El Sur (The South) – Subtle, Temporal Dreams

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For posterity’s sake, this was the first film I watched after watching The Holy Mountain (Dir. Alejandro Jodorowsky, 1973), an audiovisual sublime tapestry of cinema, filled with psychedelic visuals and cinema so abstract you could get lost in it. To then watch a film, a film set mostly in a single house in the North of Spain, about a little girl and her relationship with her father, and the world of the adults kept hidden in all of us, with no flashy visuals or bombastic score. It was what I would define as the other end of the spectrum, a work of cinema so simple on first glance that even a child could understand its mechanics. The dense symbolism of The Holy Mountain is lost on many of its viewers, but El Sur (Dir. Victor Erice, 1983) would most likely not suffer the same fate. It is a story of memories, time and the broken, fragmentary nature of human relationships.

It is a testament to cinema, to the artistic merit, and to Victor Erice himself that the hidden depths in El Sur can evoke just as much wonderment as anything found in Jodorowsky’s film. I don’t want to make a habit of using other films as litmus tests, but I felt it particularly apt at this point. Now let’s talk about El Sur.


It is a deceptively simple film  on first glance. As I mentioned above, the usual spectacle of cinema is absent here. The spaces are limited, representative of their locales without being picturesque, only being transformed by one of the most exquisite uses of lighting  I have ever seen in a film. Most of the story is not actually seen, referring to events from the memories of the past unknown to us and the future as yet unseen. I’m reminded of a screenwriting rule I heard once which said something along the lines of “If this is not the most interesting period in the characters life, then its not worth watching”. Watching this, I’m glad to say that rule could and most likely should be broken. It seems to be a story almost composed of the parts other more conventional narrative technicians would skip, the parts which ask us as an audience to maintain an emotional communication and not much more.  The secrets stay hidden, the faces reveal only what’s on the surface and a hint, an imagining at the depths below.

Make no mistake, though the film is delicate and subtle, it is still undeniably moving and evocative. It contains one of the most beautiful edits I have ever seen, one which my words will do little justice to. I will not spoil it here by crudely recreating with words, but rest assured that it left me quietly stunned. So too the lighting and cinematography, evoking the world of painting, of the rich textured chiaroscuro found in the works of Caravaggio and others. It helps to evoke so much, textures of magic and illusion, darkness and other-worldliness, the passage of time and moods. All of this sounds non-specific, but what else can you take from a film sealed in its own timeless realm? It’s about the timeline of Estrella and her father, everything else submitted to this temporal reality. One of the most impressive things about cinema is its way to manipulate time, to not just place us in a recreated period, but to ignore the usual flow of linear time and re-arrange it as one sees fit, so that the only timeline that matters is the one created by the film. Space and what you put in front of the screen is often to do with your budget, but time is democratic in film, anyone can manipulate it.

It’s a film about people, not about plot. The story is primarily in the eyes of the actors, not in the mechanics of its story.I’m not trying to diminish the conventions of narrative cinema, I’m just trying to explain what I like so much about this film which is showing what can’t be seen, not showing what can be seen or telling rather than showing. It’s a film about the inner worlds we carry around inside of us, constantly and weighing heavy on our minds and souls.  About the frail delicate connections we have, and as we grow as people how they fade rather than change.And the actor required for such a role is always carries such an irony, because you have to act as a inward soul would act, not revealing the extent of their emotions or motivations but withholding the very things at their core which we desperately seek to understand.

Everything about this film is beautifully understated, and once again I find myself in the peculiar position of finding my words to be nothing more than a crude accompaniment to the film itself, and yet feeling very happy about this because its true language is that of cinema, communicating in images and sounds and music and the senses, rather than the written word. It’s a film which feels truthful, by straying closer to evoking the real world we live in, where our stories are not always neatly tied up and resolved, where we skip like a stone along the sea beating the other way, pushing as far as we can against a tide of unknown.

On the cover of the DVD, there is a quote from Pedro Almodóvar, which says “One of the best in Spanish Cinema history”. While I haven’t seen enough Spanish cinema to give my judgement, I can safely say this is one of the most poignant and beautifully melancholic films I’ve had the pleasure of watching recently. The art of subtlety is aptly underappreciated, and you could do a lot worse than spend some time in the presence of the dreams of the South, El Sur.

