Last Wednesday, when I met Slavic languages and literatures professor John MacKay for coffee at Blue State and asked what his favorite movie from the fall 2017 Russian Film Series was, his emphatic answer was “Storm Over Asia.” The 1928 film tells the story of a fur trapper and persecuted colonial laborer evolving from a puppet monarch in Mongolia to a revolutionary leader. MacKay explained that the main actor, a Mongolian man named Inkizhinov, had been trained to use his body as a machine to dispassionately illicit a response from the audience.
“What this involved was thinking about your motions in this really segmented way, not wasting any movements, and thinking about conveying an expression and a message through your body in the most economical way you possibly could,” MacKay said. Over coffee, he taught me about the historical implications of the Russian Revolution, the avant-garde art movements before and during the revolution, the booming film industry that ensued in Russia after the revolution and the shifting cultural attitudes over time represented in Russian film as it explored the adventure and strife of 20th-century Russian politics. “We want to think about film as distortions, as interpretations of history,” he said.
This year, at the Whitney Humanities Center, the Russian Studies Department will host a year-long Russian film series to commemorate the centennial of the Russian revolutions of February and October 1917. In the first semester, the series covers films produced between 1924 and 1934, while the second semester primarily covers films produced between the 50th anniversary of the revolution and the present day. In the screenings, the Russian Studies Department hopes to “bring up general thought about Russian culture and politics and history,” MacKay said.
The screenings begins with a brief introduction from an expert, are often accompanied by live music and end with a Q&A session to engage the audience in expressing their reactions. Professor Oksana Chefranova, lecturer in film studies and director of film programming, said that while the screenings provide “introductions that aim to contextualize a film,” they nevertheless “try not to impose an understanding of the film or decode its meaning in advance.” Instead, “viewers are left to make their own meaning, to project their knowledge, to create free associations … and at the end, during the discussion to see how readings of the film emerge out of many different reactions from the audience.”
The film series seeks to “screen a multivalence portrait of the Russian Revolution as seen through Russian cinema and to complicate that,” said Marijeta Bozovic, an professor of Slavic languages and literatures, film and media studies, and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies. The series began last month with Sergei Eisenstein’s 1924 movie “STRIKE” and will conclude at the end of the spring semester with Svetlana Baskova’s “For Marx…” produced in 2012.
MacKay, Bozovic and Constantine Muravnik, a senior lector in Slavic Languages and Literatures, all reveled in the cinematic experience of the first screening on Sept 23. “STRIKE,” a silent film, paved the way for Russian films to reflect on social unrest and workers’ revolts that occurred at the turn of the century. The screening featured musical accompaniment from the Alloy orchestra, based in Cambridge, Mass., which carefully composed a score to fit each scene and frame of the film. Bozovic noted that the Alloy orchestra “makes the grim story of the film, the absolutely brutal putting down of strike, both timeless and utterly of the moment, utterly contemporary.”
In learning about the Russian film series, I was most captivated by the changes, turns and trends that 20th-century film underwent in depicting and reflecting on the Russian Revolution. MacKay informed me that, after three revolutions and four years of civil war, Russia saw its first great decade of film in the 1920s. The 1920s brought about an artistic renaissance in a variety of media and represented a revival of the avant-garde experimental practice that had been brewing before and during the revolutions. In a February 1922 conversation with A.V. Lunacharsky, the first Soviet People’s Commissar of Education, Lenin declared that private film industries should “particularly make headway with useful films among the masses in the cities, and still more in the countryside … You must remember always that of all the arts the most important for us is the cinema.” As MacKay noted, cinema as a medium was so valuable to the state because it could inform, entertain and inspire the illiterate majority.
Soviet cinema, MacKay said, was privatized but paid for by the import and export of American films throughout the state. American films in particular appealed to Russian filmmakers in the 1920s because of their speed and volume of camera shots. “What Hollywood did, [and] it’s not as obvious to us today, is that it developed ways of telling stories rapidly and effectively and with emotional charge,” MacKay noted. At that point, after the Russian revolutions and before Stalin’s regime, the Russian film industry wanted to make cinema that appealed to the masses and to the whole world, in which “communist propaganda, Hollywood conventions and avant-garde art all flowed together.”
