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Sunday, 20 June 2010

On Music in Russian and Soviet Film

In an excellent monograph on Shostakovich's career in film ('Dmitri Shostakovich: A Life in Film' published by I.B.Tauris), John Riley states that "film critics often seem oblivious to the soundtrack". A statement that is without and shadow of a doubt very true. I have spent maybe ten or more times watching Klimov's 'Sport,Sport,Sport' in order to subtitle it (& produce annotated notes on the film) and although I knew that the film was made in collaboration with Schnittke it is only now that I am beginning to see how the soundtrack contributes to the film as a whole. I am no musicologist and am rather uncertain as to how one can write about this aspect of the film. Yet there seems no end to the amount of Soviet films in which the soundtrack is vital to an understanding of the film itself.

John Riley's book on Shostakovich's work has some fascinating accounts of his work on almost fourty films. Even though Shostakovich's contribution varied in terms of quality according to the period in which he worked and the people with whom he collaborated on a film, for many of these films the music contributes to an understanding of the very meaning of the film. Examples of great films he contributed to were many films by Kozintsev and Trauberg (New Babylon, Alone, The Youth of Maksim, Simple People and then with Kozintsev alone in Pirogov and then in the masterpieces Hamlet and King Lear) Yutkevich's The Golden Mountains and Man with a Gun as well as The Counterplan co-directed with Ermler), Gendelshtein's Love and Hate, and then various films with Arnshtam (including Girlfriends and Zoya), with Faintsimmer (The Gadfly) and with other great directors such as Kalatozov, Dovzhenko, Roshal and Joris Ivens. He also worked on the soundtrack of Chiaureli's films during the most dangerous period for Shostakovich after the denunciation of him at the 1948 Congress of Musicians, though obviously in this case it was a question of physical survival which led him rather reluctantly to this work.

Of course, great film music was also to be contributed by the likes of Prokofiev (in his work with Eisenstein and Faintsimmer's 'Lieutenant Kizhe') and the trio of Schnittke, Gubaildulina and Artemyev were to provide some of the greatest soundtracks in world cinema. Moreover, often music which was surpressed or discouragd as music could turn up in the films where its radical innovation would be less likely to be noted. Film was an area where composers not conforming to Socialist Realist musical canons were still able to work. And thankfully. Cinema in the Seventies, for example, would be immensely enriched by the contributions of Schnittke, Gubaidulina, Ganelin, Kupriavicius who were practically banished from other musical arenas just as film music was the shelter for Shostakovich decades previously.

Soviet cinema would develop new forms of sound-visual interaction. The 'song film', the symphonic type of dramaturgy, the musical comedy, Eisenstein and Prokofiev's experiments in sound-visual counterpoint, polystylism in the late thaw. Popular film would also have its Dunaevsky's and Kancheli's who would add to the extraordinary quantity and quality of popular tunes and songs.

I recognise my own woeful obliviousness in the past of the place of music in films but this neglect of the past will hopefully be rectified by much more attention in the future. Apart from Riley's superb account of Shostakovich's work in cinema, Tatiana Egorova's hostorical survey is a fine introduction to this subject in a historical perspective. However, the book is appallingly translated and edited (at least my 1997 edition of it is). A pity because the book seems the only general history in this field and has some fascinating accounts of many films from a musicological perspective.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Soviet Cinema of the Twenties

While Russian and Soviet cinema is acknowledged in world cinema studies mainly due to the works of directors established in the 1920s (Dovzhenko, Eisenstein, Vertov, Kuleshov and Pudovkin) as well as the Poetic directors of the late thaw and stagnation period (Tarkovsky and Paradjanov) it is clear that the 1920s was such an incredibly rich period with a host of other names who were no less interesting than those commonly cited. Room, Barnet, Ermler, Protazanov, the FEKS collective and then the Kozintsev and Trauberg duo as well as the more neglected Yutkevich (who I have written briefly about in this blog) etc. The question of how to describe the 1920s as a whole is a complex one and the solution that scholars have often found is to band directors into two schools. Nikolai Lebedev in the late fourties was the first to do this with his argument that there was a group of innovators and a group of traditionalists. While the very fact of writing a history of Soviet cinema in the late fourties was full of risks (and in fact Lebedev's was a radical venture for its time) this division was way too schematic.

The rediscovery of the revolutionary twenties in the Europe of the 1960s focused mainly on those Lebedev deemed 'innovators' and in the Anglo-Saxon world at least it was the American scholar Diane Youngblood who would first concentrate on the more neglected names such as Ermler, Barnet and Protazanov in her study 'Movies for the Masses'. However, while excellent research was carried out in the archives and especial attention was given to the critical reception of many of the films by these directors, less attention was paid to the stylistics of the films themselves and Youngblood's didn't fundamentally challenge the Lebedev myth of the two strands of twenties cinema. Her subject were still, by and large, the 'traditionalists' (or rather in her terminology the 'populists') and no attempt was made to question the very concept of the division that isolated them from the Eisenstein's and Dovzhenko's. Since Youngblood's two books there have been few other attempts to look at the twenties from a perspective that didn't base themselves on a view of an individual filmmaker.

This lack of a renewed look at the twenties and the standard dichotomy view was slightly more nuanced in Birgit Beumers chapter on the twenties in her recent study of Russian cinema history but nonetheless aspects of it remained. Although at least accepting that there were more than two strands she posits a period of 'Americanitis' and then has subchapters on Vertov, another on Eisenstein and Pudovkin, another on entertainment where she talks about the FEKS of Kozintsev and Trauberg and the KEM of Ermler, Ioganson and Nikitin as well as the other names that a Lebedevian reading would term as traditionalists. Finally before moving on to the Cultural Revolution at the end of the decade she talks about Dovzhenko as the herald of Poetic Cinema. Nonetheless little effort is made to describe the commonalities that these various strands of cinematography may have had.

