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“marx and montage”

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Frederic Jameson has a piece called “Marx and Montage” in the current New Left Review. I saw an earlier version of this paper last year as the keynote at a conference in the US, where it didn’t go down all that well. This is tighter and better. It deals, via Alexander Kluge’s News from Ideological Antiquity, with Einsenstein’s rough plans to make a film of Marx’s Kapital. He deals with, among other things, what Joyce’s Ulysses had to do with Eisenstein’s Marx project…

Commentators—and not only Kluge himself—have fastened on the jotting, ‘a day in a man’s life’ as the evidence for believing Eisenstein to have imagined a plot sequence like that of Joyce’s Bloomsday. Later on, they note the addition of a second ‘plot line’, that of social reproduction and ‘the “house-wifely virtues” of a German worker’s wife’, along with the reminder: ‘throughout the entire picture the wife cooks soup for her returning husband’, the unspecified ‘man’ of the earlier sequence having logically enough become a worker. This alleged routine cross-cutting—to which one should probably add the day in the life of a capitalist or a merchant—is being ruminated at the very same historical moment when, as Annette Michelson points out, Dziga Vertov is filming Man with a Movie Camera.

It is true: ‘Joyce may be helpful for my purpose’, notes Eisenstein. But what follows is utterly different from the ‘day in the life of’ formula. For Eisenstein adds: ‘from a bowl of soup to the British vessels sunk by England’. What has happened is that we have forgotten the presence, in Ulysses, of chapters stylistically quite different from the day’s routine format. But Eisenstein has not: ‘In Joyce’s Ulysses there is a remarkable chapter of this kind, written in the manner of a scholastic catechism. Questions are asked and answers given’. But what is he referring to when he says, ‘of this kind’?

It is clear that Kluge already knows the answer, for in his filmic discussion of the notes, the pot of soup has become a water kettle, boiling away and whistling: the image recurs at several moments in the exposition (Eisenstein’s notes projected in graphics on the intertitles), in such a way that this plain object is ‘abstracted’ into the very symbol of energy. It boils impatiently, vehemently it demands to be used, to be harnessed, it is either the whistling signal for work, for work stoppage, for strikes, or else the motor-power of a whole factory, a machine for future production . . . Meanwhile, this is the very essence of the language of silent film, by insistence and repetition to transform their objects into larger-than-life symbols; a procedure intimately related to the close-up. But this is also what Joyce does in the catechism chapter; and Ulysses’s first great affirmation, the first thunderous ‘yes’, comes here and not in Molly’s closing words: it is the primal force of water streaming from the reservoir into Dublin and eventually finding its way indomitably to Bloom’s faucet. (In Eisenstein the equivalent would be the milk separator of The General Line.)

I’ll admit to being slightly confused by what Jameson has to say about Eisenstein’s use (or non-use) of Joyce in this piece. He wants to deny Ulysses centrality to the project, but it remains somewhat unclear how or why.

I feel as though, in my ample spare time, I’m about to go on an Eisenstein reading / watching run, as this aggregate fiction that I keep thinking and taking about might be something like an intensification of modernist montage aesthetics, an intensification that does something more than just make more of it, make it faster and more total.

(Very disappointed to have missed this last night, I must say….)

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July 25, 2009 at 7:59 am

Posted in eisenstein, movies