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?