video review by
Craig Fischer

 

(© Kino International Corp. All rights reserved.)

Video company
Web site:
KINO ON VIDEO

The Soviet Avant-Garde
I want to talk somewhat irreverently about three 1920s Soviet films—Kino-Eye (Camera Eye, Dziga Vertov, 1924), Strike (Sergei Eisenstein, 1925) and Arsenal (Aleksander Dovzhenko, 1929)— recently released in newly mastered editions by Kino on Video. But let's take care of the obvious first. If you're reading Images, chances are good you already know about Kino's reputation for quality. The history of 20th Century popular culture is a history of artists and businessmen who raced from product to product without preserving the relics of pop culture's past: countless record albums never make it to CD, comic strips lay hidden in endless scratchy rolls of newspaper microfilm, and great movies like The Good Fairy (1935) and Au Hazard Balthazar (1966) will never make it to video. But there are a few small companies that specialize in rescuing works from capitalism's graveyard of neglect and obsolescence, and Kino is one of them. Kino's catalog includes such wildly disparate titles as Dwain Esper's Maniac (1934), Volker Schlondorff's The Tin Drum (1979), and video versions of silent films unavailable for 50 years. For their magisterial set The Art Of Buster Keaton alone, Kino deserves all our hosannas. So if you're already a fan or scholar of Soviet agit-prop, you've got to have Kino's versions of Kino-Eye, Strike and Arsenal. Each film is (as the video boxes indicate) "digitally mastered from an archive 35mm print, featuring an orchestral score," and Kino has done their usual excellent job in re-packaging. Kino-Eye even features a brief reconstruction of its lost final reel through the use of what Kino calls "carefully selected out-take footage." It's pretty unimportant footage, too—mostly of Soviet kids using ham radios—but its inclusion is another example of Kino's dedication to film preservation.

But how do the films themselves hold up in the post-Gorbachev era? One advantage in watching these films after the collapse of the Soviet Union is that it may now be easier to see these films simply as films, apart from the rather imposing ideological and historical contexts of Russian Communism. Perhaps an even more intimidating context is academic film study. Essays by Eisenstein and Vertov have become staples of college film classes, and in the process have taught generations of students the "right" ways to read Battleship Potemkin (1925) and Man With A Movie Camera (1929). However, it might be interesting if in this review I bracketed off history, ideology, theory and other such pesky nuisances and simply tried to chronicle my own responses to the Soviet avant-garde.

The germ of this idea can be traced back to a Friday night a few years ago, when I rented a VCR and some videos for my then-girlfriend (and now wife) Kathy Parham and I to watch together. Film geek that I was (and, alas, am), I chose that madcap, feel-good movie October (1927) as our Friday night selection, and then got indignant as Kathy fell asleep during scenes of horses falling off bridges and Lenin impersonators spurring the proletariat to revolution. But Kathy's snoozing left me with some lingering questions: are Soviet agit-prop films any fun? What do they have to offer contemporary audiences? And how do I feel about films like Kino-Eye, Strike and Arsenal, apart from all the facts I learned about Lenin, Kuleshov, Tissé, VGIK, etc. in school?

I can begin by saying that I've always found Vertov's films rather touching because they reflect his capacity to be endlessly astonished by cinematic movement. In these days of special effects blockbusters and downloadable movie trailers, it's charming to watch the scene at the beginning of Man With A Movie Camera as the curtains open, the seats unfold as if by magic, and the movie theater prepares itself for a new audience. Vertov's faith in movie magic and spectatorship links him with Georges Méliès, Ferdinand Zecca, Segundo de Chomón, and all the other "cinema of attractions" filmmakers who found joy in giving us indelible images of dancing devils, inflatable heads, and vanishing horse carriages. Vertov's work also pointed to the future, too, particularly the films of Stan Brakhage. Both Vertov and Brakhage film events from everyday life, and play with their footage to create documentaries that reflected not only external "reality" but also the perceptions of the Chelovek behind the camera. The emotional link threading through the work of Méliès, Vertov and Brakhage is love for the moving image—which makes it an ironic shame that Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin made joyless and pedantic work as the Dziga Vertov Group.

