Battleship Potemkin as Propaganda

Sergei Eisenstein successfully uses new filming techniques, particularly montage editing, to convince his audience that the Tsarist government is evil in his 1925 film, Battleship Potemkin. Several elements of the film stood out as making the film effective propaganda.

First, the editing techniques stirred the audience’s emotions in a way that typical 1925 films would not. Eisenstein was influenced by the work of Lev Kuleshov and was aware of the psychological conclusions of the Kuleshov Effect. Eisenstein uses these conclusions by cutting particular images together to elicit a greater emotional response than any of the images could bring out alone. The Odessa steps sequence is the prime example of this, but another example stood out to me. As the battleship came into Odessa and Vakulinchuk’s body was put on display, at first the crowd mourns. Then, Eisenstein cuts in images of the crowd beginning to clench their fists by using close-up shots of open hands clenching down into fists. This showed the transition from sadness to anger and then to uprising.

The key to propaganda is making the audience sympathize with the desired party. By showing the mistreatment of the sailors, Eisenstein causes the audience to sympathize with them and to despise the Tsarist officers. Another scene that is particularly interesting is the vilification of the Orthodox priest. He raises his cross and waves it around, threatening the sailors with excommunication, while telling them that they are fighting God. Considering that Eisenstein was commissioned by the Soviet government to make this film, the logical conclusion is that Eisenstein is asking that people place their loyalty with the Soviet government rather than with the church.

Another element of Battleship Potemkin that makes it successful propaganda is the use of amateur actors. It is easier for the Russian audience to relate and be swayed by the film when the actors look like typical Russians. The purpose of most modern films is entertainment, so most of these films feature beautiful actors. People are entertained by watching beautiful people. Eisenstein had a different purpose. He was trying to elicit a particular emotion and a particular loyalty. The most effective way to do this was to show his audience people who looked like them, so that they might better relate. One scene strikes me as a particularly good example of this: the woman carrying her trampled son up the Odessa steps looks like a man. In this way, the scene is not about what you see, but about what you feel. You are not supposed to be thinking about a beautiful woman, but instead about the brutality toward her child and the emotion that she is feeling. Battleship Potemkin is famous as a propaganda film, and rightly so. The filming techniques are excellent and Eisenstein successfully causes his audience to sympathize with the sailors and the Soviet government.

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Taking a Look at the Ratings Board

This Film Is Not Yet Rated (Kirby Dick, 2005) reveals the operations of the MPAA ratings system, showing how the films are rated and highlights the differences between R and NC-17. In order to give full understanding of the issue, it was necessary for this film to include scenes that caused movies to be rated NC-17. I had never seen anything like those scenes before, but now I understand the issue. I agree with the MPAA’s decision to give a rating of NC-17 to films containing this content. However, I also agree with Kirby Dick that violence is not treated with the same amount of distaste as sexuality is. So, I believe that violence should be rated more harshly than it currently is, while explicit sexuality should continue to be rated harshly.

As discovered by This Film Is Not Yet Rated’s private investigators, the ratings board consists of ten members. Those on this board are supposed to have children between the ages of 5 and 17 and serve for a maximum of five years. Of the raters, only one (Barry Freeman) meets those criteria. Most have children older than seventeen. I am concerned about how well this group represents the average parent. By all living in Los Angeles, they may easily be biased by their surroundings. Also, the film portrays these members as buddies. A homogenous group like this cannot accurately represent the many diverse opinions of parents.

On the other hand, I admire the “call it as I see it” approach to rating films. There is not an objective way to go about rating films without crossing heavily into the land of censorship. By not having written standards for ratings, the MPAA is given freedom to rate based on the whole of the film rather than the details of the content. This is the best way to rate: rating the film, not the scenes.

I agree with a wise professor that the usefulness of MPAA ratings is waning. In this generation of easy information, moviegoers can find out particulars about objectionable material in films. In this way, they can use the information like a “may contain peanuts” label. If someone is allergic to peanuts, he will read the labels and make sure not to consume peanuts. Likewise, if I am allergic to excessive violence in films, I can read about the film to discover whether it is something safe to consume.

The Subtle Notorious

Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946) sneaks around the censors, but does so naturally and without blatantly pushing its bounds. The famous kissing scene is the most obvious example of this, but the film includes other subtle elements that communicate a point which may have been objectionable if communicated explicitly.

Hitchcock shows Agent Devlin (Cary Grant) and Alicia (Ingrid Bergman) kissing as they walk from the patio indoors. Throughout the scene, the couple remains in an embrace and continue to kiss for a long period of time, but never kiss for more than three seconds at a time, allowing them to beat the censors. Hitchcock definitely succeeded with this scene. The audience is left just as twitterpated (in the words of Bambi) as if Bergman and Grant had been kissing the entire time. In fact, the pauses even enhance the scene.

