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Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Boris Barnet- A Video Commentary by Nicole Brenez

A commentary on one of Barnet's most delightful films 'By the Bluest of Seas'. While the Great Terror was about to get underway, this film by Barnet breathed a completely different air. Neither escapism like the musicals of Aleksandrov nor ideological justification of the oncoming Terror with the films of wreckers, spies and saboteurs, nor even one engaged in applauding the frenzy of construction and Stakhanovism. Barnet's path was another one. A lyrical one that emphasised desire above duty. In 'By the Bluest of Seas' there is little sense of two characters from the centre conquering the periphery. The main male charcaters are lost, shipwrecked, unproductive types whose behaviour corresponds only to the logic of desire and hopeless infatuation. That something like this could be made on the eve of the Great Terror is something of a small miracle. Of course, it was to be blacklisted when the ideologues got their claws into the film demanding that Barnet should work on "the ideological system of images based on thorough knowledge of real life" instead of being carried away by emotions. Fortunately Barnet was not to learn his lesson and when he made the odd ideologically acceptable film he would direct it so carelessly that it would become a flop anyway(or even according to Marlen Khutsiev and Otar Ioseliani he would just turn up to the shooting drunk and enjoy himself anyway).

This video commentary by Nicole Brenez puts a very French gloss on the film but there is something about Barnet that seems to make him only understood and applauded in Mediterranean countries. In France he was lauded by Rivette, Godard and Eisenschitz (and arguably Truffaut drew on this film in his 'Jules et Jim'), in Italy Enrico Ghezzi makes sure that Barnet is never forgotten by nocturnal Italian film buffs and in Spain Barnet's film was shown recently at the Filmoteca in Madrid. Only the UK seems to ignore this great director (and yet Barnet himself was a relative of London immigrants to Russia two generations earlier). Time for a rediscovery?

Saturday, 26 December 2009

What was Stalinist cinema?

Over the last few weeks I have been reading a few acounts of various aspects of Stalinist cinema. A book on Grigory Aleksandrov, another on the more administrative aspects of Soviet cinema under Stalin as well as others on gender and masculinity in Stalinist cinema, propaganda in Soviet cinema and the use of history in Stalinist cinema. A whole collection of books as well as some articles that should make it easier to answer the question. Yet the more I read the harder I find it to grasp what Stalinist cinema actually was, how to describe it (my Italian grandfather used to tell me 'piu si studia, piu neisciu se diventa' - the more you study, the more stupid you become- evidently true in this case).

There seems to be a shift in how people have tried to describe it in recent years. Robert Warshow wrote the ultimate Cold War text and this tradition has been continued in some ways by Peter Kenez who often does little to disguise his distaste for everything and nearly everyone involved in Soviet cinema. So he talks about films like Pyriev's 'The Party Card' and Ermler's 'The Great Citizen' being 'repellent and morally reprehensible'. Fair enough one may say and yet there is something mechanical in some of Kenez's judgements. Warshow's essay is actually more interesting in that in his negative judgements and in his rather comical asides (for example, where he talks of being "sick of the people who sat with me in the audience... whom I suspected of being either cinema enthusiasts or Communists - and I wasn't sure which was worse") he has some interesting points to make (albeit about the pre-Stalinist cinema of Eisenstein, Dovzhenko and Pudovkin). He gives a very honest account of watching these films and trying to deal with his own aesthetic and moral judgements simultaneously and it leads him to his interesting judgement that "it was not at all an aesthetic failure that I encountered in these movies, but something worse: a triumph of art over humanity". Of course, we do not have his views on the advent of Socialist Realism proper in the films from the mid 1930s onwards which it is hard to denote as such a triumph of art over anything.

So how can we then approach these films? Socialist Realism represented, of course, a retreat for artists like Eisenstein, Dovzhenko and Pudovkin even though Eisenstein at least cocked the final snook in his Ivan the Terrible Part Two. It seems that aesthetic or moral considerations will get us only so far and we would do better by turning our attention to other aspects. John Haynes in his book 'New Soviet Man' does this by looking at gender and making some fascinating points about the chaos that really reigned in this sphere & he pinpoints Ivan the Terrible as being the ultimate point in which Patriarchy dissolves into chaos and disorder. James Miller looks at the administration of cinema under Stalin giving us more information on the effect of the purges in cinema and accounts of studio life, the failed attempt to build a Soviet Hollywood and the fates of the top cinematic bureaucrats under Stalin (with a more rounded view of Shumiatsky who is known in the West mainly for being the scourge of Eisenstein). Miller actually shows us how the logic of Stalinism was a chaotic process driven by insecurity rather than any ineluctable totalitarian logic. Rimgaila Salys is perhaps the most detailed account imaginable in western scholarship of how individual films got to be produced. Salys concentrates on Aleksandrov's four musicals and goes through each and every stage in its production and reception.

