Monday, 1 October 2012


History of history
A bit of an allegory

To Symphony Hall, for a musical performance of Eizenshtein's film Броненосец Потёмкин – 'Battleship Potemkin'.

I had noticed that this was on only yesterday afternoon. I do not usually go to such things but it had been a pleasantly warm, start-of-year day and I went on impulse. I could not recall how many times I had seen this film before (lots), nor how long it must have been since I saw it last (thirty years ago... forty?). One thing was certain, I might not have another opportunity to attend a public screening.

So I went.

Then and now and in between

Stories of event comes in layers, so do the stories of how it is experienced. Last night I was living out the distant echo of just one example.
  • In 1905 a mutiny broke out on the Potemkin a pre-dreadnought of the Imperial Russian Navy's Black Sea Fleet, followed by popular demonstrations in the port of Odessa. I mention this distant reality because few nowadays, perhaps increasingly even in the successor states of the Soviet Union, may not be aware of this.
  • In 1925 a young film director in Moscow, Sergei Eizenshtein, in what was by then Soviet rather than Imperial Russia, made what is regarded as a world masterpiece of early, silent cinema, called in English Battleship Potemkin. This film's subsequent cycle of adulation/criticism in its own country is another example, well known amongst those who know of it, of history's layer cake.
  • It was in Britain in the 1950s and 1960s that Battleship Potemkin drifted into my own experience. In Britain, maybe in other Western countries too, and maybe into the 1970s and beyond as far as I know, Battleship Potemkin was one of those films shown  in the non-commercial cinemas.  It was often projected on to creased screens from noisy 32 mm projectors – sometimes without any pretence of sound other than the clacking of the shutter. It was 'art' and it was 'political'. And a cheap night out.
  • In 2012 here it is again, in Birmingham's flash Symphony Hall, a well-appointed, middle-class, high-cultural island in the centre of the West Midlands, premiering a new musical score by Michael Nyman, performed by the man himself and his band. Not a cheap night out, fifteen pounds for a seat in the vertiginous gods (though I was given a fifty-pence 'concession' for being a pensioner – what a nerve).
Each layer a different world, a different experience, a different reality.

The music

This I suspect was the chief cause for this showing in such a place.

The showing of the actual film was preceded by performance of some of Mr Nyman's earlier work, some of which I slept through. When this was done a keen young lady in the next seat asked me what I had thought of it, to which I disgruntled 'Repetitious, techno-music' and took comfort that she agreed.

As for its accompaniment to the film, all I can say is that it vanished from my consciousness almost from the moment that Eizenshtein's action began, as perhaps it should do. It did not 'add to the dramatic effect' etc., it evoked no moving auditory images, and I came away afterwards humming no catchy tune to hold the film and its feelings in my mind for evermore (no Eric Coates, this!). Eizenshtein himself said his film should be remusicked every twenty years, to match the age – maybe unmemorable techno-music is right for ours.

Music can help evoke sense and meaning. It did not here. I would have been as happy with the accompaniment of the clacking of an ancient projector.

The film

A good clear copy, projected on to a wrinkle-free screen of a good size, and perfectly visible from my seat on high, a better cinematic experience than I might get in a commercial multiplex...

Great art? Well maybe, I cannot judge. I have to admit that for me silent films lie back beyond a great paradigm leap. This is not just the technological leap of introducing words, but the leap that ensued into a quite different linking of consciousnesses. I cannot see the advent of 'the talkies' as just a simple addition, the effect was multiplicative. Something completely new had been created, there was a total discontinuity with the past in every way. The old paradigm could then die away.

I accept that some silent films were 'great' by the standards of their time, but to be brutally honest, they do not really touch me. Even this one, that had so much going for it in terms of associations, is a curiosity to be viewed from across a divide. I can see how it must have been a great bit of story-telling for the people of the time, I can appreciate why Goebbels so liked it, but that's it, it's history.

What, I wondered, was the audience making of it all? Presumably many had come knowing something of the story, both the ship's and the film's. Surely they could not have spent all that money for a night-out without at least Googling it (most of the seats were rather more expensive than mine). Even so, this was a Russian print, with the explanatory wordings and dialogue written entirely in Russian, with an unforgivingly short time to read these even for those who might know the language.

The audience

Looking down from on high my first impression was that less than a quarter of the seats were occupied, and my second the predominance of grey hair and bald pates. In a demographically young city, there were relatively few there who were young, and by young I mean under sixty. And such pale folk...

Who were there? A few looked to be survivors from the fifties and sixties layer of my memory (though I did not spot a soul whom I had known). I saw no obvious sons and daughters of toil. No leather jackets (other than my own). Nobody was looking particularly 'political'.

They were certainly not there for a cheap night out. I guess that it was for the art, possibly the film, more likely the music.

In the cheap seats up in the gods, there were younger people, perhaps a quarter of them looking to be under thirty. I wonder who they were and whether, if the story of the Potemkin has a future, what that future might be and what roles such young people might play in it if any.

Conductive Education?

This posting is pegged on seeing an old film. It is also in part an allegory for the story of Conductive Education, past, present and future, including my own, personal story – an attempt to stand outside and, in looking at something diferent, see how so much is the same.

By the way, I have not mentioned Eizenshtein's connection with Luriya, and through him with Vygotskii. Lots of people in Conductive Education love to evoke the names of Luriya and Vygotskii (usually in the form of 'Luria' and 'Vygotsky') in rhetorical support – when I got home last night I came across another depressing example of this, just recently published on line.

Beware such evocations. They are inevitably off the mark if they do not grasp the basis for these young men's connection.
Footnote: see the film
See the film on line, in full, with earlier soundtrack and English subtitles:


  1. Apologies for the typos and other mistakes in the version of this posting published earlier today. I hope that now this makes rather more sense.

  2. It has also been pointed out to me that my choice of name 'Eizenshtein' might lead to confusion when searching the Net for further information. I think that the man himself can bear some responsibility for this, since he changed his name from 'Eizenshtein' to 'Eisenshtein'. Perhaps I should have used the latter form.

    Add to that the problem of transliteration from Russian to English, and the existence of conventionalised forms, as a result of which you may also meet 'Eizenstein' and 'Eisenstein'.

    I am sure that the earch engines of people's choice will have no problem of linking some at least of these versions of his name with various versions of the names of 'Luriya' or 'Luria', and 'Vygotskii' or 'Vygotsky', 'Leont'ev' or 'Leontiev' etc, enough to satisfy those who would like to follow up on the concluding caveat of this posting...