American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
"The Battleship Potemkin” has been so famous for so long that it is almost impossible to come to it with a fresh eye. It is one of the fundamental landmarks of cinema. Its famous massacre on the Odessa Steps has been quoted so many times in other films (notably in “The Untouchables”) that it's likely many viewers will have seen the parody before they see the original. The film once had such power that it was banned in many nations, including its native Soviet Union. Governments actually believed it could incite audiences to action. If today it seems more like a technically brilliant but simplistic “cartoon” (Pauline Kael's description in a favorable review), that may be because it has worn out its element of surprise--that, like the 23rd Psalm or Beethoven's Fifth, it has become so familiar we cannot perceive it for what it is.
Having said that, let me say that “Potemkin,” which I have seen many times and taught using a shot-by-shot approach, did come alive for me the other night, in an unexpected time and place. The movie was projected on a big screen hanging from the outside wall of the Vickers Theater in Three Oaks, Mich., and some 300 citizens settled into their folding chairs in the parking lot to have a look at it. The simultaneous musical accompaniment was by Concrete, a southwestern Michigan band. Under the stars on a balmy summer night, far from film festivals and cinematheques, Sergei Eisenstein's 1925 revolutionary call generated some of its legendary rabble-rousing power.
It's not that anybody stood up and sang “The Internationale.” The folding chairs for this classic exercise in Soviet propaganda were on loan from the local Catholic church. Some audience members no doubt drove over to Oink's in New Buffalo afterward for ice cream cones. But the film did have headlong momentum, thrilling juxtapositions and genuine power to move--most especially during the Odessa Steps sequence, which had some viewers gasping out loud.
The movie was ordered up by the Russian revolutionary leadership for the 20th anniversary of the Potemkin uprising, which Lenin had hailed as the first proof that troops could be counted on to join the proletariat in overthrowing the old order.