I find Kino-Eye very entertaining (if not exactly Friday night material) but it's a strange, fragmentary film, a series of episodes and digressions rather than a fully-formed work of art. The protagonists of the film—ever the collectivist, Vertov eschews a single hero—are the Young Pioneers, a band of adolescents dedicated to improving Russian society and forwarding the aims of the Revolution. Much of Kino-Eye chronicles the activities of these Marxist moppets. We see the Pioneers encouraging consumers to shop at cooperative stores, distributing anti-alcohol pamphlets to workers hanging out at the local bar, and helping a poor widow with her wheat threshing chores. There are also scenes of the Pioneers at summer camp, where they learn to salute the Soviet flag and march in true proto-Stalinist style.

All this quasi-military altruism may sound insufferable, but Vertov is smart enough to show the Pioneers as real kids instead of idealized abstractions. Maybe the absurdity of the Pioneer concept itself keeps Vertov's film fresh and silly; the notion that kids love participating in organizations that do "good deeds" has become (regrettably, in our brutal era of Littletons) a camp cliché, and I can't help comparing the Pioneers to, say, the gang on Scooby-Doo or the hordes of paperboys run over by gangsters at the end of Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1939). But Vertov humanizes the kids and the Soviet society they strive to reform in more profound ways. Various shots in Kino-Eye show the kids behaving like kids instead of soldiers or dialecticians. When the Pioneers go swimming, several cut loose and splash and dunk each other, and one particular close-up, of a guy's backside while he's standing on a diving board, gives us the most impressive wedgie in film history. (I bet this hapless fella was the Millhouse of the collective.) Sometimes the youthful vitality of these kids even threatens to lead Vertov into doctrinal heresy. In one scene, a young female Pioneer in close-up is juxtaposed with a Soviet flag snapping in the sky behind her. Vertov tries to transform the girl into a symbol of proletarian exuberance, but the girl unwittingly reasserts her humanity by smiling a bewildered smile and by ignoring the flag completely.

For a movie designed to show the positive aspects of the Revolution, Kino-Eye is also disarmingly frank about the poverty and corruption in 1920s Russian society. The entire fifth reel of the film is a catalogue of social ills: black marketeers, homeless cocaine addicts sleeping on the street, and inmates shambling around a Titicut Follies-like state mental hospital. But this very serious, very depressing material is nicely offset by Kino-Eye's penchant for amusing digression. At least three times in the film, Vertov uses reverse motion to reverse time. As the Pioneers research the sale of meat to Soviet consumers, for instance, a placard appears on the screen—"Kino-Eye moves time backwards—"—and we watch as a piece of beef travels back in time to its origin as a live bull; during this sequence, entrails return to the gutted bull's stomach. We similarly trace bread back from finished loaves to wheat growing in the field, and even the scenes of the Pioneers swimming and diving feature reverse motion. (The aforementioned wedgie is the hilarious capper to a single shot, as reverse motion sucks Millhouse out of the water and plunks him back on the diving board.) Near the end of Kino-Eye's fourth reel, an elephant walks through the streets of Moscow, and everybody peeks their heads out their windows and laughs as they watch the circus come to town. Certainly Kino-Eye is Soviet propaganda (Vertov quite rightly celebrates the Pioneers' efforts to eradicate alcoholism and tuberculosis), but it also displays Vertov's love for kids, animals, and playful cinematic devices, such as reverse motion. This love is infectious; watching Vertov's film, I feel like a Russian peasant staring at a beautiful, strange elephant.

Strike, a fictionalized record of a workers' strike brutally suppressed by evil Czarist troops, is the best known title in this new Kino batch because it's Sergei Eisenstein's first film. In a recent article In Film Comment, Richard T. Jameson called The Graduate a "young man's film" because it so flamboyantly displayed young Mike Nichols' "discovery and mastery of a new medium." By this criteria, Strike may just be the archetypal young man's film. Eisenstein packs his film with so many audacious techniques (lyrical tracking shots, poetic use of reverse motion, striking silhouette compositions, etc. ad infinitum) that the result is, frankly, both stunning and exhausting. Eisenstein feels compelled to declare "I am a genius, and I'll keep proving it to you!" and in the process relentlessly hammers us with truckloads of capitalist fat cats, crowds of oppressed workers, and an editing pace that makes MTV look like Jeanne Dielman (1975). Strike is brilliantly made, but it's a monochromatic brilliance that never allows a spectator to breathe or to make up her own mind about a character or situation. (In other words, it's ideal propaganda.) When introduced to Vertov's idea of exploring the world through Kino-Eye, Eisenstein responded by saying, "I prefer Kino-Fist," and Strike is undoubtedly a knockout punch, but I don't get much pleasure out of movies that beat me up.

