Eisenstein

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Eisenstein

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One of the inherent problems with biopics of great artists and thinkers is that it's hard to keep their great moments of inspiration from looking hopelessly banal, like Sir Isaac Newton getting konked on the head with an apple. For his shoddy biography of Sergei Eisenstein, the revolutionary Soviet director who pioneered the montage editing technique, writer-director Renny Bartlett merely changes fruits. In preparing for the famous "Odessa Steps" sequence in 1925's Potemkin—which climaxes with a runaway baby carriage careening down a flight of stairs—Eisenstein observes a mother guiding a stroller and an orange rolling after her. Eureka! Nothing else in the film is quite so reductive, mainly because Bartlett doesn't spend much time on Eisenstein's specific contributions to the medium. Instead, he falls into an even more common trap, attempting to squeeze several tumultuous decades of art, politics, and personal upheaval into the cursory space of 96 minutes. Skipping blithely through the director's career, from Potemkin to Que Viva Mexico to Alexander Nevsky to Ivan The Terrible, Bartlett treats the films as signposts to mark the rapid passing of time between key episodes from Eisenstein's life. But the frantic pace suits Simon McBurney's dynamic lead performance, which imagines Eisenstein as a crafty, resourceful genius capable of working around the Communist system while appearing to work through it. The story opens in 1922, when the politically engaged Eisenstein found inspiration in experimental-theater director Vsevolod Meyerhold (Jonathan Hyde) and his "army of artists," whose pageants stripped the stage of all its bourgeois trappings. Under Meyerhold's guidance, Eisenstein gravitated toward film and developed his "montage of attractions," an innovation that brought him worldwide acclaim with Potemkin. From that success, he seizes on his newfound freedom and goes overseas to work on his dream project, the notoriously ill-fated Que Viva Mexico, which falls under the grips of fickle American investors. Though Eisenstein would later marry, Bartlett speculates about a homosexual relationship with protégé and editor Gregori Alexandrov (Raymond Coulthard), who would betray him during the Stalin regime. Eisenstein follows the director all the way through Ivan The Terrible, Part 2, assuring that several characters will drop in and out of sight and spoiling any hope of continuity between the major events of his life. To his credit, Bartlett has good reason for choosing such a broad timeframe, as Eisenstein's youthful idealism fades into disillusionment and despair under Stalin's iron hand. But without the double time needed to give his life any dimension or resonance, Eisenstein only scratches the surface.

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