Posts tagged Eduard Tisse

OSCAR MONTH: BEST BLACK & WHITE CINEMATOGRAPHY 1941 – HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY

“I learned whatever I knew in the projection room – from Ford.” – Orson Welles (This is Orson Welles)

At the 14th Academy Awards, John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley beat out Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane for Best Art Direction, Best Editing, Best Black & White Cinematography, Best Director, and Best Picture. Rumors of ornery Kane template William Randolph Hearst bribing and threatening Academy members to shut out Welles’ beloved classic, and Kane’s current shadow over the film canon, have only solidified the critical vitriol for Valley’s egregious win. How Green Was My Valley is no Citizen Kane (to say nothing of The Maltese Falcon, the year’s true masterpiece), and Kane cinematographer Gregg Toland’s contributions to the art in terms of POV shots and deep focus techniques are unparalleled, but Ford’s film is an extraordinarily accomplished piece of cinema, and it deserves examination on its own accord.
Originally intended to be a Technicolor William Wyler epic, How Green Was My Valley’s dreary monochrome pallet suggests none of the lushness of its title, and the film is better for it. Ford and collaborating cinematographer Arthur C. Miller introduce the eponymous valley, an impoverished Welsh coal mining community fifty years in economic decline, with a series of static shots of houses turned hovels, street urchins, and a shawl-wrapped octogenarian staring wistfully at nothing. As the scene moves backward in time, protagonist Huw Morgan contemplates, in a soothing voiceover, the glory days of his childhood, when the black slag of the coalmines had only begun to cover the valley’s hill, “not yet enough to mar the countryside, or blacken the beauty” of the village. Despite Huw’s warm words, the subsequent image of Huw (Roddy McDowall) and his father (Donald Crisp) poking around a slope of blackened rocks while trails of smog pipe from coal chimneys in the background betray the narration’s sentimental notion of pastoral purity, suggesting much of Huw’s youth was “colored” by naivety.
Miller’s wide shots of soot-coated miners trudging home after a hard day’s labor and singing a traditional Welsh ballad evoke the newsreel grit of Eduard Tisse’s work with Eisenstein, but though the film has a decidedly socialist slant, Marxist ideals of solidarity and the blue-collar pedestal are deconstructed as Miller’s camera gets closer to the colliery. When, against his father’s wishes, young Huw abandons his schooling to work the mines, perpetuating his family’s poverty cycle, his first day underground proves relentlessly backbreaking. Though Huw can’t help crack a smile at the thought of becoming a man and a provider, Ford and Miller’s commitment to source-lighting, and the claustrophobia of the shooting space, anticipate the film’s horrific climax. There, weak lanterns struggle to break through the blackness of a cave-in, and the meditative surreality of death finally overwhelms Miller’s stark compositions, as Huw embraces the dying Morgan patriarch against a coffin of black rock, and for a moment, they are one with the mines.
This dream-like tone finds root midway through the film, when Walter Pidgeon’s moralizing Mr. Gruffydd breaks the spell of Huw’s paralysis (his legs immobile after a fall through the ice) by bellowing “Huw, walk!” It’s a miracle in the biblical sense, and Huw’s slow ambulation across the flowery field, his dark coat and trousers crisp against a backdrop of the Welsh countryside, is perfectly serene. It’s a shot that finds its parallel in the final moments of Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 film, Wild Strawberries, and Gunnar Fischer’s striking use of greyscale, bringing to mind the grace and beauty of death.
The final moments of John Ford’s film exist in a similar valley, as the entire Morgan family reunites on a landscape that is half memory, half fantasy. It is the space to which Huw has longed to return his whole life, a prelapsarian ideal that exists right outside the toils of the quotidian, forever above the smoke, above the ruin.