-Alex

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El Sur (The South) – Subtle, Temporal Dreams

The Holy Mountain – ???

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I mean…I don’t really…

How do I even start this one?


Words don’t do this film justice, so here’s the trailer. Which doesn’t do it justice either.

I don’t think there’s an inherent value in pushing limits for the sake of pushing limits. Call me crazy but I’m not a fan usually of extreme cinema, cinema which pushes visuals to such an overpowering degree that its messages and themes beyond the visuals have to be explained externally through directorial interviews. We watch cinema through a frame, and cinema which frames the illegible only transmits the illegible, or since the act of interpreting is done by both a director who makes the film, and the audience who sees the film, the audience interprets something completely different or unintended. The famous example of people starting their own fighting clubs after watching  Fight Club Dir. David Fincher, 1999) can show how even when transmitting an idea, it’s other parts, namely its irony at the whole premise of the clubs themselves can be lost.

The benefit of extreme cinema though, in all its forms some I like more than others, can show us how much power the image still holds over us, more so than the word which can only conjure up images in our head, but when actually seeing images beyond anything you ever imagined at the time, it reminds you just how visceral the cinema experience can be, removed from its usual standard gloss. Finally, its other benefit is that it again works as a transaction for the alternatives in the audiences, the more open you are in mind and spirit, the more you get out of these abstract, unconventional pieces of art. But that’s a rabbit hole that one can fall too far down into, one that leads to cinema I can’t stand (read this for my thoughts on an example).

I didn’t know what I expected when I went into this film, and I still don’t quite know what I saw as I sit here writing this. Nevertheless, this film needs to be seen to even be believed, let alone understood. It’s made me question some of those tenets I expanded on above. It’s also, fucking genius.

I have a post it note stuck above my computer that says “write something timeless or something radical of the time”. The Holy Mountain (Dir. Alejandro Jodorowsky, 1973) is both and more. It is a film of genuine astonishment, a testament to the power of cinema in its most abstract, most peculiar and most visceral form. A film which contains the images of a true surrealist, someone who takes the real world and inverts it into itself in profound and weird and bizarre contortions and distortions. It is also a a film made by someone who has faith, in what that’s for you to find out and interpret and for Jodorowsky to know, and its definitely made by someone who’s spent a lot of the time on a drug induced spectral plane. To be able to create a cinematic capsule which can help truly transmit those visuals and those impressions, requires someone to have first experienced them, and then to be far more than competent (and just the right amount of crazy) at imagining them into the real world to be captured by a cinema camera.

It’s hard to talk about the film in non-mystical terms, as obscure as my language may appear. It’s just a work which exists on the symbolic level, and the reason why I love this film as opposed why I would dislike a work like this is because the visuals contained are not exploitative of the body. Usually when we watch films we might term extreme cinema, it is usually due to the nature of exploiting the body, either through graphic sex or graphic violence or graphic acts. It uses the body as a vessel to convey ideas, and as a result, the impressions are so strong of what we’re seeing directly done to a body that at least for me, it becomes a moot point as to what the images represent because that’s not the primary intention of the scene.

To bring it back down to Earth, imagine a film (or watch a film) like The Human Centipede (Dir. Tom Six, 2009) which the director himself said to be partially a reflection on fascism. Now regardless of how genuine that claim was, by having a concept which is so alien to the discussion of fascism (read: the entire concept of the human centipede), and one which is explored so graphically through the body, I just can’t help but shake my head ruefully. Everything can be art I’m a firm believer, but what makes good art is an understanding of the tools you’re working with. Graphic exploitation with indirect thematic links behind it will never properly transmit any other than graphic exploitation images.

But what makes The Holy Mountain different then, is that while there are certainly some strange and overpowering visuals throughout, they are visuals which on their own are overpowering through their composition, not through the exploitation of the actor’s bodies. The meeting of the alchemist in the rainbow room (what a sentence) is such an overpowering visual because of its aspects which inspire awe, not voyeurism. The bold colours, the thief moving forward knife in hand, the alchemist in one of the most amazing costumes I’ve ever seen. All those aspects and more help to build a cinematic experience, not sink us lower into the mud. Most of those who watch The Human Centipede or Salo are the morbidly curious, rather than the insane or genuinely mentally imbalanced, but morbid curiosity imbalanced against other things is depressingly empty.

