Walking on the Frame

(It’s crazy how rough my old DVDs of IVAN look compared to the Blu-Rays, images of which I’ve seen but which I do not currently own…)

Eisenstein makes a big thing out of having a character actually walk forward and stand on the bottom edge of the frame in IVAN THE TERRIBLE (among countless other bold compositional devices).

Since so much of, for instance, MACBETH is clearly under the influence of Eisenstein, I’m assuming that Welles’ occasional moments of framewalking are also inspired by this.

(VLC Media Player has decided to screw up the aspect ratio. Still, Welles has achieved the effect of a mass of characters at different distances from the camera all standing on the frame edge by positioning them on different raised platforms. Otherwise, some of them would be cut off at the knees, some at the waist, as they got further away.)

In PATTON, Franklin Schaffner poses George C. Scott on the lower edge, but the effect is somewhat different since the entire screen is transformed into Old Glory, with just the tiny figure at bottom, a graphic effect that’s quite different from Eisenstein and Welles’ pop-up charcoal cartoons.

Of course Welles and even Schaffner score over Eisenstein in my book, despite his visual richness, because they show recognizable human beings while S.E. is totally in the moving-icon business. It’s a personal prejudice of my own — the hinged cardboard of the characters in IVAN is off-putting to me, though I can dig something like COLOUR OF POMEGRANITES which more or less excludes human behaviour altogether.

Been watching too many turkeys, so I wanted to look at an Acknowledged Classic. I recall Paul Verhoeven telling Alex Cox that he rewatched IVAN annually along with THE SEVEN SAMURAI and VERTIGO, “to remind myself that, yes, film CAN be art, because I have almost forgotten this, not only because of what everyone else is doing but because of my OWN work…” I tried ROME, OPEN CITY but my DVD of that has likewise been thoroughly superseded, and a good thing too — it’s taken from an old US print with the original subtitles, which choose not to translate half the dialogue…

14 Responses to “Walking on the Frame”

  1. Randy Cook Says:

    Saw PATTON in the theater in 70mm the week it opened. The effect of that shot is one of being addressed by Patton from the stage & the feeling of being in the room with him was really striking.

  2. Tony Williams Says:

    You must remember that much of the costume and set design in IVAN is a tribute to Eisenstein’s former mentor Meyerhold whose archives he preserved in his apartment at the cost of his life. Issues of theatricality and cinema dominate the construction of Eisenstein’s great epic than they do in your other examples. You need to look at how it operates specifically and understand why certain mechanisms are there

  3. This time I noticed that Patton’s stage stands up slightly from the cinema frame, but as it’s very wide and beneath the stage is totally black, the effect of him standing on the edge is still very strong.

    Eisenstein’s background as a graphic artist/cartoonist always seems more important to me than his theatre work. He continually does things that would be impossible on a stage, and not just with montage. Ivan has a shadow of a double-headed eagle cast on his cheek in one shot, an effect only made possible with a small light and a tiny banner, since objects can’t cast shadows smaller than themselves!

  4. I guess this is name-dropping, but Spielberg told me personally that one reason he preferred Panavision (in the 1970s) is because with that format, he at least knew where the top and bottom frame lines would be in projection. We didn’t get into the left-right carnage of pan-scanning.

  5. ehrenstein47 Says:

    That “Patton” image is remindful of Jasper Johns. With “Ivan” Eisenstein lets his Queer Flag Fly as never before, save for select shots from the shot but never edited (or even seen by him in rushes ) “Que Viva Mexico’) It looks forward to Jack Smiths “Flaming Creatures”and Kenneth Anger’s “Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome.”

  6. The weirdest film format for me is “open-matte”. Having discovered that my DVD of Ken Russell’s Mahler is Academy Ratio, I experimented with cropping it to 16:9 on my TV — and every shot got better! Obviously it was screened that way in cinemas, and I guess maybe Russell preferred the idea of adding image to the top and bottom rather than losing it at the sides.

    Yes, Ivan has some strikingly queer stuff, though like L’Herbier (whose L’Homme du Large I’ve just been viewing) he puts the gay stuff onto the villains.

  7. ehrenstein47 Says:

    Not entirely. After all his best films were romantic tributes to his boyfriend and star Jacques Catelan.

  8. Re: poor subtitles

    My first viewing of Lang’s M was a VHS which subtitled Lorre’s final frenetic speech with one rather short sentence. Probably part of the reason I was underwhelmed by it initially.