However, it is probably Dobrenko's accounts which pull all these strings together. His book 'Stalinist Cinema and the Production of History: Museum of the Revolution' is a tour de force (I am impatient to read his 'Political Economy of Socialist Realism'). It is an account of how cinema under Stalin became an institution for the production of history. Stalinist art became a political-aesthetic project. Stalinism was the 'total art work' which introduced a new temporality 'the concluded future' (a kind of future pluperfect in Dobrenko's words). The book is difficult to summarise because he is constantly grappling both with the films themselves and the theories of de Certeau, Barthes, Baudrillard and, of course, Boris Groys which gives us some fascinating insights. Especially interesting is his linking the genesis of the museum with the guillotine and revolution and statements such as these "Societies based on terror are soon worn down. They produce more history than they can consume". Dobrenko's work, then, is trying to ask questions that no Russian cinema scholars had previously asked. He is looking at Stalinist cinema to try to answer the question as to what was reality in the Stalinist Soviet Union and arguing that the only place where socialism could be found was in cultural production itself. That is that 'Socialism was a system of signs'. In any case Dobrenko opens up a whole new perspective on Stalinist cinema and discovers new logics in the ways that genres were developed and then went into a demise. There is a real dialectical feel to his explanations that illuminate hitherto unexplored territory.

As well as reading up on Stalinist cinema I have subjected myself to viewing some Stalinist films on DVD. A couple of days ago I summoned up the courage to watch some of those films that I have been avoiding for years - Pyriev's 'The Party Card', Chiaureli's 'The Vow' and Macheret's 'The Mistake of Engineer Kochin'. Films about wreckers, saboteurs and the exhaltation of Stalin. Before that I had watched the Aleksandrov musicals in my possession (all except 'Circus') as well as the Maksim trilogy. Slowly trying to divert my gaze from the obvious to discover other motifs- to discover the art that had previously triumphed over humanity and now had been congealed and mummified into stasis. Was perhaps Barnet's 'Bountiful Summer' the only counter-indication of the late Stalin period: his film being the only example of a cinema of movement and therefore justifying Rivette's 'vostorg' at watching this film with his dicovery that Soviet cinema in the guise of Barnet had still found itself wriggle room even when all other directors produced films that were showing sure signs of rigor mortis?

Monday, 7 December 2009

Francesco Misiano - The Man Who Brought 'Battleship Potemkin' to the West

Every now and again reading up on some aspect of Soviet film history I come across a name that I hadn't heard of previously and yet realize that finding out about this individual I have suddenly discovered some incredible story. Today reading Jamie Miller's new book on Soviet Cinema in the Stalin era (Soviet Cinema: Politics and Persuasion under Stalin - a book that concentrates on Soviet cinema as a film industry rather than looking at Stalinist cinema aesthetically) I discovered a name previously unknown to me for nothing was written about him in the main accounts of Russian cinema history. Neither Jay Leyda's 'Kino' nor Buttafava's book of articles on Russian and Soviet cinema - Il Cinema Russo e Sovietico- gave a single mention to this person in their works.

Yet Misiano is an absolutely fascinating historical character. He was a studio director at Mezhrabpom in so far as Soviet cinematic history goes but much more than that. He was a lifelong Italian anti-fascist who fought alongside Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Leibknecht in Berlin and was imprisoned in a German prison for ten months after the Spartakist revolt. Released, he then became an deputy in the Italian parliament. In 1919 he tried to lead the population of Rijeka (Fiume) against D'Annunzio. D'Annunzio reacted by proclaiming a death sentence against this 'traitor'. In 1921 as a parliamentarian he was beaten and forced out of the Parliament by thirty fascist deputies, his head was shaved and spat at while forced to wear a sign over his shoulders and made to walk along Rome's Via del Corso. Following this and further fascist intimidation and violence against him, he then escaped to Berlin and then on to Moscow where he would help to found one of Soviet Russia's best cinematographic studios - Mezhrabpomfilm. He was the person who would take Eisenstein's 'Battleship Potemkin' to Berlin in his luggage and who would invite Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford to Moscow. In 1933 he invited German members of the film world who were opponents of the Nazis to the Soviet Union- the most famous of these being Bela Balasz, Joris Ivens, Hans Richter, Erwin Piscator. In 1936 he was sent on an anti-fascist mission to the Horn of Africa (following Mussolini's invasion of Abyssinia). He then fell out of favour in the Soviet Union in 1936 but fortunately died that year before Stalin's Great Terror went into full flow (in a matter of months he would undoubtedly have become a victim of this Terror had he not died previously). Very few turned up to his funeral (even Italy's communist leader Palmiro Togliatti ignored it) given Misiano's fall from Stalinist grace shortly before his death.

