As a carless cinephile, I’ve spent hours upon hours listening to film podcasts while riding my bike or the train. Battleship Pretension, hosted by knowledgeable but still knowledge-hungry young critics Tyler Smith and David Bax, has long held top priority on these rides — and even if the title’s referent doesn’t flood your mind with memories of artistic awe, you probably get the pun. But if you want to go deeper and talk about how film editing went from grunt work to art form, you have little choice but to talk about Battleship Potemkin (1925) and its director, Sergei Eisenstein. A Russian double-threat of filmmaker and film theorist in the 1920s through the late 1940s, Eisenstein pioneered many now-essential editing techniques, figuring out how images could be arranged to serve not just a film’s story but its rhythm, its tone, and even its themes.
Like cinema itself, Eisenstein came from the theater. Unlike most of his contemporaries, he made great strides in dragging cinema out of the theater behind him, casting off staid storytelling habits in favor of the vast possibilities of the then-new medium, most of which remain uncharted even today. Tasked by his government with producing what came down to revolutionary propaganda, Eisenstein couldn’t push the thematic envelope very far. Even so, today’s filmmakers looking for ways to advance their form, or today’s filmgoers eager to learn more about how movies work, would do well to look at what Eisenstein managed to do 85 years ago, and how aesthetically exhilarating it all remains.
This you can do from the comfort of your computer by browsing Open Culture’s collection of Free Movies Online, where you’ll find links to Eisenstein pictures viewable at the click of the mouse, including the sweeping Alexander Nevsky, the doomed ¡Que viva México!, and of course, the iconic Battleship Potemkin (above). Watch a few, and you’ll see why Battleship Pretension’s listeners voted Eisenstein into the top hundred directors of all time. Smith and Bax called on yours truly to write his blurb on the list, but don’t take my word for the filmmaker’s importance; his movies, whether you catch them in a grand revival screening or on your web browser right now, show you everything you need to know.
Complete list of free Eisenstein films: Alexander Nevsky (alternate version), Battleship Potemkin, October: Ten Days that Shook the World, Old and New, ¡Que viva México!, Romance Sentimentale, Strike.