Sergei Eisenstein and The Knucklehead

Last night, for perhaps the last time, I sent The Knucklehead off into the wide world with a little something extra packed into his lunchbox. It was 20th-century Soviet film director Sergei Eisenstein. Not literally, obviously, that would be impractical. But it was another of those gestures that we offer as a parent when there’s nothing else we can do. Parenthood seems to be rich with acts of the heart that make us feel like maybe all we’re doing is assuaging our own unease about turning our knuckleheads loose. We mean well, of course, and most often our needs to be good parents happily coincide with our childrens’ needs. But sometimes you get the feeling that you’re cutting the crust off the sandwich more for your own peace of mind than your kid’s.

When Knucks was in grade school, for example, there was a period of a few years when I was packing lunches for him. Along with the grapes and the Gogurts, I’d pack a little note, a haiku I’d dash off as he was getting ready for school (which usually involved watching SportsCenter). And, relax (I can actually hear you roll your eyes as you read this), these were not pearls of brilliance. In fact, most of the haikus were about Godzilla. A sample:

Godzilla Haiku #1

Stompishly, I smash.

But what I really want is

The chance to direct.

Godzilla Haiku #2

Domed ballparks. Crunchy

Shell, and inside, a surprise.

These are my favorite.

I like to think he enjoyed his lunchtime poems. If they got him beat up, he never said a word.

With middle and high school came lunch purchased in the cafeteria, and the poetry (such as it was) fell by the wayside. But not the need to pass on wisdom, experience, advice, or expertise to the youngling. This is why so many fathers coach their sons in curveballs, tight spirals, auto repair, or a thousand other things. Sure you want to help. But mostly you want to feel like you can help. Like there’s something of value you have that your kid will need, and that there’s still some use to the old man after all.

I can’t play baseball to save my life. I’m the Antonio Salieri of baseball; cursed with a love of the game, but lacking the art to create beautiful baseball of my own. Destined for all eternity to recognize the nice throw to first in others, but unable to execute on my own. But movies are another story. I can geek movies and film history like nobody’s business.

Knucks, whether through genuine interest or sheer self-defense, has become quite the film geek himself.* This weekend he returns for his second semester of college, but most importantly, to his first-ever film course. This is my last chance to send him off with the best possible preparation. I must be sure The Knucklehead does not bring dishonor to the family name.

So we sit down to a Sergei Eisenstein double-feature. Eisenstein was something of a pioneer in Soviet cinema, but his influence to filmmakers worldwide was huge. We begin with Battleship Potemkin, the 1925 silent film for which he’s probably best known. Eisenstein was working around the time of the cubist movement in art, and was intrigued by their work. In particular, he was impressed by the way cubists attempted to get at the heart, or “truth” of a subject by exposing more dimensions and viewpoints than the literal interpretation on a two-dimensional medium would allow. Eisenstein wondered if the same thing couldn’t be done on film. Would it be possible to explore an event from multiple angles simultaneously (or near-simultaneously) thus revealing more of the “truth” of an event than a single eyewitness could uncover from one vantage point? Eisenstein experimented, and pioneered the montage, a brilliant film device that allows the audience to experience a scene from different viewpoints, ranging from sweeping to intimately personal, while viscerally intensifying the chaos and emotion with chaotic snippets of film. It’s something we take for granted today, but in Eisenstein’s time, this was revolutionary. Battleship Potemkin is the film that showed the world how this could be done.

We followed this up with Eisenstein’s 1938 masterpiece Alexander Nevsky, one of the greatest propaganda films ever made. The next time you want to rouse your citizenry in defense of your homeland from a foreign invader (as the Soviet Union found cause to do at several points in its history), just cue up Alexander Nevsky. Eisenstein’s at the height of his powers in capturing the epic flow and violence of 13th century warfare, and if that’s not enough he’s assisted by a sweeping score by Prokofiev. But what’s most fascinating to me about this film is how Eisenstein so thoroughly portrays the enemy German invaders as faceless monsters (literally, thanks to their helmets), driven by a religious fervor to conquer the world. The Russians, on the other hand, are simple, hearty, brave, pure, peace-loving, and gracious, but will prevail only when unified as a people. Sound familiar? American World War II-era war films owe a lot to Eisenstein.

So this is how I prepare The Knucklehead for his first film course, hoping to give him an extra advantage in film history he might use to stand out a little in the class. To be honest, by the end of the second film it sounds a lot more like Mystery Science Theater 3000 in our living room than any graduate film class, but still. I’m loading him up the best I can.

But here’s the thing: I’ve never taken a film class in my life. Because of my love of movies, I’ve watched literally thousands of films, and have spent hours reading probably close to a hundred books on film theory, history, criticism, appreciation, finance, direction and flat-out gossip, and that’s a lot. But it’s not organized in any way, I’ve just picked things up that have struck my interest at the time. There’s been no direction, no guidance to my film education. That doesn’t mean my education counts for nothing, but I have to admit that there may be huge gaps of which I’m unaware. In his book Rebel Without a Crew (a book I highly recommend to anyone out there as a superlative volume of life advice, movies notwithstanding) Robert Rodríguez thoroughly documents how the best film school is going out there with whatever equipment you have and making movies. But what Rodríguez overlooks is the one thing at which formalized education excels: having someone knowledgeable who can stand outside your experience and point out where the holes are. That, to me, is half the point of education. To learn what you don’t know.

So, I’m setting Knucks off with the best preparation I can give, but what do I really know? Maybe I’m mistaken about Eisenstein. Maybe I read it wrong, or just bought his biographer’s press. Maybe I’m just an idiot. Maybe once The Knucklehead gets an actual film class, he’ll learn that Eisenstein was a hack, and the Farrelly brothers are really the cinematic artists of our times. Maybe I’m just one of those dads who never made it past high school ball, but still thinks he can teach his kid something about throwing a slider before he goes to the majors.

The point is, I’m giving him the best I got. As a parent, that’s my job, and that’s all I can do. Our kids are smart. They’ll figure out what we say that’s worth hanging onto, and what’s just crazy batshit nonsense that sounds to us like wisdom, but that would cause them more harm than good if they really held onto it. Just like we did with our own parents. They’re smart enough (or will be, in time) to acknowledge and accept the love that comes with our notes and advice, good and bad.

That’s something he can use.


*See William A. Wellman, Tigger, and The Knucklehead for an early example.

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