Wednesday, October 15, 2014
A hotly debated topic among Soviet planners in the 1920s was urban vs. rural. Lenin's ambitious rail and electrification plan was intended to connect the disparate ethnic groups of the new nation together, to foster a community of Sovietness. Lenin held true on his promise, and, for the first time in history, Russians could easily migrate into areas where workers were needed, thus creating a dynamic labor force that could be shifted and reallocated, depending on industrial and agricultural necessities. Rural Russians began migrating into cities, thereby redefining those public spaces. Soviet planners were divided on how they saw the role of urban centers like St. Petersburg and Moscow in the new USSR.; they were simultaneously romanticized spawning points of a proletariat revolution and the very symbols of Czarist decadence and criminality. The "disurbanists" advocated "decentering" all housing and industry to suburban peripheries and creating large greenbelts that would serve as antidotes to industrialism. Portable homes would allow a new mobility. City centers would be entirely public spaces devoted to leisure and cultural pursuits, where workers would mingle and discuss art, world revolution, and chess gambits. In the end, these elaborate utopian designs were left on the drafting table, and the reality that worked itself out is probably closer to what we see in the beginning of Trubnaya; essentially, peasants holding ducks, arriving via tram, looking for work.
It is this tricky navigation of public and private spaces, and their transformation through the building of new social bridges, that forms the core of House on Trubnaya. It was not alone; this theme permeates the plots of many silent Soviet comedies and dramas, such as Abram Room's Third Meshchnanskaia Street (a.k.a. Bed & Sofa). One striking example from Trubnaya is the remarkable staircase sequence, where Barnet shows the dynamism of communal apartment living in a tightly-choreographed, vertical cross-section shot, where tenants occupy the public space of the apartment hallway, carrying out a dizzying amount of synchronized "private" house chores alongside one another. Urban humanity as busy discombobulated mass.
Both Third Meshchnanskaia Street and House on Trubnaya are praised for their strong portrayals of female protagonists. Trubnaya's Paranya, played by Vera Maretskaya, moves from rural transplant to new Soviet unionized woman. Like Dziga Vertov, who sought to show a fractured urbanity through dynamic editing, optical effects, and montage, Barnet shows us Parasha's Moscow, disorienting us with the speed and chaos of city life. We sense the crowds subjectively as she does, fast and threatening. The Soviet state promoted gender equality between the sexes in its policies and propaganda. It offered free child care and legalized abortion. Posters advocated for women to abandon their "dreary domestic lives" and join the labor force, and Trubnaya's second half brings these points to the plot's forefront, as Parasha learns of her rights (from a woman in the union), and her employer, played by the Vladimir Fogel (also in Third Meshchnanskaia Street and Chess Fever), is punished by the authorities for his "cruelty." In the end, she is vindicated, transformed, no longer alone and afraid but empowered and among comrades. In the great ebb and flow of mixed messages of Soviet emancipation of women's right, House on Trubnaya represents one of the better moments in that equation, at least in pop culture. It would still take several decades and the death of Stalin until women directors were allowed the creative freedom to explore their own cinematic visions from the other side of the lens.
Thursday, October 2, 2014
In the early 1920s, things were looking abysmal for the film industry in Russia. The small, emerging market that had existed prior to World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution was in shambles. Even more devastating was the ensuing Civil War; before it, there were 148 movie theaters operating in Moscow; by 1921, all were closed. Given the dire situation, it is astounding that so many great directors emerged from the silent era of Soviet film. The period from 1925-1929 was the zenith of the medium. It had traveled from cumbersome single takes of blocked actors miming stage drama to dynamic movement and handheld cameras. Germany's F.W. Murnau had, with 1924's Der letzte mann (The Last Laugh), constructed a film without intertitles, a truly universal film language based solely on images that transcended textual communication. It was convenient timing: the Soviets could reap the technical rewards of the silent film's evolution without the growing pains. The body of work that they produced was unique; no other nation's film industry divorced creativity from finance and capitalism in quite the same way.