And beyond that, beyond the pure immediate visual language, lays a film which is so rich in its themes and ideas that I just can’t help but get enraptured by it. It’s a film which I feel can be enjoyed how you want, whether just for the sheer absurdity of its visuals, or for the strong metaphysical backbone behind it. It certainly requires you to approach it with an open mind, and I can’t say how much you’ll get out of it, but at the very least I can say you’ll see some of the most interesting images ever put on the silver screen, just for their sheer imagination.And if cinema is the land of dreams, then what a dream this one is. And like all dreams, we need to do as the alchemist (played by Jodorowsky himself) says and wake up, “real life awaits us.” One can only dream for so long.

-Alex

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The Holy Mountain – ???

Kino-Pravda Docs: #4 – Leviathan

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Our eyes see very little and very badly – so people dreamed up the microscope to let them see invisible phenomena; they invented the telescope…now they have perfected the cinecamera to penetrate more deeply into he visible world, to explore and record visual phenomena so that what is happening now, which will have to be taken account of in the future, is not forgotten.

—Provisional Instructions to Kino-Eye Groups, Dziga Vertov, 1926

Working mainly during the 1920s, Vertov promoted the concept of kino-pravda, or film-truth, through his newsreel series. His driving vision was to capture fragments of actuality which, when organized together, showed a deeper truth which could not be seen with the naked eye.

—Wikipedia Entry on ‘Kino Pravda’

In this series, which will run sporadically and when the material presents itself, I will cover documentaries which eschew the traditional forms of documentary style in favour of a more abstract (but not necessarily poetic) presentation of its subject matter, which seems to speak on a greater level than the sum of its parts.

All sorted?


Leviathan is a tough film to watch, both in its subject matter and the way it’s presented. The film is a surreal trip to the ocean onboard a North American fishing trawler, and the sensory recordings of several GoPro’s strapped to the boat, to the chains and winches, to the crew, to the fish. Like a true fly on the wall, the camera gets everywhere, presenting angles that jar and disassociate you from feeling fixed at any point. The cameras simply watch, for indiscriminate amounts of time at various places; one of the crew members falling asleep in the kitchen area watching television, coursing through the sea alongside the ship as fish guts and waste are dumped  just ahead of it, watching hungry seagulls upside down or watching nets be hung out  from the top of the ship. Maybe watching the crew behead fish or watching a bird try desperately to clamber over a wooden board too tall for it.

This is the film you’re going to watch, for its one hour and twenty-eight minute running time. It is not the best film I’ve ever seen, nor is it the worst. I’m sure it will have its fair share of detractors for being an abstract, completely unconventional experimental work that lingers on far too long (even my patience was stretched a little thin by its last scene), and maybe the detractors are right. But that’s not what this series is about. This is about documentaries that promote that ethos that Dziga Vertov was aiming for back in the 20s, of the camera being used as a way to show the deeper truth behind what we regularly saw. And Leviathan (Dir. Lucien Castanig-Taylor and Véréna Paravel, 2012) does that, phenomenally.

In a world where most of the food we eat is seen only on our dinner plates, the brief visions of the food industry we are shown can be quite alarming. I do not just mean the mass industrialised slaughter of animals that makes up the fast food industry, I mean the inherent necessary cruelty that comes with the killing of any animal for food. Especially in the Western world, there is a strong distance between the actual production of food (the raising and slaughtering of animals), the preparation of food (i.e cooking) and the eating of the food. A chicken unfortunately, does not come pre-breaded and pre-deep fried, already separated into drumsticks, breasts and wings.

Leviathan, if anything shows the pure visceral nature of an industrial process of catching and killing fish. In a spirit more akin to body horror than nature documentary, stunning and graphic scenes of the catches of the day being prepared (read: having their heads chopped off and being gutted, or with skate having their wings hacked off with a machete) are shown close up, in detail. The knee-jerk in all of us wants to say that it’s being exploitative, just using the power of the camera to shock us, to show us what’s really going on behind our freshly battered fish and chips. But as the shot lingers, I for one began to see the mechanical efficiency one must develop when working with animals as supply. In the same way a master carpenter knows how to hammer a nail perfectly, these fisherman who work for 20 out of 24 hours a day must be masters at what they do, the fearsome nature of the job leaving little room for ethics or compassion. The sea is not compassionate, and those who take to it must do what it takes.

