Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Color of Pomegranates (1968)

Not everyone can drink of my water, it is of another water.
Not everyone can read my writing, it is of a different script.
Do not think my substance sand: it is a crag of solid rock.
As like a torrent that never dries, do not try to wear it down!
 - Sayat-Nova

Among Stalin's notable attributes, apart from the logistics of making 30,000 disappear over twenty years, was his advanced taste in cinema. He liked montages of grinning peasants swinging scythes and walking rhythmically forward before threshing machines, and this was what the USSR now needed, its policy architects concluded, not avant-garde Constructivist weirdness. Experimentation was decadent, dangerous, and no longer an acceptable form of self-expression. Artistic "elitism" was discouraged. All films would promote Socialist Realism (not to be confused with Social Realism) and celebrate the worker's state. The change was compounded by the introduction of sound, which upended the Soviet movie industry. It has been argued that sound was the start of American cultural hegemony, an invention meant to control the direction of the international marketplace under the guise of innovation. Essentially, if foreign markets wanted access to imports, they would have to meet U.S. technical standards for film production and projection. For some, this was a cost-prohibitive transition, and it impacted Soviet exports horribly. The revolutionary momentum slipped away, replaced by intransigence and paranoia. Soviet film would not fully recover until after Stalin's death, when the reigns on creativity were loosened by Khrushchev during the "Great Thaw" period.

In 1956, Khrushchev threw Stalin's legacy under the bus and exposed his crimes to the world. It was a historic moment for Russian artists and ushered in an era of renewed artistic liberty that, sadly, would not last long. Nevertheless, while the window presented itself, several legendary filmmakers emerged. Key among them was Sergei Parajanov, whose Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, released in 1965, was shockingly provincial for its use of Ukrainian dialects and regional customs completely alien to many urban Muscovites. It was a big international hit both at home and abroad and allowed Parajanov the freedom for a larger budget for his next film, shot in 1966 and intended to be a biographical movie about the life of famed 16th-century Armenian poet Sayat-Nova, who wrote in multiple languages (Armenian, Georgian, and Azerbaijani) and was viewed by the Soviet authorities as a classic role model for the bringing together of different cultures.

Although they had approved the script with some reservations, the Soviets were still expecting a relatively linear narrative along the same lines of his earlier work. What they got was unlike anything ever created before in the history of cinema, a montage of meticulously staged and choreographed shots, entirely lacking in traditional narrative. In essence, a "film poem" whose fractured construction and odd pacing attempted to reflect the aesthetic of its subject. Even more strange and disorienting, the great Georgian actress Sofiko Chiaureli played no less than five parts in the film, handling both male and female roles. Aghast and confused at what they expected to be a biopic, the studio cut the film various ways to try and make it more decipherable to audiences, with little success. They thought the title The Color of Pomegranates less confusing than Sayat-Nova, which it really wasn't. They tried changing the structure, which made it worse. International audiences did not know what to do with it since the scenes themselves were allusions to aspects of Sayat-Nova's work with which they generally had no familiarity. One suspects that this confusion was fine with Parajanov, who shared Andrei Tarkovsky's spiritual sense of magic and wonder, unafraid of slowness and atmospheres of melancholic contemplation. He would later be jailed for refusing to stay in line with state policies, and only under pressure from international directors did the Soviets release him. Staying loyal to his Georgian cultural heritage, he continued making films until his death in 1990.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

House On Trubnaya (1928)

The films of the USSR's silent era were not, for the most part, revolutionary. Such works were in the minority. Most Russian moviegoers wanted to watch movies for the same reasons as everyone else: to escape. The box office receipts of the day make that abundantly clear. Soviet hardliners and Western sympathizers might have fantasized of long enlightened queues outside of Battleship Potemkin, all pumped up on thoughts of international communism; but the reality was, most Russians wanted to laugh and relax, not contemplate their collective role in society via constructivist avant garde film. To that end, the Soviets made some incredible comedies, three of which are now classics: Pudovkin's Chess Fever, Kuleshov's The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks, and Boris Barnet's House on Trubnaya. While the first satirizes Russian obsessions with chess strategy and the second is the first burst of brilliance by the Kuleshov Collective, Trubnaya is a comedy reflecting two important shifts in Soviet society: the transformation of space and changing gender roles.

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

Battleship Potemkin (1926)

"It is a truism that political tendencies are implicit in every work of art, ever artistic epoch -- since, after all, they are historic configurations of consciousness."   -- German cultural theorist Walter Benjamin, defending Potemkin from Western detractors upon its premier.

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

Man With A Movie Camera (1929)

"The centre is getting moving." -- Viktor Shklovskii

Ask 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.

Therein lies the catch. These "masses" were spread across thousands of miles and encompassed Russian ethnic groups that shared almost nothing in common apart from this new (and vague) sense of "Sovietness." It would be one of the greatest challenges posed by the nascent state, to link this disparate plurality together--urban and rural, Tartars and Muscovites--into an experience singular and shared. The plan, undertaken immediately, was to network the vast expanse with electricity and rail. Once the infrastructure was done, they could then set their sights on modernizing Soviet industry and agriculture, which was well behind the standards of the West.

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.

Jim Bunnelle
Watzek Library
Lewis & Clark College