I wanted to learn more about how this thriving Russian film industry related to and enhanced other art forms at the time. MacKay introduced me to a figure I’d never heard of before, a Russian artist, sculptor, photographer and graphic designer named Aleksandr Rodchenko. Rodchenko was an artist at the forefront the avant-garde movement between the two world wars and constructivism, the last and most significant Russian modern art movement. For the artist, the revolutions brought inspired artistic maturation and a reinvention of self. Between 1918 and 1921, Rodchenko experimented with abstract painting and sculpture, and in 1921 he proclaimed that “painting is dead” and moved on to other media. He affirmed this philosophy with three monochrome paintings, “Pure Red Color,” “Pure Yellow Color” and “Pure Blue Color,” saying, “I reduced painting to its logical conclusion and exhibited three canvases: red, blue, yellow. I affirmed: It’s all over. Basic colors. Every plane is a plane and there is to be no more representation.”
In 1921, Rodchenko became a founding member of the Constructivist Working Group. The organization considered art a professional labor like any other and disassociated it from spiritual matters. Rodchenko experimented with photo collage, photography, poster and book designs, as well as cinema set designs. Rodchenko’s focus on modern, industrial subject matter, MacKay said, relates to the broader Soviet goal of introducing modern industry to the state. Rodchenko’s work with film poster design represented a link between the experimental visual art work of the day and the booming 1920s film industry. Furthermore, Muravnik noted, constructivist influence can be seen in the industrial architecture of “STRIKE,” especially in a scene in which horses ascend the stairs.
In an epic poem by the Russian poet Mayakovsky entitled “Lenin,” the poet reflects on the idea that Lenin’s death itself would be the greatest organizer of communism, as it would only strengthen the formation of a new leftist state. When Stalin assumed power in 1924, he proclaimed socialist realism as the official new art style of the Soviet Union. Muravnik told me that “socialist realism is very cheerful in some ways,” as “the goal is to present the new life in a good way.”
At the end of the fall semester, the Russian film series will run “Chapayev,” a social realist film produced in 1934 that chronicles the adventures of a Red Army commander who became a hero of the Russian Civil War. The film is based on a novel by Dmitry Furmanov, a fictionalized biography of a man whom he fought beside that became an essential element in the Russian canon. Essential to the socialist realist aesthetic was the celebration of Soviet life, the achievements of groups of workers, and a kind of folk dialogue. This was the only state-sanctioned approach to art until the end of the Soviet Union.
MacKay said socialist realism was “not really a style” but “more of a set of restrictions.” Socialist realist art “had to celebrate the role of the people” and “the leading role of the communist party in Soviet life and history.” These restrictions didn’t restrict artists from showing tragic events of the past but demanded that they “show that these were sacrifices that made something greater.”
“For Marx…,” a film produced in 2012 by Russian director Svetlana Baskova, will conclude the film series at the end of the spring 2018 term. The film will present a provocative final reflecting point on the experimental and propagandistic films of the first semester and the more morose, pensive films of the second semester. Bozovic, who wrote an article on the film entitled “For Marx: The New Left Russian Cinema,” explained that the film is “in some sense a releaking of Eisenstein’s ‘STRIKE’ in the contemporary period.” The film enumerates the struggles of workers trying to organize an independent labor party in a contemporary post-Soviet town and suffering from the unchecked capitalism of the moment.
Bozovic noted that, in the context of the series, “the film will mean something very different to audiences that go along for the full ride. It will be laden with the historical significance of the history of the 20th century, and also all of this intervening 20th-century film history. So Baskova when she directs in 2012 can’t use any of Eisenstein’s avant-garde tricks because they wouldn’t view right in the 21st century. Somehow we’re not full of hope and joy enough.”
For all who choose to attend “the full ride,” the 2017 Russian Film Series will explore a path of reflections on and reactions to the Russian Revolution over the course of the 20th century.
Annie Nields | firstname.lastname@example.org .