At the movies · Catchphrases · Universal Knowledge

“It’s like that bit in Battleship Potemkin”

There are people I used to hang around with, 30 years ago or so, who would understand the phrase “It’s like that bit in Battleship Potemkin”. Most of the people I hang around with now wouldn’t.

Just to clarify, “Battleship Potemkin” is a 1925 Russian (or Soviet) film directed by Sergei Eisenstein. The brief IMDB description is: “A dramatized account of a great Russian naval mutiny and a resulting street demonstration which brought on a police massacre”. For the people I spent time with in the 1980s that description would be as unnecessary as “The Beatles were a popular 1960s beat combo from Liverpool, whose hits included She Loves You and A Hard Day’s Night”. We could talk about “Battleship Potemkin” or The Beatles, or “Fawlty Towers”, without having to explain any further. In our world it was part of Universal Knowledge.

Some years ago, at a family meal with my in-laws, a member of my wife’s family alluded to the film. My mother-in-law wasn’t sure if the cold meat that she was serving was still in date. The other member of my wife’s family, who will remain nameless here, picked up the plate, sniffed it and said, “It’s like that bit in Battleship Potemkin”. He might have joked about the meat being infested with maggots. Neither of my parents-in-law had seen the film. My wife hadn’t seen the film. I was the only other person in the room who was likely to understand the reference.

There are at least three reasons to quote from a piece of work (film, play, book, opera, pop song, whatever): one, to engage with the other people in the room (because they are also familiar with the work, or would appreciate it); two, to teach or inform other people in the room about something they might not know about yet; three, to exclude other people, or display superior knowledge.

For most people there are only two “bits” in “Battleship Potemkin”: the maggot-infested meat and the baby in the pram careering down the Odessa steps. It was the image of meat unfit for human consumption that my wife’s relative was alluding to. The sailors on the ship refuse to eat the meat because it’s crawling with worms or maggots. The ship’s doctor examines it, we get a close-up of the meat, creatures crawling all over it, and the doctor declares it safe to eat. It’s a very famous image from the era of silent movies.

The sequence of a baby in an out-of-control pram, hurtling down the Odessa steps while soldiers fire on the crowd to quell the rebellion, is even more famous. It was echoed in Brian de Palma’s movie “The Untouchables”, featuring Kevin Costner as Eliot Ness, Robert de Niro as Al Capone, and Sean Connery as the Irishman with a rather strong Scottish accent (but that didn’t stop him winning the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for 1987). “Battleship Potemkin” was name-checked many times in reviews of the movie. More of us had heard of it back then. But 1987 was nearly 30 years ago. I have to remind myself of this sort of thing increasingly often.

Around 10 years ago Pet Shop Boys created their own soundtrack to the film and it played in Trafalgar Square, back when Ken Livingstone was Mayor of London. I didn’t see that version but I did buy the film on DVD, as a light-hearted present, just like that video of “Misery” by Kathy Bates, which I wrote about previously. The unwatched DVD and the unwatched pre-recorded VHS tape of “Misery” sit on the same shelf in my son’s bedroom, and “Battleship Potemkin” exists in our lives mainly as part of a catchphrase, like “She’s just like Kathy Bates in Misery”.



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