Saturday, November 2, 2019

Old and New (Sergei Eisenstein and Grigoriy Aleksandrov, 1929)

Eisenstein’s and Aleksandrov’s The Old and the New (or The General Line) makes now for astonishing if somewhat strange viewing, both enveloping and alienating. Following the evolution of a collective farm and the peasant woman who keeps pushing it forward, the film may stick in the mind largely as a series of set-piece milestones, such as the acquisition of the first milk separator, the first bull, the first tractor – the film establishes the specific economic significance of each step, while also positioning them as a form of dream-like release, so that the first spurting of cream becomes a fountain, one tractor becomes a formation of dozens, and the bull’s potency becomes (through a staged marriage to a flower-bedecked cow) that of the community as a whole (a visit to a modern state farm is positioned almost as a science-fiction trip to a smoothly facilitating future). But the scheme also encompasses cautionary near-nightmare: the initial application for the tractor drowns in gleefully-depicted bureaucracy, and there’s a stark evocation of witchcraft. The production history spanned a shift in governing ideology, and this results now in a film that always feels to be pushing to escape its propagandistic shackles, without denying their existence (or, to some extent at least, their validity). Few films contain as many vivid close-ups of care-worn faces, and in that respect it’s deeply humanly connected, but at other times it barely feels human at all (the villains and obstructionists often register more fully than the agents of progress). If viewed as history, then it’s a monument to a time when industrialization could be regarded as a tribute to the capacity of the land rather than as a pillaging of it; when physical labour could be alleviated without heralding a descent into narcissism; but at the same time it feels unshackled from any time and place at all, excepting that created through pure cinema.

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