However, a small and fascinating study by Philip Cavendish mainly devoted to the cameraman in Soviet cinema in the twenties has, thankfully, opened up new vistas on this extrordinary time. He concentrates on what he terms 'mainstream' cinema (and thus excludes the films of Eisenstein, Pudovkin, Vertov and Dovzhenko) but he shows us that these films were extraordinarily visually innovative. Instead of concentrating on the work of the directors, though, he talks about that neglected breed: the camera operator. This small, but exceedingly well-informed volume, restores to history the names of those like Forestier, Levitskii, Ermolov, Zheliabushki, Giber, Shneider, Mikhailov and Feldman. Cavendish's desciptions of films that have almost been ignored in many accounts of world cinema (as well as marginalised in Soviet accounts) display the extraordinary advances made by these characters forgotten by history and woefully neglected by cinematic historians. Moreover, the value of this slim volume lies in deconstructing the Lebedevan myth more cogently and convincingly than previously attempted.

It also gives a reading and description of these films which was missing in Youngblood's account and restores the wish to watch these films so as to enjoy every shot. I recently managed to watch a copy of Otsep and Forestier's 'Zemlia v plenu' (Earth in Chains) and was astounded by its lyrical and visual beauty. I couldn't quite believe that it has been so rarely flagged as a masterpiece. Phil Cavendish's account and his superlative description of its use of 'paysage' in the film linking it to general Western artistic trends and to stating the case for this and many other films (including, for example, the extraordinary film by Eggert and Gardin 'Medvedia Svadba' (Bear Wedding) which signalled the single exemplar of the Soviet vampire genre which was not to have any successors until Post-Soviet times) is, in its way, a tour-de-force in opening up the Twenties to a new historical treatment and to a new rediscovery of this era that was never to be matched.

In the conclusion Cavendish talks about the legacy of the visual revolution that these cameramen were responsible for. While the Stalin period meant that scriptwriters and directors were confined by ever tightening constraints, there was some leeway for the cameramen to produce visually stunning masterpieces. Fortunately, their role was rarely understood and so, Cavendish concludes, "paradoxically, the ignorance of which camera operators had complained so vociferously during the late 1920s and early 1930s had become their saving grace" in the Stalin years.

Another fascinating study which I have read recently and which relates to this period is Lynn Mally's book on Amateur Theater and the Soviet State entitled 'Revolutionary Acts'. The cultural vibrancy of the 1920s is in full evidence here and once again there is an emphasis on the interlocking trends of experimental art and the explosion of the 'amateur' as opposed to the professional. New forms would spring up given the wide extent of this phenomenon and Mally contends that these new forms had their roots in the relation between mass amateur theatre and the more experimental radicalism of Meyerhold which creatively fed on each other. Interestingly this world of theatrical experimentation drew in names that would later become part of cinematic history like Nikolai Ekk, Ivan Pyriev and Sergei Yutkevich. Another rather neglected but fascinating field.

Monday, 7 June 2010

Some Russian Cinema Journals

A recent article in the newspaper 'Novaya Gazeta' mentioned the fact that the journal 'Seance' is celebrating its twentieth anniversary. An anniversary to celebrate as this is undoubtedly one of the most outstanding journals devoted both the contemporary and to the history of Russian and Soviet cinema. However, the article also notes that the journal is under threat of closure due to financial reasons. Financial reasons that appear inextricably linked to recent trends in Russian cinematography which seem to strangle any independent thought and action in favour of a ahistorical myhtology. Seance's incredible legacy over the past twenty years is associated with two names that represent the best of criticism and scholarship: those of the late Sergei Dobrotvorsky and Liubov Arkus. The Seance team have not merely worked on the journal but have published books on contemporary Russian film and have worked on the very best source of information for contemporary Russian film - the Encyclopedia of Russian Film (a massive seven volumes which is the most vital resource for all Russian film scholars who are working on the period from the fall of the Soviet Union). The internet site gives informtion regarding the whole history of Russian and Soviet film and is one of the best sources of information on the web in its field. The loss of this Petersburg journal would be a tragedy for the whole of Russian cinema just as the loss of Moscow's Museum of Cinema was five years ago.

Another journal in difficulty is the Moscow-based 'Iskkustvo Kino' (Art of Cinema) which has been going for decades. Providing some excellent reviews, scripts, roundtable discussions and articles on general intellectual trends it also has contributed to keeping alive intellectual discussion on cinema. Its director Daniil Dondurei (a media sociologist by training) has been a critical voice with regard to the Mikhalkov project and, unsurpisingly, the journal was soon to have the threat of eviction hanging over it by the Mikhalkov-run administration of the Filmmakers Union.

The most outstanding scholarly journal with regards to Soviet (and world) cinematic history is Kinovedcheskie Zapisky. This journal keeps alive the highest standards of film scholarship and has contributions from the giants of film scholarship in Russia: Naum Kleiman, Evgeny Margolit, Oleg Aronson, Maya Turovskaya, Irina Grashchenkova and many more. For those interested in film scripts there is also an excellent journal 'Kinostsenari' which includes interviews and critical articles. Recent editions of the journal have been devoted to the work and scripts of Paradjanov, Peter Lutsik and Otar Ioseliani. For anyone interested in contemporary cinematography of former soviet states there is the journal 'Kinoforum'.

These journals have kept alive the intellectual reception of both contemporary film in Russia and the former Soviet Union as well as providing a historical link. The existence of such a community of scholars and attentive critics means that all is not lost but the precarious financial and institutional state of many of these journals is, nonetheless, a worrying sign.