Eisenstein's desire to make effective propaganda is complimented by his weird penchant for animal imagery. This imagery is partly an outgrowth of Eisenstein's interest in typage: he populated his films with stereotyped characters immediately understood by audience members, like the cigar-smoking factory owners who refuse the workers' demands in Strike. In order to characterize the spies who work for these fat capitalists, Eisenstein constructs a series of dissolves to link the behavior and facial attributes of each of the informants with a specific animal (a fox, an owl, a bulldog). A close-up of a monkey drinking from a bottle, for instance, dissolves into a spy called "the monkey," a simian-looking informant also guzzling from a bottle. I find these dissolves funny, if only because they're carried out with such a delicious lack of subtlety. Behind the images, I can almost hear Eisenstein screaming, "See, comrades, how these spies become less than human because they conspire against the proletariat?"

I'm less entertained, however, by his maudlin use of cute kids and fuzzy kittens to make us feel sympathy for the suffering workers. Part 3 of Strike ("The plant stood stock-still") begins with various shots of animals—kittens, baby ducks, a mama pig nursing her piglets—before cutting to a scene of a little boy trying to wake up his striking dad. Clearly this worker family is connected to the cute, wholesome, nurturing side of nature. No sly foxes or ugly bulldogs here. This overly-idealized portrait of family life is qualified a bit in part 4 ("The strike drags on"), as a husband and wife fight over money and briefly yank their child around in a tug-of-war. Yet even this scene begins with a shot of the child playing with kittens, as Eisenstein shamelessly drags in children and kittens to represent the beauty of the natural world and the courage of the striking families. These motifs reach a fever pitch in Strike's sixth and final section ("Liquidation"), which begins with a toddler threatened by the horses of Czarist troops, and ends with a child (who, seconds before, was playing with a kitten) thrown off a balcony by one of the diabolical Czarists. Personally, I find exploiting babies to forward a political agenda distasteful; I don't like it when politicians campaign by kissing babies, and I don't like it when Eisenstein puts a baby in peril to wring sympathy out of us, as in Strike and the Odessa steps sequence of Battleship Potemkin.

It should be clear by now that I have various quibbles with Strike (and with Eisenstein's movies in general), but I'll reiterate that there's nothing wrong with Kino's new video version of this admittedly influential film. It's a great copy, and one of its best elements is the lively soundtrack provided by the Alloy Orchestra, a three-man Boston-based band that specializes in providing silent films with new soundtracks. Alloy toured with Vertov's Man With A Movie Camera in 1995, for instance, and they've also written and performed new scores for such movies as Lonesome (1928) and The Wind (1928). For Strike the Alloys have concocted a funky mix of synthesizers and metal sounds (created by the band members banging on pipes, pans, and anything else metallic within their collective reach) that duplicates Eisenstein's factory aesthetic while reminding me of Philip Glass at his most tolerable. So join me in applauding the Alloy Orchestra —and, for that matter, to the Anonymous 4, the Clubfoot Orchestra, and all the bands whose lively contemporary soundtracks are renewing interest in silent film. Who would have dreamt that new music for old movies—which, after all, got started with Georgio Morodor's 1984 bastardization of Metropolis—could have come so far?

The last film in our troika, Arsenal, easily divides into two parts. In the beginning of Arsenal, director Aleksander Dovzhenko (best known for Earth [1930], his lyrical hymn to collective farming) offers us an almost childlike chronicle of Russia's involvement in World War I through a series of characters, including a mother whose sons perish in battle and an enlisted man who dies torturously when exposed to laughing gas. The images and simple intertitles ("There was a war," "The mother had 3 sons no more") are designed to break our hearts, but I find Dovzhenko's relatively more restrained approach to eliciting our emotion easier to take than Eisenstein's hyperbolic slaughter of children. The mother grieves while simply standing in a room with her head down, and there is something dignified in Dovzhenko's understanding that such a profound loss transcends propaganda and broad displays of emotion. Near the end of the first part of Arsenal, the carnage of the "Great War" convinces a soldier to drop his gun and stop fighting, and an officer responds by quickly threatening the soldier with a pistol and insisting that he continue to battle. The soldier refuses and, in a montage sequence intercut with other vignettes of war, the officer blasts the pacifistic soldier in the back. Dovzhenko shoots this confrontation in extreme backlight so that both the soldier and the officer become silhouettes, ideological abstractions. The light also prevents us from seeing the soldier's face; his rejection of war is conveyed completely by his open hands. Brilliant examples of understatement like this set Dovzhenko apart from his Soviet contemporaries (who, as a breed, were about as understated as an out-of-control jackhammer).