The character of Alicia seems to be contrary to the typical female lead. She is tough and uninhibited, but at the same time she can not communicate openly with Devlin. Throughout the film, both Devlin and Alicia keep hoping the other will stand up and admit that they are in love. Alicia hopes that Devlin will try to convince her not to marry Sebastian (Claude Rains), while Devlin hopes Alicia will refuse the proposal on her own.  Another element of Alicia’s character that seems to be opposed to the typical is her alcoholism. Although Prohibition has ended by this time, it is still not acceptable to show alcoholics in a favorable light. The audience feels sympathy for Alicia and wishes the best for her, so they are inadvertently sympathetic to an alcoholic. On the other hand, it appears that as the film progresses, Alicia gets drunk less and less frequently.

One scene that made me uncomfortable likely made the censors uncomfortable also. Near the beginning of the film, Devlin and Alicia go for a drive. Alicia is very drunk and is driving. When Alicia finds out that Devlin is an agent, she becomes very angry and Devlin strong-arms her. To subdue her, Devlin eventually punches her jaw. This violence is shown subtly so that it does not break any particular code guidelines, but is still a major contrast to the goal of the code. Along the same lines, Alicia and Devlin’s words to each other are quite cruel. Their words are not vulgar or obscene, but they still make the audience uncomfortable with the meanness.

Overall, I really enjoyed Notorious. Especially at the end, the suspense had me on the edge of my seat. However, I do not believe Notorious was the type of movie the Production Code intended. For example, compare Notorious  with It Happened One Night (Capra, 1934) which met the goals of the Production Code.

Response to The Public Enemy

The Public Enemy (Wellman, 1931), a tale of another Powers family, succeeded in meeting the Production Code’s goals in ways Baby Face (Green, 1933) did not. Lily Powers of Baby Face used her sexuality to gain power, while Tom Powers of The Public Enemy used force and violence to gain power. In the end, Tom Powers ended up dead. He paid the greatest price for his sinfulness.

Because Powers died as a result of his sinfulness, the film is able to fully meet the Production Code’s goal of having all wickedness punished. The audience is not cheering for Powers, they are hoping that he will change his ways. The audience is given that satisfaction when Powers admits, “I ain’t so tough,” and also when he reconciles with his family in the hospital. Even though Powers has this change of heart, he still has to pay for his actions.

I had an idea of what this film was about before I watched it because of other film classes as well as what I know about the recent remake. I was expecting a gangster movie with plenty of shooting and foul language. Though the film contained violence, it was not the type I was expecting. Throughout the movie, the filmmakers choose not to show the actual deed of shooting. For example, in the scene in which Powers shoots Putty Nose, the filmmakers creatively show that he has been shot using sound instead of image. Putty Nose is playing the piano, then suddenly a shot fires, and then the sound of Putty Nose’s body striking the keys. Meanwhile, the audience watches Matt Doyle’s reaction. This was very tastefully done; it told the story without the cringe factor.

I was most surprised at another type of violence in The Public Enemy: violence towards women. Tom Powers did not respect women. The grapefruit scene shows this most clearly, but also the way he treats his mother (such as gently punching her jaw), and the scene in which he slaps Jane (although she did ask for it).

The Public Enemy successfully met the goals of the Production Code, while still providing entertainment for those who enjoy gangster films. On the other hand, if this film had been released a few years later when the Code was being more strictly enforced, I believe that much of the cruelty towards women would not have been accepted. To compare, shooting did not take place visually on-screen, but a man violently smacking a grapefruit into his girlfriend’s face did. That scene was very demeaning and cruel, and would likely not be allowed if the film was released in 1935 and not 1931.

Response to Baby Face

Baby Face (Green, 1933) shows just how close the film makers could get to crossing the limits of the Production Code, while escaping censorship. The overall plot of Baby Face is not acceptable to the MPPDA, but the ending redeems the overall plot according to the Production Code. So long as Lily came to her senses at the end, the hour of exploiting her sexuality was permitted.

This was a step in the right direction for the Production Code, but this one step did not actually take them anywhere. I agree with the concern that Richard Maltby articulates, “They pay little attention to film morals or retribution, and the idea that a moral at the end cancels out in the child’s mind unwholesome material that he has seen earlier in the picture is utterly mistaken” (259). I did not come away from watching Baby Face feeling as though I had watched the story of the character transformation or redemption of Lily Powers. Instead, I felt as though I had watched Lily Powers become more and more degenerate up until the last few minutes in which the MPPDA forced the filmmakers to include a moral punishing evil. I felt that way because that was exactly what happened.

If the MPPDA was truly concerned with what sort of moral the audience would take away from Baby Face, the movie would have not been allowed since the overall moral is that a woman can use her sexuality to gain power, wealth, and influence. I believe that as a self-regulating body, the MPPDA was more concerned with ticket sales than moral uprightness. The MPPDA judges just what amount of wickedness would decrease ticket sales and what amount would increase ticket sales. The way this played out was by censoring blatant details (graphic sex scenes) but allowing subtle wickedness (Lily’s many sexual advances). In the same way, the Production Code allowed horrible morals, as long as the perpetrator came to some harm in the end, whether or not the punishment was directly linked to the crime.