That being said, Lenin was well aware of the shortcomings of his proletariat revolution. They won the Civil War but were now desperately short of financial resources. This was the genesis of the New Economic Policy of 1921, which made controversial concessions to capitalism in exchange for a loosening of commercial restrictions. To calm the anxieties of opening the door to the West, the NEP was pitched as a temporary fix, a quick injection of cash that the Soviet leadership could use to stabilize the economy in advance of state planning. Thus, by the end of that year, 95 theaters had returned to Moscow, half of them privately owned, the rest under state control. Accepting this invitation, Hollywood "invaded" in 1923, when The Mark of Zorro, Robin Hood, and The Thief of Baghdad brought in record audiences in the Soviet capital. It was not uncommon in those days for silent imports (especially long ones) to be hacked upon to reduce running times and, in the Soviet case, to alter messages deemed ideologically suspect. This was how Sergei Eisenstein, after his beginnings in drama, got his start in editing.
Eisenstein is without question the most famous Soviet filmmaker of all time. He created far fewer films than many of his peers, especially Kuleshov, who was arguably more aligned with the Russian moviegoer's need for escapism. But October, Strike!, and Battleship Potemkin are all acknowledged classics among western scholars. Potemkin is often cited as the first "revolutionary film" both due to its subject matter and its Communist origins, but this label is misleading. It is the story of a contagious mutiny but also the distortion of a historical timeline to suit an agenda (in that sense, one could compare Eisenstein to JFK-era Oliver Stone.) Although aesthetically at odds with directors like Dziga Vertov, who saw fiction film as passe and detrimental to working-class progress, he nevertheless shared Vertov's desire to destroy and rebuild cinema through his work. In the end, their contributions to editing would revolutionize media pop culture. This look--rapid cuts, subjective close-ups, explicit "message"--would quickly come to be known as the "Soviet montage" and was both derided and praised for its propagandastic tendentiousness. Walter Benjamin's assertion that all societies essentially have their own pop-culture propaganda messages is prescient and accurate. Years before Potemkin, Griffith's The Birth of a Nation paved the way for embedded patriotic messages, and yet, while that film is often rightly slammed for its rampant racism, it is rarely called out for its nationalist fervor. Propaganda is what we call Battleship Potemkin and Triumph of the Will, not Stagecoach or Intolerance.
Like Vertov, Pudovkin, and Kuleshov, Eisenstein was a theoretician and wrote extensively on cinema. Vertov was a big thinker, striving for broader human connections between cinema, world Socialism, and creative expression. Eisenstein did not subscribe to these ideas, focusing instead on Russia alone and applying his epic rhetoric to the Bolshevik's political agenda, with which he explicitly agreed, at least in the beginning of his career. It is clear from his output that the young Eisenstein was inspired by the resurgence of creativity brought on by the revolution. For example, the geometric obsessions of the new Constructivist movement can be witnessed in the advanced triangular shot compositions in Potemkin. Of the most famous scenes, the "Odessa Steps" sequence, although copied, referenced, and parodied to death, has lost very little of its visceral appeal. The still of the scream, eyeglasses and blood is a textbook case of an effective cinematic close-up.
Tuesday, September 16, 2014
"The centre is getting moving." -- Viktor ShklovskiiAsk people what they associate with the Soviet Union today and you'll get a few stock responses: "Communism"; "Cold War"; "Iron Curtain." If you add "Film" to that question, you'll usually get a comment about "Propaganda", which isn't surprising. Growing up, I assumed "they" were watching films about evil capitalists in much the same way that we western kids were consuming our own objective historical masterworks, like Rambo II and Red Dawn. Such kitsch has entered the dustbin of pop culture, detached from the newscasts where talking heads warned us of "continued aggression" with grainy satellite images of Soviet jets under camouflage in Nicaraguan jungles, where they would soon depart to kill capitalism and/or my family. Today, the Soviet Union is spun as a failed state, an experiment in Marxism that collapsed due to its inability to keep pace with U.S. tech-capitalism; or, as Reagan liked to pitch it, as being defeated by U.S. tech-capitalism.