I am not either implicitly endorsing or condemning what they do, and neither is the film. It’s not interested in the why, merely the here, now and how. As we watch the thick industrial duty chains coming out of the deep, the clank and din of machinery in motion, ugly dissonant noises fighting against the constant thrash of the sea, the whole film ends up functioning as an abstract immersion tank (perhaps this is not a coincidence, the two directors working at Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab) as the camera becomes a proxy for watching this profoundly alien seascape. Watching a scene attached to a crew helmet where nets are violently shaken out, before returning to the scene from the top of the mast of the ship, it evokes the curious ballet-esque nature of the machines, a link perhaps most famously exploited in 2001: A Space Odyssey (Dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1968).

If anything, the best metaphor I can imagine describing the experience is like watching CCTV cameras if the CCTV cameras were tripping out. It’s a testament to countering every notion we have of modern cinema. The shots are blurry, sometimes out of focus, the camera wildly rotating and dipping into the sea, often turning the world not just upside down but around the entire 360 degree axis. The whole world of the ship becomes a globe being viewed from the outside in, filled with extreme close-ups of unknowns to us. Ominous blood-red shapes rise suddenly out of the water, only to register slowly as a net. But the net floods the vision in bold colours and the sea floods the aural senses, so that its presence becomes no less disturbing even though we’ve managed to make out what it is. At other times, the hypnotic clatter of a crew member gathering masses of clams from on deck. Again, the immersion tank, stripped of all pretenses of narrative or overarching intellectual provocations, it becomes a chamber to best convey the raw sensory flood engaged  in this inhuman landscape.

Films are often compared to dreams, and this one is no different. It’s hypnotic elements are just as likely to send you to sleep as they are to induce a strange dissonant zen state in you, so the experience you will find in watching this, I honestly cannot say. But Leviathan is a film which documents without words and language, in more pure cinema, the seafaring life of these fishermen. It also is a sensory experience which, separate from a critical appraisal or damning, is one which stays with you. And finally, it is a film which provokes awe and curiosity and strangeness and repulsion and fear and boredom and more. It expresses elements of the world film can gloss over, and by allowing us to linger in these emotions that stories often do not have time for, it creates a reaction which cut me far deeper than any traditional documentary might have.

It will not be for everyone, but its a work of cinema. Whether it provokes rapture or boredom or anger, it’s a piece of the world that wouldn’t work in any other medium, and that makes it something I appreciate here. Like the best cinema, words don’t do it justice, it needs to be seen to understood. Even the trailer doesn’t do it justice, because the whole film is an experience that requires you to be immersed, just like its camera, in the raging leviathans on the deck and under the sea.

-Alex

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Kino-Pravda Docs: #4 – Leviathan

Man With A Movie Camera: The Truth In The Film

Poster for Dziga Vertov's Man With A Movie Camera (1928)

Man With A Movie Camera (Dir. Dziga Vertov, 1929) is a film. That much I am sure of. Beyond that, its all up in the air. That said, you could easily make a case for it being the greatest music video of all time.

That’s not meant to discredit the film in any way. Vertov’s use of music, rhythm and image in this film is just astounding.  It is rare to encounter a work of such guttural primordial force, combined with visuals which work only on the microscopic and the abstract, no brainwashing or brain-numbing occuring. He presents life, or represents life, or re-presents life, in a beautiful organised chaos. And he creates a vision of themes, machinery which has life and talks and sings, people who exist in a variety of forms, each inhabiting their own unique persona in the collage he’s crafting. The cityscape morphing into itself, or the camera operator being in turn captured by the camera eye. All this and much more, all in synchronisation to the dense conceptual symphony of the cityscape he builds, through music and imagery.An illustrious, multi-layered orchestral piece which is a force in its own right, not merely a backing soundtrack. The combination of the two creates this spectral force of cinema.