  9. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    I watched Ivan the Terrible on 35mm at PFA two years back. And I have to say the idea that Ivan the Terrible is “in the moving-icon business” and has no recognizable characters needs serious rethinking. It’s an idea used by defenders as well as critics, but I think it’s inaccurate to say that the characters in the movie don’t add up to complexity or that Eisenstein’s not interested in it.

    Once you get into Eisenstein’s incredible new style of interior rhymes, association with visual composition, and so on, the characters really do come alive. It’s a really dense Freudian scene…the key moment is in Ivan Part 2, where Efrosinia in a gesture steps on the corpse that she thought was Ivan but turns out to be a son. The gesture of the foot (which you excerpt from the frame above) runs throughout the movie but achieves tragic and painful, even self-conscious emotion, in that moment. Ivan the Terrible of course emerges at the end as a really dark complex character, who is both incredibly self-conscious about the evil he does, and how it affects people, but doesn’t take pleasure in it, nonetheless. And of course in Part II in the discussion of the group trying to assassinate the Tsar (who are of course allegorical for the Bolsheviks, who did whack the Tsar) you know for a fact that these people would be no different, and possibly worse, if they came to power.

    Ivan himself is a complex character…a mix of the historical Ivan, Stalin, and also Eisenstein himself. Like Eisenstein, Ivan is a momma’s boy who had moments of vulnerability, exile, and grandiose importance. Ivan the Terrible is my stock answer for “greatest movie evah”.

  10. Tony Williams Says:

    Stimulating remarks. SR, have you seen the extras on the Criterion version, missing footage preserved from what was destroyed from Pt. 3?

    Kristin Thompson wrote a brilliant neo-formalist study of the film. Note the parallels: the dragging away of Ivan’s mother in the flashback and the dragging away of Ivan’s presumed successor – both before bereaved family members.

    Note also E’s Hollywood musical number – “Boyars are (not) a Tsar’s best friend” with Fyodor in drag compensating for the fact that he was not allowed to portray Queen Elizabeth with Romm in drag.

  11. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    The number with Fyodor is based on something the real guy he’s based on I.e. the historical dude at Ivan’s court did. He apparently dressed in drag for the star’s amusement. Also based on stuff done by Yezov, famous for being the guy who got touched out of that photo with Stalin. Yezov aka ‘the bloody dwarf’ was the guy who really escalated Stalin’s purges and ordered the death of author Isaac Babel, great writer and friend and collaborator with Eisenstein on the aborted Bezhin Meadow. Yezov was a bisexual and a messed up guy and that was before he became a mass murderer.

    So there’s a lot of layers there. In part 3, Ivan was gonna manipulate Fyodor to his death the way that Stalin whacked Yezov and replaced him with Beria.

    All of that, this subtext and historical commentary is there in the movie. Eisenstein used Freud and the return of the repressed to talk about how Russia keeps being governed by a tsar, whether boyar, Romanov, Bolshevik and now we can say oligarch, since you have Putin as the latest tsar.

  12. Fascinating: then Eisenstein was either incredibly brave, suicidal, or couldn’t help but put these layers into his work, even perhaps unconsciously.

  13. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    Ivan the Terrible was among the bravest things Eisenstein ever did. He grounded the entire thing with a layer of historical commentary and plausible deniability so while the movie is not a straight historical representation and recreation, it’s nonetheless still got stuff to say about the actual Ivan. The whole Freudian theme of fathers and sons, of course alludes to the fact that the historical Ivan murdered his own son by accident when he struck him with a sceptre in one of his rages. That ended up creating a major crisis in Russian history, the Time of Troubles. And indeed the final image of Ivan 3, was Ivan walking at the beach as an old man in grief with Russia in ruins behind him. It would add up to the past devouring the future.

    But that never got made. I actually think Ivan the Terrible is stronger for ending on Part 2, because at the end of the film, Ivan is cold, alone, and unredeemable and unrepentant. I think that’s a truer prophecy and more accurate vision of USSR in Stalin’s final years than if it ended with some catharsis for Ivan’s life. It’s also quite accurate. There’s a book called “Practising Stalinism” by J. Arch Getty which is a sociological view of the way Stalin and Post-Stalin era Russia worked and it’s an analysis about the way consciously and unconsciously, the Soviet commissars unintentionally ended up behaving the way people did under the Tsar.

  14. Tony Williams Says:

    Again, sterling analysis SR. Significantly, the concluding color sequence that ends Pt. 2 does not include the Basmanovs who perish in Pt. III. Already during the dance f the oprovniks, Ivan castigates Basmanov Sr. for getting too uppity. I remember seeing a BBC Tv program decades ago where Lindsay Anderson praised Pt. 2. An earlier cone I never saw had an interview with Serafima Birman and I assume that program is now lost?

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