstein, the Russian film-maker, and, for good measure, BBC-2 has also been showing his two last films called, with echoes of Shakespeare, "Ivan the Terrible, Part I" and "Ivan the Terrible, Part II."
Very sensibly and creditably, the writer-producer of the Omnibus programmes, Norman Swallow, did not attempt to do anything more with his subject than to tell the story of the man's life, giving us when the narrative came to a film some exceedingly wellchosen extracts. The bare facts told us everything.
Quite simply, the film-clips we saw were immediately and obviously of a quality that made almost everything else on the box look pale and cheap, How on earth, one asked oneself, does he do it? How in perhaps half a minute of viewing time can he establish such an atmosphere? How in one tiny episode from a story that we see practically without context does he manage to put out something so overwhelmingly impressive?
Even the films he made 40 and more years ago, when the medium was as creaky as a strut-winged Tiger Moth cornpared to the Concorde, still seem to put nearly all the other products of cinema and recorded teleplay into the category of children's toys. How? one asks again.
think the root of the answer lies in the concentration Eisenstein brought to what he did (though the matter is complicated a degree further when you remember that he often had a co-director, G. V. Alexandrov, and that he worked through a cameraman, Edouard Tisse.) But, no matter whether it is a small-scale domestic scene, as one we saw with a husband and wife sitting at table with their children at the onset of the wife's dangerous illness, or the huge epics of his final films, the camera simply looks tong at the actors. Then, without necessarily any movement beyond a flick of the eyes, you feel you have penetrated whole lives and even eras of history.
In the domestic scene nothing was said. The husband sat with almost one single expression on his features. But one knew it was stamped there and one sensed all the years of love that had gone between the two of them' that made him in her distress look like this.
And, surely, here is a lesson for the everyday entertainers who supply us with our drama and our serials. If they were
more often to let art unmoving camera have its say, the cardboard cut-outs of their stories might get nearer to being real people.
At the other end of the size scale I equally found myself making comparisons. As that dear cliché of the cinema, the confrontation of two opposing armies or forces and the pause before battle, came up in an Eisenstein version, I thought: "Here is a situation that innumerable films, and not a few cowboy TV series, have presented too. What is the difference between what I see now and them?"
Again the basic answer seems to lie in the concentration. Your ordinary camera moves along the line of waiting cowboy goodies as the baddies prepare to charge and it shows so many actors doing the right thing.
With Eisenstein it is different. His actors, plainly, know what their whole situation is about. If the camera roams over them it can only show more and more of the people they represent, of their past, of their hopes and fears.
There was one tiny, marvellous example of this when a fierce bearded Russian awaiting the charge of the Teuton knights (grim, blank-faced helmets that were actually disquieting to see) suddenly looks back over his shoulder for a moment and then faces forward again. It was against the grain of the high courage being shown: it was immensely telling. And against such depth your average cowboy-series man can only advance a little irrelevant picturesqueness and a splash or two of sentimentality [that is, feeling disconnected from any proper cause.) Can we expect him to do more? Not as much more as Eisenstein perhaps, but we can hope that he will strive in the Eisenstein direction just as ordinary soldiering Christians must strive in the saint direction.
I have praised Mr. Swallow for giving us only the straight evidence of genius, but his double biography was, of course, something more than a mere series of extracts from the works. It told in plain narration and with some quotations from the man himself the course of his artistic life.
Narration and quotation were excellently put over by two British film-makers, Lindsay Anderson and Karel Reisz. What a contrast when an elderly Russian actress was dubbed by some British actress, doing her pauses like nobody's business.
In bringing to life written words there is no substitute for an actual interest by the speaker in what is to be said. Directors, please make New Year's resolutions.
Prof. Herbert Marshall, one of those who recounted their experiences of Eisenstein (rather than give us their opinions) should perhaps have the last word. He said he always felt being lectured by Eisenstein was like it must have been to be lectured by Hegel, or Rutherford, or Freud.
Thanks to television we got a glimpse, and more than a glimpse, of a man of that stature. It should set us up for a long time to come.