There’s a small part of me that wants to bring this film down to Earth, to try and help communicate to you just what is going on in the 6 segments of his self titled “experiment”. Because to those who might not be familiar with the historical context of the early Soviet film pioneers, and then also be familiar with Vertov himself, and his theory which underpins part of the ethos of these essays, that of the Kino-Eye, the idea that the camera  is more “perfect than the human eye for fathoming the chaos of those visual phenomena which evoke spatial dimension”, it can be difficult to even comprehend what’s going on. The filmmaking is just so radical, so deeply idiosyncratic and complex in it’s arrangement, that it becomes a vast gap to bridge just to even get on board with it. His experiment in pure cinema, with no script, no actors, no intertitles to provide context, nothing beyond the image and its manipulation, the music and its manipulation, and the interplay of the two to create a film.

This is cinema which exists on its own, cinema which is so deeply personal that the only comparison I can bring up is the work of M.C Escher, an artist who exists outside of the historical art continuum and the popular art continuum, but who is nonetheless an artist of profound depth who’s influence spread far and wide. This is said to be one of the greatest documentaries ever produced, ranked eighth in all world cinema in Sight and Sound’s 2012 poll, a documentary so far removed from any normal definition of documentary that we might imagine that it becomes either a dreamlike joyride or a crushingly boring betrayal slog.

The technical proficiency on display is blisteringly visionary, considering the level of expertise at the time in 1929 (and the three years before during its making), cinema’s existence only around for the last 30 years. The edits, the superimpositions, the splicing and re-orientation of the film itself, the literal film itself as he splits it, mirrors it, shows it being edited by his then wife. The camera becomes a subject of the film, itself being stared at by the kino-eye, as the filmmaker becomes just as important in the tapestry as the world he’s capturing. For that alone, the work is deserving of your time, time which is so precious these day, only clocking in at 69 minutes and managing to retain such a strong pace that most modern films can often lack. The symphonic ending sequence, it’s blindingly fast cuts and encompassing explosion of sound take cinema into the untranslatable, which can only be seen and heard to be understood. It felt ecstatic, revolutionary.

But it is only a film, and a rather curious one at that. Films can only do so much, and their makers even less. This film was Vertov’s call to arms for a (in his eyes) more visionary, a higher cinema. One concerned with poetic, intellectual, portrayals of life, not buried under fiction and lies and myths, what he termed “the opiate of the masses”. It did not take off, and maybe it is better that it did not take off, certainly easier. Vertov was like many visionaries, simply too radical. So consumed in its metaphysical nature, the work was not received well, certainly not with the sense of adulation and respect it holds today in cinematic history. If film had really become like Vertov’s work, imitators would have inevitably diluted the spirit of the entire project. It’s taken this long to properly appraise the work, imagine how it could have blown up if his ethos had become dominant.

I idolise Vertov, I make no secret of it.Half of this essay must read like a love letter to him as much as this film, but the truth that lies in this film’s kino-eye, is its ability to transcend its time and place to make a piece of art that touches on a level beyond words, language even. It is a work which carries a true incendiary spirit, one which I link in terms of true revolutionary cinema to Easy Rider. It is an extraordinary film in that is not like the Soviet contemporaries, nor the American “Talkies” who he reviled, nor like the films of today, it is out of the ordinary. It is not for everyone. The pioneering spirit is not for everyone. That does not mean that those who do not like it as much as me are wrong, or inferior in any way. Simply that I like to imagine I share a spirit with a man who pursued a cinema of vision, at the expense of support and acclaim which could have been granted to him if he had just fallen in line. It is his refusal to fall in line which makes the work great, but also condemns it.

Enough about Man With A Movie Camera. I have spent so long talking about it in the abstract, because that is what it provokes, abstract thought. It has lost some of its original meanings and intentions I’m sure, the passage of time erodes. But it is a work which shows just liberating cinema can be, freed from its conventions. Simply, it must be seen.

The ‘Kino-Eye’ speaks for itself, and it has so much to say.

-Alex

 

(A grand thank you to the folks at Eureka who have distributed a “Masters of Cinema” Edition of this film, which not only has a gorgeous restoration which I viewed for this, but also contains some of his other works, and an excellent collection of additional material and essays. I have not been endorsed by them in any way, I just strongly recommend picking up the special edition if you can find here , it would have made Vertov very proud.)