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Battleship Potemkin (1925, Sergei Eisenstein; Cinematographers: Eduard Tisse, Vladimir Popov)

Life is destroyed in its infancy by tyrannous Russian tsarists in Sergei Eisenstein’s seminal 1925 film, Battleship Potemkin.  When a mother is shot, and her baby plummets down a flight of steps, past piles of corpses, a trigger-happy militia, and the agonizing howls of trampled townspeople, the propaganda is front and center, blunt as a blackjack.  Here are the good guys.  Here are the bad guys.  Battleship Potemkin was Eisenstein’s call to arms for the placated Russian public, urging them to organize under the banner of revolution, but the revolution was years past, and the solidarity of the Red Army – a convoluted wash of opposing factions.
This famous Odessa Staircase sequence, referenced everywhere from DePalma’s The Untouchables to a recent piece attributed to Banksy, is a classic bit of rhythm editing, building to a furious apex in which the carriage tips mid-motion, a tsarist soldier brings his weapon down on an unseen victim, and a peasant woman screams, her eye shot out, streaming blood.  The blood, unlike the hand-colored red flag on the titular ship, remains an oily void on the black and white celluloid canvas.  If Eisenstein’s brutal Odessa montage force-feeds viewers a nasty bit of interpretive realism, his shots of the waving, bright red, revolutionary banner only perpetuated the fiction that the united, heroic compatriotism of 1905, the year in which the film takes place, was still alive and well two decades later, following the August Uprising and the death of V. I. Lenin.
Esenstein’s film remains a stunning cinematic achievement, and the Odessa Staircase scene one of the finest action set-pieces to emerge from the pre-sound era, but as a political text, Battleship Potemkin can’t help but be swallowed up by the short-sighted folds of its own agitprop nostalgia.  There was, Esenstein suggests, a glorious moment for Russia and its people, when the revolution was young, powerful, and pure.  By 1925, that time had passed, and the patriotism of Battleship Potemkin was but a fleeting triumph for the divided Communist party, as it wrung out its oily flags, and prepared again for war, speeding blindly toward the bottom of the steps.

Battleship Potemkin (1925, Sergei Eisenstein; Cinematographers: Eduard Tisse, Vladimir Popov)

Life is destroyed in its infancy by tyrannous Russian tsarists in Sergei Eisenstein’s seminal 1925 film, Battleship Potemkin.  When a mother is shot, and her baby plummets down a flight of steps, past piles of corpses, a trigger-happy militia, and the agonizing howls of trampled townspeople, the propaganda is front and center, blunt as a blackjack.  Here are the good guys.  Here are the bad guys.  Battleship Potemkin was Eisenstein’s call to arms for the placated Russian public, urging them to organize under the banner of revolution, but the revolution was years past, and the solidarity of the Red Army – a convoluted wash of opposing factions.

This famous Odessa Staircase sequence, referenced everywhere from DePalma’s The Untouchables to a recent piece attributed to Banksy, is a classic bit of rhythm editing, building to a furious apex in which the carriage tips mid-motion, a tsarist soldier brings his weapon down on an unseen victim, and a peasant woman screams, her eye shot out, streaming blood.  The blood, unlike the hand-colored red flag on the titular ship, remains an oily void on the black and white celluloid canvas.  If Eisenstein’s brutal Odessa montage force-feeds viewers a nasty bit of interpretive realism, his shots of the waving, bright red, revolutionary banner only perpetuated the fiction that the united, heroic compatriotism of 1905, the year in which the film takes place, was still alive and well two decades later, following the August Uprising and the death of V. I. Lenin.

Esenstein’s film remains a stunning cinematic achievement, and the Odessa Staircase scene one of the finest action set-pieces to emerge from the pre-sound era, but as a political text, Battleship Potemkin can’t help but be swallowed up by the short-sighted folds of its own agitprop nostalgia.  There was, Esenstein suggests, a glorious moment for Russia and its people, when the revolution was young, powerful, and pure.  By 1925, that time had passed, and the patriotism of Battleship Potemkin was but a fleeting triumph for the divided Communist party, as it wrung out its oily flags, and prepared again for war, speeding blindly toward the bottom of the steps.

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