Regardless of its later direction and the causes of its demise, in 1917, the collapse of the traditional Tzarist dynasties and the formation of the Soviet Union was a watershed moment that struck fear into the industrialized North and gave the impoverished South hope for a path out of its 19th-century colonial subjugation. The changes permeated all levels of Russian society, including the arts. Once-respected Impressionists associated with the aristocratic class now found their Parisian training of little use as the revolutionary avant garde exploded onto the scene. There were several competing or complimentary schools, but it was the Constructivists that would ultimately make the biggest impact on the world of design, with their modernity, social progress, and activism. Above all, this new Socialist art would be an art by, and for, the Russian masses.
Cinema, a medium still in its infancy, was to have a key role in all of this. It would be an ideological tool used to strengthen and coalesce a new Soviet national identity. The U.S. had recently redefined film narrative with Griffith's The Birth of a Nation, and many Soviet filmmakers studied its techniques closely, mimicking it to their own ends. The best of these early features is the debut film by Lev Kuleshov, The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks, which satirizes and plays upon stereotypes of Americans and Russians (see Kuleshov's "constructivist western" By The Law for his finest moment). While he and others sought to use existing comedic tropes, others abandoned traditional narrative completely and began writing and thinking about film in ways that they believed more accurately reflected their revolutionary ideals about the role of art in society.
One of these was David Kaufman, soon reborn as Dziga Vertov ("Spinning Top"). He is often described as the first documentary filmmaker, an inaccurate title that undermines his greatest gift: the blending of non-fiction and fiction forms into something disorienting and overtly meta, somehow both staged and entirely of the "street." Vertov believed passionately in his own concept of the "Camera Eye", which he wrote about extensively (Soviets were ahead of their time with film theory, intellectualizing it in a manner uncommon until the French New Wave, who rediscovered Vertov). He believed that a deeper level of truth, or "kino pravda" ("film truth"), could be arrived at through the editing process. Thus, "reality" or "truth" was not simply shown by pointing a camera and filming. There was no objective reality, only the subjective world created and fleshed out via juxtapositions and conflicts, cinematic chaos and carefully-controlled order, and the role of director as revolutionary anthropologist. His early shorts and first films reflect this worldview, being neither strict narratives nor newsreels.
All of Vertov's ideas about what constituted cinema culminated in his one perfect statement, Man With A Movie Camera, his chaotic meta-analysis of Soviet life, shot by himself and his Kino-Pravda collective over 1927-28, and released in 1929 to confusion and indifference. Vertov said that it embodied "the 100% language of cinema, designed to be perceived visually, to be thought about visually." Its structure was revolutionary: no intertitle cards, no plot, no dialogue, not even a location is given to ground the viewer in a particular city. We are adrift, following the camera eye as it establishes its own civic boundaries through cuts and montage, the line between viewer/camera/filmmaker often blurred or obliterated. Rarely does Vertov ever let the audience consciously slip away from the fact that they are watching a constructed reality of this "revolutionary space" of modernity and motion, of a new sense of "Sovietness"--the film's real star. Images of the modern Soviet woman, now (theoretically) emancipated from child-rearing and the oppression of the domestic realm, figure heavily throughout; and although this emancipation proved more figurative than literal, women like Lyubov Popova, Nadezhda Udaltsova, and Varvara Stepanova were artists at the forefront of Constructivism.
Man With A Movie Camera was the Soviet avant garde's swan song and Vertov's final film before the dominance of sound, although, unlike his peers, he welcomed the invention and saw its potential. In fact, his subsequent sound film, Enthusiasm: Symphony of the Donbass (1930) has been restored from its original failed state, when sound synching issues killed its premier. Like many of his peers, Vertov fell in and out of favor with the Party but mostly out towards the end. With more centralized state control came dwindling artistic risk. By the time of Stalin's purges in the 1930s, and definitely by the German invasion of 1941, Soviet film was in a sad state from which it would not fully recover until the "cultural thaw" of the early 1960s and the coming of Parajanov, Tarkovsky, and Larisa Shepitko.
Lewis & Clark College