-Alex

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Man With A Movie Camera: The Truth In The Film

Battleship Potemkin: History in Eisenstein’s Making

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” ‘The Battleship Potemkin’ has been so famous for so long that it is almost impossible to come to it with a fresh eye…it has become so familiar that we cannot perceive it for what it is…the fact is ‘Potemkin’  doesn’t really stand alone, but depends for its power upon the social situation in which it is shown.” – Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun Times, July 19, 1998


Battleship Potemkin (Dir. Sergei Eisenstein, 1925) in our hyper edited age, runs for too long. Even at a short 115 minute running time, a duration not seen in our feature films of today, it still drags near the end. The ageing of a film’s mechanics throughout time is a curious feature that is very hard to measure, and harder to discuss. I often try to purposely avoid a meta-analytical slant on these essays, instead preferring to discuss each film in itself, set by its own standards rather than the ones I impose on it. Eisenstein didn’t have the cultural history of 100+ years of cinema that I am a part of. There was very little history of cinema for him to place his works in, while now Eisenstein’s works, so radical, daring and provoking at the time, have been carried through the drifting of history to occupy a place for film enthusiasts, film historians, and not much else. It’s what happens to any work of art, but the experimental nature of Eisenstein’s style of cinema means that his vision morphs quicker in time. It’s neither good, nor bad, just an effect. To an audience unused to the hyper edited media we watch daily, the audience of 1925, it must have been very well timed, perhaps even going too fast at points.

Regardless, Battleship Potemkin is an iconic piece of cinema for a reason. Besides being an incredibly potent piece of revolutionary propaganda for the newly established USSR, it is also a film which uses the most intense and visually arresting tool cinema of the time possessed: sheer visual spectacle. From the hundreds of extras, the incredible sets of the battleships provided by the Soviet government, to the infamous ‘Odessa Steps’ sequences, the sheer impression of the pure reality of what was being shot, the knowledge that every person in each shot was not digitally inserted, not crafted by an animator sitting behind a computer somewhere, gives it such a visceral and tactile feel, of cinema reflecting the mass of people, as a spectacle to be watched in its own right. It is the sheer number of faces that help to reflect the mass empathy it seeks to inspire, the suffering on both the micro level, the woman’s eye bleeding through the shattered glasses, alongside the mass trampling down the steps, that is at the core of when the film impresses most powerfully on the mind of its watcher.

I at least find it hard to hold the film to the same kind of standard that I may hold a film now, its techniques incredibly unconventional to the current world I live in. It’s editing in particular, a staple of Soviet film theory, takes precedent here. Coined as montage“, Eisenstein really best employed a technique he called the “kino-fist”, the smashing of two conflicting elements in a jarring, conscious way to provoke a very reactive response. It turns the film into a far more active, aware experience than most seamlessly stitched together movies, and its ability to allow thematic elements into play rather than a clear logical chain of progression again feels…unnatural, at least in a mechanical way.

The question I feel that is burning in the back of my mind, is beyond its historical value for cinema, which is immeasurable, is the film still worth watching? Has it become so embedded in cultural history that it might actually be better to just appreciate it indirectly? It may sound ghastly, and I can say (with great pleasure) that this is not the case, that it still deserves to be seen, the Odessa Steps sequence alone is an enrapturing spell-binding piece of the raw power of cinema, and while the rest of the film does not equal those heights, it still shines. It is heavier cinema, more thought-provoking, more hard work. But it was never made to be simple mass entertainment, the opiate for the masses. It can’t fail at a race it was never running.

It is not made for our times, it does not move at our pace, it is not such an instantly gratifying experience as the movies may be now, but it still performs its drama, its power and its relevance. Eisenstein wanted the movie to be re-scored every 20 years to remain relevant, and while it may not hold the same potency it did in 1925, it comes from a time when cinema was more thoughtful, more conscious, more…revolutionary. And that spirit can’t be lost. There’s still that “kino-fist” (though it may not possess the “kino-eye” of Dziga Vertov which the blog’s spirit lies in) behind the work, and there’s still the truth of its propaganda purposes lying in wait, ready to be seen by each individual who finds it.

And here it is.

-Alex

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Battleship Potemkin: History in Eisenstein’s Making