Thursday, November 29, 2007

Sometimes you need to go where everyone has a gun or my Arsenal review

Don't you need to go where everyone has a gun? ie, the Arsenal!

And so I watched Arsenal (I posted up the movie in parts in a previous session). Weird, stirring, long, meandering, epic, more adjectives stuff, it really is. The movie traces the full course (well most of the full course) of the Russian Civil War in Ukraine (I don't want to imply that Ukraine is part of Russia, but I don't have a good term for the action in Ukraine and in many ways it was an extension of what was going on in Russia, so I'm sticking with that terminology), it starts with the ending period of World War I, when all of Ukraine was devastated (really stark imagery in that), going to the establishment of the Ukrainian People's Republic (it was a short lived government that was German and later US/UK/France/Poland backed), moving on to the raging war between the White Russian Army and Ukrainian forces and finally to engagements between the White Russian Army and the Ukrainian Bolshevik Army. It doesn't quite get to the end where the Bolsheviks are triumphant but instead shows the triumphant Ukrainian Bolshevik spirit (I'm not endorsing here Bolshevism, I actually hate Communism quite immensely, but I'm just trying to give you a sense of the movie).

This movie is quite the mixed bag. It has been called a classic and I can see how people can look at it as one. It has amazing use of montage at times that juxaposes vivid images, creating immense emotional reactions. It also has immense symbolism to its scenes which are sometimes painstakingly crafted. Even some of the long takes which just dwell on scenes of men without legs or mothers who lost their children are heart breaking. In addition, as a historical document it is a fascinating as a document of the Bolsheviks defending their crushing of Ukrainian nationalism. As a piece of film theory it reflects early Russian theories of montage, of agi-film (agitation films), of semi-plotlessness and of semi-herolessness (for another good example of all this film theory stuff (an example I'll be citing), check out Battleship Potemkin). However, I can't say I'm thrilled with movie. It has many brilliant pieces. The best is probably when a soldier is hit by laughing gas (I don't think laughing gas was actually used in World War I (although mustard gas was), but I suppose its symbolic of the insanity of war as the soldier laughs at the corpses of his comrades) and an opposing soldier looks at him, and throws down his gun asking "Where is the enemy?" and then, as montage flashes with other scenes, the questioning soldier's commanding officer comes up behind him, orders him to pick up his gun, and finally shoots the soldier who refused to fight. There are several other moments like this where the film seems brilliant.

And yet, there lacks a force to string it together. The film lacks narrative tension. The plot is often absent, and when present it is stretched out far too long. Unlike Battleship Potemkin, which also stretches out a simple plot, the montage is too slow in many scenes (although there are scenes with quick cutting) and is too focused on exposition to provide visual tension. Perhaps the problem is that the film wants to do too much. It wants to explain the revolutionary cause, it wants to denounce Ukrainian nationalists, I think it even takes a symbolic swipe at Ukrainian anarchists. And it goes across a significant number of events without any developing any character (although there is a sort of main character he is largely blank except for his symbolic credentials as the Ukrainian worker) or even a sense of character in the masses (as Battleship Potemkin in some ways does (especially in the specialized mass of the battleship)) to personalize the events. Maybe I'm just not used to this type of film, maybe it's just because I watched the film in pieces on youTube (I know that sounds bad, but I watched them back to back and I think overall it didn't have too big of an effect), but I couldn't find any driving force between the moments of brilliance this film offered. Without some tension pulling me through the movie, I couldn't fully connect with it on an emotional or intellectual level.

I'm overall glad I watched this movie, and I can see how some people could absolutely love it, but I can't really recommend it. On the other hand, I can't not recommend it. If I had to rate it (and I do because I want to and I AM RAND) I'd give it a 6 out of 10. Maybe I'm being cruel to a classic, but if that's the case, well, sometimes you just got to seize the arsenal.

So take it to your head, take it to your heart, and remember Rand rocks. Goodnight Folks!

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