A figure almost completely ignored in the cinematic history accounts of Soviet cinema (although there have been several biographies published in Italy on this fascinating figure of twentieth century history).

In the same book I also read of Ida Penzo (the wife of Eisenstein's assistant cameraman, Vladimir Nilsen who was executed in the Great Terror) - she was Italian and spent a decade and a half in the Gulag (until released in 1955). She was a ballerina and actress and had acted in Dovzhenko's 'The Diplomatic Pouch'. Another of these many tragic (and yet fascinating) stories that Soviet cinema offers up in droves.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Yuri Mamin

Today's 'Novaya Gazeta' has an interview with Yuri Mamin- one of Russia's leading satirical filmmakers. Mamin was fairly prolific at the end of the perestroika and early post-Soviet period and made a number of forceful satirical films on various aspects of Russian life and with plentiful caricatures of Russian national types. His international hit was 'A Window on Paris' where he imagined a hidden window in a collective apartment in St Petersburg which looks out onto Paris. The inhabitants can come and go from St Petersburg to Paris and back. The film is a reflection on Western and Russian cultures and realities as well as caricaturing these stereotypes. His earlier film 'Fountain' is an image of a building and its inhabitants - an image and a reality which becomes ever more absurd as the film progresses. Mamin talked about how he tried to use all sorts of genres and how each of these genres would flow into the others. He stated that "it begins as a comedy of situations and ends as grotesque". Another film that he made was 'Sideburns' which took on the subject of the rise of neo-fascist movements imagining a gang of Pushkinists attired in nineteenth century dress with mutton chop sideburns who terrorise rivals. This film was apparently purchased by persons unknown who then refused to show or distribute the film. A prolonged silence was interrupted by his film 'Gorko!' in 1998 and only again by last years 'Don't think about the white monkeys'. This film completely recited in verse had a discrete showing in Moscow's cinemas. The balance that Mamin achieves between social satire and the use of absurdity and grotesque is masterful and has a manneristic feel to it. A review in Kino Kultura has this to say about it:

It’s the sort of highly stylized, absurdist, mannered filmmaking that is now so rare. It possesses the gorging visceral qualities of La Grande Bouffe (Ferreri 1973), the tactile sumptuousness of Peter Greenaway’s 1980-90s films such as The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover and A Zed & Two Noughts, and the trippy surrealism of Terry Gilliam. It is stylized and mannered in a way that few films these days dare. It is most pleasing when it junks reality, confuses points of view, or descends into the grotesque

( - for the full review).

In today's interview Mamin talks about the difficulties of being a satirical director in todays Russia (but wasn't it ever thus?), and develops into the common explanation of how difficult it is to finance films like his. He also talks about making a remake of Window on Paris. This looks like a film to watch out for. In any case one can only rejoice at the fact that Mamin seems to be making a comeback after the last decade and a half of near absence from the large screen.

Here is the link to the Novaya interview:

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Pavel Lungin's 'Tsar' & the religious plague in recent Russian filmmaking

I have yet to see Lungin's new film 'Tsar' although I am very curious to see Oleg Yankovsky in his final role and, of course, a film on Ivan the Terrible by a notable director is interesting in itself given how one can then go on to compare the film to Eisenstein's classic. It seems that Lungin is returning to a religious theme even in this film and it will be interesting to find out in what way Lungin is representative of an apparent religious revival. From reading a review or two of Lungin, of course, is unlikely to be a simple case of straight ideologist for Russian Orthodox Nationalism and he seems to be wary of tying religiosity with a strong state ideology (I guess one should be thankful for small mercies).

And yet... Frederick Jameson in an article on Soviet Magic Realism written in the late eighties already mentioned this return of religion in his article on Sokurov's 'Days of Eclipse' and presciently slammed a return to 'religious trendiness'. Jameson's 1988 footnote (or as he puts it a short 'diatribe') on this tendency now, alas, is deserving of a lengthy study. Apart from Lungin another two films Khotinenko's 'Priest' (Pop) amd Proshkin's 'Miracle' (Chudo) are evidence that this inclusion of the odd scene has become a veritable flood. Indicative of a sea change.

Andrei Plakhov has written about this subject recently and places it in a context of trends in European cinema per se. Here is the link to the article in Russian.

In any case, there are some directors (thankfully in my view) who remain distant from this plague of religiosity and are a healthy antidote. To my mind Kira Muratova is the most shining example (and in the films of Aleksei German there also seems a healthy absence of 'a religious point of view'). Regrettably he, unlike Muratova, has been notably silent in the last decade.