Another remarkable aspect of the beginning of Arsenal is its reliance on long takes as well as montage sequences to deliver its anti-war message. Though Dovzhenko gives us plenty of bravura editing—especially in a sequence where he draws a brutal comparison between a man beating a horse and a mother beating her starving, crying children—many of the powerful images in Arsenal's first part are, by 1920s Soviet standards, leisurely-paced long takes. One scene, of a corrupt police officer fondling a woman's breasts, unfolds in a single, excruciating long-lasting shot. There are also long takes of an old woman planting seeds in arid land that get shorter and shorter as shots of the woman dying from exhaustion are juxtaposed with images of an army officer writing a letter about "shooting a crow today." The implication of this montage sequence is that the army's cannibalization of young men forced the old woman into the fields, and she is the "crow" shot by the officer.

I enjoyed Arsenal's portrait of World War I not only because I like understatement and long takes but because it carries a message easy to agree with: War is Hell. After the first fifteen minutes or so, however, Arsenal shifts into its second section, a tedious, unsatisfying justification of Soviet repression of Ukranian autonomy, and my interest dropped off. Although Dovzhenko makes gestures of respect toward folk culture (there's a beautiful scene where the end of the war is celebrated with a Christian procession and mass rally) his real agenda is to tell the Ukrainians to shut up and accept Communist rule. His mouthpiece for this message is a bearded, handsome war deserter/orthodox Marxist who, predictably, is silenced at "the first all-Ukranian congress" by pro-capitalist, pro-Ukranian politicians with big noses, bald heads, and misshapen beards. Various events ensue—workers go on strike (in scenes less stirring than those in Strike), the proles occupy a munitions plant, and the counter-revolutionaries repress the prole rebellion. There are several sequences in the "Ukrainians vs. Soviets" section of Arsenal (especially the crash of a train that serves as a metaphor for Czarist repression) that reveal Dovzhenko's formidable talent for composing and editing images. But the film ends with two allegorical scenes—one where a Czarist is unable to shoot a worker while looking him in the eyes, and another where our bearded Bolshevik hero survives a point-blank barrage from a firing squad—that completely (and unfortunately) repudiate the poetic realism of the film's World War I sequences.

In the Spring of 1990, I saw two films in one day that, unexpectedly, coalesced into a kind of "Oppressed Workers' Double Feature." First, I saw a matinee of Roger & Me at the local art house and that night went to a free screening of Strike at the local university. I didn't know anything about Roger & Me, and Strike was my first exposure to 1920s Soviet film. It was a lucky coincidence that both films had pig-dog capitalists who cut themselves off from the working populace, shots of children affected by management's oppression, and even animal slaughter (Strike's cow, Roger & Me's rabbit) in common. In 1990, I adored both movies, and probably would've become a fellow traveler if the Soviet Union hadn't gone belly-up on me, but my future encounters with Eisenstein and Moore have been less congenial. Nowadays, when I watch Strike or Moore's TV show The Awful Truth, I admire the craft and chutzpah of both filmmakers, but I also find myself repeating under my breath, like a mantra, "The situation is more complicated than that, the situation is more complicated than that." My disillusion with these polemicists may have everything to do with my own current socioeconomic status: I'm a college professor who's part of the problem and not part of the solution. But why is it then that films like Godard's La Chinoise (1967), Tanner's Jonah Who Will Be 25 In The Year 2000 (1975) and virtually anything directed by Jean Renoir (especially The Crime Of Monsieur Lange (1936), the most elegant justification for murder in any medium) fill me with both aesthetic awe and lefty idealism? For me, the revolution is nothing if it isn't human, and that's why I'd rather watch Kino-Eye than all the inhuman, black-and-white characters and situations that Eisenstein and Dovzhenko conjure up. If I can't enjoy your films on Friday night, I don't want to be part of your revolution.

 


The latest entries in Kino's "The Soviet Avant-Garde" video series include Dziga Vertov's Kino-Eye, Sergei Eisenstein's Strike, and Alexander Dovzhenko's Arsenal. All the videos have been digitally mastered from archival 35mm prints. Suggested retail price: $24.95 per tape. For additional information, check out the Kino On Video Web site.

Prior releases in this series include Dziga Vertov's Man With a Movie Camera, Vsevolod Pudovkin's Storm Over Asia and Deserter, Victor Turin's Turksib, and Lev Kuleshov's By the Law.