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THE PRIMAL PHENOMENON: ART

by SERGEI EISENSTEIN

(original translation)

2017, Berlin, Potemkin Press

What do the movements of a chicken have in common with the development of the plot in a melodrama? And what does a spider’s vision share with the stylistic peculiarities of Manet or Zola? What makes Shakespeare’s dramatic situations metonymic but G.K. Chesterton’s metaphoric? What is it that unites Goethe’s gestural interpretation of Leonardo’s Last Supper with Balzac’s enthusiasm for secret societies, the bisexuality of deity with the misogyny of great detectives, the strange lives of flatworms with the Osiris myth—and all of this with film montage? In his quest to explain the nature and function of what he calls art’s “primal phenomenon,” Soviet filmmaker and theorist Sergei Eisenstein leaps across disparate subject matter, from the circus to Bach to Fântomas to Rodin; he sees Dostoevsky’s double in Mark Twain and his own double in Ben Jonson; he investigates the pervasiveness of rhythm and the movement of actors; he addresses Swift’s language of objects and Tolstoy’s concrete thinking; and he discusses the fiasco of his fruitless days in Hollywood.

In this wide-ranging undertaking, Eisenstein analyzes almost every form of art—music, painting, literature, and theatre—and considers, specifically, drama from the Elizabethans to Meyerhold; French and Japanese erotic caricature; the novels of Balzac, Zola, Dostoevsky, Dreiser, D.H. Lawrence, Conan Doyle, Steinbeck, and Ellery Queen.  And, as always, he subjects his own films to the same critical acumen. Throughout the work, Eisenstein enlists a host of experts, quoting psychologists, anthropologists, psychoanalysts, linguists, folklorists, art historians, and zoologists—all with the goal of uncovering art’s primordial origins and revealing the mysteries of film form.